King Estate 2006 Block 4D Clone 777 Pinot Noir. Originally $75. The appellation on the label is “Oregon.” Wine Enthusiast (I think it was Paul Gregutt) gave it 92 points back in 2009; oddly, they said nothing about its ageability. Spectator gave it only 89 points and recommended drinking it only through 2014. I think Enthusiast was more accurate about the score. It really is a very fine wine; I’d rate it 94 if I were scoring it now. Here we are in 2016 and it’s rocking with a good future. Loads of blackberry, boysenberry, cassis, and such nice, sweet toasty oak and vanilla. Great tannin structure, good acidity, lowish alcohol (13.5%) and a rich earthiness, like Portobello mushrooms and an umami tang, like prosciutto. At nine years of age, a wonderful, rewarding, silky wine that offers plenty of pleasure. Just what you want in a fine West Coast Pinot Noir, and I think that earthiness signals its Oregon origin.
And now to some controversy. This post raises so many issues that it’s impossible to address them all in a single post, but let me just say that I sympathize with the sentiment expressed by the author, Maxwell Leer, who says he’s a sommelier. To some extent it’s a rant against the 1 percent but, hey, that’s fine with me: Maxwell had me when he compared Cristal to Prosecco and said “you can…be fucking happy, too” with the cheaper wine.
Now, Maxwell’s position is something that every wine writer has expressed since, well, forever. I know that the meme of post-Prohibition wine writers was “Wine snobs make wine sound too fussy” and probably there was someone running around ancient Rome saying the same thing. Every generation has to discover the same truths, so I cut Maxwell some slack. Still, that doesn’t take away from the force of Maxwell’s argument, which he expresses strongly and well.
It’s funny when he writes about pouring Kistler Chardonnay into a glass that was rinsed with bourbon. I bet that’s a seriously tasty sip! Maxwell seems to be saying, don’t worship the Kistler itself and think you have to experience it in all the profundity that has been lavished on it by wine critics—which is exactly what you’d think from reading the critics. You want to have a few drops of bourbon in there? Fine! (Hey makes you think of an American Kir, doesn’t it?) What wine is about, as Maxwell writes, is “love, peace, love, unity, and respect.” As I pointed out in my post the other day about Premier Cru’s troubles, wine is not about snobbery or elitism or the fear that just because you can’t afford Petrus you’re missing out on the best. You’re not! Maxwell understands that and it’s a message we have to continue to get across. My generation did a horrible job of it, despite our best intentions. We perpetuated the myth of “cult wines” and while I do have some issues with Maxwell’s suggestion of “simplifying” wine, he’s onto something, especially for younger drinkers. He’s right when he says that “Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.” That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone over thirty. It does mean that, as Maxwell says, “we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, ‘OK, show us what you got.’” They want interesting wines, wines with stories, wines that drink well with the foods they like. They don’t want to spend a fortune on them, and the good news is that they don’t have to.
Reading about the upcoming Women of the Vine Global Symposium, a great event which takes place this April in Napa Valley, made me think of how difficult it was for women to gain a toehold in the wine business, even in “liberal” Napa Valley, as recently as the 1970s.
I was talking just yesterday with Cathy Corison, who related to me how, when she got a job in Freemark Abbey’s cellar, in 1978, Napa “never had a woman hauling hoses before that!” Indeed, it was rare for women to be found anywhere in wineries, except maybe in the lab; at Robert Mondavi, for example, that’s where Genevieve Janssens began, as did Zelma Long.
(It’s only fair to point out that Genevieve was hired by Zelma Long, who by then had become Mondavi’s winemaker—a rare exception at that time to the no-women rule.)
Another tale from that period concerns Merry Edwards, who related to me, in New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, how shocked a winery owner was when she showed up for her job interview. You see, Merry had sent in her resume with her first name, Meredith, which made the owner think she was a man. As she told me the story, this winery owner “practically lost his teeth when I walked in. I said, ‘You didn’t know I was a woman, did you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You never would have interviewed me if you’d known?’ He goes, ‘No.’”
How far we’ve come since then. Some years ago, I heard that the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California, Davis, finally had achieved parity of the genders in terms of students majoring in V&E. After 125 years, not bad! Today, of course, it’s common to find woman winemakers (although this article asserts that, in 2014, the percentage of “female lead winemakers” in California still was only 14.8. One can only hope that this percentage will increase).
