We subscribe to about a dozen authors and institutions that rate wine with numerical scores. We like them, they are informative. But they require a lot of study and context. The best reviewers are the most consistent, and you can understand why they gave the score they did. And whether you agree with it or not, it becomes far more useful information than just a number on a tag.
Take the 2010 Charles Smith Royal City Syrah. It got 99 points from the Wine Advocate. If you just look at the score, you can be pretty darn sure someone liked it a heck of a lot. But look into it a little more. Jeb Dunnuck wrote that review. Jeb used to publish The Rhone Report before he went to work for the Advocate, and he's pretty biased about loving Rhone varieties (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you read his reviews in both publications, you can also detect a bias toward darker fruit, lower acid levels, high extract, and silky texture. If you read a couple of hundred of his reviews, you know exactly the kind of wine he would give 99 points. Over at the Wine Spectator, that Royal City got 97 points. Still a monster score, but it was reviewed by Harvey Steiman. Harvey is editor at large at the Spectator and he loves Oregon wines. If you read the whole body of his work, you can begin to understand that he probably knocked off a few points for the high alcohol level, and would have wanted just a touch more acidity in that bottle.
Let’s look at a more extreme example. Robert Parker Jr. gave the 2003 Chateau Pavie St. Emilion a score of 97-100 points. Jancis Robinson gave it a 12 out of 20, roughly 60 points on a 100 point scale. This is a set of scores that can only be understood in context. Robinson is a Master of Wine who believes that a wine should taste of it’s place. She thought the Pavie tasted like a late harvest Zinfandel - deep, rich, alcoholic, and not at all proper for wines from St. Emilion. Parker didn’t care, he just thought it tasted great. It’s only by knowing their story that a consumer could say "It’s a darn good wine that isn’t normal. And if that bothers me, I shouldn’t buy it."
Context is everything. The reason this is salient right now is that Wine Spectator just came out with their California Cabernet Report - one of their most important issues of the year. They are rating the 2012 vintage and gave the Napa vintage an overall score of 96 points. That’s way up from the 2011, when rain and rot deviled many producers and the overall score was only 86 points. According to the article, fully 25 reviewed wines scored 95 points or better.
If 2012 was so good, how do they explain all these mediocre scores at the back of the article? There are an awful lot of $200 wines in that guide at 88 points or so. Now 88 points is a solid score, but not at $200. In addition, lots of wines that are considered benchmarks scored a lot lower than they should have in a vintage rated 96. BV Latour, Bond Quella, Duckhorn, Ghost Block, Vineyard 7&8, and dozens more all got 90 points or less. What gives here? Well, if you’d been reading the weather and harvest reports throughout the 2012 season, you know that a lot of winemakers were really nervous about the return of the late season rains which ruined the previous year. They picked early and under-ripe, gambling that good weather would not hold. Those who did wait for harvest got rewarded for their gamble, and otherwise very talented winemakers who gambled the other way were not so lucky with their scores. So despite that fat 96 point rating, you can’t just be sure that a Napa Cab is going to be good in 2012. You need the context.
In closing, go ahead and pay attention to scores, but they’re not objective. They are part of a larger story that is part of the magic of wine. Every year, it’s something new and finding the gems is worth the effort and reading. Alternately, just come to the store, taste, and buy what you like rather than what someone tells you ought to be good.
In recent years, sommeliers have become rock stars, aided by the release of the movie Somm and dozens of articles in popular magazines. The image of the Sommelier profession has gone from a stodgy old man with a silver tasetvin presiding over a dusty tome, to a young person in a tight suit leading diners to delicious new regions and grapes. I admit to a little bit of sour grapes (pardon the pun) as a Master of Wine (MW) student having to explain the difference between the MW and MS (Master Sommelier) and how the MW is, frankly, a little less hip.
A great sommelier can bring the food and wine pairing experience from something satisfactory into the realm of revelation. For example, a steak and big Bordeaux pairing is classic and safe pairing, the new generation of somms will go nuts with reds from Etna, Taurasi, Morocco, or South Africa. The excitement of new experience and the quality of wines from those regions can be transformative at the dinner table, and Somms deserve a lot of credit for that work. In the realm of retail sales, they have also been instrumental in raising the profile and export fortunes of many a region, championing both traditional and newly emerging sites.
The trouble with rock stars comes when they start to believe in their own hype. I’ve worked for years in the hospitality industry, and you can never lose sight of the fact that you exist to provide your guest with a great experience. Chef, line cook, sommelier, the person who fills water glasses, it doesn’t matter. Guests are the stars of the show, we are the backstage hands. Which is why I was so upset to read this wine list from a trendy eatery in Los Angeles.
