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Thoughts on Pinot Gris/Grigio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons relearned from the recent ZAP tasting in San Francisco

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At the ZAP “Flights! Forums of Flavors” last Friday, I was again reminded of how much “set and setting” impact one’s experience of wine.

It was a pretty straightforward tasting: Wines poured for us at the table, a panel of winemakers upfront. One of the flights was from Monte Rosso Vineyard: the wines were from Charter Oak, Amapola Creek (what a pleasure to see Richard Arrowood again!), Rock Wall, Louis M. Martini and Robert Biale.

Now, Monte Rosso despite its fabulous reputation has always been a problematic vineyard for me. It is famous (infamous? notorious?) for the high alcohol of its wines (which is why that particular flight was the final of the three-flight tasting. It’s a good idea to hold the biggest wines for last). Curiously–and I’m not sure why–Monte Rosso reds also are high in acidity. (Maybe someone can explain that.) I’ve certainly given some high scores over the years to Monte Rosso wines–my highest ever was Sbragia’s 2006 Cabernet, which I gave 95 points. The official alcohol on that wine was 14.9%. It was a dark, big, rich, smoky wine, with years and years of life, which is why I gave it a Cellar Selection designation in my Wine Enthusiast review.

The highest score I ever gave to a Monte Rosso Zinfandel was Rosenblum’s 2004, which I gave 93 points. (My readers probably know that when Kent Rosenblum sold his winery to Diageo, he created Rock Wall.) I’ve also given high scores to several of Louis M. Martini’s Monte Rosso Zins and Cabs, as well as Arrowood’s (which Richard Arrowood owned before starting Amapola).

On the other hand, at times the alcohol of Monte Rosso has overwhelmed me. The best score I could muster for Muscardini’s 2010 Zin, which had 15.5% of alcohol, was 85 points–a “good” score but not a great one. It was just too hot and prickly. The worst score I ever gave a Monte Rosso Zin was Brazin’s 2007, an otherwise great vintage. Its alcohol officially was 15%, and, as I wrote, it was “Too ripe, with pruny, raisiny flavors that are Porty and hot in high-alcohol, glyceriney heaviness.”

That’s Monte Rosso for you. Balancing the vineyard’s tendency to be excessively high in brix (especially in Zinfandel), with associated overripeness, is part of the winemaker’s challenge. He or she can water the wine down, not an ideal solution, but sometimes necessary and effective. He or she also can be severely selective in sorting out overripe (or underripe) berries (Zinfandel in particular can have unevenly ripened grapes on the same bunch), but that is labor intensive and expensive and not everyone is very diligent at it.

Zin

The best Monte Rosso wines, it seems to me, are produced by the best winemakers. That may sound obvious, but winemakers, like all of us, vary in their abilities. For the “Flights!” tasting, ZAP chose some of the best winemakers in California. (Joel Peterson, of Ravenswood, moderated all three flights, but I don’t know if he personally selected the wines. At any rate, he did a great job.) This is a shorthand way of saying that I found all the wines terrific. (I missed the first flight. The second one was Zinfandels from the Bedrock Vineyard, which is partly owned by Joel).

As much as I explored the intricacies of the wines I also explored the intricacies of my thoughts. You can’t separate the taster’s basic state of consciousness from his experience of the wine, which is what I referred to in the “set and setting” reference in my opening sentence. “Set and setting,” people of a certain generation (mine) will recall, was how Dr. Timothy Leary described the twin factors that influenced a person’s experience of taking LSD. The “set” was the sum total of the person’s inner life (expectations, fears, understanding, hopes, traumas, etc.). The “setting” was the external environment. Obviously, if a person dropped acid in the midst of absolute chaos (crazed clown killers, policemen, screaming babies, earthquake, you get the idea), the person would in all likelihood not have a pleasant trip.

