Keith and I were returning back home from Malibu yesterday, up the 101 Freeway, chatting away, keeping the long ride interesting. When we came to Salinas, we saw a sign next to the freeway advertising the National Steinbeck Center.
Keith asked if I had ever been to the Steinbeck museum there, and I said no, nor was it a place I cared to visit. He said it was actually pretty good, and of course he mentioned The Grapes of Wrath. I’d read it a long time ago, but couldn’t remember much about it. But I did remember Steinbeck’s charming little memoir, Travels with Charley, his tale of an auto tour of the U.S. he made with his standard poodle, Charley. I’d liked that book a lot. Then I found myself joking, “You know, I ought to write a book called Travels with Gus.” Which brings us to today’s blog.
Many of you know that I travel with Gus when I hit the road in California, going to winery things and some consumer and trade events. I don’t always bring him to the event itself, but I always stay in pet-friendly hotels, so that Gus is waiting for me when I return to my room.
It’s my privilege and pleasure to be able to travel with Gus. Yeah, it’s a little unconventional for a working wine writer to travel with his dog. But Gus is small, and mellow, and absolutely quiet. Everybody likes him. When people see me, they don’t say, “It’s Steve,” they say, “It’s Gus.” Nobody has ever complained about him, or shown anything less than delight, except once, years ago, when I brought him to Rubicon (now Inglenook) for an interview with F.F. Coppola. Francis himself never saw Gus, but his people did, and one of them complained to Wine Enthusiast. I thought it was weird for a California winery–normally the most dog-friendly place on earth–to complain about dog, especially Gus. But then I realized that Rubicon wasn’t a winery, as I understood the word. It was more like the Napa Valley branch of Francis Ford Coppola Worldwide Enterprises, Inc., and his “people” were P.R. professionals who seemed like they would have been just as happy, maybe even happier, working for Windsor Castle.
That makes it sound like the life of a traveling wine writer is fabulous. It is–and it isn’t. Being on the road can be lonely. You go someplace, you do your thing (obviously as professionally as you can), and then you move on. People are nice enough, and the events themselves are fun. But then, it’s back to your hotel room, and you wake alone. The traveling salesman’s life. Still, and despite all the downside, I like it. It’s real. And, to be perfectly honest, I like ending the night at the hotel bar.
But having Gus with me is the icing on the cake. I love my dog, but I cherish the thought that 99.9% of the people I meet on the road like him too. He’s a happy dog, well-behaved, sweet. He almost never has “accidents.” He’ll sit in my lap forever without complaint, because all he wants is to be with Daddy. (Well, he wants food, and water, and places to sniff, but you know what I mean.) I’ve been a wine writer since 1989, have traveled from one end of California to the other, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. But since I’ve had Gus (2010), my pleasure has been fruitful, and multiplied.
In “Travels with Charley” Steinbeck strove to understand America as it was in that transitional year, 1960. Having Gus with me helps me understand America today. In our guarded times, people warm up to dogs, especially cute ones, more than they do to each other. I’ve had umpteen conversations with folks because of Gus that I never would have had by myself. When people like a dog the way they do Gus, they open up—drop their defenses, smile, let the kinder, gentler side of themselves come out. How cool is that, to meet people who, at the sight of my dog, want to be friends.
I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.
Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.
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Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.
I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.
The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.
If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…
To have asked the question, “Do expensive wines taste better than inexpensive wines” just twenty years ago would have been absurd. Nobody doubted that they did. Throughout history—from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages to the American Founding Fathers to the post-Prohibition boutique winery era to the rise of the modern critic—the conventional wisdom was that the best wines were the most costly, and vice versa. First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy were expensive because of their quality. The implicit assumption, borne out by centuries of experience, was that the greatest terroirs had long been singled out, and therefore, the wines made from them deserved to fetch the highest prices.
Today, to ask the question “Do expensive wines taste better?” has become routine to the point of cliché. Here’s the latest example, from the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal. The author, Fred Tasker, whose column is widely syndicated, doesn’t reach any conclusions. But even to ask the question is to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in the way Americans perceive wine.
What this “something” is that has changed has everything to do with the times we live in. Authority is breaking down. People mistrust conventional leaders, be they politicians or the pundits who tell us which wines are great and which are not. Social media obviously has accelerated this trend; I don’t think it caused it, because authority was eroding before social media was invented. Now, for the first time in the history of fine wine, people are widely wondering why they should pay so much money for a First Growth or Grand Cru (or cult Napa Valley Cabernet) when study after study proves that not even “experts” can tell the difference between expensive wine and inexpensive wine.
This is a serious issue the wine industry is going to have to address. Speaking as a critic, I can assure you that there are vast quality differences between wines. One bottle of Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is almost always going to be better (sometimes much better) than another from a different winery, even when the grapes come from the same vineyard. And price does play a role: the higher the price, the more likely the wine is to be better. But I say these things from the point of view of a critic. If I were an ordinary consumer, I’d view people like me as simply defending the old order. “What a dinosaur,” I’d probably think. “He’s so wedded to his notion of things that he can’t see clearly anymore.”
