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When is a “flaw” not a flaw?

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Got an email from a wine director at a restaurant yesterday. She wrote:

Yesterday I was tasting through my wines by the glass to make new notes after going through some recent vintage changes when I smelled the 2012 ___ Sauvignon Blanc. I was so overwhelmed by the smell of rotten green pepper and shocked by the complete lack of the usual ripe grapefruit notes. I generally get excited when I come upon a wine with a flaw as I look at it as a learning experience I can share with my staff. But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did. I opened several bottles then went on to a new case but they all smelled the same to me. I was convinced there was a flaw but questioned myself that no one smelled the horrible things I did. I pulled the wine right away. So, my question is, is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker and producer to release a wine like this?

(The wine director identified a specific New Zealand Sauv Blanc but there’s no point in revealing it here.) There are two points she made that leaped out to me, both of which are interesting enough to warrant a little chat.

The first was “most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did.” This points out the subjectivity of wine tasting. Whatever caused the green pepper smell that the wine director picked up on (and I couldn’t say that it was pyrazine because I haven’t tasted that wine), it seems that she was more sensitive to it than the rest of her staff. I myself am very sensitive to pyrazine, and I don’t much care for it if it exceeds a certain tipping point in a Sauvignon Blanc. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who are far more sensitive than I am to TCA and brett.

The second point is contained in the wine director’s question and is in some ways the more interesting one. “Is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker?”

I don’t think it was a flaw, technically speaking, but it depends on how you define “flaw.” Generally, flaws in wine are considered to be egregious violations of the basic sanitary and chemistry things you learn in winemaking school. For example, a young white wine that is brown in color and smells old may have been oxidized; that is a flaw, but on the other hand, you want a degree of oxidation in some white wines (Sherry, for example). Aromas that are rancid also are considered flaws, but in some older wines (Priorats, for example), a little rancidity is considered desirable. And consider brett itself. Technically, it’s a flaw, but some winemakers (and wine drinkers) like a touch of it in their wines.

If we assume the cause of pyrazine smell is unripe grapes, can we call that a flaw? In one sense, maybe: I mean, you wouldn’t make a wine out of grapes that were 13% brix, would you? But if pyrazine’s a flaw, it’s not on the scale of letting a white wine get oxidized to the point of brown stinkiness. Pyrazine could be and usually is a vintage problem (and you can’t accuse Mother Nature of committing flaws). But it could be a marketing decision to bottle and sell a pyraziney wine (one that the winemaker may not want to put out there, but has to be sold anyway, for economic reasons).

Is it bad judgment to sell a wine that some people will think is flawed, like that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, not necessarily. The wine director who emailed me thought it was flawed, but no one else on her staff did. It’s conceivable that, even had the winemaker known the wine was high in pyrazines, he would have green-lighted it anyway (assuming he had that power, rather than a sales director or owner), knowing that it wasn’t so excessive that critics all over the world would condemn it as cat pee.

So this question of what constitutes a flaw, and what doesn’t, is more complicated than you might think.


Which is more important for fine wine, terroir or technique?

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Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?

Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.

This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?

This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.

Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!

There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.

Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.

Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:

Destemming or not?

Crush pressure

Cold soaking

To inoculate or not? And with what?

To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?

What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?

When to drain off the juice?

Include press wine?

How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?

Cooperage and toast level

Natural malo or inoculate?

Stirring, if any?

Racking, if any?

Time in barrel

You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.

Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.


Whose blogs are relevant?

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READERS: Here’s another blast from the past, originally published late in 2008. I’ll resume regular posting when I come back from New York, this Friday.

* * *

I had coffee yesterday with M., a highly regarded North Coast winemaker (actually, he had tea) who’s been in the business for a long time. What did we talk about? Blogs, of course. I wanted to know how he (and, by extension, his winemaker colleagues) view wine blogs, and did he think they hold value for him in publicizing his brands.

Yes, M. replied, but… There’s always a “but.” M. put it this way: In determining the value of any particular blog, he wanted to know if it was relevant.

Hmm, I wondered. How do you determine if a blog is relevant? So it was a bit of serendipity this morning to surf through my usual morning mush of blogs and stumble across this one from Caveman Wines, which asks the question, “How do we as wine PR professionals determine which wine bloggers are legitimate or not?” To answer that, the blogger, Michael Wangbickler, a P.R., account manager at Balzac Communications, turned to a guy named Kevin Palmer, who runs an outfit called Social Media Answers. According to Caveman, Palmer came up with a list of 5 metrics by which he measures the value of a blog. Quote:

1. Alexa/Compete – Good for painting a general picture of the strength of traffic to their blog.
2. Quantcast – Most won’t have the tag installed necessary to register with Quantcast. Those that do may be a little more serious about their blogging.
3. Age of blogs – There is high turnover on blogs. An older blog may indicate that the blogger is here to stay.
4. Average Number of posts per month – The more frequently a blogger posts, the greater likelihood that their audience will be larger.
5. Other Social Media channels – Does the blogger have a good following on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? It may indicate that their readership is larger than implied by visits to the blog.

