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Do wine critics always “critique” the wines they drink?

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I suppose the general public, and even professionals in the wine industry, think that critics (or former critics) analyze every wine they drink, whether it’s in a restaurant setting or just something at home, in front of the television.

Well, I don’t…and yet, in another sense, I do. Let me explain.

If I’m at somebody’s house and they’re pouring something that I know is inexpensive, of course I would never complain about it, even if I thought it was dreadful. But usually, it’s not dreadful. There are very, very few dreadful wines anymore in the U.S. distribution system, regardless of what country it’s from. Americans have very discerning taste when it comes to wine; even people who say “I don’t know anything about wine” know more than they think they do. What they want is a decent wine, and for the most part, that’s what they get in supermarkets, big boxes and even in most local wine shops.

I can deal with a decent wine. In fact, I can quite enjoy one. I happily take off my (former) critic’s hat and go with the flow. Now, I might, somewhere in the back of my head, think, “This is a pretty ordinary wine, and if I was scoring it, I’d give it 84 points.” But that’s a fleeting thought, and I wouldn’t hold it against the wine, or my host.

The critical mindset is a very specific one. For me, it’s reserved for the circumstance of formal tasting. When I know I’m tasting for a professional reason, I definitely enter into Critic Mode, which is inherently a negative state. That means that I’m looking for anything and everything wrong with the wine. And believe me, most wines, probably 99.9%, have something wrong with them. Sometimes, this wrongness is glaring: exceptionally high brett, or searing acidity, or massive domination by oak, or something equally awful. But most of the time, the problem with a wine is minor. It’s the sort of thing most wine drinkers wouldn’t even notice—which is as it should be. But, when I’m in Critic Mode, I notice the slightest fault. That’s why I’ve given so few 100 point scores to wines. Most wines have some kind of fault, which automatically makes them less than perfection.

But, like I said, for me to go into Critic Mode is extremely rare. It’s the same with movie critics. I love our local film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle. People sometimes ask him if he can just “go to the movies” and not be critical, and he says, Sure he can. That doesn’t mean that he won’t perceive some weird plot thing that makes no sense, or bad acting, or something else. His brain is trained to do that, as mine is trained to detect faults in wine. But it doesn’t make him walk out of the theatre. He can enjoy a film even though it has little glitches here and there.

The interesting thing, for me, is that, if I’m at a party at your house and you give me a glass of wine that, under critical circumstances, I might score at 100 points, I’m not sure that I would be overwhelmed by it under non-critical conditions. I’d probably think that it was a very good wine, and I might ask you what it was; but, since I wouldn’t be in Critic Mode, I wouldn’t be going into overdrive praising it. That would be inappropriate for a social setting. If you invite me to your house for dinner or a party, it’s not a winetasting event, it’s a social event at which wine is incidental. What this suggests to me is that finding perfection in a wine is possible only when you’re in Critic Mode, which is a Heisenberginan phenomenon: you tend to find what you’re looking for (physicists found the Higgs boson because they were looking for it). This has a further implication: it means that, if you’re not looking for a 100-point wine, then you probably won’t find one, even if you’re a critic. The 100-point wine, then, exists, not in the real world, but in the critic’s mind.


The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better

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To have asked the question, “Do expensive wines taste better than inexpensive wines” just twenty years ago would have been absurd. Nobody doubted that they did. Throughout history—from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the American Founding Fathers to the post-Prohibition boutique winery era to the rise of the modern critic—the conventional wisdom was that the best wines were the most costly, and vice versa. First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were expensive because of their quality. The implicit assumption, borne out by centuries of experience, was that the greatest terroirs had long been singled out, and therefore, the wines made from them deserved to fetch the highest prices.

Today, to ask the question “Do expensive wines taste better?” has become routine to the point of cliché. Here’s the latest example, from the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal. The author, Fred Tasker, whose column is widely syndicated, doesn’t reach any conclusions. But even to ask the question is to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in the way Americans perceive wine.

What this “something” is that has changed has everything to do with the times we live in. Authority is breaking down. People mistrust conventional leaders, be they politicians or the pundits who tell us which wines are great and which are not. Social media obviously has accelerated this trend; I don’t think it caused it, because authority was eroding before social media was invented. Now, for the first time in the history of fine wine, people are widely wondering why they should pay so much money for a First Growth or Grand Cru (or cult Napa Valley Cabernet) when study after study proves that not even “experts” can tell the difference between expensive wine and inexpensive wine.

This is a serious issue the wine industry is going to have to address. Speaking as a critic, I can assure you that there are vast quality differences between wines. One bottle of Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is almost always going to be better (sometimes much better) than another from a different winery, even when the grapes come from the same vineyard. And price does play a role: the higher the price, the more likely the wine is to be better. But I say these things from the point of view of a critic. If I were an ordinary consumer, I’d view people like me as simply defending the old order. “What a dinosaur,” I’d probably think. “He’s so wedded to his notion of things that he can’t see clearly anymore.”

