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Learning how to learn about new wines

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I’ve been a California wine guy for a long time, but in the 1980s, I was happily catholic, in the old sense of the word, derived from the Latin meaning “universal.” I studied and drank every classic wine and region I could get my hands on, from Old Europe to New World California, and everything inbetween.

But by the 1990s my job was to write about and review California wine. Once I got a reputation as a go-to guy for California, the transom opened (do you know what a transom is? A free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com if you do), and I was swamped with wines from the Golden State—to my pleasure, I might add. But the corresponding sadness was that the wines from the rest of the world necessarily had to take a back seat.

I’ve long maintained that there are two legitimate ways to be a professional wine critic: You can specialize in a region (as I have done), or you can generalize. Some people think nothing of covering Australia, Austria and Anderson Valley. They bring their innate sense of tasting to whatever region they’re in, and if they’re lucky enough to have a budget to fly all over the place, they can actually bring a sense of the ambiente of the region to their writing.

That was, alas, not to be my fate. But California is a big place, one that you can spend a lifetime traveling through and trying to understand. That ended up being my forte.

Lately, I’ve been tackling Italy. Now, Italy is probably the greatest challenge for the person seeking to understand an entire country. It’s so vast, with so many regions and varieties. I suspect my friend and former colleague, Monica Larner, who now reviews wines for The Wine Advocate, considers herself still a student of Italy, despite her vast knowledge of that country. I am by contrast an absolute dilettante.

How does one go about understanding a brand new region? Carefully and humbly. I’ve always known at least the fundamentals of Italian wine, but to delve into it and be immersed in its fantastic intricacies is something else. It’s not only the technical details of the denomination system, it’s tackling the flavors and textures, which are so different from our wines here in California.

For example, last night I drank a Dolcetto d’Alba from the Tenuta I’Illuminata winery. It’s a Piedmont wine and I don’t think there’s anything remotely resembling it in California. So dry and tart, so bitter on its own, nothing you’d want to drink as a cocktail sipper, the way a fresh young Cabernet or Pinot might suffice. I went through my Wine Enthusiast reviews, and the highest score I ever gave a California Dolcetto was 88 points. That was for the Acorn 2010 Alegria Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. To read the text of my September, 2013 review—“you might think it was Pinot Noir”—I can almost recall its succulent fruitiness, but this L’Illuminata Dolcetto is anything but sucuulently fruity. How, then, does a “California palate” make sense of such a wine?

Well, by expanding your mind. We all get used to certain kinds of things in our lives. We settle into our routines, hang out with the same people, go to the same places, eat the same foods. It’s understandable, but at the same time, when you’re plunged into a world profoundly different from the one you’re used to, you have two alternatives: to reject it as weird, or to set aside your predilections and try to understand it.

As a wine critic, there’s really only one legitimate approach, the latter: to try and understand something that, at first, doesn’t make sense. And for this, you need two things: study, and imagination. The “study” part mean that you need to read up on what smart people have had to say about that region and wine. The “imagination” part means that you have to understand how people actually drink the wine, in the region where they live. This is the “ambiente” I’m talking about.

With this Dolcetto d’Alba, I can imagine drinking it with very rich foods. Take some fatty meat (beef, sausages), put some tomato sauce on it, add some mozzarella cheese into the equation, figure out how to work in wild mushrooms, don’t be shy about the garlic and black pepper. Decant the wine for an hour or two. You know how some people complain that the opulent red wines of California pale after a while? This Dolcetto is the opposite: it gets more interesting.

Does it matter that it’s an 88 point wine and not a 98? Not to me. Am I embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Italian wine? Not at all. I’ve learned, through blogging, the importance of telling the truth—transparency, they call it. “The truth will make you free.” And—even more importantly—I’m happy that I retain the ability to learn, to be surprised, even after all this time. How cool is that?


“The 100-point system is irrelevant”? Umm, sorry, no it’s not

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Haha, people have been saying the 100-point system is irrelevant for at least 100 years. Well, maybe the last 10 years. And now comes this blog from the Napa Valley Wine Academy that makes it official.

Well, who or what is the Napa Valley Wine Academy? They call themselves (on their website) “America’s premier wine school” and say they are an “approved program provider” for the WSET. So they must know what they’re talking about, right?

Here are their reasons why the 100-point system is “irrelevant”, according to the author, Jonathan Cristaldi:

  • “Parker’s influence continues to wain” [sic; he meant “wane,” but what’s a little spelling error now and then?)
  • no other critic’s influence is as important as Parker’s [true, dat]
  • people “don’t just buy when a wine garners big points” [well, nobody ever said points were the only criterion by which people make buying decisions]
  • and besides, WSET seekers “will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.”

