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The history of wine reviewing

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Did my annual wine class last night for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club. It’s always so cool to go there, with the big banners celebrating their Nobel Prize winners, and those super-smart students who, one imagines, might be running the show someday.

One of the things they wanted to know about was the history of wine reviewing. Here’s what I told them.

Describing wine has a long and honorable history in humankind. People have always understood that wines differ greatly in quality and this seems to have been fascinating to even the earliest peoples we have record of. The Old Testament, Numbers 18:12 (1400 B.C.). refers to drinking “all the best of the wine.” From the New Testament, John 2:10: “every man serves the good wine first.” So these notions of “the best” wine and “the good” wine date to the earliest times.

The ancient Greeks divided wine into quality hierarchies. Socrates’ and Plato’s “symposia” were actually wine-drinking parties at which matters of intellectual interest were discussed. Aristotle praised the aroma of Limnio, a red wine still produced on the island of Lemnos. Later, in Rome, Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) created one of the earliest rankings of wine, noting that the vineyard is the most important influence on the wine’s quality. In this he anticipates, by nearly 2,000 years, the French system of Grand Crus and Classified Growths, which also are based on vineyards. The greatest, or most famous, of the ancient Roman wines was Falernian, which was often mentioned by ancient writers: On the walls of Pompei, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a price list [this must have been the equivalent of a Roman wine bar!]: For one denarius, you could buy an “as”–the house wine. For two, “the best.” For four, “Falernian.” Scholars think Falernian might have been a sweet white wine–rather like an ice wine. According to Pliny the Elder, in 60 B.C., Julius Caesar was served Falernian from the 121 B.C. vintage–the first vintage in recorded history that was celebrated for wine quality. However, as the physician Galen noted around 180 A.D., not all so-called “Falernian” wine could be genuine. There was simply too much being drunk and too little produced! Yes, even then, they had fake wines–a situation we’ve seen here in the states, with the recent Rudi Kurniawan scandal. Counterfeit wine also is notoriously frequent in China with Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Here in America, knowledge of wine all but disappeared due to 14 years of Prohibition. Following Repeal (1933), a plethora of wine books appeared to explain wine to Americans, and implicit in them all was this notion of a hierarchy of quality. It’s very easy for Americans to accept that some things are better than others: people understand that Cadillacs are better than Chevrolets. So they absorbed this notion of wine hierarchies, and it’s still hard to persuade them that a common, everyday wine can be better than a rare, expensive one, depending on the circumstances.

When the Baby Boomers—my generation–came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy—and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective–so a new generation of “critics” arose in the 1970s. Newspapers in the major cities hired wine critics. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today. Two publications of note arose during the late 1970s: Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate. My own former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, launched about ten years later.

With all of these came the advent and triumph of the American wine critic.


Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?

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Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?


The next great wine critic: Human, or machine?

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No one, not even an omnivorous reader like myself, can possibly see everything that’s published in the world of wine, so it was that I missed “the news [that] traveled around the Internet so quickly it was seemingly everywhere,” in the words of Cyril Penn’s Wine Business Monthly. (Oh, well, better late than never.)

That “news” was the launch of a new app, from a company called Next Glass, “touted,” in the article’s words, “as the app that scientifically chooses your next wine or beer” by “understand[ing] the flavor profile of a drinker” and then “tell[ing] the consumer (on a 100 percent compatibility or ‘enjoyability’ scale) how likely they are to love it…”.

The idea originated with the company’s CEO, who had dinner with friends a few years back. “The diners were having trouble selecting a bottle [and] a suggestion from the waiter didn’t go over well,” so the CEO “realized that science could be used to make accurate and reliable recommendations.” The “science,” in Next Glass’s case, includes mass spectrometers, chemical analyzers and algorithms, all of overseen by a Ph.D. The company’s COO says Next Glass goes beyond crowd-sourced platforms like Yelp and Trip Advisor because it can tell the consumer whether or not he or she will enjoy the specific wine chosen, and not just what other people thought about it.

Well, this is obviously controversial stuff. Penn wrote, in an introduction, that the announcement from Next Glass “prompted one of the world’s greatest wine essayists to pen a piece…saying, ‘You think an algorithm can replace a wine critic? Think again.’” Penn didn’t identify the wine essayist, but Google did: None other than Matt Kramer. I was not surprised, because Matt really is one of the world’s greatest wine essayists and is always worth reading.

You can guess as to the substance of Matt’s argument: he summarized his opinion with, “It’s individual critics who are the real app…”. Now, you can say that Matt is hardly objective; he writes for a magazine whose strength is its bench of famous wine critics. But I think to dismiss Matt’s position based on that is not valid. Too often, we look for conspiracies and ulterior motives in critics, when really, there are none; and Matt’s credibility quotient is among the highest in the field. Matt is correct when he writes that critics offer authentic thought and insight rather than data sifting with a ‘skin’ that makes it seem individualized and personal.”

