I used the phrase “intellectually appealing” on a wine I reviewed yesterday. I’ve used it before; I know what I mean, in my mind, but I never really tried to define it before, and I think that some people who read a review that contains the word “intellectual” might scratch their heads or arch their eyebrows and think, “What the heck he is talking about?”
So it’s time for me to define it, both for you and for me.
The wine in question yesterday was Foxen’s 2010 Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, from the Santa Ynez Valley. I went into my notes and looked up further instances where I recently used the word “intellectual.” There was Boheme 2009 Stuller Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, which I described as “an intellectual wine, elusive and challenging, that makes you think.” And Lynmar 2010 La Sereinité Chardonnay, from Russian River Valley: “austere and tantalizing…an intellectual wine.” And Lucia 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands: “An eccentric Chardonnay…well-made and has intellectual appeal.” And Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma Valley with “extra complexity that makes it intellectually interesting.” And Baldacci 2010 Sorelle Chardonnnay, Carneros, which has “a complex intellectual appeal.” And on and on.
What can “intellectual” possibly mean when applied as an adjective to wine? The word means “of or pertaining to the intellect,” so we must first come up with a satisfactory definition of intellect. The conventional dictionary meaning is “a mind or intelligence, especially a superior one,” but this hardly begins to scratch the surface of what I mean when I call a wine “intellectual.”
We all have minds. Some of us are more prone to live interiorly than others. To call a person “an intellectual” long has been a mixed message. On the one hand, the culture has a history of anti-intellectualism: “pointy-headed intellectual,” also known as “egghead,” has been an epithet applied to certain individuals by others who believe they think too much, or, at least, think the wrong thoughts.
On the other hand, our culture also has had a sort of grudging admiration for intellectuals. Albert Einstein was practically a national hero, even though almost nobody could say exactly what his intellectual achievements had been. People just knew he was smart and on our side, and that was enough to make him admired.
I’ve been perceived as an intellectual all my life (when I was younger, my friends used to call me “Professor”). I do tend to live in my mind: among other things, I’m fascinated by cosmology. Why are we here? Why does something exist, rather than nothing? What does it all mean? Thinking as hobby, as recreation, comes as naturally to me as jogging or lifting weights at the gym, or writing this blog, for that matter. I think Tom Wark picked up on this quality of mine when he wrote about me, one month after I launched this blog in 2008, and headlined it “Steve Heimoff and the Active Mind.”
This long segue into the architecture of intellectualism is meant to shed light on what I, and others, mean when we describe a wine as having intellectual appeal. Lettie Teague, in Food & Wine, said she often was told that “Barolo is an intellectual’s wine,” although she admitted she wasn’t quite sure what to make of that claim. Another writer, from a New York wine store, called a 2007 Levet Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche Côte-Rôtie “both intellectual and savage,” while the Montreal Gazette’s wine critic quoted Olivier Humbrecht, from Zind-Humbrecht, as telling him Riesling is “an intellectual wine” that “demands too much of wine drinkers to ever become a mainstream wine…”.
This last begins to get to the truth of the matter. An intellectual wine is not a hedonistic wine, one that charms you right off the bat. An intellectual wine tends to have a certain austerity. It most certainly possesses structure. There are many wines that are austere and have structure that are not intellectual wines: they are simply lean. An intellectual wine, on the other hand, makes you think, because you discern that there’s something elusively tantalizing about it you can’t quite put your finger on. But you want to. You long to understand what it is that titillates your imagination and keeps you coming back for more. You have to think about the wine, play with it, dig deeper down into the bedrock to see what you find. I will quote Quintessa’s former winemaker, Aaron Pott, who, although he is describing his own creation and therefore can be accused of some bias, wrote, of the 2003 vintage, “It is an intellectual wine requiring study to understand its full profound genius.” I myself reviewed that wine six years ago, and while I did not use the word “intellectual,” I scored it 94 points and called it “beautiful.” Yes, an intellectual wine can be beautiful, too.
Cathryn Sloane has written a strong, passionate and incisive column on her belief “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25.”
