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New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent

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It was with enormous pleasure I found Steven Kent’s four new releases sent to me. I hadn’t asked for them. I always had the greatest respect for proprietor Steven Kent Mirassou’s wines. To my way of thinking, he was, not only the greatest winemaker in Livermore Valley, but one of the best in California, which means: the world. He took a growing region that seldom rose to its full potential and crafted exciting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I suppose the buzz about my reviews will be that I have given two of the four wines 100-point scores. Should I second-guess myself because both were perfect?

Mia NIPOTE 2017 Il Rinnovo (Livermore Valley); $50. Petite Sirah, which comprises half the blend of this youthful wine, is immediately apparent, in the pitch-black color and massive aromas and flavors. Blackberry jam, teriaki, chocolate macaroon, licorice, cherry pie, my goodness, the rich strands intertwine in the mouth and explode into a long, spicy finish. The other half of the blend, Cabernet Sauvignon—which marries beautifully with the “Pet”–contributes black currants and just a hint of dried herbs, as well as the fine tannin structure. There’s oak, too—50% new French—adding sweet vanilla and caramelized toast. That’s a lot of new oak, but the wine easily handles it. What a mouthful of flavor! And yet the wine never loses elegance. It remains supple and balanced, with just enough acidity to balance out the creamy sweetness. Yes, there is some heat from alcohol. But it’s a gently warming heat. I think a lot of people might drink Il Rinnovo (“renewal” in Italian) with summer grill, particularly in Livermore Valley, as restaurants re-open; and that’s fine. But I’d keep it for wintertime, when you’re cold and thirsty for a big, rich, delicious red. And there’s no reason it won’t hold for many years. A great achievement from Steven Kent Winery. Score: 93 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The best Ghielmetti from Steven Kent I ever reviewed was the 2007, and this beauty is even better. Right from the get-go, you know it’s a fine, serious wine. One hundred percent varietal Cabernet, it shows impressively alluring aromas of blackcurrants, savory red licorice and toasty oak, with similar flavors that veer into rich, creamy milk chocolate. There’s an elusively herbal touch—Bay leaf? Sweet thyme? Just enough to ground it. And is that floral note violets? It’s very rich—the winery calls it “gigantic”–but the structure is superb. Such nice tannins, firm and sweet, with a fine bite of acidity to balance everything out, and a noble, dry finish. The vineyard sits at between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Livermore Valley’s eastern foothills, the heart of its wine country. It’s a warm area, but benefits from Pacific air that flows in through gaps in the coastal hills from San Francisco Bay. The 2017 vintage was just about perfect: lots of rain during the winter, but then things dried out during the growing season, and except for the usual Labor Day heat spell, things went well. To be honest, Bordeaux wishes they could get grapes this ripe. Score: 95 points.

