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Ranking California wines

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I do a lot of reading in these shelter-in-place days. In fact, I’m cannibalizing my library—reading the same books over and over. One that I started yesterday is an old standby: The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York, by Roy Andries de Groot (1982). De Groot, a kind of minor James Beard, was a New Yorker with a reputation for being a gourmet and wine lover; he also was blind. In this book he developed what he called “the first classification” of the vineyards and wineries in the three states, a task he modeled after the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

What is striking about The Wines of California is how dated it is. De Groot used a numerical rating system based on 50 points, and classified the wines into eight tiers; the top ones he called Noble, Superb and, at the pinnacle, Great. A good many of the wineries he included no longer even exist. Others, such as Beaulieu, have undergone corporate changes and are no longer what they used to be. And obviously, there are now hundreds of wineries in California alone that didn’t exist in de Groot’s day. For these reasons, de Groot’s classification is of no value today.

But it does make for interesting reading. I have to give him credit for at least attempting the task. Forty years ago, when de Groot was compiling his research (which meant traveling the country tasting wine), he had no reason to think that the wine industries of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York would not settle down and become as fixed and immutable as in Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux, after all, had remained relatively stable for 400 years of turbulent European history; there had been minor shifts in chateau ownership and vineyard holdings, but for the most part, the wineries and vineyards of Bordeaux in 1980 were much as they had been a hundred and fifty years earlier.

California looked to repeat the pattern. There were a handful of high-quality wineries of longstanding pedigree (Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Charles Krug) and, more interestingly from de Groot’s point of view, there had been a rash of new “boutique” wineries from the 1960s onward: Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Burgess, Carneros Creek, Fisher, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Montelena. De Groot was well aware of the burgeoning nature of California wineries: how relatively easy it was for a young winemaker, especially one of means, to plant a little vineyard and start a winery. Still, he believed that the California wine industry was settling down, the same as Bordeaux had, and that the U.S. consumer needed a reliable guide to choosing its wines.

De Groot had a good palate and a deep understanding of viticulture, enology, cuisine and history. Despite the book’s datedness, it’s fun to read for the snapshot it gives us of what the wine landscape looked like in the early 1980s. But it also is an object lesson in what not to attempt in a wine book. No wine writer in his right mind would attempt to classify the “wineries and vineyards” of California today; if one were to try, no publisher would be interested, for such a book would be an anachronism before the ink was dry.

De Groot noted, correctly, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification had been based partly on the prices then obtained for the wines, and partly on the wines’ reputations among people of knowledge: brokers, mainly. Today, we still unofficially “classify” wines based on the same or similar criteria. Ask someone with a fairly good understanding of California wine what the “top” Cabernets are, and he will likely include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant, Abreu, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and perhaps a few dozen others. Has that person tasted all these wines? Probably not. Few have. He will have based his conclusions on what he’s heard of the reputations of those wines as well as what he knows of their prices.

That’s the way human judgment works. Reputation is everything. The Bordelais proprietors of the 19th century knew this as well as the owner of Screaming Eagle knows it today. Their methods are similar, although the details have changed. You have to identify the tastemakers and then get them to authenticate your product. You spread the news via word of mouth or, in these modern times, through print media and social media. You induce the best restaurants to carry and promote your wine. You introduce the notion of scarcity: there’s not much of this, folks, and everybody wants it, so you better get yours while to can.

Back to Bob Thompson’s “rabbit hutch.” Just as it’s nearly impossible to take a census of, say, 1,000 bunnies in a pen, because they’re reproducing so fast, so it’s nearly impossible to count the number of wineries in California. Some are “virtual” wineries, possessing no “bricks and mortar” facilities, merely buying grapes, must or finished wine from someone else and bottling it under their brand. The same wine might appear under a dozen labels. There are probably fewer wine brand startups these days, with the pandemic; but before the era of the virus, the explosion of labels, some tiny to the point of vanishing, was significant, and the explosion likely will begin again once the pandemic is over (may it happen soon).

All these factors mitigate against formulating a new classification, but somehow, we humans end up classifying wineries anyway, in more indirect, subtler ways. There’s something in our brains that longs to create order out of chaos. We’re uncomfortable with thousands of winery brands in California; it’s too messy and incomprehensible. So we classify and rank and compare in any way we can and, as the saying goes, perception is reality. Is Screaming Eagle really the best Cabernet in California because it’s the most expensive? No. But if enough people—people who count, that is—think it is, then it is.



