30 December 2005

Sierra smile

Sierra Vista 2003 Grenache (El Dorado) – Weighty but not powerful, with raspberry and pomegranate but very little of the expected bubblegum, a slightly sludgy structure (though there’s plenty of it), and a somewhat more promising introduction of ground-flowerbed earthiness and spice on the finish. I’m unsure about this wine.

This producer, hidden amongst the remote hills of California’s gold country, gets very little respect vs. the quality of wine they produce…an obvious result of location; put them in newly-hip Paso Robles and the wines would be both expensive and impossible to find. Their syrah, zinfandel, and cabernet are often world-class, and the rest of the portfolio isn’t bad either. This bottling, formerly a blending component in a Rhône-style wine called “Fleur de Montagne,” perhaps shows some of the potential flaws of varietal grenache…except that it is apparently the recipient of a little blended syrah. I do wonder if they’re using their best grapes for this wine, and based on their other results I suspect that if they did, matters would improve. I could easily be underrating it, however. Alcohol: 14%. Web: http://www.sierravistawinery.com/.

In the Frick of it

Frick 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Slightly sour grapefruit and limestone. Surly and maybe even a little bitter at its existence; one hopes a little time will smooth things over, but it’s not all that much fun to drink right now.

Frick is a producer I think I should like – good vineyard work, brought in by an importer whose wines I usually like, biodynamic (which usually indicates a certain qualitative fanaticism, apart from whether or not biodynamics actually work) – but don’t as often as I’d think. I’m not sure what the problem is…but if anyone knows, I’m open to suggestions. Alcohol: 12.5%. Sealed with a crown cap. Biodynamic. Importer: Louis/Dressner.

29 December 2005

The Belle of the ball

Belle Pente 2003 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Clean, water-washed ripe red apple and ripe lemon with moderate sweetness. It’s good for a fruity expression of riesling, but (at least at this stage) it lacks further complexities of the mineral or floral variety. The balance is there, but it remains to be seen if the wine will develop into anything more than pleasant.

Belle Pente (pronounced “bell pont,” in the French manner) is a winery best-known for its often-striking pinots, done in a restrained, elegant, and – dare I say it? – almost Burgundian fashion. Pinot and riesling are often paired in the minds of terroir-obsessed oenophiles, but outside New Zealand it’s rare for a winery to make them both well. One does indeed hope for more here, but it will be a long while before we can tell if the problem is the site or the application…and anyway, it’s not like the wine is unpleasant or flawed in any way. It’s just not as good as the pinots. Alcohol: 13.7%. Web: http://www.bellepente.com/


Lageder “Tòr Löwengang” 2004 Pinot Bianco Haberlehof (Alto Adige) – Stunning, intense and pure. Dried white winter fruit ground to a micropowder, with powerful glacial minerality and a long, vibrant finish. Really amazing.

The Alto Adige is one of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet, with sheer, ice-capped mountains and cliffs sheltering warm valleys, and vines trussed up steep hillsides; some of these sites may well require a Sherpa at harvest time. Since there’s no real restriction on what can and can’t be made under the appellation laws, there’s no signature identity of the region except the one you might expect: a stern, mineral-driven austerity indicative of both the climate and the hybrid Italian/Austrian culture. When it fails, one is merely left with a severe, overly-restrained wine. When it succeeds, as in the rest of the Germanic wine world, it succeeds brilliantly. This wine, from older (for pinot bianco) vines at 1500 feet and aged with the very slightest touch of new wood (which here shows more oxidative than flavor-deforming), is an unquestioned success. Importer: Lageder USA. Alcohol: 13%. Web: http://www.lageder.com/

28 December 2005


Château d’Estoublon 2001 Les Baux de Provence (Provence) – Very advanced for its age, with somewhat baked red fruit, earth-toned spice box aromas and a structure that’s starting to fray at the seams.

Les Baux de Provence is known for its beauty and for the Michelin-starred restaurant L' Oustaù de Baumanière. What it’s not very well known for are its wines. And that’s an odd thing to say, considering that a very well-known wine indeed – Domaine de Trévallon – is produced within the appellation’s borders. The problem with Trévallon is that it exceeds the legal limit for cabernet sauvignon (a debatable limitation on the region’s wines), yet again relegating an appellation’s best producer to vin de pays status. When will the French learn? 30% grenache, 30% syrah, 30% mourvèdre, 10% cabernet sauvignon. Importer: Ruby Wines. Organic. Web: http://www.estoublon.com/ Alcohol: 13.5%.

