As you may know if you read me regularly, I’ve been having some wonderful wine tastings with my friends at Jackson Family Wines. Over the last 1-1/2 years we’ve done multiple sessions of mainly California wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhone blends and so on. Our next theme is sparkling wine. It’s been, like, forever since I went to a bubbly tasting, so I’m particularly excited.
When I set up these tastings, I first develop the theme. But then it’s time to choose the wines. There are so many choices that you have to have some kind of system, and I do. I realize it may not be perfect, but what system is?
My initial criterion is to pick wines I, myself, have given high scores to. It’s been a while since I was an everyday critic, but not that long. Of course, you can learn a lot from tasting average, or even mediocre, wines, and I’ve included some of those in my tastings. But for the most part, I want to try wines that are high-end, and the best way to do that, IMHO, is to look at critical scores.
Here are the critics I routinely check out: Robert Parker/Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator; Antonio Galloni’s Vinous; and my former employer, Wine Enthusiast. I have subscriptions to three of them; Enthusiast doesn’t charge (I think they should, but that’s not my call). I also try and look at Food & Wine and a few other publications, but those four are my must-sees.
If all of the major critics give a specific wine a high score, it’s a go for my tastings. Usually, the critics are pretty close. Someone may give something 96 points, someone else may give it 92 points, but that’s okay, it’s ballpark. Every once in a while, I come across a wine somebody gave mid-90s and somebody else scored mid- or even low 80s. The lesson is that sometimes the critics can’t agree amongst themselves. In that case, it’s fun to see how my score, under blind conditions, matches up to the other critics’. My impression, which is simply that—an impression, not the result of a database crunch—is that Galloni and Parker tend to give higher scores to California wines than Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast is less predictable. But then, they’ve had some turnover in their California coverage.
I wonder how people who don’t like the critics or the 100-point system go about choosing wines for tasting. In Europe you can always do hierarchical tastings since they have formal tiers, but here in California, we don’t. You can’t do a First Growths of Napa Valley the way you can in Bordeaux. Some writers try to get around this absence of rankings by producing their own: I Googled “first growths of napa valley” and got 4,180 results. These can be interesting to read, but they have problems: They’re only the writer’s opinion, the writers may not have had access to everything (who does?), and even worse, the rankings change over time. One year Chateau Montelena is in; the next, it’s not, and Futo is, or Kenzo, or Yao Ming, or some other newcomer. So if I was doing a Napa Cabernet tasting (and I haven’t yet, but I will), I’d make things simple for myself by looking up what the major critics say. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get the wines I want! I have some pretty good connections, but even for me, some of these wines are totally impossible to buy.
At any rate, comparative tasting, done blind, is one of the most thrilling and instructive things a wine writer can do. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the job. I’m very fortunate that Jackson Family Wines gives me the budget for it. I sure couldn’t afford to do it on my own!
Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether “Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that “Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”
Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?
We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.
But what is tasting ability, anyhow?
Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.
But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.
Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.
But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?
Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.
What else does it take?
I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to
- Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
- Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
- Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
- Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
- Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.
By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.
Every form of description has its own particular jargon. Conversations about baseball are filled with references to ERAs and WARs (“wins above replacement”).
Fasionistas debate the distinctions between lettuce hems and unitards. Here in wine-reviewing land, we talk about cassis or earthiness, and get our heads handed to us by critics-of-critics who find us pompous and pretentious.
For instance, here’s Snooth calling wine critics “old men tasting wine in wood-paneled libraries.” Then there’s the wine writer for a Florida pub writing about the “Top 10 Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting,” including “I used to live in Napa” and “What percentage Malo?” So relentless has been the assault on winespeak that even some critics, apparently taking it to heart, have publicly wondered if their approach isn’t “too la-di-da,” as Harvey Steiman did in Wine Spectator.
Why is it more pretentious for a wine person to ask about the percent of malo than for a baseball fan to ask about Miguel Cabrera’s on-base percentage? I don’t think it is, but somehow we’ve allowed wine lingo to fall into this disreputable neighborhood of precious effeteness where you practically can’t say anything about it at all without someone wanting to pour their Chardonnay over your head.
It would behoove us, I think, to get to the bottom of this in a thoughtful way, and The Guardian’s wine columnist, David Williams, does a good job in this latest op-ed piece. I like particularly the distinction he makes between data-driven wine descriptions, such as you would find in a laboratory analysis, and an esthetic approach—“the juggling of a random assortment of associations”—that has dominated wine writing from the rise of English critics, in the 1800s, to the Parkers of today. (And I openly concede that my own approach has been the esthetic one.) Williams asserts that connections can, and should, be made between them. For example, a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, described analytically, might refer to “thiols and pyrazines,” whereas the same wine, in more esthetic hands, would reference “gooseberries and grass.” The writer must, of course, consider his audience: a strictly lay readership will not understand “thiols and pyrazines,” but a good writer might wish to give them a little understanding of wine chemistry and its causative terroir in order to broaden their appreciation: after all, “gooseberries and grass” don’t just appear willy-nilly in the wine, but have specific reasons for being there.
