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Minerality: My thoughts

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I’ve been reading lots about minerality, especially in the pages of the Somm Journal, where they’ve run a couple of articles on it lately. This one in the August-September issue is the poster child for these types of discussions in which very abstruse, hard-to-define issues related to wine are discussed by professionals, with no conclusive results. But rather than be frustrating for their lack of clarity, they advance the discussion, in fun and informative ways. We may never get to a definition of “minerality,” or even come to a consensus what wines display it, but meanwhile, it keeps wine writers (and somms) gainfully employed and active and raising the bar ever higher.

I use the word “minerality” a fair amount and have for many years. For example, since I began working at Jackson Family Wines, I’ve used it in my descriptions of Byron’s 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay (both the regular and the Nielson), Cambria’s 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, 2012 Tepusquet Viognier, 2012 Julia’s Pinot Noir and 2012 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, and several others.

I know what I mean by “minerality,” but obviously it’s a word that defies definition, or even clarity. I like wine director Jeff Taylor’s (Betony, New York) description: minerality is “the non-fruit and non-oak descriptors for a wine.” He lists “chalk, crushed seashells, gravel, gun flint, a sidewalk after a light rain” as illustrations, but these clearly are metaphors, not exact descriptions, since nobody really tastes sidewalks or crushed seashells. Well, I guess you could pound seashells into powder, then put them in your mouth, but even so, it would be hard to draw an exact analogy between that taste/feeling and “minerality” in the wine.

One of the controversies about minerality is whether or not whatever it is can travel from the soil, via the plant’s roots, into the grapes; and even if it can, how that “something” expresses itself. Some somms think it happens all the time; others don’t. Whatever “minerality” is, it’s a good thing: it’s bracing and grippy (in a non-tannic way), almost metallic (I think of licking a cold lamppost on a winter day, which is something I have done, a practice whose utilitarian value outweighs its unsanitariness). It’s easy in hindsight to theoretically identify where minerality comes from in a wine: for example, all those Santa Maria Valley wines that display it are grown in sandy soils that have quite a lot of ancient decomposed marine matter in them. The wines feel iron-y to me: despite their richness there’s a metallic vein that makes them chewy, almost as if a sheet of aluminum foil had been inserted inbetween the flavors. A little minerality goes a long way toward providing pleasurable structure.

On a meta level these conversations about minerality in California wine suggest that we’ve collectively achieved a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, even ten, you wouldn’t have heard them. We were too obsessed with describing more obvious fruit and oak flavors, and tannin and acid levels. The fact that we can now talk about things of great subtlety shows how far we’ve come. Does it also show a shifting style of winemaking, something less ripe, and more streamlined? I think so. Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness. Tone down the wine a bit, and whatever minerality is there shows itself as a bright, lifted tone.

Minerality is one of those things that is good but not sufficient in itself to make for great wine. In an ordinary wine—a simple Gruner or Albarino, for example—it can be pleasant, refreshing and eminently quaffable, yet fail to rise above everydayness—an 86 or 87 point wine, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the price is right. But if you take a 90 point wine (red or white) and add a little minerality so that it has that fine, grippy tang, it lifts the wine up a degree or two, to 91 or 92 points. This is what’s so important about structure: it’s also why it’s taken the wine writing community so long to get around to appreciating the structural elements of a wine, including minerality: it takes a certain amount of experience for the palate and mind to grow beyond loving sheer massive hedonism in order to reach that level of understanding and appreciation.


On those mega “wine rooms” that are so popular out there

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I myself don’t have a “wine room,” as these new mega-cellars are being called. In fact, Mr. Casimano’s “wine room” is bigger than my entire condo! I do rent space at K&L Wine Merchants for some bottles, and I have one of those 120-bottle Eurocaves, but that’s about it. I never did see the sense of piling up a vast collection of wines the majority of which I’d never be able to drink in my lifetime.

That was the situation in which many of the wealthy men whom I met over the years found themselves. They had 50,000, 100,000, 250,000 bottle cellars full of rare and expensive wines, the collecting of which seemed to me to be the symptom of some sort of hoarding mentality, like those cat ladies with 100 felines wandering around a one-bedroom apartment. I used to hear stories of these gentlemen. Eventually, most of them auctioned off their collections, which raised the question: Did they buy them with the intention of aging and enjoying them, or were they investments in the first place?

