In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”
When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.
The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?
Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)
I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.
These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.
But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?
When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.
I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: “I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”
Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.
Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”
Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.
We have another tasting coming up this Friday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I will be writing more about that later, but I just realized that Anderson Valley was probably the last appellation of significant importance I can remember emerging in California—even though it was officially declared way back in 1983.
I mean that, for the wine press in general, Anderson Valley didn’t really hit our radar until the 1990s, and even then, it was primarily known for Alsatian varieties. Even in the early 2000s, I think if you’d polled most knowledgeable wine writers about the best Pinot Noir growing districts, Anderson Valley would barely have made the list—if at all. (Some oldtimers may disagree.) And yet, today, Anderson Valley—that pretty little cleft of land along the Navarro River tucked in between the Mendocino Highlands—is universally recognized as great Pinot Noir terroir.
So when I ask, Is California appellation-ed out, what I mean is that I think there may well be no more super-appellations in our future. The ultimate frontier may have been reached: We’re plumb out of space. Yes, we’ve had some pretty good AVAs declared in recent years: Ballard Canyon and Coombsville are superb. And yes, we’ll have more tiny little carveouts from larger AVAs: Pritchard Hill is long overdue, although legal and personal issues may prevent it from happening anytime soon. And yes, we’ve had Lodi split up and Paso Robles go positively schizo on us: if there are any master sommelier candidates who can rattle off all of its new sub-AVAs, I’ll personally promote you.
But these are all relatively small, narrowly defined appellations within greater appellations whose value has long been recognized. What I’m talking about is a brand new winegrowing region, not contained within an existing one, that comes out of nowhere and grabs the critical imagination. The Santa Lucia Highlands once did that. So did the Santa Rita Hills.* But the days of new stars emerging onto the pantheon are, I fear, over—and necessarily so. We’ve simply run out of land along the coast.
Oh, I suppose somebody could discover and develop some area way to the north—Humboldt County—or way to the south—Ventura. But it’s not terribly likely. Even if those places had the terroir to produce remarkable wines, the money isn’t there to invest to exploit them because it [the money] is too busy elsewhere, in existing appellations that are far more profitable to sell. Who would spend much money on a Humboldt County Pinot Noir? Even Marin County, which can make very good Pinot (and Riesling), will always remain a curiosity; I can’t see Marin having dozens of wineries, like Anderson Valley does, and becoming a contender.
If the coast is shut down, then the only place you can go in California is east, inland: and inland wine just has not proven to have the appeal of coastal wine. Lodi, however much you want to love it for being the underdog, and however good its old vine wines can be, simply doesn’t have selling power. The Sierra Foothills and its various sub-regions seem to have reached whatever peak they’re likely to have in the foreseeable future. Temecula? I don’t think so. Lake County seemed for a while to have a future, but that vision has evaporated, and is not likely to resurrect in the consumer’s mind, not even for good Cabernet Sauvignon, which doesn’t have a chance of competing against Napa Valley or Sonoma County and its sub-regions.
How does it affect the psyche of California wine to have finally run out of room for new AVAs? We’re told by historians that when the westward expansion of America, which is to say the westward expansion of European civilization, hit the Pacific shore, a certain turn inward ensued. An alternative explanation is that outer space became the new frontier. But we’ve seen how that exploration has slowed down since the Moon landing, despite the fabulosity of the Hubble telescope and the Pluto flyby. And we’re not likely to develop extra-Earth vineyards in my lifetime, yours, or your grandkids’. (Where would they go? Titan?) In truth, America’s obsession with what it means to be “an American” may be the sublimation of the fantastic energy that went into 500 years of Europe’s drive to the west, only to be stymied. Once it ended, where was that energy to go?
Well, a good place, I’m sure. There’s always room for improvement, isn’t there. We were a bit hurried in California in developing our appellations, which now must number close to 130. Many if not most of them were done for political, personal and financial reasons that had little to do with authentic terroir. So perhaps, now that the appellation frontier has ended and we have some time on our hands, we can revisit our important appellations to more fully understand them. I’m talking about places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, the Russian River Valley, even Alexander Valley. Admired as they are, these are stupid AVAs that have little meaning, beyond P.R. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and get down to the business of sub-appellating them in ways that make sense.
*Yes, geeks, I know SRH was carved out of Santa Ynez Valley. But it really was the equivalent of an exciting, brand new and hitherto undiscovered Pinot Noir area.
