Sunday: I’m up here in West Seattle meeting Janel’s (niece’s) neighbors, some of whom still had half empty glasses of red wine on their tables next to empty bottles, the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner waiting to be cleaned up. But who’s in a hurry to clean when the weather’s a rare 82 degrees, the big boat is anchored just a launch away on glistening Puget Sound and the salmon are biting? Cleanup can wait.
Folks up here are serious about wine. Coffee, too (obviously), and fresh fish, and tofu, and herbal remedies for what ails you, and stopping at stop signs. West Seattle is one of the politest, most liberal areas of the country, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards life that I like. And they’re really into their wine.
I thought about the place of wine in people’s lives who love it but don’t necessarily know (or care) that much about it. They don’t work in the industry, don’t subscribe to wine periodicals or (gasp) read wine blogs (the heathens), and never heard of Robert Parker or me for that matter. For them, wine is just something they like and love and feel the need to have with their dinner, maybe not 7 nights a week, but certainly on the weekend.
My niece’s own husband is a surgeon, and he’s on call a lot, so he doesn’t drink much, but their friends do. Whenever I’m introduced to one of their friends and the subject of what everybody does for a living, I always struggle with exactly how to say what I do. Sometimes I say “I write about wine.” Sometimes I say “I’m a wine critic” or “a wine journalist.” Sometimes I’ll say “I’m an editor for a wine magazine.” No matter how I say it, it seems incomplete. I can see puzzlement on people’s faces. Sometimes their reply is, “Really,” but it’s not a question that’s asking for more information because they don’t want any more information, it’s just an interjection to end the conversation. Their body language and the lack of followup tell me that they neither want nor need any additional facts about me being a wine critic, so fine, end of story. I don’t have to talk about my career if someone doesn’t want to hear about it, and the truth is, I don’t want to hear about most other people’s jobs, either.
But sometimes they’ll be really interested. “A wine critic!” they’ll say, with real inflection in their voice. “Wow.” And that’s where I feel like, okay, they want to know more, and so I’ll tell them, carefully reading the situation until I see their interest start to wane, and then I’ll say, “But enough about me, how about you?”
I also haven’t quite mastered the tone of voice and facial expression to accompany my “I’m a wine critic” remark. By that, I mean that most people think that being a “wine critic” is a very esoteric, weird thing to be, so most of the time I’ll adopt something of a sheepish, semi-embarrassed look. I mean, if I were a pharmacist or an insurance salesman I’d just say so with a straight face because there’s not much of a back story associated with being a pharmacist or insurance salesman. Nobody’s going to hear that and think, “Wow! A pharmacist! How weird and interesting!” But they do often think that when I say “wine critic,” and I guess my sheepish, semi-embarrassed look, with a little shrug of the shoulders, is partly to put them at ease, so that they won’t feel like they’d be insulting me by letting me know that they think being a wine critic is a little weird, because frankly, so do I.
I honestly believe that someday the notion of “wine critic” will be obsolete, like “gas lamp lighter” or “town crier” or “telephone operator.” In 2112, some little girl will hear that her great-great grandfather was a “wine critic,” and she’ll have to look it up on whatever device she uses to look stuff up (which will probably be a chip in her own cerebral cortex). The conversation will then go like this. “Hey, mom, did you know great-great grandpa was a wine critic?” Mom: “Sure, honey, didn’t we ever tell you.” Little girl: “No! What does that mean?” Mom: “Well, I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth, but it was something some people did about the turn of the last century, and whatever it was, I’m sure it was a very respectable job.” I can see the little girl going to school and telling her little friends, “My great-great grandpa was a wine critic!” Maybe, when she’s old enough to go to college, she’ll write a term paper on “wine critics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries” and I’ll be in there. I’d like to be around to read that term paper but I guess I won’t be.
Here’s an interesting report, from our very own University of California at Berkeley, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times: “[G]ood online reviews on Yelp do indeed bring in more customers.” Specifically, “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”
The researchers did not have an explanation for this phenomenon (which actually has some important limits, which I’ll get to in a minute), but I do. Now, I’m one of those people who likes and depends on restaurant reviews. We have a ton of restaurants here in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area, of all types, at all price levels, from just about every ethnicity in the world. So it can be confusing and intimidating to decide on a new place to eat. Under the circumstances, I’ll often turn to two sources for recommendations: Yelp, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer. A bunch of great Yelp reviews is enough to persuade me to try someplace out, while a single Bauer “must eat there” does the same thing.