The concept of “wine as investment” always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the romantic in me: Wine was the complete opposite of a stock certificate. How could you reduce wine to a commodity that might or might not appreciate in value? Didn’t that take all the love, passion and artistry out of it? For me, it did. There was a point, back in the ‘90s, when I briefly considered buying some First Growths for investment, just as I was day trading at Schwab; but reason soon was restored to my senses, and I refrained.

It was due to my experiences early in my wine writing career, working for a magazine that catered to high-end collectors, that I came to harbor some downbeat feelings about that segment of our wine community. Too many of them were buying wine to out-do their friends in the show-off game. Oh, the stories I could tell (and have told, if you care to wade through my older posts). I felt one could be a good critic while decrying the tendency on the part of some to slavishly label-shop the latest critical darling. What about all the honest, good vins ordinaires of the world, the kind I, and everybody else I knew, drank happily on a day-to-day basis? Was there no room for them at the inn?

Of course there was, and is. But this in turn raises the inevitable question of wine scores and reviews. No matter what system you use—100 points, stars, puffs, 20 points—wine reviewing is a comparative practice: It pits wines against each other, in a sort of sporting or beauty contest, and claims that some wines are better than others. This is certainly true: some are; and some are a lot better than others. To experience a great wine is indeed a memorable experience.

But why does that lead, in some cases, to this relentless piling up of collections? I scratch my head. At some point, having too much wine is like having too much of anything: you get jaded. Scarcity is the mother of appreciation: if you don’t have much of something, you love it all the more when it comes your way. Or so it seems to me.


Preserving trust in an era of distrust

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Wine critics are insulated from the buying public. They live in a sort of bubble in which popular tastes are shut out, and only their own impressions impinge upon their consciousness. Yes, there’s something solipsistic about being a critic—maybe even narcissistic. But that’s the way it should be, because the critic must remain immune to all influences except that of his own taste and discernment.

Sales people, on the other hand, must constantly be in touch with the public. It’s always been something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum whether the success of a particular wine, or type of wine, is due to the top-down approach of marketing and P.R., or whether it’s from a bottom-up movement from the street. Probably it’s a little of both, and individual cases will vary. However, this we do know: customer satisfaction is more important now than ever.

By that I mean that the customer has more ways of being satisfied (or dissatisfied) than ever—more ways of expressing it, more capacity to share with others, more ways of having leverage at the winery. This is due, obviously, to the Internet and social media, and ease with which we can get online and publish our thinking with mobile devices. But you already know that.

So it wasn’t particularly surprising when I saw this study yesterday on “Three things consumers want [from a company]: responsiveness, involvement and conviction.” What was surprising was the huge gap between what people say they want more of, and how they think companies are actually performing. Measured by this metric, most companies suck.

For example, in the area of greater responsiveness (to complaints, questions, concerns, and so on), 78% of people want an almost “on demand” responsiveness from the company. And yet, only 17% of the respondents felt that companies actually respond in a timely manner. That’s a gap of 61%. If I was doing business with a company that answered my queries only 17% of the time, I’d find another company to do business with.

Corporate America certainly understands this and is responding. In my own life, I use Comcast, PG&E and various web service companies a great deal, and, like you, I sometimes have the need to contact them. In each case, their response time has gotten much faster, and the process of contacting them has gotten easier (not that it’s pleasant…). So kudos to them for that.

Wineries don’t have as good a track record. It seems to me they could be doing a much better job reaching out and staying in touch with customers or potential customers. You might think that bigger wine companies have an easier time of it, because they have bigger budgets and can afford to hire communications experts, including digital ones. But bigger wineries also have more demands from their customers, so it all kind of evens out in the end.

The “conviction” issue is interesting. It means that consumers want their brands to have “a clear mission and purpose,” even to the extent of “driving change in the world.” We’re told that Millennials in particular feel a sense of obligation to the world’s problems and, in that sense, they’re more likely to support a company that, for instance, helps the environment. But this is a tricky business: oil companies (Chevron, for instance) tout their environmental concerns, but lots of consumers don’t believe it; they think Chevron is “greenmailing”—telling lies to further their actual cause, which is making profits.

How can a winery tout its “convictions” in such a way as to seem authentic, not phony? It’s vital for companies to figure this out, because a phony conviction can have a backlash. I think there are two ways of doing it: one is to avoid getting stuck with a negative image in the first place (the way the oil companies did), because then you don’t have to tear down those walls of suspicion. The second way is to get your message out, clearly and directly. This, too, is problematic: if you tout your do-goodness too much, people will say you’re just trying to win their friendship (and their money). If you don’t say anything at all, nobody will know about your good deeds. The challenge is to talk about yourself in such a way as to inform people but not lose their trust.


