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Is it asking too much for California white wines to taste dry?


It happened again. I got another email from a winemaker who was not happy that I called his white wines “sugary sweet” when, in fact, “All three of these wines are very dry” (as he wrote), and one of them was “a lot drier than the industry average.”

This is not the first instance of this sort and I suspect it won’t be the last. It raises important questions, one concerning the sensation of sweetness, and the other concerning the language critics like me use to describe that sensation. If you think about it, this is some of the most important information we can provide: where a wine falls on the dry-sweet continuum. If for no other reason, that determines what food to pair wine with, and accompanying food is wine’s supreme duty.

I think a lot of white California wines taste too sweet. What does that mean? Well, the most obvious sweet taste is sugar (or honey), so when I review a white wine that tastes like fruit juice — lemonade, limeade, pineapple — that’s how I describe it. Fruity-juicy sweet. That does not mean I have performed a technical analysis of the wine to measure exactly what the residual sugar is. I suppose I could buy some little kit that does that, but does my job include technical analysis of wine? Where would that stop? I could send my wines out to a lab for a stripdown on brettanomyces, TCA levels, etc. but I don’t see where that would make me a better wine writer. No, my job is to describe the wine the way it smells and tastes to me, as a normal human being, so if it’s “a little too sweet and sugary for comfort” (as I described one of the winemaker’s white wines), that’s what I write.

This brings up the issue of language. We wine writers do have to be careful not to make claims we can’t prove. Thus, instead of writing, “This wine has tons of new oak,” if I don’t know the precise oak percentages, I’ll write, “Smells very new oaky” or something like that. There’s a big difference. The former is a factual statement, while the latter is simply my considered opinion. You can’t sue me for stating an opinion, last time I checked.

How can a white wine taste overtly sweet when the residual sugar is .04% or .07%, as the winemaker in question told me his were? Most wine textbooks say the human threshold for perceiving sweetness is about 0.8%. I have spent the better part of my career trying to understand this anomaly. There are many reasons, in theory, why a “dry” wine can taste sweet. One is that the taster may have an unusually acute sensitivity to even the slightest amount of residual sugar, which for me is not the case. I don’t seem to have a freakish sensitivity to anything, including TCA, for which I am happy. High alcohol too can make a wine taste sweet and glyceriney. Insufficient acidity may permit a very fruity wine to taste cloying. Caramelized oak barrel staves or, even worse, phony oak infusions also can give a sense of sweetness. There are probably other factors that could account for the impression of sweetness in a technically dry white wine, and I invite people to comment on them.

At any rate, I admit to being very intolerant of white wines that taste sweet. If you read my reviews and you come across a statement that a wine “tastes sugary sweet,” let me explain right here, that doesn’t mean I’ve measured the residual sugar. It just means what it says: to me, it tastes sugary sweet.

If you’re a white wine and you want to be a little sweet, then for crying out loud, be Chardonnay (or, forgive me, Viognier). If you don’t want to be Chardonnay, then at least be dry and scoury and minerally, not a jellied fruit bomb. If you want to be an off-dry white wine (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then be off-dry and don’t be ashamed to admit it. And, of course, you can always be a full-blown dessert wine. These are California’s four choices in white wine. Anything whose image is dry when it’s really sugary sweet is not going to get a very good score from me.

My top-scoring wines of 2009


Of my 32 highest-scoring wines of 2009, all but one were red (the sole exception was Iron Horse’s appropriately named Joy! brut) and of those, 18 were Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Except for two of those (Rodney Strong’s 2006 Rockaway, from Alexander Valley, and Kendall-Jackson’s ’06 Trace Ridge, from Knights Valley), all the Cabs were from Napa Valley — from Oak Knoll in the south through Stags Leap and Oakville on up to St. Helena.

However, of the top 16 wines fully 12 were Pinot Noir. They were concentrated in the Sonoma Coast, Green Valley and Russian River Valley, but Santa Rita Hills were well-represented, with ambassadors here and there from Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Mountain. Somewhat surprising was the relative absence of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs. Is it just me or are these wines a little top-heavy? (You can see all my published reviews at Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide.)

No dry white table wine enters the list until #32, Hartford Court’s Stone Côte Chardonnay, from the Sonoma Coast. After that three Chards in a row pop up: Boekenoogen  2007 from Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Farrell 2007 from Rochioli Vineyard and Au Bon Climat’s apocalyptically-named Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard, from the 2006 vintage. As many of you know, I do like and admire a rich, ripe, oaky Chardonnay.