This is why certain wineries make such a big deal about the women who were instrumental in their histories. Freemark Abbey points out, with justifiable pride, how Josephine Tychson, who bought the winery in 1881, was the first recorded female winemaker in Napa Valley. The Guenoc and Langtry wineries of Lake County rightly note how Lillie Langtry established the original winery in 1888.
Related to this notion of gender equity in winemaking are the issues of race equity and sexual preference equity. Here in California we do have a number of talented Black winemakers and winery owners, but for some reason African-Americans still seem underrepresented at all levels of the wine industry. I’m somewhat at a loss to understand why. As for the GLBT community, there’s a ton of gay and Lesbian winemakers; not all of them are out of the closet, nor should they be if they don’t want to. I don’t think anyone wants to be known as “the gay winemaker,” any more than they want to be known as “the female winemaker” or “the Jewish winemaker” or any other such descriptor. Winemakers want to be known for their talent and work ethic. As do we all…
We never saw this level of wine scam before. Now it’s Premier Cru, which had been a very well respected wine shop in Berkeley until their recent collapse. Coming on the heels of the Kurniawan scandal and others, Premier Cru’s problems raise a troubling question: Why so many of these wine Ponzi schemes and frauds?
My answer: The greed of some consumers, who see wine as a commodity investment.
Premier Cru was the go-to store in the East Bay for collectors who wanted that extra-special bottle. But, as so many of them are now learning, Premier Cru appears to have been selling wines they didn’t have, or selling the same wine twice, stalling buyers off who weren’t getting wines they had already paid for, and eventually ending up with “more than $70 million in unpaid debts.”
How the heck does a wine store achieve that dubious distinction? Simple: When it takes advantage of credulous customers who want to own trophy wines nobody else can get and think they have an inside track on getting them.
The regrettable seeds for this were a long time coming. I can speak only from my perspective of nearly 40 years watching the San Francisco wine market, of course, but in many respects the S.F. Bay Area has been the epicenter for this remarkable era of show-off wines. Even when I started, there was a cadre of collectors who wouldn’t touch anything but First Growths and Grand Crus. At first I thought it was because they were men of discernment and refined tastes, but I soon learned that that wasn’t it. They were label drinkers, pure and simple. I doubt if one in ten of them knew what he was talking about. But what they did know was that having a vertical of Mouton-Rothschild gave them a certain cachet in their crowd, and that’s the only thing that meant anything to them.
They weren’t bad people, just wine likers (I hesitate to say wine lovers) who’d gone astray. Something about the rarity and scarcity of these collectibles made them crazy with lust. These were the sorts of people for whom Premier Cru was a sort of nirvana. Whenever I was there—looking for some under-$20 value in Burgundy or Cabernet—I’d see them conferring with the floor staff over some missing vintage in their collection they just had to fill. They were the same sort of people I used to see at the old Draper & Esquin on Montgomery Street in the FiDi, back in the day. Snooty snobs—“snoo-snos,” I called them. I thought that was an unhealthy development in the world of wine, at least the world I inhabited, which was of people who truly loved and cared about wine, and had a curiosity about it that drove them to try new things from new places.
Sadly, this distorted psychological phenomenon concerning wine got worse during the Reagan years, when fast and easy money gave MBAs the ability to collect Bordeaux and Burgundy and cult Cabernets before their thirtieth birthdays. It seemed to level off in the 1990s, why I don’t know, but then, with the burst of wealth in San Francisco in the 21st century, it has returned, with a vengeance. People are not content simply to drink good, interesting wine anymore. They want the trophies, the bragging rights wines, the Fabergé eggs, and they’re willing to pay whatever it takes to possess them.
Well, that’s what happens when you have a critical mass of credulous buyers: unscrupulous dealers are perfectly happy to take advantage of the situation. The bubble gets bigger and bigger, until poof! It bursts, and the poor souls who entrusted these crooked businessmen get holding the bag.
