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Why do we think some “classic” wines are better than everything else?

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I want to revert to a topic I wrote about last week, inspired by Jim Laube in his July 31 column in Wine Spectator. I talked about the 100-point system, but today, my imagination was sparked by a comment from a reader, who quoted something else Jim said, and then asked for my opinion on it.

Jim said: “There are Pinot Noirs grown elsewhere [i.e., other than Burgundy] that compare favorably with La Tache…”. My reader then asked me if I know what some of these other Pinots might be, since he’ll never be able to afford La Tache, and presumably wants to know what he’s missing.

My immediate impression was that the guy who asked me the question seemed to think that Jim Laube was saying that there are some Pinot Noirs that are just like La Tache. Of course, Jim’s statement is somewhat ambiguous; like a Rorschach test, you can interpret it as meaning different things. To me, Jim is not saying that there are Pinots that are a carbon copy of La Tache. I don’t think he’s implying that some Pinots have the same body as La Tache, or a similar perfume, or similar flavors or finishes or ageworthiness. There might be some Pinots that possess those qualities, but there might be some that are quite different, and yet, in their own way, are as excellent. So I think what Jim was doing is something fundamentally radical—and with which I agree: suggesting that La Tache, fabled as it is alongside Romanée-Conti as one of the greatest Pinot Noirs on earth, is not quite as objectively fabulous or unique as everybody makes it out to be.

Well, if that was Jim’s point, bravo. It has to be said. Every ivory tower in the world is coming down, from those of Middle East dictators to the ones inhabited by super-critics, so why should the ivory towers of “the world’s greatest wines” not similarly topple? I ask you, my readers, who are among the most discerning wine people anywhere: can you truly say that Yquem is the greatest sweet white wine, that Latour is the greatest Cabernet blend, that La Tache is the greatest Pinot Noir, or whatever? (You can substitute any of these wines with something else you think is a classic.) I don’t think you can, but chances are you accept the notion that there are (as Jim writes) “classic[s] of the past and of the present” because you assume that famous wine critics have far more experience and knowledge than you do, and therefore there must be classics, because they say so.

What if I told you that famous wine critics are just as susceptible to falling for the conventional wisdom as you are? That famous wine critics have the same uncertainties and doubts, the same fear of looking silly, the same desire to be seen as correct? Indeed, why would they not? Famous wine critics are only human—people with jobs and careers to protect. The only difference between them and you is that they have to publish, which means their words live forever, and so they had better be careful not to put into print something that will come back to bite them in the rear end.

I’ve tried for years to demolish the old concept that the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines are necessarily the world’s best wines. It’s very difficult to get this idea through to people, because once an idea is enshrined in the popular mind, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. We have these super-myths that we accept as true because they’ve been repeated so many times, and so authoritatively, that we feel they must be true. (Example: I love the exalted status we give America’s founding fathers, as though they were angels sent from Heaven to bestow a divinely ordained Constitution upon us. I know a lot about this topic because reading about it is one of my hobbies. The founding fathers were no saints. They quarreled amongst themselves as fiercely, and with as much invective, as any Republican and Democrat today. They harbored almost violent opinions about those who disagreed with them. The Constitution—far from being a divinely perfect instrument, handed down by God on Mount Sinai—was the result of months of bitter compromise achieved with great difficulty during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. And yet Americans continue to believe that it was the product of some choir-gathering of wise men who sang Kumbaya and midwifed this miraculous document. By the way, our Constitution is a fabulous contract; it’s just that, as a people, we don’t remember how all-too-human was the system that produced it.)

In the same way, we harbor this notion that the classic wines are the epitome of perfection. They may be perfect, in their own ways, in great vintages; but they are hardly the greatest wines on earth. This is the thing I wanted to communicate to my reader who asked for my “anything but La Tache” recommendations. Put out of your head the notion that La Tache will blow your mind and transport you to heaven while something you can find in your own home town won’t. You cannot, and will not be able to, appreciate any wine, until you rid yourself of the idea that that which you cannot have, because you can’t afford it, is greater or better than anything you can have.


What makes a wine region classic? What does it say about 100-point wines?

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If you were a wine critic, do you think you could give 100 points to a wine you tasted double-blind?

Let’s assume that your educated palate determined it was a very, very good wine. You might taste it and think, “Wow, this is really great,” and then consider giving it a perfect score. But then, not having the slightest idea what it was, you might hedge your bet and give it, say, 96 points. You could, of course, give it 100, but my hunch is that you’d second-guess yourself enough so that you wouldn’t. Psychology plays a bigger role in these decisions than you might think—or that critics want you to know!

