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

 

What the Teeter-Totter Taught Her about Balance

There are no teeter-totters on the playgrounds of today.  Teaching children the usefulness of a practical grasp on physics is no longer considered appropriate or necessary (or safe).  But since I spent my last blog pretending to know anything about Economics, why not shill out a few thoughts on physics here.  Kidding!  Rather, let’s get even more ridiculous and talk about balance.  Balance in the context of wine;  Absurdity.

Teeter Totter

I’m going to make a general assumption that a wine drinking audience will know that a reference to balance in the context of wine is a reference to the structural makeup of the wine.  The sweetness/dryness, tannin, alcohol, and acidity should all come together to form one cohesive swallow-able unit.  So if the concept of balance is so simple, what’s all the fuss about?  For more than a few years now the topic of balanced wine, with a focus on the Pinot Noir varietal in particular, has been hotly debated and there seems to be a line drawn in the playground sand at around 14% alcohol by volume.  Somehow, alcohol comes to the forefront of the debate and other elements of “structure” have been somewhat left in the dust as if they aren’t a part of the one cohesive swallow-able unit we call wine.  I will venture to guess that this piece of information (%ABV) is one of the most accessible to the general consumer as it is required to be included on the label by the government whereas other technical information is not so readily available so it would take deeper research to form a critique on the particular wine you may be tasting.

All of this aside, what I am meaning to get to is that you don’t need any tools or tech sheets beyond your own palate to decide if you are pleased or displeased by any wine in particular.  Could this information be helpful in making purchasing decisions?  Yes.  Would a tech sheet be more helpful to a consumer than a tasting note?  Maybe, that depends on the consumer.  Is the advice/opinion of a professional helpful in comparison to the information on a tech sheet or a tasting note?  Possibly, that depends on the integrity of the professional.  All at once, everybody whip out your trusty hand-held device (I’m talking smartphones here guys…) and begin a mad search for an answer to the previous three questions.  Google:  best way to choose a wine.  Fail.  That just turned up a bunch of editorial trash ranging from Men’s Fitness magazine to Marie Claire and they’re discussing the pictures on the labels.  Google:  how to choose wine at a restaurant.  No, now we have GQ talking about prices on restaurant lists and that’s a WHOLE different argument.  Google:  best wines 2015.  You’ve got big box retailers and major publications selling wine to you now.

Ok, smartphones down (unless you’re reading moi on that tiny screen).  Stop making wine into a boring, empty, white space devoid of passion.  I’m bad at physics.  I failed calculus.  Don’t take me into this torturous world of numbers and graphs when I just want recess to come so I can play on the teeter-totter with my glass of Pinot.

Teeter Totter Pinot

I will tell you that as a professional wine buyer I am one of the guiltiest parties in analyzing and breaking down wine while I taste it – especially if I’m tasting for trade purposes vs. tasting for pleasure.  (Every taste should be for pleasure you say here…right?)  There are two sides to me as a taster.  Side A:  In a split second, before you even know that your taste was poured, I have determined if the wine is “sound”.  By sound I mean passable as a quality wine.  If this is not the case, I have no place for this wine on my list (or in my mouth).  Side B:  This is where it gets more complicated and I make an assessment for varietal typicity, regional typicity, price-value relationship, and then a whole slew of passion evoking qualities…is there a sense of place?  is the wine unique?  does anything stand out?  how is the palate weight?  how is the finish?  does the palate echo the nose or does it surprise me?  was the surprise pleasant?  would I drink more of this?  is it cumbersome or relentless or ethereal or special or is it just Wine?  Basically you could say that my Side A could fit on a tech sheet, my  Side B could write a tasting note, and a combination of both would give you the more complete experience of “ask a professional”.

Here is the breakdown, and possibly some answers to the above questions.  Wine is not about a pursuit of balance.  Wine is not about tech.  Wine is not about correctness (being ME and saying THAT is really difficult if you know me on a personal level).  Wine is about People.  People are about Relationships.  Relationships are about Trust.  Who will you ride the teeter-totter with?  The playground bully that jumps off to leave you helplessly crashing to the ground on the other side…a fun-loving friend who might just tease that they will drop you…a partner in play who really wants to have a good time on the ups and downs?  Throughout life you are sure to experience each of those rides many times over, even if safer playgrounds try to protect you from that, and you will be better for it.

If you ever find yourself talking with a wine pro that chooses wines only with their Side A, you might find yourself being bullied into making wine choices based on charts, graphs, and %ABV.  You might also find yourself crashing from time to time when the numbers fail you.  If you want to elevate yourself beyond the sandbox full of passable “Good” wines that have correctness on their tech sheets, you need to drink wine on another level.  I will leave you with the Marcassin bon vivant John Wetlaufer’s thoughts on this topic:

I’ll only note that balance (of what is rarely stated) seems more like a necessary condition of useful or O.K. wines than it does a sufficient condition for what the great French enologist and teacher Emile Peynaud calls a “grand vin”, a great wine:  “…a work of art, complex with personality, rich in sapid and aromatic substances, defying description and therefore the more fascinating to taste.”

John goes on to say that he intends to make wines that push the limits, reset the bar, and induce wonderment rather than wines that are just boring (balanced).

People like John (and Helen) and an army of other fine wine growers and fine wine makers out there are pursuing their craft out of curiosity and drive and passion and a love of the adventure that wine is.  If they were in need of safety or surety they would not choose this path.  People who make wine in pursuit of a number are not considering the purpose of art itself – to strike up a conversation, start a debate, inspire controversy.  I won’t say damning things about people who make wine that way, but always consider your source and consider the use they intend for their product.  To be consumed?  Or to be treasured?

 

More Reads for your Wine Journey:

Loving Wine Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry  -Mitch Frank on the Wine Spectator Blog

Subjective Theory of ValueWine  -more from Moi at the tiffandsauce Blog

The Wrath of Grapes – Bruce Schoenfeld for NY Times Magazine

IPOB Manifesto – Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch on their pursuit of Balance

Palate Talent -Yours Truly at the tiffandsauce Blog