Running a reputable wine shop is a wonderful career. Most wine shops are reputable. There are many I’ve been in that do a fabulous job. Unfortunately, this current atmosphere of show-off seems to be fostering some bad apples. But maybe, with the arrests, detentions and lawsuits ensnaring these Ponzi wine dealers, we’ll see less of this sort of thing going forward. I do hope so. I hope that everybody will come to see that wine isn’t an artifact for collection, much less investment, like a stock certificate. What a horrible way to see this noble, divine beverage, as the liquid equivalent of loot, to be bought and traded like pork bellies, or even worse: as the garish equivalent of a gigantic diamond pinky ring.
Someone who’s a wine professional and knows a lot about wine recently told me that Oregonians believe that soil and rocks play the dominant role in Pinot Noir while Californians think it’s weather and climate.
I guess by that standard you can call me a Californian.
By that I don’t mean that the stuff in which the vine and its roots grow is irrelevant. But in my thirty years of studying this stuff I just haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that, so long as certain minimal soil conditions are met, the precise chemical makeup of the soil matters insofar as the wine’s quality is concerned–as long as the grapes are grown in a cool climate.
What are those minimal soil conditions? Good drainage and sparse nutrients. The former means that the vine’s feet aren’t “wet.” The latter means that the vine is not growing in overly-fertile conditions that produce giant clusters whose grapes are weak in flavor. Obviously, both conditions are closely related.
In California we have great Pinot Noir growing in almost every type of soil you can name: the sand and marine sediments of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, the pebbles of the Middle Reach, the Goldridge series of certain parts of the Russian River Valley, the clays and loams of Carneros, sands and loams of Santa Lucia Highlands, the decomposed sandstone of Anderson Valley, the volcanic basalt of the Far Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains, and so on. Heck, the Rochioli Vineyard alone contains almost all those different soil types, from riverside to hillside, but somehow they produce distinctive Pinot Noirs that all somehow seem “Rochiolian.”
The wine writer Dave McIntyre wrote the other day in the Washington Post an article about this that interviews a vintner who believes strongly in the impact of soil. Dave did a good job of letting the vintner speak for himself. He didn’t blindly and blandly accept his premise, or impose his (Dave’s) point of view, but simply presented the quotes to allow us readers to make up our own minds. That’s proper journalism, all too rare in this day of “I’ll believe whatever the winemaker tells me.” Dave did describe two Cabernet Francs he tasted, made with identical techniques but grown in different soils; one “was noticeably better” than the other, he wrote; but I think Dave would be the first to acknowledge that this was according to his palate on that occasion and that somebody else, equally qualified, might disagree; and that even the notion of “better” is slippery, as the “less better” wine might be “better” when paired with certain foods.
It is true that, in the recent history of the past few decades, Californians have tended to minimize the impact of soil in favor of climate. After all, our climate is so spectacular that it’s hard not to be awestruck by it, especially when compared to Old Europe, which was the inevitable comparison in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when California was building its reputation on the world stage. The message of Cali vintners then was “Europe has one or two good vintages every decade and one or two horrible ones and the rest are inbetween. We never have horrible vintages; every year is a vintage year!”
Why muddy a marketing message like that with ambiguities about soil?
The Oregonians, when they began to challenge California—and some of them had California backgrounds–quickly realized they couldn’t compete with us, if “gorgeous weather” was the criterion. Summers can be delightful in the Willamette Valley, but they can also be rainy, which is never the case in California; and the Pinot Noir harvest weather here is usually fine, which it decidedly isn’t in Oregon. So, strictly from a messaging perspective, the Oregonians hit upon “soil” as their selling point.
They also had a good argument about latitude and sunlight patterns, Oregon being closer to the latitude of Burgundy, the Mother Lode of Pinot Noir. But I think the notion that the Oregonians present themselves as soil-ists while the Californians present themselves as climate-ists is correct. Fortunately, the rest of us don’t have to take sides. We can enjoy the wines from both states!