What all this says is no surprise. California’s three greatest dry wines are Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends), Pinot Noir (never, one hopes, blended) and Chardonnay (ditto). The reds get the nod because they’re more interesting. The same also is true in France, where these three varieties (with the addition, some would say, of Syrah in the Northern Rhône) constitute the nation’s patrimony. (Would anyone add the Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc? Speak now or hold your peace.) Why Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay are “noble” will be argued in different ways by different people. From an esthetic point of view, I suggest that when properly sourced and produced these three types of wine are the most complete and complex. (I’m speaking of California.) They drink the deepest and last the longest, and are best adapted to take on new oak. They show the greatest balance and longevity. After Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay there simply are “all the rest.” But they include some very good wines.

I wrote two days ago about the problem with Syrah in California and that generated lots of comment from readers, most of whom tended to agree with me that the variety lacks identity here. But I did have some very high-scoring Syrahs. Qupe’s ‘05 Bien Nacido X Block was way up there and so was Failla’s ‘07 Estate. Stolpman’s 2007 La Croce also did well, and I was surprised to learn it’s a blend of Sangiovese and Syrah. Perhaps there is something to be said for co-fermenting these varieties, provided that the grapes are superior. The Sangiovese seemed to add structure and acidity while the Syrah brought richness.

Not too many Sauvignon Blancs or Bordeaux-style white wines on my upper tier. Illumination’s 2008, which is 92% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Semillon and was partially barrel-fermented and then aged on the lees, clocked in at #25. I did not know, when I gave it 95 points, that it was made by Charles Thomas, whom I remember from his days at Robert Mondavi, where he presided over the Tokalon Fume Blancs that are consistently among California’s best of the genre. (I liked the actual Mondavi 2007 Tokalon Reserve Sauvignon Blanc well enough, and gave it 92 points.) There were quite a number of dessert wines I scored highly in 2009, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

It’s not likely that Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay will be dislodged anytime soon from their commanding heights. What is there to threaten them? I speak not of the cascades of indifferent, wannabe examples but of the very best. You can be an A.B.C. person but really, a great Caifornia Cabernet or Chardonnay is a world-class event. As for Pinot Noir, I am reminded of the tale that Napoleon (? can’t remember which one) had his troops bow down on bended knee as they marched past the Clos de Vougeot. There is something about that wine that approaches, well, worship, then as now.

P.S. I said yesterday I would blog today on “ten things we need more of in 2010.” It was a good idea but when I tried to write it, nada. Maybe another time.

Reflections on six of Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 wines of 2009


Now that Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wines of 2009 list has been published and absorbed, I want to talk a little about some of the California wines I reviewed which made the list. Some people have asked me how and why particular wines are chosen while others aren’t. Understand, these are group decisions and others involved will offer different perspectives. Here, though, as the reviewer/scorer, are mine.

I mentioned our #1 wine, the Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, yesterday in this blog. I’m sure that wine would have made any critic’s best-of-year list, because it’s such a genuinely fine wine in itself, and the fact most people will find it below $20 makes it a great value, which, in this economy in particular but also in Wine Enthusiast’s constant philosophy, is important. The wine is from the Santa Maria Bench, where Bien Nacido Vineyard also is situated. This terroir is extraordinary for Pinot Noir (and other cool-climate varieties but not, alas, for Bordeaux grapes which require warmth). The area isn’t well known to wine tourists because the Santa Maria Valley is a barren, windswept place with few amenities, although there’s talk down there about developing an infrastructure. Anyway, the wine’s price-quality ratio was the driving factor in giving it our top slot.