New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent

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It was with enormous pleasure I found Steven Kent’s four new releases sent to me. I hadn’t asked for them. I always had the greatest respect for proprietor Steven Kent Mirassou’s wines. To my way of thinking, he was, not only the greatest winemaker in Livermore Valley, but one of the best in California, which means: the world. He took a growing region that seldom rose to its full potential and crafted exciting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I suppose the buzz about my reviews will be that I have given two of the four wines 100-point scores. Should I second-guess myself because both were perfect?

Mia NIPOTE 2017 Il Rinnovo (Livermore Valley); $50. Petite Sirah, which comprises half the blend of this youthful wine, is immediately apparent, in the pitch-black color and massive aromas and flavors. Blackberry jam, teriaki, chocolate macaroon, licorice, cherry pie, my goodness, the rich strands intertwine in the mouth and explode into a long, spicy finish. The other half of the blend, Cabernet Sauvignon—which marries beautifully with the “Pet”–contributes black currants and just a hint of dried herbs, as well as the fine tannin structure. There’s oak, too—50% new French—adding sweet vanilla and caramelized toast. That’s a lot of new oak, but the wine easily handles it. What a mouthful of flavor! And yet the wine never loses elegance. It remains supple and balanced, with just enough acidity to balance out the creamy sweetness. Yes, there is some heat from alcohol. But it’s a gently warming heat. I think a lot of people might drink Il Rinnovo (“renewal” in Italian) with summer grill, particularly in Livermore Valley, as restaurants re-open; and that’s fine. But I’d keep it for wintertime, when you’re cold and thirsty for a big, rich, delicious red. And there’s no reason it won’t hold for many years. A great achievement from Steven Kent Winery. Score: 93 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The best Ghielmetti from Steven Kent I ever reviewed was the 2007, and this beauty is even better. Right from the get-go, you know it’s a fine, serious wine. One hundred percent varietal Cabernet, it shows impressively alluring aromas of blackcurrants, savory red licorice and toasty oak, with similar flavors that veer into rich, creamy milk chocolate. There’s an elusively herbal touch—Bay leaf? Sweet thyme? Just enough to ground it. And is that floral note violets? It’s very rich—the winery calls it “gigantic”–but the structure is superb. Such nice tannins, firm and sweet, with a fine bite of acidity to balance everything out, and a noble, dry finish. The vineyard sits at between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Livermore Valley’s eastern foothills, the heart of its wine country. It’s a warm area, but benefits from Pacific air that flows in through gaps in the coastal hills from San Francisco Bay. The 2017 vintage was just about perfect: lots of rain during the winter, but then things dried out during the growing season, and except for the usual Labor Day heat spell, things went well. To be honest, Bordeaux wishes they could get grapes this ripe. Score: 95 points.

Steven Kent 2017 The Premier Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $125. Made from 100% Cabernet, this wine is a blend of three vineyards the winery accesses, including their Home Ranch and the esteemed Ghielmetti. The result is, in a word, stunning. I would stand it next to any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world; it’s that good. Let’s break it down. The flavors are awesome and impeccable, luxuriously showing the ripe blackberries, black currants, milk chocolate and olivaceous sweet savoriness associated with Cabernet. There’s a lot of new French oak (75%) that is perfectly integrated, with its smokiness and vanillins. But what really stands out is the wine’s structure. I think of it as a room where tannins are the walls and acidity is the floor. It’s the kind of wine you take one sip of and think, Wow. Then another sip, and another wow. And a third. The critical mind looks for flaws, but there aren’t any. There’s not even the excessive heat from alcohol that can mar many otherwise remarkable California Cabs. There’s also an element that’s hard to put into words: call it elegance, the kind of designer effect you find in a great sports car or the best clothing. The wine feels “jazzy,” a word my mom used to use to describe things she loved. And the finish! Don’t get me started. I was writing years ago that Steven Kent was lifting Livermore Valley Cabernet to unprecedented levels. He still is. It’s expensive, yes, but it’s not an everyday wine, and compared to Napa Valley, which is just next door over the hills, it’s a bargain. What a treat to experience this wine! If I had a case, I’d try to keep my hands off it for six years, and then open one bottle a year. I could give this wine 98, 99 points and hedge my bets, but why bother? It’s perfect. Score: 100 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $175. This is the winery’s Bordeaux-style blend, although it’s probably time to stop using that derivative phrase. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (legally enough to call it Cabernet; proprietor Steven Mirrasou prefers to call it “Red Blend”), 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Like the winery’s other new reds, it’s quite oaky—60% new French, aged for nearly two years—a bit less than The Premier, but it doesn’t need as much wood. The official alcohol reading is 14.9%. Only about 330 standard cases were produced, in addition to some big bottles. It’s also, obviously, Steven Kent’s most expensive release. I mention these particulars only because some people like to know. Now that the details are out of the way, what of the wine? To begin with, it’s enormously complex in aroma and flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes its telltale black currants and powerful tannins, but the cherry, raspberry and fig notes derive from the Cab Franc and Merlot, leading to a prettier, more feminine feeling compared to the 2017 The Premier or Ghielmetti Cabernet Sauvignons, both 100% varietal. It also feels, for that reason, more accessible now. The fruit and oak create a sweetness in the mouth, deliciously soft and decadent, heightened by a fabulous backbone of acidity. The winery’s tasting notes suggest 5-10 years before drinkability. I disagree. A wine like this is exciting even at the tender age of less than three years. And it’s not just a winter-sipping wine; I can imagine summer barbecue with grilled steak. The precision, tailoring and esthetic impact of Lineage are remarkable. I don’t taste a huge range of wines anymore since I retired, but I have my memory and my notes of the tens of thousands of California Cabs and blends I tasted in my career. And frankly, none have been better. A huge achievement, both for Steven Kent and for the Livermore Valley to which he has been dedicated for so long. Score: 100 points.


Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


New Wine Reviews: Pinotage

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As a California wine critic I came across very little Pinotage wine. Over the decades I drank maybe a few dozen, always from South Africa. I formed a generic impression of it, through both my own tastings and from reading other writers, as a dark red wine, dry and high in alcohol, that could be a little rustic—sort of the Zinfandel of South Africa.

But I didn’t really know. Wine critics can’t be expected to be experts on every one of the thousands of vitis vinifera varieties grown around the world! So it was nice when a P.R. rep from Vineyard Brands asked if I wanted to taste four South African Pinotages. Of course, I said yes.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925. The name apparently was coined to suggest a red wine similar to Hermitage, which of course is made from Syrah. In theory, the developers of Pinotage wanted create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir (thought at the time to be difficult to grow in South Africa), but as easy to farm as Cinsault.

I looked up the Pinotage ratings and reviews from my old magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and was surprised at the consistency of the scores: mainly between 85 points and 92 points, the former range dominated by less-expensive bottlings. Prices are nowhere near those of, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or the better California Pinot Noirs.

Ashbourne 2016 Pinotage (Hemel-En-Aared); $58. “Hemel-En-Aared” means “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans. Close to the coast, it has a cool maritime climate. In red wines, the region is famous for Pinot Noir, and this Pinotage has a Burgundian delicacy, while keeping the proper varietal size and weight. It’s easily the best of the four Pinotages I was asked to review. The acidity, which is so fierce in the other wines, has been tamed by letting the wine go through complete malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the tannins seem softer, allowing the full range of flavors to reveal themselves: succulent ripe blackberries, with suggestions of spicy cloves, oak-inspired vanilla, and a meaty-beefy teriyaki sweetness. The wine shows the classic proportions of finesse: balance, integrity, cleanliness, power, and complexity. The alcohol is a modest 14.1%. It’s a joy to drink now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it aged well over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Southern Right Pinotage (Walker Bay); $33. Walker Bay, being on the South Africa’s southeast Atlantic coast, is a cool-climate region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Although Pinotage also does well in warmer locales, it shows a liveliness in Walker Bay that makes this wine especially attractive. (The name is an homage to the right whales which swim along the coast.) It shows bright, almost searing acidity and thick, furry tannins, with a dense, hugely-concentrated core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit, super-rich due to long hangtime. The oak notes of vanilla are subtle, while an intense spiciness thrives throughout. The finish is totally dry. An alcohol level of only 13.5% lends delicacy despite the hugeness of the fruit. This Pinotage really made me sit up and think. The fruit is sensational, but it’s the structure that strikes me—so much more complicated and architectural than anything in California. The wine defines itself in the mouth: you can feel its edges and corners. I suppose it will age, but there’s no reason not to drink it now with, say, beef, game or even Indian food. Score: 92 points.

Lievland 2017 Bushvine” Pinotage (Paarl). $19. The Paarl, in the Western Cape, is a warm region, little benefitting from the Atlantic, more than 100 miles away. The term “bush vine” is commonly used in South Africa to denote grapevines grown in the “goblet” or untrellised style, like they used to be. The wine is quite dry and austere, with lots of acidity. There are blackberry and coffee flavors, with plenty of black spices, especially pepper; the oak influence is subtle. Tannins are thick to the point of astringent. If you’re used to, say, Napa Cabernet, this is the complete opposite: not opulent, but rather bitter, more intellectual. For that reason I find it attractive. The winemaker blended in a little Cinsault and Shiraz, which adds to the complexity. All in all, a sophisticated wine which will nicely accompany—and needs–beef. Score: 89 points.

