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What makes a wine memorable?

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The most interesting, or at least memorable, California wine I ever had was a 1977 Chateau Montelena when it was fifteen years old.

I’d gotten to know a fellow by the name of Albert Dupont, a Belgian, who was at that time one of the more interesting characters running around Napa Valley. He and his wife had a lovely home in southern Napa, filled with antiques. I never could quite figure out how Albert made a living, but he seemed to live well. He had a sort of gig wherein he would occasionally recork old bottles for wineries. This is a tricky business, because you have to pull the old cork and replace it with a new one, which involves exposing the wine to oxygen, which is something you don’t want to do very much, if at all, because oxygen as we all know will kill an old wine.

So Albert had invented a contraption, a kind of glove box whose inside was filled with an inert gas. He would put the bottle and the opener and the new cork and a wine glass inside the see-through box, then insert his hands into rubber gloves that protruded inside, so that he could perform all these delicate operations oxygen-free.

Montelena had hired him to recork their old library bottles, and Albert invited me to come along. Part of the operation involved tasting the wine to be recorked. After all, if the wine was already dead, or suffering from TCA contamination, there was no point in recorking it. So we were tasting all these Montelenas including that 1977.

It had already lost its primary character and was solidly in secondary or tertiary phases. So aromatic, so delicate, so complex and delicious, I could hardly find words to describe it. (Sadly, I didn’t take any notes.) But it struck a chord inside me, an almost satori-like moment I hadn’t even been looking for. I remember it to this day.

Can I say it was the greatest wine I ever had? Nope. I’m not sure I would call any wine the greatest, just as I couldn’t single out the person who had the greatest influence on my life. Many wines have blown my mind: a 1961 Heidsieck Monopole in magnum I drank in in 1991, a 40-year old Musigny. And not only old ones: my first Saxums wasted me, and there was a young Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive that a friend once kindly offered me when I was just starting out; I have a distinct memory of the top of my head exploding with the first sip.

But for some reason that Montelena occupies a special place in my mind. I can’t say why. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Italian word ambiente, which I learned about from Joseph Bastianich’s and David’s Lynch’s superb book, Vino Italiano. By it, the authors mean that everything concerning your experience of a wine—the time, the place, the people, the food, where you’re at in your life—contributes to how you perceive it. I suppose I had that Montelena at a happy time in my life; I had just been hired by Wine Spectator and considered myself a very fortunate young wine writer, indeed. (Of course, that’s not to take away from that ’77. It was a glorious Cabernet, and would have been great under any circumstances, I’m sure.)

I myself will probably never get the opportunity to taste or drink many older vintages of the world’s most famous wines the way some critics do, but that’s all right. I used to know a lot of wealthy people who could drink those wines every day, and I didn’t particularly find most of them to be interesting or vital human beings. Mostly they seemed consumed with their own success, which is a very un-Zen way to live. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve tried to live by the philosophy of “Be happy with what you’ve got.” That’s why I can be happy with perfectly ordinary wines (as long as they’re sound). I love Kendall-Jackson’s new Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris (yes, they pay me, but I wouldn’t mention it in print unless I really liked it), and you can get it for less than $15. Does it blow the top of my head off, like that Zind Humbrecht? No, it doesn’t. But I wouldn’t want my head exploding every time I sipped a wine, and besides, I should think I’d get jaded if I had a ZH Vendange Tardive every time I wanted one. Some things are all the more enjoyable because you don’t get the chance to enjoy them whenever you want, so when you do, you really appreciate it.

 

Have a great weekend!


There are no great wines, just great bottles

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When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.

“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”

Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”

We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.

What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.

There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.

This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.

I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.


Announcing the end of the wine-and-foor pairing dictatorship

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Perhaps the most refreshing development in the world of wine is the gradual rejection of strict wine-and-food-pairing do’s and don’ts, in favor of “Don’t worry about it, if you like it, just do it.”

This liberating thought struck me as I was reading through this article in yesterday’s Napa Register which paraphrased MW Tim Hanni as “vehemently eschew[ing] wine pairing as a concept in both the East and the West, and encourag[ing] consumers to drink the wines of their choice with Chinese foods.”

We’ve gotten so used to mandatory wine-and-food rules that it’s hard to understand just why we adhered to these arbitrary injunctions for so long. I suppose it all started long ago, in Old Europe, although I don’t think that, in the 19th century, the esthetic tastemakers of wine were as ideological about pairing as were more modern, mainly American writers. Once Prohibition ended and a spate of wine books appeared on the scene, the rules were elevated to near-sacred status, with writers declaring with Papal infallibility what to eat with what to drink. That tendency towards rigid ideology in taste seems peculiarly American.