Our #4 wine was 2005 The Matriarch, from BOND, which is of course a sister wine line (if you will) to Harlan, although made from contracted, not estate-grown, grapes. Where the single-vineyard BONDs (such as Vecina, St. Eden and Melbury) all have lately cost well north of $200 a bottle to club members, The Matriarch 2005, a blend of them all, is priced at a relatively modest $90, suggesting that the Harlan team views it as “lesser”; yet I rated it (98 points) higher than any of the vineyard designates (which suggests, perhaps, a certain penchant for accessibility on my part). I once told Bill Harlan, only semi-jokingly, that The Maiden, the “second” wine of Harlan Estate, was getting so good it might soon rival the first wine, and so it was in 2005 with The Matriarch and its single-vineyard siblings. How and why would a “second” wine be as good as a “first”? Keep in mind these decisions (of which barrels to bottle under which labels) are made by mere human beings, in the guise of Mr. Harlan, his winemaker Bob Levy, their consultant Michel Rolland, the general manager Don Weaver, and perhaps one or two others; and humans, being only such, are capable of doing surprising things. No doubt the Harlan team believes in their decisions, but it is far from clear, in a blind tasting, that Harlan Estate or the single-vineyard BONDs are superior to the “second” Maiden or Matriarch. And that is why The Matriarch 2005 is one of the top wines of the year.

We then move to the #10 wine, Testarossa’s 2007 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir. It comes from the Chalone appellation and costs $39 the bottle. To tell the truth, any number of other Testarossa Pinots might have taken this slot, or even some from other producers. I think there were lots of Pinot Noirs in our list this year because Pinot is obviously the hot variety from California, the 2007 vintage was so spectacular (but wait for 2009), and Testarossa deserves a nod because they do such a good job, so consistently, from so many different vineyards. They practically invented the concept of non-vineyard-owning people obtaining grapes from famous vineyards and then crafting beautiful wines, and their prices are generally $10-$20 lower than they might be. Then there’s our #12 wine, the Sequana 2007 Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Green Valley ($50). It is clearly a fabulous wine from that cool district bordering on the Sonoma Coast, but what made it especially fun for me was that it’s a first-ever bottling from a new brand. Wine writers love new discoveries. The pedigree of the people behind the wine did not surprise me, when I eventually learned of it. The owner is Donald Hess, of Hess Collection. The winemaker is James MacPhail, of MacPhail Family. And although it may not really matter, the wine was made at Copain.

Immediately following the Sequana is Au Bon Climat’s 2006 Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay. It retails for $35, which is cheap considering the wine’s vast, Clendenenesque dimensions, which clearly put it near the top of the pile for white Burgundian-style California Chardonnays. At #18 is another Pinot Noir, Melville’s 2007 Carrie’s ($52, from the Santa Rita Hills), an achievement of considerable proportions even in this historically great vintage; Melville (with winemaker Greg Brewer) obviously deserves recognition for their long and distinguished performance. Finally, at #21, yet another Pinot, this time Lynmar’s 2007 Hawk Hill Vineyard. At $70 it’s not inexpensive, but it defines the southwestern Russian River Valley’s terroir. This is a wine I would like to have many cases of.

I had many other wines on our Top 100 list and if the interest is there I can offer brief sketches of them in future blogs.

Wine magazines dead? I don’t think so


And as proof I offer’s #1 wine of the year, Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Maria Valley.

Each year for the last 3 years,, the nation’s largest online wine retailer, publishes its Top 100 wines list, but it’s different from the top wine lists published by most newspapers and magazines, including Wine Enthusiast.’s list is “based entirely on customer preferences,” the web site explains. “The ranking reflects the top 1% of wines sold nationally on during 2009 based on unit volume.” In other words, in’s list, the company’s customers vote with their wallets, instead of editors voting their personal preferences.

But hold on. There’s one big thing’s list has in common with Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines list of 2009. Our #1 wine also was the Cambria 2006 Julia’s; our list came out a week before’s. I can explain why the Cambria was our top wine, since I’m the guy who reviewed it and gave it 93 points. What I can’t do with precision is tell you why the Cambria was’s #1 wine. But I can make an inference that’s pretty plausible.

It’s this: cites two reviews from wine magazines for the Cambria. One was mine, which appeared in Feb., 2009 in Wine Enthusiast; the other was a 90-point score from Wine News (which I believe was given by my old friend, Steve Pitcher). Add to that the fact that is selling the wine for $17.79 — considerably less than the $21 suggested retail price — and you had lots of customers buying it. A 93-point Santa Maria Pinot for under $20? Grab your credit card and start shopping!

So I’d venture to say my review in Wine Enthusiast pushed the Cambria into the stratosphere. Not bad for a paper-based wine magazine published in a time when strident voices are predicting (and possibly hoping for) the “death of print” we’ve heard so much about. If being a potent driver of sales is an indication of a terminal disease, we’re going to have to reconsider what “healthy” means.

