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How to build an AVA

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As you read this, I’ll be on my way up to the Willamette Valley. Some of you may recall that I’m working on crafting a new American Viticultural Area for a region in which Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard. It’s in the central-western part of the Valley; as you can see, the current sub-AVAs are all in the northern part.

Willamette

The area I’m interested in is just south of McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills, so if we get approval, it will represent a steady and logical expansion southward of AVAs in Willamette Valley.

It’s been a very interesting and thoughtful process so far, so I figured it might be of interest to you, too, to see some of the stuff I’ve been dealing with. There are two main factors to consider in getting the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the U.S. Treasury Department to approve a new AVA. You need a name, and you need to establish boundaries. Both can be challenging: the TTB is very rigorous, especially about the name, and my feeling is that they’ve been getting tougher over the years. Another way of putting that is that, in my estimation, they’ve approved AVAs in the past that they would not approve today.

I decided to start with the name. TTB has two over-arching requirements for a name: It has to have some documented usage in local history, and it has to have current and direct usage today. Of course, there are other parameters, but those are the big two.

One of the early lessons I learned was from another group that spent a considerable amount of time and effort to establish a new AVA whose name they more or less invented, willy-nilly, because it sounded nice. TTB said no, because the name had no roots in history. It was a big disappointment for the petitioners, and I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want to spend a bunch of time applying for something that has no chance of being approved.

We also wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that all the local growers, winemakers and other stakeholders were onboard with the name. It’s a simple matter of respect, unity and, yes, love: Love thy neighbor. In fact, my meeting today will, I hope, conclude the naming part of the deal. Then we have to begin the arduous process of delineating boundaries. We have to show that the entire proposed AVA shares a common terroir, inclusive of both soils and climate. This will require the pooling of a great deal of information, which would be difficult if not impossible if all our neighbor stakeholders weren’t part of the process.

So far everything has gone exceptionally smoothly, but I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m a big believer in Murphy’s Law, which can be mitigated to some extent through careful preparation, although it can’t be entirely eliminated, especially given when you’re dealing with a gigantic federal bureaucracy. I know something about the history of many of our California AVAs, because I reported on them at the time. There were so many unnecessary battles, so many needless delays, so much antagonism stirred up between discordant stakeholders, all because the crafters didn’t take the time to dot all their i’s and cross their t’s. I hope I’ve learned from that.

Why is it even important to further sub-appellate Willamette Valley? For the same reason we always have needed to refine the biggest appellations: to better understand them. Napa Valley has done a great job at sub-appellating itself. Sonoma County did it a little less coherently, but still, it works, although I’ve been asking for years for Russian River Valley to be sub-divided. More lately, we’ve seen in Paso Robles and Lodi how the imperative towards sub-AVAs is irresistible. France, of course, is the inspiration. This is good for the consumer, it’s good for producers, it’s good for everyone.


Why wine is cool

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Years ago, during the heyday of Sex and the City, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a spoof piece on what “the girls” would be doing if they lived in the “cool gray city of love.” Samantha, you’ll recall, had her own high-end P.R. firm in Manhattan, where she represented restaurants, celebrities, clubs and so on.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle’s writer determined, Samantha would still be in P.R.—only it would be winery public relations. When I read that, I remember thinking that wine had finally and definitely come to dominate the zeitgeist. It was the cool-hot thing to do, the field everybody wanted to work in, whether in PR, writing or production.

(Sidebar: When I started out, nobody, but nobody, wanted to be a wine writer. I sometimes wonder, if I was beginning my career today instead of in 1989, if I’d even be able to get a writing job at a magazine, much less Wine Spectator. The field has become that competitive.)

Wine remains a highly coveted field for young people to work in, maybe hotter than ever, according to this article in the drinks business, which claims that winemaking and beer brewing are “among top dream jobs” for young people just starting their careers or thinking of changing. (The study was done in Britain, but there’s no reason not to think attitudes here in America are any different.)

So desirable are these winemaking and beer-making jobs that over a third (35%) of people said they would consider quitting their job to re-train in their chosen profession – regardless of money.” That’s good, because these types of jobs typically don’t make a ton of money. Funnily enough, Security guards (95%), IT consultants (91%) and accountants (87%) were by far the most eager to pack in the typical 9-to-5 and take up a craft career” such as winemaking.