I don’t doubt that Next Glass will have some success. They certainly got a lot of free media: coverage ranged from business publications to the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ.DLive, an online digital conference.

People, especially younger people, like apps; they seem to fit in with today’s fast-paced, iPhone-connected world. As one of my tattoo artist friends explained to me, “If you’re the guy at the table with the app, you’re looking cool.” And Next Glass, in particular, appears to be “scientific” in a way that might appeal to folks who resent being told what to do and think by others, particularly older men and women whose lives bear little resemblance to their own.

Far be it from me to suggest that wine critics are the end-all and be-all of wine recommending. But I was one myself, for a long time, and I know that world pretty well; and some voice inside me, which I have learned to trust because it’s usually right, is telling me that the individual wine critic, with all his flaws and virtues, is going to continue to be important, because–let’s face it–everything that purports to replace it isn’t as good. When a Gen Y’er uses Next Glass to buy her next glass or bottle of wine—and doesn’t particularly like it, or finds her friends don’t like it—Next Glass’s limitations will be clear.


Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


Crowd-based reviews? A consideration

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I’m not certain I agree that, in large, multi-judge competitions, “the best wines tend to rise to the top,” as Andy Perdue says in his column in Pacific NW Magazine says.

Andy’s contention is based on the fact that a big competition represents “a consensus of the judges who are tasting the wines” and, thus, this crowd-sourced opinion is more free of “biases” than would be the judgment of an individual taster.

This is a sort of “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” analysis. (That slogan comes from a Broadway play of 1929 that contrasted the socially-liberal attitudes of 1920s Paris with the censorship and alcohol Prohibition then in effect in the U.S. Its usual meaning is, “Hey, if so many people like it, there must be something to it.”)

There is indeed something to be said about consensus among large groups when it comes to decision-making. Our elections are based on consensus. Just as we would not want a single individual to pick our political leaders, but prefer to leave that up to the collective will of the voters, so too the consensual approach to wine judging suggests it somehow arrives at findings that are more true and real and thus of greater lasting value.

However, Andy himself acknowledges that you can unearth new and exciting wines in at least five ways,” namely, wine competitions, wine critics, wine merchants, wineries/wine festivals and friend recommendations. The question is not, “Which is best?,” because each way obviously has its own special appeals. The question is, “Which of these five ways is on the increase and which is losing steam?”

We’re certainly familiar with the contention that the Big Critics are losing sway, and I think that’s true, in the sense that the more famous of them are aging out. But what does this mean for the template? Not much. The New York Yankees, much less Major League Baseball, didn’t phase away with Derek Jeter’s retirement, because talented younger players—Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, Mike Trout—are constantly coming up. In the same way, it’s becoming fashionable to predict the demise of the individual critic, but we’ve seen the stunning rise and success of Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, with its super-stable of critics, and other leading publications (including The Wine Advocate, which isn’t going anywhere), remain hugely influential. So it does not seem to me that wine critics are an especially endangered species.

The question, though, of individual judgment versus consensus-driven judgment remains interesting, albeit probably unresolvable. Having participated in huge tastings (although the last one was years ago), I came to the personal conclusion that there were too many people involved, too many egos, too much confusion and, at any rate, too much alcohol imbibed in too short a time, at least for my tastes. (Perhaps things have changed in the interim.) Then too, consensus usually means that outlier wines, at both the top and the bottom, are eliminated, resulting in a shift toward the median, or average. That’s not to say that a winner at a big competition is not a fine, even a great wine, but it does stand to reason that it will be a wine that offends the least number of people, while appealing to the greater esthetic. One could argue that such a wine would be more ordinary than special. But I’m acutely aware that every single one of my arguments could be turned on its head, and used to prove the opposite.

Another limitation of big competitions is that not all the top wineries even bother to enter them. In fact, many top wineries don’t, for the simple reason that they have more to lose than to gain, by getting a lower score than, say, a supermarket wine. This raises a fundamental limitation of any method of critical appraisal: no competition, no individual judge can possibly review all the wines out there. Even I, as a working critic who tasted thousands of wines each year, could barely keep up—and there were some wines I never tasted at all.

I will admit there’s a certain allure to a double gold winner from a big competition. I think to myself, “It certainly can’t be a bad wine, and it might even be a very special one.” It’s kind of the way I feel about Yelp: for all its well-publicized problems, Yelp does provide a kind of base-of-the-pyramid generalization of the conclusions of many people. If the majority of 40 reviews of a restaurant are positive, I’m more inclined to check it out. But—and this is just me—I still prefer the review of a single, trusted critic, like Michael Bauer, to that of the crowd.


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


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