With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.
His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,” after having been one myself. I said, “I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: “If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:
And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going “From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”
Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.
For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?
There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.
As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!
Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.
Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.
In a few days—April 1, to be exact–California water officials will officially measure the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I’m predicting the result is going to shock the nation.
If you don’t live here, and especially if you live in the East, where it’s been so cold this winter, you can’t imagine what our “winter” has been like. Except for about ten cold days around Christmas, it’s been Spring-like ever since, well, last Spring. In fact, my local T.V. weatherman recently said, “It’s been Spring-like for the last three years.”
It’s been warm. Flowers bloom all year. Tree fruits, like apricots, are as ripe now, as I write these words, as they normally are in June. Butterflies are everywhere. I haven’t seen any bees yet, but that may be because they’re dying off. Reservoirs are almost empty; ski resorts are bare of snow; groundwater is almost empty in many parts of the state, and rivers and streams already are turning into arroyos secos. The hillsides here in the Bay Area are still green, thanks to some pretty good rains we had in December, but I would imagine they’ll be gold by mid-April.
This Drought Monitor map shows the extent of the drought, which extends throughout western Nevada and southeastern Oregon, on up into western Washington State.
The news is reporting that people are seriously thinking about alternatives to our normal water supply systems, which are ground water and Sierra runoff. There’s renewed interest in desalinizing the Pacific waters. There have been articles about towing icebergs down from Alaska and parking them outside the Golden Gate. And, of course, everybody expects that, sometime soon, Governor Brown will announce the severest water-use restrictions in the state’s history. About time: down in the desert areas of Southern California and Palm Springs, they still have vast lawns of green grass growing on golf courses and private estates. That has got to stop. When I first moved to California, in 1978, at the tail-end of that drought, the message had been given to all the state’s residents concerning toilet flushing: “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow,” the saying went. I think we’re going to have to resurrect that rule.
What this means for grape growers is unclear. Last year, in our third year of drought, there were rumblings of concern, but no panic. Yet you still heard growers saying, “If 2014-2015 is dry, we’re in big trouble.” Well, 2014-2015 is dry.
It could still rain. The truly dry season doesn’t really kick in until late May or June. But nobody is expecting much of anything. The long-range forecast is completely dry, warm and sunny, as it’s been all year. We’ve been averaging 8-10 degrees above normal for our daytime high temperatures for months. I’d love to hear from grape growers and winemakers what your expectations are. How are you dealing with the drought?
You’ve probably read about it: According to Fox News, a new study out of Spain has been widely reported to “prove” that “People think weaker wine tastes better.”
But, in fact, the study doesn’t show that at all; and much of the second-hand reporting on the study actually shows how lazy journalists can be.
For example, the Fox account of the study claims that “people think wine with a lower alcohol content tastes [better] because it allows them to focus on the diverse flavor profiles of the beverage.”
That’s a pretty sweeping statement. If you’ve been deep into the alcohol-level tall weeds, as I’ve been, you might think, “Wow, that gives credence to the In Pursuit of Balance argument.” But, in fact, if you read through the entire Fox report, you won’t find a single wine variety mentioned. You will find the implication that wine with 12 percent alcohol “induce[s] a greater…exploration of sensory attributes” than wines in the 14-15 percent range, or higher.
Well, let’s think about that for a minute. Do you really want to drink a 12 percent Zinfandel? A 12 percent Petite Sirah? A 12 percent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier? In fact, let’s be even more generous and raise the alcohol level on those six varieties to 13 percent. What do you think they’d taste like in California?
Not very good. They wouldn’t be ripe—nowhere near ripe. They’d be all sour in acidity, with chlorophyll flavors and tart green fruit. This is why California vintners allow those varieties to get ripe enough to yield wines above 14 percent and usually above 14.5 percent. In the case of Zinfandel and Viognier, sometimes the alcohol level is 15 percent or higher.
When we’re talking about Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay), the story is, of course, different. California can indeed produce splendid Pinots below 14 percent in a good vintage, as the recent I.P.O.B. tasting showed. But to use the Spanish study to “prove” that consumers don’t like any wine over 14 percent is completely misleading.
