Some interesting comments from yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that some of these top-scoring Cabs don’t pair all that versatilely with many foods.
If that’s so, a few readers wondered, then why give them high scores?
Fair enough. By way of explanation, I need to put the whole concept of wine reviewing into some historical context. The world always has had wine critics, whether they were poets and physicians in the ancient world who advised Caesars what to drink, Thomas Jefferson who was such a gadfly when it came to French wines, or that amazing crop of American wine writers who came of age after the Repeal of Prohibition to educate a thirsty but ignorant country about the intricacies of wine.
Even with today’s modern sophistication of big publishing, social media and the like, we wine critics haven’t changed all that much. We’re just simple folk with an outsized affection for vino, doing our best to write about it, and lucky enough to have access to a lot more of it than the average Joe or Jane.
Now, I will admit to being an inheritor of a system in which certain wines are routinely experienced as “better” or “superior” to all others. This in itself is anti-democratic (with a small “d”). In fact, it’s downright elitist. And while I personally abhor economic elitism, I do recognize that in other spheres, it has its place. We have elite athletes, whom we love to watch on T.V. We have elite universities, elite clothing and elite technology, elite vacation destinations, elite neighborhoods in our cities, elite rock stars and elites among the intellectual classes. So “elite” is a fact of human existence, no matter how you feel about it.
In this system I fell into, wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on are automatically granted the top place. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you have to start someplace in creating a hierarchy if you’re going to judge anything–otherwise, everything is the same, which does no one any good. So it makes it a lot easier if a majority of the world’s critics agree as to the top ranks of the hierarchy (even if we may disagree about individual wines). At least, we’ve created a lingua franca in which we can have a coherent discussion.
Now, once upon a time the top wines of Old Europe might have been more drinkable with food than are today’s Napa Cabs, for instance. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that part of what made Thomas Jefferson like top Bordeaux so much is that it was cleaner and more technically correct than some of its neighbors (and so, by the way, was his food), which may have had actual faults. Today, the situation is completely changed. Few wines have technical faults, at least in California. So what the elite wines have had to do is not only be cleaner and more correct than everything else, they’ve has to become something that the other wines cannot be, whether for reasons of terroir or expense. And that is what we mean by the big, opulent, modern Napa style of cult Cabernet (as well as its high alcohol). When it’s done well, it truly is impressive–but it’s not always done well, and when the job is botched, the result is clumsy.
The problem, of course, is that the big, opulent style is so powerful in itself that it’s practically a food group. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, when I said if I was cooking something at home to go with a huge Cab, I’d probably stick to grilled steak. That doesn’t mean just the steak and nothing else. I might try and steal a beat from Gary Danko and fancy it up, filleting some tenderloin and serving it with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots and Stilton butter. But so many things could go wrong with such a complex dish that I’d probably decide beforehand not to even try, and keep things simple: since I live in a condo and can’t barbecue, I’d sear the steak in a heavy skillet, toss it with some brown butter, salt and pepper, maybe glaze some onions or sauté a Portobello, and keep my fingers crossed that the marriage between the food and, say, the Shafer Hillside Select would be a happy one. On the other hand, if I poured a nice Zinfandel with the filet, I think everyone would be happy, with a lot less at risk. The K.I.S.S. formula is a good one.
The thing to understand is that these elite wines are meant to be understood on their own. I don’t want any producers to get mad at me when I say that, but it’s true: the amount of work and artistry that goes into them is such that they don’t need a whole lot of anything to help them along. In fact, the more you try to help them with food, the more you reduce them to ordinariness. And there’s nothing sadder than opening a bottle of expensive wine, only to find that it performs in a mediocre way at the table.
Some of my commenters fastened on these points and made interesting suggestions. (I don’t want to name names because I don’t have their permission, but you can read them yourself in yesterday’s post.) B.__ suggested I make a note in my reviews that certain wines are “cocktail wines,” rather than food wines. S.___ strongly agreed. G.___ raised the delicate issue of point scores: that wines meant to go with food get lower scores than do “stand-alone wines.”
