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Tasting mountain wines in San Francisco

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Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.

That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.

The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.

High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”

Here are the six wines and some comments about them:

Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.

Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.

Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from  variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.

Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.

Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.

But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.

Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.

“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.

What linked all six mountain wines?

-Intensity

-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals

-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)

-Ageability

-Complexity


Thoughts on Pinot Gris/Grigio

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Working on an article on Napa white wines for Wine Enthusiast, I realized I’d never blogged on Pinot Gris/Grigio. So I did a little crawling around my reviews over the years (helpfully stored in the magazine’s terrific database) and here’s what I came up with.

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of PG, I’d have said the same thing I’d say today: workhorse white, much as it is in Italy, in places like the Alto Adige. A simple wine to wash food down. I’ve reviewed about 825 PGs since my very first, a Hogue 1998, from the Columbia Valley, which I gave 86 points. I liked its delicacy, fruitiness and acidity, all qualities I still admire in a PG.

My highest score ever was to Chamisal’s 2011, from the Edna Valley, which I awarded an Editor’s Choice even though it wasn’t exactly cheap, $24 to be exact. I thought it deserved the special designation, being the highest-scored of that variety ever for me. Chamisal called it Pinot Gris rather than Grigio. It’s not an ironclad rule, but in general wnemakers call the wine Gris if it had some oak and was stirred on the lees, while they reserve Grigio for steel-fermented ones (which also can be sur lie). But I’ve had oaky PGs that were called Grigio so you can’t really go by this rule.

Certainly the best PGs must come from cool areas. If the wine doesn’t have acidity, it’s flat, and there’s nothing worse than a flabby white wine, especially if it also has residual sugar. The best areas for PG in California are Edna Valley, Sta. Rita Hills (where Carr and Babcock excel), Carneros (Etude is always a standout), Anderson Valley (Navarro defines the crisp, elegant style), and the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan specializes in it. Rick Longoria makes a consistently good PG which he labels with a Santa Barbara County appellation. I don’t know where in the county the grapes are from. Maybe the Los Alamos area? Anyway, Rick’s PG’s go beyond mere lemons and limes into exotic tropical fruits, apricots and honey.

The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever ordered a PG in a restaurant. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because the variety doesn’t make a really compelling case for any particular type of food. I think a rich, barrel-fermented one would be great with something like the albacore tuna tostada, with crisped leeks, chipotle mayo and avocado, they serve at Tacolicious, in the Mission. But so would their La Sirena cocktail (Ketel One, lime, ginger, cassis), a Corona Familiar, or for that matter an Albariño from Rias Baixas.

That’s the problem with a wine with Pinot Gris/Grigio. They can be good, but they don’t demand to be paired with anything in particular. If you’re having boiled lobster and butter, or Dungeness crab with buttered sourdough bread, there’s really only one wine: Chardonnay, the richer the better. If you’re having a rack of lamb with roasted potatoes, you can’t go wrong with a great Pinot Noir. But what food screams out for PG?

On the other hand, good California PG isn’t very expensive, averaging $15-$24 for a 90-point bottle. I wonder if there are any sommeliers out there who will read this and make some suggestions for individual PGs and what foods to pair them with.


Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man

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Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.

My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.

Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.

But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.

Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)

By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.

So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.


There are some kinds of blogs we just don’t need

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Parker published a column on his website the other day that has raised some people’s hackles.

(“Hackles” are the hairs on the back of a dog’s neck. They rise up when the dog is angry. Since Gus has never been angry, I’ve never seen any on him. Well, he got angry once when a poodle mounted him, but it all happened so fast I didn’t have time for a hackle check.)

I don’t subscribe to eRobertParker.com, and I tried to find the article for free on the Internet, but no deal. (Good firewall, Bob!) So all I know about it is what this opinion piece, from Wine-Searcher, said, and also this opinion piece, from the San Francisco-based blog, Vinography.

I’m here to defend RMP for this reason: Some bloggers have made a living (so to speak) promoting themselves by insulting well-known wine critics. By thus associating their names with famous people like Parker, they get mentally connected with them in people’s minds, and that’s the whole point. It’s free, cheap publicity. It’s also the mark of a small person who can’t figure out a way to achieve something on his own. Instead, he goes after the Big Dogs, hoping to attract attention and controversy that way.

We see this sort of thing a lot in politics, but it’s pitiful to see it in the wine world.

Parker happens to be right about “natural” wines. There’s always going to be a sub-section of the wine community looking for the next cool thing: biodynamique, low alcohol, LEED-certified buildings, natural yeast, minimal intervention, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of that, but to focus on any of them exclusively–to obsess with them–is a mistake. All that Parker is saying (from my read) is that wine doesn’t have to be this, that or the other, in order to be good. So the ideologues (I think the low alcohol crowd has become the Taliban of wine) are not only missing the boat, but misleading consumers.

And is Parker wrong when he says that many wine websites “offer little in the way of content or substance”? No! It’s absolutely true. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I visit a lot of winery websites and believe me, some of them look like they haven’t been dusted for years. As for “Euro-elitists,” can you doubt that there’s an anti-California crowd out there? You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. These are people who bash California every chance they get. And then they bash Parker for giving high scores to California wines. Look, if you don’t like California wine, man up and admit that they’re not to your liking, and don’t bash Parker just because he does like California wine, and he’s more famous than you’ll ever be.

When did wine writing get so personal, so ad hominem? It’s so counter to the gentlemanly (and gentle-womanly) way it’s always been. It came with the rise of the bloggers. Parker calls them “blobbers” and why shouldn’t he? They’re biting his ankles all the time. He’s an easy target and whenever a little blobber attacks Parker, their blog’s readership numbers rise, as they get republished, aggregated, retweeted and all the rest. Is Parker supposed to turn the other cheek all the time? He’s only human. After a while, the constant niggling must get to him. It would get to anyone.

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that success comes from real achievement. You might get 15 minutes of fame by being an angry mudslinger and going after famous writers in a snarky, nasty way. But in 16 minutes, you’re a nobody again. Not a good longterm strategy for making it as a wine writer. My advice to winemakers, winery P.R. folks and others interested in promoting wineries and wines is to stick with writers and bloggers who are professional, fair and polite, and to avoid those whose real agenda is self-promotion.


Lessons relearned from the recent ZAP tasting in San Francisco

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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.

Zin

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.


Lessons learned from an old Hollywood blockbuster

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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.


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