Lost: My Wine Spectator is not equipped with navigation.

spectator n. onlooker, watcher, observer, viewer, witness, passerby, bystander, *rubbernecker.

wine n. a spectacular liquid expression of hope, fear, beauty, and life meant only to be observed as it swirls from a bottle into my glass lifting aromatic bliss to my nose and sending a complex array of flavors to my lips.

Just recently [as in, 5 minutes before posting this edition of the tiffandsauce blog] I posted a short piece titled Only the Stones where I stumble over words to describe my attitude and opinion when it comes to critical scores and ratings on wine.  This post had been collecting dust in the drafts folder because I feel its a little clunky, not concise, and an incomplete thought on the topic at hand.  Then I realized, I often write in incomplete thoughts.  There are sentence fragments strewn about, I ramble off topic, and my reader may or may not follow me all the way through.  So I went ahead and blasted that thing out of the drafts folder and into the blog-o-sphere because I’m not afraid of my own incomplete or slightly confusing thoughts.  Go with me here folks – the purpose of these postings is certainly to be informative first and foremost.  But riding in the backseat behind the information that takes the wheel, I want us [us is me the writer and you the reader] to carry a conversation that leaves room for questions and opinions on all sides of a topic.  Take these posts where you want to go with them, that’s the beauty of this thing here: it’s wine, it’s words, it’s a fostering of wisdom through that discourse.

Let’s carry on.  In Only the Stones, I say this about professional wine reviews:

…while I certainly appreciate what a wine critic has to say, I most definitely do not live and die by the numbers when I am considering the wines that are best for me or best for a consulting client.  This being said, I would never wish for a world of wine where there were no benchmarks and no scores to follow.  For me, scores are a road map for a leisurely journey rather than GPS navigation in heavy traffic to an appointment you’re late for.  There are options along your route and the options are laid out to enhance your pleasure rather than to bring you to your destination with the least delay.

And then I opened up the June 30 2016 edition of Wine Spectator and flipped through a few interesting features, noticed that the cover was about the re-birth of Bordeaux, realized that had little to do with me or most of the wines I drink [Bordeaux is always sending me flowers and boxes of chocolates but I’m in a committed relationship elsewhere….], so…I finally landed in the BUYING GUIDE.  I know, I know, my workday is really starting to sound like such drudgery.  I scan a few Italian scores and wish I drank more Brunello, reading farther I start to salivate for good Ribera del Duero…I’m craving some funky Toro Tempranillo with ballsy tannins now…and….I land in California.  This should be goooood…I can’t wait to see how many awesome Pinots from 2013 are over 90 points…and don’t get me started on the cabs that other critics have been showering with 98, 99, and 100 point scores!  And, there are only 3 Cabs with decent scores.  Aaaaand, there’s not a single California Pinot Noir scored over 89 points.  And…the top 89 point score was for J Piont Noir.  AND then I begin to read the justification for these scores in the text of each and every 89, 88, and 87 point score all the way down the column until my face is making the most ugly resting bitch face I think it has ever made.

Just a few fine examples of statements made by James Laube taken from the June 30 2016 Wine Spectator Buying Guide:WS063016_CoverUS.indd

 

88 LaFolette Pinot Noir Sonoma Mountain Van der Kamp Vineyard 2013 $42  Medium-weight, with ripe plum, blueberry and raspberry flavors, showing a streak of earthiness down the middle that gives this an edgy, tannic texture and a drying aftertastes.  Drink now.  884 cases made.

88 Lynmar Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Freestone 2013 $60  Notes of damp, fresh -turned earth, vanilla and cherry form the core, with drying and gripping tannins.  Drink now.  483 cases made.

88 Saracina Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Day Ranch Vineyard 2013 $38  This Pinot weaves together a complex mix of loamy earth, anise, graphite and dark berry flavors, tilting toward acidity and grippy tannins, with room to grow.  Drink now.  470 cases made.

88 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Burt Williams’ Morning Dew Ranch 2013 $78  An edgy youngster, exhibiting chunky raspberry, wild berry, savory herb, dusty earth and anise flavors, this will benefit from short-term cellaring.  Drink now.  562 cases made.

88 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Precious Mountain Vineyard 2013 $95  Very tight and detailed, with a taut core of mineral-laced red and dark berry, turning somewhat simpler on the finish.  Drink now.  412 cases made.

87 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Yorkville Highlands Weir Vineyard 2013 $58  This is young and unevolved, with dusty, drying tannins and notes of cherry, plum and rose petal.  Should gain with time.  Drink now.  512 cases made.

