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Wall Street Journal  Wine Truisms  Feb-13-2015

 

 


The article by Lettie Teague may be of interest to you and following that, we post some commentary by Bay Area wine writer Charlie Olken, publisher of CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA WINE.

 

 

 

ON WINE: LETTIE TEAGUE

Lettie Teague Takes on Ten Wine ‘Truisms’

You’ve heard such saws as ‘the higher the price, the better the wine’ and ‘Old World wines are better than New World wines.’ But are they fact or oenofolly?

By 

LETTIE TEAGUE

Feb. 13, 2015 9:44 a.m. ET

ILLUSTRATION: EDD BALDRY

SOME PHRASES are repeated so frequently they are eventually assumed to be true. Maxims such as “high-alcohol wines aren’t good” and “a great wine must be age-worthy” are just two I’ve heard recited by oenophiles again and again. But are they opinion or truth? I compiled a list of the 10 phrases I’ve heard most often and asked a few wine professionals and knowledgeable amateurs which ones they thought were closer to fiction and which should be called facts.

1. The higher the price the better the wine.

Wine marketers are responsible for this notion, said Gerald Weisl, proprietor of Weimax Wines & Spirits, a shop in Burlingame, Calif. Or perhaps it’s driven by the ego of the winemaker, he added. Chris Camarda, proprietor of Andrew Will Winery in Washington state, agreed with Mr. Weisl but maintains that producers are pressured to price their wines at a certain level, lest they not be taken seriously. He told a story of a Seattle wine merchant who recommended Mr. Camarda’s top wine, Sorella, to a shopper who had asked for “the best Washington state wine.” But when told the bottle cost $65, the customer rejected the wine as “too cheap.” It couldn’t possibly be good, he said. This is one maxim I’m happy to say I’ve never believed. I have had truly first-rate wines that cost $25 a bottle—and less.

2. Wine is made in the vineyard.

This saying has become a favorite of seemingly every winemaker in the world. The phrase suggests that a good wine isn’t a product of technical work (e.g. filtration, nonnative yeasts) but simply good fruit. When I asked superstar Napa winemaker Aaron Pott what he thought, he replied, “There is nothing more true.” Of course, Mr. Pott works in a rarefied world with rarefied fruit, so no doubt it’s true for him. But as Mr. Weisl wisely pointed out, “A winemaker can screw up years’ worth of viticulture if he or she doesn’t make good decisions in the cellar.” Mistakes can come in the form of the wrong fermentation temperature or the smothering of beautiful fruit with excess oak. Perhaps a better saying might be “A good wine starts in a good vineyard.”

3. No one cares about scores or wine critics.

The oenophiles I polled were at odds over this. Ian Dorin, wine director at the Wine Library, in Springfield, N.J., thought scores were important to only a tiny segment of drinkers. “Brands are what drive people to buy wine—ratings don’t really sell wines,” he said. But my friend Alan, a knowledgeable and opinionated oenophile, believes that in such a highly competitive market, scores are more important than ever. Scores help distinguish one wine from another—for buyers and sellers alike. I’d say this rule is true but only for scores higher than 90 points. I can’t think of a wine drinker who seeks a sub-90 point wine, or a producer likely to tout a wine with a lowly score.

4. Winemakers make wines for the critics.

Wine drinkers aren’t alone in chasing high scores; conventional wisdom holds that vintners do as well. They have (ostensibly) figured out the palates of powerful critics and make wines they will like. Fiction or fact? Absolutely fact, said Mr. Camarda. “I see people making wine to fit certain critical biases,” he asserted, describing a Bordeaux he tasted recently as so ripe and alcoholic, he said, it was more like an Australian Shiraz than a Bordeaux. There was no question in his mind the wine was inspired by a producer’s looking to impress critics who love powerhouse wines. I think Mr. Camarda is right—but the adage holds true for only a narrow segment of the market. There is a veritable ocean of mass-market brands that doesn’t seek reviews or scores. And, ultimately, pandering to critics pays off for very few winemakers. Indeed, only a tiny percentage of the world’s wines are even reviewed.