Pete Wells’ scathing review of Per Se in the New York Times is a schadenfreud-eque joy to read. Twitter lit up with #PerSe hooting and laughing—one tweet calls Wells “my hero,” another accurately notes that “Harsh restaurant reviews are so much more fun to read than glowing ones,” while another comes right out and says what not so long ago was unsayable: Thomas Keller “is no longer the quintessential American chef.” The website amnewyork, in a fabulous gesture of lese majesté, advised Per Se to “emulate Señor Frog’s,” a moderately-placed Times Square Mexican joint Wells recently liked. Our own Inside Scoop at the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted “Pete Wells’ Takedown” and quoted that old Shirelle’s song: “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Eater—always joyously malicious—ran “The 17 Best Reactions to Per Se’s 2-Star Takedown,” of which my favorite is “$3,000 for 4 persons? And people wonder why Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls,” although this tweet is a close second: “An hour in [to the State of the Union address] and @POTUS hasn’t mentioned that Per Se review.”
What rankled Wells, unlike his predecessor at the Times, Sam Sifton, who gave Per Se 4 stars in 2011 when he selected it for his last Times review ever and called it “the best restaurant in New York City,” was—well, pretty much everything: servors engaged in “oblivious sleepwalking” and cuisine that was “disappointingly flat-footed”: “gluey, oily” bacon-wrapped quail; mushroom pot pie that was “a swampy mess,” “limp, dispiriting yam dumplings,” a bouillon “as murky and appealing as bong water,” cheese that was “rubbery and flavorless.” (Wells’ review was so horrible that some people wondered how he could even give Per Se two stars. Mimi Sheraton, the famous food critic, tweeted, “Pete Wells in NYT review convincingly reports awful food&service&value at Per Se. Why then 2 stars meaning ‘Very good’? Why not none?”
Having myself never eaten at Per Se, I couldn’t possibly weigh in on the food quality/service issue. Maybe Wells was just having a bad hair day, and hankered to write some snark. I have on the other hand eaten at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, on three occasions, and quite honestly my reaction was expressed perfectly by a gentleman who tweeted on the #PerSe string, “I dined at French Laundry between Christmas and New Years, and my partner and I had great expectations but were disappointed. Given the outsized reputation of French Laundry, we thought we were just rubes who didn’t understand and appreciate our experience. Our experience there was a mirror image of Mr. Wells’.”
Following my first experience at French Laundry, around a dozen years ago, I left feeling the same way: disappointed, a little confused, and fearful that I simply lacked the palate to appreciate this hautest of haute cuisine—that I was, well, a rube. It took additional disappointments, not just at French Laundry but at other gastronomic palaces, for me to finally figure out that the problem wasn’t me. Granted, dining at a place like French Laundry raises one’s expectations to levels that are probably unreasonable, and incapable of being satisfied entirely—at least, to someone like me, who has a core of skepticism about most things. I never wanted to be one of those people who eats at a place like French Laundry and finds it “unbelievable,” the “experience of a lifetime,” “breathtaking,” simply because they think they’re supposed to, and so they find what they expect.
This concept—of the skeptic versus the gullible believer—is a profound one, of course; who is better off in the long run, me with my skepticism and disappointment, or the gullible believer with his joy? I cannot answer that, because it’s an existential question that has no answer. And besides, we are who we are.
But I am also the type of person who looks for the moral of the story: and I think that the moral of Pete Wells’ review of Per Se is this: A younger generation simply isn’t as gullible as an older one. They’ve been raised in the midst of the most alarming hype the world has ever known: the media hypes everything, the news hypes everything, advertising hypes everything, your investment advisors hype everything, drug companies hype everything, everything is hustled and on steroids. Young people have reached the point where hype is not the exception but the rule. They expect hype—to be manipulated, controlled, commandeered by people who want their patronage, i.e. their money. So they react just as any psychologically healthy person would: with suspicion. This is why they have a hard time understanding why Petrus costs thousands of dollars when, really, it’s just another bottle of wine. They may realize that it’s a very special wine, that it’s famous and coveted; they may believe that it takes a certain expertise to appreciate it. But they have no problem at all conceding that they don’t have that expertise, don’t wish to have that expertise anyway, and have better things to do with their money. They do not worship expensive things the way their parents and grandparents did.
