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What makes a successful tasting event?

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My event yesterday in Monterey was even better than I’d dared to hope. You never know, when you put together a complex tasting like this, for a high-level audience of wine professionals, how it’s going to go. In this case, we decided to have a “Sur and Steve Road Show,” Sur being Sur Lucero, one of Jackson Family Wines’ Master Sommeliers, and Steve being me, the former critic who works with the 100-point scale. The idea was for the audience to get inside our heads and see how differently we think: Sur the analyst, looking for typicity, zeroing in on variety, region and even vintage based on his long experience at double-blind tasting; and me, not really having the same skill set, but being able to determine the quality of the wine, based on the 100-point system.

It was something of a gamble: this could have been a disaster. But somehow, it worked. I think it helped that Sur and I have great respect and affection for each other. As he goes through his Master Sommelier grid, explaining how through the process of deduction he works from the general to the specific, I am in awe of the experience required to taste a wine, double-blind, and determine that it must be a Riesling from California! Wow, how good is that. And yet, Sur is the first to admit he’s not really looking for a qualitative analysis, especially one based on a numerical scoring system. He could be entirely dismissive of the 100-pont scale—lots of somms are—but he isn’t. It’s wonderful and rewarding for me to have someone of Sur’s talents tell me how much he wants to learn how my mind works when I analyze the wine—not in an M.S. way, but in my own, developed over decades—and then decide what the score ought to be. And, judging from the reaction of our guests, they were fascinated by these twin tours through the brains of two pros.

The risk for the sponsoring winery, in this case Jackson Family Wines, is that I, as the critic, am going to declare an absolute quality to each wine. And that may not be equivalent to a high score. Sur isn’t going to do that: if you’re in the audience, you have to read inbetween Sur’s lines, decipher his comments, to decide if he likes the wine. With me, you don’t have to guess: I’m telling you upfront, with the score. I’m not always in love with every one of JFW’s wines, and I’ll tell you so. But that’s part of keeping it real.

I’ve been in plenty of public events that were duds. I don’t think that any of the events I was responsible for and led was a dud, because on those occasions when it’s entirely up to me, I usually come up with something offbeat enough to be of interest. However, I’ve been invited to be a part of events that fizzled instead of sizzled, and my after-analysis of them is that they were too mundane and predictable. There’s a certain template to having a nice, safe event, where nobody feels like they wasted their time, but they also don’t go home excited, or having learned anything. I don’t want to be part of such blah events.

Yesterday’s event, as I said, was exciting, because it was different. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. I specifically did not want it billed as the Sur Versus Steve Ultimate Blind Tasting Smackdown. Instead, I wanted it to be exactly what it was: Two professionals, both with long experience, both nice, sane, communicative guys who like each other, both explaining just how their gray matter works. The fact that things turned out so well is proof of the fact that, sometimes, when you take risks, they pan out. And I’ll tell you how I knew this was risky: it’s because I was nervous beforehand. No risk, no reward. I’d hate to have a road show that was so well-rehearsed, so perfected in all its parts, so been-there-done-that, that it no longer possessed any frisson of danger.


How do you evaluate wine blind, by typicity or by quality?

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We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.

As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.

(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)

Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.

All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.

A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.

I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.

Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.

Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.

Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.

However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.

So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.


Wednesday wraparound: Boredom, urban wineries, and medals, medals, medals

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Once upon a time, people bought the wines they liked and had trusted over many years, because they knew they would not be disappointed.

It may have been a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, a Chianti or Mateus or Wente Grey Riesling. The wines could always be found on the local supermarket shelf, and the price didn’t break the bank.

That was then; nowadays, we have “the paradox of choice. Overstimulated by so many options,” writes Joyce Goldstein, in Inside the California Food Revolution, “we have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

Granted, Joyce is talking about how and where we eat—the amazing proliferation of types of cuisine we have at our disposal. But the same could be said about wine. And this is making life very difficult for the small family winemaker.

I was hanging out yesterday with a guy who owns his own wine brand, but he’s not likely to in the future. Business is not good, and he, himself, doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t afford a staff, which means he has to do it all: vineyard contracting, winemaking, sales, marketing (such as it is) and all the rest. This is obviously too much for one person, so the end of the road is near.

