At the ZAP “Flights! Forums of Flavors” last Friday, I was again reminded of how much “set and setting” impact one’s experience of wine.
It was a pretty straightforward tasting: Wines poured for us at the table, a panel of winemakers upfront. One of the flights was from Monte Rosso Vineyard: the wines were from Charter Oak, Amapola Creek (what a pleasure to see Richard Arrowood again!), Rock Wall, Louis M. Martini and Robert Biale.
Now, Monte Rosso despite its fabulous reputation has always been a problematic vineyard for me. It is famous (infamous? notorious?) for the high alcohol of its wines (which is why that particular flight was the final of the three-flight tasting. It’s a good idea to hold the biggest wines for last). Curiously–and I’m not sure why–Monte Rosso reds also are high in acidity. (Maybe someone can explain that.) I’ve certainly given some high scores over the years to Monte Rosso wines–my highest ever was Sbragia’s 2006 Cabernet, which I gave 95 points. The official alcohol on that wine was 14.9%. It was a dark, big, rich, smoky wine, with years and years of life, which is why I gave it a Cellar Selection designation in my Wine Enthusiast review.
The highest score I ever gave to a Monte Rosso Zinfandel was Rosenblum’s 2004, which I gave 93 points. (My readers probably know that when Kent Rosenblum sold his winery to Diageo, he created Rock Wall.) I’ve also given high scores to several of Louis M. Martini’s Monte Rosso Zins and Cabs, as well as Arrowood’s (which Richard Arrowood owned before starting Amapola).
On the other hand, at times the alcohol of Monte Rosso has overwhelmed me. The best score I could muster for Muscardini’s 2010 Zin, which had 15.5% of alcohol, was 85 points–a “good” score but not a great one. It was just too hot and prickly. The worst score I ever gave a Monte Rosso Zin was Brazin’s 2007, an otherwise great vintage. Its alcohol officially was 15%, and, as I wrote, it was “Too ripe, with pruny, raisiny flavors that are Porty and hot in high-alcohol, glyceriney heaviness.”
That’s Monte Rosso for you. Balancing the vineyard’s tendency to be excessively high in brix (especially in Zinfandel), with associated overripeness, is part of the winemaker’s challenge. He or she can water the wine down, not an ideal solution, but sometimes necessary and effective. He or she also can be severely selective in sorting out overripe (or underripe) berries (Zinfandel in particular can have unevenly ripened grapes on the same bunch), but that is labor intensive and expensive and not everyone is very diligent at it.
The best Monte Rosso wines, it seems to me, are produced by the best winemakers. That may sound obvious, but winemakers, like all of us, vary in their abilities. For the “Flights!” tasting, ZAP chose some of the best winemakers in California. (Joel Peterson, of Ravenswood, moderated all three flights, but I don’t know if he personally selected the wines. At any rate, he did a great job.) This is a shorthand way of saying that I found all the wines terrific. (I missed the first flight. The second one was Zinfandels from the Bedrock Vineyard, which is partly owned by Joel).
As much as I explored the intricacies of the wines I also explored the intricacies of my thoughts. You can’t separate the taster’s basic state of consciousness from his experience of the wine, which is what I referred to in the “set and setting” reference in my opening sentence. “Set and setting,” people of a certain generation (mine) will recall, was how Dr. Timothy Leary described the twin factors that influenced a person’s experience of taking LSD. The “set” was the sum total of the person’s inner life (expectations, fears, understanding, hopes, traumas, etc.). The “setting” was the external environment. Obviously, if a person dropped acid in the midst of absolute chaos (crazed clown killers, policemen, screaming babies, earthquake, you get the idea), the person would in all likelihood not have a pleasant trip.
My preferred “set and setting” for reviewing wine is this: I like to be warm and relaxed. I like to be healthy: it’s not good to review wine if you have the flu. Externally, I like to be in the comfort and safety of my home, practicing my usual routines. Under these circumstances, my “set and setting” are tuned to maximum performance. This also encourages consistency of routine, which is important in judging wines.