I want to revert to a topic I wrote about last week, inspired by Jim Laube in his July 31 column in Wine Spectator. I talked about the 100-point system, but today, my imagination was sparked by a comment from a reader, who quoted something else Jim said, and then asked for my opinion on it.
Jim said: “There are Pinot Noirs grown elsewhere [i.e., other than Burgundy] that compare favorably with La Tache…”. My reader then asked me if I know what some of these other Pinots might be, since he’ll never be able to afford La Tache, and presumably wants to know what he’s missing.
My immediate impression was that the guy who asked me the question seemed to think that Jim Laube was saying that there are some Pinot Noirs that are just like La Tache. Of course, Jim’s statement is somewhat ambiguous; like a Rorschach test, you can interpret it as meaning different things. To me, Jim is not saying that there are Pinots that are a carbon copy of La Tache. I don’t think he’s implying that some Pinots have the same body as La Tache, or a similar perfume, or similar flavors or finishes or ageworthiness. There might be some Pinots that possess those qualities, but there might be some that are quite different, and yet, in their own way, are as excellent. So I think what Jim was doing is something fundamentally radical—and with which I agree: suggesting that La Tache, fabled as it is alongside Romanée-Conti as one of the greatest Pinot Noirs on earth, is not quite as objectively fabulous or unique as everybody makes it out to be.
Well, if that was Jim’s point, bravo. It has to be said. Every ivory tower in the world is coming down, from those of Middle East dictators to the ones inhabited by super-critics, so why should the ivory towers of “the world’s greatest wines” not similarly topple? I ask you, my readers, who are among the most discerning wine people anywhere: can you truly say that Yquem is the greatest sweet white wine, that Latour is the greatest Cabernet blend, that La Tache is the greatest Pinot Noir, or whatever? (You can substitute any of these wines with something else you think is a classic.) I don’t think you can, but chances are you accept the notion that there are (as Jim writes) “classic[s] of the past and of the present” because you assume that famous wine critics have far more experience and knowledge than you do, and therefore there must be classics, because they say so.
What if I told you that famous wine critics are just as susceptible to falling for the conventional wisdom as you are? That famous wine critics have the same uncertainties and doubts, the same fear of looking silly, the same desire to be seen as correct? Indeed, why would they not? Famous wine critics are only human—people with jobs and careers to protect. The only difference between them and you is that they have to publish, which means their words live forever, and so they had better be careful not to put into print something that will come back to bite them in the rear end.
I’ve tried for years to demolish the old concept that the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines are necessarily the world’s best wines. It’s very difficult to get this idea through to people, because once an idea is enshrined in the popular mind, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. We have these super-myths that we accept as true because they’ve been repeated so many times, and so authoritatively, that we feel they must be true. (Example: I love the exalted status we give America’s founding fathers, as though they were angels sent from Heaven to bestow a divinely ordained Constitution upon us. I know a lot about this topic because reading about it is one of my hobbies. The founding fathers were no saints. They quarreled amongst themselves as fiercely, and with as much invective, as any Republican and Democrat today. They harbored almost violent opinions about those who disagreed with them. The Constitution—far from being a divinely perfect instrument, handed down by God on Mount Sinai—was the result of months of bitter compromise achieved with great difficulty during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. And yet Americans continue to believe that it was the product of some choir-gathering of wise men who sang Kumbaya and midwifed this miraculous document. By the way, our Constitution is a fabulous contract; it’s just that, as a people, we don’t remember how all-too-human was the system that produced it.)
In the same way, we harbor this notion that the classic wines are the epitome of perfection. They may be perfect, in their own ways, in great vintages; but they are hardly the greatest wines on earth. This is the thing I wanted to communicate to my reader who asked for my “anything but La Tache” recommendations. Put out of your head the notion that La Tache will blow your mind and transport you to heaven while something you can find in your own home town won’t. You cannot, and will not be able to, appreciate any wine, until you rid yourself of the idea that that which you cannot have, because you can’t afford it, is greater or better than anything you can have.
If you were a wine critic, do you think you could give 100 points to a wine you tasted double-blind?