I need to break this last point down. Do you suppose that there ever will be a “collective voice” of sommeliers? I don’t. Put ten somms in a room and you’ll have more smackdowns than a mixed martial arts bout. These people seldom agree on anything, unless it’s that Burgundy is the best red wine and Riesling is the best white wine. So how, exactly, will this “collective voice” operate?

  • “the future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores…”

Proof? There is none. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the old nursery rhyme tells us. Merely wishing that individual critics will fade away, in favor of crowd-sourced opinions spread via social media, is the biggest wish-fantasy around. When Cristaldi tells us that “Friends and confidants will replace the lone wine critic,” he has absolutely no proof; no evidence supports it, except anecdotally; and even if the Baby Boomer critics, like Parker, are retiring or dying off, there is no reason to think that their places will not be taken by Millennials who just might be the future Parkers and Tanzers and Gallonis and Laubes and Wongs and, yes, Heimoffs. (Certainly, you know as well as I do that there are ambitious bloggers who ardently wish that were the case!)

So do I think the 100-point system will still be around in the future? Yes. It will, because schools still grade test scores on the 100-point system and Americans “get it” and know in their bones the difference between 87 points and 90 points. Will there be other graphic systems around (puffs, stars, and the like)? Sure. Will there be long-form wine writing that relies on the informative impact of words, rather than graphic signifiers? Yes. All of the above will make for a robust wine-reviewing scene.

Honestly, I continue to fail to understand why some people get so worked up over the 100-point system. It’s like a mania, the wine-reviewing equivalent of Obama birtherism. People: calm down. There are so many more important things to get upset about.

Where I will end this post is to re-quote Cristaldi’s quote from Jon Bonné, the former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon said (according to Cristaldi), “The 100-point system is flawed.” Well, breaking news! Thank you, Jon, for pointing that out.

Of course the 100-point system is not perfect. What system is? But the 100-point system has educated more people, sold more wine and benefited more wineries than anything else ever invented. That’s pretty cool, and like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Blend or single vineyard? It depends on the variety

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Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.

Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.

Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.

I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.

There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.

The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.


An appreciation of rosé and a call for changing the rules of wine criticism

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It was hot in Oakland yesterday—the city of Pittsburg, in the Delta, hit 93 degrees—and I was doing a lot of running around, so when I got home, around 5 p.m., I was thirsty. I happened to have a bottle of a rosé in the fridge (not Jackson Family), and it looked mighty welcoming, so I popped the cork, poured myself a glass, and sipped.

Rose

Ahhh.

The label doesn’t say what the blend is, but it’s Provençal. I think there’s some Grenache in there, maybe Cinsaut and almost definitely Syrah, but it doesn’t really matter. We make too much of the varieties in these blended wines. The winemaker isn’t trying to do some cookbook sort of thing, according to some theory, but to craft the best wine she can. But we’re addicted to knowing the blend, so there’s pressure on proprietors to put it on the bottle. In a way, I admire this particular winery for resisting that impulse. They’re telling us, “Don’t focus on the grape varieties, focus on the wine.”

Rosé is red-hot (no pun intended). It’s always been around, of course, but it’s never been this popular. I wonder why. Summer’s coming, of course, and rosé hits that sweet spot of being midway between a white wine and a red wine. When I was on the road last week in New England, I was surprised by how many people I met who told me that they don’t care for (red or white: pick one), but love the other one. I, myself, can’t imagine ever being in that dilemma. But if you are, I’d think a rosé would be the best of both worlds.

How do the critics treat rosé? Not very respectfully. There’s a tendency among them to view it as a simple, inexpensive wine, made from press juice, without complexity. That can be the case, but not always. The wine I’m drinking now—the rosé from my fridge—is quite a complicated thing. It’s bone dry, with wonderful acidity, and the fruit (strawberries barely turned pink, orange zest, pink grapefruit) has a herbaceousness that reminds me of fresh thyme and white or pink peppercorns. Were I reviewing it, I’d probably give it 89 or 90 points, but I’m pretty sure that most other critics would score it lower than that, maybe around 87 or 88.

Why is it that certain wines never seem to rise above a certain score? Sauvignon Blanc is another. I’ve wrestled with that question for a long time, and still can’t really answer it. Since I’m “guilty” of the same thing myself, I can’t accuse other critics of any sort of impropriety. I think what it comes down to is that Sauvignon Blanc and rosé (to mention just two California wines) traditionally never got very high scores, and so critics don’t want to go out on a limb and give them 95s or 97s. After all, they have their reputations to protect. And yet, why shouldn’t a great rosé get 97 points?

