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A California critic tastes Saint-Emilion

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My first thought after going to the big Grands Crus Classés Saint-Emilion tasting yesterday in San Francisco was: Wow, someone secretly put California wines into bottles with St.-Emilion labels.

No one had, of course. But many of the wines were so ripe and fruity, so extracted and oaky, and so high in alcohol, they might have come from Paso Robles, Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley.

Nothing wrong with such wines, of course. I give them good scores all the time. But I was hoping for something different and distinctly non-Californian. I didn’t find it, for the most part.

I know that St.-Emilion traditionally makes two kinds of wines. Michael Broadbent decades ago described these as a “Côtes” style of “deepish but quick-maturing wines, loose-knit, sweeter on the bouquet and palate,” and a “Graves” style “with hint[s] of iron/earth.” Almost everything I tasted seemed more like that Côtes style.

The Merlot is king in St.-Emilion, which accounts perhaps for the wines’ approachability. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, in their new The World Atlas Of Wine, praise “the solid tastiness of St.-Emilion,” wines that “grow almost sweet as they mature.”

Still, the wines were much more Californian than I had thought they’d be. And I wasn’t the only one with that impression. All the friends I talked to–other critics, merchants, marketers–felt the same way. I heard the word “approachable” over and over; also, a more troubling term: “almost overripe.” The vintage I tasted was 2009, which has an outstanding reputation; my Wine Enthusiast colleague in Bordeaux, Roger Voss, rated it 96 points. But I have to say I was, not exactly disappointed, but surprised.

How to account for this ultra-ripe style? Three factors: (1) the Parker influence, with his penchant for ripe, big wines, (2) global warming, which seems to be impacting Bordeaux more than California, and (3) the influence of a cadre of flying consultants, who are bringing about an international style all over the world. An example of this is the 2009 Chateau Fleur Cardinale, whose alcohol level is 15%. “Californian,” I immediately wrote in my notes. “Rich, lush and forward.” It might have been from Rutherford.

Don’t get me wrong, these California-style St.-Emilions still are very good wines. I gave most of them scores in the 88-91 range. But, like I said, I found their internationalism troubling.

Here, however, were my top-scoring wines. They seemed to have been made in a more old-fashioned way. (All are 2009s.) Chateau La Commanderie struck me for its fine, distinguished mouthfeel and dryness. It is a significant wine that needs many years. So does the Chateau Fonroque, so fleshy and meaty and dry. Chateau Jean Faure was based on Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, and its small percentage of Malbec gave it a firm structure. The two wines of the tasting for me were Chateau La Dominique, firm, dry and tannic yet packed with fruit, and a gorgeous La Tour Figeac. I wish I had a case of each for my cellar.

Incidentally, I walked to the tasting, which was on Harrison Street, all the way down First Street from Market, and have never seen so much construction going on in San Francisco in the 35 years I’ve lived here. The city is in the boom of its life, and everybody seems to be a 28-year old tech worker. I’ve seen San Francisco go through several iterations over the years. This has to be the most interesting yet, but it’s coming at a price: S.F. now is the most expensive city in America in which to rent an apartment. I think all those young techies are living four to the room.


That pesky quality-price ratio: QPR reconsidered

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I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.

I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.

I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.

The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)

Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.

There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!

We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.

There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.

But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”

I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.

Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?

Good questions; no good answers.


Who makes the best wine critics, supertasters or the rest of us?

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Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about so-called “supertasters” — men and (more frequently, women) with more than the usual quantity of tastebuds in their mouths that makes them unusually sensitive to flavors.

supertaster

The term had been coined by a Yale professor, Linda Bartoshuk, who in 2004 vividly illustrated the difference between super- and regular tasters with this metaphor: “Supertasters…live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters [sic] are in a ‘pastel world.’”

I remember at the time feeling slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t a supertaster. For some reason, I developed the feeling that being a supertaster made one a better wine critic. For example, Robert Parker was said to be able to identify wines double-blind, surely the mark of a supertaster. And Jim Laube’s well-known sensitivity to TCA, which suggested supertasting abilities on his part, was enough to bring wineries to their knees.

I, by contrast, had to be content with a palate that was, at best, no better, if no worse, than everyone else’s. It caused me some moments of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be telling people what wine tasted like, if I didn’t even have a super-palate?

All this was brought up again last Saturday night when I had dinner with old friends, one of whom is a supertaster. I knew she wasn’t a big fan of seafood, but during the course of our meal, her other food antipathies emerged. Rosemary, for example: she can’t bear it beyond a miniscule amount, because it overwhelms everything else in the food. Frankly, my friend confided, being a supertaster isn’t a blessing: it’s a curse. In fact, she added, that’s why she decided not to become a wine writer. (Her work is in a separate field of the wine industry.) She’s so extraordinarily sensitive to everything that she figured she could never be objective.