But Williams also catches something that must always make a good tasting note at least semi-esthetic rather than purely analytical; and that is the ability to give “a sense of something more elusive: of the wine’s flow and feel, of how the flavours dovetail both with each other and with the wine’s texture, of its context in nature and the world of winemaking. All the things, in fact, that make a wine worth drinking, and, despite the inevitable ridicule, talking and writing about.”
It is impossible to over-stress the importance of this “more elusive” aspect. Every wine writer who has ever lived and dared to put her impressions into words for the benefit of readers has come across wines that inspire her to the heights of poetic allusion. Indeed, if a writer is incapable of rising to such lofty altitudes, he ought not to be in the business of wine writing! For he would then be a very dreary and boring wine writer, and who wants to read that sort?
How have we come to this pass? Our beer lobby—which is to say, the breweries that cater to the forehead-can-smashers who frequent sports bars—have been partly responsible for creating this impression that wine is not a real man’s drink. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to ridiculing wine, and everything pertaining to it, including wine writing, as insufferably poofy. This is untrue, but it is perhaps not unhelpful for wine writers to be aware of this viewpoint in our culture; such a consciousness of the boundaries that some writers occasionally cross should help to keep the rest of us within the foul lines.
I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.
Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.
The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.
As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.
Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.
Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”
I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.
I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).
I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, “The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.
If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?
Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?
What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?
Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?
I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?
This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.
Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.
This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.
But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.
By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.
P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.
It’s an old story: Wineries that get mediocre scores from famous critics say they don’t care because critics are irrelevant. Wineries that get high scores love critics and cite their great reviews in their marketing materials. But what I mean by “you can’t have it both ways” is that you can’t criticize critics and then boast about the high score one of them just gave you.
Well, you can…but it’s a little disingenuous.
I am thinking about this because yesterday, via social media, I heard from a winemaker, quite a famous one, who happens to be an acquaintance of long standing and someone I have enormous respect for. S/he posted that, while the point-scoring system “is something we are not completely down with,” s/he then couldn’t resist citing two super-high scores from Parker. “It feels good,” the winemaker wrote, “when your work is recognized.”
Well, yes, it does. We all crave recognition, that validation in our lives, especially when it’s about our job performance. It feels horrible to be told that you suck, but it’s fantastic to be told you’ve done a great job.
These are the horns of the dilemma on which many winemakers find themselves impaled. They have this weird love-hate relationship with the critics that they don’t quite know how to deal with. I used to experience it myself, back in my day. I’d give a high score to somebody, and the next thing you know, they’d send me a thank-you card—as if I’d done them a favor. Then I’d give a lousy score to somebody, and they’d call me on the phone, complaining. I’d think, sigh… You just have to roll with the punches and not let the praise go to your head, but you also can’t let the anger get under your skin.
The smartest, or at least the most emotionally mature, winemakers I’ve known understand this. They don’t always get what they want in the way of scores, and that must hurt. They and their teams put in this amazing effort to produce what they hope and feel is great wine, and then some critic schlongs them with an 84 or a 67 or whatever. Very painful, and understandably so.
But emotionally mature winemakers don’t call up the offending critic. I mean, not to complain…they might ask for an extended explanation of the problem, and that’s all right. Instead, mature winemakers take a deep breath, send in the next sample, and get on with their lives. Today’s 84 may be tomorrow’s 97—you never know. Never give up hope, and make sure you don’t burn your bridges behind you.
I guess the hardest thing for a winemaker who gets a low score to figure out is this: If he honestly feels that his wine—the one that got criticized—is as good as one that the critic gave a high score to, it must be crazy-making. We’ve all been in life situations where you feel utterly misunderstood and wronged. It’s one of the hardest emotional wringers to go through. You think, “How could he possibly think that?” And you dwell on it, and mull it over and over in your head, but can come up with no explanation. So you might attack the messenger, or the very institution of wine reviewing. You start thinking that maybe the critic had ulterior motives. You begin to doubt your own palate—how could you find your wine so good when the critic found it so ordinary? You start wondering about all sorts of scenarios and fantasies. Maybe you get a little paranoid and resentful.
I would imagine this situation is compounded when you see a critic lavishing high scores over and over again on a wine you have no respect for. You think it’s overripe, flawed, undrinkable; meanwhile, the critic gives it high-90s vintage after vintage. That would make me crazy too.
But it is what it is. We have the wine reviewing system we deserve. It’s the one we must work within, regardless of how much it taxes our patience. So be of good cheer, ye winemakers. Go placidly through the noise and haste. All will be well.