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I reply to a somm friend

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Ian Burrows is a great sommelier whom I first met at a Jackson Family Wines event I was speaking at. He was then working at one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants, Atelier Crenn, in the Marina District. I was never fortunate enough to dine there, because the Marina is really a schlep from Oakland. I liked Ian a lot when we met, and he turned out to be a good correspondent, on both Facebook and my blog. So when he wrote me a fairly long comment, I took it seriously, and want to respond in kind.

Ian had read my post from a few days ago, in which I described how, in choosing wines for my tastings, I rely on—among other factors—the reviews of certain top critics. Ian wrote:

I read your article on choosing sparkling for a comparative tasting, and I have to ask, why on earth would you ever base your choices on other critics scores?

I have never understood the fascination of taking such an incredibly narrow focus on deciding which wines (or automobiles or eye-liner for that matter) are the best value, most accessible, most delicious or whatever from a handful of very influential reviewers.

Why not just send out a bunch of random e-mails to your wine buddies? Ask “what wines in XYZ category should I represent in this tasting?”…. Surely, if you spread it across continents and demographics you’d get a more accurate picture.

I have the utmost respect for what you did at WE (although I still do not completely understand it) and I have even greater respect for what you do at JFE but you gotta let go of what is, quite frankly, a waste of time….. “Wine reviews”.

Reviews – I am pretty sure they will be gone in five years.

You have a better deal being the PR front man at JFE than a reviewer because at least you can focus squarely on industry trends/changes, comment and review issues that directly and indirectly affect the quality and style of wine, not simply assign points and hope that readers respond by supporting your tastes and/or reviews.

It’s perhaps a face to face conversation for another time, but one that I know will be vibrant and respectful

I replied personally to Ian, but I want to expand on that here (and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the utmost respect for him). My main points were, (1) I am emphatically not “the PR front man” at Jackson Family Wines! I don’t know how that rumor got started. In fact, my job has nothing to do with PR (although I suppose you could say that everything ultimately touches on public relations).

More to the point, I defend my use of other critics’ scores this way: When you’re assembling a lineup of wines for a comparative tasting, you have to use some kind of parameter. Since you can’t taste everything that theoretically falls within the scope of your tasting, you necessarily must limit the number of entries. Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?

Let’s say, for instance, that I want to do a tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignons of Rutherford. There are at least 39 wineries in Rutherford, according to the web page of the Rutherford Dust Society. Many of them, maybe the majority, produce more than one SKU of Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Let’s say there are 100 different SKUs. That’s too many to include in a tasting, so you have to whittle down the number.

You could do this in any number of ways: Wines from west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, wines from the Mayacamas Mountains, wines from east of Highway 29 but west of the Silverado Trail, wines from east of the Silverado Trail, wines from way up in the Vacas, wines from south Rutherford, from north Rutherford, 100% Cabs, blends, wines above $75, wines below $30, and so on and so forth. Any of those would make sense, I suppose. But so does the kind of crowd-sourcing I do when I choose wines based on my own experiences, compounded by their critical scores. When Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Vinous, Wine Enthusiast, Wines & Vines, Wine & Food, and so on are all giving a wine high scores, that’s a pretty good indication it’s a very good wine. And those are the kinds of wines I want to include in my tastings, especially when we’re including Jackson Family Wines in the lineup. I want to see how JFW wines stand up to the most critically acclaimed wines. (And I hope I won’t be accused of wearing a PR hat when I tell you, they do very well.)

Surely Ian isn’t entirely serious when he suggests sending random emails to my “wine buddies” soliciting their views. I have about 4,000 Facebook friends and 6,500 Twitter followers. Not all of them claim to be wine experts, and frankly, I don’t know most of them, so their opinion is not of the greatest help to me. If I was doing something on popular drinking habits or trends or wine and food pairing, I might, and frequently do, ask my friends and followers, but not for assembling a blind tasting of ultrapremium wines.

Now, Ian (and a generation of young somms) may not care about the major critics—I understand that–but I do. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I respect what James Laube, Robert Parker and the others do. I know how hard the work is…what the pressures are…I know also that when you’ve tasted wine seriously for a good many years you really do develop a master palate. I don’t think there’s anything crooked or unseemly about what they do (and what I used to do). These are men and women of the highest integrity and their opinions should matter.