The land of the flat white crowd (New Zealand, pt. 3)

Prism sentience

Don’t talk to me about rainbows. Those partial-arc terrestrial versions are, at best, pale imitations of what I’m seeing now. I rub the crust of a long airborne snooze from my eyes and gaze, dumbfounded, out the tiny airplane window at vivid lasers of color streaking across the pre-dawn horizon. Above and below are two themes on uninterrupted grayscale, but in-between is the most wondrous display of prismatic brilliance imaginable, the pure refraction of the planet’s encircling atmosphere unhindered by the distractions and diffusions of earthbound land and sky.

I fire up the in-seat video screen and thumb the controls to channel one: the overhead map. The long, island-dotted crossing of the Pacific is, mostly, behind us, and Auckland – our destination – inches centerward. As I twist and stretch stillness-abused muscles and joints, cabin lights stutter and stagger into illumination, while roasted esters of morning coffee drift from the galleys. It’s morning, and New Zealand approaches.

Energy crisis

Perhaps just a little bit of familiarity breeds ease, but this trans-Pacific crossing seems much less body-destroying than the last one, and we arrive at Auckland International Airport fairly refreshed and energized. That energy is tested a bit by a long wait at the other end of customs (a reminder to self: carefully clean golf shoes before flying to a country with obsessive agricultural neuroses) but returns as we step out into the sharp, sunny clarity of an early summer morning. The sky is blue, the grass green, the air clear, and after many months of endless snow, wearying cold, and dreary gray back in Boston, it’s a wake-up call to surpass all others. Our senses are alive, our anticipation peaked. The heart of our long-planned voyage is finally at hand.

A half-hour later, all our energy is gone…sapped by the deadening heat of an airport shuttle caught in a rush hour traffic jam and without compensatory air conditioning (or windows that can be opened), but with the noisy and unavoidable drone of two monitors blaring an endless litany of touristy advertainment. Only the entry into Auckland itself stirs our senses, as we point out familiar landmarks and remembered sites like old friends in a crowd. We’re deposited at the end of Queen Street just across from the glowing orange-golf of the Ferry Building, quickly cross a street that’s nearly devoid of traffic (where’d the rush hour go?), and purchase a small handful of ferry tickets. We’re headed for the sedate retreat of Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the sailboat-and-shipping-filled waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and into the island-dotted expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. We’ve just missed the 9 a.m ferry – curses on traffic jams everywhere – and so, settled into uncomfortable red plastic chairs, we wait for the next…which arrives on the hour in a clanking, creaking din of metal against wood and a hissing vapor of choking exhaust.

The Gulf and its low-slung islands still glisten in bright sun, but every glance westward – back across the towered rise of Auckland and over the mainland – reveals an oncoming wall of rain. It chases us onto the ferry, pauses at the thermal barrier of the Harbor, and then rushes forward once again. It is thus that we have a clear, calm, and sunny passage – the brisk and sweet-smelling wind reviving our travel-dulled minds – but arrive at the sedate and rustic Matiatia passenger terminal on Waiheke Island just as a first few experimental drops of rain fall. The slow trickle of passengers through the cavernous and largely empty terminal is calming enough that the energy of the city already seems a distant memory. We collect a grossly expensive rental car (someone could make a lot of money offering a cheaper alternative to the island’s two rather larcenous automobile agents) and gingerly edge out of the parking lot, Theresa at the wheel and me repeating our British Empire mantra at each intersection and turn: “left…left…on the left…you’re driving on the left…left…left.”

(Continued here...)

White roussanne (hold the vodka)

Tablas Creek 2002 Roussanne (Paso Robles) – Varietally restrained and hiding under its (fairly moderate) oak aromatics at the moment, with a weighty, thick texture (though there’s pleasant enough acidity) and a long, heavy finish that shows faint hints of crystallization. This wine has a better future than a present.