Well, that’s all right. Like I said, authority is breaking down. As part of an “authority regime,” I understand that, and welcome it. Even if I didn’t welcome it, it would come anyway, so I might as well embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it. From a winery’s point of view, this breakdown of authority can be a good thing. The deck is being reshuffled, the playing field is being wiped clean, the chessboard is getting reset. (Stop me before I metaphor again.) What was, is not necessarily what will be. What was not, might be tomorrow. A winery can come from nowhere and suddenly be everybody’s darling. A winery that’s been on top forever could find itself overlooked and ignored, as its fan base ages and dies. Those upholders and defenders of the ancien regime, the Baby Boomer critics, are retiring. Even in the writings of such current writers as Benjamin Lewin, M.W. (whose “Wines of France” I am thoroughly enjoying), I sense a certain reluctance to make sweeping declarations—declarations that Michael Broadbent or Hugh Johnson, or the generations before them, happily would have made.
This movement away from declarations is symptomatic of the breakdown of authority. No longer is it entirely safe to say “Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru” or “First Growth is superior to Second Growth” or “$150 Cabernet is better than $40 Cabernet.” It once perhaps was; no more. Experience, and blind tasting, warn us against such cozy stereotypes.
Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I do think there’s something in the nature of human beings that desires hierarchies. We want to know who’s the best basketball team in the NBA (go, Warriors), which restaurant has the best reviews—and what the best wines are. And we are willing to pay a premium for “the best.” So I think that even in the far-off future, the world of wine will be marked by common perceptions of “the best.” I, personally, believe that Bordeaux is on the way down, which is why the chateaux are marketing so heavily in naïve countries, like China. I think Burgundy may be heading south, too, if for no other reason than that it’s so expensive, no critic can afford to taste it anymore—which means the top wines will show up only in the most elite reviews—and out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I think Napa Valley faces the same dilemma, which presents a great opportunity for Cabernets from Sonoma County and Paso Robles.
Anyhow, it’s clear that, with Millennials, we’ve entered a new era. They don’t care what wine was famous for 500 years. They don’t care what region was exalted by their grandfathers. All bets are off. So to ask if an expensive wine is better than an inexpensive wine is the new norm that wineries are going to have to deal with.
I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.
You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”
Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”
But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, “are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.
This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.
One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)
Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.
So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.
So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?
But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.
And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.
What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.
Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.
So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.
If you were a wine critic, do you think you could give 100 points to a wine you tasted double-blind?
Let’s assume that your educated palate determined it was a very, very good wine. You might taste it and think, “Wow, this is really great,” and then consider giving it a perfect score. But then, not having the slightest idea what it was, you might hedge your bet and give it, say, 96 points. You could, of course, give it 100, but my hunch is that you’d second-guess yourself enough so that you wouldn’t. Psychology plays a bigger role in these decisions than you might think—or that critics want you to know!
On the other hand, say you weren’t tasting the wine blind. Say you knew it was 2009 Latour. You know Latour’s history and reputation, you know it’s one of the most ageworthy wines in the world, you know, in short, that this wine in front of you is absolutely classic, from a classic vintage. Now, is that enough information to make you more comfortable about giving it 100 points?
I should think so, and so, apparently, does Jim Laube, who wrote a very good column in the July 31, 2015 issue of Wine Spectator about what makes any particular winery “great” in the eyes of critics and wine historians. (Sorry, if you’re not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you can’t read the entire column.) Along these lines, he mentions La Tache specifically by name, and more generically, he mentions Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Sauternes in France, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as possessing the “pedigree” needed to be a classic—that is, to be worthy of getting 100 points.
Now, if you’re in Paso Robles or the Sierra Foothills or someplace that doesn’t have the impressive history of these classic regions, you probably wonder how long it will take for your region to be considered classic, and thus worthy of consistently producing 100 point wines, at least in a great vintage. This is an excellent question, and of course Jim Laube is the perfect person to raise it, since he’s the dean of California wine critics and a very thoughtful man. He rightfully speculates that newer regions might someday enter this pantheon of the classics, as well he should: it would be intellectually disingenuous to say that the pantheon is closed, that no poseur can ever enter the top rank because it’s been shut for years.
What’s so fascinating about this topic is that it calls into question the validity of the 100-point system. If you posit that only certain regions are even capable of achieving 100 points, then you’re basically an ideologue; and we mere mortals, who read the reviews of these famous critics, have to wonder if they’re really tasting everything blind. Now, Jim Laube is honest enough to suggest that more information than merely the taste of the wine is needed in order to “identify the best wines.” “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.”
Let me repeat that. Jim said “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.
Would it trouble you to say that I agree with Jim? He has to tread a careful line here, because Wine Spectator claims, in their Buying Guide, that “Wines are always tasted blind.” But they do offer the caveat that this is not double-blind: they taste “in flights organized by varietal, appellation or region…and the vintage.”
That’s quite a lot of important information. If you know that you’re tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, you have to allow for the possibility of a very high score. Can it score 100 points? Well, does the taster know if it’s Grand Cru or Premier Cru or some vlillage wine? The critic has to make this kind of judgment based not so much on the individual wine, IMHO, but on his track record, and on the acceptance of the market.