My preferred “set and setting” for reviewing wine is this: I like to be warm and relaxed. I like to be healthy: it’s not good to review wine if you have the flu. Externally, I like to be in the comfort and safety of my home, practicing my usual routines. Under these circumstances, my “set and setting” are tuned to maximum performance. This also encourages consistency of routine, which is important in judging wines.

Obviously, both my “set” and my “setting” were drastically different at the “Flights!” tasting. My setting was not home, but a ballroom in the Four Seasons Hotel, packed with people. I wouldn’t say I was unrelaxed, but I certainly didn’t experience the utter relaxation and familiarity of being at home (with Gus at my feet if not in my lap). Then too, being in a public sphere, and having a certain visibility in this industry, is a personal feeling my fellow critics can appreciate. Thus, both my set and setting were discombobulated–not so much that I couldn’t deal with the wines, but enough so that I was clearly thrown off routine.

The simple fact (it occurred to me during the Monte Rosso flight) was that I was finding the wines better than I thought I would have, had I tasted them at home. That’s what I meant by saying that I was exploring the intricacies of my thoughts. I remember at one point during that flight thinking, “Can they all be this good?”, because I suspected that at home I would have found some of them too high in alcohol. This of course raises the question of what does “too high in alcohol” mean? As several of the winemakers observed, in response to Joel Peterson asking them if they thought “alcohol destroys terroir,” the answer is, It depends. If the wine is balanced in all its parts, then alcohol, even well into the 15s or even 16s, is perfectly acceptable (unless you’re just an anti-alcohol fascist). Richard Arrowood put it best: “If you didn’t know the alcohol levels [of the Monte Rosso Zins], you’d never guess.” And, as Shauna Rosenblum pointed out, in the case of Monte Rosso “alcohol is essential to terroir.”

The idea of reviewing a wine is to get as close as you can to knowing “what the wine really is.” But there’s a Heisenbergian uncertainty about it, not necessarily because the wine isn’t “what it really is,” but because of the vagaries of human perception, which are so susceptible to derangement by the influences of “set and setting.” This is why as controlled an environment for tasting as can possibly be arranged is the only suitable way of doing it, and also why the critic has to understand his limitations, as well as trust in his abilities.


Lessons learned from an old Hollywood blockbuster

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I had a couple hours of downtime yesterday so I turned on the boob tube and decided to watch an old movie, Disclosure. The 1994 flick, which stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, is fairly dreadful, although it does have its moments of intrigue and suspense. But watching it, I’d forgotten how it made a star out of Pahlmeyer wine.

I suppose some people had already heard of Pahlmeyer, a Napa Valley boutique winery, before Disclosure. Certainly, the fact that the early red wines were made by Randy Dunn was not lost on the cognoscenti. Jayson Pahlmeyer had set his sights on Cabernet–as he says on his website, he wanted to make “a California Mouton.” But it was a white wine, his Chardonnay, that made it to the silver screen, and made Pahlmeyer a star.

Turns out that the Pahlmeyer 1991 Chardonnay (made by now-Harlan winemaker Bob Levy) was integral to the movie’s plot. The details are unimportant, but, as Jayson relates on his website, “the wine’s big role in the battle-of-the-sexes blockbuster helped further the frenzy surrounding Pahlmeyer.” The wine became so famous that Entertainment Tonight described it as “an obscure bottle of Chardonnay” that hit the big time due to its “well-timed toast in the movie ‘Disclosure.’” The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the phenomenon, said the wine’s starring role gave it “the kind of publicity corporate wineries would gladly give big money to a studio to get.”

What does all this have to do with anything today? Glad you asked. The topic of how the media, and particularly social media, can be of assistance in promoting wine has been much discussed in the blogosphere. I think the history of that Pahlmeyer wine can shed a little light on the subject.

Lesson one: If a Hollywood blockbuster, starring two of its biggest movie stars, highlights your wine (in a positive way), chances are good your winery will become famous. Too bad that’s not an option for most winemakers, but it’s true.