I remember one time, after eating at French Laundry ($2,400 for four people, before the tip), telling a friend I’d rather eat at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant any day of the week. Less pretension and self-consciousness; no fear of making a mistake (which fork do I use, what do I do with the napkin when I go to the restroom?), and no fear of being disappointed, because I’m never disappointed by imperial rolls, pho, cellophane noodles with shrimp. I could eat that stuff for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a reverse-snob and say that cheap things are better. They’re not, necessarily. But good is good, and very good is very good, and great is great, and one thing I learned from being a wine critic is, You don’t have to pay a lot of money for great wine. So I guess you don’t for great food, either.
Have a lovely weekend!
If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?
Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?
What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?
Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?
I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?
This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.
Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)
See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.
This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.
But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.
By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.
P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.
Kudos to Tom Wark—the original wine blogger—for doing research showing how “interest in wine blogs has been waning now for a good six years …”.
Tom ran the numbers to prove his contention. And there it is, in his first graph: interest in wine blogs, as indicated by Google Trends, peaked in 2009, and has been falling steadily ever since.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We live in an age of bubbles: Wine blogs had their own bubble, an era of super-popularity that seemed like it would continue to expand forever until wine blogs, like The Blob in the 1958 movie, would take over the world. Of course, nothing expands forever: that which expandeth eventually bursteth: That is the definition of a bubble. (Okay, enough with the old English word endings.)
When blogs were young, they were the hippest, sexiest thing in wine writing. That’s the main reason why I myself started blogging, in 2008. I saw the rocket ascending towards the heavens, and I wanted a front-row seat to go along for the ride.
But all the while, I doubted the glowing predictions on the part of many wine bloggers that wine blogs were the journalistic and reviewing wave of the future. I knew that was false. I said as much—and got body-slammed by the wine bloggers who didn’t like my message. Hey, hate the message, not the messenger!
And now here we are. It’s been evident to me for years now that wine blogs don’t have the energy or momentum they once did. A year or so ago, I considered giving up this one, until my readers persuaded me not to. I continue for them—for you–and also because it’s not that hard to crank out a blog everyday, and it gives me immense enjoyment.
Where I disagree with Tom Wark is in his contention that the reason for the diminution of interest in wine blogs is because “those who had been showing interest in blogs, including wine blogs, have migrated to social media.” I don’t see any evidence of that. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think people feel they have to choose between reading wine blogs and participating in other forms of social media. It isn’t either/or: You can do both; they’re not mutually exclusive. If wine blogs offered wine consumers enough reason to keep on reading them, then consumers would continue to seek them out.
The problem, let’s face it, is that they don’t: most wine blogs are really boring. The ones that just spurt out reviews are unreadable, except by P.R. types who “Search” through the blog for their winery’s name. I mean, does anyone else besides a publicist care that some blogger somewhere reviewed their Cabernet?
I’ve thought from this blog’s inception that the only way to succeed to motivate viewers to click on it is to have creative writing that is interesting, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know there are blogs that are way more popular than mine. I can’t compete with them, nor do I want to. I want to continue to write about things that are on my mind, about issues of relevance to the wine industry, especially in California, and I want to continue to hear comments from my readers. Lots of those comments don’t appear on my actual blog. Many are on Facebook, which runs my daily blog, and quite a few people email me directly with their comments. So I know this blog is still reaching lots of minds. Tom referred to Julie Ann Kodmur’s theory that people today are “silo-ing” their blog reading; instead of looking at “a number of wine blogs, today they stick with and are loyal to only a few and perhaps even one wine blog.” I think that’s true.
Zaca Mesa sent me this wine, so I’m reviewing it.
Zaca Mesa 2014 Estate Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley, $18. I’m not a huge fan of California Viognier, which can be blowsy. The variety has a naturally strong flavor that makes it difficult to pair with food. This particular wine has potent apricot jam, peach pie, pineapple and honeysuckle flavors, with exotic hints around the edges: papayas, guavas, nectarines. It was aged in a little oak, not too much; in fact, all the barrels were more than eight years old. Just enough to soften and mellow the wine. The alcohol is a refreshing 14.1%; the acidity is okay, but the wine does feel a little soft. The blend includes a few drops of Grenache Blanc, which perhaps contributes a taste of tangerines. I can see drinking this wine next summer as a late afternoon aperitif, with little finger foods: egg rolls, chips and guacamole or hummus, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears, sliced watermelon, fried shrimp. It’s not terribly complex, but it is a nice sipper, and deserves a score of 89 points.