It’s a sad story, especially since I’ve known this guy and know what a terrific winemaker he is. But his plight is the direct result of Joyce’s observation about our food proclivities: We’re accustomed to constant change, and we grow quickly bored. Under those circumstances, someone might have bought my friend’s wine and enjoyed it. But that person will be reluctant to become a loyal customer because of this constant search for the new and different.

I don’t know what the answer is. There may not be one. Not every problem has a solution. And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true. They might not—but usually, people don’t realize that until they’re in the forties.

* * *

Our little, homegrown East Bay Vintners Alliance is preparing for their annual fiesta. This year it’s August 2, down at Jack London Square. This is the Oakland version of “the urban wine experience,” a keen piece of marketing wines made in our nation’s increasingly popular, hip cities. For whatever reason, the phenomenon (if that’s what it is) is getting widespread press. For instance, there’s an article in the latest issue of “Via,” the AAA magazine, called “Wineries go to town,” that includes several of the East Bay’s locals: Donkey & Goat and Rosenblum, as well as wineries in San Francisco (Bluxome Street) and Portland (Enso).

I’ll be at the August 2 event and hope to see you there!

* * *

Not to knock my friends who organize and judge at the California State Fair’s wine contest, but a headline like “Thousands of medals awarded in State Fair wine completion” doesn’t exactly gain my respect. According to the local ABC affiliate, “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.” That’s a lot of medals: nearly half of all the wines won one. Bragging rights are, of course, the payoff for winning a medal—but something about this kind of inflated result makes me think of Garrison Keilor’s witticism about the kids of Lake Wobegon: “and all the children are above average.”

Have a good day!


Oakland hosts an important wine tasting–and in my neighborhood!

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They started calling my neighborhood in Oakland “Uptown” a few years ago. That was when the restaurants began moving in, and the new condos and bars and clubs, making it one of the Bay Area’s hottest ‘hoods. But one thing Uptown never had was a fancy wine tasting event for the public.

Well, Saturday night brought a breakthrough of sorts. It was called the Spring Wine Event, and it was held in a place called Impact Hub, a former auto showroom (I think it was Cadillac-Porsche) back when this stretch of Broadway was called Auto Row. The redeveloper has taken the industrial-sized place and turned it into a high-ceilinged, post-modern space perfect for events of this sort.

I’d been invited to the tasting by a guy, Michael DeFlorimonte, whom I’d never heard of, so I called him up to ask why he’d reached out to me. Seems a winemaker had recommended he ask me, especially since I live only a ten-minute walk away. So Mike did, and I’m so glad. He explained to me that the event was largely for the African-American community, which is fantastic, because that community has been overlooked and underserved by the broader wine industry, which seems like it focuses its efforts (at the premium end, at any rate) elsewhere—why, I’ve never known.

Anyway, this was a glamorous event. I was underdressed, as I usually am. Most of the wines being poured were from tiny new wineries I’d never heard of, many of them produced at a facility on Treasure Island, which is familiar to Bay Area motorists as the mid-way point on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. I’m going to have to go out there one of these days to check out this interesting, urban wine scene.

Here are some of the wines I really liked: L’Objet Wines 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve, a $32 blend of Russian River, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast; Longevity 2013 Pijot Grigio ($24), from Livermore Valley, actually a rosé and a very good one; Urban Legend 2012 Windem Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($19), which confirms everything I’ve always liked about Lake County; and Greyscale 2011 Cuvée Blanc ($34), a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend from Napa Valley made in the Graves style. There were a few wines that were pretty ordinary, and two in particular that were disasters: both from a high-end, expensive Napa Valley producer whose name I will not reveal, but whom you all would recognize. They were awful, horrible, crimes against wine, and my first thought on tasting them was, “Wow. They dumped these wines at a tasting where they thought people might not be that discerning.” I considered saying something to the pourer, but then reconsidered: not my problem. But it was very sad. Does this sort of thing go on very much? Did the winery think no one would notice because it was “only” downtown Oakland? Someone noticed: me.


Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir

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Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.


A Ribera del Duero tasting

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Master Sommelier Yoon Ha, from San Francisco’s acclaimed Benu restaurant, did a great job presiding over yesterday’s Ribera del Duero tasting and seminar, held at the Ferry Building on a gloomy, gray day. We had six different wines, all current releases and all 100% Tempranillo, that illustrated what Yoon called “the diversity” that characterizes this 30-year old Denominacíon de Origen.