Published in nextgen journal, an online pub that describes itself as “the website for the ‘next generation’- our generation,” Sloane’s argument is as controversial as it is compelling. In my comment on it, I want to emphasize, first and foremost, that I accept much of what Cathryn says. She points out, for instance, that her generation (she seems to be in her early or mid-twenties) “spent our adolescence growing up with social media” in such a way as “to make the best/correct use of it [come] most naturally to us.” Because of this, she concludes, “The mere fact that my generation has been up close and personal with all these developments over the years should make clear enough that we are the ones who can best predict, execute, and utilize the finest developments to come.”
What partiquely piques Sloane, she writes, is when she sees “a job posting for a Social Media Manager/Associate/etc. and find the employer is looking for five to ten years of direct experience…”. Which makes her wonder, she adds, “why they don’t realize the candidates who are in fact best suited for the position actually aren’t old enough to have that much experience.”
She has a point. In mathematics it’s a truism that if you haven’t done your best work by age 30, you probably never will. The history of Silicon Valley is one of extraordinary invention by teenagers and twenty-something geniuses. Kids can pick up second and third languages almost overnight; the older you get, the harder it is. In many fields of creative thinking, youth is, indeed, a factor. The aging human brain may increase its powers of subtlety, power and talent in particular fields [visual artists, for example, frequently do their best work in later age], but in doing so, it often loses that brilliant burst of creative insight that may characterize the young mind.
Sloan’s essay reminds me of the trepidation I often feel regarding my own use of social media. I still find it intimidating and confusing, even though I blog, tweet and Facebook everyday. I don’t necessarily wish I were 23 again, but when it comes to social media, if I were, I would understand its intricacies a lot better than I do now. But then, I never claimed to have the qualifications to be a social media manager, or to want to be one, for that matter.
Still, I wonder why facility in the use of social media isn’t something that can’t be learned. It doesn’t seem to me to be equatable with, say, learning a foreign language. On a scale of one to ten, learning how to boil water is a 1; learning Mandarin is a 10; learning social media adequately enough to be a winery social media director is probably a 6. To put it another way, one doesn’t have to grow up in China speaking Mandarin to learn it well enough to go to work for an investment bank in Hong Kong, as an acquaintance of mine did. He mastered it enough (and Japanese, before that, when he was stationed in Tokyo) to now run his bank’s Asia division.
If social media directors should only be under 25, then why isn’t it fair to say that professional wine critics should only be over 35 or 40? After all, to do this job really well demands extensive knowledge, not only of the wines you review but the history of the regions, terroir, and winemakers (not to mention the development of a sound writing style). A 22-year old can set up a blog and start “reviewing” wine, but why would it be wrong for me to use Sloane’s argument, in reverse, and say that person simply is too young to tackle a job that requires so much experience if it is to be done right?
Here’s Greg Brewer, a nice guy and a great winemaker [Brewer Clifton, Melville, Diatom], on Richard Sanford [Alma Rosa], quoted in R.H. Drexel’s inaugural issue of Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal.
Look at Richard Sanford. When I’m in his presence, it’s special because he deserves more and he’s never spoken ill of anyone. He’s so gracious. He’s put in 40 years around here [Santa Rita Hills], for crying out loud. And he’s rolling as quietly and supportively and as politely as anyone I know. That is really special, you know? No bravado. No pretense, no “Don’t you know who I am” or “Don’t you know how long I’ve been here?”
Greg is speaking of Richard’s character, a concept that doesn’t get examined much lately. What I want to talk about–as a reporter, journalist and wine writer–are the insights I get into human character from my job.
The essence of reporting is communication. A reporter doesn’t make stuff up. We depend on people telling us things, which we then write about to report to the people who read us. It’s a three-way conversation: source to reporter to reader. But, of course, the magic can only happen if the source talks to the reporter, and then, the information is only worthwhile to pass on if it’s genuine.
I should maybe come up with different words than “source” and “reporter” because that makes it sound like Deep Throat in the parking garage at night, leaking secrets off the record to an investigative journalist. That’s part of reporting, but it’s not really what wine writers do. We have conversations–with winemakers, grapegrowers, merchants, sommeliers and others in the industry–which we learn from, and then share the fruits of our knowledge with our readers, who presumably are hungry for more education.