This conversation about point scores and perceptions is more necessary than ever. Am I refuting the 100-point system? No. But I am calling into question the circumstances under which it is utilized. I think there’s a place for it. But I also think that we need far more transparency about how these tastings are conducted, in order for them to be credible. I don’t mind an open tasting when critics let us know they were excited as hell, and so their enthusiasm might be biased. But I do mind it when critics put on the fig leaf of “blind tasting” when they actually know a lot more about the wines than they lead us to believe.
Have a great weekend!
Back when John F. Kennedy was President, Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent and, at the time, the only woman to hold that post, asked JFK what he was doing to help women.
“Not enough, I’m sure,” smiled Kennedy, in his wry, bemused way. The implication was that, of course, no American President can ever do enough when it comes to the great issues, like women’s rights. All he or she can do is to try and make things better.
I thought of that long-ago incident when I read The New Yorker’s latest article on wine, called “Is there a better way to talk about wine?”
My answer? Borrowing from JFK, I’m sure there is a better way to talk about wine. I’m just not sure that I, or anybody else, knows quite what it is, or how to get there.
The New Yorker article breaks no new ground for readers of my blog, who are thoroughly familiar with these complaints about “extravagant tasting notes” that ooze “overwrought and unreliable…flowery, elaborate flavor descriptions” aimed at “wealthy men.” Familiar, too, are my readers with the various forms of experimental subterfuge of recent years, wherein studies report on how wine consumers, even educated ones, can be bamboozled if the wines are tasted blind, or if the labels are switched, or if information about them is deliberately distorted. The New Yorker article refers to these studies to bolster its case, and then reiterates that overblown wine vocabularies contribute to the “confusion” experienced by so many consumers. (You can almost hear the writer, Bianca Bosker’s, joy as she quotes a Wine Advocate descriptor: “liquefied Viagra.”)
It is of course easy as falling off a log to criticize anything in the world, as long as the person doing the criticizing doesn’t have the responsibility for coming up with something better. Bosker’s deconstruction of “minerality,” and the near impossibility of defining it, testifies to this fact: Just because something is hard doesn’t make it silly. She toys with the alternative of a “chemistry”-based descriptive vocabulary (fat chance) rather than an “obfuscating” one of poetry and metaphor. She even turns to Matt Kramer’s new book, True Taste, but completely misses Matt’s point: he’s not saying (as Ms. Bosker writes) that “only six [sic] words [actually seven] are necessary to evaluate a bottle’s essential attributes.” Matt himself writes that his book “is not, of course, about a mere seven words. Instead, it’s about those values that involve actual judgment,” and “is about tasting wine with discernment.”
Well, who could be against judgment and discernment? Matt, who has made a living of being a wine wordsmith (same as the rest of us), was looking for a new angle for a new book, and came up with True Taste: it’s a little frothy, but no harm, no foul, and plenty to think about. There’s nothing wrong with talking about “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance”—Matt’s seven words. But am I wrong in thinking that those concepts, if not explicitly spelled out then at least broadly described, have underlain good wine writing forever? They certainly lubricate the writing I know, from my own books and articles to Parker’s, Oz Clarke’s, Jancis Robinson’s, Steve Tanzer’s, Antonio Galloni’s, Benjamin Lewin’s, yes and Matt Kramer’s, and so on. If writers want to add things about raspberries and peppercorns, so much the better. I think Matt, who enjoys an adroit pen (can we say that anymore?), would be the last to condemn metaphorical wine descriptors. His grudge—mine, too—is when they go over the top.
But where is the line? Nobody really knows, and this is where Ms. Bosker’s article is so frustrating, in the way these “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other” New Yorker articles can be. The title seems to imply that, if the reader will just wade through the 2,098 words of text, he or she will be enlightened, and discover that there truly is “a better way to talk about wine.”
Alas, nothing of the sort happens. And, if you think about recent attempts to make wine writing “better,”–I’m talking to you, Twitter, and to a big part of the blogosphere—you’ll have to admit that failure is no success at all.
But perhaps I am too harsh on Ms. Bosker, for at the very end, she seems to change tone and switch over to a belief that “a little mystery” in winespeak is not such a bad thing. She even wonders “what a Baryshnikov in a glass might taste like.” Now, that’s good wine writing—and a good way to think about wine–but it’s also exactly the kind of “overwrought, flowery” metaphor that critics, including Ms. Bosker, came out swinging against. Happily, by the end of her article, Ms. Bosker apparently has undergone an intellectual metamorphosis in which she realizes that her initial concept was, if not erroneous, at least hopelessly incomplete to describe the challenge of talking about wine. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with that evolution: Writing makes you think, makes you analyze simplistic thoughts so that you realize they’re not as simple as they might have seemed at first blush. You end up, in other words, in a different–and better–place from where you started. This is a very good thing.
So is there a better way to talk about wine? I suppose there is, although I don’t think the best wine writing, from any era, including ours, needs improvement. But I welcome this chit-chat, if for no other reason than that it stimulates this sort of discussion.