Matt Kramer makes a good case about the difference between “enjoyment” and “assessment” of wine in his Dec. 15 Wine Spectator column—too good a case, for in describing the importance of “context” in wine appreciation, he carves out a huge exception for “truly great wines” in a way that is not entirely consistent with his argument.
Briefly, Matt’s argument runs thus: “Context is everything—or nearly so.” A humble little Tuscan wine that was so good in Florence is “a little thin” back home in the States. Port on a hot summer day just doesn’t work. A big Napa Cabernet that tasted so good at Farmstead can be “a little too strong” someplace else. Yes, “context” as such is of supreme importance in how we experience our wines.
The logical extension of this is that every wine is a product (or victim) of its context, and therefore, there is something fungible about our impressions of wine quality: it all depends on what Dr. Leary called “set and setting.” I can buy into that theory, although it does imply the (rather alarming) wrinkle that there is no such thing as objective quality.
This is dangerous territory for critics, who make their living by appraising quality. Matt senses this risk: he gets this close to affirming it, yet instinctively backs down or away at the last second. (Even his headline, “Context is [nearly] everything,” testifies to some inner wrestling with himself.) After telling us, correctly, how context trumps objective quality, he retreats to the following loophole big enough to drive a fleet of trucks through: “Obviously, this is not always the case—and certainly not for truly great wines…”.
Think about this statement. It states rather categorically that there is a subset of all wines, namely “truly great wines,” that is “protected” (or, in Matt’s exact words, “protect themselves”) from the context dilemma by virtue of their greatness—a sort of vinous nobility that is above the laws to which the rest of us ordinary mortals are subject. Matt, like wine writers throughout history, creates this exclusive carve-out and contrasts it with “lesser wines.” The former need no context to be appreciated, only the discerning powers of the critic. The latter can be appreciated—must be appreciated—only in context.
This is a very strange dualism. For one, if the world can be divided into “truly great wines” and everything else, who’s to say which camp any particular wine is assigned to? When the world of wine commentary was restricted to a mere handful of (white, male) critics, this was a simple matter. These men dined and drank at the same clubs and shared the same outlook. But that is no longer the case. As the stranglehold of the ancien régime loosens, so too, and inevitably, must our concepts of what makes for “truly great wines.” The Internet unleashed this genie on the world, and we have to live with, and adjust ourselves to, its destabilizing results.
But of course any critic who has made a career of curating wines into the “truly great” and everything else must hesitate before taking the enormous step of declaring that everything is context—even the evaluation of LaLas or Latour. I count myself among them. I am hugely reluctant to declare that wine quality is a myth perpetuated nowadays by a complicit media, and that everything is relative. For I know that everything is not relative. There are degrees of quality, and we in this business are expected to make distinctions.
At the same time, I’m aware of the fact that the way we hierarchize wine is changing. We may in fact be coming to a point where we abandon the notion of objective quality and come down instead on the side of “enjoyment,” as opposed to “assessment,” where the first duty of a wine is, not to garner praise from “experts,” but to please the person who buys it. I don’t expect this to occur in my lifetime, but we’re closer to it than we ever have been, for the simple reason that America is more of a wine-drinking country than it has ever been, and real wine-drinking countries don’t need critics to tell them what to drink.
I’ve been reading lots about minerality, especially in the pages of the Somm Journal, where they’ve run a couple of articles on it lately. This one in the August-September issue is the poster child for these types of discussions in which very abstruse, hard-to-define issues related to wine are discussed by professionals, with no conclusive results. But rather than be frustrating for their lack of clarity, they advance the discussion, in fun and informative ways. We may never get to a definition of “minerality,” or even come to a consensus what wines display it, but meanwhile, it keeps wine writers (and somms) gainfully employed and active and raising the bar ever higher.
I use the word “minerality” a fair amount and have for many years. For example, since I began working at Jackson Family Wines, I’ve used it in my descriptions of Byron’s 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay (both the regular and the Nielson), Cambria’s 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, 2012 Tepusquet Viognier, 2012 Julia’s Pinot Noir and 2012 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, and several others.
I know what I mean by “minerality,” but obviously it’s a word that defies definition, or even clarity. I like wine director Jeff Taylor’s (Betony, New York) description: minerality is “the non-fruit and non-oak descriptors for a wine.” He lists “chalk, crushed seashells, gravel, gun flint, a sidewalk after a light rain” as illustrations, but these clearly are metaphors, not exact descriptions, since nobody really tastes sidewalks or crushed seashells. Well, I guess you could pound seashells into powder, then put them in your mouth, but even so, it would be hard to draw an exact analogy between that taste/feeling and “minerality” in the wine.