Obviously, both my “set” and my “setting” were drastically different at the “Flights!” tasting. My setting was not home, but a ballroom in the Four Seasons Hotel, packed with people. I wouldn’t say I was unrelaxed, but I certainly didn’t experience the utter relaxation and familiarity of being at home (with Gus at my feet if not in my lap). Then too, being in a public sphere, and having a certain visibility in this industry, is a personal feeling my fellow critics can appreciate. Thus, both my set and setting were discombobulated–not so much that I couldn’t deal with the wines, but enough so that I was clearly thrown off routine.
The simple fact (it occurred to me during the Monte Rosso flight) was that I was finding the wines better than I thought I would have, had I tasted them at home. That’s what I meant by saying that I was exploring the intricacies of my thoughts. I remember at one point during that flight thinking, “Can they all be this good?”, because I suspected that at home I would have found some of them too high in alcohol. This of course raises the question of what does “too high in alcohol” mean? As several of the winemakers observed, in response to Joel Peterson asking them if they thought “alcohol destroys terroir,” the answer is, It depends. If the wine is balanced in all its parts, then alcohol, even well into the 15s or even 16s, is perfectly acceptable (unless you’re just an anti-alcohol fascist). Richard Arrowood put it best: “If you didn’t know the alcohol levels [of the Monte Rosso Zins], you’d never guess.” And, as Shauna Rosenblum pointed out, in the case of Monte Rosso “alcohol is essential to terroir.”
The idea of reviewing a wine is to get as close as you can to knowing “what the wine really is.” But there’s a Heisenbergian uncertainty about it, not necessarily because the wine isn’t “what it really is,” but because of the vagaries of human perception, which are so susceptible to derangement by the influences of “set and setting.” This is why as controlled an environment for tasting as can possibly be arranged is the only suitable way of doing it, and also why the critic has to understand his limitations, as well as trust in his abilities.
I had a couple hours of downtime yesterday so I turned on the boob tube and decided to watch an old movie, Disclosure. The 1994 flick, which stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, is fairly dreadful, although it does have its moments of intrigue and suspense. But watching it, I’d forgotten how it made a star out of Pahlmeyer wine.
I suppose some people had already heard of Pahlmeyer, a Napa Valley boutique winery, before Disclosure. Certainly, the fact that the early red wines were made by Randy Dunn was not lost on the cognoscenti. Jayson Pahlmeyer had set his sights on Cabernet–as he says on his website, he wanted to make “a California Mouton.” But it was a white wine, his Chardonnay, that made it to the silver screen, and made Pahlmeyer a star.
Turns out that the Pahlmeyer 1991 Chardonnay (made by now-Harlan winemaker Bob Levy) was integral to the movie’s plot. The details are unimportant, but, as Jayson relates on his website, “the wine’s big role in the battle-of-the-sexes blockbuster helped further the frenzy surrounding Pahlmeyer.” The wine became so famous that Entertainment Tonight described it as “an obscure bottle of Chardonnay” that hit the big time due to its “well-timed toast in the movie ‘Disclosure.’” The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the phenomenon, said the wine’s starring role gave it “the kind of publicity corporate wineries would gladly give big money to a studio to get.”
What does all this have to do with anything today? Glad you asked. The topic of how the media, and particularly social media, can be of assistance in promoting wine has been much discussed in the blogosphere. I think the history of that Pahlmeyer wine can shed a little light on the subject.
Lesson one: If a Hollywood blockbuster, starring two of its biggest movie stars, highlights your wine (in a positive way), chances are good your winery will become famous. Too bad that’s not an option for most winemakers, but it’s true.
So that Hollywood option is off the table. But the idea remains the touchstone of social media’s promise: to create buzz. After all, social “media” is simply that: media. From the Latin medius, “the middle,” meaning in this case “an intervening thing through which a force acts or an effect is produced.” The modern meaning of media, then, refers to television, radio, print publications and movies, all of which act as intermediaries between one thing (a movie star, an advertisement, the news) and another thing (the mass public). In this sense, social media is simply the latest incarnation of mass media.
