People are always asking me when they should drink this or that wine.
I wish I had an easy answer for them, like, “Oct. 29, 2024, at 7:18 p.m.” They want specificity and certitude, not a lecture. But the question of when to drink a wine is very complicated.
First, it depends on how mature the person likes his wines. It’s not as if a wine is terrible now and will remain terrible until it hits a Magic Moment of transcendent loveliness, after which it once again descends back into terribleness. Wine doesn’t behave like that.
Most wine is fine to drink as soon as it’s released, even if it’s ageable. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to open a young Latour or Barolo. It’s really not a good idea at all. But you can, and the Aging Police won’t come after you. Certainly, the majority of top California Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release.
But if a wine is balanced, and you cellar it properly, it will “age.” What does “aging” mean? The wine changes, gradually over time. The tannins may drop out as sediment, leaving the wine softer and clearer and letting the sweetness of the fruit emerge. The fruit itself changes, evolving from “primary” characteristics of fresh fruits to “secondary” ones of dried fruits, herbs, earth, nuts and flowers. This process can go on for a very long time before the wine is “too old.”
But what does “too old” mean? Reasonable people will disagree. I once read (in Michael Broadbent? Could have been Hugh Johnson) that the French used to think the British liked their wines “with the first blush of death.” This was an implied criticism. The French supposedly liked their Bordeaux younger and fresher than the Brits, who kept theirs cellared for decades. Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.
Another thing is that we usually talk about wines in the abstract, when in reality, we drink them with food. And, if you’re into the pairing thing (which is often over-preciousized, but that’s another conversation), it’s important to understand that the age of a wine conditions the best foods to eat with it. For example, a young, robust Napa Valley Cabernet can be great with a complex dish–say, char-broiled steak, with a wine-reduction sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms and sweet potato crisps, or the same steak in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. But if you have, say, a 20-year old Cab that’s clear and mellow, I’d drop the sauce and stick with a plain steak, maybe with a brown butter sauce. An old wine is a delicate wine that can get crowded out by overly elaborate food.
You’d think these would be easy points to convey yet most consumers–especially those with a little knowledge of wine–still believe in the Magic Moment. Maybe it’s the romanticist in us, or the mystic: we believe in fairy tale endings, when the Prince kisses the sleeping Princess who, after long years of slumber, opens her eyes. They embrace, and live happily ever after.
But life isn’t a fairy tale, and wine seldom has such perfect endings. And think of this: How many times have you enjoyed an older wine, only to have someone you’re with say they don’t like it? (Or vice versa.) So this is eye of the beholder stuff. We haven’t even talked about bottle variation and storage conditions, which obviously are critical. Finally: the expectation of a “Magic Moment” has probably led to more sadness and disappointment among wine drinkers than anything else. They cellar something for 10 or 15 years, anticipate popping the cork and soaring into wine ecstasy. Then the moment comes, and the wine is dull. We writers and critics have got to do a better job disabusing consumers of their belief in the Magic Moment. It does no one any good.
I wrote a post recently, “Aromatic whites, including Albarino, come of age,” which was sort of a general musing on the new popularity of these wines, a development I fully support because they can be lovely. Among the comments my post got was this one, which I’m reproducing in full because I want to make several points:
Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.
From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol!
Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites.
My first reaction was, My goodness, what is it about us that makes us work so hard to find the slightest minute differences between wines? I replied,
I agree that these whites all all very similar. Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tell them apart. It’s a distinction without a difference.
I’ve always thought there’s a strain of behavior in our wine crowd that tries to over-sciencize the art and pleasure of wine tasting. We go about it like laboratory technicians, or MBAs studying the tax code, instead of people who simply love wine, and love talking about it. Personally, I never got too deep into that kind of thing. When I was starting out, I’d hear debates between people with a lot more experience than I had about whether that aroma was peach pit or apricot pit, and I’d think, “Jeez, is this the club I’m trying to join?” Another version of the debate was whether or not the wine was “lightstruck.” It seemed so pointless to me, because one person was going to stick with what he found, the other person would stick with what he found, they’d never agree, they were talking past each other, and it was all unprovable anyway. So why even bother to have the debate?
I’m not saying we should dumb down our wine tasting conversations. But I do think beginners, especially, over-sciencize it. They think that Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine and Famous Wine Critics sit around and detect these distinctions with pinpoint accuracy, and so they should try to do it, too. The fact is, as one gets more experienced as a taster, one loses interest in what kind of stone fruit the wine smells like, or exactly which berry shows up in the middle palate. Instead one begins to think and write in terms of more abstract elements, such as structure, grace, elegance, harmony, precision, focus and balance–or the lack thereof. These are very easy to discern, if you understand what they are. (And blind tasting is the best way to do it.) We might not all be able to agree on precise aromas and flavors, but, in general, experienced tasters will agree on these more sublime qualities.