Well, that’s all right. Like I said, authority is breaking down. As part of an “authority regime,” I understand that, and welcome it. Even if I didn’t welcome it, it would come anyway, so I might as well embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it. From a winery’s point of view, this breakdown of authority can be a good thing. The deck is being reshuffled, the playing field is being wiped clean, the chessboard is getting reset. (Stop me before I metaphor again.) What was, is not necessarily what will be. What was not, might be tomorrow. A winery can come from nowhere and suddenly be everybody’s darling. A winery that’s been on top forever could find itself overlooked and ignored, as its fan base ages and dies. Those upholders and defenders of the ancien regime, the Baby Boomer critics, are retiring. Even in the writings of such current writers as Benjamin Lewin, M.W. (whose “Wines of France” I am thoroughly enjoying), I sense a certain reluctance to make sweeping declarations—declarations that Michael Broadbent or Hugh Johnson, or the generations before them, happily would have made.

This movement away from declarations is symptomatic of the breakdown of authority. No longer is it entirely safe to say “Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru” or “First Growth is superior to Second Growth” or “$150 Cabernet is better than $40 Cabernet.” It once perhaps was; no more. Experience, and blind tasting, warn us against such cozy stereotypes.

Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I do think there’s something in the nature of human beings that desires hierarchies. We want to know who’s the best basketball team in the NBA (go, Warriors), which restaurant has the best reviews—and what the best wines are. And we are willing to pay a premium for “the best.” So I think that even in the far-off future, the world of wine will be marked by common perceptions of “the best.” I, personally, believe that Bordeaux is on the way down, which is why the chateaux are marketing so heavily in naïve countries, like China. I think Burgundy may be heading south, too, if for no other reason than that it’s so expensive, no critic can afford to taste it anymore—which means the top wines will show up only in the most elite reviews—and out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I think Napa Valley faces the same dilemma, which presents a great opportunity for Cabernets from Sonoma County and Paso Robles.

Anyhow, it’s clear that, with Millennials, we’ve entered a new era. They don’t care what wine was famous for 500 years. They don’t care what region was exalted by their grandfathers. All bets are off. So to ask if an expensive wine is better than an inexpensive wine is the new norm that wineries are going to have to deal with.

 


How do you evaluate wine blind, by typicity or by quality?

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We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.

As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.

(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)

Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.

All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.

A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.

I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.

Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.

Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.

Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.

However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.

So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.


Why do we think some “classic” wines are better than everything else?

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I want to revert to a topic I wrote about last week, inspired by Jim Laube in his July 31 column in Wine Spectator. I talked about the 100-point system, but today, my imagination was sparked by a comment from a reader, who quoted something else Jim said, and then asked for my opinion on it.

Jim said: “There are Pinot Noirs grown elsewhere [i.e., other than Burgundy] that compare favorably with La Tache…”. My reader then asked me if I know what some of these other Pinots might be, since he’ll never be able to afford La Tache, and presumably wants to know what he’s missing.

My immediate impression was that the guy who asked me the question seemed to think that Jim Laube was saying that there are some Pinot Noirs that are just like La Tache. Of course, Jim’s statement is somewhat ambiguous; like a Rorschach test, you can interpret it as meaning different things. To me, Jim is not saying that there are Pinots that are a carbon copy of La Tache. I don’t think he’s implying that some Pinots have the same body as La Tache, or a similar perfume, or similar flavors or finishes or ageworthiness. There might be some Pinots that possess those qualities, but there might be some that are quite different, and yet, in their own way, are as excellent. So I think what Jim was doing is something fundamentally radical—and with which I agree: suggesting that La Tache, fabled as it is alongside Romanée-Conti as one of the greatest Pinot Noirs on earth, is not quite as objectively fabulous or unique as everybody makes it out to be.

Well, if that was Jim’s point, bravo. It has to be said. Every ivory tower in the world is coming down, from those of Middle East dictators to the ones inhabited by super-critics, so why should the ivory towers of “the world’s greatest wines” not similarly topple? I ask you, my readers, who are among the most discerning wine people anywhere: can you truly say that Yquem is the greatest sweet white wine, that Latour is the greatest Cabernet blend, that La Tache is the greatest Pinot Noir, or whatever? (You can substitute any of these wines with something else you think is a classic.) I don’t think you can, but chances are you accept the notion that there are (as Jim writes) “classic[s] of the past and of the present” because you assume that famous wine critics have far more experience and knowledge than you do, and therefore there must be classics, because they say so.

