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Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


Premox: a consideration

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Alan R. Balik has a good summary of premox in his column in the Napa Valley Register.

Premox, or premature oxidation, refers to a wine that should age well, but instead turns brown and “off” within just years of its release. The issue of premox has obsessed certain collectors, writers and winemakers for a decade or so, but is now gaining traction. At first thought to affect only white wines, like white Burgundy, it is now considered to impact red wines too, according to a Decanter article reporting on an oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine,” including from Barolo, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy.

Nobody seems to know if premox is something entirely new, and, if so, what causes it. As the articles linked to in this post point out, the cause/s could be anything: global warming, superripe grapes, poor corks and closures, high alcohol, low acidity, high pH, too much new oak, low levels of SO2, excessive exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, sur lie aging and battonage, botrytis or poor storage (Clive Coats suggested these latter two), and who knows what else. This article, from The Drinks Business, summarizes some of the technical complexities involved in understanding the problem.

It’s impossible to think about premox and not refer to one’s own experiences with older wines. As I (and many other critics) have written for years, I’ve been disappointed in older bottles more often than not. And by “old” I mean more than eight years in Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than four years in any white California wine. (Obviously there are always exceptions.) As Jane Anson describes it in the Decanter article, too many older red wines these days bear “Exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” These qualities are, of course, not what you want in a ten- or twelve-year old Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that may have cost well north of $100, but common sense tells me they may be qualities that have come about due to the higher brix that grapes have been picked at over the last twenty years or so. That results in higher alcohol levels; also lower acidity, and, given the weltanschauung these days, plenty of toasty new oak. Add “micro-oxygenation,” or mox, in red wines, which also is rather common in the so-called “cult” red wines around the world, and you may have a perfect storm, in which the inherent elements of the wine begin life initially unstable, i.e. prematurely oxidized. Instability that is built into a wine may not be readily detectible when the wine is young, but with each passing year, the instabilities mount up and perturb each other, until the wine is thrown into disorder.

This is not to argue in favor of the current ethos crying for low-alcohol wines. There is not yet evidence, at least in California, that such wines age any better than higher-alcohol wines. (And they may well be less satisfying in youth.) But we have got to bear in mind that the wine world has already gone through a paradigm shift, in which people no longer care about aging their wines. Whatever they buy is consumed rather rapidly. It was only natural for winemakers around the world to respond to this shift by making wines that are softer, rounder and more delicious in their youth. If ageability is the baby that is thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.

There is one more thing to consider, and that is the matter of personal taste. It may be objected to that the subjectivity of personal taste has no place in an objective appraisal of premox, which after all is a scientific question. But a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young. After all, any aged wine is already on the road to senescence. Whether an eight-year old Cabernet is experiencing “the first blush of death,” as the English put it, is a matter of determining how much “death” you want in your wine. It may be because I am, at heart, a Californian, but I have never cottoned to that blush of death thing in wine. It can be “un peu beaucoup,” a bit too much. And, as Clive Coats notes, the notion of early deliciousness coupled with ageability is a bit of a stretch. “It would be idiotic,” he writes, “to expect today’s wine to be both delicious at a year and a half and to hold up for 15 years thereafter. Something has to give. I regret that it seems to be the ageing potential of the wine.”

We tend to forget, too, that we make excuses for wines that don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We say the wine is in an awkward phase, which is really an unprovable assertion, but does have the advantage of letting the wine off easy, if it isn’t showing as well as we would like. If one bottle shows wonderfully (by common consensus) while a second bottle of the same wine is a disappointment, we chalk it off to “bottle variation.” I have even heard collectors say that a power outage of an hour or so, which results in the temperature of a wine cellar rising by a degree or two, can perturb great wine so that it is no longer drinkable! This is what I mean by “making excuses.” We want our expensive wines to age well; when they do not, we offer up every reason imaginable for the failure. But Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest reason is usually the correct one: The wine wasn’t ageable in the first place.

Here in California, research into oxidation is somewhat recent but picking up intensity. This video, of Professor Andrew Waterhouse on “The Oxygen Cascade in Wine,” suggests some of the difficulties, although it is straightforward enough for the non-scientist to follow. Waterhouse’s bottom line is that lots more study is required to determine the relationship of free SO2 in wine and the effects of oxidation, including premature oxidation. Right now, he says, most of what we think we know is “speculative,” which means we’re likely to continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of wines that we think should age, but don’t.


Crowd-based reviews? A consideration

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I’m not certain I agree that, in large, multi-judge competitions, “the best wines tend to rise to the top,” as Andy Perdue says in his column in Pacific NW Magazine says.

Andy’s contention is based on the fact that a big competition represents “a consensus of the judges who are tasting the wines” and, thus, this crowd-sourced opinion is more free of “biases” than would be the judgment of an individual taster.