But it’s somehow more than that–and less. More, in that for the first time in human history everyone can be his own publisher–not only that, but can publish to the entire world, instantly. Less, because where everyone can do it, that act of supreme empowerment suddenly becomes less powerful. Do you remember that old paradox: If everything in the universe suddenly doubled in size, would anyone notice? The answer, obviously, is no, no one would notice, for the very reason that a force acting equally on everything is the same as the absence of a force. The only way to notice change is relative to something that is unchanging.
Put another way, imagine that in 1994, the year Disclosure came out, there were thousands of other movies, simultaneously released, each with big name stars, Hollywood bucks for promotion and mass distribution. And each of those movies showcased a different wine. Would the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay have gotten the play it did if, say (to mention a few other 1994 films), The Shawshank Redemption featured Mondavi Fume Blanc, Pulp Fiction starred Laurel Glen Cabernet, Forrest Gump gave a lead role to Sanford Pinot Noir, and The Lion King featured an animated Talley Chardonnay? You see my point.
It’s far more complicated today, then, for a winery, or a wine, to get the kind of massive publicity that the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay did a generation ago. The media just isn’t concentrated enough anymore. And the public’s attention span is too short (which may or may not be attributable to Twitter and other short forms of social media. Certainly, people’s attention span already was dehydrating before the advent of social media). Today, everyone’s consciousness is stuffed to beyond capacity with details of every kind. This clearly complicates the task of getting messages through to consumers. There are legions of social media experts and public relations and marketing professionals all working heroically to enable their clients to break through the din, but I’m afraid it gets harder and harder to do all the time. One winery manages to break through for 15 minutes and then is eclipsed by another hundred, who in turn are eclipsed by another hundred 15 minutes later.
So short of getting your wine featured in a Hollywood blockbuster, what’s the best way to get huge notice by the public? Get a high score from a well-known critic.
Hugh Johnson had a marvelous column in The World of Fine Wine. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the elegant way he displays his wide knowledge of wine is one more reason why he has been the King of Wine Commentators [a word he prefers] for so long. The bloggers who hope for lengthy shelf lives (not to mention money) at this gig would do well to study his books.
I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?”
Johnson mentions no specific names of critics who say they’re looking for “a sense of place.” Nor shall I, but if a certain one pops into your brain, so be it. When I read Johnson’s opening words, I thought he was going to demolish the concept of “a sense of place,” but no. He casts doubt on the ease with which some writers claim to find it–and then creates his own list of “vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character”: Scharzhofberg, Les Santenots, and even a minor white wine from the Languedoc that, Johnson writes, he preferred to Montrachet “at that minute”–nice hedge. Well, there are minutes I’d prefer a cup of coffee to Montrachet.
Johnson also devises a category aside and apart from wines of place: those from producers “who leave such a clean imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard.” Among these he includes the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This surprised me, I must say, since the DRC’s wines always (in my reading, at least) have been accounted as among the world’s greatest expressions of terroir. So I’m not sure what that statement means, although I’m on clearer ground when he places Champagne in a kind of murky, third tier (“wine[s] of high pedigree that evoke plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere”…). This is, I suppose, because most Champagne is blended.
So three Johnson categories:
1. Wines of a place
2. Wines of a house
3. Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree”
I thought it would be useful, and perhaps even interesting, for me to play with the Johnsonian categories and see if there are California wines that neatly fit into each. So I researched my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database. I soon realized, however, that things are not as cut and dry here in California, for me, as they are in Europe, for Hugh Johnson. For example, when I considered the wines of a place, the vineyard of David Hirsch immediately leapt into mind. It is a vineyard I can at least claim to know with some fuzzy precision, having been there a few times, and certainly having been in the Fort Ross-Seaview, several-ridges-in neighborhood of Bohan Dillon Road many times over the years. Just as with that minor white from the Languedoc Johnson delighted in (not least because, as he drank it, he could visualize “the vines sloping down to the sea” which led him to describe it as “a sort of seaside Sylvaner”), I can and do picture the Fort Ross-Seaview ridgetops everytime I drink a Hirsch (or Failla, or Flowers, or Wild Hog wine: the high-above-the fogline clarity, the piney forests, the wild herbs, the brilliant sunshine and chilly nights, the red soils that give way to sandy Gold Ridge in the best spots, the sheer, isolated remoteness and–the human element?–the attractive, somewhat eccentric vitality of the winemakers). Surely the wines from these vineyards, including Hirsch, reek of a sense of place?