Of the well-known trio of white Rhône Valley grapes (I say “well-known” because others – grenache blanc, bourboulenc, etc. tend to get lost in the shuffle), roussanne is by far the least appreciated. It lacks the honeyed floral charm of viognier and the boisterous fruit of marsanne, instead showing an austere, fabric-like texture that’s rather forbidding. It does age, but even then it’s not exactly an easygoing, beginners’ wine. Here, Tablas Creek (the California venture of Beaucastel’s Perrin family and their American importer, Robert Haas) separates some roussanne from their white blends for a varietal wine; a useful and educational comparison can currently be done with the 2004 version of this wine (from the same site) that’s vinified by Steve Edmunds at Edmunds St. John. The ESJ, unsurprisingly, is crisper and uninfluenced by oak, while the Tablas shows less skin bitterness and more generosity (a relative term, in this case). Both, however, show raw materials worth aging and further examination, and both show that while Tablas Creek is doing admirable work in the cellar, it is perhaps in the vineyard that they are making their greatest strides. (Alcohol: 14.3%. Web: http://www.tablascreek.com/)

20 December 2005

Kritt-ical thinking

Kreydenweiss 2001 Gewurztraminer Kritt “Les Charmes” (Alsace) – Succulent ripe pear and lychee dust with vivid crystalline minerality and lovely acidity. Poised, flavorful and balanced. Built for the long haul.

19 December 2005

Lyrical fish

Zaccagnini 2004 Colline Pescaresi “il bianco di Ciccio” (Abruzzi) – Vivid, ripe green leaves and wood-smoked minerality. Intense and somewhat neon, with a powerful backpalate and a forceful, balanced finish.

Megan 2001 Lirac “Les Queyrades” (Rhône) – Sweaty leather, dark blackberry residue, black dirt and meat oil. Classic and pure, though the finish is perhaps a bit shorter than one would want.

17 December 2005

Mescladis...without the worm

Mas de Périé “Domaine Clavel” 2004 Côteaux du Languedoc Terroir de la Mejanelle “Mescladis” (Languedoc) – This, since it's not apparent from the name, is a rosé. Slurpy red fruit with lavender-scented aromatics. The nose promises much, but the palate fails to deliver.

16 December 2005

Closing the Bookwalter

J. Bookwalter 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – Chocolate and eucalyptus – not as awful as it sounds – in a rich, big-fruited, reasonably balanced and well-made wine that I don’t care for one bit. Too anonymous for me.

Simmern over low heat

von Simmern 2002 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett 010 03 (Rheingau) – Fresh liquid steel and succulent honeysuckle, quite sweet and ripe (well into spätlese territory, it seems), with a long and lovely balance to the finish. Really beautiful, youthful, and endlessly promising.

15 December 2005

The cab is always greener...

Like all wine lovers, I have my likes and dislikes, and the wines I choose to buy reflect those choices. And like most wine lovers, I don't much care for drinking bad wines. What's fun, though, is crossing over to the "other side," and tasting (mostly) well-made wines that fit the preferences of those with decidedly different tastes.

A recent holiday party gave me the opportunity to do just that. Below are some quick takes -- I didn't take formal notes at the event -- on a lineup of wines that, with one or two exceptions, aren't likely to make regular appearances in my glass.

Lafond 2003 Sancerre (Loire) – Reedy green citrus and grassy notes, though with the skin bitterness and lowish acidity characteristic of the vintage. In the context of many truly awful 2003 Sancerres, this one is actually half-decent.

la Poussie 2003 Sancerre (Loire) – Heavy, green, bitter, and acid free. See above.

Ladoucette 2003 Pouilly-Fumé (Loire) – Gorgeous, silky fruit with earthy elegance and the first stirrings of complexity. Beautifully balanced and long. I could drink this all night.

Paul Hobbs 2003 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley) – Simple and spicy peach, pear, citrus and white fig-like fruit with moderate oak spice and a reasonable dollop of acidity. Pretty decent, though chardonnay’s still not exactly my favorite grape in the world.

Belle Pente 2002 Pinot Noir Belle Pente (Willamette Valley) – Gorgeous, silky fruit with earthy elegance and the first stirrings of complexity. Beautifully balanced and long. I could drink this all night.

Relic 2002 Pinot Noir Alder Springs (Mendocino County) – Forceful pinot noir, dense and throbbing with heavy, leaden black and red fruit, plus streaks of plummy orange rind that make me think of an especially heavy Central Otago pinot. This will be very popular with some, and it’s not a bad wine, but I much prefer the Belle Pente.