I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”
That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety
I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.
But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.
By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.
Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.
Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.
There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.
Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?
I’ve stayed clear of the Natalie MacLean brouhaha over the last three weeks for a number of reasons, even though I’m kind of involved. First, I wasn’t sure how I actually felt. Secondly, I thought there was some piling onto Natalie by elements of the blogosphere and wine media, and I didn’t want to be part of that. Finally, I watched Natalie struggle under the onslaught of criticism, and I thought it was only fair to give her some time to figure out how she wanted to handle it.
Background: Although I personally had never heard of Natalie before all this came down, evidently she’s quite well-known in Canada, and not only there: she was “named the World’s Best Drink Journalist in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards” (whatever that is), according to this article in the Toronto Star.
[Segue: I guess the World Food Awards is a pretty big deal in its native United Kingdom. Here’s their website: looks like a fun party.]
Anyway, this whole situation broke [for me] last month when I started getting a bunch of emails from other wine writers (mainly in Canada and the U.K.). They were complaining that Natalie was doing some pretty bad things: quoting wine reviews from third-party critics (like me) on her website, without identifying us, and “offering wine reviews in return for website subscriptions,” in Decanter’s words.
Among the critics named in various sources as those from whom Natalie “borrowed” reviews, besides myself, are Harvey Steiman, Jancis Robinson, Allen Meadows AKA Burghound, Bruce Sanderson, Rosemary George, James Suckling, Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, Jamie Goode, my colleague Roger Voss, James Halliday, Steven Tanzer and many others. In other words, Natalie helped herself to a great heaping platter of savories.
This whole episode has alarmed a large segment of the wine critic community, particularly in Canada and England. Palate Press jumped onto the story early, on Dec. 15 publishing this story, whose bullet point is “[Natalie’s] reviews sometimes include the writer’s name, but never the publication or a link.” This became the central complaint against Natalie: that she was expropriating third party reviews without permission or citation. I did check this out at MacLean’s website and verified for myself that she was using some of my reviews without identifying me. Jancis Robinson was one of the first to ask that Natalie remove all of her [Jancis’s] reviews from the site. Natalie felt the heat: on Dec. 22, she emailed Jancis (I was cc’d): “Hi Jancis, I have removed almost all of your reviews on my site and should be finished well before your deadline. At the same time, I’ve have been revising the way I quote the reviews that remain to full names and publications…”. As far as I can tell, my reviews still remain on Natalie’s site, but they now contain my full name as well as the name of Wine Enthusiast (although it would be nice if Natalie included a link along with the publication’s name).
The day before, Dec. 21, Natalie posted “A Letter to my Readers about My Wine Reviews,” in which she expressed some dismay over “the recent debate on quoting third-party wine reviews.” “I didn’t realize that there was an issue,” Natalie explained, since she’d been quoting third-party critics “for years” without attribution, and no one ever complained. Moreover, “my own reviews have been quoted on other wine sites and no one has ever contacted me to ask permission.” The Letter ended with a mild mea culpa. “I feel awful that some writers think that I would try to make their reviews look like my own.” It also generated a ton of reader comments.
So where are we now? Some people still are calling for Natalie’s head. I got an email on Jan. 2 from a guy named Rod Phillips, also sent to all the other involved critics, asking us to “sign a letter to Natalie MacLean, instructing her to remove your reviews from her site and forbidding her use of your reviews in future.” I don’t know Rod; he describes himself as a “wine historian and wine writer” from Ottawa.
I will not sign Rod’s letter, although I don’t have a problem with anyone who did. I think this whole episode should go away now. Natalie has been publicly humiliated, has lost a great deal of credibility (whether deservedly or not, is another argument) and has repented and asked for forgiveness. That she hasn’t groveled is beside the point. She is now listing the full names and publications of the critics she quotes—which, by the way, is called “buzz” in some circles. She should have done that from the beginning, but who among us hasn’t erred in some way? Let everyone now stop casting stones.
Monday: Some of my favorite Pinot Noirs of 2012
Randy Caparosa, in the December, 2012 issue of The Tasting Panel, writes: You do not go to Mendocino in search of “perfectly balanced” wines. What you can find are wines with intriguing blemishes: strong earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas, seemingly from another planet. But at least they are real—distinctly “Mendocino”—which is why many sommeliers are loving it!
It took me three days of thinking about this before I realized I didn’t know what it meant. Or do I? There is, indeed, something to be said about wines that march to the beat of a different drummer. They can surprise, stun, make you look differently at varieties you thought you knew, or regions you believed you understood. On the other hand, the concept of “intriguing blemishes” is new for me.
Inherent in Randy’s comment, of course, is the notion that “perfectly balanced” is not the sine qua non of great wine. I would have thought it was: if “perfectly balanced” is not the highest good to which a wine can attain, then what is?
