I taste a lot of common wine, vin ordinaire, plonk, call it what you will. Some of it is pretty awful stuff. I also taste a lot of very expensive wine, the kind sometimes called, for lack of a better word, “cult.” In this, I’m different from some other critics, who taste only the top stuff. Me, I taste everything in my portfolio, which includes “California” appellation wines that often contain Central Valley fruit.
There’s a school of thought in wine tasting that tasting mediocre wine long enough eventually compromises the palate to the point where it cannot recognize the elite qualities of higher-toned wines. The suggestion has a human parallel. It’s like saying that someone from the ghetto can’t appreciate fine art, because he’s been raised under vulgar circumstances and thus his capability to appreciate the finer things in life is limited.
Leaving aside the racist implications of this theory, I would argue exactly the opposite: that tasting mediocre wine makes it more possible for me to appreciate great wine.
The defects of mediocre wines are many, but the most common simply is the absence of concentration. “Concentration” is very important to wine. Its opposite is thinness, wateriness, which is often the result of overcropping the wines. Blending press juice into wine can also make it harsher and contribute to an absence of concentration.
Many, many California wines are mediocre (which means “ordinary, neither good nor bad”). There’s an ocean of mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay produced for the average drinker who doesn’t want to spend a fortune. Lately, we’re seeing more and more mediocre Pinot Noirs, as that variety spikes in popularity, and let me tell you, a mediocre Pinot Noir is even less pleasant than a mediocre Cabernet!
It can be depressing to taste mediocre wines. Even when it’s not actually a drag, it’s not a whole lot of fun. It’s work. You think the critic’s day is spent lounging around in silk pajamas sipping wine, occasionally taking time to snack on a little foie gras or smoked trout? Let me tell you, a flight of Central Valley Cabernets is tough. But I console myself considerably when I find one that’s actually pretty good. If the price is low enough to make it a Best Buy in Wine Enthusiast, that’s a happy day for me.
There’s a part of me (and of every wine aficienado, I suppose) that yearns to taste great wine. There’s a hedonistic and intellectual appeal to such adventures that’s part of the reason why we became wine fanatics in the first place. This is why tasting mediocre wine can be so valuable. It’s as if, after a long trek through the desert, you’re so parched with thirst, that when you finally come across some cool, potable water, it tastes like ambrosia–not just plain old H2O, but some nectar of the gods. You can appreciate the highs all the more, for having gone through the lows.
I wrote last week about score inflation, and how a number crunch of our database at Wine Enthusiast suggests that, in recent years, my very high scores have been inching up–not by a lot, but ever so steadily. I wrote that this could be due to the fact that California wine is simply getting better, which I happen to believe is true. But it also could be true because I’m tasting more mediocre wine than ever, and I think I’m also more acute to discerning mediocrity in a wine than I used to be. That discernment for recognizing problems in wine has a counterpoint in an equal discernment for recognizing superlative quality.
One final phenomenon occurs to me, and it’s something I’ve thought of often over the years but never fully worked out in my mind. What exactly is the difference between a 100-point wine and an 85-point wine of the same type? Are they so completely different that they may as well be thought of as different species–not just apples and oranges, but apples and zebras?
Well, no. An 85 (or 84, or 86, or 88) point wine often isn’t all that different from a 100 point wine. That’s the truth that amateurs often pick up on, but are ashamed to admit, because they think it makes them look stupid. An 86 point Cabernet from Napa Valley is pretty much the same as a 100 point Cabernet from Napa Valley, except for that “concentration” I spoke earlier about. There are other rather abstract qualities that go along with concentration, such as balance, elegance and the finish, but these do require discernment of a type it takes many years to acquire. So, while a discerning palate can appreciate those higher-toned qualities, the mind that rules that palate also understands that we’re talking about shades of difference, not evolutionary paradigm shifts.
Anyway, I’ve wandered a bit from my original premise that tasting plonk can make the palate appreciate great wine even more, so let me reprise with it. Part of me wishes it didn’t have to taste mediocre wine, but my better angels recognize that it’s an important and educational part of my job.
Let’s all wish our friends and loved ones in the path of the eastern storms good luck!
