“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?
The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)
But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.
This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.
Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.
Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.
Everybody else is making their top list, so why not me? I’ve never done it before, so here goes. And not just one, but two. All reviews have been published in Wine Enthusiast, with the identical score. In this post, I’ve shortened the descriptions a little.
First, the top wines: ageable and classic.
Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Cuvée Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir. 97 points, 25 cases produced, 13.8% alcohol, $125. If you think great Pinot Noir has to come from a single vineyard, this wine will set you straight. It’s a blend of Bob Cabral’s various vineyards, and he has access to some of the greatest in the Russian River Valley.
W.H. Smith 2010 Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir. 96 points, 241 cases, 14.2%, $48. The vineyard is way out there in the Fort Ross-Seaview section of the Far Sonoma Coast, in the neighborhood of Hirsch, Flowers and Failla. The wine is classic coastal, and at this price, a great bargain, and quite cellar-worthy.
Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 106 cases, 14.9%, $65. I like Terra Valentine. They always make great wine and their prices have remained modest, by Napa standards. This is not just a lovely Cab, it’s ageable too.
Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 points, 2331 cases, 14.5%, $100. Just to prove that Napa Valley doesn’t have the lock on ageable Cabernet. Of course, the winery’s Alexander Valley appellation hides the fact that the high mountain vineyard is actually just on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, giving the wine something of a Spring or Diamond Mountain tannic intensity.
Merry Edwards 2010 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir. 95 points, 1450 cases, 14.2%, $57. Year in and year out, Merry Edwards rocks. The cool vintage shows in the tangy acidity, which makes this wine so racy and pure.
Clendenen 2005 Bricco Buon Natale Nebbiolo. 95 points, 418 cases, 13.5%, $50. You can count successful California Nebbs on one hand. This is surely among the best the state ever has produced. I believe the grapes are from Bien Nacido. The wine is luscious and spectacular and, at eight years of age, still has a long future.
Testarossa 2010 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay. 95 points, 229 cases, 14.4%, $39. Talley’s version of Rincon Chard is more famous, but now the peripatetic Testarossa, always on the lookout for a great vineyard, gets to dip into this Arroyo Grande property. Mmmmmmm good, so tart and fruity.
Robert Mondavi 2011 Fumé Blanc. 95 points, 1975 cases, 14.5%, $32. The appellation is Oakville, and I suspect that a good portion of the grapes come from To Kalon. What style and class you have here. I just wish all California Sauvignon Blancs were this dry and racy.
Nickel & Nickel 2010 Harris Vineyard Merlot. 95 points, 1639 cases, 14.3%, $53. I’m not the biggest Merlot fan ever, but you have to give credit to this single-vineyard, Oakville-grown wine. It’s intense, tannic and almost sweet in liqueur and oak notes, yet the finish is dry and complex.
Sanguis 2011 Incandescent Proprietary White Wine. 94 points, 275 cases, 14.3%, $50. The iconoclastic Matthias Pippig likes to shatter expectations with weird blends that shouldn’t work, but do. This one’s Roussanne, Chardonnay and Viognier, grown in Santa Barbara County. It scores high on the Wow! factor.
Next, ten Best Buys of 2013.
Kendall-Jackson 2011 Avant Chardonnay. 90 points, 84,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. It’s not quite sweet, not quite dry, but somewhere in the middle. Another inexpensive success story from K-J.
Firestone 2010 Gewurztraminer. 90 points, 1474 cases, 13.5%, $14. This Gewurz has all the spicy power you want in the variety. It’s from the Santa Ynez Valley.
Chalone 2011 Pinot Noir. 90 points, 40,000 cases, 13.5%, $15. Lord knows, there aren’t many decent Pinots at this price point. But Chalone knows from Pinot Noir. This is a good one, from Monterey County.
Vina Robles 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. 90 points, 2583 cases, 14.3%, $14. So tangy, clean and citrusy, it doesn’t need oak to succeed, which it does. Brilliantly.