I think that’s the reason why Yelp reviews work: people, like me, believe in peer recommendations (such as Yelp’s) and also in expert reccos (such as Michael Bauer’s). Of course, just 1 or 2 glowing peer reccos for a particular place won’t work for me (or anyone else, I should think), because they could always be from the owner’s cousin and mother. And 1 or 2 glowing reviews won’t do it at all, if they’re negated by 6 or 7 “worst experience of my life,” “would never go back there,” “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”
But one great Michael Bauer review will send me to the joint. I guess, to my way of thinking, there is an emerging parity between expert reviews, on the one hand, and peer reviews, on the other, but that parity only works if the peer reviews (such as Yelp’s) are overwhelmingly positive. So Michael Bauer isn’t going to have to look for a new job anytime soon. When it comes to food, people still depend on restaurant critics. (At least, in a foodie town like Ess Eff.)
I mentioned above that the U.C. Berkeley study had important limits:
(1) “For restaurants with Michelin stars, for example, the Yelp reviews were irrelevant.”
(2) “Restaurants that were rated in popular guidebooks or newspaper rankings got less of a Yelp bump. They ‘did not see a statistically significant effect from the Yelp rankings,’ the economists said.”
Let’s take (2) first. This just confirms my own reasoning: I’ll take Michael Bauer over Yelp 95% of the time. Even if there were positive Yelp reviews, one critical Bauer review canceled them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe experience counts over simple enthusiasm (such as the type you see on Yelp and, for that matter, on “Check, Please!).
As for (1), my hunch is that the kind of people who review restaurants on Yelp probably don’t frequent Michelin restaurants. Why not? They’re too expensive; the people who eat at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not likely to post their experiences on Yelp, and the people who are considering eating at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not turning to Yelp for advice.
You just knew I was going to make a connection to wine reviewing, didn’t you? Well, I am, and here it is: Inexpensive wines are more likely to see spikes in sales from online social media sources, such as blogs and Twitter. Expensive wines are not, because the kind of people who can afford them don’t blog or tweet, and if someone has enough money to buy, say, Shafer Hillside Select ($230 for the just released 2008), they couldn’t care less what some blogger has to say.
However, that well-heeled person considering buying the Shafer does care what the Michael Bauer-equivalent of the wine critic has to say about it. I’m not saying who that equivalent is (wouldn’t be prudent, not opening that can of worms), but I’m reviewing the ‘08 Hillside Select tomorrow, and if I give it a good score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has an impact on demand.
How useful and informative would it be for a wine consumer to learn from a critic that a wine has the aroma of geosmin? Not very, you’re likely thinking. You’d have to look it up, and even then, you’d suffer from a serious case of MEGO when learning that the proper chemical name for geosmin is (4S,4aS,8aR)-4,8a-Dimethyl-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-octahydronaphthalen-4a-ol, that “Geosmin is produced by several classes of microbes, including cyanobacteria,” and that “In 2006, the biosynthesis of geosmin by a bifunctional Streptomyces coelicolor enzyme was unravelled by Jiang et al.”
On the other hand, such information could very well be of enormous interest and value to a winemaker. If it is true that “Geosmin…is an organic compound with a distinct earthy flavor and aroma, and is responsible for the earthy taste of beets and a contributor to the strong scent (petrichor) that occurs in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather…” then it might be important for that winemaker to control for geosmin–to discourage or encourage it, depending on how much of that “earthy taste of beets” she wants in, say, her Pinot Noir.
In other words, there are at least two different methods to describe the aromas, flavors and textures of wine: one suitable for an amateur audience, and another for a scientific one. The two are light years apart. In my job, it isn’t in the least necessary for me to understand the ins and outs of geosmin, as long as I can properly describe a Pinot Noir as smelling like fresh beetroot (a favorite word of Michael Broadbent for Burgundy, and one I occasionally turn to, usually for certain Russian River Pinots). I do like the metaphor of “the scent of the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather”; it’s almost poetic in its connotativeness. But I doubt I’ll ever actually use it.