Fanti 1998 Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany) – Luscious, clove-spiced baked berries with not-insignificant oak and a relatively balanced finish. There could be less technology and wood thrown at this, and it would improve, but it’s a nice drink in its present form.

Brancaia 2003 “Il Blu” IGT Toscana (Tuscany) – The sangiovese is, as usual, overwhelmed by cabernet and merlot, but that said there’s merit to the wine; internationalized it is, indeed, but there’s plenty of juicy and fun fruit here.

Gaja 2001 “Magari” IGT Toscana (Tuscany) – Weedy bell pepper and seed pepper dust. There are interestingly floral aromatics, but the palate is disappointing, and a long finish doesn’t mean much when the flavors aren’t that pleasant.

Thomas Fogarty 2001 “Skyline” (California) – Massively overwooded and underripe at the same time. Horrid.

Tor 2003 Syrah Durell “Clone No. 1” (Carneros) – Incredibly thick and dense…a sort of chocolate-and-oak shake…and varietally anonymous. Kind of a waste of the raw materials, but certainly destined for popularity amongst the bigger-is-better crowd.

13 December 2005

The young and the fruitless

“I want to gather together to drink dead whites.”

Fearing some sort of stealth Black Panther rally, I rubbed my eyes and re-read the email. “Unusual whites,” it actually read. Oh, OK. That’s better.

The call had gone out from the Rajah of Rioja, the Master of Moose, the man that puts the salt in cod, the Humbert-Humbert of Hamburger, Mighty Young Joe, Mr. Roll Bar, the man that keeps exotic upholstery manufacturers in business…many know him as Joe “I’m-not-the-lead-guitarist-of-Aerosmith” Perry…to assemble on a tiny island off Boston’s North Shore for the imbibing of whites that were, in Joe’s words, “off the beaten track.”

“What do you mean by that?” I queried.

“You know, no popular whites. No riesling, no gewürztraminer, no chenin…”

“Chenin is popular?!?

“Well, what I’m thinking is…”

“Gewürztraminer is popular?!?

“Oh, you know what I mean.”

A resigned sigh. “Yes, I think I do. You want to drink oxidized whites from Spain.”

“And the Rhône. Don’t forget the Rhône.”

“Oh, no. How could I?”

...continued here.

Bass, baritone, Tremenalto, tenor

Dama del Rovere 2004 Soave Classico Tremenalto (Veneto) – Fuzzy and indistinct at first glance, but opening up with air and rising temperature to show pulverized dried white flowers and dusty, chalky earth with hints of lightly tart grapefruit and a buzzing texture. The alcohol sticks out a bit, but it’s a nice enough wine.

This wine is made from 100% garganega, a grape out of favor with Soave’s industrial and low-quality producers, but very much in favor at the top houses of the region (including Anselmi and Pieropan). The grape, unless carried to chancy levels of ripeness, is exceedingly light-bodied and shy for this full-malo-and-barriqued chardonnay world, where size is some sort of bizarre synonym for quality, but it would be a shame to miss its simple but pleasant charms.

The importance of negativity

The philosophical reasons for balance are beyond the scope of this document – and probably beyond the abilities of the author – so I will leave them as an exercise for the reader. But the notion of balance is necessary when considering one of the more difficult aspects of wine criticism: the need to be negative.

Nice people

Wine people are, in general, very good people. From the humblest vineyard worker to the wealthiest multi-generational patriarch, the kindness exhibited by and among those in the (broadly defined) wine industry is remarkable. It is thus difficult to comprehend the need to criticize those who have been nothing other than nice. Who have been generous. Who have welcomed critics into their restaurants and stores, warehouses and wineries, and often into their homes. Difficult…but not impossible, for the product is not the person. The producer of any reviewable product who is incapable of absorbing criticism will be a perpetually miserable producer. (The same, incidentally, applies to critics who are overly convinced of their inerrancy.)

The deliberate act of not buying a wine is, at its heart, a negative review. Any winemaker who pours their wines for the public deals with this phenomenon on a regular basis; not to mention face-squinching and frantic-spitting reactions to some undesirable sample. The negative review simply formalizes those reactions, though it does also raise the possibility of the reaction being preserved in perpetuity. This is why the ephemerality of a tasting note is so important for the reader to understand.

