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On critics, criticism and bad reviews

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I think it’s perfectly fine for the restaurants and pubs in Dallas to band together and try to stop the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic from having access to them.

It’s a free country, right? Leslie Brenner, the DMN’s critic, has the right to publicly trash the restos in her column, and they have the right to collectively be pissed off and try to bring her column down.

This minor brouhaha would be of interest only to Dallas folks, if it didn’t touch upon some larger issues. Here’s the nugget of the case: The restaurants “are organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority.” Leslie is a “tough critic” whose negative reviews can be damaging to those she targets (as can bad reviews in any city, including in San Francisco, where Michael Bauer holds sway). The restaurateurs are calling for a “more nuanced system,” whatever that means. Until and if they get one, they can’t stop Leslie from visiting their venues—but they can refuse to accept her payment, and they can stop cooperating with the DMN’s photographers.

The practice is not unknown among wineries. Several of the country’s most famous critics are routinely not sent the wines from certain wineries who believe that they (the critics) are somehow prejudiced against those wines. I, myself, suffered this fate (not that it bothered me), and many winemakers have told me over the years they don’t bother sending their wines to the nation’s leading wine magazine because they don’t think they get fair treatment.

So this situation in Dallas is neither new nor particularly egregious. What I do find interesting is the particular gripe the restaurateurs have with respect to Leslie Brenner: “[T]hey’re confronting a self-described tough critic whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

“A more nuanced system.”. Hmm. That sounds an awful lot like what critics of the 100-point system say. They, too, argue that you can’t summarize wine by a numerical score. I don’t happen to agree, particularly because the point score is usually accompanied by a review in text (if anyone bothers to read it). But the truth is, there’s no system of critical reviewing that would ever make the critic and those she criticizes BFFs. Critiquing is inherently an act of defiance; nobody likes to see their product, whether it be food or wine, savaged in the pages of a metropolitan area’s leading daily newspaper (although they love it when the critic gives them a good review).

A good critic takes no satisfaction in a negative review. I certainly didn’t, and it was never fun when an angry winemaker called me up to complain, which happened on a fairly regular basis. But I do want to say this: A critic has to be fair and speak her mind, but there’s no reason for judgment to turn to acrimony. There’s a way to give a mediocre review that’s constructive, and doesn’t roil the waters with animosity and snark. There were many times when I loathed a wine so much, I want to write something like “The winemaker should be banished to a desert island and forced to drink this swill for the rest of his life.” But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.


My favorite wine books

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I gave a talk last night to the Sonoma County Wine Library on “what makes a wine book for the ages.” That’s a rather august topic, and it made me compose a list of the books in my own wine library (which is very substantial) that I have enjoyed a great deal. Here’s the list. As you can see, I prefer older books: newer ones seem more slapdash, and the writing certainly leaves something to be desired.

  1. Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury, 1934.
  2. Wines, Julian Street, 1948
  3. The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, 1934
  4. Also their American Wines, 1941
  5. Hugh Jonhson’s Story of Wine, 1989
  6. The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen, 1932
  7. All of Harry Waugh’s Wine Diaries, 1960s-1970s-1980s
  8. The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, 1969
  9. ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon, 1942
  10. Drink, Andre Simon, 1953
  11. Gerald Asher’s Gourmet articles, reprinted in soft cover
  12. I came up on Bob Thompson’s “Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines” and Olken, Singer & Roby’s “Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines”
  13. Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 1981
  14. The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson, 1977 edition
  15. Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson, 1977
  16. Wine Winemakers Dance: Exploring Terroir in Napa Valley, Swinchatt & Howell, 2004
  17. The Wines of America, Leon Adams, 1973


My Pinot Noir event in Los Angeles

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I did my first big event for Jackson Family Wines yesterday, and I think it went pretty well. Despite a downpour, we had a full house. It was on the wines of the Santa Maria Valley, especially Pinot. I didn’t want it to be a JFW thing, so I asked my dear friends Dieter Cronje, from Presqu’ile, Chris Hammell, from Bien Nacido, Dick Dore, from Foxen, and James Ontiveros, from Native9 and Alta Maria, to participate, along with Denise Shurtleff (Cambria) and Jonathan Nagy (Byron).