One of the controversies about minerality is whether or not whatever it is can travel from the soil, via the plant’s roots, into the grapes; and even if it can, how that “something” expresses itself. Some somms think it happens all the time; others don’t. Whatever “minerality” is, it’s a good thing: it’s bracing and grippy (in a non-tannic way), almost metallic (I think of licking a cold lamppost on a winter day, which is something I have done, a practice whose utilitarian value outweighs its unsanitariness). It’s easy in hindsight to theoretically identify where minerality comes from in a wine: for example, all those Santa Maria Valley wines that display it are grown in sandy soils that have quite a lot of ancient decomposed marine matter in them. The wines feel iron-y to me: despite their richness there’s a metallic vein that makes them chewy, almost as if a sheet of aluminum foil had been inserted inbetween the flavors. A little minerality goes a long way toward providing pleasurable structure.
On a meta level these conversations about minerality in California wine suggest that we’ve collectively achieved a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, even ten, you wouldn’t have heard them. We were too obsessed with describing more obvious fruit and oak flavors, and tannin and acid levels. The fact that we can now talk about things of great subtlety shows how far we’ve come. Does it also show a shifting style of winemaking, something less ripe, and more streamlined? I think so. Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness. Tone down the wine a bit, and whatever minerality is there shows itself as a bright, lifted tone.
Minerality is one of those things that is good but not sufficient in itself to make for great wine. In an ordinary wine—a simple Gruner or Albarino, for example—it can be pleasant, refreshing and eminently quaffable, yet fail to rise above everydayness—an 86 or 87 point wine, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the price is right. But if you take a 90 point wine (red or white) and add a little minerality so that it has that fine, grippy tang, it lifts the wine up a degree or two, to 91 or 92 points. This is what’s so important about structure: it’s also why it’s taken the wine writing community so long to get around to appreciating the structural elements of a wine, including minerality: it takes a certain amount of experience for the palate and mind to grow beyond loving sheer massive hedonism in order to reach that level of understanding and appreciation.
I myself don’t have a “wine room,” as these new mega-cellars are being called. In fact, Mr. Casimano’s “wine room” is bigger than my entire condo! I do rent space at K&L Wine Merchants for some bottles, and I have one of those 120-bottle Eurocaves, but that’s about it. I never did see the sense of piling up a vast collection of wines the majority of which I’d never be able to drink in my lifetime.
That was the situation in which many of the wealthy men whom I met over the years found themselves. They had 50,000, 100,000, 250,000 bottle cellars full of rare and expensive wines, the collecting of which seemed to me to be the symptom of some sort of hoarding mentality, like those cat ladies with 100 felines wandering around a one-bedroom apartment. I used to hear stories of these gentlemen. Eventually, most of them auctioned off their collections, which raised the question: Did they buy them with the intention of aging and enjoying them, or were they investments in the first place?
The concept of “wine as investment” always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the romantic in me: Wine was the complete opposite of a stock certificate. How could you reduce wine to a commodity that might or might not appreciate in value? Didn’t that take all the love, passion and artistry out of it? For me, it did. There was a point, back in the ‘90s, when I briefly considered buying some First Growths for investment, just as I was day trading at Schwab; but reason soon was restored to my senses, and I refrained.
It was due to my experiences early in my wine writing career, working for a magazine that catered to high-end collectors, that I came to harbor some downbeat feelings about that segment of our wine community. Too many of them were buying wine to out-do their friends in the show-off game. Oh, the stories I could tell (and have told, if you care to wade through my older posts). I felt one could be a good critic while decrying the tendency on the part of some to slavishly label-shop the latest critical darling. What about all the honest, good vins ordinaires of the world, the kind I, and everybody else I knew, drank happily on a day-to-day basis? Was there no room for them at the inn?
Of course there was, and is. But this in turn raises the inevitable question of wine scores and reviews. No matter what system you use—100 points, stars, puffs, 20 points—wine reviewing is a comparative practice: It pits wines against each other, in a sort of sporting or beauty contest, and claims that some wines are better than others. This is certainly true: some are; and some are a lot better than others. To experience a great wine is indeed a memorable experience.
But why does that lead, in some cases, to this relentless piling up of collections? I scratch my head. At some point, having too much wine is like having too much of anything: you get jaded. Scarcity is the mother of appreciation: if you don’t have much of something, you love it all the more when it comes your way. Or so it seems to me.