The inflexibility persisted well into modern times. I think the first book I can recall that began to bend—not break—the rules was “Red Wine With Fish,” David Rosengarten’s and Josh Wesson’s 1989 tome, which began to loosen the shackles. That book made a dent, but only a little one: the field in which I worked, wine writing and reviewing, helped to keep the old walls from tottering, for the simple reason that our editors expected us to recommend foods with the wines we wrote about, and it hardly would have been suitable for me to write, “Drink this Pinot Noir with anything you friggin’ want, because it really doesn’t matter.” I mean, that would have been a good way to lose your job!

Hence, I’d sit there, after the review was finished, and rack my brain to discern what foods I thought the wine would be magical with. Sometimes I’d browse through my extensive collection of cookbooks for ideas. And I was perfectly serious and sincere.

Yet, as the years passed so pleasantly, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable making such restricted judgments. In my own personal life, off-stage and in the non-visible comfort of my home, I tended to drink just about anything with anything else: Chardonnay with a hamburger, Pinot Noir with brown rice and tamari sauce, Zinfandel with sole, Sauvignon Blanc with lamb chops. I enjoyed it all, and, while I felt vaguely guilty about being so dogmatic in my published writings, didn’t really worry about it.

How refreshing it is to reach a point where America has become a mature wine-drinking country where people don’t feel the need to adhere slavishly to somebody else’s rules. Having said that, I’m sure that somebody is going to write in and say that wine critics themselves are obsolete dinosaurs imposing their ivory tower pronouncements on the plebes below. I don’t agree. Consumers still need and want somebody with more time and knowledge than they have to break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine to them. What they don’t want or need are authoritarian ideologues who threaten them with purgatory if they don’t obey the pairing rules. At this rate, we might, here in America, reach a point where wine critics are anachronisms. We’re not there, yet. But I’d be perfectly happy to see that day arrive.


On reviewing again, after a brief sabbatical

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Getting my chops back as a taster isn’t hard at all. It’s like bicycle riding: once you know how to do it, you can take some time off and then get right back on and go places.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m going be reviewing wines here on my blog, after 1-1/2 years off. But it’s not like I ever stopped tasting. I reviewed Jackson Family Wines for the winery newsletter, and—let’s face it—I didn’t exactly stop drinking! I found myself instinctively reviewing and rating every bottle that I came across. Old habits die hard.

The question sometimes comes up with wine critics, Can’t you just drink wine without analyzing it? Well, no. I mean, anyone who purports to think more than the average Joe about wine probably gets analytical about it. The one question I can never get away from is, What is this wine’s quality? Is it super-duper? Is it average? Does it suck? I think we all do that, those of us in the industry. We make value judgments.

That doesn’t mean that every time I have a new wine, I’m writing a little mini-review in my head. But there is a form of thought, consideration and judgment that wouldn’t be very hard for me to put into words, if that was my wont. Nor does it mean that I can’t enjoy a wine that’s average. I can. I’ve known people in my life who wouldn’t have been caught dead drinking anything less than a First Growth or Grand Cru. I felt (and feel) sorry for them. Snobs. But then, I also feel sorry for folks who only drink plonk, and claim that there’s no difference between wines anyway, so why spend a fortune when you can get the same thing for eight bucks? That’s not true. I wonder if they say the same thing about automobiles, or stereo systems, or clothing?

So here I am, getting back into the reviewing business. But I’m not going to let it to be like it was at Wine Enthusiast, when I often felt like a prisoner in a cage made of wine bottles. So much wine coming in, more and more everyday, and you have to taste and review every single one of them. It cuts into your social life, I can tell you that, and becomes a tedium. I doubt if some of the more famous critics, who taste scores if not hundreds of wines a day, will ‘fess up to that. But it does. I don’t think I ever let the tedium get in the way of my reviews, though; and it’s also true that alcohol stimulates me, so that even when I’m tired, wine perks me up. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t face another flight, so tired was I; but as soon as I jumped into it, my fatigue went away, and the sheer intellectual and physical challenge stimulated my body and mind and allowed me to perform. Going to the gym can be that like: every serious gym rat knows that, on those days when you feel like your dogs are draggin’, if you can get to the gym you have the best workouts.