5. High-alcohol wines aren’t good.

A certain cadre of wine drinkers, both amateur and professional, loudly decry wines with high alcohol levels, often anything over 14%—coincidentally, the number at which wine is taxed at a higher rate in the U.S. As far as I can tell, this cadre is composed chiefly of wine bloggers (Google the words “anti high-alcohol wines,” and you’ll see what I mean). But the facts don’t seem to 

support these opinions, nor do wine drinkers seem to care. The world produces and consumes an enormous quantity of wine whose alcohol content is well north of 14% (Napa Cabernets, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and wines from Spain’s Priorat region, to name a few). My friend Alan calls this lower-alcohol edict “one of those self-important decrees no one in the real world pays attention to,” and I think he’s right. Higher-alcohol wines come from riper fruit, the result of warmer temperatures. And some of the best vintages of Bordeaux have been produced in warm years, i.e., 1947 and 1982.

6. Great wine must be age-worthy.

This has been a dictum for decades, perhaps centuries: A wine isn’t truly worthy unless it improves over time. But is this true? After all, many wines are consumed with much pleasure in their youth. “Great wine is a wine that’s great at the moment,” Mr. Dorin opined. “It’s the moment that makes the wine.” I do think he has a point. Greatness is subjective: What’s great to me might not be great to you. And yet a wine—typically a pricey one—that transforms with age, that not only endures but improves and evolves into something more nuanced and complex, can objectively be said to have merit. I think this saying is not only true, it has stood the test of time.

7. Old World wines are better than New World wines.

My consultants were divided on this, and even at odds with themselves. Mr. Pott thought it was both true and not, as did Mr. Camarda. A New World wine is shorthand for any wine made outside Europe: in Argentina, New Zealand, the U.S., etc. The two men gave nods to the Old World sensibility—hundreds of years of tradition, including personal engagement with the vineyard. So did my friend Alan, although he wondered what might truly be considered a New World wine in the first place, with so much new exploration, new plantings and New World winemaking technique (such as temperature-controlled fermentations) put to use in the Old World. Perhaps Mr. Camarda said it best when he answered, “It depends.” Personally I think a hybrid is best: Old World sensibility matched with New World innovation makes the best wine. Although that may be a bit long for a maxim.

8. Sommeliers only like obscure wines.

If you’ve been to a restaurant whose sommelier has compiled a list of wines you don’t recognize—and can’t even identify as red or white—this seems to be an incontrovertible truth. But according to Michael Madrigale, head sommelier of Manhattan restaurants Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, only sommeliers who want to feel superior to their customers adopt this stance. “They drive a wedge between themselves and the wine drinker,” he said. While I appreciate sommeliers who are forever questing for something interesting and new (it was thanks to Mr. Madrigale that I first discovered Canadian Gamay) they do need to remember that their customers might also prefer familiar wines such as Sancerre and California Chardonnay. Mr. Madrigale includes both on his lists. Perhaps this saying should be amended to “Bad sommeliers only like obscure wine.”

9. Red-wine drinkers are more sophisticated than white-wine drinkers.

The late, great English wine writer Harry Waugh declared, “The first duty of a wine is to be red.” The idea that red-wine drinkers are connoisseurs rather than mere consumers has held for decades. But many wine professionals think otherwise. “If you’re really into wine,” said Mr. Madrigale, “it’s the opposite.” White wine offers a broader range of possibilities, is more versatile and is easier to drink without food. Mr. Camarda had a funny take on the fallacy. “It’s because chicks drink white wine,” he said jokingly, although there may indeed be a sexist perception that red wine is more important and sophisticated because it is more manly. Naturally I, and Mr. Camarda, think both this perception and the adage are false. Some of the most complex and compelling wines in the world are made from white grapes (Burgundy, Vouvray, Mosel Riesling and Champagne), and I know plenty of non-chicks who agree.

10. Wine is hard.

Is this a saying or simply a complaint? It is certainly a statement I’ve heard often. Despite numerous idiot’s guides and self-styled wine experts who claim that wine is simple, learning and knowing about wine is challenging. Or at least it is for anyone seeking something beyond a merely consumable beverage. Wine is the study of multiple subjects simultaneously—history, geology, cartography, geography, politics, chemistry and a good bit of sociology. Anyone who claims otherwise is deliberately underplaying the complexity of the subject—or lying to you.

 

 

THURSDAY THORNS

02/19/2015

Rating The Wall Street Journal Wine Column At 92—This Time

 

By Charles Olken

Wine columns are like vintages. Each one stands on its own. I have not been a fan generally of the WSJ wine writings. The audience is too rarified, the tone too snooty, the lack of respect for California about what one would expect from New Yorkers.