These are a good points. One problem that comes to mind, though, is that we would have to agree on what is a “cocktail” wine versus a “table” wine. I can see me describing a wine as “cocktail” and raising the infuriated hackles of the winemaker who made it! I don’t think any winemaker in the world thinks of himself as a “cocktail-winemaker.” So we can throw out the “cocktail” word. It’s a non-starter.
No, I think the best way to communicate to people the idea that “with food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best” is to say it over and over again, until it sinks into peoples’ heads. Also, to point out in the text of the review (I would hope people read the text, not just the point score!). It’s in the text, with all its word-space limitations, that I try to convey my thoughts about food. I like the word “versatile.” It means a wine (like that Hendry Zin) that will go with just about everything in a particular style (red, white, light and delicate, full-bodied, tannic, whatever, etc.). Happily, more and more restaurants are beginning to divide their wine lists up into helpful categories like that.
The conventional wisdom in wine-geek land is that the highest scoring wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, are often not the best ones to drink with food, because the wine overpowers the food. I think this is a valid point.
I’ve given extraordinarily high scores this year to Cabernets from Shafer Hillside Select, Marita’s Select Private Reserve, Flora Springs Hillside Reserve, Freemark Abbey Sycamore, Clos du Val JG’s Joie du Vin and others, but if I were cooking dinner at home (or ordering in a restaurant, for that matter), I’d have to think long and hard about what to pair them with. Notwithstanding the fact that all these wines are tannic and need age, the problem is that they’re so potent in themselves–almost a separate food group–that any pairing runs the risk of not doing justice to either the food or the wine.
The 2009 Shafer, for example, is one of the most massive Napa Cabs I’ve ever reviewed, which would count against it were it not for the fine balance of acids, tannins and oak, all of which gives it a sense of wholesome completeness. The default pairing for a wine like that is grilled steak; you can’t go wrong. The wine’s tannins will stand up to the meat’s fatty richness, while a smoky sweetness extends from charred protein to the fire-roasted oak barrels the wine was aged in. But beyond this simple steak recipe, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something more elaborate that wouldn’t rob the wine of its complexities. Of course, you could always slather the steak with gorgonzola cheese, which would amplify the Cab’s fruity sweetness, but that’s not really making it more complicated. It’s just making it, well, cheesier.
Now that I’m only days removed from our Thanksgiving feast, I think I would never have put that Hillside Select on the groaning board. We had all the usual stuff–roast turkey with sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, buttered sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts with crumbled bacon, and a fantastic arugula, fig and blue cheese salad with Sherry vinaigrette. It was as delicious as could be, but quite frankly the Shafer would have been a minor disaster in that setting. It would have been pulled this way and that, like a galaxy being torn apart by a black hole, with the various sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes of the foods making the wine clumsy and stripped of its glory. Its center of gravity would have been discombobulated. That’s no disrespect to the wine: it’s just saying that these pairing decisions matter.
What did work? A Hendry 2011 Block 24 Primitivo, bearing a Napa Valley appellation. In itself, this is not a great wine. There’s plenty to find fault with. It’s too fruity. It’s too alcoholic. It’s overripe. Compared to the Shafer’s tailored power, the Hendry is rustic. It’s not the sort of wine that does well in a tasting, and so does not earn a high score.
But on that Thanksgiving table, it was ideal. Everybody liked it. They want something they can enjoy with whatever is going into their mouths, and the Hendry did exactly that: it provided yeoman’s service. In fact, most of the foods on the table made it taste better, not worse, as they would have with the Shafer. The sweet foods echoed its fruit. The rich foods tamed its tannins. The creamy foods mitigated its super-ripeness. Throughout it all, the wine was strong enough to preserve its identity. It went with the punches, so to speak. When I practiced traditional Wado karate, we were taught the concepts of nagasu, inasu and noru. Briefly, these refer to the fighter constantly shifting his position, moving out of the enemy’s way, deflecting his attacks, parrying his thrusts, all while remaining in control, looking for eventual dominance. It’s fair to say that the Hendry exhibited this sense of countering everything the food threw at it, and remained harmonious and centered. It ran no risk of losing its center of gravity, because it doesn’t have a center of gravity. It’s all free-floating, a shape-shifter whose protean character made it be friends with just about everything it encountered.