Let’s look at the study itself, not just Fox’s reporting. Its key finding—the one seized upon by so much of the media—is, “significantly greater activation [of the brain’s flavor-processing regions] was found for low-alcohol than for high-alcohol content wines…”. It is this assertion that led to such headlines as:
“Does weak wine taste BETTER?” (Daily Mail)
and “Taste Perception Higher With Lower Alcohol Wines” (The Drinks Business)
But, again, the actual study did not identify specific grape varieties that were given to the subjects. (Does anyone really think that a low- alcohol Zinfandel from Amador County or an unripe Viognier from Russian River is “more appealing” than a ripe one?) All the study says is that the wines tasted “were red Spanish [varieties] coming from Rioja, Navarra, and Cataluña),” of unidentified grape varieties (although we can presume they were old varieties like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell; there may have been some Cabernet and/or Merlot blended into them to make them richer). All of the 26 subject tasters were Spanish. From this, we can infer that the subjects all had palates geared towards Spanish (not California) wines. We also can infer that, in all probability, they are not familiar with our California wines that routinely clock in higher than 14.5 percent alcohol. And so, it seems to me, the study has very little application to an assessment of ripeness and alcohol levels in California wines.
Discover Magazine also reported on the Spanish study and also read into it things that are not supported by the facts. They wrote: “people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low.” Well, I would wager that if you give a big, tasty California Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Viognier, etc. to anyone, even Europeans, they would not and could not indict it for lacking in flavor! Some of them might not care for that particular wine—but they’d pay attention. And that’s what makes the world go ‘round: Different strokes for different folks. That doesn’t bother me at all—but sloppy reporting does. The Spanish study simply doesn’t support the “low alcohol wines are better” headlines.
Doesn’t it seem to you like these stories lately about microbes in soil affecting wine are making the concept of terroir even more complicated than we thought it was? We used to think terroir was a matter of the physical structure of the soil and the climate, or meso-climate, of the vineyard. John Winthrop Haeger, in his encyclopedic “North American Pinot Noir,” interpreted the soil part to include “orientation and aspect,” and possibly the “chemical composition.” But he said nothing about microbes.
Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist, in “The Taste of Wine” similarly referred to terroir’s “combination of site and soil,” and while he differentiated between “surface soil [and] subsoil and its water content,” he, like Haegar, has nothing to say about microbes. (For the record, as I’ve pointed out before, Peynaud takes note of the hand of man in crafting wine’s qualities in introducing the word “cru” to denote the combination of terroir and human intervention.) Even as hardcore a scientist as Clark Smith, in “Postmodern Winemaking,” refers to no fewer than “sixty five data dimensions” in soil analysis, but they have to do with structure, chemical composition and water content—not microbes.
So if this new report on the “wine grapevine’s microbiome,” published by the American Society for Microbiology and widely reported in scientific media, is true, we’re looking at a vastly more complex explanation of terroir than anyone has envisioned up to now. The study looked at “how different bacteria colonize these plants [i.e. grapevines] and also how those microbes might ultimately contribute to the wine’s sensory properties.” The study found a very close connection—almost an identity—between the “bacterial species found in the plant [and] the soil it was growing in.”
While one of the scientists who conducted the study, Jack Gilbert, conceded that “We don’t have evidence that bacteria are specifically contributing to terroir,” he firmly concluded that “those bacteria are affecting the chemistry of the plant,” which seems to pretty conclusively state that the microbes are, in fact, impacting terroir, since the chemistry of the plant obviously plays a large part in the qualities of the wine made from it.
The thing that puzzles me is this statement from Gilbert, which really requires more explanation than I’ve been able to find. “No matter where you are in the world, the types of bacteria growing on or in Merlot grapes are quite similar.” Gilbert looked at Merlot grapes or wine from Long Island, Bordeaux and California and found “similar bacteria species” in them all. Several things are unclear. Were the Merlot microbes also found in lab specimens of other grape varieties and wines? Were the Merlot bacteria substantially different from the bacteria associated with other varieties? Why should plants growing as far apart as California and France all possess similar bacteria? Does this suggest that Merlot itself can only thrive in the presence of certain bacteria?
I hope the scientists do a lot of followup work in these areas. This entire conversation about terroir has been stuck in a ditch for decades, and important new discoveries in the vine’s microbiome may help to push it forward. It will certainly give wine writers a whole new area to write about.
Yes, wine writing is “an imprecise art,” as the headline on Philip White’s opinion piece in the Adelaide (Australia) InDaily News says.
As someone who’s had lots of experience in wine writing (magazines, books, blogs), I’m the first to authenticate Philip’s viewpoint that “writing about smells and flavours and the feelings they impart is as imprecise a sport as writing about music or fine art.
I like Philip’s take. He is, himself, a wine “communicator” (his word) who “pl[ies] the waters of simile and metaphor, hoping the beloved readers at least get a feeling.” To instill a feeling in readers: that is the highest goal to which a wine writer can aspire.