Steven Kent 2017 The Premier Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $125. Made from 100% Cabernet, this wine is a blend of three vineyards the winery accesses, including their Home Ranch and the esteemed Ghielmetti. The result is, in a word, stunning. I would stand it next to any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world; it’s that good. Let’s break it down. The flavors are awesome and impeccable, luxuriously showing the ripe blackberries, black currants, milk chocolate and olivaceous sweet savoriness associated with Cabernet. There’s a lot of new French oak (75%) that is perfectly integrated, with its smokiness and vanillins. But what really stands out is the wine’s structure. I think of it as a room where tannins are the walls and acidity is the floor. It’s the kind of wine you take one sip of and think, Wow. Then another sip, and another wow. And a third. The critical mind looks for flaws, but there aren’t any. There’s not even the excessive heat from alcohol that can mar many otherwise remarkable California Cabs. There’s also an element that’s hard to put into words: call it elegance, the kind of designer effect you find in a great sports car or the best clothing. The wine feels “jazzy,” a word my mom used to use to describe things she loved. And the finish! Don’t get me started. I was writing years ago that Steven Kent was lifting Livermore Valley Cabernet to unprecedented levels. He still is. It’s expensive, yes, but it’s not an everyday wine, and compared to Napa Valley, which is just next door over the hills, it’s a bargain. What a treat to experience this wine! If I had a case, I’d try to keep my hands off it for six years, and then open one bottle a year. I could give this wine 98, 99 points and hedge my bets, but why bother? It’s perfect. Score: 100 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $175. This is the winery’s Bordeaux-style blend, although it’s probably time to stop using that derivative phrase. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (legally enough to call it Cabernet; proprietor Steven Mirrasou prefers to call it “Red Blend”), 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Like the winery’s other new reds, it’s quite oaky—60% new French, aged for nearly two years—a bit less than The Premier, but it doesn’t need as much wood. The official alcohol reading is 14.9%. Only about 330 standard cases were produced, in addition to some big bottles. It’s also, obviously, Steven Kent’s most expensive release. I mention these particulars only because some people like to know. Now that the details are out of the way, what of the wine? To begin with, it’s enormously complex in aroma and flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes its telltale black currants and powerful tannins, but the cherry, raspberry and fig notes derive from the Cab Franc and Merlot, leading to a prettier, more feminine feeling compared to the 2017 The Premier or Ghielmetti Cabernet Sauvignons, both 100% varietal. It also feels, for that reason, more accessible now. The fruit and oak create a sweetness in the mouth, deliciously soft and decadent, heightened by a fabulous backbone of acidity. The winery’s tasting notes suggest 5-10 years before drinkability. I disagree. A wine like this is exciting even at the tender age of less than three years. And it’s not just a winter-sipping wine; I can imagine summer barbecue with grilled steak. The precision, tailoring and esthetic impact of Lineage are remarkable. I don’t taste a huge range of wines anymore since I retired, but I have my memory and my notes of the tens of thousands of California Cabs and blends I tasted in my career. And frankly, none have been better. A huge achievement, both for Steven Kent and for the Livermore Valley to which he has been dedicated for so long. Score: 100 points.


Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

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When I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now, let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a changing wine market?”

Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better” than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself. So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family, the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than the buyer’s internal needs.

For many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla Valle? Nobody outside the inner circle knew.

Now, Mobley opens the question in a way only a big-circulation newspaper like the Chronicle can. She doesn’t answer it, because there isn’t an easy answer. The question behind the question of whether the cult wine business model remains viable is, Is a new generation of Millennials as covetous of these wines as were their parents and grandparents?

I would be loath to state that consumer tastes in luxury goods, including wine, change dramatically in a short period of time. They don’t. The Western world has had cult wines at least since Roman times (when the Caesars had their favorites). The crowned heads of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including the Popes, similarly desired certain “cult” wines. It was only natural that California—settled as it was mainly by white people of European descent—would adopt a model that resembled that of Old Europe.

Are today’s wine consumers under the age of, say, 40 different in kind? Probably not. They too are likely to want their share of rarity and exclusivity (if they achieve the financial means of acquiring it). But does this automatically mean that Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, et al. will be as desired by Millennials as they have been up to now?

Millennials, many of whom are laden with debt, don’t seem to have as much disposable income as their forebears. And they’re craftier shoppers: if they’re going to spend bigtime on something, they want some flesh on those bones—not just something to show off, but something of inherent worthwhileness. And I have to say in all honesty that cult wines overall are lacking in this inherent quality. Yes, they can be glorious. But so too can their non-cult wine neighbors, at a fraction of the cost. I think Millennials, in this era of Trump, are exquisitely sensitive to false claims and misleading image-making (as well they should be). They don’t want to feel like suckers, and this is why I suspect that cult wines—at least most of those in Napa Valley—may indeed have reached a tipping point. In fact, it may be that their uber-wealthy owners are keeping them alive, not through profits on sales, but by dipping into their personal fortunes.