Those Parker scores: Score inflation?

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Quite a lot of buzz in the brouhaha-sphere over all the perfect 100s Parker have been bestowing lately. This time the commentary is from Narsai David, the food and wine critic for our local KCBS radio affiliate in San Francisco, and an old acquaintance.

The most common reaction in the commentariat has been to use the word “exponential” or a variant of it to describe the increase in Parker 100s. Wine-Searcher used it last Wednesday (“the list is growing with exponential speed”), while Narsai’s phrasing elevated the adjective to adverbial status (“this number has grown exponentially in recent years”). This naturally all gets picked up and echoed on social media; Terroirst blog quoted the Wine-Searcher article, while Narsai’s column also was reprinted, as for instance here, at the Daily Meal.

First, the numbers: As Narsai writes, Wine Advocate has given a perfect score to a total of 511 wines, but this number has grown exponentially in recent years. Just five years ago, only 69 wines scored 100 ‘Parker Points’ and in 2004, the number of perfect bottles was only 17. Narsai calls this rapid increase in 100s “a little troubling,” because it implies (to Narsai, anyway) wines that are higher in alcohol than some vintners who are “trying to satisfy Parker” would prefer, thereby leaving them in “a real quandary.”

[Fantasy segue: A conversation between a winemaker and her priest-confessor:

Winemaker: “Father, I would like to keep the alcohol-by-volume on my Cabernet under 14%, but then it would never get a hundred points from Parker.”

Priest-confessor: “My daughter, wherein lies your heart?”

Winemaker: “That’s the problem. I have expenses…”.

Priest-confessor: “You are in a real quandary.”

The word “quandary” derives from the Latin, and means “a state of uncertainty.” American Presidents routinely find themselves in quandaries during crises. Lincoln was in one after the Confederates seized Fort Sumter: Should he abandon it, or fight for it, thus starting a Civil War? FDR, a great Lincoln scholar, similarly faced a quandary after Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland, in September, 1939. Should he support Britain with materiel, even though he had an election coming up, and the majority of the country was isolationist? And yet a winemaker’s “quandary” can hardly be in the same category as either Lincoln’s or FDR’s.]

The conventional wisdom is that the pace of 100s has picked up because, as Narsai observes, “wine [technology] production in the last 25 years has really improved.” That’s undeniable. We also have had, here in California, a series of excellent vintages. My own company, Jackson Family Wines, has certainly enjoyed Parker’s largesse: perfect 100s for Lokoya and Verite (multiple times), which puts them in the company they deserve: Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Hundred Acre, among others in California. (Here’s a list of all Parker’s 100s.)

I’ve always said that, when it comes to 100-point wines, critics should be either remarkably stingy or generous. I was the former; Parker is the latter. There is intellectual support for both positions, but not for the muddy middle. To be stingy implies that perfect wines are so rare that the awarding of 100 point scores must necessarily be limited as is, for instance, the giving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. To be generous means that, once you have stipulated that perfection exists, you have to recognize that it’s more widespread than commonly thought. Both of these positions are sound. The muddy middle makes it seem like the critic who straddles the fence is simply indecisive.

So, to answer my question, Do all those Parker scores indicate score inflation? No. They suggest that wine really is better than ever, and, in California’s case, the meaning is clear: We are world class. No ands, ifs or buts about it. If certain critics can’t see that, they had best remove the beam from their eye.

 

 

 

 

 


The (sometimes) uneasy relationship between critics and somms

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Like lions and tigers sharing a contested hunting ground, sommeliers and critics circle each other’s turfs, eyeing each other warily across the veldt.

Scattered on that field is the game both sides seek: wine consumers. Somms want to sell them wine; critics want to influence their buying decisions. Therein lies a conflict. Though they both wear the mantle of “gatekeeper,” critics and somms often seem to be in charge of different gates.

Somms tend to see critics as uncredentialed—folks who one way or another achieved career success with little or no formal training. They—the somms—worked extraordinarily hard to get where they are and, especially if they’re Master Sommeliers, feel (with a certain amount of justification) that their superior knowledge makes them the kings of the wine jungle.

Critics tend to view somms with some envy. They know that they—the critics—never had to go through any sort of rigorous certification process, whereas the somms did. Critics may even feel lucky to have landed their jobs. But they—the critics—also know that they wield far greater power, in general, than somms.