My digital friend Alfonso Cevola posts on his blog, On the Wine Trail in Italy, about how an Italian culinary and wine education school, the Alma Wine Academy, is selling a “Master Sommelier diploma” for 1,044 Euros (about $1,354). This so-called Master Sommelier certification, it need not be added, has nothing to do with the real Court of Master Sommeliers, the U.K.-based organization whose tough examination parameters entitle 129 North Americans to add the prestigious letters M.S. after their name.
The Court issued a statement denying any link to the Alma Wine Academy and said it is “currently seeking through legal channels to clarify the situation.”
Alfonso learned of this through a post on a blog called Just a Good Little Wine, entitled My Master Sommelier Thesis: Josko Gravner’s Ribolla gialla and the orange wines in the U.S. market. In it, the blogger, Cristina Coari, says she is “proud to announce I’ve recently got my Master Sommelier diploma” on the basis of her thesis on “orange wines…whites so defined by the Americans for their amber and orangish color. Today, this type of wines [sic] are produced all over the world, from France to California, from New York State to Australia, from Georgia to of course Italy.” In her thesis, Cristina writes, she studied the market potential for these wines. Unfortunately, her thesis (available on her blog through a link) is in Italian, of which I speak not a word, except Ciao! and various food terms.
At first I thought Cristina’s post was a put-on, but then I Googled “orange wines” and got quite a few hits. Here’s one that calls orange wines “a current favorite of hipster sommeliers.” Here’s another, from Imbibe Magazine, that describes orange wine as “White wine that has been left to get chummy with the grape skins and seeds,” a technique uncommon in the vinification of white wines. Its introduction in New York State, by Red Hook Winery, “kicked off a whole new facet of New York winemaking and inspired other New York producers,” according to the author. And here’s one, from 2009, from our own Jon Bonné, at the S.F. Chronicle, that calls orange wines the “ultimate reactionary drink.” Jon said that 2009 “seems to be their breakout year,” but I don’t think it was. I haven’t come across any orange wines in California, haven’t heard of them, and if there’s any breaking out, it’s failed to come to my attention.
Incidentally, I looked up Josco Gravner (the subject of Cristina’s thesis) in Wine Enthusiast’s database and found a 2008 review by our Italian bureau chief, Monica Larner, of his 2003 Anfora Breg ($120), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. She loved its “deep golden color and intense aromas of caramel, butterscotch, mature apricot and chewy caramel,” and gave it 92 points.
Have you heard of orange wines? Are you a somm who serves them? Know any Cali winemakers who make them? Let me know.
Yesterday I wrote about Best Buy wines on the market now. Best Buys are defined rather strictly by Wine Enthusiast according to a price-score relationship. For example, if a wine scores 87 points and costs no more than $12, it automatically gets a Best Buy designation. The editor (in this case, me) has no discretion in the matter. It’s all in the numbers.
We also have another class of special designation called Editor’s Choice. This is where we editors can apply our discernment and judgment. The guidelines for Editor’s Choice are “wines that represent excellent quality at a price above our Best Buy range, or wines that merit special attention whether for quality or uniqueness regardless of price.”
This obviously opens up a whole world of possibilities. It would be easy, I suppose, to overdo the Editor’s Choice selections, since the parameters are so loose as to be almost subjective. But I’ve found, over the years, that I’m pretty selective about it. I don’t want my Editor’s Choices to seem promiscuously chosen, or selected for any reason other than that the wine really impresses me for something.
It’s hard to say, in the abstract, why I choose Editor’s Choices. A better approach is to use specific wines I gave the designation to and explain my thinking.
Often, even expensive wines can earn an Editor’s Choice:
Failla’s 2010 Chardonnay, from Ehren Jordan’s estate vineyard way up at Fort Ross, on the far Sonoma Coast, isn’t cheap. At $44, it’s pricier than most people I know would spend on a bottle of wine, except for a special occasion. But then, not every Chardonnay I review gets 99 points, which makes $44 seem bargainesque, which makes the wine an Editor’s Choice.
Ditto Von Strasser’s 2009 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, from up on Diamond Mountain. It’s not the only Napa Cab I gave 98 points to. But, at $70, it’s a helluva lot less expensive than its peers, not to mention dozens of triple-digit Cabs that aren’t even as good. That makes in unique.