It’s not always easy. Critics of wine writing (and they are legion) point to the hyperbolic, obscure, over-blown rhetoric that does, indeed, characterize much of wine writing. Philip (quoting another writer writing about wine writing) assembled a list that could stand as the poster child for stretch: “nail polish remover, petrol, burning rubber, eucalyptus, wet wool, banana, shit and lead pencil.” Not that those aromas (including “shit”) aren’t present in some wines, but the average reader can be forgiven for scratching her head and wondering if she can just, please, go about the pleasure of drinking the stuff.
But there are many different forms of wine writing. When you’re reviewing dozens of wines on a daily basis, you’re forced into certain economies of scale. Woe be the writer who agonizes—Thesaurus by his side—about this or that descriptor. When deadlines are looming, sometimes you just go with “cherry-berry” and have done with it.
Still, I take Philip’s point that “the single most important thing about wine is the way it makes me feel.” I, myself, sometimes wrote about my feelings in wine reviews, but only for the best wines: they merited more words in the review than small peasant wines, and seemed to allow for some celebratory expressions of joy—at least, the extra word count afforded me that luxury. The small peasant wines, when they weren’t very good, also made me “feel” certain things—disappointment, disgust, impatience to get it over with, sometimes anger if the price was insane—but I was the sort of wine critic who hated to say terrible things about a wine I’d already given a low score. There are certain critics (I could name names, and so could you) who seem to take pleasure in kicking a wine when it’s down and bleeding in the gutter. Not me.
But surely Philip is onto something when he suggests that communicating “feeling” is important. I tried to do that in my books; long-form writing is a lot easier to convey emotions. I try to do it in this blog. But I’ve seen writers of the “feeling” school take things too far. Some of them reach for bizarre metaphors whose meanings, if you’re not familiar with them, will zoom right over your head. Some of them bring too much of themselves into their review. I read a review, after all, to learn about the wine, not about the writer’s personality. A little personality, fine, but—like salt in food—not too much. But then, good writing achieves precisely the correct balance of all its parts: objective information, subjective revelation of the writer’s soul, literary references and so on.
I love Philip’s quote from Leonard Cohen: “Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned [i.e. in most reviews].” If I correctly understand the great singer-songwriter (who in this instance was writing about Chateau Latour), he meant that the experience of drinking Latour resulted in a particular mindset that was somehow qualitatively different from drinking, say, Margaux. I reckon that could be true only if one knew one were drinking Latour, and if one had a specific love-attachment to Latour. Anytime you do anything with love it does result in “a specific high.” But lucky is the paid, professional wine writer who can truthfully say that he finds love in all his labors. Sometimes, writing is just writing, and to make it work for readers—to make them feel—is the result of effort and talent. It is artifice: not “artificial,” but something that looks and feels like feeling, even when it is not.
It’s certainly true, as Robert Parker pointed out in his recent interview in The Drinks Business, that high wine prices are “a problem and a concern” and that they are creating “a caste system” in which “the younger generation” cannot afford top wines from regions such as “Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or from California.”
But there’s nothing really new about this situation. It’s been so forever. In fact prices for Bordeaux today, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were 100 years ago. What is interesting, to me, is the complex psychological contortions by which consumers (and some critics as well) arrive at the conclusion that price is a determinant of quality.
Long ago, vintners understood that the public suffers from this misapprehension. According to Edmund Penning-Rowell, who wrote what is still, to my mind, the most authoritative book on Bordeaux (“The Wines of Bordeaux,” 1969), “Baron Phillippe’s [de Rothschild] intense conviction [was] that Mouton-Rothschild was as good as any first growth, and for his money better than most. The only way that this [i.e. rise in its perception by the market] could be achieved was by asking a price as high as any first growth and if possible higher than all.” As Penning-Rowsell later makes clear, the Baron “was able to do this successfully.”
Baron Rothschild, of course, also was the partner of Robert Mondavi in establishing Opus One, which, at the time of its launch (the first vintage was 1979), “was the most expensive Californian wine.”
This strongly suggest that Mondavi learned his lesson in pricing from his friend. And we know, from personal experience, how many wineries, faced with tough sales, raised their prices, only to find demand radically increased.
Nowadays, the price of Opus One (about $240 for the 2011) pales in comparison to that of Screaming Eagle ($2,400 for the 2012 in the aftermarket). If your mind works the way most peoples’ minds work (including mine), it can be hard not to be impressed by that kind of price. A rational part of you thinks, “If it costs that much, and knowledgeable people are willing to buy it, then it must be one of the most fabulous wines in the world.” And, of course, these very famous and rare wines always are fabulous. But their prices bear no relationship to their quality, with respect to similar wines from similar appellations. This is why seasoned wine critics taste blind.
