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How do you describe a wine region, anyhow?

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One of the constants of the wine writer’s job is describing wine regions. Whether it’s the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the Santa Rita Hills or the Finger Lakes, the wine writer is expected to understand the region’s terroir (climate, soils) and its impact on the major wine varieties and types produced there.

I don’t think there’s ever been a wine book that didn’t contain this information; at least, I’ve never seen one. It’s part and parcel of the wine writer’s challenge to explain why wine smells and tastes as it does. After all, if you take this away from the writer, there’s not much else to opine about!

So how’s it done? You’d think the wine writer would visit the region/s he’s writing about, but this isn’t always possible, given the financial constraints of the trade (don’t get me started). So the wine writer makes certain compromises: he looks up to see what others have written about the region in question—others with, presumably, more opportunities for world travel than he possesses (or who accept all those junkets!).

The traditional way of researching what others have written is, of course, books. But we’re in the Age of the Internet now. Why bother to read a book when Google can give you anything you want for free? The result is a new generation of wine writers that appropriates pre-digested information from the Internet.

I’m not saying there’s anything immoral about this, but it can be dangerous. The reason is obvious: You can’t trust everything you find on the Internet. Few people, I admit, have the motive to lie about something as dull as the effects of the mistral in the Rhone Valley, so the wine writer who depends on the Internet as his source of this kind of information is on generally solid ground. Still, second-hand sourcing can be risky.

I don’t think readers want, as their first choice, a wine writer who gets her facts from the Internet. They prefer, or at least deserve, hearing from writers who actually go to the places they write about. And not only go to them—but spend time in them, year after year walking the land, breathing the air, listening to the leaves rustle in the wind, smelling the earth and the soils and the underbrush, sensing how the temperature and wind patterns shift hour-to-hour, talking to anybody and everybody about anything and everything, and drinking the wines from that place to determine for oneself what they’re like. Well-heeled writers, sometimes sponsored, can travel vast distances of the globe, parachuting in and “reporting” on Austria or Crete or someplace else the sponsors send wine writers to for 3 or 4 days. But is this the best kind of wine writing ?

The worst thing in the world for the wine industry is for old myths to be repeated. There are so many of them; so many are wrong. If every wine writer took the following oath, wine writing would take a great leap forward: “I vow not to automatically believe things just because I read them or heard them from someone. I vow to come to every wine experience with fresh eyes and an open, inquisitive mind.” Wouldn’t that be something?


Conversations with Carlo: whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir

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Carlo Mondavi, whom I got to know and like last year in Kapalua, emailed to bring me up to date on his new project, RAEN, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he’s making in collaboration with his brother, Dante.

Carlo
Carlo Mondavi

His email prompted me to ask him some followup questions, which led to an exchange I thought is interesting enough to reproduce. The subject is Pinot Noir, and the role of stems in the fermentation.

Carlo had sent me this video of him and Dante making the wine. Along the way, Carlo says, concerning the whole-cluster fermentation he enjoys, “I can smell the greenness of these stems, they’re super-green.” My ears perked up at this, because I had thought that you don’t want green stems in the fermentation, you want brown, ripe ones, in order to avoid passing on that green, vegetal aroma and harsh tannins to the wine. So I asked Carlo, “If you whole cluster with green stems doesn’t that make the wine taste and smell green?”

He replied, “I…believe that the stems being green and thus under ripe or ideal is a complete misconception.” His response is worth quoting in full:

“In fact DRC and most of the best whole cluster examples are harvesting when the stems are electric green. This also means most likely and certainly for us that the sugars are lower and the extraction of bitter flavors will be lower. We also take into account sap flow…

“I believe that sap flow is greater in certain clones and in certain sites varying vintage to vintage… There is no perfect map so we go on taste and observation… To determine the amount of whole cluster vs destemmed fruit we ferment we run a quick tasting. We take the stem sans fruit, cut it up, put it inside a pastil bag and squeeze the sap out. We then observe the sap (how much, how sappy) then taste the sap to see how astringent it is. From there we make decide if we will use some, none or all of the whole cluster.…  This past vintage we certainly used a great amount of whole cluster as it was a new moon and the sap seemed to much less than what we might have seen on a full moon.

“Thirdly I also like the balance of bitter and sweet… Stems add potassium and tannin to a wine and can balance the overly strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb fruit flavors… to me it gives the wine a middle palate of velvet and structure and in some examples and slight elevation of minerality.

“Waiting for full brown clusters is a major mistake in my opinion… If you wait that long you are looking at harvesting well north of 25 brix of sugar and in December in some sites. This would yield a wine of incredible bitterness and a PH that would be certainly unfermentable and unstable naturally. With that said where we make our cuts is where the rachis meets the shoot this area is brown and lignified. We make our harvesting cuts right in the middle of this browning area to minimize sap flowing out into the juice.”