I don’t foresee a wave of closures. But we have seen cult wineries sold (Araujo, Colgin, Screaming Eagle), and we’ve also seen wineries break into cult status that never used to be there: Chateau Potelle, for instance. (Good for my old friend Jean-Noel!) What I think will eventually prove to be the case is that a handful of today’s cult wines will still be treasured decades from now, while others will have enjoyed their fifteen years of fame and retreated into the background. And there’s this: it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers. It’s far more difficult nowadays. If the wine critics of the future are honest—if they taste blind, that is, and don’t have preconceived notions that cult wines are automatically the best—then Napa’s cult Cabs may already be past the tipping point.


The Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Feeling nostalgic, I have been re-reading the Wine Diaries of the late Harry Waugh that I have in my library. Harry, a Londoner and a very great wine man, greatly influenced my own writing style, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on a tour of Washington State (around 1996) when he was already in his 90s, so I consider him sort of a mentor.

I was lucky to become a wine writer and critic at a time in the history of this country when it was possible for a young person, starting out with no experience or even connections, to succeed at such a career. The field was dominated by a relatively small number of individuals, but perseverance and (I hope, in my case, some talent) allowed me to penetrate their little club.

Today, there are so many people weighing in on wine that nobody needs a few ivory-tower critics anymore to tell them what’s good. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people have endless opinions available to them, to help them make buying decisions. There also are endless opportunities to learn about wines, grapes, regions and techniques: at the click of a Google search, you have entire libraries available to you.

But when I started, in the 1980s, there was obviously no Internet. There were only a very few people with national reputations who could influence great numbers of consumers, through the publication of articles and reviews in a tiny clutch of wine magazines, newsletters and newspaper columns. Americans needed such critics, to help guide them through the growing welter of wines in the wine aisle of the market; otherwise their senses would have been overwhelmed. It was also a time when the Baby Boomers—my generation—were finally getting wealthy enough to be able to afford the discretionary purchase of premium table wines on a regular basis. They wanted help; where demand is on the rise, supply responds appropriately, and the result was the creation of an industry and class: the professional wine writer and critic. I became a member of this restricted aristocracy.

I have made a distinction between wine “writers” and wine “critics” for a reason, for they are two different beasts. I used to know a lovely man, Rod Smith (who sadly died recently). He was a local guy, from the Russian River Valley, and a fine writer, who wrote for prestigious magazines and also penned some books. We were once at a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons made from grapes grown in the various Beckstoffer vineyards of Napa Valley. At one point, I asked Rod how he was rating the wines (I certainly was), and he snapped, “I’m not a wine critic, I’m a wine writer!” His point was that the written word was important to him, not some snappy review, accompanied by a number.

But I chose to be both a critic and a writer. I exercised the critical part through my job at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where my ratings, based on the 100-point system, were welcomed by consumers and trade alike (not to mention the winery owners who sent me their wines for review!). But I exercised the esthetic, writerly part of my passion through long articles in that magazine, and others, as well as books for the University of California Press and, after 2008, my wine blog. I took both parts of my job equally seriously, and like to think that I was successful at both.

How many members were there of the exclusive fraternity I was a part of? When I began, there were at most a dozen men and women in the entire country who had a national platform. (In my state of California, there were others who were important regionally, but who lacked that national exposure.) With such a small number, each of us was quite visible. We had clout, influence, reach: each word I wrote, each score would, I knew, be read with interest by large numbers of people. It was a heady feeling, but also underscored the grave responsibility that rested on my shoulders: to do a good job and be honest and scrupulous about it.

By the time I left the Wine Enthusiast, in 2012, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people reviewing wine and publishing articles in this country, not to mention the rest of the world. Some worked for a burgeoning number of wine, or wine-and-food, periodicals. Many more published online. There was even a Wine Bloggers Conference that attracted hundreds of ambitious, eager young (and not-so-young) people every summer. This meant that, although the number of wine consumers also was on the rise, each individual writer/critic’s influence was diluted, due to their sheer numbers. I used to say that, had I started my career in 2008 rather than 1988, I doubt that I would have achieved even one-tenth as much as I did: by 2008, the competition was just too intense. I was extremely lucky to have begun at a time when few young people gave any thought to being a wine writer and critic. In those Reagan years, most young people seemed to want to be MBAs!