The irony of all this is that a rustic wine can often perform better under such circumstances than the most exquisitely refined wine. Still, I feel comfortable giving higher scores to wines like the Shafer, whose very extraordinariness makes them rather less versatile at the table. The score refers to the wine, in and of itself. What you do with it is another matter.
I’m up in chilly, drizzly Seattle with the northern branch of my family for the holidays. In this case, it’s two holidays: today is the first day of Hanukah, while tomorrow is Thanksgiving. So my niece has been preparing food for several days in a row, in order to host not one, but two large gatherings. Today is latkes day. If you don’t know latkes is, it’s traditional Jewish potato pancakes. They’re greasy and heavy and utterly delicious. You generally serve them with apple sauce, although some people prefer sour cream. I wouldn’t know what wine to recommend with latkes, to tell you the truth. Beer is probably better. Since brisket of beef is also on the table, that suggests some kind of hearty red.
But then, these full-throttle meals–the kind you serve for Hanukah and Thanksgiving, where there’s a bit of everything, from sweet and sour to salty and bitter and umami–do not require precision pairing. You put a bunch of stuff on the table and let people drink whatever they want. We will have some pretty good wine. I took care of that. But we’ll also have some Trader Joe’s backup, just in case.
Random Seattle notes: Rainier from 15,000 feet in my Alaska Airlines plane: all gold, pink and yellow above the tree line in the low winter sun. Puget Sound sparkling, flashing in the light. Big houses on the beaches. Conifers everywhere. My family lives in West Seattle, whose Alki Beach neighborhood reminds me of Oakland or Berkeley. Hip, young, cool, lots of cafés and great little restaurants. We ate at a Thai place last night, Buddha Ruska, that was absolutely delicious. (Yay, crispy chicken!) No wine with Thai: Singha beer. At my sister’s, for the 5 o’clock cocktail hour, we had an Artesa Reserve 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, very oaky–maybe a bit too much–but rich and satisfying.
Anyhow, I’m clearly writing this on the fly. Family vacations are hectic, you’re not really in charge of your schedule, but I wanted to get something up. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving and to those of you of the Jewish persuasion, Happy Hanukah! Did you know that Hanukah can occur as early as late November and as late as January? I never knew why until I asked my 11-year old grand-nephew this morning. “Because it’s determined by the lunar calendar,” Joey explained, patiently. Smart kid.
Two articles struck me this week, in publications that, you might say, are diametrically opposed to each other: The New York Times and Playboy. While the topics are different, I hope to be able to draw a connection between them, as concerns our current wine culture.
The Times article was about a fashion designer, Isabella Blow, whose glory years were the 1970s-1990s, and who now is the subject of a retrospective in London. Isabella was certainly a couture eccentric: the author, Andrew O’Hagan, describes her wearing “giant mink antlers” and “a sneering mouth so red with lipstick that it was like an open wound.” (Blow is Lady Gaga‘s spiritual grandmother.) She had a “phantasmagoric sense of fashion [and] beauty” that O’Hagan says is missing today, when too many people are mere “imitators” of fashion, “publicity scavengers…who think it’s merely about fame or attention.”
Other style setters whom O’Hagan admires are the famously infamous writer Quentin Crisp, Anna Piaggi, who wrote for Vogue, and the recluse Edith Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, who lived and died alone in a falling down mansion filled with garbage, even as she dressed as outrageously as anyone in the Hamptons.
O’Hagan’s point isn’t necessarily a new one: celebrate style. Be yourself, and unafraid to show the world who are are. He quotes another of his muses, Elsie de Wolfe: “Only those are unwise who have never dared to be fools.” When I read that, I immediately thought of those California vintners who are daring to march to a different beat from today’s consumer favorites. Not for them another oaky Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. No, they want to split off from the crowd and explore niches that interest them. I think of someone like Marimar Torres. True, she makes great Pinot and Chardonnay, and could easily get by with only them, but instead she pops out of the envelope with such interesting blends as her Chardonnay-Albariño and Syrah-Tempranillo. There’s Cambiata, whose Tannat is at the top of the list in California, even though most consumers wouldn’t know Tannat if it walked up to them and punched them in the nose. Or ONX’s Reckoning, which daringly combines Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Grenache in a wholesome way. These are wines of a certain eccentricity, perhaps not for everyone: but they are wines of beauty and artistry.