Still puzzled, I asked Carlo, “In a vintage like 2011, I found some coastal Pinots to have a green, minty edge. So, where does that come from?”

Carlo: “Huh… That’s a Good question. I would think some stems, the local terroir and for late harvesters, botrytis… I see a bit of botrytis each year… Pinot noir clusters are so tight it just seems to happen when the heat comes after the rain or In some vintages with the humidity…  With that said green can be no stems with green seeds or Rosie’s, tough under ripe skins or jacks… I have tasted de stemmed and 10 percent whole cluster wines and found them be more green than 100 percent whole cluster wines depending on the site and vintage… I also enjoy wine that can have a slight green note… I don’t see green to be bad so long as it is not over the top… Just like anything.”

I’ve never felt that whole-cluster fermentation is better than destemming, or vice versa. California Pinot Noir can be delightful either way. I do feel, as does Carlo, that stems can give Pinot Noir a fuller body and more tannins, not to mention spiciness. Still, I’m not quite convinced that green stems do not bring a green note to cool-climate Pinot Noir, and I’d love to hear the opinion of others.

This is one of the wine taster’s biggest conundrums: it’s easy to detect something in a wine but a lot harder to identify exactly what causes it. When I was a reviewer, I tried to avoid attributing specific results to specific causes, if I couldn’t be absolutely sure about the connection. Asking winemakers to explain can sometimes clear things up, but sometimes it can make you even more confused. Which is why I was always happy to leave the winemaking to the winemakers, if they’d leave the wine reviewing to me!


The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


My early career as an amateur wine buff

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I remember it as if it all happened yesterday instead of 35 years ago. I was newly arrived in San Francisco, had no money and needed a place to live. So I answered an ad on the S.F.S.U. housing board for a house sitter. It was for a dilapidated old four-room cottage in the southwestern neighborhood known as Top of the Hill Daly City, although in this case, it was at the bottom of the hill. The owner for some reason had the electricity shut off throughout the place, except for my bedroom. There was no heat. Because it was such a hardship case, the owner charged me only $15 a month–although he should have paid me for tolerating such a crummy place. It was wintertime, which can be very cold in San Francisco, and that, added to the location near the ocean, made it really damp and uncomfortable. My only source of heat—and cooking—was a hotplate. But I didn’t care. I was young, strong and adventurous, and, hey, I was living in San Francisco and having the time of my life!

I’d started getting into wine, mainly by buying those little handbooks that were so popular back then: Olken, Singer & Roby’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines” and Bob Thompson’s “The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines.”

handbooks

Since I couldn’t afford to buy much I also depended on local critics’ reviews in the various newspapers. Here’s a photo from my little notebook of that time where I kept track of their reviews:

winebook

 

W. is Wilfred Wong, RH is Richard Paul Hinkle, H.S. is Harvey Steiman, J.M. is Jerry Mead, W.B. was something called the Wine Buying Guide, B.G. is the Bay Guardian, ADB is Anthony Dias Blue and the Best Buys were from the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a couple years I could finally afford to start buying some nice bottles, so I began to keep my Tasting Diaries. Here’s a page for a 1978 Lytton Springs Zin I reviewed in late 1984.

mynotes

By now, I had developed a tasting template: date, occasion (“Thanksgiving at Maxine’s”), and the standard color-nose-taste three-pronged approach. As you can see, I was already beginning to appreciate that some wines need age (“Disappointing; too young”) and also had come up with a rudimentary rating system of stars (to be replaced by the 100-point system when I started doing that).

This Montelena 1979 Chard, which I tasted in 1983, is interesting for three reasons: I was blown away by the price ($12, so expensive at the time. Today it’s $50), I included a food pairing, and,, via the “NOTE” section, I began to introduce more subjective commentary into my reviews. I was much fascinated back then by the French word goût (as in goût de terroir); it shows up a lot in those early reviews.

montelena

 

I wish I still had the first note I ever wrote. It was in 1979 in that awful, cold, barren house at Top of the Hill Daly City. It was for an Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon with a Monterey County appellation. I recall with crystal clarity sitting in the freezing cold at the little table off the kitchen and making my notes. I cannot remember a word of what I wrote, but I know that I concentrated on it very carefully. I think I liked it; at that time I was not aware of the issue of “Monterey veggies.”

It’s hard to know with any precision why a person gets hooked onto something virtually overnight (I don’t mean drugs, I mean hobbies). In 1979 I knew no one at all who cared a thing about wine. My family and friends were oblivious to it, although they were increasingly having to put up with my blather about the latest bottle I’d enjoyed. Looking back, it blows my mind that I was so feverishly making all these notes (my Tasting Diaries eventually filled five hard-cover volumes, amounting to thousands of wines). Why was I doing all that work? For whom? For nobody; for myself. There was no payoff. I never expected anyone to care about what I thought about wine.


When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”

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The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:

 

“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.


The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.


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