But I have to admit that Lettie Teague’s column last week hit a populist tone that surprised me and had me wondering whether she had somehow found “religion”. One never knows where these things come from, but I got a clue that I was in for a different kind of ride the minute that I saw the name Gerald Weisl as a source of her new-found wisdom.

Gerald is the owner-operator of the Weimax Wine and Spirits in Burlingame, California and a frequent member of our tasting panel. His attention to detail in choosing the wines he sells, his disdain for pomposity, his wicked sense of humor and his finely honed palate all endear him to us—and fortunately, he likes us or we would be at the sharp end of his stick—and no one has a sharper stick in wine country than Gerald except the Hosemaster of Wine.

So, when Mr. Weisl popped up as one of Lettie Teague’s sources, there were only two possibilities on the day. Either she was about to proclaim Weisl as a vinous outlier or she was about to get a lesson in the views of real people and how to serve those needs. Happily, it turned out to be the latter.

Teague set about to list ten half-baked “common wisdoms” she frequently hears in wine country and ostensibly evaluates them. Her conclusions are not all that different from our own, but to be fair, her conclusions are not always her own but those of others. At least, those “others” are well-chosen and do try to debunk some of the more offensive common wisdoms in the wine world.

I wish time allowed me to assess them all in full, but the weekend is approaching and both you and I want this column to end before then. So let me try to be brief, but, in so doing to be a lot more pointed than Ms. Teague. And, I will today address the first five of her ten points, and be back in this same space on Tuesday next to finish up.

Please note that the opinions expressed below are those of the management—full stop.

 

The Higher The Price The Better The Wine
Teague concludes this thought with the comment—“I have had $25 bottles that were truly first rate”. OK, you get a 9 of 10 on that one, Lettie. The problem is that she has not defined “truly first rate”, and I will confess that the greatest bottles I drink, and the wines I cellar for later, rarely cost as little as $25 these days. So, Teague loses two points for exaggeration but gets one back for populism. The majority of wine I drink, for which I pay to put on my table on a day to day basis does cost more like $25 than $100. And it is all pretty good to my palate. But, first-rate (i. e., it rates first), well, those wines are simply pricier. Which is not to say that all pricey wine is first rate. I almost docked Teague a point for missing that essential truth, but she deserves credit for taking on the shibboleth of high price—and in the WSJ at that.

Wine Is Made In The Vineyard
Well, yes and no. It is de rigeur for makers of high-priced wine to give credit to the vineyard, and, there is much truth in this point. There is a reason why some pieces of dirt are more highly regarded than others, and that is because they seem to give the world better wines. Teague quotes Weisl again that a winemaker can screw up good potential, and that is true enough. It is further true that every action in a a winery, from the biggest and most manipulative producer to the smallest, most “natural”, one-man band, is the result of someone’s thought process. It is utter nonsense to try to speak of wine quality without also speaking of the winemaker regardless of how much love we give to the source of the grapes. Once again, Teague loses a point for missing the ultimate relationship re vineyards and wine.

No One Cares About Scores Or Wine Critics
Teague gets 11 of 10 and my thanks. It is unusual for any wine columnist who is not a critic to say nice things about critics. But, the recent rise in the criticism of critics and of their roles is fueled not by the millions of folks who pay for those opinions, but by people (somms, retailers and wineries that tend not to get high ratings) who wish to create a different universe—one in which their opinions reign. Oh, well.

Winemakers Make Wines For The Critics
So, I was visiting a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains recently and heard the winemaker say that he was changing the style of his wine because a San Francisco sommelier told him that low alcohol and high acidity were the ways to go. Never mind that his previous vintage had received fairly positive reviews. The fact is that some winemakers react to anything and everything and some simply do not give a damn for anything but their own palates and preferences. 9 of 10 for being mostly right—but failing to notice that the “people” drink what they like and any critic whose palate does not align with a piece of the populace will not have much of a following.

High Alcohol Wines Aren’t Good
Another Spinal Tap moment for Teague. 11 out of 10 here. Perhaps it is because California wines get pilloried with this nonsense that I give Ms. Teague extra credit. Or perhaps it is because I am astounded that a New Yorker actually came out and threw this bit of stupidity under the bus. Wine is not to be judged by alcohol content or any other number but by taste. It is high time that we as winelovers start insisting on that point as the only measure of a wine’s greatness.

And, that was the half-time whistle. See you on the other side of the weekend. And my thanks to Lettie Teague for bring a fine sense of proportion and logic to discussions that all too often are bound up in polemics.

 

 

 

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