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When does “different” become “flawed”?



Went to a nice little Sauvignon Blanc tasting yesterday at Josiah and Stevie’s Bay Grape wine store.

It was only four wines, but they pretty much spanned the gamut of world Sauvignon Blanc styles: cool-climate, warmer climate, unoaked, lightly oaked. For me, the top wine, an absolute charmer and classic, was the Francois Cotat “Les Caillottes “ 2013 Sancerre. Just what I want: bone dry, fierce acidity and super-racy, brimming with minerals and grapefruits. There was that slight herbaceousness, like a whiff of green bell pepper, that added to the complexity. For food pairings, I thought of a salad of frisée, goat cheese and grapefruit sections, in a vinaigrette; but something also made me think of tempura, in a light, tamari-based dipping sauce.

Next in my faves was Domaine d’Alliance “Definition” 2013, with an IGP Atlantique appellation. It was quite similar to the Sancerre in the racy acidity and lemongrass, but the addition of 50% Semillon fattened up the middle. A very classy wine.

Compared to those two the Sarapo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, with a Sonoma County appellation, seemed somewhat flaccid and heavy-handed. A good wine, but this just shows the importance of context when tasting. We were told it’s a blend from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley. I fancy Dry Creek brought a riper note of figs, but the wine just didn’t have the lift and savoriness that I want in Sauvignon Blanc. Others liked it more than I did.

If I were formally reviewing the fourth wine, I’d give it a failing grade: Momo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough. One sniff was enough to make me wince: I picked up a strong, offensive smell of dirty, sweaty sox. To me that signals brett; another taster insisted there was no brett, that this was just a signature of Marlborough. The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk. It always troubles me when another respected taster has an opinion so different from mine. I looked up other professional critical scores: 86 from Wine Spectator with no mention of dirty funk; 87 in the Advocate; nothing in Enthusiast; and nothing for the ’14 in Vinous, but Tanzer did review the ’12 and called it “musky…with a complicating note of game.”

Fair enough: but speaking for myself I don’t want musk or game in my Sauvignon Blancs! I made this point rather forcefully at the tasting, and a few of my compatriots replied that, while the wine is not “classic” nor for everyone, it does represent a certain eccentricity that some people, somms in particular, are looking for these days.

Here’s what I think: There’s a reason why “the classics” are the classics. Being different just for the sake of being different does not mean the wine isn’t bad! Some people are looking to break the rules, but at what point does breaking the rules result in dirty wines that would get you thrown out of U.C. Davis? I realize that progress has to be made in wine—styles don’t always remain the same, otherwise we’d all be drinking the resinous wines of ancient Greeks. But I do think that there’s a tendency on the part of some somms and other younger tastemakers to go for the bizarre. If you have a wine like that, you may like it—or think you like it, because you think you’re supposed to like it, because somebody better known or more experienced than you liked it and therefore you fear that if you don’t like it, you’re not cool.

But these are wines I call Andy Warhol wines: they will be famous for fifteen minutes, and then fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. There are standards; there are rules, established not by authoritarian fogies but by a thousand years of human experience. Outliers do not last.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    Excellent piece! It illustrates why I’ve stopped drinking “natural” wines for now. I’ve tried too many weird and/or bretty French wines over the past year or so. I like finding “different” wines, but not bad wines. As one older French friend with an eclectic cellar said to me years ago when I asked him if there was any wine he didn’t like: “Le mauvais vin” (“bad wine”).

  2. Steve, thanks for letting Robert Parker write this guest post! 😉

    There is no shame in having a style bias and to reflect that in your assessment of a wine. However, it seems excessive to categorize a wine as bad and its drinkers lemmings because it’s not the squeaky-clean and/or varietally-correct style you expected.

    I have zero experience with that wine and indeed it might just be a simple fault that makes the wine unpleasant. OTOH, it also might be a combination of clonal material, terroir and winemaking that creates a wine that just doesn’t taste like a machine stamped Sauvignon Blanc. It certainly seems like there should be a role for wines like this – especially compared to “flaccid and heavy-handed” Sauvignon Blancs that get a pass.

  3. Michael Brill, it’s the slippery slope syndrome. Once you accept that a stinky, bretty wine can be interesting, and even appealing, then where do you stop? How about V.A. or TCA? I’m saying there have to be standards.

  4. “The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk.”

    Yup…..someday you should explain those risks to PaulDraper, Steve.

    As for a “slippery slope”, if you accept your claim that a “different” wine is a “flawed” wine…it is, indeed, very slippery. You show a RRV PinotNoir to any Burgundian winemaker, and he will point out as being “different”..but I very much doubt he would claim it to be “flawed”.

