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Superstar winemakers, blind tasting and bias

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When I began writing about wine in the 1980s the “celebrity winemaker” had not yet been invented. I use this verb “invented” deliberately, in the sense that it was the media that came up with the concept that the guiding hand behind a great wine or, more accurately, a series of great wines must be a “genius” winemaker, the way Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs was a genius in his field.

It’s odd, because for hundreds of years the world had enjoyed great wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy) whose winemakers were unknown. Credit had used to be given to the winery and/or the terroir. Suddenly, by the 1990s, writers were proclaiming this or that winemaker as “stars” and, the ultimate accolade, “superstars,” almost as though the vineyard and its terroir were irrelevant.

Tom Wark recently opined intelligently on this topic, and included a list of superstar winemakers, from olden times to today, whose names make them as famous (in our little world of wine) as rock stars or movie stars. His theory is that this celebration of the winemaker continues today because “[W]e live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities,” which surely is the truth; and, given this current zeitgeist, the media loves nothing more than to elevate someone to the pantheon of “star.” And, after all, a magazine can give a big award to a living winemaker and bask therefore in her glory!

I’ll just add to Tom’s trenchant analysis that I think today people want more of a personal connection with the winery and winemaker. They didn’t used to: Lafite and Latour became famous despite no one knowing anything about who made them. Even here in the U.S. a wine like Beaulieu Private Reserve was famous before many people had heard of André Tchelistcheff. But the advent of the modern media and the Internet in particular has given people the ability to know more about their wines and other things, and they want to know everything about these celebrated vintners behind the brands. Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.

I would think this phenomenon creates some difficulties for shier winemakers who don’t really enjoy all the fuss of public appearances and endless schmoozing with adoring fans. They may find that their reticence has economic consequences. Nowadays it’s so important for vintners to hit the road for winemaker dinners and tastings with important clients, such as sommeliers, merchants, writers and even distributors. These people are called “gatekeepers” or “tastemakers,” for it is they who decide what is sold (on wine lists and store shelves) and what isn’t. This gets us into the intricacies and difficulties of the distribution system, which is so infamously replete with problems; gets us, also, treacherously near to that Holy Grail of the modern wine industry, direct-to-consumer purchasing, through wine clubs and the like. DTC may indeed be the solution for the small winery that finds it difficult to get picked up by the large distributors, but DTC is not the end-all and be-all of sales: winemakers still have to get their faces out there, whether via You Tube, the winery’s blog or what have you.

Once upon a time (I’ll revert back to old Harry Waugh), the gatekeepers traveled to the wineries. These days there are simply too many wineries for gatekeepers to go to, even such well-traveled ones as Jancis Robinson; they can visit only the smallest proportion of properties in any given appellation. So, in an version of the old saw, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain” (attributed to the 17th century statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon), today’s winemakers must go to the tastemakers and show them what they’ve got. This assumes that the tastemakers themselves are fair and honest. The worst thing a tastemaker can do is to be biased, either for a winery they’re impressed by, or against one they assume cannot be top tier. You’d think it was hardly possible for someone in the powerful and sensitive position of being a tastemaker to be biased, but guess what? There is bias out there, ranging from overt to subtle–and sometimes the tastemakers themselves don’t even see the beam in their own eye (Matthew 7:1). If I were writing a Consumer’s Bill of Rights with respect to tastemakers, especially critics, I’d insist that all tasting resulting in a review be conducted under formal blind tasting protocols–or, absent that, that disclaimers be published alongside the reviews!


Petite Sirah revisited

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Someone whom I don’t know privately emailed me yesterday asking my advice about some Petite Sirahs he could buy that are “the darkest (black) and most earthy minerality (full bodied).” It was nice to know that, while I’m not officially a wine critic anymore, at least one person still appreciates that I have a couple decades-plus of experience under my belt!

