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.

Subjective Theory of ValueWine

Back when I was a youthful twenty-something I took it in the ribs a few times from friends and family that would say I had returned to college to get my M.R.S. degree.  Somewhat true <grinning sheepishly>.  However, I did not meet my husband until after leaving Oregon State University and all her splendid Northwestern beauty for the great State of California.  Truthfully, I forced myself into completing my Bachelors Degree – by hook or by crook – just to finish.  I had become notorious for starting things and not reaching completion and I wanted to end that nonsense.  At the same time, I wanted to be able to some day offer a somewhat educated parent to my future child(ren).

I forged my way through a liberal arts degree knowing full well that there was no end “Career Goal” in sight and I will admit that along the way there were some failures.  As in, F for Failure.  Math 119b Survey of Calculus II;  F the first time around and a passing grade on the second try after my instructor was probably so tired of my ignorant questions that he just pushed me through.  Chem 320a Organic Chemistry; no passing grade in sight and the realization that I don’t actually enjoy Math, Chemistry, or Physics and that pre-Med would be a bad idea.  Econ 101?  Only suffered through that course to fulfill a requirement and the whole thing was a bad dream – BUT – I did take away one concept that has stuck with me since that class:  The Subjective Theory of Value.

Before continuing, I will strap on my Helmet to deflect the stones that are certain to be thrown in my direction for the following reasons:

  1. I am not proficient enough in Economics to properly explain the theories associated with this field (so of course, publish my feeble attempts to understand, right?) and…
  2. The way this Subjective Theory of Value ties into a discussion on Wine will make some people cry foul; or just cry.
Class is in session, let us begin.
Value is thus nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, nor an independent thing existing by itself.  It is a judgment economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being.  Carl Menger, Principles of Economics
If value exists as Menger defines it, why then do we continue to question the high prices of Cult Wines, First-Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy and then continue into a diatribe/sales pitch about “value wine”? This topic is beaten to a pulp in popular wine media, social media, the Blog-o-Sphere, etc..  and the entire debate has no leg to stand on.  Price is not Value.  Before we get all heated up about wine, let’s consider some other consumer commodities:
Chocolate.  Nestle Semisweet Morsels 20.7 cents/ounce.  Sharffen Berger 62% Cocoa 61.8 cents/ounce.
Coffee.  Yuban Traditional Medium Roast “Premium” Coffee 25.8 cents/ounce.  Peet’s Coffee Major Dickason’s Blend “Deep Roast” 74.9 cents/ounce.
Diamonds.  Where 1 ounce = 141.747616 carats and an average diamond is about $1500 per carat give or take…we’re looking at about  $212,641.42 per ounce.
Water.  A liter bottle of Evian comes in at about $1.79 making it 5.3 cents/ounce…penny for your thoughts and a nickel for a sip.
The question of price is answered objectively as the above examples convey.  The question of value is subjective…and as explained by Menger, gets a little confusing.  Why pay more for coffee or chocolate?  What was the cost of producing these goods?  Which goods required more labor?  How much is water worth to you?  What value does a diamond represent for you?  Are we lost in the desert and dying of thirst?  Or are we wandering in a proverbial love desert of loneliness hoping to get engaged?  Questions like these will begin to guide you toward your own subjective interpretation of value.
Carl Menger on Screaming Eagle
The last time I put my finger on the pulse of the consumer base in the wine industry, the heartrate was strong and nobody was dying of thirst. But there were plenty of connoisseurs hoping for love at first sip from their next bottle.  My point here is that wine is a luxury product.  And that’s it.  Wine is not a resource that we need for survival (though I treat it as if it were the air I breathe).  It is the Diamond and not The Water in the Paradox.  There’s no “fair and equal distribution of Wine” Act.  There’s no “Price point to make wines affordable for Everybody” Act.  However, there IS fierce competition, a free market, ingenuity, creativity, sustainability, talent, marketing, vineyard designation, oak programs, “Rock-Star” Winemakers, art labels, wax caps, screw caps, original wood cases, Parker Scores, Spectator Reviews, corporate conglomerates, mom and pop shops, and everything in between.  And then there’s you – and your discriminating palate (by the way, it’s not PC to “discriminate”) and hopefully your discriminating consciousness.
YOU will be the one to make the final decision about what a wine is worth to you and what you can afford to pay.  Coming to the realization that a wine you might want is out of your price range is not a reason to tear it down.  That is a promotion of mediocrity and when provisions are made for mediocrity you get people like me who are granted a Passing Grade in Econ 101.  The world does not need more of that – go back and read paragraph 2 to decide for yourself the value of this article, the value of your time, and the value you now place on not promoting mediocrity.
If a wine you want is out of your price range, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, understand that wine is one of life’s Beautiful Luxurious Pleasures, and go find a bottle that gives you enough pleasure per dollar for you to consider it a value.  Then step back from the article/blog post/commentary that is deriding Screaming Eagle and Lafite, compose yourself for one second, and understand that the prices for wines like these are ridiculous because enough people paid them.  <I will enter a plea here that we not digress into a dialogue on “supply and demand” as that is such a sophomoric approach to this discussion.>  We are all well aware that scarcity drives up the price of a rare bottle.  In truth, the price paid for a status bottle of wine was a simple expression of the consumer’s perception of value – and they were entitled to it.  No sooner could we make everybody drive a Honda Civic and not a Mercedes or everybody have bare walls in their mud hut rather than Monet in their Mansion, then we could make every wine drinker swirl <insert your favorite value wine here> in their glass.  And thank God for that!
If the intention is to share ideas about which inexpensive wines drink better than their price point, and a popular opinion grows on that shared idea, then go with it.  But if the aim is to convince an ultra premium category buyer that they won’t find value in the rare or exclusive bottlings they are purchasing then you might as well be talking to an empty room. This category of wine consumer does find value in obtaining nearly unobtainable wines and they quite possibly spend a fair share on less expensive wines that they enjoy for another purpose as well.  So why is there a bully push to get the biggest supporters of wine out of the game?Inexpensive wines that cost conscious consumers enjoy are not mutually exclusive to astronomically expensive Wish Wines that are collected and curated and occasionally chugged down with wild abandon.  Both price categories can exist in the same economy and really one has little effect on the other.
The bottom line is that all wine should not be equal.  All wine should not be the same.  All wine should not be priced under a cap that a cohort of wine writers deems to be appropriate.  Sitting around speculating about what that saturation point in the market will be is simply a waste of good wine drinking time.  One man’s affordable luxury is another man’s swill and vice versa.  And that, my friends, is my Subjective Theory of Value as it pertains to wine and I encourage you to continue the debate and commentary.  Should name calling (Elitist!) and Stone-throwing commence, I’ve still got my helmet on.
If you haven’t had enough, please enjoy the following
Elite Wine Bashing Posts for your Reading Pleasure:
-Richard Hemming for Wine Searcher gives us “Hemmings Rule” where if you love expensive Bordeaux you will find more “value” in spending less on a Bordeaux varietal wine from another region where the most expensive wine costs less than 10 times the price of its cheapest equivalent. Sounds simple, right?
-Mike Steinberger rails away on how he agrees with Keith Levenberg of Noble Rot Magazine that Sine Qua Non wines are vile and disgusting and more expletives than you can say in front of a sailor.  Steinberger then continues to say that critics who give high ratings to both wines like Sine Qua Non and wines like La Tache and other DRC are a huge farce and are misleading consumers.  Don’t miss the comments section where somebody actually asks, “Do we really need all these different wines from everywhere?” <— is your Screen Name “The Wine Nazi”?
-W. Blake Gray ponders the mysteries of Screaming Eagle and passive aggressively calls for transparency from a Cult Cabernet producer.  There is hope…by #10 We don’t know if Screaming Eagle wines are worth the money… Gray is beginning to understand the Subjective Theory of Value.
-Chris Mercer for Decanter.com reports on an incredible wine sale and at least sticks to facts and information.  A breath of fresh air.