Luli 2012 Rosé. 90 points, 610 cases, 14%, $15. The appellation is Central Coast, and the blend is Grenache and Pinot Noir. I’m a big critic of sweet, flaccid California rosés, but this is just the opposite. Dry, crisp and delicate.
Bogle 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel. 89 points, 240,000 cases, 14.5%, $11. Bogle knows exactly how to make good Zin at large case production numbers. I suspect the fruit, or most of it, comes from the valley or the Delta. Whatever, this is a sure-fire bargain.
Bailiwick 2012 Vermentino. 90 points, 325 cases, 13.5%, $15. California needs more wines like this. Dry, crisp, minerally and fruity, the perfect antidote to oaky Chardonnay or sweet Sauvignon Blanc.
Marilyn 2011 Norma Jean Merlot. 88 points, 4000 cases, 12.5%, $12. Enjoy this polished, supple, fruity Merlot, then keep the bottle as a souvenir. Marilyn Monroe remains as beautiful and mysterious as she was fifty years ago.
HandCraft 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. 88 points, 7500 cases, 12.5%, $13. When I blogged the other day about how high-scoring wines aren’t always best for food, this is the kind of Cab I had in mind. From the Indelicato family.
Pepi 2012 Pinot Grigio. 87 points, 15,000 cases, 13%, $10. Just what an everyday PG should be: honeyed yet dry, crisp and utterly drinkable. Bring on the Thai food.
My first thought after going to the big Grands Crus Classés Saint-Emilion tasting yesterday in San Francisco was: Wow, someone secretly put California wines into bottles with St.-Emilion labels.
No one had, of course. But many of the wines were so ripe and fruity, so extracted and oaky, and so high in alcohol, they might have come from Paso Robles, Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley.
Nothing wrong with such wines, of course. I give them good scores all the time. But I was hoping for something different and distinctly non-Californian. I didn’t find it, for the most part.
I know that St.-Emilion traditionally makes two kinds of wines. Michael Broadbent decades ago described these as a “Côtes” style of “deepish but quick-maturing wines, loose-knit, sweeter on the bouquet and palate,” and a “Graves” style “with hint[s] of iron/earth.” Almost everything I tasted seemed more like that Côtes style.
The Merlot is king in St.-Emilion, which accounts perhaps for the wines’ approachability. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, in their new The World Atlas Of Wine, praise “the solid tastiness of St.-Emilion,” wines that “grow almost sweet as they mature.”
Still, the wines were much more Californian than I had thought they’d be. And I wasn’t the only one with that impression. All the friends I talked to–other critics, merchants, marketers–felt the same way. I heard the word “approachable” over and over; also, a more troubling term: “almost overripe.” The vintage I tasted was 2009, which has an outstanding reputation; my Wine Enthusiast colleague in Bordeaux, Roger Voss, rated it 96 points. But I have to say I was, not exactly disappointed, but surprised.
How to account for this ultra-ripe style? Three factors: (1) the Parker influence, with his penchant for ripe, big wines, (2) global warming, which seems to be impacting Bordeaux more than California, and (3) the influence of a cadre of flying consultants, who are bringing about an international style all over the world. An example of this is the 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale, whose alcohol level is 15%. “Californian,” I immediately wrote in my notes. “Rich, lush and forward.” It might have been from Rutherford.
Don’t get me wrong, these California-style St.-Emilions still are very good wines. I gave most of them scores in the 88-91 range. But, like I said, I found their internationalism troubling.
Here, however, were my top-scoring wines. They seemed to have been made in a more old-fashioned way. (All are 2009s.) Chateau La Commanderie struck me for its fine, distinguished mouthfeel and dryness. It is a significant wine that needs many years. So does the Chateau Fonroque, so fleshy and meaty and dry. Chateau Jean Faure was based on Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, and its small percentage of Malbec gave it a firm structure. The two wines of the tasting for me were Chateau La Dominique, firm, dry and tannic yet packed with fruit, and a gorgeous La Tour Figeac. I wish I had a case of each for my cellar.