Back to Parker. He knows as well as anyone that the Bordeaux, Burgundies and Californians he helped push to astronomical heights can be very difficult to suss out in blind tastings. Why some people continue to buy them is, in fact, a matter for behavioral and cognitive scientists, not wine critics. As for the “younger generation,” I’m not so worried about them. They couldn’t afford Bordeaux First Growths in 1929, when Latour et. al cost nearly three times the price of Gruaud-Larose and Langoa, and they can’t afford it now.
Is price, as Bob speculates, “one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.” ? It could well be, although good craft beer cannot be described as cheap. As I, and many other, observers have noted lately, beer and spirits seem to have the wind at their sails in a way wine at the moment does not, at least in our urban centers. Another question: Has this trend been created and fostered by the media, or did the media simply pick up on something that was already occurring on the street? As usual, it’s a little of both. What craft beer and cocktails have done—which wine has not—is to rise to the level of being cool. All those tattooed young mixologists, those hip brewmeisters, the trendy bars that have popped up from the Mission to Soho—they are the modern face of beer and spirits. What is wine’s modern face? As far as I can tell, it’s a young woman who opts for Pinot Gris on a date, your grandfather, or a somm.
I don’t overly fret about wine’s future because these trends come and go. Wine has been the most successful alcoholic beverage of all time for a very good reason; and what has worked for humans for thousands of years is likely to work for them for thousands more. Nor is wine in any particular financial trouble in the U.S. But it has lost a certain frisson of coolness, or at least the perception, the optics of frisson. In reality, wine is as cool as anything: winemakers themselves are as cool as any dashing mixologist, if not as visible.
But beer, in particular, is on a roll. In Britain, the brew industry is sponsoring a “There’s a beer for that” advertising campaign, crafted by the wildly successful filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), that was launched on Downton Abbey, and also is huge on Twitter and other social media.
If the industry is to lure the under-35 crowd away from beer and spirits to wine, it has to find ways to speak to them in their own language, on their own turf. This involves an accurate and fearless study of how beer and spirits are actually succeeding. One could do worse, as an academic enterprise, to hang out in a Valencia Street bar and study who’s drinking what. I volunteer for this vital work in the field, as the Margaret Mead of the cocktail lounge.
No one much noticed last Friday’s report in the Wall Street Journal that Diageo is going to start listing calorie counts “and other content information” on its spirits, including Johnnie Walker Scotch and Smirnoff vodka, “in what it said was a first for the industry.”
That nugget was buried on page B5 of the newspaper, on the same page as the weather. But it’s big news, with implications for the entire industry.
The article didn’t say anything about Diageo’s wine brands, which include Chalone, Sterling, Blossom Hill and Rosenblum. So I went to the company’s website and clicked on the “News & Media” link, which led to a March 19 press release from the company that strongly suggests that the disclosure will include wine. There is this phrase: “Diageo believes that consumer information for alcohol is best provided per typical serve, so that consumers can understand the alcohol and nutrition content of serves of different drinks, which vary in size across beer, wine and spirits.” Moreover, at the bottom of the press release, in a “Notes to Editors,” as an “example,” the company showed a label of a Blossom Hill wine. The press release also hints that Diageo will go much further in their disclosures than simply listing the calorie content; they vowed also to reveal “nutrition information…,” although they didn’t say what specific nutrition information they will publish.
It’s unclear to me whether “nutrition information” is the same as “ingredient information,” although it wouldn’t seem so. The latter has been a contentious issue nipping at the edges of the wine industry for the last few years. Ridge Vineyards has already begun ingredient labeling, listing such things as calcium carbonate, SO2 and indigenous yeasts on the back label. Besides, as Harvey Steiman points out in Wine Spectator, ingredient labeling for wine is tricky. It’s complicated, a lot harder than ingredient labeling for, say, a can of soup. And there also are financial considerations for smaller wineries. Sometimes I think that this consumer demand to know about every micro-molecule that enters their bodies in every sort of food and drink borders on the obsessive.
Still, that’s politics. Diageo’s move is significant because, as one of the nation’s largest wine companies, they clearly believe they’re reading the handwriting on the wall, and want to get out in front of what may become a mandated trend. So be it; what will be, will be. Personally, I’m against ingredient labeling or content labeling on the actual wine bottle. That sort of thing could easily be done on a website. Everybody’s got a computer or smart device these days, so it would not be an imposition on consumers to click on a link or two. Wine labels are lovely works of art: producers go to great lengths to make them graphically appealing. To clutter them up with ingredients and nutritional data would be ugly.