I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.
Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.
Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.
It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.
But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.
There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.
It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.
So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.
It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.
There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.
Hugh Johnson had a marvelous column in The World of Fine Wine. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the elegant way he displays his wide knowledge of wine is one more reason why he has been the King of Wine Commentators [a word he prefers] for so long. The bloggers who hope for lengthy shelf lives (not to mention money) at this gig would do well to study his books.
I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?”
Johnson mentions no specific names of critics who say they’re looking for “a sense of place.” Nor shall I, but if a certain one pops into your brain, so be it. When I read Johnson’s opening words, I thought he was going to demolish the concept of “a sense of place,” but no. He casts doubt on the ease with which some writers claim to find it–and then creates his own list of “vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character”: Scharzhofberg, Les Santenots, and even a minor white wine from the Languedoc that, Johnson writes, he preferred to Montrachet “at that minute”–nice hedge. Well, there are minutes I’d prefer a cup of coffee to Montrachet.
Johnson also devises a category aside and apart from wines of place: those from producers “who leave such a clean imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard.” Among these he includes the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This surprised me, I must say, since the DRC’s wines always (in my reading, at least) have been accounted as among the world’s greatest expressions of terroir. So I’m not sure what that statement means, although I’m on clearer ground when he places Champagne in a kind of murky, third tier (“wine[s] of high pedigree that evoke plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere”…). This is, I suppose, because most Champagne is blended.
So three Johnson categories:
1. Wines of a place
2. Wines of a house
3. Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree”
I thought it would be useful, and perhaps even interesting, for me to play with the Johnsonian categories and see if there are California wines that neatly fit into each. So I researched my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database. I soon realized, however, that things are not as cut and dry here in California, for me, as they are in Europe, for Hugh Johnson. For example, when I considered the wines of a place, the vineyard of David Hirsch immediately leapt into mind. It is a vineyard I can at least claim to know with some fuzzy precision, having been there a few times, and certainly having been in the Fort Ross-Seaview, several-ridges-in neighborhood of Bohan Dillon Road many times over the years. Just as with that minor white from the Languedoc Johnson delighted in (not least because, as he drank it, he could visualize “the vines sloping down to the sea” which led him to describe it as “a sort of seaside Sylvaner”), I can and do picture the Fort Ross-Seaview ridgetops everytime I drink a Hirsch (or Failla, or Flowers, or Wild Hog wine: the high-above-the fogline clarity, the piney forests, the wild herbs, the brilliant sunshine and chilly nights, the red soils that give way to sandy Gold Ridge in the best spots, the sheer, isolated remoteness and–the human element?–the attractive, somewhat eccentric vitality of the winemakers). Surely the wines from these vineyards, including Hirsch, reek of a sense of place?
Well, yes…and no. Not to this critic, anyhow. Nor would I describe them as “wines of a house” whose producer style immediately marks them as distinct. So are they from Johnson’s third category–wines “of abstract approval that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of high pedigree”? You certainly can’t describe them as such. They do have a sense of place…but it’s not as pronounced as the utterly inimitable distinctiveness Johnson finds (or claims to find) in Scharzhofberg and the others.
This is why I’ve never written that such-and-such a wine “could only come from” such-and-such a vineyard. It might have contributed further to my branding as a wine critic were I to do so. After all, nothing halos a critic with more glory than to make such sweeping pronouncements, which inform the public of the critic’s discernment and expertise.
But the fact is that I’ve always valued fact and truth more than anything else, including hyperbole, in my wine writing, and have resisted the temptation (whether from me, or from others) to make sweeping pronouncements I can’t really justify. This is especially true in the context of blind tasting, when it’s impossible to summon the visual memory of “vines sweeping down to the sea” based merely on what’s in the glass.
