We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.
As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.
(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)
Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.
All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.
A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.
I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.
Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.
Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.
Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.
However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.
So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.
I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.
You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”
Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”
But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, “are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.
This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.
One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)
Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.
So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.
So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?
But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.
And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.
What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.
Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.
So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.
This is another of my occasional wine reviews. I’m not looking to do this a lot, but if wineries care to send me tasting samples, I’ll review them. I have no financial connection to any of these wineries.
En Garde 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $98. I gave their 2007 Reserve 95 points and a Cellar Selection back when I reviewed it 1-1/2 years ago. This was my first taste of the ’09 Reserve, but my former colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, recently gave it 94 points, and another Cellar Selection. There’s something about the aroma, right out of the bottle, that suggests fresh blood that must come from Diamond Mountain’s volcanic soils. Also an eruption of black currants, cassis liqueur and vanilla-y new oak, with something herbaceous: black olive tapenade? An impressive, well-structured, even dramatic wine, but very young. The official alcohol is a mere 13.9%, but it actually feels more spirituous than that, suggesting pairing with a well-marbled steak. You really do want to cellar it for at least six years. Score: 93.
En Garde 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $78. It’s not clear why En Garde has three major Cabernet-based wines from Diamond Mountain, when it seems like two would do: a regular and a reserve. Having said that, this “regular” Cab is quite impressive, rich and bold in blackberries, black currants, red licorice and blueberries, with a grip of tannins and the acidity to get your mouth watering. It has the same blood-iron tang as the Reserve. It’s the brightest, most accessible of the three, which is why it’s my top-rated of their ‘09s. But it also will develop for a dozen years in the cellar. Score: 94.
En Garde 2009 Adamus (Diamond Mountain); $78. I’ve always given high scores to En Garde’s Cabs, and here’s another one. It’s a rich, generous wine that, at nearly six years of age, is starting to shed its youthful precociousness and develop true bottle bouquet. There’s intensely concentrated mountain fruit, in the form of black currants from Cabernet Sauvignon and red cherry liqueur from Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot contribute additional complexities of perfume and structure. There’s a grain of rocky stone that comes from the soil that feels structurally hard in the mouth. We do have to talk about the alcohol which, at 15.5%, is quite high. It does not impact the wine itself, except to give it some body and heat. But it does make it heady. I would drink this lovely wine now. Score: 92.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 545 Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville): $29. Who knows where Cameron Hughes gets his grapes and/or wines? He’s a negociant of sorts, and the details of his deals are secret. But somebody sold this to Cameron at a great price, and consumers benefit. It’s a very good Cabernet, dry, full-bodied and richly tannic, with proper varietal flavors of blackberries, black currants, black licorice and dark, unsweetened baker’s chocolate. There’s some spirituous heat throughout, but all in all, this is quite an interesting wine that grows as it breathes in the glass. What a super value. Score: 92.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 515 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $32. Monte Rosso Cab for thirty-two bucks? Yes, and it’s a very good one. It shows the mountain concentration of this famous vineyard, with intense flavors of black currants, cassis liqueur, licorice and raisins, with a firm minerality. The tannins are wonderfully smooth and complex. At 15.4%, it’s high in alcohol, but the slight heat is part of the overall package, and the wine is balanced. This is really a wonderful Cabernet that will gain in the bottle over the next four years, but it’s fully ready to drink now. Score: 93.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 535 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29. From a Calistoga mountain vineyard. Lots of juicy cherries, licorice and red currants in this lovely Cabernet, along with a touch of cocoa powder, anise and pepper. The tannins are ultra-smooth, and there’s a great bite of acidity. Full-bodied and silky, it combines power and elegance, the way Napa Cab should. It’s an absolutely delicious wine right out of the bottle. No aging necessary, just a top-notch Cab. Score: 92.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 525 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29. This is a Cabernet that tastes more expensive than it is. It has a plush, full-bodied mouthfeel that’s so expressive in black currants and blackberries, it could only be New World Cabernet, and quite a good one, at that. There’s some oak here, too, just enough to provide a hint of smoke and woodspice. The tannins play an important role, being thick and complex, but silky, making the wine easy to drink now. You’ll find some liqueurish heat from alcohol that characterizes many Napa Cabs, but it’s nothing a great steak can’t handle, and provides a pleasant, heady buzz. Forget spending $50 or more on a Napa Cabernet if you can find this one. No wonder it’s so good; it’s from Stagecoach Vineyard. Score: 91.