I was happy to reply, “Lately, I’ve enjoyed Petites from Turley, Retro, Frank Family, Stags’ Leap, Turnbull (all Napa Valley), as well as Miro and St. Francis (both Dry Creek Valley) and MCV and Aaron (Paso Robles).” I could have added many others: David Fulton, Ballentine, Delectus, Ridge, Grgich Hills, J. Lohr, Proulx among them, but a brief reply to a brief email is not meant to be an article!

Petite Sirah is an interesting wine in several respects, not simply because it can be very good, but because it illustrates the difficulty of getting the consumer to try something he or she night not be familiar with. This is always a huge problem for producers and is why so many California wineries continue to make indifferent Chardonnay. The problem with Petite Sirah in particular also is that despite the considerable quantities of it made in California, not all of it is very good! The grapes can vary in ripeness and the wine itself can be too high in alcohol and above all too tannic. Then too, because Petite Sirah does not fetch as much money in the marketplace as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, there is little reason for vintners to make it as good as they possibly can. When Harry Waugh, visiting from London, tasted his first California Petite Sirahs (in Oakland, no less, at the then home of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who owned Martha’s Vineyard), he found too many of the wines suffered from “oxidation and…volatile acidity,” in other words they were rustic. While Petite’s qualities were strange to Harry, he did find in the best of the wines what he called “a fairly full-bodied Burgundy type,” a description that doesn’t sound like modern Petite Sirah (which you would hardly call “Burgundy type”). However, I suspect that many of the wines at that 1972 tasting were lower in alcohol than Petite Sirah tends to be today; also, that many of them would have been “field blends” of other varieties (Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, perhaps even Grenache) and this may have accounted for the lighter weight. Incidentally, Harry also found, in many of the wines, a “peppery” aroma that mystified him, but that today certainly is a marker for a well-made Petite Sirah.

The variety used to be, and until comparatively recently was, known almost exclusively in California, but there there are suggestions its popularity is spreading beyond our borders. It’s “catching on in the Pacific Northwest,” with wines being produced in the warmer areas of Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Walla Walla. Back in California, there’s more Petite being crushed nowadays than ever; 2013’s crush, of 68,000 tons, was a record (alrhough of course the 2013 crush overall also was a record). To put that into some perspective, the Petite Sirah crush was about one-fourth that of Pinot Noir and one-eighth that of Cabernet Sauvignon, but already exceeds that of Grenache, and is nearly half that of Syrah. In other words, Petite Sirah has become quite an important variety in its own right. I suspect a lot of it is being blended into red wine, to make it darker and firmer, an inference supported by the fact that the county with the most acreage is San Joaquin. Oddly, there’s also a lot of Petite Sirah–1,400 acres–growing in San Luis Obispo, although I couldn’t tell you why; SLO county isn’t known for varietal Petite Sirah, so it’s got to be going someplace else. However, the good news is that plantings in Napa Valley are on a sharp increase, up 41% since 2004 to 807 acres, and I’d bet most of that is being varietally labeled. If I had to pick the best spot for Petite in Napa, I’d say the northwestern part of the valley, St. Helena to Calistoga, where the toasty temperatures get the grapes nice and ripe, and where producers have enough money to sort out bad bunches, invest in good barrels, etc.


Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic

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Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.

I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.

The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.

We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.

I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.

I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.


In San Francisco, all that techie money is good news for wineries

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SPECIAL NOTE TO MY READERS: I have been forced to install a Captcha! Code in order for you to comment here. Believe me, I didn’t want to. For many years you’ve been able to get your comments posted instantly (after one initial approval), and I like it that way. But the Comments section has been overwhelmed with spam, resulting in a denial of service shutdown yesterday. So I apologize for this extra hassle, but that’s the way it is in this age of spam.

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Regular readers of this blog know that I have expressed some puzzlement over the years at the proliferation of expensive, high-end wines–mainly Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley–that are “lifestyle” wines, that is, the creations of wealthy people who made their fortunes elsewhere and now want to join the most exclusive vintner’s club of all: those who can say that they own a Napa Valley winery.