These thoughts arose in my head when, by chance last week, I happened to read this article, in the latest issue of Andy Blue’s The Tasting Panel, about an olfactory expert, Alexandre Schmitt. He holds workshops with winemakers, in order to heighten their awareness and understanding of aromas. Among his clients mentioned in the article are Caymus, Harlan, Ovid and Cliff Lede. I was up at Ovid last Friday, where I spoke with their winemaker, Austin Peterson, about his studies with Schmitt, which have been going on now for three years. Later, at lunch, the topic arose again, this time involving another wine writer. The discussion grew a little heated when the other writer said that it’s important for wine writers to have a thorough understanding of very technical topics, including wine olfactics, in order to do our job well.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. As I explained to the other writer, the winemaker and the wine writer have entirely different jobs. The winemaker must have a grasp of grape and wine chemistry (and many other technical fields) in order to do his job properly. (Austin, incidentally, is a very great winemaker.) Just as a NASA engineer has to be thoroughly grounded in everything from math, physics, chemistry and earth sciences to writing, public speaking, management and leadership, so the winemaker must be master of viticulture, enology, sanitation, oak barrels, machinery and equipment, pest management, employee relations, local ordinances and on and on.
The wine writer doesn’t need to know about any of that, or just minimally. Sure, a certain base knowledge of, say, rootstocks and clones is useful. Just how much, however, is an open question. Pinot Noir winemakers obsess on clones. Does 115 tend to ripen earlier or later than 114? Which is more tannic, 777 or 667? These are vital to the winemaker’s eventual success or lack thereof.
How important is it for a wine writer to know such things? Look at it this way. Let’s say I taste a Pinot that’s very tannic. That’s certainly important information to convey to my readers. But–assuming I even knew that there was a lot of clone 777 in there–how important is it for me to tell readers that the tannins come from 777? First of all, I can’t prove it, although clone 777 is generally associated with strong tannins. Let’s say the winemaker herself told me the tannins are from 777. Do I repeat that to the readers? Is it necessary or even interesting for them to know that? I don’t think so, any more than it’s necessary for the buyer of an automobile to know where the steering wheel was manufactured (political and economic considerations aside). A car buyer wants to know how the steering wheel feels in his hands, how the car reacts to turning it, what options in its material construction he has, if he can control the sound system without removing his hands from it.
A wine consumer similarly wants to know the basics: What does the wine smell like? What does it taste like? How’s the finish? Should he age it? What foods should he drink it with? Is it a particularly good value? Of course, depending on how much space the writer has to express himself, he can fit more or less information in there. If I have 250 words to devote to describing a single wine, I might well say something about the toast level of the barrels, or the soil composition of the vineyard, or even where the winemaker worked before. If I have only 40 words, my options are limited: I have to get the basic information across, and moreover in a way that’s well written. I might even be able to get a little poetry in there, a la “rainfall after a dry spell.” But no matter what my word count is, I can’t see the point of using a word like geosmin.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, here comes the famous Portuguese winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, complaining that a certain critic named Parker just gave his wine 100 points.
Dr. Vino reported it, paraphrasing Niepoort as saying the Big Score “would raise prices and alienate the customer base he’s trying to build.” Then, curiously, Niepoort added this little fillip: “it’s too early to have 100 points.”
Okay, kids, deconstruction time or, as an old semiotician I once knew would have asked, What’s he really saying?
“would raise prices” Why? Well, we all know that a Big Score from any of the major critics is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, the red flag being the Score and the bull being the proprietor. Yes, Big Scores often result in price hikes, but nobody is forcing said proprietor to jack up the price. He does it freely, of his own will, because he wants to and thinks he can get away with it, based on that Score. It’s not like there’s some ineluctable law of the universe that goes “Cause: Big Score. Effect: price rise,” like the law of gravity that mandates that everything that goes up must come down (or, in this case, the reverse: Everything that was down must go up, providing it receives enough stimulus in the form of a Big Score).
Now, you can argue that the price of Niepoort’s wine will rise no matter what he does or doesn’t do, because it will immediately find its way onto the aftermarket, where bidding will be intense; or that retailers (on- or off-premise) themselves will raise the price, when their customers start demanding the wine. What’s wrong with that? It’s the essence of capitalism, and, after all, wine isn’t some esoteric practice like meditating or sodoku, it’s a business. The greater the demand, the higher the price goes.
Now, I’ve talked to plenty of winemakers (mainly in Napa Valley) who’ve told me, privately, they’re concerned that their pricing is going too high, because they don’t want their wines turning into commodities. I can understand their concern, but the fact is that the final price is absolutely a function of the release price, which is determined by the winery. If the winery doesn’t want to see prices get too high, all it has to do is lower the release price. But you never see that, unless the winery is in trouble. And why do most wineries get in trouble? Because they don’t get high scores.