If I take the bottle out of the paper bag, so that I know what I’m tasting, then it’s a lot easier to find “that sense of place.” Here, then, are some wines that do seem to exhibit a “somewhereness” every time I taste them. Each is from a particular vineyard. I make no claim, nor ever will, however, that a vineyard-designated wine must be superior to a blended one: Johnson concedes as much in the case of Champagne, while I need mention only one wine–Cardinale–to make the same point.
David Arthur Elevation 1147 Estate
Anything from Hirsch Vineyard
Chardonnays from the Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard
Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch Cabernets, from Oakville
Certain Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets. Janzen and World’s End, both 2009s, are good examples.
Shafer Hillside Select
Marimar Torres’s Pinot Noirs from the Don Miguel Vineyard
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah
Rochioli Pinot Noirs from south (or east) of Westside Road, especially West Block and River Block
Williams Selyem Pinots from Allen Vineyard
Each of these wines conveys something of its origins, but I would not want to bet my mortgage on identifying them in a blind tasting. Each of them also conveys a “house style”, but it’s important to realize that most of them have been produced over many years, by the same winemaker, so who’s to say what part of the wine is pure terroir, and what part is the winemaker’s considered opinion when it comes to such interventions as fermentation particulars, type of oak barrel, length of barrel aging and so on? As usual, we arrive at that conundrum: a great wine sits at the median point of natural terroir and its interpretation by the winemaker.
The point, I think, is that we get so mesmerized by place-centric musings that we run the risk of delegitimizing certain wines that don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what makes wine great. That is why I was happy to see Johnson talk about that Languedoc wine (which he did not identify by producer). He might simply have dropped the names of Great Growths and Grand Crus like so many critics airily do, but part of what has made Hugh Johnson so compelling for so long is that he refuses to play that game of “I drink better than you can or do.” It no longer matters to him (if it ever did) to say he prefers a Languedoc white to Montrachet; he loses no prestige nor reclamé as a wine critic by doing so.
On New Year’s Eve I opened a bottle I’d had in my little wine storage unit for some years years: Anthill 2005 Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley.
I studied the wine, in a Riedel glass, as I walked Gus, on a mild, early winter night in Oakland. It was all right–dry, tart and with some good cherry and cranberry fruit. But it was evident that there were problems, chief among which was a pruny or raisiny finish, along with accompanying heat.
The wine, in short, had not aged well.
I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database and looked up my original review, from July, 2007. I gave the wine 90 points and described it this way: “There are suggestions of wintergreen mint and tart rhubarb, but the cherries save the day, giving enough richness to make the wine interesting. Despite the high acidity and dryness, I don’t think it’s an ager, but it’s a beautifully complex, food-friendly Pinot.”
It’s always gratifying to see that I made a good call (although I can already hear some sourpusses whining that I’m promoting myself). I’ll be the first to concede that I don’t always get things right, especially in the matter of predicting ageabiity. So how do I come up with ageability estimates?
First of all, you can age any wine you want. All that means is putting the bottle someplace for as many years as you want. (Obviously, that place should have proper storage conditions: still, cool and dark, and a little moist.) Most wines, probably 99.9% of them, will not benefit at all from aging; they’re meant to drink as soon as you purchase them.
What of that other .01%? They will age–but what does this mean? We’ve all tasted older Burgundies, Bordeaux, Barolos, Champagnes and the like, and so we know what they can do. In my experience, aging California wine is considerably “iffier.” To take, as examples, the best Cabernets, in the ideal situation they lose their fresh, primary fruit, starting at about eight years, and then begin to dry out, showing “secondary” fruit character and bottle “bouquet.” As the tannins precipitate out, the wine becomes clearer, more translucent, silkier in body (which is perhaps the best thing about aging it).
