I love graphs like this.
It illustrates, in stark honesty, the multi-year stock performance of the S&P 500 compared with a randomly-selected portfolio that could have been picked “by a blindfolded monkey.”
Those, at least, are the words of the person who wrote the article, “A Random Way to Get Rich,” which appears in a summer, 2014 supplement on “Money” from the Wall Street Journal.
The article’s point—which investment advisors will not like—is that “If your money manager hasn’t managed to beat some random stocks…you might want to start asking some questions.” I don’t suppose it will come as a shock to anyone that managed stock portfolio accounts will, often as not, perform more poorly than a portfolio chosen by, well, a blindfolded monkey. Every time I see those ads on T.V. for companies that will “help you retire with confidence,” a wave of despair washes over me, for I don’t trust these companies any more than I trust, well, a blindfolded monkey. After all, their promises of “security” were completely undone by the Recession. But there is a point to be made here, and that concerns professional wine tasting.
You have heard me say time and time again that the only wine review you should place your trust in is one that was conducted blind (albeit, not by monkeys). This is because of the nature of human psychology. If a financial analyst (I love that term, which conjures up images of brilliant, altruistic M.B.A.s working for no reason other than your financial security) imagines that he or she is being strictly objective in the choice of particular stocks, that M.B.A. ought to take a remedial course in freshman Psych 101. The stock market is, by definition and experience, a place of unpredictability. It is so random, so utterly un-analyzable by any human device yet conceived, that the 1905 description of Brownian motion, by Albert Einstein—for which he won the Nobel Prize, and which went on to become a conceptual base of quantum mechanics—could well apply to market fluctuations.
Randomness, too, characterizes the tasting and reviewing of wine. While wine reviewing may appear to be, or approach being, an exact science, of course it is anything but; and by this, I do not mean to undercut the role of the wine critic, which was a job that paid my bills for many years, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. No, I mean only to suggest that, if you consistently taste wines blind, wrapped in their little brown paper bags, you will find results quite different from those published by the majority of famous magazines and newsletters.
Correction: let me rephrase that. You might or might not find results that might or might not be quite different. In fact, in one parallel universe, if you taste enough wines, blind, for a long enough period of time, at least one of the results will look exactly like any given edition of The Wine Advocate. But an infinitude of other possible results will be different, sometimes only slightly so, sometimes significantly. That is the Heisenbergian truth of random results: they are random precisely because they are unpredictable, an aspect of reality that is hard-wired into the fabric of the universe.
Some conservatives lament theories of the random nature of outcomes. They say that experience proves otherwise—a car, driven at high speed, will not pass through a brick wall, but will smash into it with deadly results, despite the slight relativistic possibility that it will in fact emerge unscathed on the other side. So, these anti-relativists argue, it is ridiculous to think that anything other than our well-understood cause-and-effect universe could be “real,” except, possibly, in some fantastic mathematical sense.
This is true as far as it goes in our macro world of cars and brick walls. It is patently untrue when it comes to the anything-goes micro world of sub-atomic particles. And while the human mind seems neither to be part of the macro world nor of the micro world, it does in fact have more in common with the latter; for it is a “black box” into which others cannot peer, and of which the owner himself may be unaware, in terms of its particulars. Tasting wine openly, with full appreciation of its origin, is in fact contamination of the black box’s insides: you cannot do it without discombobulating the entire process. Thus, you cannot call open tasting “real,” since it represents a serious interference with the reality of what a wine actually tastes like. In the famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat, one is confronted with a paradox: “This poses [says Wikipedia] the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.” Open tasting illustrates this paradox: It is utterly impossible for the outsider to know, or even to begin to comprehend, what the thought process was of the reviewer, whose mentation may (or may not) have been influenced by any one, or combination of, multiple factors. Therefore, one cannot say that the reviewer’s conclusion is “real,” except within limits, and even then subject to faith and belief. One can accept the conclusion—it may influence one’s own conclusions and behavior—but one cannot assume that the conclusion itself has validity, at least in the scientific sense of being replicable.
Should therefore we entrust our wine reviewing to “a blindfolded monkey” or indeed a team of blindfolded monkeys? No; that would be a logical fallacy. But the realization that a random portfolio of stocks outperforms the S&P 500, which is the basis of so many mutual fund portfolios, should alert us to the fact that winetasting results from open tastings may also not be the best source of information; and this in turn should put the results of any such tasting into perspective. This is a revolutionary statement: if everyone subscribed to it—tastemakers, gatekeepers, consumers, producers, the media—the wine world as we know it would turn completely upside down. Nobody likes disruption, though, which is why the status quo is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite the burgeoning presence of Millennials who, it is said, are going to upset every apple cart there is. They should, in the case of formal wine reviewing; but they are unlikely to, because (speaking of apple carts), the fruit never falls far from the tree; each Millennial is more like his or her mother or father than one may care to admit. Still, go back and take another look at the chart. If instead of AAPL, CAT, XOM and NFLX you substituted Lafite, Romanée-Conti, Yquem and Screaming Eagle, would that cause you to reconsider your reliance on professional critics, now that you understand how perfectly random these things are?
