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The score as shortcut

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Richard Hemming MW had a provocative posting last week on Jancis’s Purple Pages. The header says it all: Excoriating Scoring. It was in fact a commentary, fairly scathing at times albeit with some fine and amusing phrases, on “nonsensical rating systems masquerading as obdurate fact,” and compared the writers of such scoring systems to “a doomed army… marching blithely onward with…deluded confidence…”.

Ouch! That sounds like something 1WineDude might have written seven years ago. Wait a minute, he did.

Bashing point scores in 2008 was already jumping the shark, but it could at least be understood in the context of blogging being a young sport, and bloggers who couldn’t get paid were perhaps understandably eager to upset a few Big Critic apple carts and vie for the majors. I got it then; I get it now; it’s the way things go.

But at this point in the history of wine writing and reviewing, do we really have to bash this, that or the other rating system? I mean, we’re all in this together; why be partisan about it? We can all get along if we just try, because each system, each approach has its pluses and minuses.

Richard Hemming MW himself concedes that scores do possess a certain usefulness. Good thing, since apparently he uses a 20-point system. I can trust that I’ll like whatever I score above 17 more than anything I score below 16,” he says. I actually said almost the same thing last Wednesday, when I was holding a tasting for young sommeliers on the beautiful Maya Riviera. One of them asked if my personal taste comes into play when I score a wine. “No,” I said. But, I added, “it’s much more likely that I would want to drink a wine I give 95 to than one I give 84.”

Nobody ever said that point scores are the perfect solution for anything. Like democracy itself, they’re messy—but as Richard Hemming MW writes, “there is simply no better alternative” to the point system. I myself have long been uneasy with point scores, as I am about many things, but I have become reconciled to the fact that the world is not a neat place in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit tidily together. This is a frenzied globe we inhabit. We do our best with the muddle in which we find ourselves. That includes ways to taste, review, write and talk about wine. A part of me wishes I had been born in the mid-1800s, in England, into the cadre of British dons who gloried in the Golden Age of Bordeaux and wrote about it in prose that may strike some as purple, but that nonetheless outshines in literacy anything you’re likely to find today. Alas, my fate, for better or worse, was to be born a Baby Boomer, riding the crest of the wave that brought wine from an infinitesimal and rather obscure element in America to the behemoth it is today, with somms the new rock stars and companies from airlines to newspaper conglomerates peddling their wine clubs. Part of that crest was the 100-point system, a bit of flotsam Baby Boomers, reared on school exams, understood in their bones. Maybe you had to be there, thirty years ago and more, to appreciate how radical and revolutionary, how wonderful and beautiful those scores were to those of us who subscribed to Parker, or, as I did, to Wine Spectator when it was still a tabloid published in San Francisco. Maybe I am just wistful for the lost days of youth, gazing through the misty veil of nostalgia at a past that will never be again. Still, it was really something.

I suppose there is a legitimate school of thought that says all things must pass; what worked 30 years ago does not work today. But, really, is that true? You can argue for or against anything, but it does help to understand History before brandishing contempt for things whose roots go deep into time. Parker’s invention of the 100-point system was actually designed to help budding wine drinkers—a noble goal, and one that demonstrably succeeded. He did not wish to dominate wine drinkers, or to cater to “our collective human desperation to impose order on things” (Richard Hemming MW), as if there were something wrong with the human desire to make sense out of chaos.

At any rate, it’s my belief that people—consumers—want visual, not just written, guidance concerning the things they spend their money on. Here in San Francisco our movie reviewer uses The Little Man

the_little_man

who may or may not be jumping out of his seat. The Chron’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, uses stars (including half stars), as does, of course, Michelin. A score, even a 100-point score, is nothing more than a visual icon, plain and simple. Scores may be shortcuts, but we all like to take the quicker route sometimes, don’t we?


Putting wine into a greater context

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When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.

I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).

But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.

This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.

Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.


What is an “honest” wine?

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We know what “honest” means when applied to people: They’re telling the truth. And you can tell when they’re telling the truth by giving them a polygraph test. If they pass, they’re honest.