Cygnus, bringer of balance

Just as a good tasting note is supported by a foundation of context, the presence of a range of reactions to wine provides contextual clues that are important to a consumer of that note. When assessing the utility of a critic, it is just as important to understand what that critic dislikes as it is to understand his likes. A critic who is, say, reliably sensitive to volatile acidity, or routinely forgiving of abrasive tannin, must be identified to form a bridge of trust between critic and consumer, lest unpleasant surprises arrive in the form of critically-lauded bottles. A corpus of notes, positive and negative, forms the professional (as opposed to the personal) profile of a critic; a lopsided profile may be avant garde but carries worrisome implications about the critic’s chosen subject.

For it is also true that unrelenting negativity is undesirable in a critic. Why review a product that makes one miserable? This is not to say that numbers must balance around some arbitrary median – the good bottles equal to the bad – but that a critic must find joy and sorrow of equal intensity in their chosen field. A critic who leans too far to either side is worthy of suspicion.

Such a lonely word

Also, there is the important issue of honesty. A critic who cannot honestly report negative reactions to wine cannot be trusted to reliably report positive reactions to wine, because he is holding something back. A critic may choose how to best express strong negativity (or positivity), but that is entirely different from entirely suppressing the reaction.

Ultimately, an honest critic will find more friends than enemies. There will, from time to time, be sensitive types that do not appreciate criticism, or the tone of criticism, and from those will arise losses of friendship that will cause the critic pain. Yet this would seem to be an outcome necessary for a critic to accept. For in the end, sensible producers and critics will realize that it is more important to be respected than it is to be liked.

(Reproduced in its entirety from oenoLogic -- the site loved by oenophilic yaks everywhere.)

10 December 2005

Price tomfoolery at Martignetti Liquors

So I was at Martignetti Liquors on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton, Massachusetts today. Martignetti is rarely known for the area's lowest prices, but they do have an excellent selection and they know their stuff.

However, while browsing their clearance bin, I noticed something peculiar. The Eric Texier 2000 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Chusclan was in the bins at $19.99. Now, that might not be an unusual price, except that the other sticker on the labels indicated that the original price was $29.99! Now, this is a wine that, at release, went for various prices in the mid-teens. So what's going on at Martignetti Liquors? Some of the other prices are a bit...fishy...as well. Caveat emptor.

Livin' La Livinière loca

Ournac “Château Cesseras” 2001 Minervois La Livinière (Languedoc) – Intensely smoky meat liqueur – like a Northern Rhône, but not quite at the same volume or with the same intensity – and deep, basso earth notes. Delicious, but not for fruit hounds.

Minervois La Livinière is a new sub-appellation (a cru, as the French would have it) of Minervois, with stricter rules and a directed focus on syrah and mourvèdre (rather than carignan and cinsaut). Judging by this bottling, the delineation is a worthy one.

09 December 2005

Reno, Virginia & California (New Zealand, pt. 2)

[Venice Beach]

Tall tales

I stare out the window at a woman’s thigh. It’s not what one might think – she’s fully clothed – but it is rather remarkable: here I am sitting in a car, and there’s a woman walking by whose waist is actually above my sightline. Who is this Amazon? Someone from the WNBA, perhaps? I lean closer to the window, look up. Way up.

It’s Janet Reno.

OK, so it’s not quite the celebrity sighting I’m expecting. But then again, we are in L.A.

Sinking is Venice

Theresa’s long-time friend Jan is once again our tour guide for a relaxing preflight half-day in Los Angeles, and since we’re still pale escapees from a frigid New England winter, she takes us to the beach. The beach of story, song, and insanity. But for the locals taking every possible form of transportation along the endless line of cheesy trinket shops at Venice Beach, it’s a chilly day and there’s not much actual beach activity of any kind. While there’s no perceivable gap in the panhandlers, preachers and purveyors on the seaward side of the boardwalk, I have to admit that I’m somewhat disappointed by a general surfeit of noisy crazies. Too much television, I suppose, leading to unsatisfiable expectations. But then, this is the city that has perfected illusion.

(...continued here...)

Sierra sludge

Renwood “Sierra Series” 2003 Syrah (Sierra Foothills) – Chunky, monolithic and dark Sierra fruit, clunky tannin, and a chewy texture. Certainly drinkable, but it lacks class.