By this method, Caveman writes, he can figure out whom to send review bottles to, because “We can’t just send wine samples to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to say they have a blog.”

I can’t quibble with Palmer’s 5 metrics, although I believe there are additional ways to evaluate a successful blog: the blogger’s breadth of knowledge and experience; number of visits; demographics of the blog’s readership; the blogger’s reputation in the industry (although not all of these are readily quantifiable). I agree with Palmer’s conclusion, taken from his website, that wine blogging currently “seems really fractured and disorganized.” Palmer referred to a Twitter discussion that gave him the feeling “that a lot of bloggers weren’t being respected or included by wineries or PR people. They felt slighted, a little angry” at not being sent samples and not getting invited to events. Well, that gets me back to my conversation with M. With 1,000 wine blogs out there, there’s no reason why a winery should reach out to every one of them. As M. said, he’s happy to play ball with a blog, as long as it’s relevant. Turns out, he couldn’t really define what makes a blog relevant; he just had a feeling which ones are and which ones aren’t.

Blog relevance may be difficult to precisely measure, but, to misquote the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.


Three cheers for Zaca Mesa!

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Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.

In 1972, though, a group of friends bought some land in the Foxen Canyon region, north of Los Olivos. The next year they planted grapes to the usual mishmash: Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and so on, “to see what would work,” as they say on Zaca Mesa’s website.
They hired a guy named Ken Brown as their first winemaker, then planted Syrah in 1978—the first planting of that variety in the county. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaca Mesa now is celebrating their birthday with some big events that will culminate in May with the 40th Anniversary Celebration.
What makes the winery so unique is not only its age and the quality of the wines, but the roster of winemakers who’ve worked there. It’s literally a who’s who of winemaking in Santa Barbara County: not just current winemaker Eric Mohseni, but Brown himself, who went on to establish Byron, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Daniel Gehrs, Adam Tolmac (Ojai), Chuck Carlson (Carlson), Benjamin Silver (Silver), Clay Brock (Wild Horse—the list goes on and on, making a stint at Zaca Mesa University almost a prerequisite for winemaking in the Central Coast.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to review Zaca Mesa’s wines for many years, and can say that few wineries anywhere have such a distinguished track record. The throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what would stick gradually evolved into a Rhône specialization, which in itself helped make the Santa Ynez Valley a hotbed of Rhône activity. (It’s fair to say that only one region specializes in Rhône-style wines, and that’s the Santa Ynez Valley.) Zaca Mesa’s top wine always is their Black Bear Estate Syrah, from a small block on the estate vineyard that was planted with cuttings from Hermitage. I don’t know if it’s the pedigree of the Chapoutier vineyard or the terroir of Santa Ynez Valley that makes this one of the greatest Syrahs in California, but it is. I gave the 2009 ($60) 96 points, but production was a mere 367 cases.
Other Zaca Mesa wines that always are good include the Z-Cuvée red blend (often a bargain), the fancier Z Three GSM and the Z Blanc, one of the better white Rhône blends in California.


Wine writing as entertainment, winemaking as showmanship

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Got the following comment on my Facebook page concerning my recent post (“How will the 22nd century view wine critics?”):

Enjoyed your blog very much, I don’t read too many facebook links but I’m very glad I did. This may be a bit off the topic but it touched a little on something I’ve been mulling over for the past few months. Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both? I feel like at least since the sixties being a winemaker has involved more showmanship which of course leaves less time for other things. At first it really bothered me but now I feel as long as everyone is having fun and your not hurting anyone go ahead.

The writer, who apparently is a winemaker, raises several interesting issues. “Is the role of a wine writer heading more toward the service or entertainment industry, or is there room for both?” is a question I hadn’t thought of quite that way. Wine writing always has been a service, in the sense that it seeks to educate readers and consumers, but since it’s writing done professionally, for profit, it also has to have an element of entertainment. I mean, we read Hugh Johnson not only to get educated about wine but also because he’s such a good writer. The first edition (1984) of The University of California Book of California Wine is such a good read, I’ve read it cover to cover more than once. Same with Alexis Lichine’s 1981 New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits and, more recently, The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. So good wine writing always has had both educational and entertainment value.

What I think my questioner was aiming at, though, is contained in his use of the word “heading.” Is wine writing becoming more like infotainment and less like education with an entertainment twist? Here, I fear the answer is yes. Especially in the blogosphere, but also in the rash (I use the word deliberately) of bad wine books that show up dependably at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find tired old retreaded material, often packaged with silly pictures and graphics, that dumb wine down to the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, there’s still enough serious writing around that discerning readers can find and enjoy. But, like “journalism” in general (both print and broadcast), entertainment is trumping serious content, and that’s sad.