I know people in both the wine industry and craft brewing, and most of them seem to be very happy. It’s true that the pressures can be difficult, but the joy seems to outweigh any of the inconveniences (such as basically having your normal life put on hold during crush). When I look back over my years in the wine biz, despite all the bitching and stress I went through (or put myself through), I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do what I have. Coming up through the Golden Age of wine in America—the boutique era, the rise of the wine print media, the enormous popularity of wine (and beer), and the emergence of social media—has been a privilege, and also a great opportunity to see history being made, close-up, and perhaps to have been a tiny part of it. No wonder people want to work in this industry.

Have a wonderful weekend.


More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru

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I went to a most interesting tasting yesterday, quite unlike anything I’ve been to before. We selected a clone of Pinot Noir (in this case, 777). We tasted it made from four different vineyards, in entirely different West Coast regions (Oregon and California), made more or less identically, but by different winemakers. Theoretically, then, the main difference between the wines would be the impact of the terroir. Then we tasted four completed Pinots from those wineries, of which the clone was an integral part of the blend, to see if we could discern the taste and qualities of the clone in the finished wines.

Cool, yes? You have to put on your sleuth’s hat.

This sort of tasting is really so interesting because you get to see, in an undeniable way, the influence of terroir, but not only that, you get to see how, or whether, a single clone Pinot Noir can make a complete wine, or whether a blend of various clones/selections is superior.

Before I go any further, let me say that there are no obvious answers. In my years of tasting, interviewing winemakers and drawing my own conclusions, I’ve decided that the minute somebody gives you a simplistic, black-and-white declaration about this or that terroir or clone, you should ask some serious questions.

For instance, let’s say that we identify the terroir of the Pisoni Vineyard, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands and thus warmer, but a high elevation, where you lose temperature with altitude. The soils are decomposed granite and gravelly. So far, so good. But Pisoni sells to a lot of different wineries. Some pick quite a bit earlier than others; the wines are totally different from the late pickers, and as I told our group at the tasting, I’d hate to have to blind-taste wines picked two weeks apart and claim that I could find something Pisoni-esque about them. I could say the same about any vineyard, such as Beckstoffer-Tokalon, that sells grapes to multiple buyers. Of course, any well-made wine from a great vineyard will show its structure, but the particulars—what fruits? What minerals? What spices?—will be irretrievably obscured with all those winemaker decisions, everything from picking time to barrel regimen and even the choice of yeast.

This is why I’ve come around to adopting Emile Peynaud’s view. Terroir, by itself, explains only part of the wine. To understand it completely, you have to know all about the winemaker, her techniques, and not only that, but the appellation in general, its reputation, and even the way the wines are and have been marketed. Peynaud calls this combination of terroir + everything else Cru.

Sure, terroir is important. Tremendously so: but as soon as you consider wines made by different winemakers, with entirely different house styles, that come from the same vineyard, you realize that terroir can never fully explain everything. We long for some Unified Field Theory, as it were, that would sum everything up in a single neat, tidy package. It’s only human to want simplistic explanations, but Reality abhors such reductionism.

On the other hand, I also call discussions about terroir “The wine writers’ full employment act.” As long as we talk about such unsolvable ambiguities (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), wine writers will feel free to write about them (and, hopefully, get paid). And that’s good: If you’re a true wine geek (and I assume if you’re reading this, you are), then you love talking about such esoterica.

Ultimately, your view of terroir and such things depends on your mindset. Some winemakers take a very romantic, mystical attitude towards it. Others are a little more pragmatic. Reporters—and that is my background—are fact-based, and hard-nosed. We know the influence of terroir is real. It has to be: all growing things, from tomatoes to Redwood trees, are the products of their immediate environment. But no growing thing, no agricultural product, is as intensely intertwined with its farmer, and the person who takes the fruit and then interprets it according to his vision, as the wine grape. That is why the concept of terroir, however interesting and important, has to be viewed through the larger lens of Cru. Terroir is nature: human intervention is nurture.The concept of Cru, it seems to me, comes as close to anything we’ve devised to explain the totality of the wine. As my personal DNA is not enough to explain me, but you have to add my experiences since birth especially in the early years, so it is with wine.

Can a single clone Pinot Noir be a complete wine? In theory, no, because it will always have divots that other clones (or vineyards) can fill in. In reality? Absolutely. Like I said, Reality abhors such reductionism.”