The entire Sierra Foothills area has enormous potential, though much of it is destined to go unrealized given its lack of proximity to major California tourist centers (the region itself isn’t all that far from San Francisco, but getting anywhere once you’re there is a different story. And the major flow-by of tourists are heading either to the Tahoe-area ski fields or to Reno; not the sort of drop-in business on which one can rely. Wine regions need recognition, they need acclaim, but most of all they need funds…money to improve viticulture and cellar operations that will in turn lead to better wines, reinforcing the cycle.

Of course, there’s an upside to all this: the area is a lot of fun to visit, and largely devoid of pigeon-like hordes of tourists.

Renwood is as big a name as the area has (the other contender would be Domaine de la Terre Rouge/Easton), but not all fame is good fame. The winery has a long and checkered history, and the ownership is not the most popular in the region (or, for that matter, among in-the-know wine buffs). History and gossip aside, what’s more immediately relevant is that the quality of Renwood’s wines has slowly but inexorably declined. Part of it is related to the slow bleed of high-quality vineyard sources, as in the above-referenced article. Part of it is an inability to attain new high-quality sources of fruit…and that, too, is tied, for better or worse, to the reputation of the ownership. But mostly, it’s a clear and (one presumes) deliberate shift away from higher-end wines (though Renwood does still make a few of those) to mass-market bottlings at a lower price tier. The “Sierra Series” leads this movement, and while the wines are never exciting, they’re usually fairly solid and at least quaffable.

Ultimately, the whole Renwood saga is a little sad; a lot of might-have-beens quashed by the usual palette of human frailties. What could be a standard-bearer for an underappreciated region is, instead, an outsider in its own environment, and while the wines do present some vague notion of Sierra-ness, they are certainly not representative of the capabilities of the region.

(Other wines, other stuff: visit oenoLogic's parent site.)

08 December 2005

What is a tasting note?

A tasting note is an impression frozen in time. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It is one person’s opinion at one particular moment. It is a one-night stand.

It is not an objective assessment of the wine’s past, present and future. It is not Holy Writ. It is not a communal judgment, and does not represent some Zagat-like conventional wisdom. It is not a poll. It is not “wrong.” It is not a personal attack, or indeed to be interpreted personally in any fashion whatsoever.

It may or may not be an invitation to dialogue. The note itself may be all the dialogue its author intends. Alternatively, the note may instead represent only the author’s dialogue with the wine itself. It may or may not be reflective of an overarching philosophy. Sometimes, a note is just a note. It may or may not be consistent with previous notes. Wine, despite the best attempts to industrialize it, remains a variable and living product.

What is a good tasting note?

If it pleases the author, it’s a good note. Nothing is more destructive to the purpose of tasting notes than the demands of others; neither descriptors, nor data, nor formatting, nor points and other qualitative shortcuts should be imposed upon the author from outside.

Notes may be structural, as exemplified by the methods taught to candidates for the Master of Wine examination, wherein the components of wine are systematically broken down to aid in analysis and identification. Notes may be organoleptically iterative, in the manner of modern North American wine writing – “laundry lists” of fruits, vegetables, flowers, rocks, etc. – or they may be as austere and ungenerous as the wine they describe. Notes may be metaphorical, comparing the experience of the wine to just about anything in the realm of experience, including anthropomorphism. Notes may be fanciful, reflecting the joy inherent in the beverage. Notes may be contextual, comparing one experience to another or giving the wine an active role in a real world narrative. Notes may be educational or informative, carrying the weight of experience and the power of data collection with every word. Notes may be a ranking and a justification thereof.

Indeed, notes may be all these things, and all will find their audience. What an audient should not do is insist that all critics compose notes to their preference. Critics are – usually – not prostitutes. On the other hand, requests, sensibly justified, are acceptable. (Similarly, critics should not insist that all winemakers create wines to their preference, but it is acceptable to express those preferences in the context of criticism when those preferences are supported by reasoned discourse.)

What is a useful tasting note?

A useful tasting note answers three questions:

1) What is the wine?
2) What are the critic’s impressions of the wine?
3) What are the reader’s likely impressions of the wine?

