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Confessions of a wine critic

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At a blind tasting of all of Bill Harlan’s 2005 wines, held in 2008, I once rated The Matriarch higher than Harlan Estate itself.

The tasting was held, at my request, at Harlan’s lovely stone estate winery, in the hills above the Oakville bench. Seven wines–Harlan Estate, The Maiden, The Matriarch, and and 4 BONDs–were wrapped in tin foil and arranged on the big wooden table. After the tasting, which I did alone, Bill came back and we discussed my results. Needless to say, he was, shall we say, bemused by my favoring Matriarch, which was the least expensive of all the wines. (I’m told he still has a copy of my reviews on the wall of his office.)

Segue to Winston Lord. In the early 1970s, he was special assistant to Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, and as such, played a key role in planning Nixon’s historic trip to China and meeting with Mao Tse-tung. Lord reflects, in the book “Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency,” on the psychodrama of Nixon being ushered into The Presence of Mao. “With a great historical figure [like Mao], there is the danger that you will be impressed by personal charisma and presence because you feel you ought to be,” he said. Even the President of the United States of America, Lord suggests, became a different person before the world figure of Mao.

The parallels between meeting Mao and tasting Harlan wines should be obvious. You can rejigger Lord’s quote this way: “With a great, historical wine [like Harlan], there is the danger that you will be impressed by its renown and presence because you feel you ought to be.” And then, of course, in most cases, you are, despite taking any psychological precautions you think will even things out. Every wine critic knows this. If you’re tasting Mouton-Rothschild at the chateau in Pauillac, your perceptions are altered in ways you might not even recognize. You can try to shift back to neutral ground by telling yourself, “Although I know where I am and what I’m tasting, I can be objective,” and perhaps you actually believe that; but it’s very, very difficult, and it may ultimately not even be possible.

Why should Harlan Estate be better than The Matriarch anyway? The former, in case you don’t know, is exclusively from the Oakville vineyard around the winery. The Matriarch is a “second wine” of BOND, which is the label for a series of single-vineyard bottlings from around Napa Valley which Bill Harlan contracts with but does not own. All of the BONDs are very great wines, farmed meticulously to Harlan’s standards, and made in a similar style to Harlan Estate. Even allowing that The Matriarch’s lots have been ajudged (by Harlan’s blending team) to be not up to snuff for the main BOND wines, keep in mind that this is just the team’s opinion; and we know, from experience and common sense, that a single-vineyard Cabernet may have divots, or slight defects (not faults) here and there, which wines from other vineyards may compensate for.

Keep in mind, too, that at the level of a Harlan Estate, price is almost solely determined by the market. It has little or nothing to do with the costs of production (admittedly high); at some point, consumer demand takes over. Consumer demand for all of Harlan’s wines is high, but it is highest for the Estate, hence its superior price. But the last time I checked, consumer demand does not necessarily correlate with quality. So we’re really dealing with some very subjective, personal issues here.

Which gets us back to Winston Lord’s observation about meeting Mao. The key phrase in his quote, I think, is “because you feel you ought to be.” Tasting Mouton, or Romanée-Conti, or Harlan Estate, or anything of that ilk, even the most famous taster in the world can be forgiven for feeling that he “ought to be” impressed. The question consumers should ask (at least, those who care about wine critics) is, To what extent is this “ought to be-ness” reflected in the critic’s reviews? If you have a critic who reviews all of Harlan’s wines every vintage, and consistently gives his highest scores to them in order of price (Harlan Estate highest, the Maiden and the BONDSs slightly lower, The Matriarch the lowest), then you might well have reason to arch an eyebrow and wonder what’s going on. It could be that Harlan Estate always is the “best” (again, whatever that means), but it also could be that the critic, tasting openly, either is (a) impressed by the wine’s charisma (for which we should deduct 2 or 3 points from the score) or (b) merely trying to be consistent with his past reviews. The consumer really has no way of knowing which it is.


Annals of wine descriptors: “Profound”

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What is a “profound” wine?

 Lettie Teague indirectly raised this question in her recent Wall Street Journal profile of Joe Salamone, the wine buyer at Crush Wine & Spirits, which is in midtown Manhattan. Teague’s column was, in part, about the language people use to describe wine; Salamone, referring to a particular Savoie red, liked it “for its freshness and structure, although,” he added, “it’s not a profound wine by any means.”

Whatever does that mean?