I’m not going to name the place or the somm, because this post isn’t about shaming a bad apple so much as my philosophy of good wine service. ...But I will set the scene… The restaurant’s ads for front of house staff require head shots because they only hire beautiful people. The somm is one of the most famous on the left coast. This is what he thought was an appropriate list to celebrate his knowledge and ability:
Some have written that this list is brilliant, thought provoking, and challenging. Folks, it’s a hot mess. The central organizing feature is some people’s first names. It is poorly spaced, has several typos, and is difficult to read. It is also devoid of all meaning, in the very way that those old dusty tomes of full of French names was also impossible to read. Some entries are vineyard sites where several wineries source fruit like Kick Ranch. Some are names of grapes or places. One just means “old vines” without anything other information and another is just a technique of treating grapes. Kistler isn’t really a wine from the producer Kistler, it’s a cocktail with some bourbon in the glass. To add insult to injury, reviewers have said that most of the beautiful waitstaff has no real information to guide the diner. One must instead depend utterly on the mind that created that list, that “hostile document.”
Only two-thirds of Americans drink alcohol, and only one third of the drinkers choose wine. there are many reasons, but one of the most important is the perception of snobbery. They feel excluded from the experience, and how does this list help? A guy with a Diploma of Wine and Spirits can only tell you what a small percentage of this stuff even is. What chance do those two-thirds of excluded people have? Don’t these people love wine and live to share it with people?
Wine is a passion for us at Wardman Wines, and nothing makes us more excited than sharing our passion with others. When a customer asks me what they should drink, we ask them what they usually like to drink. And while there is a certain delight to many of wine’s mysteries, we don’t beat people over the head with them, and we certainly do not create new mysteries to drive the drinking public away. That’s the Wardman Wines philosophy anyway. Guess we won’t ever be rockstars, but we bet we make more people happy.
It's almost Champagne day, er, New Year's Eve! We are having a Sparkling Wine tasting this Wednesday to help bring in the year. Here's hoping it's a joyous one.
The poor French have been having such a hard time getting everyone else in the world to stop saving the good stuff for special occasions. The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was famous for drinking Champagne for breakfast, and she was on to something, it does pair with almost every food on Earth.
Here is one of my favorite recipes for Champagne. It is a cookie invented in the 1690s and is meant to be dipped into the bubbly as you eat.
Biscuits Rosés de Reims
Preheat the oven to 300°. Mix the yolks, sugar and vanilla in a bowl using a hand blender with a whisk attachment, on increasing speeds over a period of 5-6 minutes. Beat in 2 of the egg whites for another 2 minutes. Beat in the remaining 2 egg whites with the food coloring and extract for an additional 2 minutes until the mixture begins to form stiff peaks.
Sift the flour, cornstarch and baking soda into the bowl, folding in gently with a spatula. You want a final result that is smooth and uniform in color. Scrape it into the pastry bag.
Cover a baking sheet with wax paper and grease it with either butter or non-stick spray. Squeeze out strips of the mixture that are 1/4-inch wide (about as wide as your finger) and about 3 inches long. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and bake for 15-20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. (You don't want the biscuits to start browning though, or else they won't be pink!) Take the biscuits out, sprinkle them with more powdered sugar and place them back in the oven for another 12-15 minutes.
When you take them out, quickly cut the edges of the biscuits so that you have even rectangles. Do this before they cool, or else they become rather difficult to cut. If they cool before you finish, you can place them back in the oven for a few minutes to soften.
I became a fan of wine through a method that has been my guiding light for Wardman Wines. For many years, my method of choosing a bottle was to go to stores frequented by diplomats, then buy whatever they did. This method was only slightly better than blindfolded picking!
But then I found David. He was friendly, asked what I usually liked to drink, how much I was comfortable spending, and what (if any) food I was planning on serving. What really got me hooked, though, was when I came back in and he remembered me. We talked about what I liked or didn't like about his recommendations and used that information to guide his next suggestion.
The problem was time. In the beginning, David and I talked a lot about Australian Shiraz. There was lots of great stuff in my price range and always a new thing to try. But gradually, those bottles ended up getting great ratings, and the price went up! Many times, I got a fantastic bottle for $20 that got a 90+ rating from critics. When the next vintage hit the stores, it would be $30 or more. Those that had stable pricing became rare. I had to move on.
Value is a moving target. Every time you find a region you like that represents great value, there is a fairly large chance that thousands of other people are finding the same thing! Eventually winemakers catch on and cash in.
You used to be able to find, for example, great Napa Cabernet for under $30 and Oregon Pinot Noir for $20. Now, those are unicorn wines (rare and unobtainable). Argentine Malbec was a revelation for $15, but now that price point is a minefield of overcropped and underripe mediocrity. And someday soon, the Spanish economy will recover from its malaise, and we will start being charged the true value of all those delicious old-vine Grenache and Tempranillo offerings.
If you think a particular grape of region is a great deal, it won't be for long. You just need a zen attitude and an adventurous spirit. They make wine all over the world, and as the trends move around, others are always appearing. Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, Austrian Blaufrankisch, Pinot Noir from Patagonia, these and many others are on the rise. Be curious, talk to your local wine geek (hopefully us at Wardman), and get ready for the good stuff.