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Everything about aging California wine is changing

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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.

That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.

I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).

I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.

Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.

At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.

I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:

“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”

Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.

The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).

Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.

Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.

I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”

Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)


“Context-sensitive” wine tasting

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Mike Veseth, the wine economist whose blog posts and occasional research papers I always look forward to reading, published another thought-provoking piece last week.

It’s about what he calls “context-sensitive” tasting, a term I’d never heard before, but one I’ll use going forward, because it’s snappy and useful.

My readers know that I tend to be obsessed with the mechanics of tasting: single-blind, double-blind, open. As a Gemini (not that I believe in astrology, but the characterization of Geminis as being able to see things from multiple points of view certainly applies to me), I can appreciate the pros and cons of all three approaches.

Double-blind really makes you think hard and deep. Single-blind gives you just enough context to judge whether or not the wines are good examples of their class. And open tasting gives you the complete context that can make the wine-drinking experience so multi-dimensional.

The problem with these three approaches, or at least the first two (single- and double-blind) is that they’re fundamentally incompatible with consistency of judgment. The same wine, tasted blind on multiple occasions, will impress even the most professional reviewer differently, leading to questions concerning reality. What is the wine really like? It’s not really like anything; it all depends how you experience it.

(Of course, if you’re tasting openly, you can be 100% consistent. You can also be 100% biased based on what you know you’re tasting!)

This is why Veseth titles his post “In Vino Veritas?” with the question mark playing a pivotal role. The conventional wisdom, among the general public who read wine critics, is that there’s something “real” or “true” in wine that critics are in a unique position to perceive and describe. Well, there is something “real” in wine, but it’s not what critics perceive and write about, it’s what a wine laboratory measures with instruments. You can determine everything from aluminum to zinc in wine. Those things are “real” and “true,” but they obviously are not things critics look for, nor are they things most consumers care about.

Thus, Veseth writes, “our impressions of wine is [sic] context-sensitive–perhaps more so than we really want to admit.” This conclusion chagrins him, but it shouldn’t.

So is there “reality” in wine, beyond a lab analysis of its chemical and physical properties? No. In that case, proponents of open tasting have a point when they say, in effect, “Why bother tasting blind if you know the results are not replicable?” And furthermore: “Since open tasting is reliably the most consistent method of tasting, it also is the most trustworthy.

Well, yes…but then, why was it so hard to get anyone from the Wine Advocate to state, in no uncertain terms, that they do taste openly, instead of dancing around the issue for so many years? To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t until Antonio Galloni told me that he does (you can read his quote here, from last year)

that anyone from the Advocate organization. And Antonio did so not only with candor, but with passion: he strongly defended tasting openly at high-end properties, whether in Burgundy or the likes of Harlan Estate. Why, then, does TWA’s website, presumably written by Robert Parker, say, “When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known.”? Admittedly, this is Parker talking…he pointedly says “my” tastings, not “our” tastings, so maybe he was implying, very gently, that not every review in TWA is the result of a “peer-group, single-blind” tasting.” Or maybe standards have changed since he wrote those words.

Well, I don’t mean to criticize Antonio’s method,or anyone else’s, since, as I said, each approach has its strengths. In the end, consumers have to decide what methodology they want their critics to use. To tell you the truth, I don’t think most consumers care. But they should. If all the wine critics in the world tasted blind, the hierarchy of pricing and tiers would fall down and crack, like Humpty-Dumpty, and all the King’s men couldn’t put it back together again.

So what’s my solution? If I’m limited to just one form of tasting, I prefer single-blind. The way around this is transparency. Every review that anyone does should have a little symbol next to it: TO (yasted openly), SB (single-blind), DB (double-blind). That way, consumers who cared would know, and if someone was concerned with bias, they could dismiss a TO wine.


As magazines turn to a lifestyle focus, they need to preserve a serious purpose

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If you think you’ve seen a shift in your food magazines toward more lifestyle and celebrity coverage, you’re right.

 “A handful of food magazines have found [advertising] success by broadening their traditional focus on recipes to more of a lifestyle approach, capitalizing on popular interest in destination restaurants, celebrity chefs and travel,” says this article, in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.

The article singles out Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur and Eating Well, in particular, with all of them enjoying increased ad revenue and paid circulation, even as the “overall [magazine] industry” experienced “a marginal drop” in those metrics.