So that Hollywood option is off the table. But the idea remains the touchstone of social media’s promise: to create buzz. After all, social “media” is simply that: media. From the Latin medius, “the middle,” meaning in this case “an intervening thing through which a force acts or an effect is produced.” The modern meaning of media, then, refers to television, radio, print publications and movies, all of which act as intermediaries between one thing (a movie star, an advertisement, the news) and another thing (the mass public). In this sense, social media is simply the latest incarnation of mass media.

But it’s somehow more than that–and less. More, in that for the first time in human history everyone can be his own publisher–not only that, but can publish to the entire world, instantly. Less, because where everyone can do it, that act of supreme empowerment suddenly becomes less powerful. Do you remember that old paradox: If everything in the universe suddenly doubled in size, would anyone notice? The answer, obviously, is no, no one would notice, for the very reason that a force acting equally on everything is the same as the absence of a force. The only way to notice change is relative to something that is unchanging.

Put another way, imagine that in 1994, the year Disclosure came out, there were thousands of other movies, simultaneously released, each with big name stars, Hollywood bucks for promotion and mass distribution. And each of those movies showcased a different wine. Would the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay have gotten the play it did if, say (to mention a few other 1994 films), The Shawshank Redemption featured Mondavi Fume Blanc, Pulp Fiction starred Laurel Glen Cabernet, Forrest Gump gave a lead role to Sanford Pinot Noir, and The Lion King featured an animated Talley Chardonnay? You see my point.

It’s far more complicated today, then, for a winery, or a wine, to get the kind of massive publicity that the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay did a generation ago. The media just isn’t concentrated enough anymore. And the public’s attention span is too short (which may or may not be attributable to Twitter and other short forms of social media. Certainly, people’s attention span already was dehydrating before the advent of social media). Today, everyone’s consciousness is stuffed to beyond capacity with details of every kind. This clearly complicates the task of getting messages through to consumers. There are legions of social media experts and public relations and marketing professionals all working heroically to enable their clients to break through the din, but I’m afraid it gets harder and harder to do all the time. One winery manages to break through for 15 minutes and then is eclipsed by another hundred, who in turn are eclipsed by another hundred 15 minutes later.

So short of getting your wine featured in a Hollywood blockbuster, what’s the best way to get huge notice by the public? Get a high score from a well-known critic.


Musings on Hugh Johnson’s three categories of wine

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Hugh Johnson had a marvelous column in The World of Fine Wine. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the elegant way he displays his wide knowledge of wine is one more reason why he has been the King of Wine Commentators [a word he prefers] for so long. The bloggers who hope for lengthy shelf lives (not to mention money) at this gig would do well to study his books.

I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?”

Johnson mentions no specific names of critics who say they’re looking for “a sense of place.” Nor shall I, but if a certain one pops into your brain, so be it. When I read Johnson’s opening words, I thought he was going to demolish the concept of “a sense of place,” but no. He casts doubt on the ease with which some writers claim to find it–and then creates his own list of “vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character”: Scharzhofberg, Les Santenots, and even a minor white wine from the Languedoc that, Johnson writes, he preferred to Montrachet “at that minute”–nice hedge. Well, there are minutes I’d prefer a cup of coffee to Montrachet.

Johnson also devises a category aside and apart from wines of place: those from producers “who leave such a clean imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard.” Among these he includes the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This surprised me, I must say, since the DRC’s wines always (in my reading, at least) have been accounted as among the world’s greatest expressions of terroir. So I’m not sure what that statement means, although I’m on clearer ground when he places Champagne in a kind of murky, third tier (“wine[s] of high pedigree that evoke plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere”…). This is, I suppose, because most Champagne is blended.

