Archive for the ‘Scores’ Category

Richard Elia, founder and publisher of The Quarterly Review of Wines, has posted on its website an eloquent explanation of his magazine’s closure as a print publication late last year, after 35 years. A sad occasion, but a sign of the times, perhaps: The Wine News had preceded it into oblivion a few years before, and wine articles had disappeared from general-interest magazines before that. Newspaper circulations are down, and internet wine information (soi-disant) is proliferating. All that leaves not much room for a journal that aimed at sophisticated wine drinkers of passion and discrimination, already a seriously self-limiting audience. (Does that sound snobbish? I think of it as factual.)

The last issue of QRW

Elia’s online essay is called “Wine’s Decline: The Romance of Wine Is Spent,” and it laments the replacement of wine’s formerly colorful cast of characters – Elia cites André Tchelistcheff, Alexis Lichine, André Simon – by faceless and characterless corporate types. Even more distressingly, he deplores the submersion of the passion and drive to make great, personal wines in a flood of market research and numerical ratings. (Read his essay here. And see also the commentary of Tom Hyland.)

Elia makes a strong case, and a moving one: Much indeed has been lost. There are no more Luigi Veronellis or Giorgio Grais, no Edoardo Valentinos, and all too soon there will be no more Franco Biondi-Santis. Pioneers like Renato Ratti and Giacomo Bologna are long gone, as are retailers as passionate and devoted as the still-lamented Lou Iacucci – that is now a rare breed indeed. I could give you similar doleful litanies for France and California, but the easiest way to see what has passed is to look to Bordeaux and see how many estates are now owned by corporations or insurance companies or banks or have been conglomerated under a single ownership. What used to be proudly idiosyncratic is now the province of suits. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.

And yet, and yet …. It ain’t all bad. I’m certain I qualify as an old fart, and I know I’m as much given as anyone to lamenting the passing of the good old days. I agree emphatically with most of what Elia says. Particularly I deplore, as he does, the noise levels in restaurants that make conversation impossible and paying attention to what you’re eating and drinking difficult at best. That’s why Diane and I seldom dine out any more (actually, that and restaurant wine markups), unless we can find a restaurant that still believes its primary purpose is to feed its clients rather than deafen them.

But for those of us who love wine, as Elia surely does, it has to be admitted that we are in fact living in a golden age of wine. There is more good wine being made today, by more people, in more places, than ever before.

Yes, there are oceans of grape swill being made as well, and they will continue to be made and marketed as long as there are people foolish enough to buy them. We’ve all encountered people who drink wine – why, I’ve never understood – that they purchase by price alone. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve met a publisher of a small newspaper who told me that he doesn’t believe in spending more than $3 for a bottle of wine.

But, but …. There is an up-side to all these downs. Because of that technology we too often complain of, because of those crass commercial incentives, because even of global warming (think of the string of great vintages in Burgundy and in Piedmont), but most of all because there still are winemakers out there who care passionately about what they’re doing, people who would probably still work their hearts out to make great wine even if they couldn’t command the kind of prices for it that the market now allows – for all those reasons, I think this is not the time to give up on the wine world.

I don’t think it will ever again be the kind of clubby little knot of connoisseurs it once (supposedly) was. But the passion that I see in winemakers in France and Italy (the areas I know best), the curiosity to explore neglected varieties and to preserve local traditions – those are things that tell me that the romance is still alive. Yes, I’ll admit that one man’s romance can be another man’s hype. I can even accept that the same thing can be both; there’s a market too for folklore and traditions. But that doesn’t alter the fundamental fact: A person willing to take the trouble to learn a little bit can easily find fine wines to reward the effort.

The rub, perhaps, is “taking the trouble to learn a little bit.” As Elia observes, nobody seems to want to do that anymore. Nothing – nothing of any sort – teaches you about wine like the drinking of it, tasting a wine by itself, with different foods, in different vintages, in comparison with other similar and dissimilar wines. But that takes time and effort and a willingness to pay attention, take notes, and remember. Apparently – and Elia is surely right about this – most people can’t be bothered to do that, when they can call up a numerical score on their iPad and place any wine exactly in its predestined place in the wine universe and be assured thereby of their own exquisite taste. If you can buy expertise and knowledge the same way you buy a pair of shoes or a new app, who needs experience?

Regard that question as rhetorical: We all need experience. There is – ask any wine professional – a huge difference between theory and practice. Just knowing the number that the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator assigned a wine tells you exactly zero about the wine, and less than zero about how much or little you will enjoy it. Only your own experience will tell you that – and people who are now starting to foray into the world of wine are blessed beyond measure by the bounty of splendid wines available for them to learn from.

Despite that, some no doubt will settle for plonk. Some will become the kind of wine poseurs we all hate. But some surely will catch the passion and carry on the tradition of discrimination and refined enjoyment whose passing Richard Elia – prematurely, I hope – laments.

Postscript:  I received this e-mail from Burton Anderson. I’m posting it here so that I can provide a link to his book excerpt.

