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Myth busting: Big doesn’t equate to average; small doesn’t mean great

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Brother Laube has a good column in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator on the humungous crop size of the 2012 vintage in California. Not only was it at the time the biggest ever, but, according to Jim, for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 “hit the jackpot.” That certainly accords with my reviews of 2012 Cabs, although there are many I didn’t taste because I left my old job last March just as they were starting to come in.

What I take from Jim’s column is the irony of large production with high quality, which theoretically is difficult, if not impossible. But it isn’t unknown. Both 2005 and 2007 were excellent Cabernet vintages in California, and both were good-sized harvests: 2005, in particular, was the highest ever until 2012 came along. Nor can we conclude that a low-producing vintage is necessarily a good one. The notoriously chilly 2011 harvest, so reviled by so many critics, was only average-sized, by modern standards.

I’ve long been puzzled by the mutually-reinforcing stereotypes that (a) high production compromises quality and (b) low production tends to equate with high quality. I’ve never believed that. It sounds good, but falls apart in the face of the evidence. The great First Growth chateaux of Bordeaux routinely produce in very high quantities, let’s say the tens of thousands of cases annually, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them because of that fact. Why does a 40,000-case First Growth get away with it, when a 40,000-case California winery is assumed by the critics to be a mass producer?

Let’s face it, here in California there’s a real prejudice against high-production wines. What does “high production” mean? Well, it’s relative, but some California wines produced in miniscule quantities are loved by the critics who seek out what Jim Laube calls “newer, smaller producers, garagiste operations making a few thousand cases a year…”. I sometimes think there’s a critic’s mindset whereby they assume that a small garagiste winery must be making super-duper wines because it’s, well, small, and the owner does it all by himself. Blind tasting would, of course, reduce such automatic assumptions to rubble, but blind tasting is, alas, rare in the critical world, where critical assumptions are often borne out by experience because the assumer allows no contradicting information in.

If you think about it, there’s no logical reason why a tiny production wine should have any advantages over a large production wine. Why should it? Just because someone has a two acre estate vineyard doesn’t tell you anything about terroir, vineyard practices, barrel regimes or anything else. In fact, a tiny garage operation might have poor, old equipment. On the other hand, a large vineyard, properly managed, with sufficient finances, can produce great wines, especially if the vineyard manager and winemaker focus on individual blocks within the vineyard. The famous Tokalon Vineyard, for instance, contains 550 acres, and is routinely cited as one of the world’s greatest sources of Bordeaux varieties.

So consider this the start of a new category on this blog: Myth Busting. Have any you’d care to share? Let me know!


The personal touch: Talking about wine

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I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.

It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.

This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.

And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.

In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.

Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.

One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.

Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.

To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!


On the anomalies of aging wine

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Alan Balik has written a good analysis of tasting young wines in today’s Napa Register. Here’s my approach, which also is the one I took when I was reviewing California wines at Wine Enthusiast.

I start with the declaration that the best way to determine if a wine is going to age well is by knowing the history of the winery. This is easy in the case of (let’s say for example) a Chateau Latour. We have hundreds of years of records by wine professionals attesting to Latour’s longevity, so it’s reasonable to state that if a young Latour, from a good vintage, is balanced to begin with, it will age for a very long time.

In California, of course, we have nothing comparable to Latour’s history. The best we can do is turn to a winery like Beaulieu. Its Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has been around since the mid-1930s, and we know—well, I know, because I’ve been to multiple vertical tastings of it—that the wine also ages beautifully. It’s pretty much of a slam dunk for its first fifteen years. After that, it gets spottier due to vintage variations and the condition of the individual bottle. But still, it’s safe to predict fifteen years on a good Private Reserve, despite all the changes in vinification, etc. that have occurred over the decades.

Now let’s say that somebody plants a new vineyard right next to Beaulieu’s, in Rutherford. We’ll call it Chateau Gus. They make a Cabernet that’s pretty much identical to Private Reserve in style. Will it age? If we knew nothing else about the wine, we’d have to hedge our bets, wouldn’t we, and say something like “It seems like this should age well, but given the wine’s absence of any provenance, we can’t guarantee it.” However, if we knew it was right next door to Beaulieu, that would increase the odds of the wine aging well.

So far, so good. Now, let’s make things a little more complicated. Let’s take a wine like Jonata’s El Alma de Jonata Red, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It’s an extraordinary wine—I gave the 2007 96 points when I reviewed it in late 2012—but it’s from a place in the Santa Ynez Valley that has almost no history whatsoever of growing great, ageworthy red Bordeaux blends. So in my review, I resisted the temptation to predict its longterm future. At that point, when it was a little more than five years old, it was so lovely, it seemed to me there was no point in submitting it to the potential ravages of age.