But you can’t give wine a polygraph test, and yet there is this persistent belief out there, especially among the gatekeepers, that some wines are “honest” and some by implication aren’t. The latest example is in the November 2015 issue of The Tasting Panel, in Randy Caparoso’s column, “In Search of Honest Wines at Our Somm Camps.” Beyond the headline, Randy quotes a local blogger as saying that Lodi Zinfandels are “among the most honest made in California.”

Okay, kiddies, pull up a chair and let’s talk. Now, I have nothing either for or against Lodi Zinfandel, but why would somebody say it’s more “honest” than, say, any of the following wineries that make Zinfandel, all of which I gave 95 points or higher during my stint at Wine Enthusiast: Seven Lions (Sonoma County), Hartford (Russian River Valley), Williams Selyem (Russian River Valley), Dry Creek Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley), Seghesio (Dry Creek Valley), De Loach (Russian River Valley), Deerfield (Dry Creek Valley), Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Ravenswood (Sonoma Valley), Gary Farrell (Dry Creek Valley). Then, at 94 points, we have Storybook Mountain (Napa Valley), Bella (Sonoma County), Bluenose (Dry Creek Valley), Joseph Swan (Russian River Valley), Beauregard (Ben Lomond Mountain), Rubicon (Rutherford), Seghesio (Alexander Valley), Schultz (Mount Veeder)—I mean, the list goes on and on.

What makes “Lodi” more honest than those?

I sometimes think that some modern gatekeepers trip all over themselves trying to discover the odd, the out-of-the-way, the underdog, the obscure, the heretofore despised, the outliers, the blue collar, the poor and struggling, in order to heap praise on them, thereby demonstrating their independence, vision, fair-mindedness, liberality and hipness. They seem to hate on the better-known appellations, varieties and wineries. What does Randy himself, a fine fellow whom I always enjoy running into, and a good writer, say about “honest” wines? Well, here’s his definition: They are “Wines that express places, not so much arbitrary conceptions of varietal character.”

Fair enough; let’s try to understand. First, I should think that critics would like it when a wine expresses “varietal character.” How many times have you seen critics panning something because it lacks “typicity”? But Randy’s use of the phrase “varietal character” is contained within a more complex phrasing: it should also express “place,” and the varietal character shouldn’t be an “arbitrary conception…”

With all due respect, all of the Zinfandels I mentioned above express “place,” in my opinion. As for “arbitrary conceptions of varietal character,” what the heck does that mean? I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you? What makes one expression of varietal character “honest” while another is “arbitrary”? For example, I have a certain notion of what a good Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel should taste like, and in my mind it does have “varietal character” that is modified by that special Dry Creek briary, brambly taste. Does that mean a good Dry Creek Valley Zin isn’t “honest”? I could ask the same thing about Anderson Valley Pinot Noir or Fort Ross-Seaview Chardonnay or Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon or Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Edna Valley Pinot Gris. The best of those wines has “varietal character” as well as regional character i.e., “place.” This isn’t something that makes them “dishonest.” It’s something the grape grower and the winemaker worked very hard to achieve. Surely we can all agree on that!

Back to Lodi, which I admit has had a perception problem even Randy alludes to when he quotes a few somms who didn’t think much of Lodi until they tasted wines from there at one of Randy’s Somm Camps. It’s wonderful when someone who had a preconceived notion of something experiences an epiphany—we should all be so lucky. But what does that have to do with “honest” wines? The funny thing is that Randy, himself, writes, “Lodi does not grow the best wines in the world.” Ouch. He then goes on to praise it: “What it does produce are wines that are true to their Mediterranean climate [and] sandy soils…”. Well, I’ll drink to that—but does that make them more “honest” than a rich, heady Napa Cab?

Look, this is a fairly minor point, but you have to take it within the context of this entire conversation we’ve been having in California—largely somm-driven—about the meaning of words like “honest” and “balanced” and so forth. These are eye-of-the-beholder terms; there are so many conceptual and intellectual problems connected with them that it might be better if we just scrapped those kinds of subjective words as descriptors and moved onto adjectives that are objectively real, understandable and, yes, “honest.”


Is inexpensive wine better than expensive wine because more people buy it?

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I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.

Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.

This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.

Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.

But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.

Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.

What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.


Are there any standards anymore for wine quality?

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We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.

What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.

But now? “There is no right or wrong.”

I need a wine magazine to tell me that???

Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.

But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.

But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.

What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.


The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

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You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.


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