The word “profound” pops up time and again in formal descriptions of certain (usually well-known) wines. Someone on Wine Beserkers, writes that “you can sum up [Romanée-St.-Vivant] in just a few words (fruit, five-spice, and satin–there, done)–but it is still a profound wine because its form is beautiful even though it’s not complicated.” K&L Wine, down the freeway from me in Redwood City, uses the p-word in its newsletter with almost profligate frequency: a 2003 Ausone is “profoundly concentrated,” a Branaire-Ducru of the same vintage “profound,” while, on the other hand, quoting Parker, the ’83 Suduiraut is “not as profound as the other 1983s…”. Our friend Matt Kramer has described the Pinot Noirs of the [far] Sonoma Coast as being among “the most profound Pinot Noirs grown in America…” while even a modest Sherry, an Amontillado from Tio Diego, is anointed with profundity in the British financial magazine, Money Week, where it’s described as “iconic and profound.”

These different writers seem to be describing the same thing, but from the consumer’s point of view, it’s hard to know what it is they’re talking about. How can a wine be “not complicated” and yet “profound”? Can a Sherry be “profound” in the same way as Ausone? Are there degrees of profundity? And what is the monetary value of “profundity” in a wine compared to one that’s merely very good without being profound?

No wonder wine shoppers get a little crazy.

I myself am no stranger to the p-word. I called the aroma of a B Cellars 2008 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet “profound in black currants and cassis,” and also described as “profound” the tannins on a 2008 Cabernet, the PerryMore (also from Beckstoffer ToKalon). Clearly we writers are trying to communicate something important when we use this word to describe a wine or some aspect of it. I italicize this phrase deliberately, for it raises another question: Can individual parts of a wine be profound, while others aren’t? If, in fact, a single part (structure, aromatics, tannins) is profound, does that then raise the entire wine (which is the sum of all its parts) to profundity?

You can say that these are just angels-dancing-on-pinheads debates, fit pastime for indolent Jesuits, and in part, that’s right. But it matters, at least to those of us who take the art of wine writing seriously.

We know certain things: to call a wine “profound” is probably the highest accolade you can give it. Writers do not and should not use the word promiscuously. We know, too (or at least we hope), that when a writer calls a wine “profound”, it’s because that writer has experienced a great many great wines over a long period of time, and therefore knows what he’s talking about. If Joe Blow, who’s been writing about wine for a year or two, says a wine is profound, one is entitled to doubts. Perhaps he read an established writer use that word, was impressed, and is trying it out for himself. (By the way, it’s no criticism of young wine writers to say they’re still trying to find a style.) If on the other hand a seasoned professional who’s experienced great wine for decades calls a wine profound, our ears prick up. Mine do, if it’s a writer I respect.

I associate profundity in California wines chiefly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I don’t particularly want to rehash the debate over what constitutes a “noble” wine, because then we’d have two words–noble and profound–to define, rather than only one, thus muddying the waters even more. But a great Pinot Noir or Cabernet is where I typically (if rarely) find profundity. I have had white wines that were profound, but they weren’t from California. As much a fan as I am of great California Chardonnay, I wouldn’t call it profound. (I hope someone doesn’t plow through Wine Enthusiast’s database in search of one or two times I might have. If you do that, you have way too much time on your hands!) California Chardonnay can be sexy, opulent, dazzling, amazingly rich–but profound, it ain’t.

Last question, re: Salamone’s quote about that Savoie. If you like a wine, a lot, and it goes really good with the food you like, and it satisfies you in every way, but it’s “not a profound wine by any means,” should that bother you? Of course not. I’m reaching for an analogy, but the experience of a profound wine is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing all those Rembrandts and El Grecos. That’s not an everyday experience. That’s an experience to heighten your senses and delight you with great art. But you can’t live in a museum, nor would you want to, I should think.


Tasting mountain wines in San Francisco

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Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.

That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.

The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.

High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”

Here are the six wines and some comments about them:

Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.

Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.

Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from  variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.

Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.

Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.

But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.

Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.

“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.

What linked all six mountain wines?

-Intensity

-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals

-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)

-Ageability

-Complexity


Thoughts on Pinot Gris/Grigio

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Working on an article on Napa white wines for Wine Enthusiast, I realized I’d never blogged on Pinot Gris/Grigio. So I did a little crawling around my reviews over the years (helpfully stored in the magazine’s terrific database) and here’s what I came up with.

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of PG, I’d have said the same thing I’d say today: workhorse white, much as it is in Italy, in places like the Alto Adige. A simple wine to wash food down. I’ve reviewed about 825 PGs since my very first, a Hogue 1998, from the Columbia Valley, which I gave 86 points. I liked its delicacy, fruitiness and acidity, all qualities I still admire in a PG.

My highest score ever was to Chamisal’s 2011, from the Edna Valley, which I awarded an Editor’s Choice even though it wasn’t exactly cheap, $24 to be exact. I thought it deserved the special designation, being the highest-scored of that variety ever for me. Chamisal called it Pinot Gris rather than Grigio. It’s not an ironclad rule, but in general wnemakers call the wine Gris if it had some oak and was stirred on the lees, while they reserve Grigio for steel-fermented ones (which also can be sur lie). But I’ve had oaky PGs that were called Grigio so you can’t really go by this rule.

