Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wine Shoppers Need Point Scores -- Because They Can't Understand Our Reviews

By Mac McCarthy

Respected wine guru Steve Heimoff posted a spirited defense of numerical wine scores in wine reviews -- Defending Point Scores--Again! , taking on some of the stock complaints from the growing chorus of critics of the idea of giving wines numbered or lettered scores. (There's even an anti-scoring manifesto circulating.) Heimoff 's common-sense counterarguments are well worth reading.

Weighing in on the topic, my view is that the attacks on scoring are completely pointless. The reason is that number-haters offer no practical solution to the perceived problem.

They complain that the wine shoppers act like sheep, following the scores they see given to wines without really appreciating the subtleties of the wines and even of the reviewers doing the scoring.

So what's the fix? Leave the sheep to wander the aisles unguided?

No -- the wine shoppers should be reading the full narrative reviews, rather than jumping right to the scores. That way they can fully grasp the wines being reviewed, and make a sound judgment.
Aw, baloney!

At least wine shoppers can understand a score -- even if not the subtleties between, say, an 89 and a 90. Trying to decipher the blather that passes for wine reviews, on the other hand, is not something I'd wish on a poor ordinary drinker.

The language in most wine reviews is useless to most wine drinkers. The flavors described are unfamiliar - there are often an improbable number of flavors, leaving the ordinary mortal wondering what the heck the reviewer was drinking.

(Robert Parker once described a flavor note in a wine he was reviewing as "white tobacco." White tobacco -- what the heck does that taste like? How is that helping anyone shopping for wine?)
Buyers grab onto scores because it's something they think they can understand. It's not their fault the scores aren't as helpful a guide as one might think.

And let's face reality: Eliminating scores will not encourage ordinary drinkers to boldly strike out into new unscored territory and discover new wines, new makers, new flavors -- instead, untutored wine shoppers will retreat to brand names. And how will that benefit anyone?

If we're going to argue about scores, let's argue about how wines are reviewed overall -- and figure out how to review wines not just for those among us with wine cellars, but also for the expanding population of new wine enthusiasts eager for guidance in buying a decent bottle of wine. Let's at least think in terms of which audiences we review for -- some wines aim at the sophisticated drinker; some wines are approachable by the broader market, and can be appreciated by them. In my post "What To Drink (For Beginners)" I spell out reds, roses, and whites that are easy for beginning wine drinkers to approach, appreciate, enjoy (and that they can easily find without knowing much about wine brands). In another post, I add "Wines Not Safe for Beginners To Start With"  just to drive the point home.

Maybe when we review wines -- unless we're writing only for the sophisticated elites among us -- we could start pointing out whether a wine is something a beginner or a less experienced drinker would appreciate.
And for God's sake, can we figure out a way to describe what we're tasting so that another human being can guess at what flavors we're talking about? Without having to go to Sommelier  school?

I admit, I struggle to find useful things to say (besides "Yum! That was good!"). This is not easy. But it's better to struggle with this, than to continue the pointless, doomed campaign to eliminate wine point scores.

What do you think? Like scores? Hate 'em? Have better -- practical -- ideas? Add your comments below!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Wines *Not* Safe for Beginners To Start With

By Mac McCarthy

Editor, SavvyTaste

Reason: These wines take getting used to -- They are dense, intense, tannic, and acidic -- or they are expensive and risky. Stay away until you've got some experience under your belt....