Well, yes…and no. Not to this critic, anyhow. Nor would I describe them as “wines of a house” whose producer style immediately marks them as distinct. So are they from Johnson’s third category–wines “of abstract approval that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of high pedigree”? You certainly can’t describe them as such. They do have a sense of place…but it’s not as pronounced as the utterly inimitable distinctiveness Johnson finds (or claims to find) in Scharzhofberg and the others.
This is why I’ve never written that such-and-such a wine “could only come from” such-and-such a vineyard. It might have contributed further to my branding as a wine critic were I to do so. After all, nothing halos a critic with more glory than to make such sweeping pronouncements, which inform the public of the critic’s discernment and expertise.
But the fact is that I’ve always valued fact and truth more than anything else, including hyperbole, in my wine writing, and have resisted the temptation (whether from me, or from others) to make sweeping pronouncements I can’t really justify. This is especially true in the context of blind tasting, when it’s impossible to summon the visual memory of “vines sweeping down to the sea” based merely on what’s in the glass.
If I take the bottle out of the paper bag, so that I know what I’m tasting, then it’s a lot easier to find “that sense of place.” Here, then, are some wines that do seem to exhibit a “somewhereness” every time I taste them. Each is from a particular vineyard. I make no claim, nor ever will, however, that a vineyard-designated wine must be superior to a blended one: Johnson concedes as much in the case of Champagne, while I need mention only one wine–Cardinale–to make the same point.
David Arthur Elevation 1147 Estate
Anything from Hirsch Vineyard
Chardonnays from the Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard
Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch Cabernets, from Oakville
Certain Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets. Janzen and World’s End, both 2009s, are good examples.
Shafer Hillside Select
Marimar Torres’s Pinot Noirs from the Don Miguel Vineyard
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah
Rochioli Pinot Noirs from south (or east) of Westside Road, especially West Block and River Block
Williams Selyem Pinots from Allen Vineyard
Each of these wines conveys something of its origins, but I would not want to bet my mortgage on identifying them in a blind tasting. Each of them also conveys a “house style”, but it’s important to realize that most of them have been produced over many years, by the same winemaker, so who’s to say what part of the wine is pure terroir, and what part is the winemaker’s considered opinion when it comes to such interventions as fermentation particulars, type of oak barrel, length of barrel aging and so on? As usual, we arrive at that conundrum: a great wine sits at the median point of natural terroir and its interpretation by the winemaker.
The point, I think, is that we get so mesmerized by place-centric musings that we run the risk of delegitimizing certain wines that don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what makes wine great. That is why I was happy to see Johnson talk about that Languedoc wine (which he did not identify by producer). He might simply have dropped the names of Great Growths and Grand Crus like so many critics airily do, but part of what has made Hugh Johnson so compelling for so long is that he refuses to play that game of “I drink better than you can or do.” It no longer matters to him (if it ever did) to say he prefers a Languedoc white to Montrachet; he loses no prestige nor reclamé as a wine critic by doing so.
On New Year’s Eve I opened a bottle I’d had in my little wine storage unit for some years years: Anthill 2005 Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley.
I studied the wine, in a Riedel glass, as I walked Gus, on a mild, early winter night in Oakland. It was all right–dry, tart and with some good cherry and cranberry fruit. But it was evident that there were problems, chief among which was a pruny or raisiny finish, along with accompanying heat.
The wine, in short, had not aged well.
I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database and looked up my original review, from July, 2007. I gave the wine 90 points and described it this way: “There are suggestions of wintergreen mint and tart rhubarb, but the cherries save the day, giving enough richness to make the wine interesting. Despite the high acidity and dryness, I don’t think it’s an ager, but it’s a beautifully complex, food-friendly Pinot.”
