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My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014

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Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
  • 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
  • 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
  • 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%

Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?

Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.

I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)

Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.

Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”

Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.

It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)

If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?


On critics, criticism and bad reviews

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I think it’s perfectly fine for the restaurants and pubs in Dallas to band together and try to stop the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic from having access to them.

It’s a free country, right? Leslie Brenner, the DMN’s critic, has the right to publicly trash the restos in her column, and they have the right to collectively be pissed off and try to bring her column down.

This minor brouhaha would be of interest only to Dallas folks, if it didn’t touch upon some larger issues. Here’s the nugget of the case: The restaurants “are organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority.” Leslie is a “tough critic” whose negative reviews can be damaging to those she targets (as can bad reviews in any city, including in San Francisco, where Michael Bauer holds sway). The restaurateurs are calling for a “more nuanced system,” whatever that means. Until and if they get one, they can’t stop Leslie from visiting their venues—but they can refuse to accept her payment, and they can stop cooperating with the DMN’s photographers.

The practice is not unknown among wineries. Several of the country’s most famous critics are routinely not sent the wines from certain wineries who believe that they (the critics) are somehow prejudiced against those wines. I, myself, suffered this fate (not that it bothered me), and many winemakers have told me over the years they don’t bother sending their wines to the nation’s leading wine magazine because they don’t think they get fair treatment.

So this situation in Dallas is neither new nor particularly egregious. What I do find interesting is the particular gripe the restaurateurs have with respect to Leslie Brenner: “[T]hey’re confronting a self-described tough critic whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

“A more nuanced system.”. Hmm. That sounds an awful lot like what critics of the 100-point system say. They, too, argue that you can’t summarize wine by a numerical score. I don’t happen to agree, particularly because the point score is usually accompanied by a review in text (if anyone bothers to read it). But the truth is, there’s no system of critical reviewing that would ever make the critic and those she criticizes BFFs. Critiquing is inherently an act of defiance; nobody likes to see their product, whether it be food or wine, savaged in the pages of a metropolitan area’s leading daily newspaper (although they love it when the critic gives them a good review).

A good critic takes no satisfaction in a negative review. I certainly didn’t, and it was never fun when an angry winemaker called me up to complain, which happened on a fairly regular basis. But I do want to say this: A critic has to be fair and speak her mind, but there’s no reason for judgment to turn to acrimony. There’s a way to give a mediocre review that’s constructive, and doesn’t roil the waters with animosity and snark. There were many times when I loathed a wine so much, I want to write something like “The winemaker should be banished to a desert island and forced to drink this swill for the rest of his life.” But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

32 comments

 

When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


Real wine-drinking countries don’t need wine critics

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Matt Kramer makes a good case about the difference between “enjoyment” and “assessment” of wine in his Dec. 15 Wine Spectator column—too good a case, for in describing the importance of “context” in wine appreciation, he carves out a huge exception for “truly great wines” in a way that is not entirely consistent with his argument.

Briefly, Matt’s argument runs thus: “Context is everything—or nearly so.” A humble little Tuscan wine that was so good in Florence is “a little thin” back home in the States. Port on a hot summer day just doesn’t work. A big Napa Cabernet that tasted so good at Farmstead can be “a little too strong” someplace else. Yes, “context” as such is of supreme importance in how we experience our wines.

The logical extension of this is that every wine is a product (or victim) of its context, and therefore, there is something fungible about our impressions of wine quality: it all depends on what Dr. Leary called “set and setting.” I can buy into that theory, although it does imply the (rather alarming) wrinkle that there is no such thing as objective quality.

This is dangerous territory for critics, who make their living by appraising quality. Matt senses this risk: he gets this close to affirming it, yet instinctively backs down or away at the last second. (Even his headline, “Context is [nearly] everything,” testifies to some inner wrestling with himself.) After telling us, correctly, how context trumps objective quality, he retreats to the following loophole big enough to drive a fleet of trucks through: “Obviously, this is not always the case—and certainly not for truly great wines…”.

Think about this statement. It states rather categorically that there is a subset of all wines, namely “truly great wines,” that is “protected” (or, in Matt’s exact words, “protect themselves”) from the context dilemma by virtue of their greatness—a sort of vinous nobility that is above the laws to which the rest of us ordinary mortals are subject. Matt, like wine writers throughout history, creates this exclusive carve-out and contrasts it with “lesser wines.” The former need no context to be appreciated, only the discerning powers of the critic. The latter can be appreciated—must be appreciated—only in context.

