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The history and mindset of a wine critic


Slow news day in wine country, with the harvest proceeding apace and not much else going on. So we take a little trip down memory lane. I turn to my old wine diaries, which I started in the early 1980s and continued for 15 years. It’s interesting to me to note the evolution of how I wrote about wine.

The first diary contains labels of the wines I drank and the following categories: date, color, aroma [usually] taste, food pairing [sometimes] and price. For example, here’s a Georges DuBoeuf 1981 Morgon, tasted 2/16/83:
color: deep scarlet, purple highlights
aroma: [not included]
taste: slightly frizzante, fruity, soft and balanced, delightful.
food: cheeseburgers!
note: onions hurt taste.
price: $6.
alcohol: 13.1%.

I guess I know what I had for supper on Feb. 16, 1983! It’s a pretty good note, short, sweet and to the point. I was definitely under the influence of Michael Broadbent and specifically his “Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting” which really to this day remains an ideal introduction to the topic. I like that I used the word “frizzante” which I think means slightly fizzy. It’s not a word I’d use anymore–I’d just say slightly fizzy. Why borrow foreign words if you don’t have to?

By 1986 I’d begun a system of actually rating the wines with a visual graphic: stars. I don’t know where I got that from. The San Francisco Chronicle maybe? Could have been Charlie Olken or Broadbent. Here’s a Louis M. Martini 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (alcohol 12.5%) I tasted on Dec. 4, 1986:

color: brilliant ruby, consistent (no depth at center)
nose: cherry candy. Later: Cabernet aroma, dusty, clean
taste: round, sweet and balanced. Simple, mellow, true varietal character and totally dry. This wine has aged into a completely satisfying, distinguished and wise Cabernet–for $3.79!!! Not much complexity, yet smooth, satisfying and excellent with broiled steak. Developed in glass over time.
* * * 1/2

I think my puffs went up to 5. I’m not sure I know what I meant by “wise.” Maybe sure-footed? It’s not a good idea to personify wines, i.e. call them “precocious” or “teasing,” although I sometimes do it.

When did I start using the 100 point system? I can’t say exactly, but it must have been in the early 1990s. I think I’d just started writing for Wine Enthusiast, although it would be another several years before I was officially reviewing wines for them. Here’s an early example of a wine I scored using the 100 point system.

Chateau Woltner 1991 Howell Mountain Chardonnay.
date: 9/9/93
Note: tight, lean, focused aromas of lemon, dates and spice, toasty oak, butter. Very clean, sharp and acidic. Lean, tight on the palate, flavors of citrus, but almost austere, good acidity, finishes short. May improve with 1-2 years in the cellar.
Score: 87

I didn’t note the price. Chateau Woltner, long since gone, was owned by a member of the family that owned and sold Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, in Bordeaux. I believe this wine was then the most expensive California Chardonnay, something like $60. It didn’t work for critics or consumers at a time when people’s taste in Chardonnay was turning to riper, rounder, sweeter wines.

So you can see from the beginning I had a penchant for reviewing wines, or at least writing about them for my own pleasure. I never thought that anyone would read my notes, or want to; never thought I’d be doing it professionally. I just liked the experience of sitting down with a glass of wine and taking a little time to get to know it better. Don’t really know where that came from. I collected stamps as a kid, so maybe the two are connected. I also always liked to write, to put my thoughts and feelings into the English language, on paper (now, on computer). I still do. Putting a liking of wine together with a love for writing just led naturally to being a wine writer. I’m amazed I get paid to do it.

  1. doug wilder says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane, Steve. I have an old California Winery recipe book and I would write the date, and who I cooked for in the margin. Reminds me to go dig that up, whereever it is. You are right about Woltner, it was expensive Chardonnay at $60. I think they named it Titus, after their dog. It is now Ladera on that site.

  2. As a person not adverse to a wisecrack, it seems to me that associating a wine with a dog is begging for it.

  3. Kurt Burris says:

    Enjoyable read Steve. My wife and I have often said it would be fun to taste the wines we drank when we were first married/dating in the early 80s. (Magnums of Mondavi Red Table when it was still produced in Napa and Tyrell’s Long Flat Red were a couple we could afford to drink regularly) But the hard part is I to taste them as they were drinking 30 years ago. Without access to a time machine that might be tough, but is still fun to speculate about.

  4. Dear Kurt Burris, I remember those Bob Reds! And Bob Whites too. They were extraordinary finds back in the early 80s. Do you remember the J. Arthur Fields magnums? They were good too. Nothing like that anymore.

  5. Lovely column. Thanks, Steve.

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