Quite a lot of buzz in the brouhaha-sphere over all the perfect 100s Parker have been bestowing lately. This time the commentary is from Narsai David, the food and wine critic for our local KCBS radio affiliate in San Francisco, and an old acquaintance.
The most common reaction in the commentariat has been to use the word “exponential” or a variant of it to describe the increase in Parker 100s. Wine-Searcher used it last Wednesday (“the list is growing with exponential speed”), while Narsai’s phrasing elevated the adjective to adverbial status (“this number has grown exponentially in recent years”). This naturally all gets picked up and echoed on social media; Terroirst blog quoted the Wine-Searcher article, while Narsai’s column also was reprinted, as for instance here, at the Daily Meal.
First, the numbers: As Narsai writes, “Wine Advocate has given a perfect score to a total of 511 wines, but this number has grown exponentially in recent years. Just five years ago, only 69 wines scored 100 ‘Parker Points’ and in 2004, the number of perfect bottles was only 17.” Narsai calls this rapid increase in 100s “a little troubling,” because it implies (to Narsai, anyway) wines that are higher in alcohol than some vintners who are “trying to satisfy Parker” would prefer, thereby leaving them in “a real quandary.”
[Fantasy segue: A conversation between a winemaker and her priest-confessor:
Winemaker: “Father, I would like to keep the alcohol-by-volume on my Cabernet under 14%, but then it would never get a hundred points from Parker.”
Priest-confessor: “My daughter, wherein lies your heart?”
Winemaker: “That’s the problem. I have expenses…”.
Priest-confessor: “You are in a real quandary.”
The word “quandary” derives from the Latin, and means “a state of uncertainty.” American Presidents routinely find themselves in quandaries during crises. Lincoln was in one after the Confederates seized Fort Sumter: Should he abandon it, or fight for it, thus starting a Civil War? FDR, a great Lincoln scholar, similarly faced a quandary after Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland, in September, 1939. Should he support Britain with materiel, even though he had an election coming up, and the majority of the country was isolationist? And yet a winemaker’s “quandary” can hardly be in the same category as either Lincoln’s or FDR’s.]
The conventional wisdom is that the pace of 100s has picked up because, as Narsai observes, “wine [technology] production in the last 25 years has really improved.” That’s undeniable. We also have had, here in California, a series of excellent vintages. My own company, Jackson Family Wines, has certainly enjoyed Parker’s largesse: perfect 100s for Lokoya and Verite (multiple times), which puts them in the company they deserve: Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Hundred Acre, among others in California. (Here’s a list of all Parker’s 100s.)
I’ve always said that, when it comes to 100-point wines, critics should be either remarkably stingy or generous. I was the former; Parker is the latter. There is intellectual support for both positions, but not for the muddy middle. To be stingy implies that perfect wines are so rare that the awarding of 100 point scores must necessarily be limited as is, for instance, the giving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. To be generous means that, once you have stipulated that perfection exists, you have to recognize that it’s more widespread than commonly thought. Both of these positions are sound. The muddy middle makes it seem like the critic who straddles the fence is simply indecisive.
So, to answer my question, Do all those Parker scores indicate score inflation? No. They suggest that wine really is better than ever, and, in California’s case, the meaning is clear: We are world class. No ands, ifs or buts about it. If certain critics can’t see that, they had best remove the beam from their eye.
Like lions and tigers sharing a contested hunting ground, sommeliers and critics circle each other’s turfs, eyeing each other warily across the veldt.
Scattered on that field is the game both sides seek: wine consumers. Somms want to sell them wine; critics want to influence their buying decisions. Therein lies a conflict. Though they both wear the mantle of “gatekeeper,” critics and somms often seem to be in charge of different gates.
Somms tend to see critics as uncredentialed—folks who one way or another achieved career success with little or no formal training. They—the somms—worked extraordinarily hard to get where they are and, especially if they’re Master Sommeliers, feel (with a certain amount of justification) that their superior knowledge makes them the kings of the wine jungle.
Critics tend to view somms with some envy. They know that they—the critics—never had to go through any sort of rigorous certification process, whereas the somms did. Critics may even feel lucky to have landed their jobs. But they—the critics—also know that they wield far greater power, in general, than somms.
The critics’ power extends over broad stretches of geography. If they happen to write for one of the major wine periodicals, their words, recommendations and scores are seen by millions, either directly or indirectly, through quotes in third-party publications, shelf talkers, marketing materials, social media and the like.
The somm’s power typically extends only across the square footage of the restaurant floor. There, the somm reigns supreme. Step outside the door, and the power of the somm melts away, replaced by the power of the critic.