    I would like for you to extend your arguments on “different” wines being “outliers” to the recent proliferation of skin-contact whites that are being made in Calif. They are often certainly “different”. But these “outliers” being short-lived???? I think there are probably a few folks in Georgia who might argue otherwise…having made their wines in this “different” style for..ohhhh…maybe a few centuries.

  5. TCA is always a flaw. But every wine has some VA, brett-derived aromatics, etc. … it’s not so much of a slippery slope because most of the time winemakers aren’t intentionally introducing these. It’s just a matter of degree, how it reflects in that wine, and what the drinker’s personal preferences are. e.g., I like some leather in wine but not band-aids.

    This makes it complicated for reviewers… especially since there are no simple ways for reviewers to classify wines by type. Your job is often to highlight faults. But one person’s fault is another’s prized attribute.

    Personally, I have a very pedestrian taste in white wines – refreshing, high-acid, low-alcohol, lots of aromatics… probably 95% French/Italian. I hate funk, fatness, oak, and anything else that gets in the way of fruit/stone. So I would probably dislike the SB as much as you did.

    OTOH, if someone told me the biodynamic backstory and went on and on about how interesting the wine was… I’d have a completely different perspective and there’d be a decent chance I’d actually convince myself to like the wine. This goes back to the context issue.


  6. Outliers don’t last? Outliers are a source of the new. Outliers dare to challenge the norms. Outliers make life more interesting. Edgar Allan Poe was an outlier in his time, as was Debussy, Kandinsky, Judy Chicago. Just because it’s an outlier does not mean that it’s great; some are indeed stinky & bretty & whatnot. Not every wine that Scholium or Rorrick or whoever makes is great. But a blanket condemnation of outliers runs the risk of narrow-mindedness.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    “Outliers are a source of the new.”

    Such as this approach: using carbonic maceration to make white wines from grape varieties that have skin tannins. (Examples: Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris.)

    And yes, they do exist: in Oregon, in Austria, in Australia, and I suspect maybe even in places such as The Georgian Republic.

    In a few weeks I will be attending a Jura wines trade tasting in Los Angeles:

    Wines that comprise a black hole of ignorance on my part.

    I go into the tasting with an open mind.

    (Aside: technically flawed wines can still be sublime.

    Google this Slate article by Mike Steinberger:

    “The Greatest Wine on the Planet;
    How the ’47 Cheval Blanc, a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good.”

    I can’t imagine anyone turning down a glass of this outlier.)

  8. Regarding the native fermentation versus “store bought yeast” and the comment regarding Draper from Tom Hill; Draper (Ridge) has the advantage of being in the same facility since inception. They understand their environment, what grows there and have been doing native fermentations since inception.

    Contrast that relatively controlled native fermentation situation at Ridge with a crushpad of 10, 20, or 30 different wineries, each using different commercial yeasts and native yeasts. Native yeasts are always present on the grapes and in the air. There are no absolutes in a fermentation.

    The commercial yeast, with offer more consistent results. Whether or not that is “better” or even dominant is often the subject of debate. Commercial yeast is all about control. If you did a genetic analysis, you might find 3, 4 or 5 strains present, heaven knows which one finished off the wine.

    I’ve had native yeasts take off an hour after delivery of fruit on a cloudy and cold day, while others didn’t ramp up till day 4. What happens if I wanted to do a cold soak on my red wine for 5 days prior to primary fermentation? Whoops! The native kicked in. I can hit the must with SO2 and turn the glycol chiller on, that will probably stop the native from kicking in. Or I can immediately inoculate.

    Native does not equal higher potential for wine flaws such as VA or “better” or “more natural” wine; it just leads to greater potential risk and uncertainty if you have no clue to what you’re doing or you’ve been in the business for 30 year! If you’re Constellation you want consistent predicable fermentations and wines. Again, risk, control, uncertainty, consistency; what’s the goal?

    As for the “outlier” idea in wine, peppery, low alcohol Dry Creek Zinfandel has become an outlier these days. More typical now is a higher alcohol fruit bomb, which I don’t personally care for. The style has changed. On average, the wines are not flawed (other than higher VA levels in some wines), but what the public demanded has changed. A 16% bomber Zin would have been an outlier in 1986, not so in 2016.

    As for a “flawed” wine, I would hope that poorly made wines that smell like BandAids and the back end of a horse will not become the norm. However, I can say that I was with some somms recently at World of Pinot and tasted some wines from their personal stash that tasted a whole lot like BandAids. I was the outlier picking up that smell, they decided to give the smell a less derogatory term, “clean room, you know, like what you would expect in a Silicon Valley microchip plant or medical device assembly room.”

    I’m also really good at smelling BS.

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