I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.
The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.
The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.
My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.
This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.
So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.
If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.
So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.
I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.
Patricia Talorico’s column in Delaware Online, describing her disappointment at a tasting of 100-point wines, is worth reading, if for no other reason than to make the point that a famous critic’s taste may not correspond to yours.
And there are some good reasons for that, which I’ll get to in a moment.
As a journalist, Patricia went to a tasting in Wilmington that consisted of ten wines, each of which had received a perfect 100-point score from either Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, James Suckling or Wine Enthusiast. So excited was she in advance (I would be, too, and so would you) that she called it “a fantasy event not to miss.”
After all, on the roster were such celebrated bottles as 2010 Leoville-Barton, 2010 Dominus, 2001 Rieussec and 2006 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino. Who wouldn’t be up for that?
But, alas, as Patricia reports, she was “Not…blown away by a majority of [the] highly rated wines.” For example, “I was less impressed” by a 2000 Krug Brut than were some of the other tasters. Then there was a 2009 Giovanni Chiappini Guado de Gemoli that, Patricia wrote, “got little more than a ho-hum” despite its 100 point score from Wine Enthusiast. She quoted others present as being highly critical of the Tenuta Nuova that Suckling gave 100 points to. “Over-ripe,” said one. “Not a perfect vintage,” sniffed another.
On the other hand, there was that 2010 Dominus, which everyone seemed to fall in love with. Still, that didn’t stop Patricia from offering readers this advice: “Wine lovers, save your money” when it comes to some of these high-priced rarities.
I couldn’t agree more. The thing the public has to keep in mind—actually, several things—when it comes to evaluating these high scores from famous critics is that the wines sometimes aren’t tasted blind. Sometimes, they’re tasted on the premises of the winery, alongside the winemaker or owner. (Wine Enthusiast has a firm policy against this, as I know well.) This has profound psychological effects, not the least of which is what we call “tasting room bias.” A wine will usually taste better under conditions of propinquity and proximity to its source of production, than it will at a distance. Put another way, if you’re an invited guest at [fill-in-the-blank] great winery, sipping the wine in the glamorous reception room with the world-famous winemaker, it’s far more likely you’ll be dazzled than if you tasted the same wine poured from a bottle in a paper bag, in a blind flight of its peers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, when these famous wine critics are tasting the wine openly, they’re aware of such factors as the quality of the vintage (which they’ve probably also pronounced upon) and their own previous reviews of the same wine from prior vintages. There is a tendency (understandable) on the part of critics to want to be consistent in their reviews. Consistency is a large part of their credibility, after all, especially among the proprietors of great wineries who invite them to taste the latest vintage. I’m not saying that a scrupulous critic will deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of consistency. But it may be that his or her sensory impressions are skewed, at a subconscious level.
This is a very large part of the reason why the same wines keep on getting the same high scores over and over again from the same famous critics. It’s also why less famous (which is to say, less well-connected) wine writers, such as Patricia, often find themselves underwhelmed at tastings like the Judgment of Wilmington. She had no skin in the game, no reputational stakes on the table, no consistency to safeguard. All she had was her palate. As, indeed, do we all.
One of the most interesting and controversial topics of the modern wine industry is the phenomenon of the “flying winemaker.” This is the term, which I first heard in the 1990s, that refers to a class of men and women who hire themselves out to wineries as consultants; they are “flying” because their preferred mode of transportation is of course the jet plane.
But they are much more than mere consultants. Their name, attached to a wine on a press release, automatically confers prestige, the way, say, Steven Spielberg’s name as producer of a movie is a sort of guarantee of the film’s pedigree.
The name most often conjured up by “flying winemaker” is that of Michel Rolland. I knew he consults for a lot of wineries around the world, but I never knew that the number was up to two hundred, according to this article in Harpers. Among his Napa Valley clients, current and/or previous, I’m aware of are Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, Dancing Hares, Staglin, Dalla Valle and Sloan—in other words, absolutely the peak of Napa Valley (if not the New World) in terms of price and quality (at least, as judged by the top critics). These are the famous “cult wines” that define a region’s reputation and in fact establish its upper or outer limits of quality and perception by the wine world’s cognoscenti.