Richard Sanford is, as Grew Brewer said, one of the politest, most respectful and helpful people in the industry. For a reporter like me, he’s a godsend. Fortunately, the wine industry is filled with such people. Well, Richard is a cut above most everyone. But in general, wine people are good communicators.
The reason this is important for consumers is because knowledge and information are vital aspects of wine appreciation. Wine is different from bread, soup or cereal. We may eat and enjoy those things, but we don’t care much about where they came from, or who made them. We don’t meet in groups to discuss the intricacies of cereal, nor do we buy books on soup. (I’m not talking about cookbooks, obviously.)
For this knowledge and information to be passed along, it’s necessary for knowledgeable people to share what they know with the public, through the medium of the reporter. A man like Richard Sanford knows so much that he could spend the rest of his life communicating it and still have oodles of information left over. And Richard is happy to communicate, in his own quiet, unassuming way. This is what Greg Brewer sees in him: Richard’s lack of pretense. If anyone in the industry has a right to “Don’t you know who I am?”, it’s Richard. But you’ll never get that from him.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is like that. There are some people–I won’t name names now, although I’m tempted to, and one of these days, I will–some people in this industry who couldn’t be bothered. They’re too puffed up with their own self-importance. (I’m thinking of one such right now, who happens to live in Napa Valley.) They’re successful, which merits respect, but they’ve let their success go to their heads. They may fancy themselves a part of the wine community, but they’re really not. They’ve cut themselves off from the true community, and walled themselves into a tight little clique that reflects back only what they want to see and hear.
The wine community, happily, is so much bigger than that. It’s a place where people from every walk of life, with every kind of job, are united in one thing: the love of wine. It’s a place where people return phone calls and texts and emails, and drink and eat together, and have conversations, and pass knowledge back and forth, and laugh. Richard Sanford understands that and expresses it in everything he does. He has character. I wish everybody in the industry did.
In the vocabulary of winespeak, the most difficult term to define or understand is “minerality.”
Writers, including me, use it all the time. But I’m never quite sure if “minerality” is really the best word for me to use and, whether it is or isn’t, I can’t ever really know if my readers have any idea what I’m talking about.
It’s a word I’ve heard for a long time, from way before I was a writer myself. I can’t remember where I first read it, but I’m pretty sure it was with respect to French Chablis. I formed the idea in my mind that it had to do with the chalk that the grapes in Chablis are grown in, that Kimmeridgean limestone. Supposedly, it gives Chablis a “lick of steel” (whatever that means: does anyone really lick steel?), which sometimes is expressed as a “flintiness” (whatever that means. The only flint I’ve ever seen was old Indian arrowheads, and they neither had an aroma nor a taste, so far as I know, not that I’ve ever licked an Indian arrowhead).
I do sometimes stick odd things in my mouth to find wine analogies. I’ve licked my car ignition key, which gives me a tingly sensation of petrol-tinged, sour ions that reminds me of certain Rieslings. I’ve licked chalk and other stones from various vineyards. I’ve even chewed dirt. I remember chewing the dirt from one of Seghesio’s Zinfandel vineyards, at Asti on the Russian River, to try to understand the weird, minerally, earthy qualities of the wine.
But what do I mean by minerality? So concerned are we editors at Wine Enthusiast about the use (or misuse) of the word that we’ve scheduled some time to talk about it in August, when we’re all in New York.
This writer describes minerality as “the scent or taste (or even aftertaste) of some sort of mineral, stone or rock in a wine.” I’m not sure that’s helpful to most people. Minerals typically have no scent or taste, as I wrote above. So what is the average wine lover, trying to improve her knowledge, supposed to do with all these references to minerality?