“would alientate the customer base he’s trying to build.” I can see that some of Niepoort’s customers might be pissed off if next year they find themselves forced to pay 30% or 50% more for a wine they used to be able to afford. But the truth is, consumers are very fickle these days when it comes to wine. They buy “x” today and “y” tomorrow and “z” the next day. Partly this fickleness is because they’re constantly searching for bargains. Partly it’s because wine is like the fashion industry: as Heidi Klum says, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. A winemaker who hopes to stay “in” must have a business plan that takes scores into account–whether they’re high or low. If a winemaker is relying on the critics to not give him a high score, then he doesn’t have a solid business plan.
But then there was that odd little remark Niepoort made: “it’s too early to have 100 points.” What can he possibly have meant? Would 100 points have been okay in 5 years as opposed to today? This suggests that Niepoort isn’t really against the 100-point system, he just wants to be able to choose the exact moment when he gets his blessing. Well, I’m sorry. The world doesn’t work that way.
The reader comments on Dr. Vino’s page were a propos. One said, “He doesn’t have to raise his prices. And he can have a few words with those who do inflate and gouge. I guess he would have been happier with an 80?” True, true and true. At any rate, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a high score before. It seems a little disingenuous and ungrateful.
I used the phrase “intellectually appealing” on a wine I reviewed yesterday. I’ve used it before; I know what I mean, in my mind, but I never really tried to define it before, and I think that some people who read a review that contains the word “intellectual” might scratch their heads or arch their eyebrows and think, “What the heck he is talking about?”
So it’s time for me to define it, both for you and for me.
The wine in question yesterday was Foxen’s 2010 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, from the Santa Ynez Valley. I went into my notes and looked up further instances where I recently used the word “intellectual.” There was Boheme 2009 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, which I described as “an intellectual wine, elusive and challenging, that makes you think.” And Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley: “austere and tantalizing…an intellectual wine.” And Lucia 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands: “An eccentric Chardonnay…well-made and has intellectual appeal.” And Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma Valley with “extra complexity that makes it intellectually interesting.” And Baldacci 2010 Sorelle Chardonnnay, Carneros, which has “a complex intellectual appeal.” And on and on.
What can “intellectual” possibly mean when applied as an adjective to wine? The word means “of or pertaining to the intellect,” so we must first come up with a satisfactory definition of intellect. The conventional dictionary meaning is “a mind or intelligence, especially a superior one,” but this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what I mean when I call a wine “intellectual.”
We all have minds. Some of us are more prone to live interiorly than others. To call a person “an intellectual” long has been a mixed message. On the one hand, the culture has a history of anti-intellectualism: “pointy-headed intellectual,” also known as “egghead,” has been an epithet applied to certain individuals by others who believe they think too much, or, at least, think the wrong thoughts.
On the other hand, our culture also has had a sort of grudging admiration for intellectuals. Albert Einstein was practically a national hero, even though almost nobody could say exactly what his intellectual achievements had been. People just knew he was smart and on our side, and that was enough to make him admired.
I’ve been perceived as an intellectual all my life (when I was younger, my friends used to call me “Professor”). I do tend to live in my mind: among other things, I’m fascinated by cosmology. Why are we here? Why does something exist, rather than nothing? What does it all mean? Thinking as hobby, as recreation, comes as naturally to me as jogging or lifting weights at the gym, or writing this blog, for that matter. I think Tom Wark picked up on this quality of mine when he wrote about me, one month after I launched this blog in 2008, and headlined it “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.”
This long segue into the architecture of intellectualism is meant to shed light on what I, and others, mean when we describe a wine as having intellectual appeal. Lettie Teague, in Food & Wine, said she often was told that “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine,” although she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that claim. Another writer, from a New York wine store, called a 2007 Levet Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche Côte-Rôtie “both intellectual and savage,” while the Montreal Gazette’s wine critic quoted Olivier Humbrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, as telling him Riesling is “an intellectual wine” that “demands too much of wine drinkers to ever become a mainstream wine…”.
