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An appreciation of rosé and a call for changing the rules of wine criticism

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It was hot in Oakland yesterday—the city of Pittsburg, in the Delta, hit 93 degrees—and I was doing a lot of running around, so when I got home, around 5 p.m., I was thirsty. I happened to have a bottle of a rosé in the fridge (not Jackson Family), and it looked mighty welcoming, so I popped the cork, poured myself a glass, and sipped.

Rose

Ahhh.

The label doesn’t say what the blend is, but it’s Provençal. I think there’s some Grenache in there, maybe Cinsaut and almost definitely Syrah, but it doesn’t really matter. We make too much of the varieties in these blended wines. The winemaker isn’t trying to do some cookbook sort of thing, according to some theory, but to craft the best wine she can. But we’re addicted to knowing the blend, so there’s pressure on proprietors to put it on the bottle. In a way, I admire this particular winery for resisting that impulse. They’re telling us, “Don’t focus on the grape varieties, focus on the wine.”

Rosé is red-hot (no pun intended). It’s always been around, of course, but it’s never been this popular. I wonder why. Summer’s coming, of course, and rosé hits that sweet spot of being midway between a white wine and a red wine. When I was on the road last week in New England, I was surprised by how many people I met who told me that they don’t care for (red or white: pick one), but love the other one. I, myself, can’t imagine ever being in that dilemma. But if you are, I’d think a rosé would be the best of both worlds.

How do the critics treat rosé? Not very respectfully. There’s a tendency among them to view it as a simple, inexpensive wine, made from press juice, without complexity. That can be the case, but not always. The wine I’m drinking now—the rosé from my fridge—is quite a complicated thing. It’s bone dry, with wonderful acidity, and the fruit (strawberries barely turned pink, orange zest, pink grapefruit) has a herbaceousness that reminds me of fresh thyme and white or pink peppercorns. Were I reviewing it, I’d probably give it 89 or 90 points, but I’m pretty sure that most other critics would score it lower than that, maybe around 87 or 88.

Why is it that certain wines never seem to rise above a certain score? Sauvignon Blanc is another. I’ve wrestled with that question for a long time, and still can’t really answer it. Since I’m “guilty” of the same thing myself, I can’t accuse other critics of any sort of impropriety. I think what it comes down to is that Sauvignon Blanc and rosé (to mention just two California wines) traditionally never got very high scores, and so critics don’t want to go out on a limb and give them 95s or 97s. After all, they have their reputations to protect. And yet, why shouldn’t a great rosé get 97 points?

Parker says his highest ratings are for ageable wines, so I guess he’s off the hook. The vast majority of rosés aren’t ageable. But one could argue that, within the context of rosé-ness, there are rosés that approach perfection, so why wouldn’t you give a perfect rosé a perfect score? Because to give a wonderful Provençal wine 100 points—the same as Petrus or Verité—would seem a little odd.

But why? Ageability aside, we’re talking about perfection within the context of what the wine is—the sandbox it plays in—and it seems to me to be unfair to say, “This is a perfect rosé” and give it 94 points, and “This is a perfect Cabernet” and give it 100 points.

Well, here I am, realizing stuff after I’ve retired as a wine critic! But if I had to do it all over again, I’d be more generous with my 100s. Break the rules, if you will, redefine them. Wine criticism has turned rather baroque, if you ask me: mannered, adhering to a strict canon, rather rigid. It needs to be shook up—intelligently. Not smashed, not taken over idiotically, but systematically redefined in a way that’s fairer than it has been, when only certain regions or varieties could star. That has got to change.


Wine critics vs. sommeliers, Round 428. Ding!

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With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.

His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,”  after having been one myself. I said, I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”

Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.

For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?

There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.

As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.

Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.


Why online wine reviews don’t get more respect

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You’ve probably heard that Ashley Judd, a celebrity I don’t know much about but I like her anyway, is suing people who have been sending her horrendous tweets.

The brouhaha all started when Ashley, apparently, tweeted something derogatory about a basketball team, Arkansas, that was playing against her beloved Kentucky.

Imagine that! A sports fan talking smack about a rival sports team!

Well, that opened the floodgates. Ashley was inundated with some pretty awful stuff, most of which is unprintable on a family blog like steveheimoff.com : )

This raises the whole question of the abuse of social media. People do say the most terrible things—often, I think, while in a state of C.U.I. (commenting under the influence). It can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of crap: I know, because I’ve been there.

Let’s talk about wine reviewing. A wine critic needs to have the trust of the people who read him or her. Without that trust, he has no credibility—and without credibility, who cares what he has to say? If you look over the history of where and how wine critics have published their opinions, you’ll find that they’ve been in extremely credible publications. Today’s top wine magazines are trustworthy; whether you agree with their reviews or not, whether you like the 100-point system or loathe it, the fact remains that such pubs as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, etc., are widely perceived to be, like Caesar’s wife, “above suspicion.”

The way for any publication to be above suspicion is to conduct itself respectfully. Professional pubs have internal codes of ethics that prohibit their writers from writing inappropriate things. And not just their writers: they also do not allow foul letters to the editor or slanderous, insulting comments on their websites. Professional publications, in other words, police themselves, in order to keep the conversation civil.