A tasting of current Cameron Hughes wines

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Cameron sent me another batch of wines, which I was glad to review. In general, the Cameron Hughes brand continues to provide fantastic value for the money. His business, briefly, is to function as a negociant: vintners who want or need to sell their wine, privately and off-the-record, know and trust Cameron. We never know where the wines come from, although Cameron does provide “hints.” I did have a problem with one bottle, as you’ll see, but the rest are wines I would gladly drink anytime.

95 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 596 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley); $35, 15.2%. This is one of the more expensive Cameron Hughes wines, but it is from the deservedly famous Monte Rosso. And it’s quite a good Monte Rosso: dark, deep, rich and ageable. Cabernet hardly gets more intense than this, with an explosion of blackberry jam, black currants, blueberries, cassis liqueur and a penetrating minerality suggestive of graphite. Throw in the oak, and you get smoky-sweet vanillins. This is a serious wine for red wine drinkers, a wine of sinew and muscle, potency and mouth-filing depth. But it never loses that inimitable grace and dignity we expect from the vineyard, far above Sonoma Valley. The alcohol is admittedly on the high side; there is some jalapeño heat. But it’s an integral part of the wine’s personality. Delicious to drink now despite the massive tannins; a good steak will cut right through them. But I would not be surprised if this wine were not evolving over the next ten-plus years.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 597 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $32, 14.9%. This wine is so inky black and tannic, you might think it was a Petite Sirah. Cameron says it’s from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard, and it does have fantastic mountain concentration. The tannins are considerable: they sting the mouth and shut it down. A fatty, char-broiled steak would work, but far better is to age this wine for eight years, maybe even longer. There’s so much going on way down deep under the astringency: black currants and black raspberries, cassis liqueur, leather, violets, dark chocolate, mushu plum sauce, smoky oak, herbs, spices, the works. The wine is absolutely dry, none of that semi-sweet cult thing going on, and while there’s some headiness from alcohol, it’s even-handed, just enough to let you know this is a wine of heft. I really admire this Cabernet.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 470 Petite Sirah (Oakville); $19, 14.9%. And while we’re on the subject of Cabs that might be Petite Sirah, here’s a strong, young Petite Sirah that might be a Cab! It’s black in color, except around the edge, where it glows garnet. The aromas and flavors are thick with blackberries, black currants, blueberries and dark chocolate, wrapped into firm, authoritative tannins, and finished with significant new oak. There’s also a meatiness, like the salted, charred fat on a steak. This is a big, big wine, entirely dry, but sweet in fruit. Cameron calls it “bombastic”; not a bad word. It’s Petite Sirah, Napa-style. In fact, Oakville-style, which is to say, classy and sophisticated. This is by far the greatest value in Petite Sirah I’ve ever seen. Get as much as you can; it is not only fantastic now, it will develop in the bottle for many years.

93 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 457 Meritage (Napa Valley); $18, 14.9%. Great price for a blend this rich and satisfying. It’s a little generic, in the way of a good New World Bordeaux blend, but I can’t imagine that anyone would fault it for that. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot, it’s fleshy, with broad black currant, bitter chocolate, plum and cherry fruit flavors. Shows its pedigree in the finesse of the tannins and crisp acidity. Very good now, and should hold for six years. A steal at less than twenty bucks.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 444 Meritage (Napa Valley): $19, 14.9%. This is quite a distinguished wine, but it’s very young and rather impertinent at this time. (“Impertinent”: I always liked that old-fashioned term for a wine that’s immature, gawky, all primary fruit and barrel influences.) Here are the particulars: bone dry, full-bodied and tannic, with deep, complex blackcurrant, dark chocolate, espresso and oak flavors, and a firm minerality that adds to the architectural integrity. Cameron suggests that the wine, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, comes from Oak Knoll, which might account for its fine structure. The wine will improve over the next 5-6 years, maybe a little longer, so decant and enjoy with its ideal partner, steak. Nineteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 599 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29, 14.9%. This is a very good Cabernet and a good value. Cameron says it’s from a producer that “sells for $135.” I don’t doubt it, given the plethora of Napa Cabs that now cost triple digits. The wine is inky black. It smells of black currants and oak, a young, vigorous aroma. Flavorwise, it’s very rich in black currants, cassis, unsweetened baker’s chocolate, charred beef fat and spices such as cloves and black pepper. The finish is long, clean and thoroughly dry. All in all, a fancy wine that gives lots of pleasure, and develops in the glass as it breathes.