So three Johnson categories:

1.   Wines of a place

2.   Wines of a house

3.   Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree”

I thought it would be useful, and perhaps even interesting, for me to play with the Johnsonian categories and see if there are California wines that neatly fit into each. So I researched my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database. I soon realized, however, that things are not as cut and dry here in California, for me, as they are in Europe, for Hugh Johnson. For example, when I considered the wines of a place, the vineyard of David Hirsch immediately leapt into mind. It is a vineyard I can at least claim to know with some fuzzy precision, having been there a few times, and certainly having been in the Fort Ross-Seaview, several-ridges-in neighborhood of Bohan Dillon Road many times over the years. Just as with that minor white from the Languedoc Johnson delighted in (not least because, as he drank it, he could visualize “the vines sloping down to the sea” which led him to describe it as “a sort of seaside Sylvaner”), I can and do picture the Fort Ross-Seaview ridgetops everytime I drink a Hirsch (or Failla, or Flowers, or Wild Hog wine: the high-above-the fogline clarity, the piney forests, the wild herbs, the brilliant sunshine and chilly nights, the red soils that give way to sandy Gold Ridge in the best spots, the sheer, isolated remoteness and–the human element?–the attractive, somewhat eccentric vitality of the winemakers). Surely the wines from these vineyards, including Hirsch, reek of a sense of place?

Well, yes…and no. Not to this critic, anyhow. Nor would I describe them as “wines of a house” whose producer style immediately marks them as distinct. So are they from Johnson’s third category–wines “of abstract approval that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of high pedigree”? You certainly can’t describe them as such. They do have a sense of place…but it’s not as pronounced as the utterly inimitable distinctiveness Johnson finds (or claims to find) in Scharzhofberg and the others.

This is why I’ve never written that such-and-such a wine “could only come from” such-and-such a vineyard. It might have contributed further to my branding as a wine critic were I to do so. After all, nothing halos a critic with more glory than to make such sweeping pronouncements, which inform the public of the critic’s discernment and expertise.

But the fact is that I’ve always valued fact and truth more than anything else, including hyperbole, in my wine writing, and have resisted the temptation (whether from me, or from others) to make sweeping pronouncements I can’t really justify. This is especially true in the context of blind tasting, when it’s impossible to summon the visual memory of “vines sweeping down to the sea” based merely on what’s in the glass.

If I take the bottle out of the paper bag, so that I know what I’m tasting, then it’s a lot easier to find “that sense of place.” Here, then, are some wines that do seem to exhibit a “somewhereness” every time I taste them. Each is from a particular vineyard. I make no claim, nor ever will, however, that a vineyard-designated wine must be superior to a blended one: Johnson concedes as much in the case of Champagne, while I need mention only one wine–Cardinale–to make the same point.

David Arthur Elevation 1147 Estate

Anything from Hirsch Vineyard

Chardonnays from the Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard

Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch Cabernets, from Oakville

Certain Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets. Janzen and World’s End, both 2009s, are good examples.

Shafer Hillside Select

Marimar Torres’s Pinot Noirs from the Don Miguel Vineyard

Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah

Rochioli Pinot Noirs from south (or east) of Westside Road, especially West Block and River Block

Williams Selyem Pinots from Allen Vineyard

Each of these wines conveys something of its origins, but I would not want to bet my mortgage on identifying them in a blind tasting. Each of them also conveys a “house style”, but it’s important to realize that most of them have been produced over many years, by the same winemaker, so who’s to say what part of the wine is pure terroir, and what part is the winemaker’s considered opinion when it comes to such interventions as fermentation particulars, type of oak barrel, length of barrel aging and so on? As usual, we arrive at that conundrum: a great wine sits at the median point of natural terroir and its interpretation by the winemaker.

The point, I think, is that we get so mesmerized by place-centric musings that we run the risk of delegitimizing certain wines that don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what makes wine great. That is why I was happy to see Johnson talk about that Languedoc wine (which he did not identify by producer). He might simply have dropped the names of Great Growths and Grand Crus like so many critics airily do, but part of what has made Hugh Johnson so compelling for so long is that he refuses to play that game of “I drink better than you can or do.” It no longer matters to him (if it ever did) to say he prefers a Languedoc white to Montrachet; he loses no prestige nor reclamé as a wine critic by doing so.


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