Save Me San Francisco 2013 California 37Cabernet Sauvignon (California); $15. Burgers? Pizza? Tamales? Chopped liver? Sure. This wine is just fine. Don’t be snobby, just gulp it down. Shows nice, ripe blackberry jam and cassis liqueur flavors, with a touch of smoky oak. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.
Save Me San Francisco 2013 Calling All Angels (California); $15. Chardophiles will find the usual buttered toast, peach, orange, pineapple, vanilla, cream and toast flavors. The wine is a bit thin and watery, but the price is fair, and it’s clean and zesty. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.
Save Me San Francisco 2012 Hella Fine Merlot (California); $15. Tastes like cherry-flavored cough medicine, with a slight sweetness and a punch of acidity. It’s the kind of wine someone will serve you at a party, and you’ll drink it with burgers or beef teriyaki and not get all bent out of shape. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 83.
Krupp Brothers 2012 The Doctor (Napa Valley): $100. The blend on The Doctor this year is 48% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec. Tempranillo always plays a major part in The Doctor, and good for Krupp for continuing to tinker with this elusive and often frustrating variety. The 2012 is a lush, complex wine that will have you reaching for metaphors. Raspberries, blackberries and cherries are there, jammy and savory. So are violets, licorice and sage, and a leathery sweetness that may include a touch of brett. Oak barrels bring that smoky, charred wood edge, leading to a finish that’s impressively long in spices and cherry essence. With firm tannins and fine acidity, it’s a wine you can drink now, after careful decanting, but it will have no trouble negotiating the next 12 years. Score: 92.
Handley 2014 Pinot Gris (Anderson Valley); $20. I’m sure there are lots of foods that will pair well with this wine, but pot stickers surely must be among the best. It’s a little sweet, with residual sugar of 1.8%, which gives a honeyed taste to the oranges, papayas and nectarines. The malolactic fermentation was prevented, so the acidity is just right, giving the wine balance and savoriness. It’s a clean, satisfying sipper from a region that does very well with these Alsatian varieties. Score: 89.
Handley 2012 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $32. Handley’s Pinot style is to make a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine, and they’ve succeeded. The ’12 is very dry and elegant, with complex flavors of raspberries, cherries, cured tobacco, dusty spices and dried herbs. The acidity is just fine. It’s not a blockbuster Pinot, and not an ager, but a very pretty, polished and interesting wine for drinking now. The price and quality make it a good restaurant by-the-glass wine. Score: 89.
En Garde 2012 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $54. A pretty wine, silky and polished, showing lots of deft winemaking skill. The alcohol is a refreshingly moderate 13.5%, so there’s no heat to the cranberry, pomegranate and raspberry fruit. But there is a pleasing earthiness that suggests cured tobacco and dusty Asian spicebox. Plenty of acidity too, to cut through the fat of roasted salmon or lamb. It’s a bit light in body, and probably not ageworthy, but a very pleasant, upscale Pinot Noir for drinking over the next three years. The Olivet Court name refers to a part of the south-central Russian River Valley that produces distinctively cool-climate Pinots. Score: 90.
En Garde 2012 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $54. Give this wine a little time to breathe before you drink it. Right out of the bottle, it’s tight and earthy. After a little while, the prettiest aroma of raspberries emerges, although there’s still a wild mushroom scent, and the sweet, charred richness of broiled steak fat. Very fine, refreshing acidity and smooth tannins give the wine tremendous structure. The wine is from a vineyard near Green Valley, planted in the famed Goldridge soil, which seems to give it a distinctive translucency and delicacy. The alcohol is a moderate 14.1%. I would decant it for an hour or two and drink it now, or hold it for up to four years, but only in a cool storage place. Score: 92.