The article’s writer traces the origins of the phenonomen to  the 2008 launch of Food Network Magazine, which, “at the height of the financial crisis…began testing…a format echoing the programming on the TV network, focusing on celebrity chefs, food  entertainment and lifestyle.”

I remember when The Food Network TV show began the switch from cooking for the love of cooking to its current gee-whiz, celebrity focus. That’s when I stopped watching it. Instead of showing recipes I could really use at home, there started to be entire episodes on the U.S. candy business. I figured it was all about advertising. It was.

You might have noticed the same thing occurring in wine magazines. As an older writer who got his start in a far more different time, I have mixed feelings about this trend toward the sexy, the celebrity, the “hot new” this or that. It’s not exactly the penetrating journalism I grew up appreciating and practicing. Still, one has to recognize that publishing a magazine is not an act of charity. The publisher has got to make a profit, or else go out of business. This is so fundamental that it shouldn’t even have to be said. There’s something else, too: magazines must look out beyond the current arc of history to a time when new generations take over. The savvy publisher today aims his vision on 2025, not 2015: Who will be reading magazines then (whether on paper or digital, who knows?), and what will they be looking for?

I, myself, am no expert in these matters, but I know that experts exist, and they seem to be saying that people like this wider emphasis on lifestyle. The WSJ article quotes a VP of marketing at Banana Republic (which is owned by the Gap) as saying that his company has started advertising again in Bon Appetit and the other food magazines, after not doing so for years during the recession, because the “fresh [new] format and content…caters to an audience that’s broader than just recipe readers.”

So, too, wine magazines must cater to audiences that are broader than just wine review readers. This is Publishing 101. In the case of Wine Enthusiast, I believe we’re trying to find the right balance of lifestlye and serious wine writing, and we’re doing so with great mindfulness. Keeping periodicals like Wine Enthusiast Magazine alive and relevant is important. The public needs to continue to have trusted sources of professionally researched and written journalism, and if the price of doing so is a little walk on the celebrity side, it’s a small one.


Industry reporting: the basics of wine reviewing

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Before I was a wine critic–which is to say, before any of my publishers would let me actually review and rate wines–I was a wine reporter. For quite a few years, I worked for numerous publications that wrote about the nuts and bolts of the wine industry.

Those articles could be about almost anything: a study on some insecticide, fumigating soils, selling in China, pricing strategies, the economics of barrels, estate planning, the consolidating distribution system (yes, even then it was shrinking). That may not sound very glamorous, compared to the popular image of the wine writer hanging out with famous winemakers, eating fabulous foods prepared by superstar chefs, and drinking rare wines. But it was a good, solid job that taught me how to report quickly and accurately, and I loved it. Moreover, I learned a lot about what makes the industry tick.

Having a grounding in the basics of the wine industry has been very important to me. Although I don’t do much reporting anymore on hardcore industry topics, I carry with me to this day an interest in it, especially the marketing, sales and promotional side of the wine business. I also think it makes me a better writer for the kind of writing I now do. Knowing this industry in my bones helps to give me a perspective on things, which I can then pass onto my readers. It also helps to cut through the B.S. that, with some regularity, tries to pass through the reporter’s filter as news. That doesn’t happen much, not on my watch.

Does this industry experience make me a better wine critic? Not necessarily, per se. I’m not saying that to be a great wine critic you have to have done a lot of reporting. But it can’t hurt. Besides, wine criticism is only a part of what I do. And I’m glad it’s only a part. I wouldn’t want to write exclusively for a publication that only published reviews, and didn’t let its writers explore the industry’s other facets.

In my articles for Wine Enthusiast, I think I’m able to bring the perspective of those years of industry reporting to my words. It’s one thing to know, for example, that a winery is exporting to China. It’s another to have a sense of the history of California wine exports to China–to know how odd it seemed in the 1990s. (In retrospect, people like the Wentes who developed the China connection back then, and were thought a little loopy, look like geniuses today. They faced tremendous challenges: a lack of trusted partners on the ground in China, or even a distribution and sales system, not to mention language difficulties). I like to think that, even when I write a simple sentence like, “Wente, who has a long history of developing Asian markets…”), it’s informed with meaning.