Social media, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. Anything goes; all is permitted; eliminating even vile comments is seen as onerous censorship. It was the very freedom of social media that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.

In the last couple of years, we have begun to see the dark side of this openness. When anyone can say anything they want to—no matter how odious or untrue—it is bound to detract from the credibility of the platform as a whole. In fact, that platform can even be viewed as having encouraged odious comments, for the simple reasons that (a) it enabled them, (b) it didn’t explicitly prohibit them, and (c) it didn’t remove them at once. This is the background to the Ashley Judd situation.

And this is why platforms like Twitter, Facebook and pretty much all the rest of them suffer from a credibility gap: If the worst people can use them to spout their stupidity and hatred, this necessarily impacts everybody who chooses to write something on that platform. It’s trickle-down sleaze, and like it or not, it tarnishes everyone.

Am I saying that online wine reviews aren’t accurate and informed? Not at all. I’m not talking about the content of online reviews; I’m talking about the platforms themselves. In the case of any individual online reviewer, you might have accuracy and integrity, but the fact that it appears on a platform that allows untrammeled inaccuracy and untruthfulness to flourish must necessarily make it suspect, or at least keep it from being as credible as it otherwise could be.

What’s the answer? I think we’re seeing something more professional begin to emerge online, with lawsuits like Ashley’s, and with social media platforms in general understanding that they have to do a better job policing themselves. But the problem of stupid, insulting tweeters cannot be solved from above; it has to come from the street. People need to understand that just because they can say something awful online doesn’t mean they should. When the more decent elements stand together to condemn our basest instincts from shouting, social media will advance. Until social media cleans up its act, though, it will continue to have about it the taint of unreliability and unprofessionalism, affecting even the best-intentioned of writers.


Wednesday Wraparound: Parker on futures, those “miracle” 2014s, and—Parker on futures, not!

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If, as Bob told The Drinks Business (and who would know better?), Bordeaux en primeur futures are “largely dead,” then good riddance, says I. I never did care for this futures stuff.

I mean, what purpose did they serve? Maybe once upon a time wine lovers could get a “bargain” by buying en primeur, but those days are long gone. I’m not entirely sure what killed them off, but surely the Internet had something to do with it. eBay? I don’t know for sure, but I bet much, if not most, en primeur Bordeaux is bought strictly for flipping. Something drove prices up so drastically that, as Parker himself points out, [producers] started raising the prices [on futures] higher and higher, so you were being asked to pay prices for unbottled wines two years before you received them for prices that will essentially be the same as when they came out…”.

That doesn’t make much sense—to tie your money up like that, in essence lending it to the chateau interest-free.

It’s funny how powerful is Parker’s influence. Even though people say his day is over, he’s still the 800-pound gorilla in the room, especially in Bordeaux. Decanter just wrote an article, How to buy en primeur, in which they said that, while the system can be complicated (involving not only the chateaux but negociants and merchants), there seems to be little sign of change in the offing, and the system does work.” Well, not according to Parker, it doesn’t. And I believe Parker.

* * *

Meanwhile, speaking of Bordeaux, how long will they continue to hype their vintages? As long as there are enough gullible people around to believe it. Here’s the latest on the 2014s, “a ‘great, miracle’ vintage that is close in style and quality to the exceptional 2010s,” according to a Bordeaux winery general manager. (There’s objectivity for you!)

How many times have we heard of a “vintage of the century” or “the greatest vintage since [fill in the blank]”? And it’s not just Bordeaux, it happens in every great wine-producing region. P.T. Barnum would be pleased to learn that his admonition about suckers is truer than ever when it comes to selling wine.

* * *

Finally—to reprise both Bordeaux and Bob Parker—his stepping down from reviewing en primeur—which he announced after giving The Drinks Business his gloomy prognostication on Bordeaux futures—is not the earth-shattering asteroid crash some writers have made it out to be. It was time for him to move on, a decision only he could make, and one into which not too much should be read, except this: as many have pointed out, no critic will ever have Bob’s influence. On balance, that influence has been a very healthy one for the wine industry. Bob was responsible—not entirely, but largely—for wine’s explosion in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, when media all over the world trumpeted his achievements. More than anyone else, he made wine important. He glamorized it—the way an Oscar elevates a movie. We here in California ought to thank him, too, for he was/is the ultimate non-snob. He said that California wine could be as good as French at a time when many people didn’t want to hear it (and still don’t). I, personally, never begrudged him, as did some critics. In fact I’d venture to say that if it hadn’t been for Bob, there might not have been a Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast—and even if there had been, they wouldn’t have become as influential as they did, because he blazed the trail. He cleared the way. He set the style—and will, even after he retires. Bob Parker was the Sinatra of wine critics: The chairman of the board.

* * *

I’m up in Sonoma Valley today, at Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek Winery, where he’s hosting a 40-year retrospective tasting of some of his wines. I respect and admire Richard so much. He was a big part of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I’ll write about this historic tasting tomorrow.


Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?

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I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!


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.


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