With my pout turning into an all-out frown I reach the end of the California Pinot Noir reviews and a few thoughts return to my miffed-up mind.  First, I take a mental step back and think:  tiff, you’re just mad that you love Williams Selyem wines and James Laube, a very knowledgeable and experienced wine critic, does not love them as much as you.  Then I read the above reviews again and think to myself:  no, stop.  Every single one of the above reviews [and there were more than just these] references the newly-released wines being youthful, tight, unevolved, and tannic.  Every single review lists some lovely Pinot Noir appropriate characteristics such as: dusty, earthy, wild, savory, mineral-laced, detailed.  Almost every review alludes to the idea that the wines could benefit from some age.  And then every single review ends by blankly stating:  DRINK NOW.

What?

Taking a scenic route here….  When sauce and I try and get from point A to point B with the two of us in a car I’m usually behind the wheel and he mans the GPS thingy on his phone that I don’t like to touch because it intimidates me with all of it’s bossy orders.  That female computer robot voice shouts at me and rattles my shaky feminine driving skills.  Turn right in 800 feet. Your destination will be on the left.  I turn right, I look left, it’s a deserted railroad yard.  I’m downtown LA in a deserted railroad yard.  We’re going to be late to the tasting.  I followed the bossy voice.  I swear I did every single step!

GPS Map

Back to the Wine Watcher [ahem] Wine Spectator.

I understand this publication to be focused towards consumers who wish to enhance their wine experiences, further their wine knowledge, and perhaps gain a bit of confidence in the rings with the rest of the wine world.  Professional scores and reviews can [and should] be a helpful guide in the process of benchmarking your current collections and tastes while finding new wines to add to your repertoire.  This scenic route can be a pleasing journey but at roads end I would still like to arrive at my intended destination. In this case, I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m going to look up and find myself deserted in the aisle of a big-box-o-wine store with James Laube shouting at me to DRINK IT NOW!  While my feminine driving skills are a bit shaky [shh, this is a fib, I’m quite a confident driver just don’t tell sauce that], my wine skills don’t feel new or unfamiliar to me.  My most recent trip through the Buying Guide gave me the impression that I’m completely lost on my wine journey and perhaps I’m partly at fault for using a passerby in the wine world like a GPS rather than simply enjoying the scenic path that their suggested route sent me off on.

Columbus Map of the World

By hearing opposing opinion on wines I feel strongly about will I gain insight and broaden my own point of view?  Only if I have confidence in the validity of the opposition.  Only if I have respect for their argument.  I do feel that I have a desire to be constantly learning and improving but I don’t feel that I will accomplish that through reading contrite and condescending accounts on wines from a critic that is contradicting both his own words and the words of the publication for which he writes.  My respect for this sort of wine commentary is gone and here’s just a small example to illustrate why.  Back on November 20, 2013 the 2013 Vintage Report for California was posted to WineSpectator.com only to state:

Winemakers from Santa Barbara to Mendocino report that this year’s growing season was golden for most parts of the Golden State

While I may not always agree with scores and reviews, I want to at least find them to be a helpful guide for both myself and for consumers.  I want to know that the information will be useful.  I want to know that the professional critics will reach beyond opinion and provide well-informed and seasoned point-of-view insights into the wines they write on. In asking these things, I feel I have been let down after reading one contradiction after the next on a handful of incredible 2013 California Pinot Noirs.  Don’t tell me that a wine is edgy, youthful, tight, tannic, unevolved, and would benefit from cellaring and then tell me to DRINK NOW.  Please don’t tell me that a wine is detailed and complex and then list off amazing descriptors that support this statement and then tell me that while the wine should gain (with time) to DRINK NOW.  And please, don’t tell me in the Vintage Report that 2013 is Golden and then in 2016 rate a string of 2013 wines as good, very good but….DRINK NOW.  These last couple of turns that should have me arriving at my destination after I took the suggested route of a Wine Rubbernecker have dropped me off at a column of wines scoring Very Good but not good enough to be considered Outstanding or Classic from a vintage deemed “Golden”.  I guess we need go Platinum for anything to reach above 90 points in California for Mr. Laube.  My dearly beloved California Winemakers, I say to you all, you have my heart in your Pinot Noir wines ’til death -whether Bronze- or Platinum-level scores.  And I know that you know that only the stones will remain.


More for your reading pleasure…

The 2013 Vintage Report on California from WineSpectator.com

Only the Stones from myself on tiffandsauce.com

 

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Only the Stones

There is a song of the Cheyenne people that I came across in a library book my son and I were sharing for our nightly story time.  The song was a mantra during times of sickness, or before going into battle.  It was a song to bring strength and remind us of both our mortality and our potential for greatness in our lives.

cheyenne

My friends,

Only the stones

Stay on earth forever.