On the other hand, say you weren’t tasting the wine blind. Say you knew it was 2009 Latour. You know Latour’s history and reputation, you know it’s one of the most ageworthy wines in the world, you know, in short, that this wine in front of you is absolutely classic, from a classic vintage. Now, is that enough information to make you more comfortable about giving it 100 points?

I should think so, and so, apparently, does Jim Laube, who wrote a very good column in the July 31, 2015 issue of Wine Spectator about what makes any particular winery “great” in the eyes of critics and wine historians. (Sorry, if you’re not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you can’t read the entire column.) Along these lines, he mentions La Tache specifically by name, and more generically, he mentions Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Sauternes in France, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as possessing the “pedigree” needed to be a classic—that is, to be worthy of getting 100 points.

Now, if you’re in Paso Robles or the Sierra Foothills or someplace that doesn’t have the impressive history of these classic regions, you probably wonder how long it will take for your region to be considered classic, and thus worthy of consistently producing 100 point wines, at least in a great vintage. This is an excellent question, and of course Jim Laube is the perfect person to raise it, since he’s the dean of California wine critics and a very thoughtful man. He rightfully speculates that newer regions might someday enter this pantheon of the classics, as well he should: it would be intellectually disingenuous to say that the pantheon is closed, that no poseur can ever enter the top rank because it’s been shut for years.

What’s so fascinating about this topic is that it calls into question the validity of the 100-point system. If you posit that only certain regions are even capable of achieving 100 points, then you’re basically an ideologue; and we mere mortals, who read the reviews of these famous critics, have to wonder if they’re really tasting everything blind. Now, Jim Laube is honest enough to suggest that more information than merely the taste of the wine is needed in order to “identify the best wines.” “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.”

Let me repeat that. Jim said “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.

Would it trouble you to say that I agree with Jim? He has to tread a careful line here, because Wine Spectator claims, in their Buying Guide, that “Wines are always tasted blind.” But they do offer the caveat that this is not double-blind: they taste “in flights organized by varietal, appellation or region…and the vintage.”

That’s quite a lot of important information. If you know that you’re tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, you have to allow for the possibility of a very high score. Can it score 100 points? Well, does the taster know if it’s Grand Cru or Premier Cru or some vlillage wine? The critic has to make this kind of judgment based not so much on the individual wine, IMHO, but on his track record, and on the acceptance of the market.

This conversation about point scores and perceptions is more necessary than ever. Am I refuting the 100-point system? No. But I am calling into question the circumstances under which it is utilized. I think there’s a place for it. But I also think that we need far more transparency about how these tastings are conducted, in order for them to be credible. I don’t mind an open tasting when critics let us know they were excited as hell, and so their enthusiasm might be biased. But I do mind it when critics put on the fig leaf of “blind tasting” when they actually know a lot more about the wines than they lead us to believe.

Have a great weekend!


Talking about wine talk

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Back when John F. Kennedy was President, Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent and, at the time, the only woman to hold that post, asked JFK what he was doing to help women.

“Not enough, I’m sure,” smiled Kennedy, in his wry, bemused way. The implication was that, of course, no American President can ever do enough when it comes to the great issues, like women’s rights. All he or she can do is to try and make things better.

I thought of that long-ago incident when I read The New Yorker’s latest article on wine, called “Is there a better way to talk about wine?”

My answer? Borrowing from JFK, I’m sure there is a better way to talk about wine. I’m just not sure that I, or anybody else, knows quite what it is, or how to get there.

The New Yorker article breaks no new ground for readers of my blog, who are thoroughly familiar with these complaints about “extravagant tasting notes” that ooze “overwrought and unreliableflowery, elaborate flavor descriptions” aimed at “wealthy men.” Familiar, too, are my readers with the various forms of experimental subterfuge of recent years, wherein studies report on how wine consumers, even educated ones, can be bamboozled if the wines are tasted blind, or if the labels are switched, or if information about them is deliberately distorted. The New Yorker article refers to these studies to bolster its case, and then reiterates that overblown wine vocabularies contribute to the “confusion” experienced by so many consumers. (You can almost hear the writer, Bianca Bosker’s, joy as she quotes a Wine Advocate descriptor: “liquefied Viagra.”)

It is of course easy as falling off a log to criticize anything in the world, as long as the person doing the criticizing doesn’t have the responsibility for coming up with something better. Bosker’s deconstruction of “minerality,” and the near impossibility of defining it, testifies to this fact: Just because something is hard doesn’t make it silly. She toys with the alternative of a “chemistry”-based descriptive vocabulary (fat chance) rather than an “obfuscating” one of poetry and metaphor. She even turns to Matt Kramer’s new book, True Taste, but completely misses Matt’s point: he’s not saying (as Ms. Bosker writes) that “only six [sic] words [actually seven] are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes.” Matt himself writes that his book “is not, of course, about a mere seven words. Instead, it’s about those values that involve actual judgment,” and “is about tasting wine with discernment.”