The Playboy article, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, is funny and trenchant. The writer skewers every generation born during the 20th century (including mine, the Baby Boomers) right through Generation Z (born after 2000). You have to smile as you read his descriptions. Here’s a snippet from “Generation Y, AKA The Millennials”: “They’ve earned the nickname the Me Me Me Generation for a reason: They’re three times more likely than Boomers to have narcissistic personality disorder. Materialism and a lofty sense of entitlement–minus the means to realize their caviar dreams–have contributed to breathtaking delusions of grandeur. Generation Y is arguably the most medicated on record, their hazy state and sedentary social-media lifestyle contributing to a rise of obesity and its BFF, diabetes.” As for their obsession with social media: “Millennials who tried to quit social media showed the same symptoms as drug addicts in withdrawal.” Ouch.
I’ve tried to live my life in a way where I didn’t much care what anybody thought of me. And I like people who feel the same way. People of style are generally people of honesty and integrity. You can’t have integrity if you follow the herd, because having integrity takes guts. You have to be willing to take risks, to split off from the mainstream and explore new, and sometimes unpopular, dimensions. When I was in grad school, I’d take BART (the San Francisco subway) to S.F. State, outbound from downtown, and look at the mobs of people on the platform across from me, heading to the office towers of downtown. They all looked the same, dressed in severe business attire (men and women; we called it Financial District drag), with their little leather attaché cases and bored faces. I didn’t scorn them so much as feel sorry for them. They were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do–what everyone else was doing–what they hoped would bring them money and happiness.
Perhaps as a child of the Sixties I tend to romanticize the outlaw view, that people who “celebrate diversity” (to use that phrase) contribute more to humanity’s spectrum and upward spiral than those who remain confined within narrow limits. (I think of Steve Jobs in that respect, a hippie if ever there was one.) My sense of style tends to conform to O’Hagan’s; as he writes, “the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty…”. Wine is like that, too. There aren’t very many eccentrically mysterious wines being produced today in California, because most proprietors are too concerned with the bottom line to take risks. But I sense that may be changing. As for those Millennial social media addicts, I suppose the ultimate risk would be a Digital Sabbath: put the smart phone down and connect with the real world.
I’m off to Seattle today to celebrate Thanksgiving with my “northern” family. I’ll try to post something every day this week. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!
The vintages 2003-2007 were fantastic ones for Laetitia, and while quality seems to have leveled off lately (could it be the cool summers in an already cool region, Arroyo Grande Valley, so that the wine aren’t as voluptuous?), the wines remain compelling. So I was not surprised to read this article, in The Drinks Business, which describes a tasting of California Pinot Noir, hosted by Karen MacNeil at the Rudd Center in St. Helena, in which Laetitia outclassed everyone else.
Karen’s panel tasted 126 Pinots; of these, 18 wineries made the final cut, and they certainly represent the pick of the litter in California: Brewer-Clifton, Au Bon Climat, Samsara, Martinelli, Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, Kosta Browne, Failla, Littorai, Foursight, Peay, Scribe, Pisoni, ROAR, Siduri, Sanford and Paul Lato, in addition to top-ranked Laetitia. (Doesn’t this list make your mouth water?) Karen is certainly correct when she observes, “In the last 10 years, the quality [of Pinot Noir] has skyrocketed faster than any other variety.”
Karen also is correct in noting the vast geographic spectrum in California in which great Pinot Noir is produced: a stretch of 500 miles, from Anderson Valley all the way down the coast to the Santa Rita Hills. That’s pretty remarkable, in a world where most wine regions are maybe 20 or 30 miles across. You can attribute California’s success to the fact that the entire coast, despite being chopped up into the political subdivisions of counties, is essentially one vast terroir in which similarities of climate (always more important than soil in California) are far greater than differences.