My curiosity has been how these brand-new brands can possibly succeed when they cost triple digits and yet have no provenance at all–provenance being a known history of proven performance AKA a track record. I once counted all the Cabs I’d reviewed in a year’s period costing over $100 retail and by the time I reached 400 my eyes had glazed over. That’s a lot of expensive wine and automatically leads to the question: Who’s buying it?

The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter who’s buying it: these proprietors are rich enough to go for years losing money. After all, what price lifestyle? There is, however, now a bit of a hint that the audience for these wannabe cult Cabs may be coming from an unexpected place.

The evidence lies in the newly-rich techies for which San Francisco lately has become famous. There’s a lot of money being made, fast, in Northern California. Last year, 2013, was “a banner year” for initial public offerings, the biggest since 2000 (immediately preceding the dot-com collapse); more than $54 billion was raised, more than twice as much as in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and believe me, a lot of that money is washing around San Francisco, which is enjoying (if that’s the right word) its greatest glory days since, well, maybe since the Gold Rush.

San Francisco know it well, and is trying to adjust to the news. Now, even New York City has taken note, a little jealously, it seems, since the Big Apple is not used to having its supremecy challenged as the nation’s leading financial and cultural center. This article, from New York magazine, even compares San Francisco to “West Egg circa 1922” (i.e. the Great Gatsby, the Roaring Twenties); Fitzgerald’s North Shore mansions and balls have become San Francisco’s downtown condos with split-level swimming pools and personal masseurs. What particularly has grabbed New York’s attention are the “Upscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals, each with a more elite clientele” chowing down on “kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.”

I don’t think one can say precisely when this Age of Surfeit started, but for me it was 2011 when the launch of Saison signaled that something was up. A few months later, Josh Sens, the restaurant writer at San Francisco magazine, wrote this glowing review of the $498-per person chef’s 22-course, 18-wine menu. (Confession: at that time the restaurant invited me for a full dinner. It was very, very, very good!) Josh wrote about the “hyperdevoted food pilgrims, IPO millionaires, and other assorted members of the city’s discerning gourmand club” who were flocking to Saison, proof enough that the Recession–which hit San Francisco hard in 2008-2010, forcing the closure of many restaurants–had ended in the City by the Bay, even as it was tightening its grip on other parts of the country.

It wasn’t just the price of a meal that caught my eye: it was Saison’s locale, in a disreputable Mission District neighborhood far from the glamour of the Financial District and even from the shabby-chic of South of Market. Saison seemed to glory in its downscale digs; the come-as-you-are dress code blared that, no, you’re not at Fleur de Lys anymore.

It is not difficult at all to conjecture that these newly-rich folks who can afford a splurge at Saison also are on the receiving end of these rare, limited quantity Napa Cabs that most people will never experience in a lifetime. Somebody knows somebody who knows the owner, and gets a bottle. Friends go out to dinner and drink it–perhaps at Saison. What began as a little story ends as buzz. Everybody wants a bottle–for now. But at this level, the consumer is incredibly fickle. Today, winery “X” is a star. Tomorrow, somebody meets somebody who’s friends with a different owner, and procures a different bottle; the cycle begins a new. Only a few of these rare and expensive wines will make it in the long run: this is Darwinian natural selection among wines, as it is among living things.

It’s increasingly apparent that well-paid Millennials, at least in San Francisco, are looking for upscale new drinking experiences and willing to pay for them. Check out this article, from the March 24 Bon Appetit, which argues that Milllenials “love wine…even more than their parents love wine.” They love it “because drinking it is classy and it makes them feel sophisticated.” Of course, a Millennial making $60,000 isn’t going to buy expensive Napa Cabernet. But lots of San Francisco Millennials are making a lot more than that: median family income in The City is $91,037, and keep in mind that a lot of those “families” consist of unmarried persons without kids, so they have a ton of disposable income. And their salaries are only heading higher: the San Francisco Business Journal reports mobile app developer starting salaries at $135,500-$195,120.