It’s always gratifying to see that I made a good call (although I can already hear some sourpusses whining that I’m promoting myself). I’ll be the first to concede that I don’t always get things right, especially in the matter of predicting ageabiity. So how do I come up with ageability estimates?
First of all, you can age any wine you want. All that means is putting the bottle someplace for as many years as you want. (Obviously, that place should have proper storage conditions: still, cool and dark, and a little moist.) Most wines, probably 99.9% of them, will not benefit at all from aging; they’re meant to drink as soon as you purchase them.
What of that other .01%? They will age–but what does this mean? We’ve all tasted older Burgundies, Bordeaux, Barolos, Champagnes and the like, and so we know what they can do. In my experience, aging California wine is considerably “iffier.” To take, as examples, the best Cabernets, in the ideal situation they lose their fresh, primary fruit, starting at about eight years, and then begin to dry out, showing “secondary” fruit character and bottle “bouquet.” As the tannins precipitate out, the wine becomes clearer, more translucent, silkier in body (which is perhaps the best thing about aging it).
But aged wine is an acquired taste. I try to keep that in mind when I review a wine. If it’s superbly balanced, rich and tannic (we’re mainly talking reds here), it’s much more likely to age well than a wine that has the slightest imperfection, because that imperfection will only grow increasingly obvious with bottle age. In the case of the Anthill 2005 Demuth, if I recall correctly, my impression that “it’s not an ager” was due to certain imperfections, mainly a touch of raisining in the finish. It does take an experienced palate to discern those slight irregularities that prohibit the wine from aging well. I’m not saying I have a great palate, but it’s an adequate one, and you do learn a few things when you’ve tasted as many wines as I have for so long.
I’d love to have the time and opportunity to taste more old California wine, to see how my predictions panned out. Since we’re on the subject of 2005 red wines, here are some from that vintage that I tasted when they were first released, and to which I gave a “Cellar Selection” designation, meaning that I recommended the wine be aged. I haven’t had any of these wines since, and, since they’re now a little more than eight years old, all should be at that exciting, interesting transition point of losing primary fruit and picking up secondary notes. If any of the proprietors wishes to afford me the pleasure of sending me a bottle, I promise to share the results here in the blog–for better or worse.
Trefethen 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Colgin 2005 IX Estate
Flora Springs 2005 Rennie Reserve
Goldschmidt 2005 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Far Niente 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Hanzell 2005 Chardonnay
Chardonnay? Yes, every once in a while a California Chardonnay is worth aging. Which brings up an interesting point. How do I know Hanzell Chardonnay is ageable? Because I’ve had old ones, up to 20 years in age, and they can be remarkable. Does that knowledge influence my appraisal of the wine? Absolutely. Why would it not? On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection designations to Chardonnays that I’ve never had the opportunity to taste when they’d been properly aged: Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Chardonnay, for example. While I’ve only had that wine as a new release, I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s good for at least eight years–and I wouldn’t mind trying it in 2023, when it will be 12 years old. And then, there’s Hartford Court 2005 Stone Côte Vineyard Chardonay. That wine is now eight years old; I sure would like to see if my Cellar Selection call was right on, or an unmitigated disaster.
Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.
The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”
Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s. He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”
In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.
Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.
The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.
I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.
If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.
I was asked to moderate a panel next month at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in Sacramento, and while I had to decline due to circumstances beyond my control, I was intrigued by the topic: The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine.
The person who invited me, David Akiyoshi, is winemaker at Lange Twins Winery. (I remember years ago visiting them, when I covered the wines of the Sierra Foothills.) David explained to me, in an email, what he was looking for:
“The moderator should have the ability to provide an overview of historical wine trends from the generic 70’s chablis/burgundy, the demographic shift beginning in the 80’s to wines with varietal labels and the latest trend of proprietary red/white wine blends. There has always been a market for these wines such as with the European Meritage or Rhone blends and today’s consumers are more accepting of this category. Significant for the success of these wines is that there is less need for consumers to be a connoisseur or to be handcuffed by the latest 100 pt score. Quite simply, it is all about the enjoyment of wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice.’”