Well, that was my immediate reaction. Then I dug into Wine Enthusiast’s database to find instances where I used “perfectly balanced” or its close kin, “perfect balance.” Here are some I found from the past year: J. Lohr 2009 Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Robert Mondavi 2011 Moscato d’Oro (88 points), Ram’s Gate 2010 Durell Vineyards Chardonnay (93 points), Round Pond 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (90 points), Morgan 2011 Double L Vineyard Riesling (88 points), Jarvis 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points) and Sanguis 2010 Postcard From Morocco white Rhône-style blend (93 points).
This made me question what I mean by “perfect balance.” After all, if a wine can be perfectly balanced, yet score “only” 88 or 90 points, then “perfect balance” does not mean absolute perfection; if it did, the wine would score 100 points. So in what way is “perfect balance” merely a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition, for greatness?
When I think of balance, I think of a flawless equilibrium of the important parts of a wine that give it structure and overall integrity: acidity, tannins, oak integration [if any], minerality [ditto], and the spectrum of fruit-herb-earth-and spice flavors. If all these elements seem in harmony, with nothing sticking out (new oak is the sticky-outest thing a California wine can have, although acidity and tannins can be, too), then the wine is thought to have balance. Of course, “perfect” balance means calibrating degrees of balance; that is an angels-dancing-on-pinheads conversation we can have at another time!
What lifts a wine beyond “perfect balance” into true perfection is harder to define, and depends on certain assumptions, not all of which everyone may share. First is that certain varieties or families of varieties are noble whereas most others are not; and a non-noble wine cannot be perfect regardless of how good it is as an example of its type. I believe this. In California, it means that a Sauvignon Blanc-based white wine is never truly great, although the best of them can approach greatness. The same is true of a California Moscato or Riesling. This is why the Mondavi, Round Pond and Morgan wines are not perfect wines, despite their perfect balance.
The same is probably true of a California Syrah or Rhône red or white blend. In theory, I suppose, one could be perfect, especially a red, and especially if based on Syrah, which is a noble variety in France. I haven’t run across a perfect Rhône-style California red wine yet, but I’d like to, and I have an idea what it would taste and feel like: massive, dense, dark, deeply delicious, yet singularly well-structured and dry. We’ll just have to wait and see if one comes along.
Then we come to the Bordeaux-style wines I found to have perfect balance this past year, of which the Jarvis can stand as an example. At 96 points, it’s not far from absolute perfection. On another day, it might have shown even better. The thing to understand about these very high scores, from the mid-90s on up to 100, is that there is a certain subjectivity in these judgments. Perhaps “subjectivity” isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. “Experiential variation of beauty” is more precise, although wordier. I hate to drag the psychedelic realm into this (and for me, it’s been many decades since I last tinkered), but on a high induced by a mind-altering drug, like LSD, one can experience beauty and meaning of such staggering power, in which the boundaries between self and not-self are transcended, that the memory remains forever seared into the mind. Yet at the same time, one realizes that this experience also is fragile to the point of ephemerality.
This ephemerality marks a perfect wine, or one’s appreciation of it. One captures it (or vice versa) at the most perfect moment in time—serendipitous for both the wine and for the person who drinks it. Mysterious, undefinable essences merge into something that overwhelms all further judgment into a single focus of wonder; one might even call it ecstasy. Whatever that thing is, or however you define it, “perfect balance” doesn’t adequately describe it.
I think that’s what Randy was hinting at. But we have to reconsider that more troubling phrase, “intriguing blemishes.” What does that mean?
Human analogies are necessary. “Blemish” in the most common usage refers to skin conditions, usually on young people. They are not generally considered “intriguing,” which is why there are so many anti-pimple ointments on the market. There are other sorts of “blemishes” (or perhaps “imperfections” is a better word) that we treat more kindly. Barbra Streisand’s nose has been, next to her voice, her most salient physical feature, and I think it’s fair to say no one ever said she wasn’t a beautiful women despite it. Would you say “because of it”? I wouldn’t. I don’t think Streisand’s nose makes her more beautiful than she would be with a “perfect” nose (whatever that is). But on this, we can disagree.
I have never used the word “imperfection” in a wine review, but I do frequently use the word “flaw” or “flawed,” and by it I never mean anything other than a negative criticism. Medicinal tastes, green, vegetal notes, mold, volatile acidity, excessive softness, violent tannins, wateriness—these are flaws, perhaps not technical ones but flaws nonetheless; and they are never charming or “intriguing.” I do use the word “intriguing” with some regularity, and by it I mean to pay a compliment. Last year, for example, I plugged it into reviews for Cuvaison 2010 Chardonnay, Saxon Brown 2009 Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir, Bella Victoria 2009 Elena Syrah, Cambria 2009 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a few others. What I mean by “intriguing” are elements, usually beginning in the aroma and extending into the taste, that are not front-and-center (that’s usually, in California, the fruit), but pop up around the edges—things like bacon or charred meat, flowers, tobacco, stone, dried fruits, pine, mushroom, soy sauce, steel, mulch. These notes bring complexity to the wine: “intriguing” is a good word that connotes additional interest.