Thiis New Money has got to be a good thing for a local wine industry that, only a few years ago, looked teeter-tottery. If I were doing outreach on behalf of wineries, I would make San Francisco the Mecca of my evangelism, and I’d go after the Millennials where they live, play and hang out, starting with online.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Steve’s blog is down for the day

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Denial of service attacks due to a huge quantity of spam in the contents. Back tomorrow [fingers crossed!]

 


From the Sayings of Chairman Harry

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I’m still re-reading Winetaster’s Choice, one of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, this one from 1972. While in Bordeaux he visited the chai, or wine cellar, of Chateau Bouscaut, where the proprietor, Jean Delmas, prepared for him a tasting of the 1970 vintage red wines, presumably still in barrel or perhaps just recently bottled.

Harry was famous for appraising chateaux based on how they actually tasted, not the order in which they had been hierarchized in the famous 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Thus, reading his many books, one frequently comes across his assessment that a chateau performed above its status, or disappointingly below it. This, he attributed almost exclusively to the owners, since “the soil always remains the same but it is the men who change and even in my lifetime I have seen chateaux, as it were, go up and down the scale.” We certainly have seen the same thing with respect to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and although it would be tactless for me to name any that have gone “down the scale,” they certainly are out there, and anyone in the trade knows who they are.

(On second thought, I will mention one: Inglenook used to be a “great growth” of Napa Valley but then went into a long, sad decline when it passed into corporate hands. Francis Ford Coppola has refurbished the brand and promised to elevate it to its historic level. Whether or not he succeeds, only time will tell.)

Being of modest means himself (a fact he frequently alludes to), Harry had perhaps a little more sympathy for the lesser growths of the Médoc than some others had who were possessed of deeper pockets. (I identify with him in that respect.) I feel him always rooting for the little guy, the cru bourgeois, which he calls “a fascinating field.” Why? Probably, mostly, because his company could sell them in England, at a good price; but also because so often, when he tasted these supposedly lesser wines against their classified growth brethren under blind conditions, the bourgeois beat out the greater growths.

For instance, “On several occasion, in blind tastings, I have put Gloria [a cru bourgeois] above even some of the second growths and once again, this was certainly the case with the 1970 vintage.” I did not realize that there were computers at that time that were capable of the feat Harry goes on to describe. “[A] computer-maker…told me that he had put my tasting notes…through one of his machines and that Chateau Gloria had emerged on top,” that is, on top even of the First and Second Growths of the Médoc!

Well, that’s blind tasting (and objective computers) for you. During my time at Wine Enthusiast this truth was hammered home to me repeatedly. There are Cabernet Sauvignons, costing not much more than $50-$75, that consistently give triple-digit priced wines a run for their money. I could mention Von Strasser, Stonestreet, Krutz, Sequoia Grove and Goldschmidt, for example, but I once gave 97 points to an Amici 2007 Olema Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Napa Valley appellation, that retailed for $20! I tasted that wine blind, and believe me it took some courage to publish my notes; I was afraid of being ridiculed. Later, I learned that the fruit came from St. Helena hillsides as well as Merlot and Petit Verdot from Spring Mountain, and that the Amici project benefited by the participation of Joel Aiken (the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu, who mentored under Tchelistcheff), while the official winemaker was the former Flora Springs and Spring Mountain Winery vintner, Jeff Hansen. So I felt better. Who knows how that particular wine came about? All we know is that it did, and lends the lie to anyone who thinks that wine quality can be judged from price alone–either that high price means superiority, or that modest price means averageness.