This is a sort of “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” analysis. (That slogan comes from a Broadway play of 1929 that contrasted the socially-liberal attitudes of 1920s Paris with the censorship and alcohol Prohibition then in effect in the U.S. Its usual meaning is, “Hey, if so many people like it, there must be something to it.”)

There is indeed something to be said about consensus among large groups when it comes to decision-making. Our elections are based on consensus. Just as we would not want a single individual to pick our political leaders, but prefer to leave that up to the collective will of the voters, so too the consensual approach to wine judging suggests it somehow arrives at findings that are more true and real and thus of greater lasting value.

However, Andy himself acknowledges that you can unearth new and exciting wines in at least five ways,” namely, wine competitions, wine critics, wine merchants, wineries/wine festivals and friend recommendations. The question is not, “Which is best?,” because each way obviously has its own special appeals. The question is, “Which of these five ways is on the increase and which is losing steam?”

We’re certainly familiar with the contention that the Big Critics are losing sway, and I think that’s true, in the sense that the more famous of them are aging out. But what does this mean for the template? Not much. The New York Yankees, much less Major League Baseball, didn’t phase away with Derek Jeter’s retirement, because talented younger players—Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, Mike Trout—are constantly coming up. In the same way, it’s becoming fashionable to predict the demise of the individual critic, but we’ve seen the stunning rise and success of Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, with its super-stable of critics, and other leading publications (including The Wine Advocate, which isn’t going anywhere), remain hugely influential. So it does not seem to me that wine critics are an especially endangered species.

The question, though, of individual judgment versus consensus-driven judgment remains interesting, albeit probably unresolvable. Having participated in huge tastings (although the last one was years ago), I came to the personal conclusion that there were too many people involved, too many egos, too much confusion and, at any rate, too much alcohol imbibed in too short a time, at least for my tastes. (Perhaps things have changed in the interim.) Then too, consensus usually means that outlier wines, at both the top and the bottom, are eliminated, resulting in a shift toward the median, or average. That’s not to say that a winner at a big competition is not a fine, even a great wine, but it does stand to reason that it will be a wine that offends the least number of people, while appealing to the greater esthetic. One could argue that such a wine would be more ordinary than special. But I’m acutely aware that every single one of my arguments could be turned on its head, and used to prove the opposite.

Another limitation of big competitions is that not all the top wineries even bother to enter them. In fact, many top wineries don’t, for the simple reason that they have more to lose than to gain, by getting a lower score than, say, a supermarket wine. This raises a fundamental limitation of any method of critical appraisal: no competition, no individual judge can possibly review all the wines out there. Even I, as a working critic who tasted thousands of wines each year, could barely keep up—and there were some wines I never tasted at all.

I will admit there’s a certain allure to a double gold winner from a big competition. I think to myself, “It certainly can’t be a bad wine, and it might even be a very special one.” It’s kind of the way I feel about Yelp: for all its well-publicized problems, Yelp does provide a kind of base-of-the-pyramid generalization of the conclusions of many people. If the majority of 40 reviews of a restaurant are positive, I’m more inclined to check it out. But—and this is just me—I still prefer the review of a single, trusted critic, like Michael Bauer, to that of the crowd.


“Social media” is an oxymoron that’s here to stay

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Three articles in yesterday’s S.F. Chronicle caught my attention for the suggestions they make about how social media is, and is not, changing our lives.

(I was finally able to read after days of not being able to, due to the intense flu I had. It was an effort just to focus my eyeballs.)

The first article was on the continuing war between digital cab companies, like Uber and Lyft, and conventional taxi companies. This is a topic San Franciscans have been hearing a lot about. The bottom line is that the conventional taxis were slow to the point of paralysis in understanding the implications of portable digital devices. This was summed up by a CEO who said, “The taxi industry needs to rapidly retool and face the realities of the smartphone.”

Nobody is going to dial up a taxicab number and face all the possible uncertainties and hassles. (Just finding an open taxicab in San Francisco is a feat.) So much easier to establish an Uber or Lyft account, even if it means paying a little more. Uber and Lyft made the news yesterday because they apparently are planning on price-gouging on New Year’s Eve, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they foresaw the conveniences of smartphones and the taxi companies didn’t.

The second article was an examination of one of the East Bay’s new congressman, Eric Swalwell, the youngest member (at 32) of the large California delegation. Swalwell’s a social media guy; he made a point of stressing that in his interview. He tweets so much that there’s a new Twitter hashtag, #swalwelling, which seems to consist of photographing one’s feet as they enter an airplane. (We have “selfies.” Could this be “footsies”?)

These two articles represent green lights for social media. They underscore that we have become a society on the go, go, go, with our feet carrying us while our hands clutch our smartphones and we share our experiences with others. We interact with the world through these devices, and that includes all our interactions: shopping, politics, entertainment, simple personal communications. For wineries, the meaning is clear: Go big, or go home. The winery that does not learn how to take advantage – no, that’s not the right phrase, because it implies a certain cynical, transparently venal misappropriation of social media. Let me start again. The winery that does not learn how to communicate through mobile devices puts itself at disadvantage in this hyper-competitive world. Just as taxi companies learned, to their chagrin, at the hands of Uber and Lyft, the future belongs to the digitally savvy. (Although I will admit that Uber and Lyft have not been particularly adroit in handling the politics of their situations. But that’s another story…).