I have no expectations about where this reviewing thing is headed. I’m playing around with the idea of charging a reviewing fee; there’s a lot of work involved in wine tasting (picking up boxes at the UPS Store, breaking down the cartons, dealing with the Styrofoam, washing and recycling the bottles only begins to describe it), and after all, I have bills to pay, like everyone else. It doesn’t seem to me that charging for reviewing would “taint” my reviews, but I’ll leave it to my readers to decide if they think it does. (Troll alert: I don’t care what you think.) I mean, if a steveheimoff.com review has potential value to wineries, then I’d think the least they would want to do is sustain me at a fair price. Right?


Parker vs. “trendy reds” is a fake choice

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Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.

That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.

Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.

And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.

How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)

An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?

So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.


Learning how to learn about new wines

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I’ve been a California wine guy for a long time, but in the 1980s, I was happily catholic, in the old sense of the word, derived from the Latin meaning “universal.” I studied and drank every classic wine and region I could get my hands on, from Old Europe to New World California, and everything inbetween.

But by the 1990s my job was to write about and review California wine. Once I got a reputation as a go-to guy for California, the transom opened (do you know what a transom is? A free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com if you do), and I was swamped with wines from the Golden State—to my pleasure, I might add. But the corresponding sadness was that the wines from the rest of the world necessarily had to take a back seat.

I’ve long maintained that there are two legitimate ways to be a professional wine critic: You can specialize in a region (as I have done), or you can generalize. Some people think nothing of covering Australia, Austria and Anderson Valley. They bring their innate sense of tasting to whatever region they’re in, and if they’re lucky enough to have a budget to fly all over the place, they can actually bring a sense of the ambiente of the region to their writing.

That was, alas, not to be my fate. But California is a big place, one that you can spend a lifetime traveling through and trying to understand. That ended up being my forte.

Lately, I’ve been tackling Italy. Now, Italy is probably the greatest challenge for the person seeking to understand an entire country. It’s so vast, with so many regions and varieties. I suspect my friend and former colleague, Monica Larner, who now reviews wines for The Wine Advocate, considers herself still a student of Italy, despite her vast knowledge of that country. I am by contrast an absolute dilettante.

How does one go about understanding a brand new region? Carefully and humbly. I’ve always known at least the fundamentals of Italian wine, but to delve into it and be immersed in its fantastic intricacies is something else. It’s not only the technical details of the denomination system, it’s tackling the flavors and textures, which are so different from our wines here in California.

For example, last night I drank a Dolcetto d’Alba from the Tenuta I’Illuminata winery. It’s a Piedmont wine and I don’t think there’s anything remotely resembling it in California. So dry and tart, so bitter on its own, nothing you’d want to drink as a cocktail sipper, the way a fresh young Cabernet or Pinot might suffice. I went through my Wine Enthusiast reviews, and the highest score I ever gave a California Dolcetto was 88 points. That was for the Acorn 2010 Alegria Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. To read the text of my September, 2013 review—“you might think it was Pinot Noir”—I can almost recall its succulent fruitiness, but this L’Illuminata Dolcetto is anything but sucuulently fruity. How, then, does a “California palate” make sense of such a wine?

Well, by expanding your mind. We all get used to certain kinds of things in our lives. We settle into our routines, hang out with the same people, go to the same places, eat the same foods. It’s understandable, but at the same time, when you’re plunged into a world profoundly different from the one you’re used to, you have two alternatives: to reject it as weird, or to set aside your predilections and try to understand it.

As a wine critic, there’s really only one legitimate approach, the latter: to try and understand something that, at first, doesn’t make sense. And for this, you need two things: study, and imagination. The “study” part mean that you need to read up on what smart people have had to say about that region and wine. The “imagination” part means that you have to understand how people actually drink the wine, in the region where they live. This is the “ambiente” I’m talking about.

With this Dolcetto d’Alba, I can imagine drinking it with very rich foods. Take some fatty meat (beef, sausages), put some tomato sauce on it, add some mozzarella cheese into the equation, figure out how to work in wild mushrooms, don’t be shy about the garlic and black pepper. Decant the wine for an hour or two. You know how some people complain that the opulent red wines of California pale after a while? This Dolcetto is the opposite: it gets more interesting.

Does it matter that it’s an 88 point wine and not a 98? Not to me. Am I embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Italian wine? Not at all. I’ve learned, through blogging, the importance of telling the truth—transparency, they call it. “The truth will make you free.” And—even more importantly—I’m happy that I retain the ability to learn, to be surprised, even after all this time. How cool is that?


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