Then there’s the De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points. Seriously good Pinot, and the price–$45–makes it a must buy. An easy winner for Editor’s Choice.
There’s another category that’s not super expensive, but not cheap either. Let’s say, from $18-$30. If these wines are outstanding or unique in some other way, I’ll give them an Editor’s Choice. For instance:
Arrowood 2009 Saralee’s Vineyard Viognier, from the Russian River Valley, got one for its 95 point score and (almost everyday) price of $30. It also earned the designation because good Viognier is rare in California, and this is a really good one.
This was a no brainer: Joseph Carr Dijon Clone Chardonnay, from the Sonoma Coast. 94 points for eighteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.
Another Duh! Editor’s Choice was the Tangent 2011 Paragon Vineyard Viognier, from Edna Valley. 92 points, $17. Can’t beat it. In the same everyday price/high quality realm is Gainey’s 2010 Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc, from down in the Santa Ynez Valley. 92 points at $19 is a steal.
Sometimes I give an Editors Choice just because the wine is offbeat and different, or I get the feeling it will be great with a vast array of food. Some of the Pinots and Cabs I rate very highly are highly specialized wines that, good as they are, are necessarily limited in what foods to drink them with. I mean, Harlan and Colgin and Verité demand foods with a high degree of sophistication and specificity geared to the wine’s flavors and textures. On the other hand is a wine like Vina Robles’ 2010 Red4, from Paso Robles (90 points, $17). A Syrah-Petite Sirah blend, it’s so versatile and elegant, if I were a sommelier I’d buy it. Production was nearly 12,000 cases–ease of finding in the marketplace can also weigh in on the Editor’s Choice designation.
One of the least expensive wines I gave an Editor’s Choice this past year was the Sterling 2009 Vintner’s Collection Syrah, with a Central Coast appellation. Thirteen bucks, 87 points. Hey, at that price, it would be one of my house reds (if I had one). High case production, too. It’s a pleasure for me to be able to use my judgment and recommend a wine as an Editor’s Choice because I know a lot of people will be able to use that information and benefit from it.
Slow news day in wine country, with the harvest proceeding apace and not much else going on. So we take a little trip down memory lane. I turn to my old wine diaries, which I started in the early 1980s and continued for 15 years. It’s interesting to me to note the evolution of how I wrote about wine.
The first diary contains labels of the wines I drank and the following categories: date, color, aroma [usually] taste, food pairing [sometimes] and price. For example, here’s a Georges DuBoeuf 1981 Morgon, tasted 2/16/83:
color: deep scarlet, purple highlights
aroma: [not included]
taste: slightly frizzante, fruity, soft and balanced, delightful.
note: onions hurt taste.
I guess I know what I had for supper on Feb. 16, 1983! It’s a pretty good note, short, sweet and to the point. I was definitely under the influence of Michael Broadbent and specifically his “Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting” which really to this day remains an ideal introduction to the topic. I like that I used the word “frizzante” which I think means slightly fizzy. It’s not a word I’d use anymore–I’d just say slightly fizzy. Why borrow foreign words if you don’t have to?
By 1986 I’d begun a system of actually rating the wines with a visual graphic: stars. I don’t know where I got that from. The San Francisco Chronicle maybe? Could have been Charlie Olken or Broadbent. Here’s a Louis M. Martini 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (alcohol 12.5%) I tasted on Dec. 4, 1986:
color: brilliant ruby, consistent (no depth at center)
nose: cherry candy. Later: Cabernet aroma, dusty, clean
taste: round, sweet and balanced. Simple, mellow, true varietal character and totally dry. This wine has aged into a completely satisfying, distinguished and wise Cabernet–for $3.79!!! Not much complexity, yet smooth, satisfying and excellent with broiled steak. Developed in glass over time.
* * * 1/2
I think my puffs went up to 5. I’m not sure I know what I meant by “wise.” Maybe sure-footed? It’s not a good idea to personify wines, i.e. call them “precocious” or “teasing,” although I sometimes do it.
When did I start using the 100 point system? I can’t say exactly, but it must have been in the early 1990s. I think I’d just started writing for Wine Enthusiast, although it would be another several years before I was officially reviewing wines for them. Here’s an early example of a wine I scored using the 100 point system.