Well, who could be against judgment and discernment? Matt, who has made a living of being a wine wordsmith (same as the rest of us), was looking for a new angle for a new book, and came up with True Taste: it’s a little frothy, but no harm, no foul, and plenty to think about. There’s nothing wrong with talking about “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance”—Matt’s seven words. But am I wrong in thinking that those concepts, if not explicitly spelled out then at least broadly described, have underlain good wine writing forever? They certainly lubricate the writing I know, from my own books and articles to Parker’s, Oz Clarke’s, Jancis Robinson’s, Steve Tanzer’s, Antonio Galloni’s, Benjamin Lewin’s, yes and Matt Kramer’s, and so on. If writers want to add things about raspberries and peppercorns, so much the better. I think Matt,  who enjoys an adroit pen (can we say that anymore?), would be the last to condemn metaphorical wine descriptors. His grudge—mine, too—is when they go over the top.

But where is the line? Nobody really knows, and this is where Ms. Bosker’s article is so frustrating, in the way these “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” New Yorker articles can be. The title seems to imply that, if the reader will just wade through the 2,098 words of text, he or she will be enlightened, and discover that there truly is “a better way to talk about wine.”

Alas, nothing of the sort happens. And, if you think about recent attempts to make wine writing “better,”–I’m talking to you, Twitter, and to a big part of the blogosphereyou’ll have to admit that failure is no success at all.

But perhaps I am too harsh on Ms. Bosker, for at the very end, she seems to change tone and switch over to a belief that “a little mystery” in winespeak is not such a bad thing. She even wonders “what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like.” Now, that’s good wine writing—and a good way to think about wine–but it’s also exactly the kind of “overwrought, flowery” metaphor that critics, including Ms. Bosker, came out swinging against. Happily, by the end of her article, Ms. Bosker apparently has undergone an intellectual metamorphosis in which she realizes that her initial concept was, if not erroneous, at least hopelessly incomplete to describe the challenge of talking about wine. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with that evolution: Writing makes you think, makes you analyze simplistic thoughts so that you realize they’re not as simple as they might have seemed at first blush. You end up, in other words, in a different–and better–place from where you started. This is a very good thing.

So is there a better way to talk about wine? I suppose there is, although I don’t think the best wine writing, from any era, including ours, needs improvement. But I welcome this chit-chat, if for no other reason than that it stimulates this sort of discussion.


What makes a wine memorable?

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The most interesting, or at least memorable, California wine I ever had was a 1977 Chateau Montelena when it was fifteen years old.

I’d gotten to know a fellow by the name of Albert Dupont, a Belgian, who was at that time one of the more interesting characters running around Napa Valley. He and his wife had a lovely home in southern Napa, filled with antiques. I never could quite figure out how Albert made a living, but he seemed to live well. He had a sort of gig wherein he would occasionally recork old bottles for wineries. This is a tricky business, because you have to pull the old cork and replace it with a new one, which involves exposing the wine to oxygen, which is something you don’t want to do very much, if at all, because oxygen as we all know will kill an old wine.

So Albert had invented a contraption, a kind of glove box whose inside was filled with an inert gas. He would put the bottle and the opener and the new cork and a wine glass inside the see-through box, then insert his hands into rubber gloves that protruded inside, so that he could perform all these delicate operations oxygen-free.

Montelena had hired him to recork their old library bottles, and Albert invited me to come along. Part of the operation involved tasting the wine to be recorked. After all, if the wine was already dead, or suffering from TCA contamination, there was no point in recorking it. So we were tasting all these Montelenas including that 1977.

It had already lost its primary character and was solidly in secondary or tertiary phases. So aromatic, so delicate, so complex and delicious, I could hardly find words to describe it. (Sadly, I didn’t take any notes.) But it struck a chord inside me, an almost satori-like moment I hadn’t even been looking for. I remember it to this day.

Can I say it was the greatest wine I ever had? Nope. I’m not sure I would call any wine the greatest, just as I couldn’t single out the person who had the greatest influence on my life. Many wines have blown my mind: a 1961 Heidsieck Monopole in magnum I drank in in 1991, a 40-year old Musigny. And not only old ones: my first Saxums wasted me, and there was a young Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive that a friend once kindly offered me when I was just starting out; I have a distinct memory of the top of my head exploding with the first sip.