I daresay that even if the top 10 blogs, or the top 25 or what have you, all agreed on their #1 wine of the year (which obviously isn’t going to happen), it wouldn’t be enough to cause a #1 wine at We’ve all heard anecdotes of a few success stories here and there — Capozzi selling out 1,700 cases of Pinot pre-release purportedly on the strength of pinotblogger’s blog, or Gary V. pushing product through winelibrarytv. But what you’re not hearing are the hundreds or thousands of wines that have gotten good reviews on blogs (and some of them pretty famous blogs) where the net impact on sales was lighter than a gnat’s poop.

What I’m driving at is that the better wine magazines are going to be around for a long time because, frankly, they work. As the recession lifts and the advertising climate improves, the difficulties of the past year or so will increasingly be behind us. Americans still like to read their wine magazines. That doesn’t mean lots of stuff isn’t shifting online. But when it comes to wine reviews that actually sell cases, I don’t think it’s moving to blogs or Twitter. Amazon’s Kindle, maybe, and similar portable reading devices. People may well move away from paper-based to an e-book platform, but I’m predicting that even as/when that happens, the wine magazines they’ll turn to will be the same ones they’ve always turned to, such as Wine Enthusiast. And as the #1 wine of 2009 makes clear, reviews, including those from Wine Enthusiast, will remain the single biggest driver of sales (yes, even bigger than peer recommendations!).

Spectator’s top wine a good choice, from a PR POV


I thought it was pretty clever for Wine Spectator to choose that Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $27, as their Wine of the Year.

The Spectator has gotten a heavy reputation over the years for being a snobby, rich man’s (emphasis on man’s) magazine that caters to collectors and puffed-up winemakers who want to sell to collectors at inflated prices. That reputation worked back in the old days (i.e. pre-Fourth Quarter 2008), when money was flowing and everybody wanted the latest cult wine. But it’s a lousy rep to have today, being totally inconsistent with the new national trend of modesty and inconspicuous consumption. I obviously have no way of knowing the internal workings at Wine Spectator, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the word hadn’t gone out to the effect that “Let there be something inexpensive this year.” And, lo and behold, there was something inexpensive, not to mention relatively accessible, and from a major commercial producer.

(For the record, Wine Enthusiast on Dec. 2 reveals our Top 100 Wines of the Year.)

To some extent this reputation for Spectator snobbery has never been a fair one. The magazine always has value lists and value articles, and I don’t think their staff shies away from reviewing inexpensive wines. But perception is reality, as they say, and whether fair or not, the Spectator has been saddled as the publication of, by and for the cults and triple-digit wines. When I began at Wine Enthusiast, fresh off my stint at Wine Spectator, the decision already had been made by our management to be a (hopefully refreshing) alternative, which is to say a magazine dedicated to the average wine consumer, not merely the collector. That was a philosophy I could buy into, because I have always been an average wine consumer, if by “average” you mean someone who doesn’t have the means to buy lots of expensive bottles. And, I must confess, I had been rather put off by the collector types I met while at the Spectator, who seemed to exist on a plane that was hard for me to relate to.

I think Wine Enthusiast has accomplished our goal. People, both in the industry and “just” consumers, tell me all the time they think the Enthusiast “shares their values” more than the Spectator, which often puts me in the odd position of defending the Spectator, even though they’re “the competition.” I suppose people think if they say something anti-Spectator I’ll like it, but I don’t, not really. It makes me uncomfortable.

Does the selection of the Columbia Crest signifies a sea change at the Spectator — a re-orientation toward more popularly priced wines? Probably not. I’m sure there will be upcoming verticals of Mouton, or the latest $400 garragiste wine, etc. But for the time being the Columbia Crest award removes the elitist bull’s-eye from the Spectator’s tuchas.

Incidentally, Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest Editor, Paul Gregutt, reviewed the C.C. 2005 Reserve Cab and gave it 89 points, a very good but not great score. On the Seattle Yelp page, public reaction to the award seemed proud that Washington State was honored, but at the same time, bemused. One person called the wine “very flat [and] one dimensional.” Another called it “boring,” while still another said “the choice really has made me wonder what the criteria were.” You can wonder whatever you want to about the selection, but this is true: it created buzz, it got people talking, and it’s better to have people talking about you — even controversially — than not.

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