Chateau Woltner 1991 Howell Mountain Chardonnay.
Note: tight, lean, focused aromas of lemon, dates and spice, toasty oak, butter. Very clean, sharp and acidic. Lean, tight on the palate, flavors of citrus, but almost austere, good acidity, finishes short. May improve with 1-2 years in the cellar.
I didn’t note the price. Chateau Woltner, long since gone, was owned by a member of the family that owned and sold Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, in Bordeaux. I believe this wine was then the most expensive California Chardonnay, something like $60. It didn’t work for critics or consumers at a time when people’s taste in Chardonnay was turning to riper, rounder, sweeter wines.
So you can see from the beginning I had a penchant for reviewing wines, or at least writing about them for my own pleasure. I never thought that anyone would read my notes, or want to; never thought I’d be doing it professionally. I just liked the experience of sitting down with a glass of wine and taking a little time to get to know it better. Don’t really know where that came from. I collected stamps as a kid, so maybe the two are connected. I also always liked to write, to put my thoughts and feelings into the English language, on paper (now, on computer). I still do. Putting a liking of wine together with a love for writing just led naturally to being a wine writer. I’m amazed I get paid to do it.
It’s not a statement of hubris, just of fact, to say that I often meet people who tell me they’re honored to meet me. They call me an expert on this or that, and sometimes they say they’re actually embarrassed or shy to be talking to me.
I’m used to it and can understand it. I’m fairly well-known, a big fish in the small pond of California wine reviewers. However, this reaction on people’s part always embarrasses me and causes me no little discomfort. It’s not just that I don’t want people to feel awkward around me, it’s because a little voice inside my head is going, You don’t understand, I’m not who you think I am.
When people impute to you positive qualities you’re not certain you possess, there are different ways of dealing with it. How you do so, I think, depends on the way you were raised, and your moral underpinnings. You can smile indulgently, accept the praise and even act in such a way as to acknowledge that, yes, you know you’re pretty special, but you have the grace not to revel in it.
That’s not how I react. Rather, I try to let the other person know that, in my own eyes, I’m not as smart as they think I am, and that who I really am is probably someplace midway between who they think I am and simply a guy who’s been writing about wine for a long time and may have learned a thing or two.
Mind you, I don’t dismiss what I’ve learned since the late 1970s when I took up the study of wine. I realize it’s a lot more than 99% of people will ever know. What I do dismiss is this notion that I’m somehow a high priest of wine wisdom, and the reason I dismiss it is because it’s simply not true.
This arose yesterday when I was with an executive at a high end San Francisco restaurant. I’m sure he was just being gracious in welcoming me so profusely, but he did use the word “honored” more than once and said similar things that made me think he thought I’m one of these people who can tell the difference between Williams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard and Estate Vineyard Pinot Noirs three blocks away and explain in the minutest detail how I know.
Believe me, I can’t.
I did remind him of the old Harry Waugh remark concerning Burgundy and Bordeaux and explained that ole Har–one of the greatest palates and writers of his generation–gave permission to all who came after him to stumble, sometimes badly, and feel no shame.
I like to think my attitude toward myself is one of common, garden variety humility, but there is another, more pathological explanation. The Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to recognize their own accomplishments. (Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on it.)
The key sentences are “Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”
Lots of creative people have Imposter Syndorome. It can happen to anyone who’s oohed and aahed by the public. Sally Field, the actress, displayed a touch of Imposter Syndrome when, in 1984, accepting her second Oscar for Places in the Heart, gasped, “….you like me, right now, you like me!”, in a way that showed how amazed she was that anyone could like her because, in her own mind, she was, somehow, unlikeable.
I know all the major famous wine critics and writers in California and have seen them all onstage, conducting tastings before groups of people who paid good money, and who obviously respected and admired them as rock stars. I’ve watched closely how many of these critics wing it before their audiences. They say things that aren’t true, or are unverifiable, and they depend on the fact that they’re one step ahead of most of their audience members to get away unchallenged. Critics like these ought to worry about not being as good as people think they are, and maybe they do: I hope so. It should inspire them to work harder to be better.