Use your best ability.

I’m pausing.  I almost want to just leave it here for each reader to ruminate and cultivate their own thoughts.  But as is often the case, so many of my “life” moments overflow into my “wine” moments and this one is no exception.  Pour yourself a healthy size sip here and please be obliged to continue.

The sauce and I have spent the last couple of weeks doing some promotional work for Falling Bright through guest spots on a few local (and national…and international) radio programs.  On most occasions when we are interviewed about our professional backgrounds and our thoughts on wine and other trivia we receive a lot of questions such as…how do you choose wines for your collection?  Those wines that are so expensive, are they really worth that much?  Can you taste the difference?  Do scores matter?  And you get the point.  My interpretation of this line of questioning from the wine consumer’s standpoint is fairly simple:  People want to know what they are getting and they want a stamp of approval that it’s top notch and they want to know that other people would envy what they got and want to get some too.  And you know what?  I love this piece of the human nature that seeps into the world of wine appreciation.  If there were not a drive to seek out the best of the best and the hidden gems and the over-deliverers then the wine world would be set to become a pretty boring destination.  But with human nature being what it is, the simple soon becomes so much more complex.

Here is where my roads diverge.  Critical ratings of wines seem to be focused toward the consumer.  The purpose of the score is to provide tasting insights, a short preview of the wine, and a summary of it’s merits in a quantitative format.  However, if it is so well-known that wine appreciators are out there benchmarking and precious gem mining then why is there such a move to ignore the score?  It seems there a tendency to reject what is said by the critics only so that we could all return to the mines with our pick axes and no headlamps.  Now let me be clear, while I certainly appreciate what a wine critic has to say, I most definitely do not live and die by the numbers when I am considering the wines that are best for me or best for a consulting client.  This being said, I would never wish for a world of wine where there were no benchmarks and no scores to follow.  For me, scores are a road map for a leisurely journey rather than GPS navigation in heavy traffic to an appointment you’re late for.  There are options along your route and the options are laid out to enhance your pleasure rather than to bring you to your destination with the least delay.

So where did that other road lead?  If critical ratings and reviews of wines are focused ahead to wine consumers, it seems that they leave winemakers and wine producers in the rear-view mirror.  The picture this paints for most wine appreciators is that winemakers will always be chasing after the critics for the next big number.  But I have to say, of all the winemakers I’ve ever spoken with, very few if any of them speak of scores.  There are plenty of numbers on their minds – lab sheets, calendar dates, degrees Celsius, degrees Fahrenheit, degrees Brix, the price of barrels, etc… but usually not critics’ scores.  They give a wave to the rear-view mirror just before getting back to the work that’s cut out for them, the vintage that is on their hands.

So what about the poem from my introduction?  I’m trying to keep a reminder around for myself to constantly be aware of the work I am doing – to give my best effort.  This includes the work that we are doing to build quality into the wines we are bringing to our shop.  We recognize that our work is under constant review and that it is a reflection of the work that has been done all the way back to the vineyards – and the work of the winemaker.  When the time comes for review and recognition, there is one thing a good winemaker will be able to stand on – the stones on the earth.  The stones will remain right in place on the earth and a good winemaker will know that he/she has used their best ability.  We should all be so sure in our every endeavor that we have used our best abilities.

Masterpiece Theatre | wine and the art of limited production

IMG_1261

This is a one of one original piece of artwork.  It is very rare (I just said there’s only 1 in existence).  It was painted by my three year old son.  I signed it for him in pencil…he can’t quite write his name yet.  He can’t read yet either, so I will write this:  the monetary value of this painting is about two cents.  To me, of course, it’s priceless.  He works in “mixed media” a lot too…if you know what I mean.  I will try and post up one of those next time I have a spare moment.  But for now, this example of his fine art will serve my purpose.

Now let’s dive straight into wine after that slightly confusing and mildly amusing introduction.  I talk a lot on our website, facebook video feeds, and right here on tiffandsauce about small production / allocated / limited availability wines.  While I really champion this category of wines because they are a personal interest of mine, I am also fully aware that there is a band of skeptics who beg the question | “Does scarcity make it good?”

Being  quite the doubter myself – and always welcoming a healthy debate – I will pull up a seat and play a few hands at this game. Here’s my attempt to explain my affinity for small production wines…and please feel free to either blast me or bandwagon me in the comments.