My questioner’s other point concerns the showmanship winemakers are expected to demonstrate. That’s certainly true. I’ve asked scores of winemakers, maybe hundreds, over the years (privately, off the record) if they enjoy being little dancing monkeys for legions of tourists tramping through the winery, or for guests at meet-the-winemaker dinners that could be in Omaha on Tuesday night, Cleveland on Wednesday, then it’s on to Charlotte and Atlanta. The reason I ask is because I myself would not like that kind of itinerant lifestyle where you’re schmoozing from breakfast until midnight with people asking the same old questions over and over again, like a bad episode of Groundhog Day. “What’s the pH of the grapes?” “What’s the toast level on your barrels?” “What’s the precise blend on your Cabernet?” The winemaker, no matter how bored she feels internally, must put on her game face, smile and be fascinating. Similarly, a winemaker conducting a group of tourists on a tour of the winery has to point out fascinating things about destemmers and tanks to people who may be almost as bored hearing about them as the winemaker is talking about them. Yet the winemaker must always keep that brio, that vital elan that’s the mark of the Vegas crooner or standup comic.

My questioner said this sort of thing used to bother him but no longer. I’m glad. It’s part of the winemaker’s job, so even if it does bother him, he’s got to do it anyway, and do it well. Even the most famous winemakers at the most famous wineries have to do the dancing monkey bit. Personally, when I’m with winemakers, I try to let them off the hook by letting them know they don’t have to feel they have to entertain me. Once you get the platitudes out of the way, you can have a real conversation, which is the only kind I like.


Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, or A Moralistic Tale of Getting 100 Points

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Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, here comes the famous Portuguese winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, complaining that a certain critic named Parker just gave his wine 100 points.

Dr. Vino reported it, paraphrasing Niepoort as saying the Big Score “would raise prices and alienate the customer base he’s trying to build.” Then, curiously, Niepoort added this little fillip: “it’s too early to have 100 points.”

Okay, kids, deconstruction time or, as an old semiotician I once knew would have asked, What’s he really saying?

“would raise prices” Why? Well, we all know that a Big Score from any of the major critics is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, the red flag being the Score and the bull being the proprietor. Yes, Big Scores often result in price hikes, but nobody is forcing said proprietor to jack up the price. He does it freely, of his own will, because he wants to and thinks he can get away with it, based on that Score. It’s not like there’s some ineluctable law of the universe that goes “Cause: Big Score. Effect: price rise,” like the law of gravity that mandates that everything that goes up must come down (or, in this case, the reverse: Everything that was down must go up, providing it receives enough stimulus in the form of a Big Score).

Now, you can argue that the price of Niepoort’s wine will rise no matter what he does or doesn’t do, because it will immediately find its way onto the aftermarket, where bidding will be intense; or that retailers (on- or off-premise) themselves will raise the price, when their customers start demanding the wine. What’s wrong with that? It’s the essence of capitalism, and, after all, wine isn’t some esoteric practice like meditating or sodoku, it’s a business. The greater the demand, the higher the price goes.

Now, I’ve talked to plenty of winemakers (mainly in Napa Valley) who’ve told me, privately, they’re concerned that their pricing is going too high, because they don’t want their wines turning into commodities. I can understand their concern, but the fact is that the final price is absolutely a function of the release price, which is determined by the winery. If the winery doesn’t want to see prices get too high, all it has to do is lower the release price. But you never see that, unless the winery is in trouble. And why do most wineries get in trouble? Because they don’t get high scores.

“would alientate the customer base he’s trying to build.” I can see that some of Niepoort’s customers might be pissed off if next year they find themselves forced to pay 30% or 50% more for a wine they used to be able to afford. But the truth is, consumers are very fickle these days when it comes to wine. They buy “x” today and “y” tomorrow and “z” the next day. Partly this fickleness is because they’re constantly searching for bargains. Partly it’s because wine is like the fashion industry: as Heidi Klum says, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. A winemaker who hopes to stay “in” must have a business plan that takes scores into account–whether they’re high or low. If a winemaker is relying on the critics to not give him a high score, then he doesn’t have a solid business plan.

But then there was that odd little remark Niepoort made: “it’s too early to have 100 points.” What can he possibly have meant? Would 100 points have been okay in 5 years as opposed to today? This suggests that Niepoort isn’t really against the 100-point system, he just wants to be able to choose the exact moment when he gets his blessing. Well, I’m sorry. The world doesn’t work that way.

The reader comments on Dr. Vino’s page were a propos. One said, “He doesn’t have to raise his prices. And he can have a few words with those who do inflate and gouge. I guess he would have been happier with an 80?” True, true and true. At any rate, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a high score before. It seems a little disingenuous and ungrateful.


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