Harry ended one of his morning’s tastings, of 22 wines, by calling it “a tiring affair, even if one does spit out all the wine…I had to be particularly careful during the forty mile drive back to Latour” [where he was staying]. I don’t think France had DUI laws in 1972. We do, today, in America, and I doubt if Harry were alive today and on another of his pleasant visits to California, he would have driven himself for 40 miles, or perhaps even four miles, after such a big tasting. I myself wouldn’t.


In Napa Valley, the past is prelude to the future

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In a few paragraphs in “Winetaster’s Choice,” written 42 years ago, Harry Waugh anticipated much of Napa Valley’s modern history, although he likely did not know it. It was on March 30, 1972, that Harry, the “grand old man of the English wine trade” who also was on the board of directors of Chateau Latour, made his third visit to Napa and found the region so dry that “It is said to be the worst drought since 1870!” Those of us who live here know that every ten years or so we do have a drought, and while I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the water situation (after all, the population of California has more than doubled since 1970), sometimes the media does seem to make things sound worse than they really are. (By the way, the rains of February have switched this winter from being the driest ever to the third driest.)

Harry’s visit coincided with a time when Napa’s boutique winery era was reaching an apogee. He was friends with Belle and Barney Rhodes, who’d planted Martha’s Vineyard, from which Joe Heitz produced one of the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons (and which can lay claim to being California’s first modern-era “cult” wine). Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, located in the same general area of Oakville as Harlan Estate and Far Niente.

A few days later, Harry also visited Mayacamas Vineyard, high up on Mount Veeder, way above Oakville, and was dazzled by the views, which visitors still are today. “For sheer beauty the views in every direction…are, to my mind, unsurpassed,” and this despite his penchant for “splendid Alsace” and “my beloved Beaujolais country.” Tasting with Mayacamas’s founder, Bob Travers, Harry sampled the winery’s Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the wines were made, partly or wholly, from purchased grapes, because Bob’s new vineyard plantings hadn’t yet matured). Mayacamas was, of course, recently purchased from the Travers family by Charles Banks, who has vowed to restore the estate to greatness.

Harry also tasted a Mayacamas 1968 Zinfandel, a wine he said “caused such a stir” for its alcohol of 17%! [The exclamation point was his.] Being possessed of a European palate, and particularly fond of Bordeaux, Harry might easily have pooh-poohed that Zin, the way certain of our Europhile writers do today to wines of high alcohol. But he called it “one of the richest unfortified wines I have ever tasted” and added, “It is gratifying to know already I have a case of this most unusual wine tucked away in London.” One of the reasons I admired Harry was because of the catholicism [small “c”] of his palate. He was always in search of what he called “the pick of the bunch,” the best wines in whatever country or region he was touring, and did not bring provincial or biased tastes to his experiences.

During that same period, as a sort of lark, Harry and his wife, Prue, traveled to Lodi, which is not so far as the crow flies from Napa Valley, but seems altogether different, being on lowlands in the Sacramento Delta. However this trip was not to sample its wines or tour its vineyards. He’d been invited by “Bob and Marge Mondavi” to “a square dance club” to trip the light fantastic. I wish Harry had described this scene in greater detail, but in 1972 he could not have known the iconic status Robert Mondavi would later achieve. Isn’t it fun to imagine Mr. Mondavi dosado’ing in jeans and cowboy hat.

Another winery Harry went to was Louis M. Martini, then under the control of the Martini family (Gallo bought it in 2002), where he tasted “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Rosso? Harry loved its “rich, sweet nose” and called it “gorgeous, big”; it even reminded him of the 1970 clarets (“the best vintage there since 1961”), with “its fabulous colour…richness and complexity.” I wonder what the alcohol was on that wine; today, Monte Bello Cabs tend to be on the hefty side. Perhaps a Martini will read this and let us know.

You see why it’s such fun to read about the history of wine regions. We discover that the things we are concerned with today are not without precedent. Nothing springs parthenogentically from nothing; everything has origins, and if you love wine, you must love understanding how today came out of yesterday, and all the years before.


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