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A roundup of my Pinot Noir tastings, and now, here comes Chardonnay

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At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.

I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.

What did I find after this intensive tour de force?

All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.

Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!

And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.

One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.

Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.

TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.


Travels with Gus

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Keith and I were returning back home from Malibu yesterday, up the 101 Freeway, chatting away, keeping the long ride interesting. When we came to Salinas, we saw a sign next to the freeway advertising the National Steinbeck Center.

Keith asked if I had ever been to the Steinbeck museum there, and I said no, nor was it a place I cared to visit. He said it was actually pretty good, and of course he mentioned The Grapes of Wrath. I’d read it a long time ago, but couldn’t remember much about it. But I did remember Steinbeck’s charming little memoir, Travels with Charley, his tale of an auto tour of the U.S. he made with his standard poodle, Charley. I’d liked that book a lot. Then I found myself joking, “You know, I ought to write a book called Travels with Gus.” Which brings us to today’s blog.

Many of you know that I travel with Gus when I hit the road in California, going to winery things and some consumer and trade events. I don’t always bring him to the event itself, but I always stay in pet-friendly hotels, so that Gus is waiting for me when I return to my room.

It’s my privilege and pleasure to be able to travel with Gus. Yeah, it’s a little unconventional for a working wine writer to travel with his dog. But Gus is small, and mellow, and absolutely quiet. Everybody likes him. When people see me, they don’t say, “It’s Steve,” they say, “It’s Gus.” Nobody has ever complained about him, or shown anything less than delight, except once, years ago, when I brought him to Rubicon (now Inglenook) for an interview with F.F. Coppola. Francis himself never saw Gus, but his people did, and one of them complained to Wine Enthusiast. I thought it was weird for a California winery–normally the most dog-friendly place on earth–to complain about dog, especially Gus. But then I realized that Rubicon wasn’t a winery, as I understood the word. It was more like the Napa Valley branch of Francis Ford Coppola Worldwide Enterprises, Inc., and his “people” were P.R. professionals who seemed like they would have been just as happy, maybe even happier, working for Windsor Castle.

That makes it sound like the life of a traveling wine writer is fabulous. It is–and it isn’t. Being on the road can be lonely. You go someplace, you do your thing (obviously as professionally as you can), and then you move on. People are nice enough, and the events themselves are fun. But then, it’s back to your hotel room, and you wake alone. The traveling salesman’s life. Still, and despite all the downside, I like it. It’s real. And, to be perfectly honest, I like ending the night at the hotel bar.

But having Gus with me is the icing on the cake. I love my dog, but I cherish the thought that 99.9% of the people I meet on the road like him too. He’s a happy dog, well-behaved, sweet. He almost never has “accidents.” He’ll sit in my lap forever without complaint, because all he wants is to be with Daddy. (Well, he wants food, and water, and places to sniff, but you know what I mean.) I’ve been a wine writer since 1989, have traveled from one end of California to the other, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. But since I’ve had Gus (2010), my pleasure has been fruitful, and multiplied.

In “Travels with Charley” Steinbeck strove to understand America as it was in that transitional year, 1960. Having Gus with me helps me understand America today. In our guarded times, people warm up to dogs, especially cute ones, more than they do to each other. I’ve had umpteen conversations with folks because of Gus that I never would have had by myself. When people like a dog the way they do Gus, they open up—drop their defenses, smile, let the kinder, gentler side of themselves come out. How cool is that, to meet people who, at the sight of my dog, want to be friends.

GusWine

 


What makes a successful tasting event?

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My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.

It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.

The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.

I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.

Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.


Do wine critics always “critique” the wines they drink?

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I suppose the general public, and even professionals in the wine industry, think that critics (or former critics) analyze every wine they drink, whether it’s in a restaurant setting or just something at home, in front of the television.

Well, I don’t…and yet, in another sense, I do. Let me explain.

If I’m at somebody’s house and they’re pouring something that I know is inexpensive, of course I would never complain about it, even if I thought it was dreadful. But usually, it’s not dreadful. There are very, very few dreadful wines anymore in the U.S. distribution system, regardless of what country it’s from. Americans have very discerning taste when it comes to wine; even people who say “I don’t know anything about wine” know more than they think they do. What they want is a decent wine, and for the most part, that’s what they get in supermarkets, big boxes and even in most local wine shops.

I can deal with a decent wine. In fact, I can quite enjoy one. I happily take off my (former) critic’s hat and go with the flow. Now, I might, somewhere in the back of my head, think, “This is a pretty ordinary wine, and if I was scoring it, I’d give it 84 points.” But that’s a fleeting thought, and I wouldn’t hold it against the wine, or my host.

The critical mindset is a very specific one. For me, it’s reserved for the circumstance of formal tasting. When I know I’m tasting for a professional reason, I definitely enter into Critic Mode, which is inherently a negative state. That means that I’m looking for anything and everything wrong with the wine. And believe me, most wines, probably 99.9%, have something wrong with them. Sometimes, this wrongness is glaring: exceptionally high brett, or searing acidity, or massive domination by oak, or something equally awful. But most of the time, the problem with a wine is minor. It’s the sort of thing most wine drinkers wouldn’t even notice—which is as it should be. But, when I’m in Critic Mode, I notice the slightest fault. That’s why I’ve given so few 100 point scores to wines. Most wines have some kind of fault, which automatically makes them less than perfection.