This would be all well and good, except that over the last fifteen years or so—let’s say, roughly from the start of the new century—a certain drumbeat of criticism has arisen among some critics, to the effect that an increase in the activities of these flying winemakers has resulted in a standardization or sameness in all the wines with which the consultant is associated. In fact, this critique goes even further: it says that all flying winemakers bring a similar approach to all their client wines, making these wines all taste similarly to each other, regardless of who made them or whether they are from Napa Valley or Pomerol or Chile. This sameness has been referred to as the “globalization of wine” or “the international style,” terms meant to suggest that all wines of the same varietal type—most usually, Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied varieties—smell and taste alike. In the eyes of the critics of such globalization, this is tantamount to a crime, since it obliterates the notion of terroir.
This is a serious debate and a good one to have. I’ve never been one to take an extremist position one way or the other, as some American critics and newspaper columnists do in utterly condemning these “international” wines. Their criticisms usually also have to do with what they perceive as excessive ripeness, over-oakiness and an alcohol level (often approaching if not exceeding 15%) which, they claim, elevates technique over terroir.
My reluctance to join these reporters has been based on the simple fact that many of the Cabernets associated with Michel Rolland and other flying winemakers are, in fact, gorgeous. They are among the richest, most sumptuous wines ever produced in the history of the world, and it is churlish, if not somewhat childish, to object to them based on some philosophical or ideological notion. This deliciousness seems to be what Rolland himself referred to when he told Harpers that all he strives to do is to produce wines that are “intense, full bodied, balanced, harmonious, with delicate tannins and a long finish.” This description certainly fits the Napa Valley wines I’m familiar with that Rolland consults for, but the problem, which you see is obvious by now, is that the same description fits all of them, which seems to hoist Rolland on his own petard. He has provided us with the template for an international style of Cabernet Sauvignon. And here, I must say that, in California at least, there is an ersatz style that mimics the international style on the surface, but that on closer examination results in lazy, flamboyant but eventually tiring wines. One has to be very careful in approaching the international style, lest he throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Harpers headlines their article “Michel Rolland defends his ability to manage wines on up to 200 wineries around the world,” and while the word “defends” is perhaps hyperbolic on Harper’s part, Rolland no doubt feels a little beleaguered. He must be aware of the criticism (although one suspects he cries all the way to the bank). Supporting the critics is the commonsense notion that one can only be in one place at a time, and even in this age of the jet plane, to have to be in so many places all over the world, having to apply one’s conscientious attention to so many properties, especially at the harvest, must be challenging to say the least. Heidi Barrett, herself one of California’s most famous flying winemakers (although she more properly might be called a “driving winemaker,” for she only accepts clients that are “within a half hour” drive of her Calistoga home), notes that she limits her number of clients for the most pragmatic of reasons. “Realistically, when things are fermenting I must taste every tank, every day, and so I’m going to four locations, and that maxes me out. Some days I barely get everywhere.” (These quotes are from my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.”)
Historically, we are at a point now where there is more or less an equilibrium between the international or global style, which admittedly is a ripe, expressive one, and a more restrained (one could almost say timid) approach, encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them. I said we’re at “a point,” not “a tipping point.” I don’t think the balance will alter anytime soon, one way or the other. The wine market is simply too big and fractured for any large-scale revolutions to happen, despite alleged claims from some quarters that one is underway now. In the midst of such a complex market, winemakers hedge their bets; better to stick with a style that’s worked for you up to now, than to throw the dice and risk unnecessary changes that might alienate your customers. Finally, we come to the cases of new entrants to the production game, a younger generation that’s decided to live the wine life. They have, it seems to me, two choices, in the widest sense: to appeal to the international style, or to make wines more severe and that will, they hope, win the praises of the newspaper columnists who like that streamlined approach. They might as well flip a coin, given the standoff, and follow their hearts—always the best thing to do.
It was old friend’s day at yesterday’s Bordeaux tasting, sponsored by Maisons Marques & Domaines. Not only was the wonderful Xavier Barlier there to greet me, but I ran into Fred Swan and Wilfred Wong, so there was also some nostalgic recollecting. But not too much—we were there for the wines.
I didn’t taste everything, but here are my abbreviated notes. [All retail prices are my own estimations, based on wholesale price.] As you can see, you can take the wine critic out of the game—but you can’t take the game out of the wine critic!
Chateau d’Armailhac 2010 [$120]: Great Pauillac structure on this 5th growth; firm, dur. Glorious stuffing, all black currants. Very complex and mouth-filing, a very good wine. Drink 2022 and beyond. Score: 95.