I wish there were a better word. I know what I mean when I use the words “minerally” and “minerality.” I can find it in red wines, too, not just whites. I often find minerality in the Cabernets from Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill. For instance, I described a Jean Edwards 2008 Cabernet, from the Stagecoach Vineyard, as have “lots of…mineral…flavors.” Stagecoach is, of course, the big vineyard that spills from the Atlas Peak AVA across the appellation line into the Napa Valley AVA, which therefore is all its entitled to. I fancy the mineral taste or feeling comes from the rocks in the soil. These vineyards are fantastically rocky, as Vaca Mountain vineyards tend to be (and are there any geologists out there who can tell me why the Vacas are so rocky while the Mayacamas aren’t?).
I wrote “mineral taste or feeling” above, and I think that’s what minerality really refers to, a mouthfeel, rather than a smell or flavor. It’s a firmness that’s very hard to describe. Again, in my imagination I think of it as caused by the vine’s roots absorbing through the soil all the minerally essences. There’s a bunch of phosphorous and iron and magnesium and whatnot in those stony soils and somehow they get brought into the grape, thence to the wine, where they give that impression of firmess. But I’m the first to admit I don’t really have an understanding of soil or grape chemistry, so this may just be romantic nonsense on my part.
I do like that minerally thing, though. I was at Greg Melanson’s vineyard yesterday, up in the Vacas, and he gave me a Chardonnay from a small block he’s subsequently replaced to Cabernet. The Chardonnay was quite good: dry, acidic and, yes, minerally. It was as far from a buttery fruit bomb as you could imagine, austere and streamlined and linear. I guess you could call it Chablisian. Greg’s vineyard is extremely rocky, with “boulders the size of Volkswagons,” in his words. The drier a wine is, the more apparent the minerals are (if there are any)–I think. At least, I don’t recall finding minerality in sweet wines. Maybe sugar masks it?
Well, these are just the kind of random thoughts that go through my taster’s mind from time to time. I’m always trying to refine my wine reviews so that they’re simpler, clearer and easier for people to understand. But “minerality”: now that’s a tough one. I know what I mean by it. I’m not sure anyone else does. But for now, there’s no better word, so I’ll keep using it.
The critic: But why will you not submit your wine to my blind tasting?
The winemaker: Because I don’t believe in the “beauty contest” of a blind tasting. The only way to properly appreciate my wine is to taste it at the estate, with me the winemaker, and with a full understanding of what we are trying to accomplish.
I understand your point of view. But can’t you see that the sole objective of wine reviewing is to actually taste the wine in and of itself, without the distorting effects of environment and knowing what the label is?
Perhaps that is true for others, but not for me. That is not why I make wine, nor is it how I wish for critics to taste my wine.
So you’re saying the only way to properly appreciate your wine is to do so in the full knowledge of what it is.
Can you concede that, under such circumstances as you propose, the wine would probably strike the critic as better, than if he tasted the wine under blind conditions?
Possibly. But you overlook another point: Let’s say that the critic has high expectations on visiting the property, which is very famous and has a long history of producing great wine. Then the opposite of what you fear might occur–namely, that the wine failed to live up to his high expectation, and the review therefore would suffer.
I can see your point. But it strikes me as extremely unlikely. A great winery always makes great wines. Except in the event of a catastrophe, it seems impossible for a critic to visit a great winery and fail to give the wine a glowing review, especially if he knows what it is.
I think you still fail to see my point. We put everything we possibly can into creating our wine. It is the product of many years of labor, on the part of the most talented team I’ve been able to assemble. The wine is a work of art–not simply a liquid inside a bottle. Besides, no normal person drinks wine the way you propose–from a paper bag with no knowledge or understanding of what it is. That is counter to the entire concept of a great wine.
And yet, suppose the wine has certain minor flaws: maybe it’s a bit thin, or too sharp, or too fruity. Maybe the oak has been applied with a heavy hand. Maybe the tannins are hard and will never resolve. These things all are important to point out to consumers, but if the critic tastes the wine openly, with you, at the estate, then what we call “tasting room bias” will occur. These relatively minor flaws, which would instantly be apparent under blind conditions, run the risk of being undetected, with the glamor and psychological perturbations of tasting at the winery.