What if I told you that famous wine critics are just as susceptible to falling for the conventional wisdom as you are? That famous wine critics have the same uncertainties and doubts, the same fear of looking silly, the same desire to be seen as correct? Indeed, why would they not? Famous wine critics are only human—people with jobs and careers to protect. The only difference between them and you is that they have to publish, which means their words live forever, and so they had better be careful not to put into print something that will come back to bite them in the rear end.

I’ve tried for years to demolish the old concept that the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines are necessarily the world’s best wines. It’s very difficult to get this idea through to people, because once an idea is enshrined in the popular mind, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. We have these super-myths that we accept as true because they’ve been repeated so many times, and so authoritatively, that we feel they must be true. (Example: I love the exalted status we give America’s founding fathers, as though they were angels sent from Heaven to bestow a divinely ordained Constitution upon us. I know a lot about this topic because reading about it is one of my hobbies. The founding fathers were no saints. They quarreled amongst themselves as fiercely, and with as much invective, as any Republican and Democrat today. They harbored almost violent opinions about those who disagreed with them. The Constitution—far from being a divinely perfect instrument, handed down by God on Mount Sinai—was the result of months of bitter compromise achieved with great difficulty during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. And yet Americans continue to believe that it was the product of some choir-gathering of wise men who sang Kumbaya and midwifed this miraculous document. By the way, our Constitution is a fabulous contract; it’s just that, as a people, we don’t remember how all-too-human was the system that produced it.)

In the same way, we harbor this notion that the classic wines are the epitome of perfection. They may be perfect, in their own ways, in great vintages; but they are hardly the greatest wines on earth. This is the thing I wanted to communicate to my reader who asked for my “anything but La Tache” recommendations. Put out of your head the notion that La Tache will blow your mind and transport you to heaven while something you can find in your own home town won’t. You cannot, and will not be able to, appreciate any wine, until you rid yourself of the idea that that which you cannot have, because you can’t afford it, is greater or better than anything you can have.


What makes a wine region classic? What does it say about 100-point wines?

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If you were a wine critic, do you think you could give 100 points to a wine you tasted double-blind?

Let’s assume that your educated palate determined it was a very, very good wine. You might taste it and think, “Wow, this is really great,” and then consider giving it a perfect score. But then, not having the slightest idea what it was, you might hedge your bet and give it, say, 96 points. You could, of course, give it 100, but my hunch is that you’d second-guess yourself enough so that you wouldn’t. Psychology plays a bigger role in these decisions than you might think—or that critics want you to know!

On the other hand, say you weren’t tasting the wine blind. Say you knew it was 2009 Latour. You know Latour’s history and reputation, you know it’s one of the most ageworthy wines in the world, you know, in short, that this wine in front of you is absolutely classic, from a classic vintage. Now, is that enough information to make you more comfortable about giving it 100 points?

I should think so, and so, apparently, does Jim Laube, who wrote a very good column in the July 31, 2015 issue of Wine Spectator about what makes any particular winery “great” in the eyes of critics and wine historians. (Sorry, if you’re not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you can’t read the entire column.) Along these lines, he mentions La Tache specifically by name, and more generically, he mentions Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Sauternes in France, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as possessing the “pedigree” needed to be a classic—that is, to be worthy of getting 100 points.

Now, if you’re in Paso Robles or the Sierra Foothills or someplace that doesn’t have the impressive history of these classic regions, you probably wonder how long it will take for your region to be considered classic, and thus worthy of consistently producing 100 point wines, at least in a great vintage. This is an excellent question, and of course Jim Laube is the perfect person to raise it, since he’s the dean of California wine critics and a very thoughtful man. He rightfully speculates that newer regions might someday enter this pantheon of the classics, as well he should: it would be intellectually disingenuous to say that the pantheon is closed, that no poseur can ever enter the top rank because it’s been shut for years.

What’s so fascinating about this topic is that it calls into question the validity of the 100-point system. If you posit that only certain regions are even capable of achieving 100 points, then you’re basically an ideologue; and we mere mortals, who read the reviews of these famous critics, have to wonder if they’re really tasting everything blind. Now, Jim Laube is honest enough to suggest that more information than merely the taste of the wine is needed in order to “identify the best wines.” “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.”

Let me repeat that. Jim said “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.

Would it trouble you to say that I agree with Jim? He has to tread a careful line here, because Wine Spectator claims, in their Buying Guide, that “Wines are always tasted blind.” But they do offer the caveat that this is not double-blind: they taste “in flights organized by varietal, appellation or region…and the vintage.”

That’s quite a lot of important information. If you know that you’re tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, you have to allow for the possibility of a very high score. Can it score 100 points? Well, does the taster know if it’s Grand Cru or Premier Cru or some vlillage wine? The critic has to make this kind of judgment based not so much on the individual wine, IMHO, but on his track record, and on the acceptance of the market.