En Garde 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. A bit severe and brittle, with lots of acidity and a bone dry finish. There’s a nice core of raspberries and cherries, and sweet, smoky oak has been tastefully applied. But that acidity is quite searing. It’s also a little hot, even though the official alcohol is only 14.3%. Needs rich, fatty foods, like grilled salmon, to balance it out. Score: 88.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 483 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $24. For the price, this is one of the best Pinots on the market. It’s so easy to drink, with a silky texture and rich flavors of raspberries, red licorice, cola and toast. All the parts are nice; it’s just a little on the watery side. Score: 87.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 482 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $22. This is a Pinot Noir a good restaurant could sell by the glass at a very fair price. It’s a bit thin, but elegant and silky and dry, with proper Pinot flavors of raspberries, licorice, cola and spices. It has lots of vital acidity. There’s some heat from alcohol, which suggests drinking it with rich, smoky, fatty meats, like steak or lamb, although it would probably overpower salmon or sear Ahi tuna. Score: 88.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 481 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $24. Nicely dry and silky in the mouth, showing real Pinot delicacy. You’ll find flavors of cola and raspberries. The wine turns somewhat harsh towards the finish, the result of acids, tannins and some green tannins. Give it an hour or so of decanting and drink now. Score: 86.
Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 480 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $22. I don’t think this wine is capable of aging, the way many 2012 Russian River Valley Pinots are. It’s too thin. But it does offer plenty of Pinot quality, and drinks very well now, which makes it an especially good value at this price. Bone dry, with plenty of mouthwatering acidity, its flavors are fairly complex, ranging from raspberry and cherry Lifesaver candy to root beer, leather, coffee, mushrooms and exotic baking spices. Oak adds a layer of toast and sweet vanilla. If I owned a restaurant, I’d look for this for my by-the-glass program. It’s the best of Cameron Hughes’ new 2012 Pinot Noirs. Score: 90.
Save Me San Francisco 2013 Soul Sister Pinot Noir (California); $15. With Pinot Noir more than any other variety, you get what you pay for. With this wine, you get a fifteen buck Pinot Noir. It’s delicate and silky enough, and the alcohol is nice and low, but the wine is tough and gritty, with a scoury mouthfeel and thin strawberry, smoke and spice flavors. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.
Senses 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $??. This polished blush is marked by three things: dryness, acidity and delicacy. The grapes come from near Occidental, and the vineyard is sustainably farmed. The color is sort of salmon-orange, which is typical of Pinot Noir rosés, and there’s an earthiness that accompanies the strawberry, grapefruit and orange peel flavors. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.2%. It’s a lovely rosé, fancy and sophisticated. I’d love this with sushi. Sorry I don’t know the price. The winery didn’t tell me, and it’s not on their website. Score: 89.
Siren Song 2013 La Vie Est Belle Pinnot Noir Rosé (Lake Chelan): $25. The Lake Chelan appellation is located within the greater Columbia Valley of Washington State. With an unusual salmon-orange color, the wine is 100% Pinot Noir, a variety that not too many people are vinifying into rosé. It’s a good, sound wine, marked by dryness and mouthwatering acidity. Flavorwise, it’s all about strawberries with a slightly green tinge, with complexing notes of orange and lemon rind and an intriguing herbal quality suggesting dried sage. The alcohol is a refreshing 13.5%. In a day and age when everyone is trying to get a rosé onto the market, this successful bottling is a welcome addition to the club, less fruity than most California rosés and perhaps for that reason more interesting. Score: 88.
Save Me San Francisco 2013 Bulletproof Picasso Sauvignon Blanc (California); $15. This brand is from the rock band, Train, and its guitarist, Jimmy Stafford. The label depicts the famous “Painted Ladies” on San Francisco’s Steiner Street, near where Train used to rehearse. All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. The grapes hail from Monterey County, and that region’s cool climate up in the mouthwatering acidity. The wine is quite dry, with interesting flavors of guavas, green melons and lemon curd. The alcohol is a refreshingly modest 13.6%. Production was 15,000 cases. The winemaker suggests pairing with garlic prawns, and I can’t do better than that. Score: 87.
Siren Song 2013 The Muse Blanc de Noirs (Lake Chelan): $45. This is a good, proper, everyday sparkling wine. It has an invited aroma of baked dough, vanilla, limes and raspberries. In the mouth, it’s a little scoury, with vanilla bean, toast, citrus and raspberry flavors. You can taste the dosage in the sweetness. There’s a nice creaminess throughout. Score: 88.