This last begins to get to the truth of the matter. An intellectual wine is not a hedonistic wine, one that charms you right off the bat. An intellectual wine tends to have a certain austerity. It most certainly possesses structure. There are many wines that are austere and have structure that are not intellectual wines: they are simply lean. An intellectual wine, on the other hand, makes you think, because you discern that there’s something elusively tantalizing about it you can’t quite put your finger on. But you want to. You long to understand what it is that titillates your imagination and keeps you coming back for more. You have to think about the wine, play with it, dig deeper down into the bedrock to see what you find. I will quote Quintessa’s former winemaker, Aaron Pott, who, although he is describing his own creation and therefore can be accused of some bias, wrote, of the 2003 vintage, “It is an intellectual wine requiring study to understand its full profound genius.” I myself reviewed that wine six years ago, and while I did not use the word “intellectual,” I scored it 94 points and called it “beautiful.” Yes, an intellectual wine can be beautiful, too.
In the vocabulary of winespeak, the most difficult term to define or understand is “minerality.”
Writers, including me, use it all the time. But I’m never quite sure if “minerality” is really the best word for me to use and, whether it is or isn’t, I can’t ever really know if my readers have any idea what I’m talking about.
It’s a word I’ve heard for a long time, from way before I was a writer myself. I can’t remember where I first read it, but I’m pretty sure it was with respect to French Chablis. I formed the idea in my mind that it had to do with the chalk that the grapes in Chablis are grown in, that Kimmeridgean limestone. Supposedly, it gives Chablis a “lick of steel” (whatever that means: does anyone really lick steel?), which sometimes is expressed as a “flintiness” (whatever that means. The only flint I’ve ever seen was old Indian arrowheads, and they neither had an aroma nor a taste, so far as I know, not that I’ve ever licked an Indian arrowhead).
I do sometimes stick odd things in my mouth to find wine analogies. I’ve licked my car ignition key, which gives me a tingly sensation of petrol-tinged, sour ions that reminds me of certain Rieslings. I’ve licked chalk and other stones from various vineyards. I’ve even chewed dirt. I remember chewing the dirt from one of Seghesio’s Zinfandel vineyards, at Asti on the Russian River, to try to understand the weird, minerally, earthy qualities of the wine.
But what do I mean by minerality? So concerned are we editors at Wine Enthusiast about the use (or misuse) of the word that we’ve scheduled some time to talk about it in August, when we’re all in New York.
This writer describes minerality as “the scent or taste (or even aftertaste) of some sort of mineral, stone or rock in a wine.” I’m not sure that’s helpful to most people. Minerals typically have no scent or taste, as I wrote above. So what is the average wine lover, trying to improve her knowledge, supposed to do with all these references to minerality?
I wish there were a better word. I know what I mean when I use the words “minerally” and “minerality.” I can find it in red wines, too, not just whites. I often find minerality in the Cabernets from Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill. For instance, I described a Jean Edwards 2008 Cabernet, from the Stagecoach Vineyard, as have “lots of…mineral…flavors.” Stagecoach is, of course, the big vineyard that spills from the Atlas Peak AVA across the appellation line into the Napa Valley AVA, which therefore is all its entitled to. I fancy the mineral taste or feeling comes from the rocks in the soil. These vineyards are fantastically rocky, as Vaca Mountain vineyards tend to be (and are there any geologists out there who can tell me why the Vacas are so rocky while the Mayacamas aren’t?).
I wrote “mineral taste or feeling” above, and I think that’s what minerality really refers to, a mouthfeel, rather than a smell or flavor. It’s a firmness that’s very hard to describe. Again, in my imagination I think of it as caused by the vine’s roots absorbing through the soil all the minerally essences. There’s a bunch of phosphorous and iron and magnesium and whatnot in those stony soils and somehow they get brought into the grape, thence to the wine, where they give that impression of firmess. But I’m the first to admit I don’t really have an understanding of soil or grape chemistry, so this may just be romantic nonsense on my part.
I do like that minerally thing, though. I was at Greg Melanson’s vineyard yesterday, up in the Vacas, and he gave me a Chardonnay from a small block he’s subsequently replaced to Cabernet. The Chardonnay was quite good: dry, acidic and, yes, minerally. It was as far from a buttery fruit bomb as you could imagine, austere and streamlined and linear. I guess you could call it Chablisian. Greg’s vineyard is extremely rocky, with “boulders the size of Volkswagons,” in his words. The drier a wine is, the more apparent the minerals are (if there are any)–I think. At least, I don’t recall finding minerality in sweet wines. Maybe sugar masks it?
Well, these are just the kind of random thoughts that go through my taster’s mind from time to time. I’m always trying to refine my wine reviews so that they’re simpler, clearer and easier for people to understand. But “minerality”: now that’s a tough one. I know what I mean by it. I’m not sure anyone else does. But for now, there’s no better word, so I’ll keep using it.