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What wine writers talk about at dinner


We’re in NY (“we” being Wine Enthusiast’s editors, here for the annual editorial conference), and we had a nice dinner with plenty of wine. We’re staying at a cool inn in Chappaqua, the Kittle House, said to have one of the best restaurants in Westchester. The wine list certainly is impressive, one of those telephone books that makes you wonder just why it has to be so big. But it does get certain awards for its heft or what my father would have called zaftig.

We had a 2007 Grand Cru Chablis Paul Gregutt and Roger Voss loved, I considerably less so. When I said it was sour, Paul exclaimed, “It’s called acidity,” but then Paul, our Pacific Northwest editor, is congenitally complaining that California wines are too soft. We had an $85 rose Champagne that no one cared for. I had a glass of 1994 Zind Humbrecht Gewurz that was fantastic. A couple of other things not worth mentioning. But I wanted to write about what we talked about.

After the usual shop talk common to every office, it was the nature of our jobs. What is an 82 point wine. What is a 100 point wine. The trials and joys of traveling in wine country: it’s a mixed blessing, fortunately more fun than not. The ethics of accepting freebies of any kind, including meals at restaurants we’ll never review, since we’re wine critics, not restaurant critics. Being friends with winemakers whose wines we sometimes must pan. One particular thing we all agreed on was how a winery’s more expensive wine isn’t necessarily its best. This is certainly true in California, where “Reserve” frequently means oakier and higher in alcohol, but not better. I wouldn’t say wine writers are cynical–we love our work and the industry too much. But we’ve seen how producers can fool themselves into thinking that “more” equals “better” when it ain’t necessarily so.

Now it’s onto the hard work of planning the 2013 book, or editorial calendar. This is always a somewhat competitve experience, since there’s only so many pages in the print magazine. Having an online component that is essentially spaceless and therefore limitless helps all of us be able to get our stories published, but still, you can’t just put everything you want to online. At the magazine, we’re trying hard to get online standards to conform to print standards, but the nature of online’s evolution–rapid, hard to keep track of–means it’s an ongoing challenge. I myself have some very strong California stories I hope to write in 2013. I worked hard to think them up. We’ll see what survives the conference’s give and take.

My own view continues to be that California is the center of the world’s wine industry, but of course I’m prejudiced, as a regionally based wine writer should be. Anyway, the next three days will be busy ones, but I’ll try to post something here everyday.

  1. Steve, your comment : “California, where “Reserve” frequently means oakier and higher in alcohol, but not better.” reminds me of an exchange in the TV series “All-In-The-Family”:

    Gloria: Oh, Daddy. You’d put ketchup on a doughnut.
    Archie Bunker: If it needed it.

  2. Homer Simpson: Bacon! Mmmmmmmm.

  3. Steve:

    This comment is interesting: “California is the center of the world’s wine industry.”

    I’m wondering if you are just beginning your positioning to be able to defend your story pitches to the Editorial Board. Or, if you really think this is true. If it’s the latter, I’d love to know your reasoning. Obviously others might disagree. But I’d love to hear the case this position.


  4. “Obviously others might disagree.” Yup, me being one of them.

  5. Steve,

    I just sat-in as an assistant winemaker for my first blend of a “Reserve” wine, and the philosophical question of what makes a wine a “Reserve” came up.
    We decided that while more doesn’t always equal better, more does equal Reserve. More oak, more tannin, darker color. It is also more expensive, because it spends more time in oak, sees more new oak, and requires more labor.
    While I agree with your basic premise that “the most expensive wine is not always the best”, I am curious to hear how you would define a “Reserve”.

  6. Carlos Toledo says:

    My own view continues to be that California is the center of the world’s wine industry, but of course I’m prejudiced.

    Yes, you’re VERY prejudiced. From my standpoint California is a minor, minor, petty player. Traces of % in my market. Californian wines here are either horrible or too pricey. The very few excellent ones i could taste are really unforgettable.

    And i wasted my many years in the US (including one year stint in SFO) drinking cheap french wine and guiness. Laugh at my expense.

    Gawd: can i trade my soul for 20 years back in time?

  7. Well what if we just said “RESERVE: is none of the above.
    Once upon a time a long long time ago it meant that the vineyard was tended by the winemaker family, the vineryard and winery were on the same property, that the wine saw 1 or 2 or more years in oak, concrete, tile (pre-stainless steel), redwood (new or old oak did not matter) and a minimun of two years of bottle time.
    Oh, and it meant that it was an exceptional growing year!
    Today we have the ability with winery mechinization to craft drinkable wines almost over night. Are we about to reach the threshold of winemaking magic? Will we soon be able to harvest grapes in the morning and have a bottle of wine for the consumer that evening?
    Reserve wines come from great vineyards and great years and great vineyards do not need a winemaker. The wines do not have to be made with some winemakers magical dust; i.e. more oak, higher octaine, and blended with concentrate into jam.
    Is there a “Reserve” peanut butter out there to pair em with?

  8. george kaplan says:

    Chateau Latour is intellectual wine, but not Mouton . Scharzoffberger is intellectual . Chevalier, but not Batard Montrachet.
    I’ve never tasted an intellectual wine from California, unless it was one of Tchelistcheff’s BVs. It’s a cultural thing. That doesn’t mean we can’t approach Cali wines intellectually, but we hardly ever do.

  9. “Reserve” often means “putting some lipstick on the pig.” It also means, for this jaded palate, not being able to find any true varietal character in the woodpile. Give me purity!

  10. Do you mean the center of wine world is all of California or San Francisco or Napa or somewhere else. For a long time New York was the center (meaning NYC). Before that it was London and it looks very possible that it could be heading towards Hong Kong. Some might even think its Las Vegas, certainly the Wine Department at Bellagio and other big wine accounts there.

    I’d still give NYC the edge due to volume and diversity of products consumed in a very small area.

  11. Wow, I’ve been enjoying your writing for awhile now, besides you and Tom Wark, I must confess that my general opinion of wine writers is less than food critics. So many good comments here.

    Why do wine writers so rarely allow someone to tweet or fb their writing? It spreads there name without asking my followers to go to the site and sort through everything.

    Through reading these comments I found Tom Barrass, and other interesting blogs. I would love to be able to read a specific article that’s intellectually written and tell my friends/customers about it. It’s time to add the bird and the big F (for facebook) to your pages.

    Too much nonsense about reserve – most true reserve wines spend more money and more time, and in my experience it’s easily noticed. Barring mass producers tricks i.e., KJ Vintners Reserve and RM Private Selection (the biggest joke of all).

    Last item – when wine writers write about wine production, whether it’s closures, bottles, barrel regimen etc. it’s mostly garbage. I’ve read too many times a wine writers comments about things that have no science to back them up. They literally speak from their ass about stuff they should not be writing about. Just because you drink and analyze a lot of wine doesn’t mean you know anything about wine production and the elements that go into it. And interviewing one person doesn’t make it so.

  12. Arew craig, I can’t speak for other writers, but you can like my blog on FB and tweet it right from my site. Re:your final “garbage” comment, LIKE! AGREE! Too many “critics” just take everything off the tech sheet. Obviously the more professional among us don’t.

  13. Sorry to be late to the conversation, but I wanted to note that the Washington Wine Quality Alliance tackled the “reserve” conundrum and set quality standards for exactly what that means in the state. It might be interesting to look at what those standards are?

  14. that was actually a great tip, thanks mia! so far, i’ve found out that a “reserve” can be no more than 10% of a wineries production, and must be a designation of higher quality. i will keep researching. thanks again!

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