ZAP Festival San Francisco 2010
Zinfandel Yeah!
Zinfandel – Me, I love big, jammy red Zinfandels — heck, I volunteer at the big ZAP Zinfandel festival every January in San Francisco, where 300 winemakers serve up over 800 Zinfandels! But others find it overwhelming. Exceptions: Any relatively inexpensive red Zinfandel with an aggressive, hard-hitting name intended to give you the impression that this is one bad Zin, baby! — is likely to be light and easy to drink — the name is a marketing gimmick. For example, Seven Deadly Zins, Earthquake Zin, and Cardinal Zin (best label ever, though) are fun and easy to drink, fruity, and affordable (thank goodness!). (This is similar to the marketing-wine rule that any wine with a fun, jokey, smartalecky name and picture is probably junk wine that, however, *tastes great*! Not sophisticated — just fun.
Jean Edwards Cellars 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
Jean Edwards Napa Cab: If you like Cabs, this is an example of one you'll really like.
Cabernet Sauvignon– is usually made as a Big Red — heavy, tannic, sometimes expensive, and highly variable in flavor and style. You won’t know what you’re buying, so drink someone else’s until you find brands that work for you.
Merlot – Can be absolutely delicious when made right, but bland and mediocre if not; unfortunately, the best-tasting Merlot is the most expensive Merlot.
French Bordeaux and Burgundy – Because the good ones are expensive, the really good ones are very expensive, and the affordable ones vary all over the map in flavor and quality. Don’t jump into this world yet; drink OPB — Other People’s Bordeaux.
Argentinean Malbecs – Can be as big and intense and amazing as a great California Cab — but, unfortunately, just as costly. If you’re willing to spend the bucks, go ahead, you will rarely be disappointed. (Which is wonderful, because a couple of decades ago, Argentinian Malbec was dreck!)
Champagne – In general, the best are expensive; and surprisingly many people don’t really care for the taste of champagne, even good champagne — it has an acidic edge that you might not like. If you have to buy Champagne, go for the Champagne-type bubblies made elsewhere in France: Clairett de Die Cave Carod, for example, can cost as little as $13(!). Cremant d’Alsace is another winner. And there’s a Champagne-style bubbly made by a winery called Gruet in, of all places, New Mexico, that costs as little as $8.50 — yet tastes great. (If you like Champagne, that is — see above.) Can you believe that? I’ve tasted it, and it’s true.
China – The best-known red wine from China is from a winery called Great Wall. Really. Its  Cabernet Sauvignon is awful, truly awfuo. One day, maybe soon, China will produce good wines for export; we’ll be glad.
California Syrah – I love West-Coast Syrahs — because they are made in a dense, big-red, intense, fruit-forward style that I love. As a beginning wine drinker, though, you may find it as overwhelming as big red Zins. However, Syrah can also be made in lighter styles, and is the backbone of the blend of wines that makes up Rhone-style reds, where the mix is much easier on the palate.
Port – Port wines and the related styles of Sherry can be a traumatic experience for beginning wine drinkers. They put brandy in it! And you can taste it! Arrgh!
An exception might be Madeira – maybe. It’s just as dense, intensely sweet, even raisiny, yet not as harsh. Have a sip.

Was this helpful? Pass it along! And subscribe for occasional wine advice and reviews. 

What advice do you give to beginning wine lovers?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"A Day in the Dust" -- Incredible Cabs and Real Values

By Mac McCarthy

At "A Day in the Dust" tasting of Rutherford, CA Cabernets, hosted by the Rutherford Dust Society, I found some incredible-tasting Cabs -- no surprise, though these were even more spectacular than I anticipated -- but I also found some incredible value prices, which I certainly didn't  expect -- especially from such elite wineries.  

The Rutherford Dust Society is the odd-sounding name of a group promoting wines (especially but not exclusively Cabernet Sauvignons) made from grapes grown in the area around Rutherford, a small town in the middle of the Napa Valley. Society  members are the most famous name brands in Napa wine: Beaulieu, Inglenook, Heitz, Honig, Neal, Peju, Raymond, St Clement, Staglin, and others.

Andy Beckstoffer and Andre Tchelistcheff, 1989
The Society gets its name from a famous remark, "It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet," made by the most influential Napa winemaker of the 20th century, André Tchelistcheff. You may not know that name if you aren't involved in the Napa wine business -- but you will have heard of some of his works. A Russian making wines for top French winemakers, he was lured to the United States by Georges De Latour in 1938 to become the winemaker for Georges' Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff had a huge influence on the winemaking techniques now used in the Valley -- especially for Cabernets, his specialty. He created one of the signature wine labels of the area: Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Beaulieu Vineyards.

The Rutherford Dust Society, established in 1994, works to promote and encourage the highest standards in winemaking, to maintain the reputation of the historic Rutherford district AVA. (The history of the Rutherford area in winemaking makes fascinating reading .) The Society is also working on restoration of the Napa River and its watershed.