Chateau d’Armailhac 2000 ($175). A little lacking in depth, but with plenty of charm. Very pure and refined. Drinking beautifully now with, say, a fine grilled entrecote. Score: 91.
Chateau Clerc Milon 2010 ($200). Great depth, a real beauty, but so tannic. Heaps of blackberries and cherries. Fabulous acidity. Will make a great bottle after, say, 2022. Score: 93.
Chateau Clerc Milon 2006 ($170). Not a big wine, in fact a little thin. But it’s delicate and refined. Drink up. Score: 88 points.
Chateau Palmer 2006 Alter Ego de Palmer ($175). Fleshy, meaty, with blackberry and black currant flavors as well as a bacon fat, truffly richness. But very tannic. Seems best opened in the next few years. Score: 88.
Chateau Palmer 2004 ($320). A dramatic wine, in the midst of an evolution and not showing well right now. Neither hard nor soft, but the tannins are strong and there’s plenty of elegance. With lots of fruit, it should develop after 2020. Score: 90.
Chateau Palmer 1999 ($475). A gorgeous wine and a great success for the vintage. Surely approaching its peak now. So supple and rich in sweet cherry pie filling, with wonderful acidity and tannins. Silky and absolutely delicious, a standout in this tasting. Score: 96.
La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2008 ($39). Solid, masculine, still with hard tannins. The vintage was not great but the wine has good fruit and will drink well in, say, 5-6 more years. Score: 88.
La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2010 ($50). Solid, a litte gutsy. Very dry and tannic, some rusticity. Not an ager, but a clean, well-made wine. Score: 88.
Chateau Haut-Bailly 2010 ($180). A huge wine, with dusty tannins and good acidity. Lots of fruit, with a pleasant, Graves minerality. Needs many years. Drink 2022 and beyond. Score: 94.
Chateau Haut-Bailly 2003 ($110). The wine is showing considerable evolution, with the fruit revealing secondary notes. Still some tannins to shed. A good wine that should open further by 2018. Score: 90.
THE FOLLOWING WINES ARE FROM CHRISTIAN MOUEIX’S PORTFOLIO AND WERE POURED BY CHRISTIAN.
Chateau de Sales 2010 ($37). A lovely wine, round and feminine. Oodles of black currants and cassis, so sweet and tender. Significant tannins, but it’s soft enough to drink now and through 2022. A great value in a Pomerol. Score: 92.
Chateau Certan de May 2008 ($115). A hard wine, with big, tough tannins, but some lovely fruit. Tons of black currants and minerals. Needs time. Give it another ten years to come around. Score: 93.
Chateau Certan de May 2010 ($190). Far greater depth and complexity than the 2008, in fact twice the wine. Such opulence and craftsmanship. Very fine, balanced and elegant, but young. Wait until 2025, for starters. Score: 95.
Chateau Hosanna 2010 ($275). For me, a bizarre wine. Too oaky. Incredibly strong, spicy, black currants, chocolate nibs, anise. California style, fat, opulent. It is said this wine needs a great amount of time to come around, but I would not take the gamble, especially at this price. Score: 87.
Chateau Hosanna 2004 ($NA). Same style as the 2010, a big, oaky, New World-y wine. Beginning to show its stuff, but still nowhere near ready. I scored it 91 points based on potential.
Chateau Lafleur-Gazin 2007 ($45). A rustic wine, hard around the edges, but good fruit. Ready to drink now-2015. Score: 86.
Chateau Magdelaine 2008 ($105). Soft, fleshy, what you want a Saint-Emilion to be. Mainly Merlot, with lots of red cherries and red currants and a lovely mouthfeel. Needs time. Drink after 2020. Score: 93.
Chateau Puy-Blanquet 2011 ($27). A nice wine, with some lovely fruit, but for me, too sharp in acidity. I said this to Christian and he remarked, “Well, the vintage…”.
Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild 2007 ($300). This junior Mouton is delicious in black currants and cassis, although it lacks the power of the Grand Seigneur. Drink 2019 and beyond. Score: 91.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2005 ($950). Possibly it was just me, but this wine wasn’t showing well despite the vintage’s reputation. Primary fruits starting to evolve, but it’s a bit raw. But you have to give it the benefit of the doubt, especially considering the stellar reviews the wine has received from top critics. Undoubtedly it is going through an awkward phase. I did not rate this wine and would like to taste it again from another bottle.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2010 ($1500). An awesome wine, huge, magnificent, clearly a Great Growth. Masses of black currants, perfect oak, gorgeous acids and tannins. Will improve for decades. This was so stunning I swallowed rather than spit. Potentially a perfect wine. Score: 99.
In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.
de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.
(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)
As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.
Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)
de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.
I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).
There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.
Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.
What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.