Still, I can’t in my mind conjoin “intriguing” and “blemishes” to come up with anything good. “Earth tones, prickling acidity, stringy tannins, strange or exotic aromas…” “Earthiness” isn’t a blemish, it’s a vital component of certain wines. If acidity is “prickling,” then it’s too high, unless it’s in a sparkling wine; “prickling” sounds like a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was unintended. I don’t know exactly what Randy means by “stringy” tannins; that’s a word I don’t use, but it doesn’t sound complimentary. “Strange or exotic” aromas? What are those? Exotic sounds okay, but strange? I don’t want no strangeness in my wine’s smells.
I’d love to hear from Randy and my readers more about specific wines that possess this oxymoronic quality of “intriguing blemishes.”
Mr. ___ is the owner of a winery in California. It’s not necessary to identify him any further because there are many proprietors like him; hence he’s merely a surrogate for an entire group. He’s very wealthy. In fact, after he made his money, he bought his way into the wine industry, as many have done both before him and since. He now fancies himself part of an elite group, and to tell you the truth, his wines, with one or two exceptions, are pretty damned good.
Mr. ___ hires the best viticultural and winemaking team available and presumably pays them top dollar. As a result, his vineyards are impeccable, a fact he takes pride in. The same cannot be said of some of his neighbors, though, who don’t have his money and can’t afford to keep their rows of vines as pristine looking as a painting. Mr. ___ looks down on them. “They don’t have a lot of money, and so they can’t cut it,” he says dismissively. “When you’re used to drinking the best wine in the world”–this, he told me, after relating his love affair for Romanée-Conti and similar wines of luxury—“you can’t screw around, you make the wine best you can. If you let the weeds go [in the vineyard] and the tonnage, you get a watered-down product that can be good, but not great.”
He went on and on in this vein to disparage his “hippie” neighbors who farm the “old” way, all the while dropping names like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and other icons of the snobocracy. It was very distasteful to me, because I’ve seen this attitude a lot, especially in Northern California but occasionally in more liberal Santa Barbara, and it always rubs me the wrong way because it goes against the grain of the democratic [small “d”] spirit I think should pervade and unite the wine industry, especially in California.
I mentioned this to another, younger winemaker, who knows Mr. ___, although not well. Let’s call him Mr. Good. Mr. Good has a vineyard nearby Mr. ___’s. He (Mr. Good) didn’t come into the industry with a wad of cash in his pocket, he scrimped and saved and built his now successful business from scratch. He also knows, and is friends with, the “hippies” whose vineyard and winery practices Mr. ___ criticized. “Look,” he says, “those guys were doing it [i.e., farming grapes and making wine] when nobody else was. The reason we’re all here, including Mr. ___, is because of the hippies. And now you have the super-wealthy coming in, because of them. Are there weeds in the oldtimers vineyards? Sure. I have weeds in my vineyards. But you know who’s making the best wines up here? It’s…” and here he names a vineyard, farmed by one of the hippies, who sells to an out-of-area winery whose wine, believe me, is simply spectacular [as are those of Mr. Good].
This snobby elitism that runs through the industry like a vein of lard has always bothered me. You see it among the very wealthy who really do act like they’re the one percent who can’t be bothered to notice their less-fortunate neighbors, much less befriend them or find anything to like about their wines. But I can tell you, as a critic with wide experience, a wine’s quality cannot definitively be related to the amount of money it cost the proprietor to produce. As Mr. Good pointed out concerning the hippie vineyards, “Sometimes grapes from them can be more compelling” than grapes from the most meticulously farmed, David Abreu-style vineyard.
What makes a bottle of wine fabulous and memorable simply isn’t the amount of money that is lavished on it. Yes, money can elevate an under-performing wine to adequacy and even a degree of greatness, simply because money can supply cosmetic improvements, as in a style makeover program on T.V. But money can’t buy soul. A very great vineyard transfers its qualities to the wine in ways so mysterious that, centuries after writers started trying to define precisely how, the answer still eludes us. It might even be said that a very great vineyard can be “improved” in ways that rob the wine of an essential personality the land wishes to impose, in favor of the owner’s stamp. These are metaphysical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts, of course; but what we should be able to agree on is to get rid of the class-based snobbism in wine that really makes it so much less of a pleasant space than it ought to be, that allows a wealthy owner to dismiss his neighbors so cavalierly without being able to appreciate what makes their wines different–not worse–than his own.