Incidentally, I walked to the tasting, which was on Harrison Street, all the way down First Street from Market, and have never seen so much construction going on in San Francisco in the 35 years I’ve lived here. The city is in the boom of its life, and everybody seems to be a 28-year old tech worker. I’ve seen San Francisco go through several iterations over the years. This has to be the most interesting yet, but it’s coming at a price: S.F. now is the most expensive city in America in which to rent an apartment. I think all those young techies are living four to the room.
I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.
I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.
I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.
The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)
Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.
There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!
We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.
There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.
But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”
I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.
Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?
Good questions; no good answers.
Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about so-called “supertasters” — men and (more frequently, women) with more than the usual quantity of tastebuds in their mouths that makes them unusually sensitive to flavors.
The term had been coined by a Yale professor, Linda Bartoshuk, who in 2004 vividly illustrated the difference between super- and regular tasters with this metaphor: “Supertasters…live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters [sic] are in a ‘pastel world.’”
I remember at the time feeling slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t a supertaster. For some reason, I developed the feeling that being a supertaster made one a better wine critic. For example, Robert Parker was said to be able to identify wines double-blind, surely the mark of a supertaster. And Jim Laube’s well-known sensitivity to TCA, which suggested supertasting abilities on his part, was enough to bring wineries to their knees.
I, by contrast, had to be content with a palate that was, at best, no better, if no worse, than everyone else’s. It caused me some moments of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be telling people what wine tasted like, if I didn’t even have a super-palate?
All this was brought up again last Saturday night when I had dinner with old friends, one of whom is a supertaster. I knew she wasn’t a big fan of seafood, but during the course of our meal, her other food antipathies emerged. Rosemary, for example: she can’t bear it beyond a miniscule amount, because it overwhelms everything else in the food. Frankly, my friend confided, being a supertaster isn’t a blessing: it’s a curse. In fact, she added, that’s why she decided not to become a wine writer. (Her work is in a separate field of the wine industry.) She’s so extraordinarily sensitive to everything that she figured she could never be objective.
Well, that cast things in a different light for me. Maybe, I figured, it’s not so good after all to be a supertaster. So I Googled up the term and found a whole bunch of suggestions that supertasting ability can indeed be a drag.
For example, here, from Yale Scientific (Bartoshuk’s own university), the professor says supertasters are “also super-perceivers of…the burning sensation of…ethanol [the alcohol in wine],” which causes them “oral pain [and a] burning sensation.”
That, surely, must be a handicap, if not an outright bias, for a wine critic, especially of California wine.
The British publication, The Guardian, addressed the issue squarely on when it wrote, “It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry.” The website How Stuff Works amplified on this theme: “Usually, it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing. But a heightened sense of taste, no matter how delicious it might sound, is really no joy.” Since everything is amplified, sensations like the pepperiness of a Syrah can be overwhelming. Slate Magazine, asking “whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine,” concluded that “being a nontaster [i.e. regular taster] was not the career death sentence [for a critic] it appeared to be. For another, being a supertaster turned out to be not nearly as good as it sounded; in fact, to the degree that it matters at all, it is probably more of a liability for a wine critic than an asset.” [Bold face mine] The “flavor of alcohol…astringency and acidity…spiciness [and] bitterness” that characterizes so many wines “may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.”
Well, I’m ready to buy into Slate’s suggestion that “being a supertaster is no blessing when it comes to wine.” But it does make me wonder to what extent the modern wine style (often called Parkerised) of exceptional ripeness, fruitiness, softness and sweet oakiness is the result of the domination by supertasters of the wine criticism business over the past 25 years.
I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”
Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”
Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.
I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)
I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.
Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.
Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.