89 Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 503 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley): $15, 15.3%. At a time when Pinot prices are rising, this is a very good value. On the minus side, it’s a little too hot, with a distinct red chili powder heat from high alcohol. That aside, it’s dry and silky, with pretty tannins and good acidity. The flavors, of cranberry, raspberry, cola, spices and leather, are complex. Ready to drink now, especially with grilled lamb or salmon.

88 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 600 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $29, 14.9%. The grapes got exceptionally ripe, to judge from the flavors of chocolate-covered raisins and raspberry jam. There’s also a lot of smoky oak, and thick, sweet tannins. It’s a good wine, full-bodied and soft, and benefits from some olive and herbaceous complexities, but it’s not really what you except from a top-notch Oakville Cab. If it cost a lot more, as Oakville Cabs do, it wouldn’t be worth the price, but for less than $30, it has enough fanciness to recommend it. Drink up.

Not Rated But Reviewed Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $75, 15.5%. This is a big, rich, soft wine, made in the modern cult style of high alcohol and generous oak. For me, though, it’s marred by bretty aromas, which may be why the actual producer unloaded it. It may have been an off-bottle, but I can’t recommend it.


Are Donald Trump’s wine any good? What the critics say

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Cut to the chase: Donald Trump’s TRUMP Winery in Virginia makes decent sparkling wine (not a very difficult thing to do, as the grapes don’t have to get ripe), but his still wines are anywhere from okay to mediocre.

President Obama put Trump’s wines in the spotlight the other day when he ribbed the orange-haired man for “slap[ping] a label” on “some $5 wine” and then “they charge you $50 and say it’s the greatest wine ever.”

Well, Trump wouldn’t be the first winery owner to overprice his product, so Obama is a little harsh, although you can’t blame him for wanting to ding Trump, who, as the nation’s leading birther, still hasn’t admitted he lied about Obama’s birthplace.

But lest politics intrude into the enological purity of steveheimoff.com, let’s get onto the subject of Drumpf’s Trump’s wines. Disclosure: I never tasted them. But Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate have. So what’s their verdict?

First, Obama gave Trump wines about a zillion dollars worth of free publicity, although I doubt if that was his intention. Publications across the U.S. have been looking at his wines. For example, the Yakima (Washington State) Herald reprinted a Washington Post article, headlined “Are TRUMP wines actually fantastic, magnificent vintages?” (By the way, the all-capitals TRUMP is because that’s the way The Donald prints it on the label, with the immodesty we have come to expect from this self-absorbed narcissist. And if you look closely, you’ll notice the font is the same as that used on U.S. money.) So are the wines “fantastic”?

No. Of the three publications I checked, Spectator’s been brutal. Of five scores, the highest is 84 points (for the ’07 Brut Reserve). The lowest is a horrendous 81 (’08 Blanc de Blanc), which retailed (at the time of the review) for $24. Would you pay $24 for an 81-point wine? If you would, I have a candidate for you to vote for—and, quel surprise, his name is Trump!

The birther-in-chief fares a little better over at Wine Advocate. They liked his ’09 Blanc de Noir (91 points), but the ’13 Meritage got a measly 85.

Then there’s Wine Enthusiast, who gave Trump’s son, Eric, who runs the winery, their 2013 Rising Star award (and before you ask, I had nothing to do with that!) A sweet 91 points to the ’07 Brut Reserve, and 89 to the ’09 Blanc de Blanc. But 82 points (ouch) to the ’11 Rosé. Inbetween those extremes was a bunch of mid-80s.

So if you buy a Trump wine, don’t expect anything special.


The Critic vs. the Computer: A case of perceptual discrepancy

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Did you know that I prefer organic wines to non-organic wines? I didn’t, either. But then I read this new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists, entitled “Does Organic Wine taste better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” and I found out that, yup, I do.

Well, kinda sorta. See, the paper’s authors decided to study “data from the three influential wine expert publications: Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator,” and as it turned out, “During our period of study [74,148 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009], the main tasters for California wines for Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator were Robert Parker, Steve Heimoff, and James Laube, respectively.”

The big P-H-L! They took our scores, crunched them in that esoteric way only economists can, and lo and behold, “Our results indicate that the adoption of wine eco-certification has a statistically significant and positive effect on wine ratings.”