But aged wine is an acquired taste. I try to keep that in mind when I review a wine. If it’s superbly balanced, rich and tannic (we’re mainly talking reds here), it’s much more likely to age well than a wine that has the slightest imperfection, because that imperfection will only grow increasingly obvious with bottle age. In the case of the Anthill 2005 Demuth, if I recall correctly, my impression that “it’s not an ager” was due to certain imperfections, mainly a touch of raisining in the finish. It does take an experienced palate to discern those slight irregularities that prohibit the wine from aging well. I’m not saying I have a great palate, but it’s an adequate one, and you do learn a few things when you’ve tasted as many wines as I have for so long.
I’d love to have the time and opportunity to taste more old California wine, to see how my predictions panned out. Since we’re on the subject of 2005 red wines, here are some from that vintage that I tasted when they were first released, and to which I gave a “Cellar Selection” designation, meaning that I recommended the wine be aged. I haven’t had any of these wines since, and, since they’re now a little more than eight years old, all should be at that exciting, interesting transition point of losing primary fruit and picking up secondary notes. If any of the proprietors wishes to afford me the pleasure of sending me a bottle, I promise to share the results here in the blog–for better or worse.
Trefethen 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Colgin 2005 IX Estate
Flora Springs 2005 Rennie Reserve
Goldschmidt 2005 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Far Niente 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Hanzell 2005 Chardonnay
Chardonnay? Yes, every once in a while a California Chardonnay is worth aging. Which brings up an interesting point. How do I know Hanzell Chardonnay is ageable? Because I’ve had old ones, up to 20 years in age, and they can be remarkable. Does that knowledge influence my appraisal of the wine? Absolutely. Why would it not? On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection designations to Chardonnays that I’ve never had the opportunity to taste when they’d been properly aged: Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Chardonnay, for example. While I’ve only had that wine as a new release, I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s good for at least eight years–and I wouldn’t mind trying it in 2023, when it will be 12 years old. And then, there’s Hartford Court 2005 Stone Côte Vineyard Chardonay. That wine is now eight years old; I sure would like to see if my Cellar Selection call was right on, or an unmitigated disaster.
I heard Roger Rosenblatt, the writer, on NPR yesterday, being interviewed about his new memoir, The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood.
(I haven’t read it, but plan to.) In the interview, Rosenblatt described how he used to pretend to be a detective when growing up in Manhattan’s Grammercy Park neighborhood, and how that sense of imagining later helped inform his writing.
When I was a boy, growing up in the borough of The Bronx, just north of Manhattan, I too used to play in the park, across the street from our apartment building, and would pretend to be an archeologist. I’d find scraps of discarded materials–the top of a cola bottle, a rusty nail, a crumpled piece of cardboard–and pretend that they were treasures I’d unearthed on an archeological scavenge or dig. I would make up, spontaneously and in the greatest detail, complete histories of those artifacts: who had owned them, how old they were, what they were used for. It was all silly, harmless pretending, but, looking back now, I can see that I was developing the intellectual tools (curiosity, improvisation, the elaborate construction of a narrative) that were later to prove so useful in my own career as a writer.
You might think that wine writing has nothing to do with imagination, but you’d be wrong. At first glance, talking about wine seems to have nothing to do with anything but facts: where was it grown? What is the alcohol? What kinds of oak was it aged in? What are the specific flavors? But of course, such a recitation of facts would give nothing of value to consumers, who want to know: What do you think about the wine?
This is where imagination comes in. When I used to pick up a rusty piece of metal in the park, that was all it was: a rusty piece of metal. Garbage, most people would say. And in fact, if you simply looked at it as a rusty piece of metal, that’s all it was. It took imagination to see it as something left over from the Stone Age, a scraping tool to carve out a lump of stone formed into the shape of a fertility goddess. Yet that’s how my mind worked.
It’s pretty much the same with a glass of wine. At the most fundamental level, it is what it is. Even the greatest wine doesn’t blow your mind if you don’t know what it is. Wine is just fermented grape juice, sometimes elaborated with winemaker bells and whistles such as malolactic fermentation, lees aging and barrel fermentation and/or aging. There’s not much more going on, whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Petrus. What you find in it depends in large part on what you bring to the experience: your expectations and imagination.