The critics’ power extends over broad stretches of geography. If they happen to write for one of the major wine periodicals, their words, recommendations and scores are seen by millions, either directly or indirectly, through quotes in third-party publications, shelf talkers, marketing materials, social media and the like.

The somm’s power typically extends only across the square footage of the restaurant floor. There, the somm reigns supreme. Step outside the door, and the power of the somm melts away, replaced by the power of the critic.

Critics are seldom if ever disdainful of somms. Why would they be? They recognize the somm’s achievements and are respectful of it. Somms tend to disdain critics. They may be in awe of the critic’s influence, but they can’t help but feel like they know more, which makes them sense that there’s an imbalance in the world. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that the sommelier community is a tightly-knit one, filled with mutually-reinforcing beliefs, whereas the “critical community,” so far as it exists at all, is quite the opposite. Critics don’t socialize much with each other, and there is within that small circle a certain degree of suspicion. Lesser critics want to be A-listers, while even A-listers look at Parker and think, “Why can’t I be him?”

Critics also point to a built-in weakness of the sommelier community: Somms are trying to sell wine. No matter where they work (for a winery, a restaurant or whatever), somms have a stake in their employer’s financial success. Critics, on the contrary, say they have no agenda whatsoever when it comes to wine. They don’t care who’s successful and who’s not, who sells what and who doesn’t. They’re in the enviable position of simply telling the truth.

When I was a critic, that was certainly my feeling. I recognized that my knowledge of the world’s wines was not as broad as that of some somms. However, I treasured my independence, and felt that it gave me the ability to be fiercely objective, without regard to the consequences—even for advertisers in the magazine I wrote for. Whenever I ran into a somm—usually in a restaurant—I sensed two things: great knowledge, but also an underlying motive to sell wine. I must admit this gave me a certain moral superiority.

Now I work for a company that sends me out on sales trips with their Master Sommeliers. I see the potential ironies, but I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve long admired and respected Jackson Family Wines for the obvious reason that their wines are so good, at every price point. I sometimes wonder, if I’d been offered a job by a winery whose wines I didn’t respect, would I have taken it? What if the remuneration had been very high? This is a hypothetical and so it’s impossible for me to say, since it never happened. But I think that, if I had to promote wines I didn’t care for, I would be a very unhappy ex-critic. As it is, I’m a happy one.

Have a great weekend!


Wine bloggers: Blogging, or slogging?

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Are you a blogger? Have you been at it for a while? Are you running out of steam, not as passionate as you use to be? No, I’m not looking for contestants for the Jerry Springer show, and this is not a Viagra ad. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of soul of wine blogging today, because most of the most popular blogs have been around for years now, and it would be strange if they weren’t getting a bit tired.

That, at least, is the thesis of this story, When Blogging Becomes a Slog, that appeared last September in the New York Times. It wasn’t specifically about wine blogs. They profiled a couple, John and Sherry, who admitted that their popular home-renovation blog had been “feeling off for a while” after eight active years. The problem, according to someone the Times reporter interviewed, was a downward spiral well-known to longtime bloggers: A passion turns into a hobby, which becomes a full-time career. And in some predictable period of time, it consumes your life and sucks the joy out if it.”

This is particularly true of bloggers who post every day, or almost every day. Readers want fresh stuff all the time, and the bloggers understand that, in order to keep their readership up, they have to supply the meat. That, in turn, can cause intense pressure to produce, to the point where it becomes a heavy weight. And, feeling that kind of pressure, a blogger is not in the best emotional or intellectual condition to write strongly, colorfully and informatively.

I know from personal experience—and not just my own–how challenging it can be to produce every day. Some of the most popular bloggers have told me, off the record, of the tedium and difficulty of coming up with fresh topics Monday through Friday. One blogger told me his spouse was furious at him for always staying up well past midnight, just to have that new morning post. It can interfere with your sleep as well as your relationships.

There are different ways bloggers deal with this. Some just resort to reviewing wines, which actually is the easy way out, because you don’t have to do anything original or creative, just pop the corks (sent to you for free) and write up your impressions. My own feeling is that such blogs are no longer among the best, although they may keep going for quite some time, because winery marketing departments will keep sending them wine just to get that hoped-for high score.

Another way of dealing with the Blog Blahs is to rehash the same topic over and over. I will admit to being guilty of this on occasion, although I do try to give a different interpretation and style even when I re-address an older topic, like the 100-point system or California’s AVAs. Some bloggers put up a lot of photographs, which is pretty, but also is a fairly easy way to create a post.