Everybody did such a great job; I’m so proud of them. The idea was to give gatekeepers—somms, bloggers, writers, restaurateurs, merchants—a better idea of what the Santa Maria Valley is because, frankly, in my opinion, people don’t fully understand it. That’s because it’s fairly isolated and hard to get to, without great restaurants or hotels, and the valley floor is more about row crops than winegrapes. But, oh, the terroir is perfect on the benches and hillsides for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other cool-climate varieties, as our tasting amply demonstrated.

The temperature warms up a degree or two with every mile you go inland in this west-east-running valley (courtesy of the transverse deforming action of the San Andreas Fault), so it was fascinating to taste the Pinot from the westernmost area, Presqu’ile, compared to the Pinot from the easternmost area, Byron, and everything inbetween. Sometimes, data actually verify hunches, and in this case, the data beautifully illustrate this temperature gradient. Check it out, from west [cool] to east [warmer]:

Presqu’ile [westernmost]: alc. 13.2%

Fermentation: 100% whole cluster

 

Native9 [very western]: alc. 13.5%

Fermentation; 100% whole cluster

 

Bien Nacido (central): alc. 13.7%

Fermentation: partial whole cluster

 

Foxen Julia’s Vineyard (toward the east): alc. 14.2%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Cambria (toward the east): alc. 14.6%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Byron (easternmost, warmest): alc. 14.4%

Fermentation: 100% destemmed

 

Alcohols go up as you travel to warmer inland areas. As for the fermentation, the Presqu’ile and Native9 winemakers felt the wines could benefit from the added tannins and body of stems, whereas the inland winemakers felt their wines were full-bodied and tannic enough to not need stems. Right in the middle is Bien Nacido, where you get partial whole cluster.

Isn’t that pretty? Such a sweet illustration of the way climate impacts winemaking decisions. And yet all the wines, in my opinion, showed a distinct Santa Maria Valley character: Spicy. Silky tannins. Great fruit, running towards the red: pomegranates, cherries. Great balance and complexity, as well as dryness. And great ageability. Afterwards, we had a library tasting, and the oldest bottlings, dating to 1997, were superb, among the best California Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.

I ran into a few diehard somms who would never sell anything in their restaurants besides Burgundy, and that’s just fine, it’s a free world. But really, this was a sensational tasting, one of the best I ever went to. I wish you could have been there. We had it at Republique restaurant, on La Brea in L.A., which is on the site of the old Campanile, a restaurant I enjoyed ages ago. Chef Walter Manzke prepared some small plates to enjoy with the older wines, and that food was uncannily good. I’m still thinking about it.

Afterwards a group of somms and I hung out in the front of the restaurant, talking about cocktails. I do like a good vodka gimlet. But I have to say, in all sincerity, these Santa Maria Valley Pinots are awesome, from a cru as great as any in California, even if it doesn’t get the love of Santa Rita Hills or Russian River Valley. Maybe it will now start to.

See you tomorrow!

 


Fourteen rules concerning wine blogging

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I hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend! We were down in Malibu, where we ate all the traditional foods and washed them down with a bunch of great wine.

 My post of Nov 24 elicited 32 comments (not counting the ridiculous spams, which fortunately you don’t have to see!), which is pretty good for a middle-aged blog that isn’t trying to rock the boat, but only thoughtfully observe what I see around me. Evidently, this subject of the relationship between wineries and bloggers (and the rules that can or should govern them) is of interest to many of my readers. It certainly is to me, which is why I address the topic with some frequency (hopefully, not too much!) As the Santa Barbara winemaker Larry Schaffer observes, This topic certainly has been covered before, but it’s always fun to see where folks stand on it.”

Fun, yes…and important, for as blogging (and other forms of online wine writing) become increasingly more important, it’s imperative to understand what these formal relationships really consist of. To my mind, the most important aspect of that relationship is that wine knowledge is becoming more diffuse and subjective. This is a huge game changer because:

  1. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore, because everybody is playing by their own rules (unlike the old days, when everybody played by the same rules).
  2. Bloggers, and younger generations in particular, are less beholden to the traditional way of doing things than their parents and grandparents.
  3. Therefore, there are as many sets of rules as there are bloggers.
  4. Therefore, any specific wine has a much greater chance of a great review or a lousy review than it used to have.
  5. Yet “what goes around, comes around.” What do I mean by this? See #14, below. But first, read #6 through #13.
  6. There’s no reason, in principle, why a lot of bloggers can’t decide that First Growth Bordeaux is too expensive, and is boring to boot.
  7. Thirty years ago, if someone had said “Bordeaux is too expensive and is also boring,” that person would have had zero credibility. Today, to say that “Bordeaux is expensive and boring” is a perfectly credible statement. Why? See #1 and #2, above.
  8. The inverse of this is to say that “Wine X is cheap but great.” It’s no longer necessarily true that a winemaker who selects a few special barrels of a wine, then puts extra oak on it and ages it longer before release, will produce a better wine. (Why? See #1 and #2.)
  9. When enough people agree that a “reserve”-style wine isn’t worth the extra money, winemakers will stop making reserve wines.
  10. I, personally, believe that most (not all) reserve wines are worth the extra money, but I am a Baby Boomer, and (once again), see #1 and #2, above.
  11. On the other hand, I don’t always want a reserve-style wine. We had mashed, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on our Thanksgiving table and it would have been ridiculous to drink an expensive wine with it. (Well, maybe Sauternes would have been nice.)
  12. Younger generations are more likely to eat things like sweet potatoes with marshmallows than gourmet cuisine, so they’re more likely to gravitate toward less expensive wines.
  13. In principle, there’s no reason why the age-old template of “everyday” wine versus “reserve” wine should continue to exist. Pace Andy Warhol, “In the future, every wine, expensive or cheap, will be famous for 15 minutes.”
  14. Here’s the irony. Although I believe everything I wrote above, I also believe we’ll continue to have expensive, critically-acclaimed wines forever. Why? See #5, above.

* * *

Today is our big event down in L.A., “A Tale of Sand & Fog.” I’ll be reporting on it in coming days. Meanwhile, please enjoy the rest of your Tuesday!


Happy Thanksgiving!

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I’ll be driving down to Malibu today with my family members, as we’ve done every Thanksgiving for nearly 30 years. We go to cousin Ellen’s house, on Big Rock in the hills above the P.C.H., where about 22 of us will gather for the traditional turkey. This year’s celebration also will be tinged with sadness, because cousin Carl—my father’s cousin—died, after a long illness, a few months ago.

Wine-wise, I’ve bought a bunch of Jackson Family wines—Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel. I’m not terribly fussy about what goes on the Thanksgiving table. Just pop a bunch of corks, put the bottles on the table, and let people do whatever they want.

We usually return from Ellen’s back to the Bay Area on the Saturday or Sunday following Thanksgiving, but this year, I’ll be staying right through Dec. 3. That’s because my event—the first one I ever conceived and executed at JFW (along with a whole bunch of help from my talented colleagues)—is in L.A. on Dec. 2. It will be a thorough exploration of the terroir of the Santa Maria Valley, particularly with respect to Pinot Noir. My panelists are amazing: not only JFW winemakers Denise Shurtleff (Cambria) and Jonathan Nagy (Byron), but old friends James Ontiveros (Native9), Chris Hammell (Bien Nacido) and Dieter Cronje (Presqu’ile). They’ll address every aspect of Santa Maria Valley: history, climate, soils, hills and benches, growing season and viticultural developments. After our 1-1/2 hour tasting and seminar, we’ll have a library tasting of older wines, paired with the great foods of Walter Manzke, chef at Republique, one of L.A.’s hottest restaurants.

Then it’s a flyback to Oakland, with another countdown: The week after next, I speak at the Sonoma County Wine Library on the topic of wine writing. The SCWL is a great institution whose resources I’ve utilized for many years. In fact, I couldn’t have written my books without it. This is an organization worthy of support.

We’re supposed to get some pretty fierce rain this weekend here in California, not only in the North Coast (as is usually the case) but all the way down to San Diego. That may dampen some holiday spirits, but we’re all glad that the drought finally is showing signs of weakening.

Meanwhile—I have to get this in—the a**holes were out in force again last night in Oakland, looting and vandalizing, in the name of civil rights and social justice. Listen: smashing store windows and setting garbage cans on fire has nothing to do with social justice. It’s the mark of stupid people with too much time on their hands and a vengeful attitude towards everything. I don’t know what the answer is, but sometimes I wish the 99% (the vast majority of us who believe in peaceful protest) would link arms and protect the nail parlors, pizzerias, coffee shops and gyms that these people deliberately seek to wreck.

Have a wonderful holiday!


French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

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It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


A tasting of 1974 wines (and one 1944)

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Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.

When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.

Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:

ALL 1974s:

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.

Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.

Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.

Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.

Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.

Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.

Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.

We also had, for starters, some older white wines:

1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.

1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.

1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.

1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.

I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!


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