But, like I said, for me to go into Critic Mode is extremely rare. It’s the same with movie critics. I love our local film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle. People sometimes ask him if he can just “go to the movies” and not be critical, and he says, Sure he can. That doesn’t mean that he won’t perceive some weird plot thing that makes no sense, or bad acting, or something else. His brain is trained to do that, as mine is trained to detect faults in wine. But it doesn’t make him walk out of the theatre. He can enjoy a film even though it has little glitches here and there.

The interesting thing, for me, is that, if I’m at a party at your house and you give me a glass of wine that, under critical circumstances, I might score at 100 points, I’m not sure that I would be overwhelmed by it under non-critical conditions. I’d probably think that it was a very good wine, and I might ask you what it was; but, since I wouldn’t be in Critic Mode, I wouldn’t be going into overdrive praising it. That would be inappropriate for a social setting. If you invite me to your house for dinner or a party, it’s not a winetasting event, it’s a social event at which wine is incidental. What this suggests to me is that finding perfection in a wine is possible only when you’re in Critic Mode, which is a Heisenberginan phenomenon: you tend to find what you’re looking for (physicists found the Higgs boson because they were looking for it). This has a further implication: it means that, if you’re not looking for a 100-point wine, then you probably won’t find one, even if you’re a critic. The 100-point wine, then, exists, not in the real world, but in the critic’s mind.


The new normal: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better

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To have asked the question, “Do expensive wines taste better than inexpensive wines” just twenty years ago would have been absurd. Nobody doubted that they did. Throughout history—from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the American Founding Fathers to the post-Prohibition boutique winery era to the rise of the modern critic—the conventional wisdom was that the best wines were the most costly, and vice versa. First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were expensive because of their quality. The implicit assumption, borne out by centuries of experience, was that the greatest terroirs had long been singled out, and therefore, the wines made from them deserved to fetch the highest prices.

Today, to ask the question “Do expensive wines taste better?” has become routine to the point of cliché. Here’s the latest example, from the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal. The author, Fred Tasker, whose column is widely syndicated, doesn’t reach any conclusions. But even to ask the question is to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in the way Americans perceive wine.

What this “something” is that has changed has everything to do with the times we live in. Authority is breaking down. People mistrust conventional leaders, be they politicians or the pundits who tell us which wines are great and which are not. Social media obviously has accelerated this trend; I don’t think it caused it, because authority was eroding before social media was invented. Now, for the first time in the history of fine wine, people are widely wondering why they should pay so much money for a First Growth or Grand Cru (or cult Napa Valley Cabernet) when study after study proves that not even “experts” can tell the difference between expensive wine and inexpensive wine.

This is a serious issue the wine industry is going to have to address. Speaking as a critic, I can assure you that there are vast quality differences between wines. One bottle of Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is almost always going to be better (sometimes much better) than another from a different winery, even when the grapes come from the same vineyard. And price does play a role: the higher the price, the more likely the wine is to be better. But I say these things from the point of view of a critic. If I were an ordinary consumer, I’d view people like me as simply defending the old order. “What a dinosaur,” I’d probably think. “He’s so wedded to his notion of things that he can’t see clearly anymore.”

Well, that’s all right. Like I said, authority is breaking down. As part of an “authority regime,” I understand that, and welcome it. Even if I didn’t welcome it, it would come anyway, so I might as well embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it. From a winery’s point of view, this breakdown of authority can be a good thing. The deck is being reshuffled, the playing field is being wiped clean, the chessboard is getting reset. (Stop me before I metaphor again.) What was, is not necessarily what will be. What was not, might be tomorrow. A winery can come from nowhere and suddenly be everybody’s darling. A winery that’s been on top forever could find itself overlooked and ignored, as its fan base ages and dies. Those upholders and defenders of the ancien regime, the Baby Boomer critics, are retiring. Even in the writings of such current writers as Benjamin Lewin, M.W. (whose “Wines of France” I am thoroughly enjoying), I sense a certain reluctance to make sweeping declarations—declarations that Michael Broadbent or Hugh Johnson, or the generations before them, happily would have made.

This movement away from declarations is symptomatic of the breakdown of authority. No longer is it entirely safe to say “Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru” or “First Growth is superior to Second Growth” or “$150 Cabernet is better than $40 Cabernet.” It once perhaps was; no more. Experience, and blind tasting, warn us against such cozy stereotypes.

Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I do think there’s something in the nature of human beings that desires hierarchies. We want to know who’s the best basketball team in the NBA (go, Warriors), which restaurant has the best reviews—and what the best wines are. And we are willing to pay a premium for “the best.” So I think that even in the far-off future, the world of wine will be marked by common perceptions of “the best.” I, personally, believe that Bordeaux is on the way down, which is why the chateaux are marketing so heavily in naïve countries, like China. I think Burgundy may be heading south, too, if for no other reason than that it’s so expensive, no critic can afford to taste it anymore—which means the top wines will show up only in the most elite reviews—and out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I think Napa Valley faces the same dilemma, which presents a great opportunity for Cabernets from Sonoma County and Paso Robles.

Anyhow, it’s clear that, with Millennials, we’ve entered a new era. They don’t care what wine was famous for 500 years. They don’t care what region was exalted by their grandfathers. All bets are off. So to ask if an expensive wine is better than an inexpensive wine is the new norm that wineries are going to have to deal with.

 


How do you evaluate wine blind, by typicity or by quality?

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We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.

As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.

(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)

Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.

All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.

A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.

I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.

Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.

Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.

Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.

However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.

So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.


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