Since I love my blog and wish to continue it, and because I know that lots of people like to read it on a daily basis, I work very hard to come up with these posts. I would never want to do stuff on the cheap or compromise the quality of my blog. Sometimes it’s hard. Ideally, I’ll post a topic the day before, for publication at ten seconds after midnight the next day. That happens 90% of the time, but there are times when it’s just not possible. That leads to what I think of as my Morning Nightmare: It’s 6 a.m., I don’t have a post up yet, what to do? I usually come up with something. It’s not always the most gorgeous, beautifully-written or eye-opening topic, but it’s me, and the best I can do. I think I’ve failed to post maybe ten times since May, 2008. Most of those have been due to illness. One or two were because of hangovers. But usually, no matter how I’m feeling, I post dailyt, for me—and for you.

The reason this matters is because blogs really do represent an important evolution in wine writing. And wine writing, of course, is my soul’s blood. I believe in wine writing; we need good wine writers. The question is, can a blog succeed for the long haul, especially if—as is the case close to 100% of the time—it’s not making money, and is getting tired and predictable? I no longer hear bloggers talking about replacing print publications—that fantasy died long ago, alas. Yet wine blogging continues. I’m hoping that the best ones can keep the creativity going for as long as it takes, no matter what it takes.


That new Bordeaux ad campaign wants it both ways

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There is something fundamentally oxymoronic about the Bordeaux Wine Council’s new advertising and branding campaign, reported on the PRNewswire.

On the one hand, it emphasizes “innovation” through the use of taglines such as “There is so much to discover.” This implies something New Worldy about Bordeaux: it is not old and tired, but youthful and exciting, a place of endless reinvention and creativity. (Actually, I thought that was California’s claim to fame!)

On the other hand the campaign also stresses “maintaining Bordeaux traditions.” This obviously is meant to appeal to the broad stratum of international perception, possibly subliminal, that Bordeaux is all about ancient history and venerability; what Professor Saintsbury called (as Claret) “the queen of natural wines.”

One can spot the internal contradiction immediately: A thing cannot simultaneously be modern as well as traditional. At least, it can’t in reality—that is squaring the circle–but it can be in the magical thinking of a marketing campaign that contains a little bit of something for everyone. Thus the contradictions exist, side by side.

For the last several decades, Bordeaux has struggled with this identity crisis. It knows that a younger generation doesn’t give a hoot about its history and tradition, so it needs to appeal to them by making Bordeaux seem modern. This is the thinking behind the Council’s “Today’s Bordeaux” meme, wherein wines costing $55 or less are recommended as having been tasted by “our Wine Buffs.” Wine Buffs? Professor Saintsbury is turning in his grave at this crime of Franglish—an Americanism that would otherwise be condemned by the French as vulgar. “Wine Buffs” indeed! Good heavens, imagine telling Baron Rothschild he was a Wine Buff!

I certainly don’t blame the Bordeaux Wine Council. They have to market, same as everyone else; they’re just trying to find a formula that works. Why now? This is the ideal time for a re-invented brand identity,” the Council’s president said. It’s ideal because the world is emerging from the Great Economic Slowdown (at least, we hope it is) and people seem a little more willing to spend money on wine. And then too, the Millennials are getting older and they want their wine. But just as important as “Why now?” is the question of “Where?” The seven markets the campaign will focus on are the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, China, Belgium, and Japan—in other words, Bordeaux’s traditional markets, plus China and Japan, which is where the money is in East Asia.

Bordeaux always has been about aspiration, and the Council is betting it still is. For all the talk about Millennials being qualitatively different from Baby Boomers, it turns out that they’re just as conventional as their parents and grandparents. Millennials are ambitious, strive for career success, and they seek a satisfying personal life beyond work. They’re into “personal authenticity” (who isn’t?) and “want to spend time with their families and fulfill career aspirations.” They are, in other words, yet another “wants it all” generation. And part of “having it all” is, of course, the Good Life, which involves good food, good wine and what we here in California think of as a Sunset Magazine lifestyle. That fits in well with the Bordeaux Wine Council’s strategy. It may be a little oxymoronic to mosh traditional and modern together into one big, unwieldy package, as I said; but then, the lives of Millennials, as of us all, are oxymorons. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Walt Whitman, who I bet liked to drink, would be 195 years old, if he was still alive.

Walt


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