Rutherford, Napa Valley

There were 36 winemakers at this year's event, titled "A Day in the Dust: A Tasting of 2008 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Blends," at Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate Winery in Rutherford. This is a tasting for the trade and the press, who turned out in force, and it was a delight to have the winemakers and winery owners themselves pouring.

The common taste element of the wines this day is black cherry: The nose on most of these wines was aromatic black cherry, dusted with chocolate powder. And the taste followed through on this theme: Rich, mouth-filling, intense, with nice finishes, a balance of acid, and in most cases with enough tannin to make it clear that these delicious wines will be even more spectacular in a few years when the tannins calm and reveal the fruit in all its glory. When you think of a big red wine, these are the wines you're thinking of, and are the reason that you love this style of wine.

Each winery showed one or two Cabs, plus in most cases one or two Sauvignon Blancs (and one had a Sauv Blanc dessert wine that I regret not getting to) as well as some Merlots, and a few Pinots under the table.

I found dozens of the most wonderful, delicious, flavorful, rich and delightful red wines you would ever want to drink -- the cream of the Napa crop -- and the list prices ranged from just over $100 down to a not-quite-believable low of $24, with most bottles in the $50 to $75 range. In a day of over-priced wines, it's remarkable to find values from small, elite wineries. Every wine I tasted that day was worth every nickel of its list price, and more.

Which is as it should be -- and too often isn't. Wine prices should be a rough guide to how good you can expect a wine to be. Yet how often do you decide to buy a special wine for that party or that gift, pay that $50 or $75 for a "fine wine" and get -- a big disappointment. That $50 Cabernet Sauvignon is too tight, to tough, to difficult to enjoy. That $100 bottle of French Bordeaux is so "austere" -- read, "completely lacking in  fruit" -- that you just can't enjoy it. How often does the wine industry send our everyday winedrinkers, defeated, back to their sub-$10 wines from Trader Joe's, convinced there's some kind of game going on and they don't know the rules.

Well, if they had a chance to taste these top-notch Rutherford wines, they would find the wines they are looking for -- and at fair prices. Too bad they probably won't be able to find them. As always at these grand tastings, the majority of these finest of wines are made in small lots of a few hundred cases -- the cream of the winery's crop made in quantities too small to show up in your local Liquor Barn or supermarket, or even in your fine-wine shop if you live outside Northern California. And that's heartbreaking. These wines are ringing endorsements of what California wine can be, of what the Napa Valley is famous for, and of the wonders of "Rutherford Dust."

This tiny supply, of such wonderful wines, at such honest prices, gives wine lovers a powerful incentive to join a few of the winery wine clubs so you can get in on the limited allotments. (If you can even squeeze into their clubs!)

Here are a few of the highlights, with retail price and production level where I remembered to get that info. (Many of these wines are not even listed on the vendor Web sites.)

Heitz Cellar 2005 Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon - $70 - Big and tannic, round and mouthfilling.

Heitz Cellar 1995 Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon - Wonderfully subdued compared to 2005. Nice nose. I liked the 2005 more.

Honig Vineyard and Winery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - Campbell Vineyard - $75.

Hunnicutt 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $75, 125 cases, to be released next spring - wonderful aroma, delicious.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - wonderful aroma, very rich and round.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - Nice black cherry all around, very drinkable.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve - The black-cherry sensation a little more intense in this one.

MCG Cellars - McGah Family Wineries 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $42 - 275 cases - That incredible nose and flavor of dark cherries dusted with chocolate powder! Rich, smooth, unctuous -- sensational.

Meander 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - $65 - 400 cases - Incredible aroma - with that French liquorice-chemical-tire note. Rich.

Meander 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford - $124 - 40 cases - Wonderful aroma, rich, corner-filling, with fine tannins. A standout.

Neal Family Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, $75 - The only one I tasted here that didn't thrill me, due to a slightly odd note in the nose that carried through in the taste - don't know what it was, but it disappointed me.

Pedemonte Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford - $26 - 360 cases - A wonderful taste with a loooong finish -- a wonderful wine in every respect, plus the price is hard to believe. This is not half as good as the other wines, but is exactly on their level and maybe even a bit above (that long finish is wonderful).