This is a very strange dualism. For one, if the world can be divided into “truly great wines” and everything else, who’s to say which camp any particular wine is assigned to? When the world of wine commentary was restricted to a mere handful of (white, male) critics, this was a simple matter. These men dined and drank at the same clubs and shared the same outlook. But that is no longer the case. As the stranglehold of the ancien régime loosens, so too, and inevitably, must our concepts of what makes for “truly great wines.” The Internet unleashed this genie on the world, and we have to live with, and adjust ourselves to, its destabilizing results.

But of course any critic who has made a career of curating wines into the “truly great” and everything else must hesitate before taking the enormous step of declaring that everything is context—even the evaluation of LaLas or Latour. I count myself among them. I am hugely reluctant to declare that wine quality is a myth perpetuated nowadays by a complicit media, and that everything is relative. For I know that everything is not relative. There are degrees of quality, and we in this business are expected to make distinctions.

At the same time, I’m aware of the fact that the way we hierarchize wine is changing. We may in fact be coming to a point where we abandon the notion of objective quality and come down instead on the side of “enjoyment,” as opposed to “assessment,” where the first duty of a wine is, not to garner praise from “experts,” but to please the person who buys it. I don’t expect this to occur in my lifetime, but we’re closer to it than we ever have been, for the simple reason that America is more of a wine-drinking country than it has ever been, and real wine-drinking countries don’t need critics to tell them what to drink.


Minerality: My thoughts

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I’ve been reading lots about minerality, especially in the pages of the Somm Journal, where they’ve run a couple of articles on it lately. This one in the August-September issue is the poster child for these types of discussions in which very abstruse, hard-to-define issues related to wine are discussed by professionals, with no conclusive results. But rather than be frustrating for their lack of clarity, they advance the discussion, in fun and informative ways. We may never get to a definition of “minerality,” or even come to a consensus what wines display it, but meanwhile, it keeps wine writers (and somms) gainfully employed and active and raising the bar ever higher.

I use the word “minerality” a fair amount and have for many years. For example, since I began working at Jackson Family Wines, I’ve used it in my descriptions of Byron’s 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay (both the regular and the Nielson), Cambria’s 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, 2012 Tepusquet Viognier, 2012 Julia’s Pinot Noir and 2012 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, and several others.

I know what I mean by “minerality,” but obviously it’s a word that defies definition, or even clarity. I like wine director Jeff Taylor’s (Betony, New York) description: minerality is “the non-fruit and non-oak descriptors for a wine.” He lists “chalk, crushed seashells, gravel, gun flint, a sidewalk after a light rain” as illustrations, but these clearly are metaphors, not exact descriptions, since nobody really tastes sidewalks or crushed seashells. Well, I guess you could pound seashells into powder, then put them in your mouth, but even so, it would be hard to draw an exact analogy between that taste/feeling and “minerality” in the wine.

One of the controversies about minerality is whether or not whatever it is can travel from the soil, via the plant’s roots, into the grapes; and even if it can, how that “something” expresses itself. Some somms think it happens all the time; others don’t. Whatever “minerality” is, it’s a good thing: it’s bracing and grippy (in a non-tannic way), almost metallic (I think of licking a cold lamppost on a winter day, which is something I have done, a practice whose utilitarian value outweighs its unsanitariness). It’s easy in hindsight to theoretically identify where minerality comes from in a wine: for example, all those Santa Maria Valley wines that display it are grown in sandy soils that have quite a lot of ancient decomposed marine matter in them. The wines feel iron-y to me: despite their richness there’s a metallic vein that makes them chewy, almost as if a sheet of aluminum foil had been inserted inbetween the flavors. A little minerality goes a long way toward providing pleasurable structure.

On a meta level these conversations about minerality in California wine suggest that we’ve collectively achieved a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, even ten, you wouldn’t have heard them. We were too obsessed with describing more obvious fruit and oak flavors, and tannin and acid levels. The fact that we can now talk about things of great subtlety shows how far we’ve come. Does it also show a shifting style of winemaking, something less ripe, and more streamlined? I think so. Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness. Tone down the wine a bit, and whatever minerality is there shows itself as a bright, lifted tone.

Minerality is one of those things that is good but not sufficient in itself to make for great wine. In an ordinary wine—a simple Gruner or Albarino, for example—it can be pleasant, refreshing and eminently quaffable, yet fail to rise above everydayness—an 86 or 87 point wine, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the price is right. But if you take a 90 point wine (red or white) and add a little minerality so that it has that fine, grippy tang, it lifts the wine up a degree or two, to 91 or 92 points. This is what’s so important about structure: it’s also why it’s taken the wine writing community so long to get around to appreciating the structural elements of a wine, including minerality: it takes a certain amount of experience for the palate and mind to grow beyond loving sheer massive hedonism in order to reach that level of understanding and appreciation.


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