But maybe that Jonata will march on and on to multi-decade beauty. Who knows? This is the risk of such prognostication. Of course, if I’d advised readers to hold the wine until, say, 2027, it might have been utterly undrinkable by then—but what would an outraged reader do, hunt me down and sue me? The problem of ageability is particularly difficult to determine in a young Pinot Noir, much of which in California comes from wineries that are less than ten years old (and the wines often are made from young vines). I think of the Pinots from the Santa Rita Hills, which are so tangy and delicious. We do have the example of Sanford & Benedict, which I know from personal experience ages well; but this does not necessarily translate to wines from (say) Clos Pepe, Fiddlehead or Sea Smoke, whose clones and vineyard management practices are so different. Are these twenty year wines? Ten year wines? I have no problem feeing reasonably certain that they’re six year wines, maybe even eight—but predicting them into their second decade seems to me to be much more perilous.

Anyway, most Americans don’t age wines for a long time. Most of the people I know live in cities, which means apartments or condos. They may have a temperature-controlled storage unit, but they don’t have anything that could properly be called a cellar, so even if they wanted to store a wine for twenty years, they couldn’t. Winemakers understand the realities of modern-day America, and are crafting their wines accordingly. Tannin management methodology enables them to produce wines that are drinkable right out of the bottle, or at any rate within a couple of years. And what does “drinkable” mean, anyhow? A wine that’s tannic and acidic when young might melt deliciously with pork belly, making aging irrelevant.


The soft bigotry of tasting inexpensive wine

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If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.

BlindJustice

This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.

But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.

My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning  off either side.

If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.

If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.


Matt Kramer got it right about bullies who put wine down

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This think piece by Matt Kramer is a little opaque.(I hope you can open the Wine Spectator link.)  I had to read it twice to understand it—and I’m not sure I do even now—but it seems to be a rebuttal to the notion, widespread in America and somewhat anti-intellectual, that expertise is a form of pretentious bull. With specific regard to wine, Matt asserts that “what we [tasters] taste is real,” his J’accuse! to the doubters who, reading things about Rudi Kuriawan, or how even “experts” can be fooled, think that wine expertise is just so much hooey.

If that was Matt’s point, he’s got it right: great numbers of Americans don’t take wine seriously, even if they drink it, and some of them think that those of us who do take wine seriously are somehow illegitimate—less than true, red-blooded Americans. How and why this notion go so widespread is not hard to understand. It’s not that people think any form of expertise is bunk. Baseball fans respect the serious fact-collector who can cite ERAs going back fifty years. Nobody disrespects an epidemiologist who can cite instances of out-of-control diseases going back to the plague. We listen to movie reviewers thoroughly familiar with the genre.

But when it comes to expertise in wine, people tend to raise their eyebrows. I’ve encountered such skeptical behavior my whole career. It’s like when I meet someone and I tell then what I do for a living, their reaction is a mixture of disbelief, amusement and pity. “Really?” They seem to say. “You get paid for that?” If I was getting paid to be a CIA analyst tracking the worldwide movement of terrorists (another form of expertise) I’d get some respect. Even a restaurant reviewer would be seen in some sort of positive light. For that matter, if I was a whiskey expert, I think people would be respectful.

But wine? Something about it still weirds people out. This is related to what Matt calls “a bullying anti-intellectualism with a long history in America.” It’s the same kind of anti-intellectualsm that still manifests itself as a suspicion of science in this country. When I was a little boy, people called Adlai Stevenson, who ran for President twice as a Democrat (and lost to Eisenhower) “an egghead,” a disparaging word for someone who was educated and tended to think in complex, analytical ways, rather than with emotional gut reactions.

Why should wine, of all foods and beverages, be consigned to the egghead bin of history? It’s not really clear to me, except that, as an historian of wine, I understand its centrality to Western civilization and culture. Our greatest minds didn’t necessarily drink wine (and with most of them, we don’t know if they did or didn’t, for history didn’t record it. Did Aristotle drink wine? Did Thomas Aquinas? Did Shakespeare, Pascal, Gutenburg?) But there is something about wine that is unlike beer or spirits. I can’t pinpoint it, except to say it is a thinking person’s alcoholic beverage. It’s a drink that smart men and women enjoy. I’m not dissing beer and spirits drinkers;; I happen to like both myself. I’m suggesting that wine somehow appeals to a very high level of consciousness in our brains. It awakens something cerebral and thoughtful, but not everybody enjoys being thoughtful. For some people, thoughtfulness is a distraction, or worse, an indulgence in something they don’t even believe in. These are the sorts of people Matt writes about: “skeptics of sensory value, who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers,” when they’re really not.

The history of Prohibitionism in this country is rife with such figures. Whenever they rise up and have power, our country takes a step backwards in its inevitable progress toward the future. So next time you’re enjoying a nice glass of wine, smile at yourself inwardly, and know that you’re helping our country become a better place, for in a very real sense—in carrying the wine flag high—you are.


Why young wine drinkers should know about the classics

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Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.

But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?

By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)

Okay. So two questions:

  1. Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
  2. What are the classics, anyhow?

Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.

But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.

I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.

So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.

This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.


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