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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.


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


Minerality: My thoughts

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I’ve been reading lots about minerality, especially in the pages of the Somm Journal, where they’ve run a couple of articles on it lately. This one in the August-September issue is the poster child for these types of discussions in which very abstruse, hard-to-define issues related to wine are discussed by professionals, with no conclusive results. But rather than be frustrating for their lack of clarity, they advance the discussion, in fun and informative ways. We may never get to a definition of “minerality,” or even come to a consensus what wines display it, but meanwhile, it keeps wine writers (and somms) gainfully employed and active and raising the bar ever higher.

I use the word “minerality” a fair amount and have for many years. For example, since I began working at Jackson Family Wines, I’ve used it in my descriptions of Byron’s 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay (both the regular and the Nielson), Cambria’s 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, 2012 Tepusquet Viognier, 2012 Julia’s Pinot Noir and 2012 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, and several others.

I know what I mean by “minerality,” but obviously it’s a word that defies definition, or even clarity. I like wine director Jeff Taylor’s (Betony, New York) description: minerality is “the non-fruit and non-oak descriptors for a wine.” He lists “chalk, crushed seashells, gravel, gun flint, a sidewalk after a light rain” as illustrations, but these clearly are metaphors, not exact descriptions, since nobody really tastes sidewalks or crushed seashells. Well, I guess you could pound seashells into powder, then put them in your mouth, but even so, it would be hard to draw an exact analogy between that taste/feeling and “minerality” in the wine.

One of the controversies about minerality is whether or not whatever it is can travel from the soil, via the plant’s roots, into the grapes; and even if it can, how that “something” expresses itself. Some somms think it happens all the time; others don’t. Whatever “minerality” is, it’s a good thing: it’s bracing and grippy (in a non-tannic way), almost metallic (I think of licking a cold lamppost on a winter day, which is something I have done, a practice whose utilitarian value outweighs its unsanitariness). It’s easy in hindsight to theoretically identify where minerality comes from in a wine: for example, all those Santa Maria Valley wines that display it are grown in sandy soils that have quite a lot of ancient decomposed marine matter in them. The wines feel iron-y to me: despite their richness there’s a metallic vein that makes them chewy, almost as if a sheet of aluminum foil had been inserted inbetween the flavors. A little minerality goes a long way toward providing pleasurable structure.

On a meta level these conversations about minerality in California wine suggest that we’ve collectively achieved a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, even ten, you wouldn’t have heard them. We were too obsessed with describing more obvious fruit and oak flavors, and tannin and acid levels. The fact that we can now talk about things of great subtlety shows how far we’ve come. Does it also show a shifting style of winemaking, something less ripe, and more streamlined? I think so. Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness. Tone down the wine a bit, and whatever minerality is there shows itself as a bright, lifted tone.

Minerality is one of those things that is good but not sufficient in itself to make for great wine. In an ordinary wine—a simple Gruner or Albarino, for example—it can be pleasant, refreshing and eminently quaffable, yet fail to rise above everydayness—an 86 or 87 point wine, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the price is right. But if you take a 90 point wine (red or white) and add a little minerality so that it has that fine, grippy tang, it lifts the wine up a degree or two, to 91 or 92 points. This is what’s so important about structure: it’s also why it’s taken the wine writing community so long to get around to appreciating the structural elements of a wine, including minerality: it takes a certain amount of experience for the palate and mind to grow beyond loving sheer massive hedonism in order to reach that level of understanding and appreciation.


The personal touch: Talking about wine

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I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.

It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.

This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.

And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.

In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.

Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.

One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.

Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.

To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!


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