So, today, a young person probably can’t “make it” anymore as wine writer or critic, that is, if they start from scratch. We do have a small number of individuals, such as Antonio Galloni and James Suckling, who apparently have achieved great success in the last ten years or so, but neither started from scratch: Galloni was launched to fame through Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Suckling arrived at his reputation through his years at Wine Spectator. I thus came of age during a Golden Age of wine writing, a time that no longer exists, and probably never will again, at least in America. Perhaps there are young men and women in places like China, Brazil or South Korea, where there is still an opportunity to forge a good career.

As for the 100-point system, I stoutly defended it all the years I used it. Now, I think it’s kind of passé. It will probably stick around for a while longer because it’s so entrenched. But, to be honest, in the last years of my career, it made less and less sense to me, and I would have abandoned it, had my paycheck not depended on it.


A rant on B.S. wine “reporting”

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I Googled “wine news” and here among the hits were these scintillating headlines:

Expert reveals 3 things you need to know about drinking wine on planes

Never spill your wine again with the __ wine glass and its metal stake

Eva Longoria’s wine goals for T-shirt designs

Delta pays a sommelier to pick wine for its flights—here’s her wine tasting advice

Extreme heat can taint the wine

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover?

Pour It Up! 9 Times a Glass of Wine Was Rihanna’s Favorite Accessory!

Well, I admit to being terribly behind the curve on cultural issues. Yesterday, a Facebook friend referred to something called “Ween,” and it wasn’t until I asked what a “Ween” was that I became educated in the fact that Ween is a major rock and roll band I had never heard of!

So perhaps there are burning wine-related issues of which I’m equally unconscious. But I don’t think so, which makes me regret all the more the vulgarity that has invaded what has now become “wine writing.”

Throughout the history of the English-speaking people writing about wine was reserved to the smartest, most literate among us. Wine—the beverage of our ancient Greek texts, and of the Bible, Old and New Testaments—was regarded as something too special to make light of. Generations of wine writers going back hundreds of years, of which I consider myself a recent incarnation, reserved their finest journalistic skills to writing about wine. Today, the Internet has made writing about wine not only common but promiscuous, with the result that people can headline their writing with the kinds of B.S. I listed above, and actually get others to read it.

Do we need tips on how to drink wine on planes? I don’t think so. You have to take the wine the airline is selling, and drink it from the glasses they give you. What other choices do you have? When there are no choices, there’s no need for advice, which doesn’t stop some people from offering it anyway. Next!

“Never spill your wine again.” I wasn’t aware that spilling wine was a major issue in America. I almost never spill my own wine, and as I am not a particularly well-coordinated person, I doubt that there are many people who spill their wine more than I do. So I have absolutely no need for any device or technique to prevent me from doing so. Next!

Eva Longoria and T-shirt designs. I barely know who Eva Longoria is, nor do I care. Since I don’t care about her, I certainly don’t care about whatever chotchkies she’s selling. Next!

Delta’s sommelier. Well, isn’t that special. It makes me feel so much more hopeful about my next Delta sardine can. Next!

I did not know that extreme heat can taint a wine. I thought you could heat wine up to, oh, I don’t know, a gazillion degrees, and it would be as fresh as a can of tuna fish. Thank you for that advice. Next!

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover? Now we’re getting down to matters of substance! I’ve been trying to figure this particular question out for decades, and after extensive personal experimentation, still haven’t arrived at a conclusion. My advice: Don’t be a schmuck to begin with and drink so much that you risk getting a hangover the next morning.

As for Rihanna’s favorite accessory, I’m already choking, as are you, on this celebrity-forced-fed diet we’re being fed by the media. Next! (Or not.)

Have a great weekend!


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