One could obviously write a book about all this, but I’ll try to fit it into a blog-length post. We know, of course, that from the end of Prohibition up to some point in the 1970s, American wines (mainly from California) labeled “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” “Rhine,” “Sauternes” and the like dominated sales in this country. Educated people understood the wrongness of this; as early as the 1930s, folks such as Frank Schoonmaker argued for true and honest labeling: “Napa Valley Red Wine,” that sort of thing. By the time the boutique winery era was rolling, in the late 1960s-1970s, and mainly in Napa and Sonoma, this point of view had become the accepted norm. Varietal labeling was celebrated as being refreshingly honest and distinctly American, an early practice of truth-in-labeling.
In the late 1980s, a group of vintners who were producing Bordeaux-style wines in California became frustrated with varietal labeling. They were blending the major Bordeaux varieties to produce the best wines they could, but the amount of any given variety was insufficient to meet the Federal government’s requirement of at least 75% of that variety in order to so label the wine. So they held a contest to come up with an alternative name (a contest I entered, and lost). The word “Meritage” won. The concept was good, but unfortunately, that term proved not to have staying power. Although some wineries still use it, it never caught on, and seems to me to be in dimenuendo.
However, that never stopped vintners from blending to below the 75% threshold. They simply called their wine by a proprietary name, like Joe Phelps did with Insignia. At first, these blends were almost exclusively Bordeaux varieties, but by the 1990s, Rhône-style blends began appearing. Spearheaded by the “Rhône Ranger” movement and the Hospices du Rhône organization, these wines were modeled after southern Rhône blends, usually based on GSM: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. They, too, could not be called by a varietal name, so the wineries gave them proprietary names, such as Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel. (Some of these wineries also produced white wines, most often based on some combination of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.)
David Akiyoshi asks, “Are [these] blended wines merely a fad, or are they creating a new and lasting category of wines that promises to bringing new consumers to the table?” My answer, clearly, is a loud NO, they are not merely a fad, and YES, they are a lasting category, although I couldn’t say whether or not they’re “bringing new consumers to the table,” which is a complicated issue.
I’ve blogged about this and written about it in Wine Enthusiast, and in fact, one of the main reasons why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be the magazine’s Wine Region of the Year was due to the success of the blends, red and white, made there, often of varieties previously unrelated by region or historical practice (Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Merlot, for example).
There’s no reason why a varietally-labeled wine is necessarily better than a blended one. Bordeaux itself is always a blend of varieties. One could even argue that so is red Burgundy, given Pinot Noir’s proclivity to spontaneously mutate to different clones. The Federal government’s requirement of 75% for a variety is patently arbitrary: Why not 60%, or 90%? The only reason, in my opinion, why so many vintners choose to label their wines varietally is because the consumer believes that varietally-labeled wines are superior to wines with other names.
When David says “It is all about the enjoyment of a wine as a beverage without artifice or social stigma of making the ‘wrong wine choice,’” he’s onto something. It’s the job of us educators to teach the public that varietal labeling in and of itself is meaningless. The problem, of course, is that this is an uphill battle, and will take time.
Where I digress from David’s point of view is when he says that the success of blending as a consumer category will result in “less need for consumers…to be handcuffed by the latest 100 point score.” I can understand why he (or anyone else) would object to the 100 point system, but I don’t see what varietal labeling has to do with it. I gave 100 points to La Muse 2007, which has no varietal labeling, just as I gave 100 points to the Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which obviously does.
In the end, it’s a sign of a culture’s wine maturity when the populace understands that the ultimate duty of a wine is to provide pleasure, not to adhere to some government rule. If it can best do so by the winemaker crafting the most perfect blend he or she is capable of, then why should anyone care that the wine doesn’t have a varietal name? This may sound like Jesuitical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads rhetoric, but it actually strikes the point that American consumers, still rather infantile about wine, have stereotypes and preconceptions that must pass, before we can truly become a wine-appreciating country.