Certainly the best PGs must come from cool areas. If the wine doesn’t have acidity, it’s flat, and there’s nothing worse than a flabby white wine, especially if it also has residual sugar. The best areas for PG in California are Edna Valley, Sta. Rita Hills (where Carr and Babcock excel), Carneros (Etude is always a standout), Anderson Valley (Navarro defines the crisp, elegant style), and the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan specializes in it. Rick Longoria makes a consistently good PG which he labels with a Santa Barbara County appellation. I don’t know where in the county the grapes are from. Maybe the Los Alamos area? Anyway, Rick’s PG’s go beyond mere lemons and limes into exotic tropical fruits, apricots and honey.

The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever ordered a PG in a restaurant. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because the variety doesn’t make a really compelling case for any particular type of food. I think a rich, barrel-fermented one would be great with something like the albacore tuna tostada, with crisped leeks, chipotle mayo and avocado, they serve at Tacolicious, in the Mission. But so would their La Sirena cocktail (Ketel One, lime, ginger, cassis), a Corona Familiar, or for that matter an Albariño from Rias Baixas.

That’s the problem with a wine with Pinot Gris/Grigio. They can be good, but they don’t demand to be paired with anything in particular. If you’re having boiled lobster and butter, or Dungeness crab with buttered sourdough bread, there’s really only one wine: Chardonnay, the richer the better. If you’re having a rack of lamb with roasted potatoes, you can’t go wrong with a great Pinot Noir. But what food screams out for PG?

On the other hand, good California PG isn’t very expensive, averaging $15-$24 for a 90-point bottle. I wonder if there are any sommeliers out there who will read this and make some suggestions for individual PGs and what foods to pair them with.


Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man

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Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.

My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.

Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.

But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.

Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)

By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.

So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.


There are some kinds of blogs we just don’t need

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Parker published a column on his website the other day that has raised some people’s hackles.

(“Hackles” are the hairs on the back of a dog’s neck. They rise up when the dog is angry. Since Gus has never been angry, I’ve never seen any on him. Well, he got angry once when a poodle mounted him, but it all happened so fast I didn’t have time for a hackle check.)

I don’t subscribe to eRobertParker.com, and I tried to find the article for free on the Internet, but no deal. (Good firewall, Bob!) So all I know about it is what this opinion piece, from Wine-Searcher, said, and also this opinion piece, from the San Francisco-based blog, Vinography.

I’m here to defend RMP for this reason: Some bloggers have made a living (so to speak) promoting themselves by insulting well-known wine critics. By thus associating their names with famous people like Parker, they get mentally connected with them in people’s minds, and that’s the whole point. It’s free, cheap publicity. It’s also the mark of a small person who can’t figure out a way to achieve something on his own. Instead, he goes after the Big Dogs, hoping to attract attention and controversy that way.

We see this sort of thing a lot in politics, but it’s pitiful to see it in the wine world.

Parker happens to be right about “natural” wines. There’s always going to be a sub-section of the wine community looking for the next cool thing: biodynamique, low alcohol, LEED-certified buildings, natural yeast, minimal intervention, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of that, but to focus on any of them exclusively–to obsess with them–is a mistake. All that Parker is saying (from my read) is that wine doesn’t have to be this, that or the other, in order to be good. So the ideologues (I think the low alcohol crowd has become the Taliban of wine) are not only missing the boat, but misleading consumers.

And is Parker wrong when he says that many wine websites “offer little in the way of content or substance”? No! It’s absolutely true. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I visit a lot of winery websites and believe me, some of them look like they haven’t been dusted for years. As for “Euro-elitists,” can you doubt that there’s an anti-California crowd out there? You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. These are people who bash California every chance they get. And then they bash Parker for giving high scores to California wines. Look, if you don’t like California wine, man up and admit that they’re not to your liking, and don’t bash Parker just because he does like California wine, and he’s more famous than you’ll ever be.

When did wine writing get so personal, so ad hominem? It’s so counter to the gentlemanly (and gentle-womanly) way it’s always been. It came with the rise of the bloggers. Parker calls them “blobbers” and why shouldn’t he? They’re biting his ankles all the time. He’s an easy target and whenever a little blobber attacks Parker, their blog’s readership numbers rise, as they get republished, aggregated, retweeted and all the rest. Is Parker supposed to turn the other cheek all the time? He’s only human. After a while, the constant niggling must get to him. It would get to anyone.

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that success comes from real achievement. You might get 15 minutes of fame by being an angry mudslinger and going after famous writers in a snarky, nasty way. But in 16 minutes, you’re a nobody again. Not a good longterm strategy for making it as a wine writer. My advice to winemakers, winery P.R. folks and others interested in promoting wineries and wines is to stick with writers and bloggers who are professional, fair and polite, and to avoid those whose real agenda is self-promotion.


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