In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”
When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.
The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?
Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)
I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.
These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.
But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?
When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.
I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: “I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”
Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.
Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”
Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.
We have another tasting coming up this Friday, this time of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. I will be writing more about that later, but I just realized that Anderson Valley was probably the last appellation of significant importance I can remember emerging in California—even though it was officially declared way back in 1983.
I mean that, for the wine press in general, Anderson Valley didn’t really hit our radar until the 1990s, and even then, it was primarily known for Alsatian varieties. Even in the early 2000s, I think if you’d polled most knowledgeable wine writers about the best Pinot Noir growing districts, Anderson Valley would barely have made the list—if at all. (Some oldtimers may disagree.) And yet, today, Anderson Valley—that pretty little cleft of land along the Navarro River tucked in between the Mendocino Highlands—is universally recognized as great Pinot Noir terroir.
So when I ask, Is California appellation-ed out, what I mean is that I think there may well be no more super-appellations in our future. The ultimate frontier may have been reached: We’re plumb out of space. Yes, we’ve had some pretty good AVAs declared in recent years: Ballard Canyon and Coombsville are superb. And yes, we’ll have more tiny little carveouts from larger AVAs: Pritchard Hill is long overdue, although legal and personal issues may prevent it from happening anytime soon. And yes, we’ve had Lodi split up and Paso Robles go positively schizo on us: if there are any master sommelier candidates who can rattle off all of its new sub-AVAs, I’ll personally promote you.
But these are all relatively small, narrowly defined appellations within greater appellations whose value has long been recognized. What I’m talking about is a brand new winegrowing region, not contained within an existing one, that comes out of nowhere and grabs the critical imagination. The Santa Lucia Highlands once did that. So did the Santa Rita Hills.* But the days of new stars emerging onto the pantheon are, I fear, over—and necessarily so. We’ve simply run out of land along the coast.
Oh, I suppose somebody could discover and develop some area way to the north—Humboldt County—or way to the south—Ventura. But it’s not terribly likely. Even if those places had the terroir to produce remarkable wines, the money isn’t there to invest to exploit them because it [the money] is too busy elsewhere, in existing appellations that are far more profitable to sell. Who would spend much money on a Humboldt County Pinot Noir? Even Marin County, which can make very good Pinot (and Riesling), will always remain a curiosity; I can’t see Marin having dozens of wineries, like Anderson Valley does, and becoming a contender.
If the coast is shut down, then the only place you can go in California is east, inland: and inland wine just has not proven to have the appeal of coastal wine. Lodi, however much you want to love it for being the underdog, and however good its old vine wines can be, simply doesn’t have selling power. The Sierra Foothills and its various sub-regions seem to have reached whatever peak they’re likely to have in the foreseeable future. Temecula? I don’t think so. Lake County seemed for a while to have a future, but that vision has evaporated, and is not likely to resurrect in the consumer’s mind, not even for good Cabernet Sauvignon, which doesn’t have a chance of competing against Napa Valley or Sonoma County and its sub-regions.
How does it affect the psyche of California wine to have finally run out of room for new AVAs? We’re told by historians that when the westward expansion of America, which is to say the westward expansion of European civilization, hit the Pacific shore, a certain turn inward ensued. An alternative explanation is that outer space became the new frontier. But we’ve seen how that exploration has slowed down since the Moon landing, despite the fabulosity of the Hubble telescope and the Pluto flyby. And we’re not likely to develop extra-Earth vineyards in my lifetime, yours, or your grandkids’. (Where would they go? Titan?) In truth, America’s obsession with what it means to be “an American” may be the sublimation of the fantastic energy that went into 500 years of Europe’s drive to the west, only to be stymied. Once it ended, where was that energy to go?
Well, a good place, I’m sure. There’s always room for improvement, isn’t there. We were a bit hurried in California in developing our appellations, which now must number close to 130. Many if not most of them were done for political, personal and financial reasons that had little to do with authentic terroir. So perhaps, now that the appellation frontier has ended and we have some time on our hands, we can revisit our important appellations to more fully understand them. I’m talking about places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, the Russian River Valley, even Alexander Valley. Admired as they are, these are stupid AVAs that have little meaning, beyond P.R. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and get down to the business of sub-appellating them in ways that make sense.