Parker says his highest ratings are for ageable wines, so I guess he’s off the hook. The vast majority of rosés aren’t ageable. But one could argue that, within the context of rosé-ness, there are rosés that approach perfection, so why wouldn’t you give a perfect rosé a perfect score? Because to give a wonderful Provençal wine 100 points—the same as Petrus or Verité—would seem a little odd.

But why? Ageability aside, we’re talking about perfection within the context of what the wine is—the sandbox it plays in—and it seems to me to be unfair to say, “This is a perfect rosé” and give it 94 points, and “This is a perfect Cabernet” and give it 100 points.

Well, here I am, realizing stuff after I’ve retired as a wine critic! But if I had to do it all over again, I’d be more generous with my 100s. Break the rules, if you will, redefine them. Wine criticism has turned rather baroque, if you ask me: mannered, adhering to a strict canon, rather rigid. It needs to be shook up—intelligently. Not smashed, not taken over idiotically, but systematically redefined in a way that’s fairer than it has been, when only certain regions or varieties could star. That has got to change.


Wine critics vs. sommeliers, Round 428. Ding!

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With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.

His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,”  after having been one myself. I said, I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”

Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.

For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?

There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.

As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.

Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.


Why online wine reviews don’t get more respect

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You’ve probably heard that Ashley Judd, a celebrity I don’t know much about but I like her anyway, is suing people who have been sending her horrendous tweets.

The brouhaha all started when Ashley, apparently, tweeted something derogatory about a basketball team, Arkansas, that was playing against her beloved Kentucky.

Imagine that! A sports fan talking smack about a rival sports team!

Well, that opened the floodgates. Ashley was inundated with some pretty awful stuff, most of which is unprintable on a family blog like steveheimoff.com : )

This raises the whole question of the abuse of social media. People do say the most terrible things—often, I think, while in a state of C.U.I. (commenting under the influence). It can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of crap: I know, because I’ve been there.

Let’s talk about wine reviewing. A wine critic needs to have the trust of the people who read him or her. Without that trust, he has no credibility—and without credibility, who cares what he has to say? If you look over the history of where and how wine critics have published their opinions, you’ll find that they’ve been in extremely credible publications. Today’s top wine magazines are trustworthy; whether you agree with their reviews or not, whether you like the 100-point system or loathe it, the fact remains that such pubs as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, etc., are widely perceived to be, like Caesar’s wife, “above suspicion.”

The way for any publication to be above suspicion is to conduct itself respectfully. Professional pubs have internal codes of ethics that prohibit their writers from writing inappropriate things. And not just their writers: they also do not allow foul letters to the editor or slanderous, insulting comments on their websites. Professional publications, in other words, police themselves, in order to keep the conversation civil.

Social media, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. Anything goes; all is permitted; eliminating even vile comments is seen as onerous censorship. It was the very freedom of social media that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.

In the last couple of years, we have begun to see the dark side of this openness. When anyone can say anything they want to—no matter how odious or untrue—it is bound to detract from the credibility of the platform as a whole. In fact, that platform can even be viewed as having encouraged odious comments, for the simple reasons that (a) it enabled them, (b) it didn’t explicitly prohibit them, and (c) it didn’t remove them at once. This is the background to the Ashley Judd situation.

And this is why platforms like Twitter, Facebook and pretty much all the rest of them suffer from a credibility gap: If the worst people can use them to spout their stupidity and hatred, this necessarily impacts everybody who chooses to write something on that platform. It’s trickle-down sleaze, and like it or not, it tarnishes everyone.

Am I saying that online wine reviews aren’t accurate and informed? Not at all. I’m not talking about the content of online reviews; I’m talking about the platforms themselves. In the case of any individual online reviewer, you might have accuracy and integrity, but the fact that it appears on a platform that allows untrammeled inaccuracy and untruthfulness to flourish must necessarily make it suspect, or at least keep it from being as credible as it otherwise could be.

What’s the answer? I think we’re seeing something more professional begin to emerge online, with lawsuits like Ashley’s, and with social media platforms in general understanding that they have to do a better job policing themselves. But the problem of stupid, insulting tweeters cannot be solved from above; it has to come from the street. People need to understand that just because they can say something awful online doesn’t mean they should. When the more decent elements stand together to condemn our basest instincts from shouting, social media will advance. Until social media cleans up its act, though, it will continue to have about it the taint of unreliability and unprofessionalism, affecting even the best-intentioned of writers.


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