How much? Not a lot: Being eco-certified,” the authors found, “increases the score of the wine by 0.46 point on average.”

Well, one hardly knows where to begin. Right off the bat, I have a problem when the lesson that people will take away is that P-H-L (and by extension major critics) prefer organic wines to non-organic ones. Less than half a point difference? I suppose if they fed 74,148 scores into a computer and found a 0.46 point difference, then who am I to argue with HAL? But a 0.46 point difference doesn’t seem like very much to me. It’s not even round-uppable to the higher score (87.46 rounds down to 87).

But wait, there’s more. The following factors also had an impact on the scores of organically-certified wines, according to the paper:

  • ” a 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease score by 0.003

point.”

  • ” An increase in the number of years of certification experience by one [winery] decreases score by 0.09 point.”

Confused? I am. So the more cases wine the winery produces, the lower the score is; but the longer the winery has been certified organic, the lower the score also is!

How about the winemaker’s hair color? Did they include that?

The authors also counted the number of words in each review and found this: “Next, we examine the impact that eco-certification has on the number of words used in wine notes. As shown in regression (1) of Table 6, wine notes of eco-certified wines are not significantly longer than those of conventional wines. However, as shown in regressions (2) and (3), eco-certification increases the average number of positive words by 0.4 but has no statistically significant impact on the number of negative words.”

My interpretation of this is that it’s gibberish. The authors compiled a list of words [Table 7] but I don’t understand how they infer whether their use is positive or negative. Is “jammy” positive or negative? Do Parker, Laube and I even use it in the same way? How about “offbeat”? Is that good or bad? And “peat”: if I tasted that in an Islay Scotch it would be good, but in a Chardonnay?

The authors also state something that I don’t think is objectively true, or, even if it is, is irrelevant. “Second, as a related point, wine experts have a better knowledge about wine eco-certification and are able to differentiate between different types of eco-labels, namely organic wine and wine made with organically grown grapes, which represent different wine production processes with different impacts on quality.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know the difference between different types of eco-labels. There are so damn many (different certifying agencies, “natural,” biodynamic, etc.), I get confused—and, while I’ll let Parker and Laube speak for themselves, I bet they get confused, too. Besides, if “All the publications claim blind review,” as the paper’s authors write, then we critics don’t even see the labels when we’re tasting and reviewing (much less would we have a tech sheet in front of us).

But finally, this statistic seems to be to be the last nail in the coffin of the study: “On average, 1.1% of the wines in the sample are eco-certified.” By my calculations, that’s a little over 800 wines—out of 74,148. I fail to see how you can extrapolate any useful information from such a small sample, compared to the huge number of wines in the study. Apples and oranges.

I’m no economist, it goes without saying. If I were, I guess I’d spend my days crunching numbers and coming up with interesting factoids. But I have to say, I don’t see the point of this particular study—not if it’s going to be used to make a claim that I don’t regard as true. For the record, let me say that I do not think organic wine is better. And you know what? I don’t care what the numbers say.


I reply to a somm friend

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Ian Burrows is a great sommelier whom I first met at a Jackson Family Wines event I was speaking at. He was then working at one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants, Atelier Crenn, in the Marina District. I was never fortunate enough to dine there, because the Marina is really a schlep from Oakland. I liked Ian a lot when we met, and he turned out to be a good correspondent, on both Facebook and my blog. So when he wrote me a fairly long comment, I took it seriously, and want to respond in kind.

Ian had read my post from a few days ago, in which I described how, in choosing wines for my tastings, I rely on—among other factors—the reviews of certain top critics. Ian wrote:

I read your article on choosing sparkling for a comparative tasting, and I have to ask, why on earth would you ever base your choices on other critics scores?

I have never understood the fascination of taking such an incredibly narrow focus on deciding which wines (or automobiles or eye-liner for that matter) are the best value, most accessible, most delicious or whatever from a handful of very influential reviewers.

Why not just send out a bunch of random e-mails to your wine buddies? Ask “what wines in XYZ category should I represent in this tasting?”…. Surely, if you spread it across continents and demographics you’d get a more accurate picture.

I have the utmost respect for what you did at WE (although I still do not completely understand it) and I have even greater respect for what you do at JFE but you gotta let go of what is, quite frankly, a waste of time….. “Wine reviews”.