Dear Tom:  Just read your new post and, of course, found myself in total agreement, not only with your words but also those of Richard Elia. For what it’s worth, I’ve attached an excerpt from a chapter of a book I’m working on.

Best, Burton

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Every year around this time, The Wine Spectator publishes its list of the year’s 100 most exciting wines. This year’s list has duly (you may read that with two “l”s) appeared, and it disappoints as deeply as ever. For years now, for me the most exciting thing about the Spectator’s Hundred Best List has been its omissions.

If the Spectator was as insignificant as this blog, I would have no quarrel with its listing anything it wanted. But the Spectator is influential, if only because retailers and public relations people keep citing its numbers – its numerical scores, based as near as I can tell, on a 20-point scale of 80 to 100 – as if they were engraved on stone by the finger of the Almighty. In my opinion, they are written on water by very fallible human beings, and I often find the Spectator’s evaluations and comments on wines wildly off the mark. For me, the Spectator’s Hundred Best List concentrates all its quintessential off-the-mark-ness in one splendid spot.

Let’s start with some numbers, since the Spectator is so fond of numbers. Of any given year’s hundred best wines, how many would you reasonably expect would come from the Old World, the homeland of Vitis vinifera? Just think of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Let’s not complicate things with Germany or Austria, Greece or Hungary. Would you say fifty percent? Maybe even two-thirds? Dream on: Those four great, historic wine-producing nations get fewer citations among them than does the American west coast. California, Washington, and Oregon, according to the Spectator, last year produced a full third of the world’s one hundred finest wines. California by itself gave the world one-quarter of them – 25 listings to France’s puny 17, Italy’s weakling 9, and Spain and Portugal’s near-insignificant 6.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

If you count in the Spectator’s other New World listings – Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina – the US and the rest of the New World last year gifted us with a full fifty percent of the top wines in the world. Oh: I almost forgot – fifty-one percent if you throw in the list’s one New York wine.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

Some inferences are fair from these numbers. Given the preponderance of New World wines and the strong presence in the European listings of international-style or “auteur” wines, it’s obvious that the Spectator’s tasters have markedly California palates. That makes it very difficult for them to appreciate wines that aren’t strongly fruit forward, that opt for elegance, balance, and restraint over vigor, or that show a marked acidity. Those three characteristics describe most of the estimable wines of Europe, which means the Spectator is largely groping in the dark when it comes to evaluating them.

This was very vividly demonstrated for me a few years back, when the Spectator’s then Italian stringer James Suckling (more about Mr. Suckling below) pronounced 2000 Barolo a perfect, 100-point vintage. When most of the rest of us who regularly cover Italian wines stopped laughing, we wept. That corps of journalists of many nations (in whose company, by the way, neither Mr. Suckling nor anyone else from the Spectator has ever been seen) pretty unanimously considered 2000 at best a middling, not to say mediocre, Barolo vintage. It had been marred by excessive heat, so that at harvest many grapes were over-ripe while the tannins were green and harsh.

To hide these defects (though you really can’t hide them, if a taster is paying attention), a lot of producers aged the wines in new or heavily charred barriques. The result: wines with plenty of fruit up front, with a layer of oaky vanilla or espresso from the barriques, and harsh, biting tannins behind – essentially unbalanced wines, with little prospect of cellar development. (Most 2000 Barolos are already dead, bitter tannic corpses.) That’s not exactly what anyone but the Spectator would call a classic Barolo vintage – but hey! It had lots of fruit. Pity the poor souls who bought it on the Spectator’s recommendation with the thought that they had acquired a classic, long-lived Barolo.

The Italian selections on this year’s list merit some closer attention. One is an Amarone (Zenato ’06; good but very, very young) and one is a Pinot Grigio (Atems ’08: a nice wine, but one of the world’s top 100?). The other seven are all Tuscan wines. Think about that: not a single Barolo or Barbaresco or Gattinara or Ghemme. No Barbera or Dolcetto. Not a wine from the Marches or Abruzzo, Puglia or Sicily. Not a single bottle from Campania – no Taurasi, no Fiano, no Greco. Not a white from Jermann or Gravner or the whole of Alto Adige.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

I am not one of those who think that the Spectator is just the journalistic arm of the California Chamber of Commerce. But I am certainly one of those who wish that the Spectator would either learn European wines or just leave them alone. As matters now stand, I really believe its pronouncements do far more harm than good: They misdirect people rather than enlighten them.

Postscript: It gave me some hope a little while back when James Suckling left the Spectator. I thought that just maybe the Spectator had gotten embarrassed about the Vintage 2000 fiasco and that we would hear no more such gross misjudgments from Mr. Suckling. Alas, I was wrong. He’s back. What his PR agent calls “the wine world’s most important voice” – so much for Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates, Parker and Spurrier, Broadbent and Sutcliffe, and all the rest of the world’s apparently-Suckling-wannabees – is starting up a website. I looked at the trailer for it (no, I’m not going to give you the URL) and I would certainly rate it at or near 100 on the pretention meter. If nothing else, I will check it regularly in the future for its inadvertent comedy content. If you can’t beat ‘em, you can at least laugh at them.