I’m glad I didn’t just jump into wine reviewing with scarcely any knowledge of how the industry works, or why it came to be what it is today. When I started, of course, you couldn’t just jump in; you needed someone to let you write in their publication. Today, with the blogosphere, anyone can start reviewing wines with no experience, no background, not even any knowledge. This has been celebrated as a good thing: the end of elitism and all that, the victory of the little guy against the tyranny of the corporate gatemasters. Yes, we’ve gained that. But I wonder what we’ve lost. Does anyone really care that Sally or Jimmy reviewed a Beaujolais on their blog–when they may not know Brouilly from brie? It’s an indication of the desperate situation some wineries find themselves in (wherein wineries need all the help they can get, however dubious) that they’ll actually use Sally-Jimmy’s review. Hey, I’m just saying.


Spotlight: Paul Gregutt. When the critic makes wine

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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!

Paul and his partners, at Precept Wine Brands, have started a new brand, Waitsburg Cellars.

It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.

Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.

So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?

The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!

Why not?

I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.

Do you have your own money in it?

I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.

So what is the concept?

Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]

That is a weird blend.

Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.

So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?

I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.

How so?

Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.

So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.

Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!


How I come up with ageability recommendations

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One of the biggest challenges to the wine critic is determining if a wine is ageable and, if you think it is, then how long to recommend that your readers age it.

This is irrelevant for most wines, but for that small handful of wines that do indeed improve with age, it’s perhaps the single most important piece of information the critic can convey. After all, when you look at the prices people pay for some of these wines, they deserve to know if their bottle is drinkable now or will improve in the cellar.

If the critic tastes openly, it makes the task a lot easier. You’re at Chateau Figeac tasting the 2009? It’s tight and tannic and oaky, but then, it is Figeac. Tell your readers to cellar it. That’s a no-brainer.

If you’re tasting blind, it’s a different story. Lots of wines are tight, tannic and oaky, but they can’t all be ageable. So there’s got to be something else the critic looks for. In the absence of external information (you don’t know the name of the winery, so you don’t know if the wine has a history of aging), you have to look for other cues. What are they?

That’s why I call it “one of the biggest challenges,” because it’s really hard to make this determination.

You can start by a process of elimination. Think of all the reasons why the wine couldn’t possibly improve in the cellar. It may be too thin, or out of whack in acidity, too obviously hot in alcohol, or flawed in some other general way. This is the easy part. It’s when you’re gotten your flight down to the dense, balanced, tannic young wines that the difficulties mount.

It used to be said (and some people may still believe it) that a wine that’s delicious on release isn’t ageable. People thought that an ageable wine had to be tough and resistant in youth. That may have been true a long time ago, but it isn’t true anymore. Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, in fact most, that age well are super-good on release, and the same is true of many classified growth Bordeaux that I have occasion to sample every year. I was reminded of this fact when I read, in Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, the quote from Eric d’Aramon, concerning his father-in-law, the owner of Figeac. “When I did my first tasting [with him]…every cuve that he selected for the grand vin, I selected for the second wine, and vice versa.” This naturally shocked Eric, “but [then] he explained to me, ‘you have been selecting the vats for drinking now, I am selecting them for future potential.’”

Eric, in other words, thought less of the harder, more austere batches than he did of the lusher, more fruit-forward batches. This is perfectly understandable, but it leads back to the conundrum of how to tell the difference between a hard, austere wine that will improve with age and one that won’t.

Here’s how I do it. Since I don’t know the identity of the wine while I’m reviewing it, I’ll work up some preliminary thoughts about it [flavors, structure, balance, length and so on], and also assign it a score. Those things are invariant. Then, when the bottle comes out of the bag, I work on my final review, before sending it electronically to Wine Enthusiast. So how I do decide whether or not to give a wine a “Cellar Selection” designation? Well, it’s not necessarily because I’m familiar with the aging histories of many of these wines. For example, I’ve recently given Cellar Selections to Cabernets from Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Bjorn, Venge, Redmon and B Cellars, and I’ve never had any older wines from any of them. I did it because the wines seemed to me to possess all the stuffing and equilibrium to go the distance–and they are all from Napa Valley. On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection recommendations for the likes of Ridge Montebello, Corison and Beaulieu Private Reserve in Cabernets, and some of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which are wines I’m familiar with as they age. With those, I feel like I’m on surer footing than with wines Ive never tasted old. But I wouldn’t give a Cellar Selection unless I was sure in my own mind that the wine would age well, which is why, for example, I gave a good score to Raymond’s 2009 District Collection Cabernet, and suggested it could do interesting things in eight years, but ultimately  didn’t give it a Cellar Selection. I just wasn’t sure enough to go there.


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