Connection |  I’ve met people involved in wine projects on a very grand scale.  I’ve spoken with people who produce wines in tiny operations.  And there is everything in between.  While I’m not going to advocate solely for one over another, I will say that when I meet with growers and vintners who have a small project that they hold dear there is a very special connection there.  No detail is too small in these operations because their margin of error is tiny.  Every bit of minutiae nags constantly at the forefront of their thoughts and in the event that error occurs – either human or by a force of nature – their project can be lost.  But here is the conundrum; what happens when the stakes are high, some quality issues crop up, and a producer feels the pressure to just go with what they got and bottle it up to try and save a lost cause?  Bad wine, that’s what happens.  This is why I find it important to follow the reputation & history of the growers and winemakers involved in a small production wine.  This is why I find it important to visit wineries and vineyard sites in person.  This is why I like to taste, evaluate, and discuss every wine that comes into my collection.  It’s a pre-screening, an interview if you will, that helps me to assure a quality presentation when I pass these wines on to a client.  And I know, in most cases, that this “interview” process is available to me when I’m dealing directly with an owner/winemaker of a small production label – and there is usually quite a bit of transparency involved as there is no corporate structure to duck behind.  Which brings me to my next point.

Control | I confess I am a control freak by nature.  There are few if any tasks that I let slip past my own hands and I admit that to be this way is exhausting at times.  But when it comes to knowing a wine, how it got into the bottle, and how it is when it’s pouring out – I want every detail.  While I devour this information as if it were a pint of salted caramel gelato, I would hesitate to place the burden of such an analysis onto every wine drinker that crosses my path.  This is where I take a step back and accept the fact that most people just want a delightful bottle to drink and don’t want it to become their full time job to find one or two of those.  So, I will but myself in the position to appear very nerdy, overly inquisitive, and downright bothersome to the unfortunate wine producers and purveyors that find themselves with an open bottle in front of me.  I will put myself out there to ask all of the dumb questions so that you don’t have to.  Really, it’s no trouble at all.  And at the end of this inquisition, I will be very grateful to my direct contact who had nobody to send in their place to intercept me.  At this point, some might question my need for all of this information.  After all, if I were such a control freak I would just stick to a few wines that I know are going to have some consistency from one bottle/vintage to the next then I could just shut up and drink the damn wine already.  And that brings me to my next draw from this deck of cards.

Artistry | This should be very simply stated:  If I wanted every bottle of wine to be the same as the last, I would save a few bucks and just drink a decent vodka.  Sidenote:  After requests for the same movie for the third or fourth or forty fourth time (I lost count) from our younger son, our older son told him “Variety is the spice of life, and some day you will understand that.”  Younger resorted to crying to get the movie he wanted.  The rest of us waited past his bedtime to watch something more interesting.  Now that’s spoiled, I know.  Really though, the concept is so simple yet it’s so ignored.  We are human and we are creatures of habit.  Sameness is comfort.  Repetition is our jam.  We get off on living up to our own expectations by not expecting anything at all.  When you reach a breaking point with this monotony, turn to a person who has passion about their life and about their work and emulate them.  Feel what they feel and let it convey passion onto your life and your work.  You will find this special genius in most artisan products and especially in artisan wines and that in itself trumps mass production for me any day.

Avarice | If you have had enough of the touch feely – let’s just get down to brass tax here.  We all love it when we have something that nobody else has.  If you want to redeem yourself for this naughty and greedy side of your human nature, the only way to do so with a small production wine is to share a small pour with someone close to you when you finally open up a bottle. It really is exciting when you have the pleasure of consuming a limited production wine and feeling in the moment that, unless you have more bottles of it, that may be your only glimpse into the moment of that wine.  If you wait a few years, or even longer, the probability of a recurrent wine moment becomes less likely.  Relish that moment – that’s what great wine is all about!

Authenticity | Here we have come full circle to join artistry with connection.  When you know the origin of a wine, when you know the story behind it, when you know the people crafting it it becomes real to you.  From here you can draw your own connections and build those wines into your own memories and experiences.  Find the wines that excite you (and of course that taste good to you) and make them special for yourself.  Identify with the people behind the wines, after all, you are probably including the juice they put into those bottles at your table on many a special occasion or gathering of family, friends, and good company. Why share those moments with anything less than authentic?

When I gather together my reasoning and rationalizing about why I search around for wines produced in tiny quantities I’m left with the notion that small production wines aren’t good simply because they are scarce.  They are good because they are a direct representation of the pride and workmanship of those growing the fruit and squeezing the berries.  My one of one Masterpiece hanging at the top of this page is priceless for me because I know the artist.  Each time I have the privilege of connecting a wine lover to a new artisan wine that becomes priceless to them, my glass is filled.