The third article stands in stark contrast to the others. There’s a new establishment here in Oakland, Plank, down at Jack London Square. It’s in a gigantic space that’s been vacant for years. The new owners decided to open, not just a restaurant, not just a bar, but a bowling alley, pool hall, bocce ball court and video game arcade. They call it an “activity bar.” The concept is, as another activity bar owner put it, “It’s fun, and you don’t have the pressure of sitting across the table talking for three hours.”

Well, I don’t know about the “pressure” of talking with friends and family over a restaurant meal. I mean, if it were really that onerous, people wouldn’t be doing it so much. Still, I get the idea. As the Chronicle reporter who wrote the story mused, “One wonders …whether these bars satisfy a longing for childhood pleasures…in the age of texting, with face-to-face communication.”

That’s more to the point. Yes, we inhabit a digital reality; we’re all nexuses on the World Wide Web. We do more and more things with our smartphones. But my discomfort from the very beginnings of this digital revolution has been connected with the fact that it somehow seems injurious to the social and civil underpinnings that made us human in the first place, and societal beings moreover. To that extent, the phrase “social media” is an oxymoron. “Social” is face-to-face; distant communication, however facile or amusing it may be, is not particularly social.

However, here we are, on a cusp as it were between two opposing forces. As usual with cusps (such as the transition between millennia), predictions, fears and hopes are exaggerated; things continue more or less as usual. Life goes on; we grow accustomed to whatever is new, and somehow manage to keep hold of our humanness.

The lesson, again, for wineries, which I alluded to above, is clear: adapt to the digital, portable realm or be doomed. But do it in a way that’s Zen-like in detachment: with a pure mind, as Buddhists put it. Do not allow yourself to be perceived as having an ulterior motive; in fact, do not have an ulterior motive, except that of humanness. If you’re puzzled by how to achieve this, here’s a clue: If you are yourself, not someone else, you will not be perceived as having an ulterior motive. If you are not yourself, you invariably will be. It’s a strange paradox: by being real, you will succeed. If you don’t know what being yourself and being real mean, then you have your work cut out for you.

Anyhow, have a fine, fun and safe New Year’s Eve! No drunk driving, please.


Renewed U.S.-Cuba ties good news for CA wine

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The first thing I thought, when I heard that the U.S. is about to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, was, “Oh, man, that’s really good news for California wine.”

Before the brouhahas of the early 1960s, Cuba was a favorite tropical destination for American vacationers, especially those along the East Coast. Today, people go to Costa Rica, Belize, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; back then, it was Havana, just 90 miles across open water from Florida. Fashionable resorts, like the Hotel Nacional, lined the Malecón, attracting tourists with cash to spend. And spend it they did, in restaurants and bars, until the break with the U.S. and subsequent embargo sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin.

But with this resumption in relations, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. tourism will once again explode; certainly, expectations are high. Forbes last week, in an article called “Five Industries Set to Benefit from the U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” listed “Tourism” in the top slot, writing that Cuba will be an attractive stop for architecture buffs, food lovers, music lovers, and those interested in literature and the arts.” And where food lovers go, there is wine.

And what wine is more natural to pour in Cuba than California wine? Yes, there’ll be plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and probably lots of German Riesling in that warm climate, but really, California wine is likely to dominate restaurant wine lists, as it dominates wine lists here in the States. At least, that’s what Napans believe. An article last week in the Napa Valley Register described how Napa Valley winemakers are weighing the Caribbean nation’s potential to become its newest market,” although the article also warned that direct sales to Cubans themselves, rather than to wealthy tourists, are likely to be minimal for quite some time, because Cuba remains a poor country. Last summer, of course, a group of Cuban sommeliers famously visited Napa and Sonoma. At that time, they said they “aren’t sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants.” So the timing is iffy, but not the interest: the somms want our wine, and they’re going to get it. Pacific Northwest vintners, too, are eying the possibilities.

Because news of the improved U.S.-Cuba ties came so unexpectedly and rapidly, it’s not likely that very many California wineries were prepared for it. I would imagine that late last week, and continuing on into this Christmas week and the New Year, winery sales and marketing teams will be meeting on a contingency basis to figure out how to take advantage of the new developments. They should. Every market counts—and the Cuban tourist market (which will be international in scope, not just comprised of Americans) is likely to eventually be very profitable.

U.S. tourism in Cuba isn’t a done deal—it will take some action by Congress to fully open it up. But, as Bloomberg Business Week reports, even the prospect of travel has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.” When it happens, those tourists are going to be shelling out a lot of money for California wine.


Zinfandel poised for growth

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Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!


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