Let’s assume that your educated palate determined it was a very, very good wine. You might taste it and think, “Wow, this is really great,” and then consider giving it a perfect score. But then, not having the slightest idea what it was, you might hedge your bet and give it, say, 96 points. You could, of course, give it 100, but my hunch is that you’d second-guess yourself enough so that you wouldn’t. Psychology plays a bigger role in these decisions than you might think—or that critics want you to know!
On the other hand, say you weren’t tasting the wine blind. Say you knew it was 2009 Latour. You know Latour’s history and reputation, you know it’s one of the most ageworthy wines in the world, you know, in short, that this wine in front of you is absolutely classic, from a classic vintage. Now, is that enough information to make you more comfortable about giving it 100 points?
I should think so, and so, apparently, does Jim Laube, who wrote a very good column in the July 31, 2015 issue of Wine Spectator about what makes any particular winery “great” in the eyes of critics and wine historians. (Sorry, if you’re not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you can’t read the entire column.) Along these lines, he mentions La Tache specifically by name, and more generically, he mentions Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Sauternes in France, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as possessing the “pedigree” needed to be a classic—that is, to be worthy of getting 100 points.
Now, if you’re in Paso Robles or the Sierra Foothills or someplace that doesn’t have the impressive history of these classic regions, you probably wonder how long it will take for your region to be considered classic, and thus worthy of consistently producing 100 point wines, at least in a great vintage. This is an excellent question, and of course Jim Laube is the perfect person to raise it, since he’s the dean of California wine critics and a very thoughtful man. He rightfully speculates that newer regions might someday enter this pantheon of the classics, as well he should: it would be intellectually disingenuous to say that the pantheon is closed, that no poseur can ever enter the top rank because it’s been shut for years.
What’s so fascinating about this topic is that it calls into question the validity of the 100-point system. If you posit that only certain regions are even capable of achieving 100 points, then you’re basically an ideologue; and we mere mortals, who read the reviews of these famous critics, have to wonder if they’re really tasting everything blind. Now, Jim Laube is honest enough to suggest that more information than merely the taste of the wine is needed in order to “identify the best wines.” “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.”
Let me repeat that. Jim said “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.
Would it trouble you to say that I agree with Jim? He has to tread a careful line here, because Wine Spectator claims, in their Buying Guide, that “Wines are always tasted blind.” But they do offer the caveat that this is not double-blind: they taste “in flights organized by varietal, appellation or region…and the vintage.”
That’s quite a lot of important information. If you know that you’re tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, you have to allow for the possibility of a very high score. Can it score 100 points? Well, does the taster know if it’s Grand Cru or Premier Cru or some vlillage wine? The critic has to make this kind of judgment based not so much on the individual wine, IMHO, but on his track record, and on the acceptance of the market.
This conversation about point scores and perceptions is more necessary than ever. Am I refuting the 100-point system? No. But I am calling into question the circumstances under which it is utilized. I think there’s a place for it. But I also think that we need far more transparency about how these tastings are conducted, in order for them to be credible. I don’t mind an open tasting when critics let us know they were excited as hell, and so their enthusiasm might be biased. But I do mind it when critics put on the fig leaf of “blind tasting” when they actually know a lot more about the wines than they lead us to believe.
Have a great weekend!
Have you noticed how much sub-tropical moisture we’ve had since May? It seems like once a week the remnants of some hurricane or tropical storm are blowing over us. We even had heavy rain. We always get a little of this stuff, which is known as the North American Monsoon, but this year it seems really dominant. Typically, Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico get the heavy summer rainfall associated with it; California, especially along the coast, doesn’t. This year represents a big shift.
Several winemakers have told me the same thing. So I asked my meteorologist friend, Steve Paulsen, who’s the morning weatherman on KTVU-TV, what’s up, and he replied: “Not only do I think you and your friends are correct but I also feel we’ll see a lot more later this month and into September. Two different animals though. The ‘rain’ we had back on June 10th was the remains of Hurricane Blanca which came up from Baja. Monsoon moisture from AZ then made frequent visits throughout much of July. Then the remains of Hurricane Dolores brought torrential rain to SoCal. What we saw yesterday was the blow-off from Tropical Storm Guillermo. An unusual summer indeed. Very warm ocean temps.”