Myself, I’m too aware of how much I don’t know to try and be Mr. Font of Wisdom, and I think it’s only appropriate to let audiences I speak to know that. A lot of the truisms about wine that experts put out there aren’t true at all. They’re conventional wisdom, but with many exceptions to the rule. I think it’s important to let people know that, at least in California, things are much more complicated than simply saying, for instance, “You can always tell a Gold Ridge Pinot Noir because [fill in the blank].” If you know it’s a Gold Ridge Pinot Noir then sure, you can always tell. Some experts will stand up in front of audiences and explain all about Gold Ridge and then accept the accolades for being so smart. For myself, who was a journalist long before I was a wine writer, it’s important to explain Gold Ridge (or anything else) this way: “Many people say a Pinot Noir grown in Gold Ridge soil will exhibit [whatever]. I don’t always find that, but maybe it’s because my palate isn’t as finely tuned as theirs.”
Is that Imposter Syndrome, humility, or simply a recognition of the fact that wine is a lot more complicated than conventional wisdom implies? You tell me.
I get a fair number of requests from wineries for me to retaste their wines. The way the process works at Wine Enthusiast is that, at some point after I submit my scores and reviews, the magazine contacts the winery. That’s when they learn their score, and I’d estimate that the percentage who are disappointed enough to ask me to retaste is about the same as the percentage of wines I taste that are corked. About 1-2%.
I don’t have to retaste wines. It’s not required of me. The tasting department trusts me, and leaves it to my discretion, as well they should. However, in every case where the winery asks for a retaste, I accommodate. It’s the right thing to do. If the number of wineries asking for retastes starts to climb, I’ll have to reconsider my position, but so far, it’s manageable.
Most of the time when a winery requests a retaste, they offer some excuse for why I might not have found much to like about the wine. It was “off” in some way. They were aware they had some “iffy” bottles. It may have suffered from heat damage. There’s always something.
So what’s my experience with retasting? Actually, pretty consistent. I’d say about half the time I find exactly the same thing. (Remember, I’m tasting blind.) The rest of the time, the wine is better than I’d originally found, although not by much. A point or two, which is not outside the range of petty error. I can only recall a handful of instances where the second taste was worse than the first.
What does it mean when a winery asks for a retaste and says they think I had a bad or off bottle? This is a complex topic. First of all, it’s not a completely insane suggestion. All bottles are not created equal. Bottle variation happens frequently and for a vast array of reasons, more than wineries want you to know (and TCA accounts for only a small percentage of bottle variation). Big wineries, like Bronco or Gallo, are far less likely to have bottle variation than small wineries. Equalizing blends in tanks and bottling is a precision science that big wineries excel at.
There’s little or nothing a winery, small or big, can do about the vagaries of shipping, except to look to the long-range weather forecast to make sure they’re not sending their stuff out as a heat wave approaches. (Actually, lately I’ve been getting more boxes with little icy packets in them that work quite well to keep the contents cool for days.) Wineries are a lot better about checking the forecast than they used to be. It’s been my practice for years, when they ask me how to submit wines, to tell them during the summer months to please check the weather. It can get up to 140 degrees in the back of those metal boxes they call UPS and FedEx trucks.
But I wonder why a winery would send out a wine they later claim they knew was “iffy.” Did they know the wine was compromised and somehow hope that nobody would notice? Did economics trump common sense? Probably so. When your income is on the line, you’re apt to take chances. If I owned a winery, I like to think I’d never send a batch of wine I knew was off in some way–especially to a critic! But I might look at my payroll, my bills, the family’s needs, and figure, Hey, let’s roll the dice. Not all critics are created equal, either. My hunch is that wineries get away with releasing compromised wine because, from their point of view, there’s really no other choice. Of course, there’s always the possibility–I’ve heard it rumored for years–that some wineries, especially culty ones, send people like me wines that aren’t the real wine produced under that label, but special cuvées. I once even heard of a Napa winery that actually was sending certain critics a famous Bordeaux, or so it was said. I’d hate to think anyone in California would do that, but who knows?
At any rate, the main reason wines don’t score high isn’t because they’re compromised, or suffered during a heat wave, or any other unfortunate accident. It’s because they weren’t very good to begin with.
* * *
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