Nor do I think wine reviewing is “a waste of time” that will be gone in five years. I’ve frequently said on my blog that wine reviewing will always be with us, because as long as there are a zillion wines on the market, consumers are going to seek guidance. I’ve said that this guidance can come from many different sources, including a local and trusted merchant, but merchants—let’s face it—may have a motive to recommend a wine they carry, which makes them less than completely objective. A wine critic of the caliber of a Parker, Laube, Galloni, etc. has no ulterior motive. He or she doesn’t care about the advertising his publication may or may not solicit from wineries—that’s the famous “firewall” between editorial and advertising, and it’s real. Nor does the critic care whether or not someone buys something. So, unless you’re prepared to charge the critics with something untoward—and prove it—you really have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing them or questioning their sincerity or ability.

I will concede that every critic has his subjective preferences. Wine Spectator, in my opinion, gives too much attention to Marcassin. The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a thing for Morgan Twain-Peterson and Bedrock. When I was at Wine Enthusiast I certainly gave a lot of love to Bob Cabral and Williams Selyem. But there’s nothing nefarious about any of this: critics are only human, and we do form attachments, to winemakers, wines and particular styles of wine.

So, my friend Ian, this is my respectful reply. I’d love to get together, anytime you’re free, to chat about this; and maybe I can explain what I did at Wine Enthusiast.

Have a great weekend!


How I choose wines for my tastings

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As you may know if you read me regularly, I’ve been having some wonderful wine tastings with my friends at Jackson Family Wines. Over the last 1-1/2 years we’ve done multiple sessions of mainly California wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhone blends and so on. Our next theme is sparkling wine. It’s been, like, forever since I went to a bubbly tasting, so I’m particularly excited.

When I set up these tastings, I first develop the theme. But then it’s time to choose the wines. There are so many choices that you have to have some kind of system, and I do. I realize it may not be perfect, but what system is?

My initial criterion is to pick wines I, myself, have given high scores to. It’s been a while since I was an everyday critic, but not that long. Of course, you can learn a lot from tasting average, or even mediocre, wines, and I’ve included some of those in my tastings. But for the most part, I want to try wines that are high-end, and the best way to do that, IMHO, is to look at critical scores.

Here are the critics I routinely check out: Robert Parker/Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator; Antonio Galloni’s Vinous; and my former employer, Wine Enthusiast. I have subscriptions to three of them; Enthusiast doesn’t charge (I think they should, but that’s not my call). I also try and look at Food & Wine and a few other publications, but those four are my must-sees.

If all of the major critics give a specific wine a high score, it’s a go for my tastings. Usually, the critics are pretty close. Someone may give something 96 points, someone else may give it 92 points, but that’s okay, it’s ballpark. Every once in a while, I come across a wine somebody gave mid-90s and somebody else scored mid- or even low 80s. The lesson is that sometimes the critics can’t agree amongst themselves. In that case, it’s fun to see how my score, under blind conditions, matches up to the other critics’. My impression, which is simply that—an impression, not the result of a database crunch—is that Galloni and Parker tend to give higher scores to California wines than Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast is less predictable. But then, they’ve had some turnover in their California coverage.

I wonder how people who don’t like the critics or the 100-point system go about choosing wines for tasting. In Europe you can always do hierarchical tastings since they have formal tiers, but here in California, we don’t. You can’t do a First Growths of Napa Valley the way you can in Bordeaux. Some writers try to get around this absence of rankings by producing their own: I Googled “first growths of napa valley” and got 4,180 results. These can be interesting to read, but they have problems: They’re only the writer’s opinion, the writers may not have had access to everything (who does?), and even worse, the rankings change over time. One year Chateau Montelena is in; the next, it’s not, and Futo is, or Kenzo, or Yao Ming, or some other newcomer. So if I was doing a Napa Cabernet tasting (and I haven’t yet, but I will), I’d make things simple for myself by looking up what the major critics say. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get the wines I want! I have some pretty good connections, but even for me, some of these wines are totally impossible to buy.