I’m not the only one who’s been impressed. Just yesterday, the California Weather Blog (CWB) reported that we’ve had “[q]uite a few waves of monsoonal moisture [which] have brought intense mountain and desert thunderstorm activity, some of which has locally made it into the coastal plain and Central Valley.” (The coastal plain is, of course, wine country.) In fact, CWB called those remains of Hurricane Dolores that Steve referred to “the most significant California tropical remnant event in recent memory” and added this startling fact: “the official city of San Diego observation site recorded more rainfall in 3 days during July 2015 than during all previous months of July since at least the 1800s….combined.” And how’s this: “[A]lmost all of southern California experienced more rain during one weekend in July 2015 than did most of Northern California during the entire month of January 2015.” I need hardly remind my readers that summer is California’s dry season; the rain is supposed to fall in the winter and early spring.
I don’t know if this is related to climate change or global warming or what, but for those of us who’ve lived here for a long time, it’s really strange. Meteorologists are trained scientists; they don’t freak out easily, or say something’s “unusual” unless they really, really think it is. When we get century-long records being shattered, the weathermen sit up and take notice. And now, here comes what some people are calling a “monster” El Nino.
Wouldn’t it be bizarre if we went from extreme drought to floods and mudslides? But then, climate change by definition is giving the world bizarre weather patterns.
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I just got my favorite wine store newsletter, from Kermit Lynch, and as always, I read through it. Wow, when did French wine prices get so high? I don’t mean Burgundy and Bordeaux, I mean everything. I used to drink a lot of Faugeres; now, Kermit has some for $72 a bottle! Yikes. We hear a lot about the French shooting themselves in the foot, price-wise, at least here in the States. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worth it, since I haven’t had it. I’m just boggled.
For the first time ever, wine, beer and spirits are equal in the eyes of the public, at least here in San Francisco and, I think, throughout coastal California. This is where cultural trends begin, so there’s no reason not to think this equality will not shortly apply throughout the country.
I make this claim because, as I keep my finger on the cultural pulse, it’s obvious to me that no one of this trio of alcoholic beverages can any longer claim cultural or culinary supremacy. For many years, wine was in the driver’s seat, due, no doubt, to San Francisco’s location as gateway to wine country. The fashionable people—those in the know, the ones who set the trends—preferred wine. Beer was for frat boys, while spirits were for boozy traveling salesmen at hotel bars imbibing Mad Men-style martinis.
How that has changed! Suddenly, beer became craft, not Bud Lite, and the most interesting people—the tattoo crowd of artisans, musicians, code writers, jocks—started adoring it. All you read about anymore were craft breweries, which were uber-cool. Stores such as Whole Foods and even Safeway vied to find the latest little microbrewery. Prices for individual bottles skyrocketed to $10, $15, $20. Beer labeling turned into High Art, the 21st century equivalent of the psychedelic rock and roll posters of the 1960s. Beer gardens opened featuring food as interesting as in any wine bar. Even women—traditionally not beer drinkers—turned to this newly fashionable drink.
And then spirits graduated from the preferred drink of the cigarette and “quicker liquor” crowd to the province of the mixologists, the coolest crowd there ever was. Bartenders became as famous as NFL quarterbacks or guitar-thumping thrash rockers. Magazines like The Tasting Panel featured hot, handsome, sexy mixologists in tatts and Panama hats: it was no longer unusual for an aspiring, up-and-coming kid to want to pour in a club. The top restaurants expanded their wine lists to include beer and every kind of spirit there is. In San Francisco, the Valencia Corridor sprouted almost overnight from being a dull stretch of used clothing stores and cheap apartments to the hottest, trendiest neighborhood in San Francisco, largely due to the bars and restaurants where new cocktails were invented overnight, using the weirdest new ingredients.
And so the stage was set, in the Recessionary years, for us to re-emerge from that awful darkness into a new time where you can no longer define which cultural club someone belongs to based on what they drink. Everybody drinks everything. It’s simply a matter of how they feel at the moment. The die-hard Cabernet drinker discovered trendy infused-vodka cocktails, or rediscovered the retro gimlet. The burly Giants fan discovered that Chablis—the real stuff—isn’t just for girls. The ladies turned to Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas to drink with their charcuterie. And we’re all the happier for it.
This is good news, of course, but it also means that all producers are going to have to compete that much harder. The drinking population of this country always will have its limits due to a variety of factors that inhibit some people from imbibing. So it seems to me that creativity is going to be the je ne sais quoi that sells products. This, of course, reverts to marketing, that mysteriously opaque religion which everyone professes to understand, but doesn’t.