Peju 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve -$100  - Yes; yes, that is very much a delicious Cabernet. Miss Lisa Peju, the icon in its ads, was there pouring, along with her mother.

Quintessa 2008 "Quintessa" blend 87% Cab, plus Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cab Franc, and 1% Carmenere. $150 - 8,000 cases. Good. Not the best here, but good. I was surprised that it was the most expensive Cab being shown; I wouldn't have guessed it. I was also taken aback that they said they made 8,000 cases -- eight thousand cases? Yes. Of a $150 wine? Yes. Wow. Nice work if you can get it. Why? How? I got a blank look, as if there is no marvel in superior wines produced in tiny lots for half the price.

Raymond Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $60 - 60 cases - Nice and round, but it's still early for this one, the tannins are still too high.

Raymond Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - 65 cases - Yes, that extra year helps. Good wines, but not I wasn't as impressed as I expected to be.

Rubicon Estates 2008 Rubicon - $250 - Mostly Cab. Creamy, velvety - a quiet, thoughtful wine - I had to pay attention to appreciate it.

Rubicon Estates 2008 CASK Cabernet Sauvignon - $75 - A nice cherry nose, good taste.

Sojourn Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Vineyards Georges III -- $95 - 140 cases - Wow. Rich, sweet -- Zowie! That's a lot of wine for under $100!

Sojourn Cellars 2008 Cuvee -- Great! Rich and delicious.

St. Clement Vineyards 2008 Star Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon - $80 -  Not much nose (unusual in this crowd), but lots of fruit flavor, with a tannic tang that suggests this should lay down for a bit.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $55 - A good middle, with a nice tannic backbone.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Coeur de Vigne, Rutherford - $90 - 49% Cab, 40% Merlot, the rest Petit Verdot and Cab Franc - A nicely balanced wine.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford - $100, club  only. Good, again with the tannic bite. All these Sullivan wines need to lie down for a few years and think about it.

Tres Sabores 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Perspective - $85 - Silky! (No, I don't know what "Rutherford Perspective" means. Is it like "Seaview" where there's no sea?)

Tres Sabores 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $80 - Same vineyard - no nose, but black raspberry on the palate.

The Rutherford district produces quite a few other red wines besides Cabernet Sauvignon -- Merlot and Pinot Noir as well as Cab Franc and four or five others. Here are standouts from this tasting.

Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir - 2009 Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma -- an under-the-table wine that's not produced from Rutherford grapes. - $48, 575 cases.  This is exactly what I like in a Pinot: Light, flavorful, with a long finish.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Merlot Rutherford - Very, very nice: The fruit shows up in the middle and the finish.

Sullivan Vineyards  2008 Reserve Merlot Rutherford - $100, 100 cases, for wine-club members only (you tease!). Round, with a tannic bite.

Tres Sabores 2008 Zinfandel Rutherford Estate - $35 - This is a Wow! with more finish than a typical Zin -- in fact, it's not typical of a Zin but boy is it good!

You'd think it a waste of the most valuable Cab-growing dirt in the country to raise Sauvignon Blanc grapes instead, but the Rutherford growers obviously don't agree. Most of the top-of-the-line wineries showing at this event had Sauv Blancs from grapes grown in Rutherford on offer.

The 2010 Sauv Blancs, newly bottled, were for the most part very similar to one another. Each had that Sauv Blanc nose and the citrusy flavor typical of this wine when it's made well. They were not as stony as the New Zealand style (which is good because I'm getting tired of that style), but were tasty, with a nice light tang that will go well with food, or on the deck on a hot summer day. Here are some I tasted, all 2010 Rutherford  Sauvignon Blancs except where noted.

94574 Brand - $18 - Nice citrusy flavor.

Alpha Omega - $36 - Slightly different from its rivals, a bit more complex, a good finish - 275 cases.

Alpha Omega "1155 Rutherford" - $52 - Also complex, a bit "French," which is a good thing.

Fleury Estate - $50, 150 cases - Nice acid, a light tasty tang.

Frog's Leap - $18 - Nice acid tang, palate clearing - bring out your Chinese food!