That may be true, but consider this: If I send you my wine and you taste it blind, in a flight of its peers, it will no doubt achieve a respectable score. Let’s say in the mid-90s. Do I really need yet another 95-point wine? All the other critics, who come here and taste it openly with me, will give it 95 points, maybe even 97 or 98 points. Therefore, I have absolutely nothing to gain by sending you the wine.
That is not true. It’s better for you to have more high scores, not fewer. After all, some of those critics who visit with you may someday turn against you and give your wine 87 points. Wouldn’t it be better from a marketing point of view to have a 95 point score to tell people about?
The people who buy my wine don’t care about scores. They’re on my mailing list because they love my wine. We would never use a critic’s score to promote our wine. That would demean everything we’re trying to do.
I don’t believe that. There’s a reason why your wine is in high demand, and that’s because certain critics gave it high scores. You can’t have it both ways.
Well, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. However, I do respect your ability as a wine critic, and I’d be happy to host you at the winery anytime you want. We can taste whatever you want: current releases, barrel constituents, older wines. Even if you’re not able to review them in your magazine, at least you’ll have the opportunity to understand what it is we’re trying to do.
Thank you. I’d like that. And perhaps, someday, you’ll change your mind, if for no other reason than out of sheer curiosity.
Maybe! But I doubt it.
My exposure to the word “soul” has been two-fold: philosophically, in the sense of an immaterial essence of our humanity (which may or may not be immortal), as explored by Plato and others, and musically, as defined by the Motown and Stax Volt records I grew up grooving to. Aretha had soul. James Brown had soul. Smokey had soul. If you want to hear soul–at least, through my white ears–check out Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine. That song not only gets your feet moving, it touches on love–lost, deceived, embittered.
I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that any individual wine has an immortal soul, in the philosophic sense. That’s a bit too much. My undergrad degree was in philosophy. I paid close attention to the religious, spiritual and philosophical concepts of the soul. I still do, but in my musings, I never think about wine in that context. However, when I think of wine in the cultural sense of rock and roll, which is enormously important to me, the sound track of my life, I can come up with a concept of wine as having soul.
I was stimulated to think along these lines after reading this online article that talked about wines with soul. The writer defined a soulful wine as “A …wine [that] is a very real combination of scent, flavor and texture that is seamless, multi-faceted, and unending from first sip to swallow, from first sip to last sip.” He had a lot more to say, so I hope you’ll read the piece in its entirety, but his bullet point, I think, was this: “The experience [of a soulful wine] should be such a sensorial onslaught as to capture your complete and undivided attention.”
What the writer seems to be saying is that a soulful wine has something that you can’t define in words. It “captures your attention,” but not the way, say, a noisy garbage truck outside your window at 6 a.m. does. It’s more subtle than that. It’s hard to say exactly how or why it captures your attention; it just does.
If I grant that a wine can be soulful, that leads to a big question: Is a soulful wine one that necessarily earns a high score? To answer this, I went over several years worth of my reviews and searched for the word “soul.” I found it in only a few instances, usually in the sense I employed with a Clos Pegase 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: “…it has an enormous soul of blackberries, black currants, cassis and dark chocolate.” But that isn’t quite what I was looking for; in this case, I used the word “soul” as a synonym for “concentration” or “core,” not in some morally uplifting sense.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century writers had an easier time grappling with the notion of wine’s soul. H. Warner Allen, in “The Romance of Wine” (1932), referring to a Tokay [sic] Essence of 1811, refers to its “peacock’s tail,” comparing it “without exaggeration…to the harmony of the sunset colors.” It had “a radium-like power of emitting particles” that caused him “to meditate.” Other wines elicited similar and in some cases even more rapturous praises.
I suppose H. Warner Allen found “soul” in that wine. Perhaps it’s our more jaded, cautious age that does not permit me to do so, in quite that fashion. I find certain wines “fabulous,” “fantastic,” “stellar” and the like. But anthropomorphising wine isn’t my style. On the other hand, “soul” is just a word. I’ve enjoyed many wines that gave me such “a sensorial onslaught as to capture [my] complete and undivided attention.” Whether or not they had “soul,” I will leave to others to determine.