I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.
Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.
OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS
Is there “a critical bias toward red wines” among wine critics? That’s the thesis of a thought-provoking study that examined 64,000 scores from leading publications and found some fascinating tendencies:
- reds score higher than whites
- red wines are over-represented above 90 points
- whites are over-represented below 90 points
So pronounced were these findings, the authors write, that, as the score crosses the critical 90-point threshold, “selling price and selling price variation increased quickly…[with some] lower-rated reds costing more than more highly-rated whites.” For example, a 90-point Napa Cabernet might cost $75 whereas a 93-point Chablis might go for $45.
I came across an article about the study at Jeff Siegel’s Wine Curmudgeon blog. (Sorry, I don’t think the full study is available online, although it is on PDF.)
Siegel found the finding curious: “Something is going on,” he wrote. I agree. But what could it be?
Siegel himself postulated various explanations. Critics may rate red wine higher “because it’s more prestigious.” This leads to a cascade of results: Producers invest more money making red wines than whites “…because consumers are willing to pay for that prestige,” and that greater investment in the production process may result in better wines.
During my decades of being a wine critic, I thought about this topic intensely, although I never reached any definitive conclusions. But it’s pretty obvious when you consider that at the leading wine periodicals, there are more (often far more) 100-point scores for reds than for whites. (This was true for me, too. I never gave a perfect score to a white wine.)
Let’s consider the question of bias, or preconceptions. If you know you’re tasting, say, First-Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy or Sauternes for that matter, from a great vintage, you’re more likely to yield to the possibility of giving it 100 points than if you’re tasting, say, a Temecula Tempranillo. So, to eliminate that bias, we taste single-blind. But even if you don’t know the individual bottles, if you’re a professional wine critic and your tasting was set up by a staff person, you’re still most likely going to be told the general category. “We’re tasting Premier Cru red Burgundy today from the 2011 vintage,” or “This flight consists of 2013 Napa Valley Cabernets and Bordeaux blends under $40.” Armed with these telltale bits of information, the brain will begin to come to certain conclusions, albeit unconsciously: a below-$40 Napa Cab cannot possibly get 100 points (so the reasoning goes); the best it can aspire to is 96, maybe 97 points, and so that’s what the critic finds when he tastes the wines.
So let’s make the tasting double-blind: nothing is known about the wines except for the color. This is where the bias for red wines (if there is one) comes in. You cannot prevent the critic from knowing the color. (You can always use black glasses, but I know of no critic who routinely uses them in assessing wines.)
The more I think about it, the more I believe there is a bias toward red wines, and I think Siegel stumbled upon the truth. Red wine is perceived as “more prestigious.” To understand why, you have to look at history. The French invented the system of categorizing wines by status (Grand Cru, First Growth and the like), and they tended to reserve their highest categories for red wines. In turn, the British fundamentally invented the game of writing about and critiquing wine, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and they overwhelmingly favored French red wines over whites. They therefore gave their highest plaudits to red wines. Our American and British systems of wine reviewing today—from Oz Clark to Robert Parker—are direct descendants of those British wine writers of yesteryear. The inherent bias toward red wines has filtered down over the centuries and still exists.
Which begs the question: Are red wines actually better than white wines? Well, there is the argument they’re more complex: more skin and seed contact, more oak (usually, at the high end), and so on. Does more complexity = “better”? That’s a hard case to prove. At some point, what we know, or think we know, about wine gets so inextricably bound up with the pure and simple physical experience of tasting it, that it’s impossible to separate the two. Which, come to think about it, is perhaps what makes wine so great: its pleasure is as much intellectual as hedonistic.
Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.
Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!
Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.
We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”
Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.
As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.
Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.
What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.
Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.
I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.
It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.
* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine
was the high point of my film career!
In the immortal words of Vince “Buzzsaw” Kosciuszko:
Now that I’m retired
I can’t get fired!
So I feel free to express my REAL opinions on wine stuff. There’s a video going around Facebook that I disagree with, even though it portrays a lot of heavyweights who, IMHO, are simply wrong. (They include Phillippe Melka, Andrea Robinson, Bo Barrett, David Breitstein and others.)