I’d like to add some wineries to Karen’s list of “sensational” producers: Flowers, W.H. Smith, Bonaccorsi, Merry Edwards, Golden Eye, Talley, Tantara, Lynmar, Marimar Estate, Bjornstad, Hartford Court, Foxen, Longoria, Ojai, Sea Smoke, Babcock, Morgan, Testarossa, Rochioli, De Loach, Dutton-Goldfield, Paul Hobbs, Byron, Cambria, MacPhail, Gary Farrell for starters. The problem with trying to come up with a classification of great Pinot Noir wineries in California is that every month there seem to be a few more.
As for regions, I couldn’t pick any of California’s Pinot Noir appellations as being better than the others. They’re different. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots are big, tannic and juicy; Carneros is more delicate. Santa Rita Hills Pinots are fabulously delicious and spicy, while the far Sonoma Coast’s brim with fresh acidity and wildland ferality.
Speaking of Pinot Noir, the schedule is out for 2014’s Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, at 32 years the nation’s oldest. It runs from June 12-15, at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, on Maui. You may recall I headed up last year’s panel on Pritchard Hill. This year, we have something just as exciting: top wineries and wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Tickets go on sale starting Feb. 15. This is not an inexpensive festival to go to, but believe me, if you haven’t been, it’s worth every penny. And not just for the wine: those late nights by the pool are memorable.
I’ve tasted only about 700 wine for Wine Enthusiast from the 2012 vintage (the number should eventually rise to several thousand), but based on what’s come in so far, this is going to be a hugely successful year for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Most of the better red wines have yet to be released. But a few early Pinots show the vast promise of the vintage. Santa Arcangeli made a 2012 Split Rail Vineyard, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that knocked my sox off, while early ‘12s from Siduri, Reaper, Orfila, The Gardener and Patz & Hall all scored above 90 points. I would expect that, in two years or so when we’ll have the lion’s share of top coastal Pinots in, there will be lots of 95-and-above scores, and maybe–who knows?–some perfect 100s.
Very little 2012 Cabernet has come my way yet, mostly under-$20 stuff, but even this grouping, which can be so mediocre, has lots of scores in the 86-88 point range, with wines showing plenty of vigor and good fruit. Cabernet in tnis price range is frequently disappointing, with thin flavors, so when you get a bunch of nice ones, it bodes well for what’s yet to come. So 2012 could really be a blockbuster Cabernet year.
The 2012 Chardonnays, however, are now pouring in. I would characterize them overall as elegant, well-structured wines. What they may lack in opulence they more than make up for in balance and class. I have a feeling, though I can’t prove it, that vintners are dialing back on ripeness and/or oakiness, in favor of acidity and freshness. A Foxen 2012 Chardonnay, from the Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, typifies this lively style, combining richness with minerality and tartness and alcohol well under 14%. Even unoaked Chardonnays, such as Marimar Torres’ Acero bottling, are so delicious that they don’t really need any oak. So, again, 2012 should prove to be a fantastic Chardonnay year.
It’s not just the Big Three–Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir–that show such promise in 2012. A handful of Sauvignon Blancs that have come in (Ehlers Estate, Atalon, Matanzas Creek, Cosa Obra, Capture, Rochioli, B Cellars, El Roy, Longmeadow Ranch) show the ripeness and acidity that variety needs, without any of that annoyingly unripe, cat pee pyrazine junk. And Viognier, which is probably the most difficult white variety of all to get right in California (not too green, not too flabby and sweet), shows real promise, as indicated by bottlings from Pride Mountain, Qupe, Kobler and Nagy. The wines are racy and balanced. I could say the same thing about rarer whites, such as Bailiwick’s Vermentino, Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca, Grüners from Zocker and Von Strasser, white blends such as Vina Robles’ White4, Roussanne (Truchard), Albariño (Longoria, La Marea and Tangent), and dry Gewurztraminers (Gundlach Bundschu, Claiborne & Chruchill)–all these are 90 points or higher, exciting to drink, mouthwatering, ultra-versatile with food. And finally, rosé. Up to now, it’s never been my favorite California wine (too flabby and sweet)–but 2012 could change my mind. The few I’ve had so far (Lynmar, Chiarello Family, Ousterhout, Gary Farrell, Demetria)–wow. Dry, crisp, delicate and fruity, just what a rosé should be.
So here’s to many more magnificent 2012s to come. It will be the best vintage in many years, at least since 2007–and all the early signs are that 2013 could exceed it.