Yoon, who lived several years in Ribera, is high on the wines, as are many of his colleague somms in the City. I can see why. They’re wines of great elegance and finesse, ranging through the unoaked or only lightly oaked Jovens, to the Crianzas (aged two years, with a minimum of one year in barrel), Reservas (aged three years, with a minimum of one year in oak) and Gran Reservas (aged five years at minimum, with a minimum of two years in barrel). It was amusing to read, in the tech notes, that “During harvest each winery is assigned a surveyor by the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Ribera del Duero” to regulate the origin of the grapes, the varieties and percentages allowed, winemaking procedures, and so on. I had to smile at the thought of the California Department of Food and Agriculture sending “Reguladors” to each winery to police their practices. I asked Yoon if he thought that such bureaucratic intrusion was good for the wines, or if it inhibited innovation. He replied, in effect, that it was probably good, for it ensures a certain continuity of style and helps keep unqualified dabblers from harming Ribera’s reputation.

Here are my tasting notes:

1. D.O.5. Hispanobodegas S.L.U. Viña Gormaz 2010. All stainless steel. Bone dry with supple tannins and racy acidity. So fresh, elegant and clean, with sour red cherry candy fruit. So versatile with such a range of food, and only $10. An amazing value. I was with young Joey Franzia, of Bronco, and he loved this wine.

2. Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2007. A touch of oak brings toast and eucalyptus. Reminded me of a Johnson Turnbull Cabernet from the 1990s. Great weight, body, very rich and deeply flavored. Black currants. Bone dry, complex, thick, supple tannins. Another super-versatile wine at the table. $14.

3. Protos B. Ribera Duero de Peñafiel Tinto Fino 2009. A little muted at first. Dry, elusive, complex. Herbs, dried cherries, earth. From 25-year old vines. Intense, austere, elegant, tannic, good acidity. $15 a bottle.

4. Alejandro Fernandez-Tinto Pesquera Crianza 2009. Very concentrated and intense. Dark color–great power and substance. Bone dry, clean, touch of raisins. Alcohol 14.0%. Spent 18 months in American oak. Concentrated, great weight. $28.

5. Explotaciones Valduero Reserva 2005. Picking up aged character, dried fruit, mushrooms. Bone dry, thick. Thirty months total in oak. Elegant, complex. Develops in the glass. Impressive. $32.

6. Viñedos Y Bodegas Garcia Figuero Tinto Figuero Reserva 2004. Sweeter than the others–from oak? 70% American wood, 30% French. Big wine, dry, powerful, from 50-year old vines. Dried fruits, balsam, grilled meat. Very serious wine. Great weight, power. Bone dry on the finish. Tannins rich, smooth, supple. Easily the standout of the flight. I asked Yoon what food from Benu he would pair this with and he said the rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun, from the restaurant’s tasting menu. Then he added, “And it’s great with Mexican food, especially with mole.”  This wine retails for $38.

I loved these Ribera wines. Compared to California (say, Sangiovese or Tempanillo or even Merlot), they’re drier, sleeker, earthier, more austere and elegant. I wrote of all six wines “subtle power” but was struck also by their food-friendly versatility and pricing. The low prices can be explained by two factors, I think: most of the vineyard land has been in the family for generations, so there’s no bank debt on it; and Spain’s horrible economy prohibits producers from charging too much, since much of the production is consumed in country. There is evidently a great desire on the part of Ribera producers to export to the U.S.

California has little or nothing to compare with these wines, from the Temps I’ve had. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008 (Napa Valley, $53, 94 points), a delicious wine indeed, but with its strong oak, softness and powerfully sweet fruit, it was all California. Somewhere between a Crianza and a Reserva, I should think, was the Maisonry 2008 Tempranillo, from the Stagecoach Vineyard (Napa Valley, $42, 88 points). I liked its dry, medium-bodied weight, but then, it contained some Cabernet Franc; California Tempranillo on its own can be one-dimensional. Other Temp producers that have caught my eye–and you have to give them credit for marching against the market–are Twisted Oak, Longoria, Six Sigma, Curran and Bella Luna.


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