Reviews – I am pretty sure they will be gone in five years.

You have a better deal being the PR front man at JFE than a reviewer because at least you can focus squarely on industry trends/changes, comment and review issues that directly and indirectly affect the quality and style of wine, not simply assign points and hope that readers respond by supporting your tastes and/or reviews.

It’s perhaps a face to face conversation for another time, but one that I know will be vibrant and respectful

I replied personally to Ian, but I want to expand on that here (and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the utmost respect for him). My main points were, (1) I am emphatically not “the PR front man” at Jackson Family Wines! I don’t know how that rumor got started. In fact, my job has nothing to do with PR (although I suppose you could say that everything ultimately touches on public relations).

More to the point, I defend my use of other critics’ scores this way: When you’re assembling a lineup of wines for a comparative tasting, you have to use some kind of parameter. Since you can’t taste everything that theoretically falls within the scope of your tasting, you necessarily must limit the number of entries. Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?

Let’s say, for instance, that I want to do a tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignons of Rutherford. There are at least 39 wineries in Rutherford, according to the web page of the Rutherford Dust Society. Many of them, maybe the majority, produce more than one SKU of Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Let’s say there are 100 different SKUs. That’s too many to include in a tasting, so you have to whittle down the number.

You could do this in any number of ways: Wines from west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, wines from the Mayacamas Mountains, wines from east of Highway 29 but west of the Silverado Trail, wines from east of the Silverado Trail, wines from way up in the Vacas, wines from south Rutherford, from north Rutherford, 100% Cabs, blends, wines above $75, wines below $30, and so on and so forth. Any of those would make sense, I suppose. But so does the kind of crowd-sourcing I do when I choose wines based on my own experiences, compounded by their critical scores. When Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Vinous, Wine Enthusiast, Wines & Vines, Wine & Food, and so on are all giving a wine high scores, that’s a pretty good indication it’s a very good wine. And those are the kinds of wines I want to include in my tastings, especially when we’re including Jackson Family Wines in the lineup. I want to see how JFW wines stand up to the most critically acclaimed wines. (And I hope I won’t be accused of wearing a PR hat when I tell you, they do very well.)

Surely Ian isn’t entirely serious when he suggests sending random emails to my “wine buddies” soliciting their views. I have about 4,000 Facebook friends and 6,500 Twitter followers. Not all of them claim to be wine experts, and frankly, I don’t know most of them, so their opinion is not of the greatest help to me. If I was doing something on popular drinking habits or trends or wine and food pairing, I might, and frequently do, ask my friends and followers, but not for assembling a blind tasting of ultrapremium wines.

Now, Ian (and a generation of young somms) may not care about the major critics—I understand that–but I do. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I respect what James Laube, Robert Parker and the others do. I know how hard the work is…what the pressures are…I know also that when you’ve tasted wine seriously for a good many years you really do develop a master palate. I don’t think there’s anything crooked or unseemly about what they do (and what I used to do). These are men and women of the highest integrity and their opinions should matter.

Nor do I think wine reviewing is “a waste of time” that will be gone in five years. I’ve frequently said on my blog that wine reviewing will always be with us, because as long as there are a zillion wines on the market, consumers are going to seek guidance. I’ve said that this guidance can come from many different sources, including a local and trusted merchant, but merchants—let’s face it—may have a motive to recommend a wine they carry, which makes them less than completely objective. A wine critic of the caliber of a Parker, Laube, Galloni, etc. has no ulterior motive. He or she doesn’t care about the advertising his publication may or may not solicit from wineries—that’s the famous “firewall” between editorial and advertising, and it’s real. Nor does the critic care whether or not someone buys something. So, unless you’re prepared to charge the critics with something untoward—and prove it—you really have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing them or questioning their sincerity or ability.

I will concede that every critic has his subjective preferences. Wine Spectator, in my opinion, gives too much attention to Marcassin. The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a thing for Morgan Twain-Peterson and Bedrock. When I was at Wine Enthusiast I certainly gave a lot of love to Bob Cabral and Williams Selyem. But there’s nothing nefarious about any of this: critics are only human, and we do form attachments, to winemakers, wines and particular styles of wine.

So, my friend Ian, this is my respectful reply. I’d love to get together, anytime you’re free, to chat about this; and maybe I can explain what I did at Wine Enthusiast.

Have a great weekend!


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