When I was a young druggie [yes, let’s get that out], Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that the acid experience depended on the combination of set and setting. “Set” was the underlying psychology you brought. “Setting” was your immediate environment. “Set” was unchanging: you are what you are. “Setting” varied enormously and could be the determining factor in whether you had a good trip or a bad one.
What all this has to do with imagination is that the judgment of a particular wine has to do with subjective factors. I believe that there is no “external reality” to a wine. The ultimate judgment is dependent on the setting: what do you know about it? How are you experiencing it–at the winery, tasted openly with the winemaker? Blind, in a paper bag among a flight? When you taste blind, you are in the same boat as an archeologist who comes across an artifact in a dig. What is it? You know very little, but your mind desperately tries to put the pieces together. And so you come to a conclusion: it’s early period Egypt, or pre-Columbian Native American, or a Neanderthal tool. You make inferences based on your knowledge, and your excitement level rises or falls with your conclusions. If you have no knowledge, you can make no inferences. You simply like the wine or you don’t, which is useless from the point of view of helping others understand it. If you understand a great deal about wine, you can develop a historical narrative that others will find useful and compelling. But to do so requires imagination. The wine writer’s seeds are found in his or her childhood fantasies.
I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.
I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.
I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.
The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)
Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.
There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!
We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.
There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.
But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”
I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.
Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?
Good questions; no good answers.
I was talking yesterday with my old friend, Andy, who lives in Northampton, an area of Western Massachusetts I have close ties with. Andy told me that John Wolfson, the son of another friend of ours, is Editor of Boston Magazine, which makes me proud of the kid. At the same time, Andy’s wife, Jan, has gotten a contract to write a book about art, but it’s going to be a digital book. This led to a conversation about the future of print journalism versus digital publishing. I told Andy that the roadblock so far to the success of digital publishing has been the reluctance of advertisers to pay anything close to the rates they pay for ads in print publications. Since advertising is the lifeblood of publications, that means that publishers can’t pay their writers as much for digital contributions as for print articles. I don’t know what the overall average is nationwide, but I’d guess that print pays at least five times, maybe ten times as much as digital.
I also pointed out to Andy that this situation not only bodes ill for people who wish to make their living doing journalism, but also for the American people. If a reporter can’t make a living reporting, then who’s going to report on the shenanigans of the local City Council (or, in Andy’s New England case, Board of Selectmen)? The heart and soul of American democracy is tied to an independent press, investigating and reporting without fear. This vital issue is at stake in the new reality.
Finally, I told Andy how grateful I am that I got into this wine writing gig during what I think of as The Golden Age of Wine Writing, which I estimate to have occurred over the last 30 years or so. Before that, nobody made much of a living writing about wine in the U.S., for the simple reason that not enough people cared about wine to buy and read a wine magazine. There were a few wine writers at big newspapers–Frank Prial at the N.Y. Times, Nate Chroman at the L.A. Times–but that was pretty much it.
However, with the growing up of the Baby Boomers and their (our) amazing, historic embrace of wine and wine culture, all that changed. Wine magazines started popping up all over the place, and while wine writing has never been a way to get rich (with a few exceptions: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson), it was at least a way to practice an honorable career, one moreover that afforded the writer quite a bit in the way of perks.
All that is changing. Nobody knows what publishing is going to look like in five years, much less 25. But I think we all have the feeling that something revolutionary, and possibly destructive, has occurred. Was publishing, in the traditional way we think about it, simply a phenomenon of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that is now fading away, in the Age of Digital Information? Nothing lasts forever. People need and want information, but do they care where it comes from, or what the motive of the information provider is?
As for wine writing, there are a lot of really talented young writers out there who would just love it if they could make a decent living at it. My fear is that they won’t be able to. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe future generations won’t need wine writers anymore than we need soothsayers. After all, with Wikipedia and Google, all the information in the world is right there with the click of a button. Right?