Critics are seldom if ever disdainful of somms. Why would they be? They recognize the somm’s achievements and are respectful of it. Somms tend to disdain critics. They may be in awe of the critic’s influence, but they can’t help but feel like they know more, which makes them sense that there’s an imbalance in the world. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that the sommelier community is a tightly-knit one, filled with mutually-reinforcing beliefs, whereas the “critical community,” so far as it exists at all, is quite the opposite. Critics don’t socialize much with each other, and there is within that small circle a certain degree of suspicion. Lesser critics want to be A-listers, while even A-listers look at Parker and think, “Why can’t I be him?”
Critics also point to a built-in weakness of the sommelier community: Somms are trying to sell wine. No matter where they work (for a winery, a restaurant or whatever), somms have a stake in their employer’s financial success. Critics, on the contrary, say they have no agenda whatsoever when it comes to wine. They don’t care who’s successful and who’s not, who sells what and who doesn’t. They’re in the enviable position of simply telling the truth.
When I was a critic, that was certainly my feeling. I recognized that my knowledge of the world’s wines was not as broad as that of some somms. However, I treasured my independence, and felt that it gave me the ability to be fiercely objective, without regard to the consequences—even for advertisers in the magazine I wrote for. Whenever I ran into a somm—usually in a restaurant—I sensed two things: great knowledge, but also an underlying motive to sell wine. I must admit this gave me a certain moral superiority.
Now I work for a company that sends me out on sales trips with their Master Sommeliers. I see the potential ironies, but I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve long admired and respected Jackson Family Wines for the obvious reason that their wines are so good, at every price point. I sometimes wonder, if I’d been offered a job by a winery whose wines I didn’t respect, would I have taken it? What if the remuneration had been very high? This is a hypothetical and so it’s impossible for me to say, since it never happened. But I think that, if I had to promote wines I didn’t care for, I would be a very unhappy ex-critic. As it is, I’m a happy one.
Have a great weekend!
Brother Laube has a good column in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator on the humungous crop size of the 2012 vintage in California. Not only was it at the time the biggest ever, but, according to Jim, for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 “hit the jackpot.” That certainly accords with my reviews of 2012 Cabs, although there are many I didn’t taste because I left my old job last March just as they were starting to come in.
What I take from Jim’s column is the irony of large production with high quality, which theoretically is difficult, if not impossible. But it isn’t unknown. Both 2005 and 2007 were excellent Cabernet vintages in California, and both were good-sized harvests: 2005, in particular, was the highest ever until 2012 came along. Nor can we conclude that a low-producing vintage is necessarily a good one. The notoriously chilly 2011 harvest, so reviled by so many critics, was only average-sized, by modern standards.
I’ve long been puzzled by the mutually-reinforcing stereotypes that (a) high production compromises quality and (b) low production tends to equate with high quality. I’ve never believed that. It sounds good, but falls apart in the face of the evidence. The great First Growth chateaux of Bordeaux routinely produce in very high quantities, let’s say the tens of thousands of cases annually, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them because of that fact. Why does a 40,000-case First Growth get away with it, when a 40,000-case California winery is assumed by the critics to be a mass producer?
Let’s face it, here in California there’s a real prejudice against high-production wines. What does “high production” mean? Well, it’s relative, but some California wines produced in miniscule quantities are loved by the critics who seek out what Jim Laube calls “newer, smaller producers, garagiste operations making a few thousand cases a year…”. I sometimes think there’s a critic’s mindset whereby they assume that a small garagiste winery must be making super-duper wines because it’s, well, small, and the owner does it all by himself. Blind tasting would, of course, reduce such automatic assumptions to rubble, but blind tasting is, alas, rare in the critical world, where critical assumptions are often borne out by experience because the assumer allows no contradicting information in.
If you think about it, there’s no logical reason why a tiny production wine should have any advantages over a large production wine. Why should it? Just because someone has a two acre estate vineyard doesn’t tell you anything about terroir, vineyard practices, barrel regimes or anything else. In fact, a tiny garage operation might have poor, old equipment. On the other hand, a large vineyard, properly managed, with sufficient finances, can produce great wines, especially if the vineyard manager and winemaker focus on individual blocks within the vineyard. The famous Tokalon Vineyard, for instance, contains 550 acres, and is routinely cited as one of the world’s greatest sources of Bordeaux varieties.
So consider this the start of a new category on this blog: Myth Busting. Have any you’d care to share? Let me know!