But for some reason that Montelena occupies a special place in my mind. I can’t say why. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Italian word ambiente, which I learned about from Joseph Bastianich’s and David’s Lynch’s superb book, Vino Italiano. By it, the authors mean that everything concerning your experience of a wine—the time, the place, the people, the food, where you’re at in your life—contributes to how you perceive it. I suppose I had that Montelena at a happy time in my life; I had just been hired by Wine Spectator and considered myself a very fortunate young wine writer, indeed. (Of course, that’s not to take away from that ’77. It was a glorious Cabernet, and would have been great under any circumstances, I’m sure.)

I myself will probably never get the opportunity to taste or drink many older vintages of the world’s most famous wines the way some critics do, but that’s all right. I used to know a lot of wealthy people who could drink those wines every day, and I didn’t particularly find most of them to be interesting or vital human beings. Mostly they seemed consumed with their own success, which is a very un-Zen way to live. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve tried to live by the philosophy of “Be happy with what you’ve got.” That’s why I can be happy with perfectly ordinary wines (as long as they’re sound). I love Kendall-Jackson’s new Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris (yes, they pay me, but I wouldn’t mention it in print unless I really liked it), and you can get it for less than $15. Does it blow the top of my head off, like that Zind Humbrecht? No, it doesn’t. But I wouldn’t want my head exploding every time I sipped a wine, and besides, I should think I’d get jaded if I had a ZH Vendange Tardive every time I wanted one. Some things are all the more enjoyable because you don’t get the chance to enjoy them whenever you want, so when you do, you really appreciate it.

 

Have a great weekend!


There are no great wines, just great bottles

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When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.

“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”

Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”

We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.

What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.

There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.

This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.

I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.


Announcing the end of the wine-and-foor pairing dictatorship

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Perhaps the most refreshing development in the world of wine is the gradual rejection of strict wine-and-food-pairing do’s and don’ts, in favor of “Don’t worry about it, if you like it, just do it.”

This liberating thought struck me as I was reading through this article in yesterday’s Napa Register which paraphrased MW Tim Hanni as “vehemently eschew[ing] wine pairing as a concept in both the East and the West, and encourag[ing] consumers to drink the wines of their choice with Chinese foods.”

We’ve gotten so used to mandatory wine-and-food rules that it’s hard to understand just why we adhered to these arbitrary injunctions for so long. I suppose it all started long ago, in Old Europe, although I don’t think that, in the 19th century, the esthetic tastemakers of wine were as ideological about pairing as were more modern, mainly American writers. Once Prohibition ended and a spate of wine books appeared on the scene, the rules were elevated to near-sacred status, with writers declaring with Papal infallibility what to eat with what to drink. That tendency towards rigid ideology in taste seems peculiarly American.

The inflexibility persisted well into modern times. I think the first book I can recall that began to bend—not break—the rules was “Red Wine With Fish,” David Rosengarten’s and Josh Wesson’s 1989 tome, which began to loosen the shackles. That book made a dent, but only a little one: the field in which I worked, wine writing and reviewing, helped to keep the old walls from tottering, for the simple reason that our editors expected us to recommend foods with the wines we wrote about, and it hardly would have been suitable for me to write, “Drink this Pinot Noir with anything you friggin’ want, because it really doesn’t matter.” I mean, that would have been a good way to lose your job!

Hence, I’d sit there, after the review was finished, and rack my brain to discern what foods I thought the wine would be magical with. Sometimes I’d browse through my extensive collection of cookbooks for ideas. And I was perfectly serious and sincere.

Yet, as the years passed so pleasantly, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable making such restricted judgments. In my own personal life, off-stage and in the non-visible comfort of my home, I tended to drink just about anything with anything else: Chardonnay with a hamburger, Pinot Noir with brown rice and tamari sauce, Zinfandel with sole, Sauvignon Blanc with lamb chops. I enjoyed it all, and, while I felt vaguely guilty about being so dogmatic in my published writings, didn’t really worry about it.

How refreshing it is to reach a point where America has become a mature wine-drinking country where people don’t feel the need to adhere slavishly to somebody else’s rules. Having said that, I’m sure that somebody is going to write in and say that wine critics themselves are obsolete dinosaurs imposing their ivory tower pronouncements on the plebes below. I don’t agree. Consumers still need and want somebody with more time and knowledge than they have to break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine to them. What they don’t want or need are authoritarian ideologues who threaten them with purgatory if they don’t obey the pairing rules. At this rate, we might, here in America, reach a point where wine critics are anachronisms. We’re not there, yet. But I’d be perfectly happy to see that day arrive.


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