The video apparently was first posted by Karen MacNeil, although she didn’t create it. I got it on my Facebook feed via Paul Mabray, with whom I’m friends. The video’s central message is that wine goes through ups and downs, “ebbs and flows” over time after it’s bottled. A major “down” or ebb” is “the dumb phase,” which Andrea calls “one of the deepest valleys a wine can stumble into.” Melka adds that, in such a dumb phase, “The wine totally loses harmony.” “Blank, disheveled, like the whole core of the wine is gone,” Karen MacNeil chimes in, comparing it to “a really bad hair day.”
Andrea explains why ordinary consumers should care. “As the wine lover, the big problem is, you don’t know when that’s going to happen.
The video is cleverly done—high production values, as they say. No wonder: It was created by Partners 2 Media, a Yountville-based media production firm (although it’s not clear to me who paid for the video, or why it was made, or who was paid to be in it, if anyone, all of which would be nice to know). After I watched it, I felt compelled to make this comment on Facebook:
This is essentially marketing bullshit from winemakers. It’s an excuse they tell when their wine doesn’t taste good, or when somebody doesn’t like it. “Blame it on the dumb phase, not the wine.” Well, sorry. A good wine is always going to be good at any age. Besides, this kind of nonsense just makes consumers even more confused than they already are. This is a really stupid and misleading video.
Bo Barrett actually has been talking about “the dumb phase” for decades (he might also have called it “the dip”). I remember him explaining it to me way back when I was at Wine Spectator. He said that, in his case, it applied specifically to Chateau Montelena’s Estate Cabernet, which (if I remember correctly) he said starts out really fresh and delicious (I agree), then slips into “the dumb phase” at about the age of 4 or 5, only to re-emerge some years later, and then plateau for a long time. I took, and take, Bo at his word: surely he knows his own wines better than I, or anyone.
But after my long professional career, I’ve come to regard certain statements about wine as problematic, and this is one of them. As I noted (and as Andrea says), the trouble is that the consumer not only doesn’t know when the wine is going to turn “dumb,” the consumer isn’t even in a position to know if the wine is “dumb.” If the consumer finds the wine too austere, or reserved, or tannic or just plain mehhh, how does it help her to have the idea in her head of “a dumb phase”? This is why I said this just makes consumers more confused than they already are. The implication of “a dumb phase” is that the wine just needs more time in the bottle and all will be well. But how much more time? What can the consumer reasonably expect in another three, six, ten years? If she tries it again and still doesn’t like it, does that mean it’s still in a dumb phase? Or is it just not a particularly interesting wine for her?
The oddest thing about the video is the star commenters telling us that even though the wine may taste awful, it’s actually pretty good. “There’s nothing wrong with the wine,” says Karen. Bo adds, “The consumer should know that the wine tastes fine. It just doesn’t have the aroma.” How can the wine have “nothing wrong with it,” how can it “taste fine” while it simultaneously “totally loses harmony” and “the whole core is gone”? This bizarre incongruity goes unexplained.
As a critic, my ambition was to liberate consumers from the onus of confusing and misleading beliefs about wine, which have been, and continue to be, so harmful to the industry. Consumers should not have to worry that, if they don’t like a wine, it’s because they’re not drinking it at the right time, or they don’t know how to understand it. That just makes them feel insecure. Having said that, I do realize that the wines this video is talking about are the one percent of all production that’s expensive and might benefit from time in the cellar. Still, I feel like a better message would have been the one I’ve consistently given: A good wine will taste good at any stage of its life (except, obviously, if it’s too old or hasn’t been stored well). You can open and appreciate a good wine anytime you want. Even the experts will disagree over when a bottle is ready to drink. It’s all subjective. We should tell consumers who buy these expensive wines (if they don’t already know, and they should), “Different people will like this wine at different points in its life. Some people prefer older wines, some don’t. Besides, all bottles age differently. It’s a crap shoot at best. A good red wine, like Chateau Montelena, should reasonably be excellent for the first eight or ten years of its life. After that, it’s all about personal preference.” In other words, no confusing stuff about “dumb phases.”
Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.
They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.
The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)
certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.
That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.
That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.
I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.
So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.
When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.
Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.