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My mailboxes – the hard-copy one and the electronic one – have been overflowing lately with announcements of wine sales. If I still had any discretionary income, I’m sure I’d be buying – especially since every sale seems to feature wines of extraordinary quality. Of course, none of the enticements I receive ever says anything as understated and unsexy as “extraordinary quality.” No, each of the wines offered is “off the scale,” “simply astonishing value,” “opulent,” “voluptuous,” “a sensual sensation,” and finally – the clincher, they seem to assume – 93 or 95 or 99 points, according to The Wine Spectator or Robert Parker, those two sources being essentially the only ones regularly cited in retail ads.

Let me be clear from the start: this isn’t going to be yet another anti-Robert Parker rant. I happen to think Parker is a hard-working journalist who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em – as do I and any number of other hard-working wine journalists, and as you also have to do whenever you choose a wine in a restaurant or buy one for home consumption. And that is precisely the point I want to make: You, just like Parker, just like me, only taste with your own mouth. Somebody else’s tasting note, as far as you are concerned, might as well be a novel – or probably, given the length of most, a poem. A haiku, in fact:

            These berry notes
            among graphite
            promise long-lasting lingual delight.

OK, haiku never rhyme – so I’m out of practice. But I’ve got lots of practice tasting wines, and every time I taste, I’m spot-on accurate – for my palate. Maybe not for yours, and certainly not (I infer from what I’ve read of his tasting notes) for Robert Parker, but for myself, I’m locked in, just as you are for your palate, however much or little you know about wine.

Somebody else’s tasting note can rarely tell you anything about what you’re going to taste in the same wine. That’s not only because it isn’t the same mouth tasting (except for some genetic miracle; separated at birth?). It’s not the same wine either. Wine is changing all the time, evolving and maturing, or going past maturity into senescence and death. It changes in the bottle more or less rapidly depending on how the bottle is handled and stored. I’ve tasted bottles of ostensibly the same wine from the same vintage that were a decade apart in age and development. Sometimes that’s good: You can drink a 50-year-old Bordeaux or Barolo without waiting 50 years. And sometimes it’s bad: That Beaujolais or Dolcetto that should be at its peak is dead as a doornail. Even professional tasters don’t always give the same wine the same evaluation when they taste it on different occasions and in different circumstances. Sometimes they don’t even recognize it. That should tell you all you need to know about the validity of tasting notes.

Scores, for all their apparent conciseness and precision, are just a bigger fiction, especially when the wines in question are young samples of wines that are meant for aging. Tasting 75 or 80 just-bottled Barolos of a morning, as I do every year at the Alba Wine Event, I know that tasting notes that go into detail about nuances of cherry (black or sour?) or tea (oolong or lapsang?) or tobacco (Virginia bright or Kentucky burley?) can be accurate for that minute that you are tasting that single wine – but go back and retaste it 15 or 20 minutes later, and it may be very different. Young wines change in the glass, change by the minute; so just which of those versions of the wine does that score represent? Is it a 90-point wine when just poured, and a 95 or an 85 fifteen minutes later? Gimme a break.

Beyond that: what, exactly, makes the difference between a 92 and a 93? All that means is that the taster liked both wines and liked the 93 ever-so-slightly more. Either that, or the taster in question has worked out a recondite scoring system that assigns a certain number of points each for color, aroma, taste, palatal feel, finish, and overall impression (those are the usual categories). If so, that would be useful to you only if you agreed with the distribution of emphases on the scale in the first place, and then with the evaluation of those qualities in each individual wine. Most of us know enough about statistics to know how likely that is.

Let’s cut to the chase here. How do you really learn about wine? By drinking it – only by drinking it – and paying attention to what’s in your mouth. Tasting two wines side by side is the easiest way to do it: That automatically teaches you every time, because you always have a pole of comparison. Even if you’re only saying something as basic as that this wine seems smoother or sharper than that one, you’re learning something. And not the least of what you’re learning is what your own palate perceives and enjoys, which is what wine is all about.

Can scores and tasting notes help you? In a very limited range, in an advisory capacity, yes. If you can find someone whose palate seems to resemble what you know of your own, you can use that person’s notes or scores to find wines you might like – but you still have to taste the wines for yourself to know for sure. There are some rough guidelines (big generalization time!): If you come from the Northeast US or a major cosmopolitan area such as New Orleans or Chicago, you are likely to have a palatal bias towards European and European-style wines – wines with discernible acidity, emphasizing power less and elegance more, less fruit-forward and more composed. If you’re from elsewhere in the country, you’re more likely to veer towards the California/Australia style – bigger wines, pronouncedly fruit-driven, often verging on sweetness, whether from residual sugar or new oak.

I can’t use The Wine Spectator’s evaluations for anything, for instance, because their tasters have such pronounced California palates: So for me their scores and notes amount to nothing. Parker I can use as a very rough guide for some French wines, making allowance for the differences in our palates. But that all depends on my knowledge of my own palate, and it must for you too.

So get out there and get busy tasting wines: you’ve got a lot to learn about two fascinating subjects: wine and yourself.

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