At any rate, comparative tasting, done blind, is one of the most thrilling and instructive things a wine writer can do. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the job. I’m very fortunate that Jackson Family Wines gives me the budget for it. I sure couldn’t afford to do it on my own!


In the future, everyone will be a famous wine taster for 15 minutes

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Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?

We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.

But what is tasting ability, anyhow?

Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.

But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.

But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?

Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.

What else does it take?

I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to

  • Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
  • Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
  • Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
  • Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
  • Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.

By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.


Are wine reviews stuffy and pretentious?

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Every form of description has its own particular jargon. Conversations about baseball are filled with references to ERAs and WARs (“wins above replacement”).

Fasionistas debate the distinctions between lettuce hems and unitards. Here in wine-reviewing land, we talk about cassis or earthiness, and get our heads handed to us by critics-of-critics who find us pompous and pretentious.

For instance, here’s Snooth calling wine critics “old men tasting wine in wood-paneled libraries.” Then there’s the wine writer for a Florida pub writing about the “Top 10 Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting,” including “I used to live in Napa” and “What percentage Malo?” So relentless has been the assault on winespeak that even some critics, apparently taking it to heart, have publicly wondered if their approach isn’t “too la-di-da,” as Harvey Steiman did in Wine Spectator.

Why is it more pretentious for a wine person to ask about the percent of malo than for a baseball fan to ask about Miguel Cabrera’s on-base percentage? I don’t think it is, but somehow we’ve allowed wine lingo to fall into this disreputable neighborhood of precious effeteness where you practically can’t say anything about it at all without someone wanting to pour their Chardonnay over your head.

It would behoove us, I think, to get to the bottom of this in a thoughtful way, and The Guardian’s wine columnist, David Williams, does a good job in this latest op-ed piece. I like particularly the distinction he makes between data-driven wine descriptions, such as you would find in a laboratory analysis, and an esthetic approach—“the juggling of a random assortment of associations”—that has dominated wine writing from the rise of English critics, in the 1800s, to the Parkers of today. (And I openly concede that my own approach has been the esthetic one.) Williams asserts that connections can, and should, be made between them. For example, a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, described analytically, might refer to “thiols and pyrazines,” whereas the same wine, in more esthetic hands, would reference “gooseberries and grass.” The writer must, of course, consider his audience: a strictly lay readership will not understand “thiols and pyrazines,” but a good writer might wish to give them a little understanding of wine chemistry and its causative terroir in order to broaden their appreciation: after all, “gooseberries and grass” don’t just appear willy-nilly in the wine, but have specific reasons for being there.

But Williams also catches something that must always make a good tasting note at least semi-esthetic rather than purely analytical; and that is the ability to give “a sense of something more elusive: of the wine’s flow and feel, of how the flavours dovetail both with each other and with the wine’s texture, of its context in nature and the world of winemaking. All the things, in fact, that make a wine worth drinking, and, despite the inevitable ridicule, talking and writing about.”

It is impossible to over-stress the importance of this “more elusive” aspect. Every wine writer who has ever lived and dared to put her impressions into words for the benefit of readers has come across wines that inspire her to the heights of poetic allusion. Indeed, if a writer is incapable of rising to such lofty altitudes, he ought not to be in the business of wine writing! For he would then be a very dreary and boring wine writer, and who wants to read that sort?

How have we come to this pass? Our beer lobby—which is to say, the breweries that cater to the forehead-can-smashers who frequent sports bars—have been partly responsible for creating this impression that wine is not a real man’s drink. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to ridiculing wine, and everything pertaining to it, including wine writing, as insufferably poofy. This is untrue, but it is perhaps not unhelpful for wine writers to be aware of this viewpoint in our culture; such a consciousness of the boundaries that some writers occasionally cross should help to keep the rest of us within the foul lines.


Fred Franzia largely got it right

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I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.

As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.

Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”

I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.

I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).

I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.


What you know influences what you taste

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If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?

Raphael

Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?

What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?

Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?

I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?

This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.

Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)

See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.

This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.

But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.

By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.

P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.


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