Honig Vineyards - 2009 - $25, 1300 cases - A little malolactic gives this and interestingly different taste - a bit of pineapple?

John Robert Eppler (JRE) Wines - 2010 Fume Blanc - French style, nice fruit nose, a bit less citrusy, but with a light tang -- mild, easy to drink. Didn't get a price - and their Web site doesn't even mention this white. Hmm.

Long Meadow Ranch - $18 - classic SB nose, flavor - good.

Conspire- $28; mild, tasty, and pleasant. (Amy Aikin puts her reds are under the brand name 'Meander'.)

Round Pond Estate - $24 - Pleasant, a good drink.

Rutherford Grove - 2009 Rutherford Bench - didn't get the price - Seemed a bit richer than the others, somehow.

What do you think? Which are your favorite Cabs? Pass this article along, and subscribe above for our occasional wine reviews and opinions.  --Mac 

SavvyTaste News For July 26

  • Gold, fine wine, art or under the bed: what's the safest place for your cash?

  • Is red wine actually good for your teeth?

  • U of Fla study says wine is fruitful for one's health

  • French monks pray and make wine on the Med

  • Finding the wine you like through trust and an app

  • What’s worse: cooked, corked or counterfeit wines?

  • Sweet Wine Drinkers, (A Lack Of) Panties, And How We Experience Wine

  • 6 Tips for Spotting a Great Wine List

  • Perfecting pinotage a fine art

  • A conversation with Davis Bynum

  • 'House Wine' takes on a whole new meaning
  • Friday, July 22, 2011

    Big Woop Whoops Napa Valley ... And Offers A By-The-Glass Lesson

    I played tourist today, visiting Calistoga which is a place that I have not spent much time in over the past 10 years or so. But in the process, I re-discovered a hard lesson for vintners in the "by the glass" process.

    I lunched at a restaurant called Brannan's Grill which I had been to a number of years ago and had a nice experience...then.

    This time, the food was forgettable and the wine memorable only for its mediocrity.

    And there is no way to know whether the mediocrity is inherent in the wine or in its manner of opening and storage. And therein lies an important lesson for wineries.

    I first ordered Brian Arden Syrah, Napa Valley 2008, Masked Man Vineyard, $13/glass. It was thin, flaccid, had no structure, no tannin and did a poor imitation of Syrah-flavored Kool-Aid. I thought the wine had been opened too long. I asked for another glass from a fresh bottle. And found the same thing. I don't know if this was crap wine to begin with, a stale bottle or both.

    Not wanting to cause a fuss for a second time, I ordered another glass of wine, Allora Cabernet Sauvignon "Tresca" Napa Valley 2006, at $15/glass. Thin, faint fruit, shy, retiring tannins and little structure. Wimpy is the most charitable word I can think of.

    But the Allora matched my lunch well: a "charcuterie plate" with three square inches of bland country pate, a small crock filled with pale, fatty meat chunks and some Redneck Charcuterie: fried pork rind. On, and burned baguette slices.

    If I were a tourist from some distant place, I would take away some sour memories. But because I live in wine country, I know this is not the best food or wine that Napa Valley has to offer ... but a one-time visitor doesn't realize this.

    First impressions can be the only impressions that get carried back home.

    And that's a lesson that vintners should keep in mind especially if they're promoting their wine by the glass. Even if they are not actively promoting a by the glass program, they need to hammer it into sales reps heads that a proper method of preserving an unfinished bottle is vital to preserving the winery's reputation.

    I've never had Allora or Brian Arden wines before this experience. So I can't say whether the transcendental plonkiness of the wines I sampled came from the wine or the way it was stored. Or both.

    The counterpoint to it all came tonight when I paid $9.99 for a bottle of "Big Woop" which is a rough-and-ready, one-liter, screw-top Aussie red that seems mostly Syrah, but also has some Grenache and Mourvedre flavors running amuck. This was a boistrous,wine with a riot of flavor that elevated the pizza it was matched with ... all in all, a far better -- and less expensive -- gustatory experience than lunch.

    SavvyTaste News For July 22

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    SavvyTaste News For July 13