I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.
Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.
This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.
Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.
But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.
Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.
What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.
We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.
What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.
But now? “There is no right or wrong.”
I need a wine magazine to tell me that???
Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.
But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.
But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.
What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.
You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”
That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.
How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.
Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.
Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.
Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.
One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?
You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”
Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.
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.
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.
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.