MAN Family Wines 2017 “Bosstok” Pinotage (Coastal Region); $12. “Bosstok” is a word referring to what South Africans call “bush vines”—“goblet,” or untrellised vines, generally used in warmer climates; the leafy canopy shelters the grape bunches from the sun. The “Coastal Region” appellation is a large one, accounting for nearly 50% of all the vines in South Africa. Bottled in a screwtop, with alcohol of 14.0%, it’s a pleasant wine, the kind I’d call an everyday sipper, especially given the price. It’s very dark in color; the flavors are somewhat bitter, with cherry skin, espresso and dark spice notes; there’s some unripeness that gives a green streak. The oak influence is low, lending a touch of vanilla bean. Acidity is pronounced, while the finish is thoroughly dry. The winery suggests slightly cooling it before drinking; this is a good idea, to tame the acids and tannins. Score: 86 points.


Wine Reviews: Peju Province

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Peju Province Winery sent me their new releases for review, so here they are. Overall, I was struck by their high quality. Nothing below 90 points, with the 2016 “The Experiment” scoring a stunning 97 points.

2016 Piccolo (Napa Valley). At forty bucks, this is a pretty good value for a Napa wine this distinguished, from a winery with as good a track record as Peju. The proprietary blend is comprised of the major Bordeaux varieties, with Petite Sirah and Sangiovese added for good measure. The result is a wealth of flavors: raspberries, blackberries, cocoa, blueberries, cappuccino, wild anise, thyme, and plenty of spices, pepper especially. There’s not a lot of new oak; the wine doesn’t need it, but what there is brings a rich layer of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are what you’d expect from Peju: thick and complex, but soft and ripe. I would drink this wine immediately, with almost anything that wants a medium- to full-bodied, dry, fruity red wine. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). A very great wine from a drought vintage, Peju’s 2015 is absolutely delicious. Blended with a little Petit Verdot and Merlot, it shows immense, concentrated flavors of ripe blackberries, Cassis liqueur, sweet black licorice and cocoa, enhanced with oak notes of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are complex, lush and ripe, while there’s enough acidity to provide a clean balance of structure. The finish goes on and on. This lovely wine really captures the essence of a Napa Valley Bordeaux blend. It’s so easy to enjoy now, you might want to capture the beauty in all of its youthful brilliance, but it should hold in the bottle for six years or so. Score: 95.

Peju 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). The first duties of Sauvignon Blanc are to be dry and crisp. This lovely wine succeeds on both levels. With brilliant acidity and just the tiniest hint of oak, it allows the fruit to star: grapefruit, papaya, lime and gooseberry, with a spicy white pepperiness that stimulates the palate. A touch of green grass adds to the complexity. It’s an exceptionally versatile wine at the table, but I might pour it with salad of greens, grapefruit and feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil. At a retail price of $22, it’s affordably elegant. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Merlot (Napa Valley). Rich and dense in the modern style, this 100% Merlot stuns right out of the gate. It explodes in the mouth with cherries, chocolate and red licorice, while plenty of new French oak brings even richer elements of sweet toast and wood spice. The structure is just beautiful: soft, intricate tannins seem to melt on the palate, while bracing acidity cleanses and refreshes. Made from grapes sourced from various sub-regions of Napa Valley, the wine shows deft skill at the art of blending. I’d drink it now and over the next year or two, before it starts to lose its precocious youthfulness. At $48 the bottle, it’s a good value. Score: 93.

Peju 2016 The Experiment (Napa Valley). They call it an “experiment” because the winemaker used dozens of different coopers and barrel-roasting regimens to create this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. But far from chaotic, it shows exquisite control. Certainly the darkest and sturdiest of Peju’s new releases, it’s a big, bold wine of immense depth and complexity. The flavors, of black currants, chocolate, vanilla bean, espresso and oaky toast, are not unique—most upscale Napa Cabs share it. But what makes this wine stand out is its sheer elegance. That’s a hard word to define, but you know it when your palate experiences it. I would place this wine beside the most culty of Napa Cabs and bet that it would acquit itself well. It’s so luxurious and delicious now that there’s no reason to age it, but if you want to, it should hold for a decade. Score: 97.

Peju 2016 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley). Over the years, my reviews of Peju’s Cab Franc routinely described it as soft, delicate and gentle. That remains the case, although it does seem more delicious than in past vintages. A rich ruby-garnet in color, it brims with forward flavors of cherry compote and anise, while balanced new oak provides a toastiness and a note of vanilla. There’s a lovely herbal note: think of sweet green peas. The addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon adds a darker, deeper structural integrity. I love the tannins: complex and intricate, but pliant, making it instantly drinkable. I see no reason to cellar this, but if you insist, it will hold for four or five years. Score: 92.


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