*Yes, geeks, I know SRH was carved out of Santa Ynez Valley. But it really was the equivalent of an exciting, brand new and hitherto undiscovered Pinot Noir area.
I want to revert to a topic I wrote about last week, inspired by Jim Laube in his July 31 column in Wine Spectator. I talked about the 100-point system, but today, my imagination was sparked by a comment from a reader, who quoted something else Jim said, and then asked for my opinion on it.
Jim said: “There are Pinot Noirs grown elsewhere [i.e., other than Burgundy] that compare favorably with La Tache…”. My reader then asked me if I know what some of these other Pinots might be, since he’ll never be able to afford La Tache, and presumably wants to know what he’s missing.
My immediate impression was that the guy who asked me the question seemed to think that Jim Laube was saying that there are some Pinot Noirs that are just like La Tache. Of course, Jim’s statement is somewhat ambiguous; like a Rorschach test, you can interpret it as meaning different things. To me, Jim is not saying that there are Pinots that are a carbon copy of La Tache. I don’t think he’s implying that some Pinots have the same body as La Tache, or a similar perfume, or similar flavors or finishes or ageworthiness. There might be some Pinots that possess those qualities, but there might be some that are quite different, and yet, in their own way, are as excellent. So I think what Jim was doing is something fundamentally radical—and with which I agree: suggesting that La Tache, fabled as it is alongside Romanée-Conti as one of the greatest Pinot Noirs on earth, is not quite as objectively fabulous or unique as everybody makes it out to be.
Well, if that was Jim’s point, bravo. It has to be said. Every ivory tower in the world is coming down, from those of Middle East dictators to the ones inhabited by super-critics, so why should the ivory towers of “the world’s greatest wines” not similarly topple? I ask you, my readers, who are among the most discerning wine people anywhere: can you truly say that Yquem is the greatest sweet white wine, that Latour is the greatest Cabernet blend, that La Tache is the greatest Pinot Noir, or whatever? (You can substitute any of these wines with something else you think is a classic.) I don’t think you can, but chances are you accept the notion that there are (as Jim writes) “classic[s] of the past and of the present” because you assume that famous wine critics have far more experience and knowledge than you do, and therefore there must be classics, because they say so.
What if I told you that famous wine critics are just as susceptible to falling for the conventional wisdom as you are? That famous wine critics have the same uncertainties and doubts, the same fear of looking silly, the same desire to be seen as correct? Indeed, why would they not? Famous wine critics are only human—people with jobs and careers to protect. The only difference between them and you is that they have to publish, which means their words live forever, and so they had better be careful not to put into print something that will come back to bite them in the rear end.
I’ve tried for years to demolish the old concept that the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines are necessarily the world’s best wines. It’s very difficult to get this idea through to people, because once an idea is enshrined in the popular mind, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. We have these super-myths that we accept as true because they’ve been repeated so many times, and so authoritatively, that we feel they must be true. (Example: I love the exalted status we give America’s founding fathers, as though they were angels sent from Heaven to bestow a divinely ordained Constitution upon us. I know a lot about this topic because reading about it is one of my hobbies. The founding fathers were no saints. They quarreled amongst themselves as fiercely, and with as much invective, as any Republican and Democrat today. They harbored almost violent opinions about those who disagreed with them. The Constitution—far from being a divinely perfect instrument, handed down by God on Mount Sinai—was the result of months of bitter compromise achieved with great difficulty during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. And yet Americans continue to believe that it was the product of some choir-gathering of wise men who sang Kumbaya and midwifed this miraculous document. By the way, our Constitution is a fabulous contract; it’s just that, as a people, we don’t remember how all-too-human was the system that produced it.)
In the same way, we harbor this notion that the classic wines are the epitome of perfection. They may be perfect, in their own ways, in great vintages; but they are hardly the greatest wines on earth. This is the thing I wanted to communicate to my reader who asked for my “anything but La Tache” recommendations. Put out of your head the notion that La Tache will blow your mind and transport you to heaven while something you can find in your own home town won’t. You cannot, and will not be able to, appreciate any wine, until you rid yourself of the idea that that which you cannot have, because you can’t afford it, is greater or better than anything you can have.