This conversation about point scores and perceptions is more necessary than ever. Am I refuting the 100-point system? No. But I am calling into question the circumstances under which it is utilized. I think there’s a place for it. But I also think that we need far more transparency about how these tastings are conducted, in order for them to be credible. I don’t mind an open tasting when critics let us know they were excited as hell, and so their enthusiasm might be biased. But I do mind it when critics put on the fig leaf of “blind tasting” when they actually know a lot more about the wines than they lead us to believe.

Have a great weekend!


Talking about wine talk

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Back when John F. Kennedy was President, Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent and, at the time, the only woman to hold that post, asked JFK what he was doing to help women.

“Not enough, I’m sure,” smiled Kennedy, in his wry, bemused way. The implication was that, of course, no American President can ever do enough when it comes to the great issues, like women’s rights. All he or she can do is to try and make things better.

I thought of that long-ago incident when I read The New Yorker’s latest article on wine, called “Is there a better way to talk about wine?”

My answer? Borrowing from JFK, I’m sure there is a better way to talk about wine. I’m just not sure that I, or anybody else, knows quite what it is, or how to get there.

The New Yorker article breaks no new ground for readers of my blog, who are thoroughly familiar with these complaints about “extravagant tasting notes” that ooze “overwrought and unreliableflowery, elaborate flavor descriptions” aimed at “wealthy men.” Familiar, too, are my readers with the various forms of experimental subterfuge of recent years, wherein studies report on how wine consumers, even educated ones, can be bamboozled if the wines are tasted blind, or if the labels are switched, or if information about them is deliberately distorted. The New Yorker article refers to these studies to bolster its case, and then reiterates that overblown wine vocabularies contribute to the “confusion” experienced by so many consumers. (You can almost hear the writer, Bianca Bosker’s, joy as she quotes a Wine Advocate descriptor: “liquefied Viagra.”)

It is of course easy as falling off a log to criticize anything in the world, as long as the person doing the criticizing doesn’t have the responsibility for coming up with something better. Bosker’s deconstruction of “minerality,” and the near impossibility of defining it, testifies to this fact: Just because something is hard doesn’t make it silly. She toys with the alternative of a “chemistry”-based descriptive vocabulary (fat chance) rather than an “obfuscating” one of poetry and metaphor. She even turns to Matt Kramer’s new book, True Taste, but completely misses Matt’s point: he’s not saying (as Ms. Bosker writes) that “only six [sic] words [actually seven] are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes.” Matt himself writes that his book “is not, of course, about a mere seven words. Instead, it’s about those values that involve actual judgment,” and “is about tasting wine with discernment.”

Well, who could be against judgment and discernment? Matt, who has made a living of being a wine wordsmith (same as the rest of us), was looking for a new angle for a new book, and came up with True Taste: it’s a little frothy, but no harm, no foul, and plenty to think about. There’s nothing wrong with talking about “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance”—Matt’s seven words. But am I wrong in thinking that those concepts, if not explicitly spelled out then at least broadly described, have underlain good wine writing forever? They certainly lubricate the writing I know, from my own books and articles to Parker’s, Oz Clarke’s, Jancis Robinson’s, Steve Tanzer’s, Antonio Galloni’s, Benjamin Lewin’s, yes and Matt Kramer’s, and so on. If writers want to add things about raspberries and peppercorns, so much the better. I think Matt,  who enjoys an adroit pen (can we say that anymore?), would be the last to condemn metaphorical wine descriptors. His grudge—mine, too—is when they go over the top.

But where is the line? Nobody really knows, and this is where Ms. Bosker’s article is so frustrating, in the way these “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” New Yorker articles can be. The title seems to imply that, if the reader will just wade through the 2,098 words of text, he or she will be enlightened, and discover that there truly is “a better way to talk about wine.”

Alas, nothing of the sort happens. And, if you think about recent attempts to make wine writing “better,”–I’m talking to you, Twitter, and to a big part of the blogosphereyou’ll have to admit that failure is no success at all.

But perhaps I am too harsh on Ms. Bosker, for at the very end, she seems to change tone and switch over to a belief that “a little mystery” in winespeak is not such a bad thing. She even wonders “what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like.” Now, that’s good wine writing—and a good way to think about wine–but it’s also exactly the kind of “overwrought, flowery” metaphor that critics, including Ms. Bosker, came out swinging against. Happily, by the end of her article, Ms. Bosker apparently has undergone an intellectual metamorphosis in which she realizes that her initial concept was, if not erroneous, at least hopelessly incomplete to describe the challenge of talking about wine. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with that evolution: Writing makes you think, makes you analyze simplistic thoughts so that you realize they’re not as simple as they might have seemed at first blush. You end up, in other words, in a different–and better–place from where you started. This is a very good thing.

So is there a better way to talk about wine? I suppose there is, although I don’t think the best wine writing, from any era, including ours, needs improvement. But I welcome this chit-chat, if for no other reason than that it stimulates this sort of discussion.


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