Well, that cast things in a different light for me. Maybe, I figured, it’s not so good after all to be a supertaster. So I Googled up the term and found a whole bunch of suggestions that supertasting ability can indeed be a drag.

For example, here, from Yale Scientific (Bartoshuk’s own university), the professor says supertasters are “also super-perceivers of…the burning sensation of…ethanol [the alcohol in wine],” which causes them “oral pain [and a] burning sensation.”

That, surely, must be a handicap, if not an outright bias, for  a wine critic, especially of California wine.

The British publication, The Guardian, addressed the issue squarely on when it wrote, “It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry.” The website How Stuff Works amplified on this theme: “Usually, it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing. But a heightened sense of taste, no matter how delicious it might sound, is really no joy.” Since everything is amplified, sensations like the pepperiness of a Syrah can be overwhelming. Slate Magazine, asking “whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine,” concluded that “being a nontaster [i.e. regular taster] was not the career death sentence [for a critic] it appeared to be. For another, being a supertaster turned out to be not nearly as good as it sounded; in fact, to the degree that it matters at all, it is probably more of a liability for a wine critic than an asset.” [Bold face mine] The “flavor of alcohol…astringency and acidity…spiciness [and] bitterness” that characterizes so many wines “may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.”

Well, I’m ready to buy into Slate’s suggestion that “being a supertaster is no blessing when it comes to wine.” But it does make me wonder to what extent the modern wine style (often called Parkerised) of exceptional ripeness, fruitiness, softness and sweet oakiness is the result of the domination by supertasters of the wine criticism business over the past 25 years.


Has Yellow Tail hurt Australia’s reputation?

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I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”

Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”

Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.

I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)

I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.

Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.

Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.


The Art of the Blend

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I’ve been getting into blends lately–wines made from varieties that had seldom if ever in all of history met each other until they migrated across The Pond from Old Europe and then found their way to California, where some wacko winemaker got the idea to mate them up and see what happens.

For example,  Paraduxx’s 2010 Napa Valley Z Blend is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with enough Zinfandel in it to make it briary and robust. Lone Madrone, in Paso Robles, threw everything but the kitchen sink into their 2011 Calon: Counoise (a little known Rhône variety), Grenache Noir, Sangiovese (hello, Tuscany) and Syrah. Way down south in Santa Barbara, Matthias Pippig, at Sanguis, grafts a Northern Rhône-style Syrah and Viognier blend onto Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, and gets a stylishly unique 2010 Couture. ONX’s 2010 Moxie, another Paso Robles wine, shakes it up with Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet.

These are only a few high-scoring examples; I could go on and on. It’s funny how the cycle of history deals with blends. Once upon a time in California, blended wines were the norm, from the so-called “field blended” vineyards that immigrants planted in the 19th and 20th centuries from Mendocino down through the Central Coast, but especially in Sonoma and Napa. They didn’t care about varietal labels, they were looking for two things: a wine they could make regardless of what the vintage conditions were like, and one moreover that was hearty and tasted good. It wasn’t until the U.S. government, beginning in the 1970s, came up with our current regulations concerning varietally-labeled wines that consumers became obsessed with particular grape names.

Why did that happen? Because as soon as Prohibition was repealed, wine writers announced that wines made from particular varieties were the best. Several generations absorbed this lesson, from the 1930s right through the boutique winery explosion of the 1960s and 1970s and continuing into the 21st century.

As I look at my reviews for these unusual blends, I notice a few things. One is that my scores are not as high as for Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs and scattered Merlots and Syrahs. Another is that I almost never suggest that these wines be aged. Beyond their particular flavors and textures, they are above all wines of youthful polish and immediate gratification. I suppose I do subscribe to the notion (common among my generation of wine writers) that ageability is a requirement for a very high score.

It may be time, however, for us to begin to recalibrate our approach to evaluating wines. Few people bother to age wine anymore. I believe that the best California Pinots and Cabs do get better with age, but they don’t “require” it, in the sense that, say, old-time Bordeaux was virtually undrinkable in its youth because it was so tannic (which isn’t really the case anymore). The consequence of people not wanting to age wines is that winemakers are making wines that don’t need to be aged. These blends are perfect examples of winemakers seeking to do something new, in a state (California) where it’s increasingly harder to find new things to do with wine, because consumers tend not to reward novelty

I think writers now have the challenge before them of educating the public to understand that a well-made blend need not have a varietal name in order to be charming. Older consumers may be resistant to receiving this message, but younger ones get it. We don’t need to recreate Old Europe’s template, especially in California. We’re the nation’s most diverse state, a rainbow quilt of humankind. Our wines increasingly are reflecting that diversity.


How people buy wine: friends vs. scores

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I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.

That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)

There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”

As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”

Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.

I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.

But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.

This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.

So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.


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