1 requires that proper notation be observed. There are many paths to correctness, but undue abbreviation is not one of them. 2 has already been covered herein. 3 requires communicative skill on the part of the critic. Around this point revolves the fundamental different between a good note and a useful note; the former is free to ignore the consumer, the latter must not forget the consumer.


At times I attempt to compose good notes, and at times I attempt to compose useful notes. Sometimes, I attempt and achieve both, but I do not always make that attempt, and do not always achieve that goal. Sometimes, I fail in every manner possible. Accuracy, however, is a must, and I will go to certain lengths to assure it; corrections are always welcome.

(Republished in its entirety from oenoLogic, the site, the boy band, the worldwide branding phenomenon.)

Living history

J. Girona “Castell del Remey” 1929 “Reserva” (Cataluña) – The bottle is in shockingly good condition; low neck fill, mushy but otherwise intact cork, a good solid red liquid within. The cork starts disintegrating upon contact with a regular worm-type corkscrew, but a two-pronged tool removes it intact and with little difficulty. At first, there’s just some oxidative fruit remnants and alcohol, but with a little swirling and encouragement the faded core of what must have been a rather gutsy wine emerges for a last, lingering look around. Like the faded remnants of a cool autumn leaf-fall, with subtle urgings of red cherry carried on a dusty breeze, this pulses for a moment, pauses, and then fades finally and decisively away. But even that brief moment of pleasure is a remarkable one.

More blah blah blah on this wine.

07 December 2005

November symphony

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2001 Jurançon “Symphonie de Novembre” (Southwest France) – Absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. Honeyed peach and cinnamon-spiced baked winter apple with a creamy texture and a long, balanced finish. Delicious.

For a little history and commentary on this wine, you know where to click, don't you?

The philosophy of wine criticism

Millions of words have undoubtedly been written on the meaning and practice of criticism, and I have no intent of adding to that din beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, it is worth a few moments to explain what I view to be the philosophical basis of wine criticism, in an attempt to support what will be said elsewhere on its ethics and its practice.

Why criticize?

Because it is in our nature. We are creatures of emotion, and we are creatures of opinion. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked. That we are also creatures of communication seems to me to inevitably lead to the practice of criticism. At every moment of life, we exercise judgment – here, for example, I decide to employ one word over another via a judgment that one is better-suited to my needs – and we communicate that judgment in ways both internal and external. Externally-focused judgment is simply the expression of opinion, and that is the basis of criticism, which is merely a formalization of that inherent human trait.

Why not criticize?

We are creatures of emotion because we are creatures of feeling, and judgment can be difficult when you or your work are its target. Yet this, too, is fundamental – not necessarily to our beings, but to our society – for without judgment there are no standards, and without standards we cannot advance and improve in ways that are meaningful and helpful to us as people. Nonetheless, the most common objection to criticism is that it carries the potential for emotional damage. This is unquestionably true, and an inevitable fact of criticism, but it is not enough to invalidate the practice.

Why critics?

You know the saying: “opinions are like [maligned body part]…everybody’s got one.” This is true. On the other hand, there is also this (frequently attributed to Harlan Ellison, but probably not original to him): “everybody doesn’t have the right to an opinion, everybody has the right to an informed opinion.”

Some will see the latter statement as unduly elitist. They are no doubt correct, from one point of view. Another group will see the former condition as insufficiently rigorous for utility; informational anarchy. They, too, are correct from one point of view. The critic inhabits the world of the latter group, though this may or may not be his audience. It is true that anyone can criticize, but it is not true that anyone can criticize with equal authority, and it is definitely not true that anyone can criticize with equal utility. The uninformed opinion can be emotionally satisfying to its source, but only by accident can it be useful beyond its author. There are several reasons for this.

The informed and authoritative opinion can exclude by the very means of its expression. This is because most fields of criticism have developed their own communicative traditions. The language of wine criticism is rife with terms and modes of expression that are undoubtedly impenetrable to the casual and uninformed reader. This is something the careful critic will consider, though whether or not it informs their work is a personal decision. On the other hand, it virtually guarantees that an uniformed opinion will stand out as such, because the terminology and syntax are unfamiliar.

Adding to this is the issue of context. Authoritative criticism becomes so by its ability to contextualize information and opinion. There is scientific basis for this: when studying the brain activity of wine professionals vs. complete novices in response to the act of tasting wine, the differences found by researchers are not emotive or sensory, but analytical. The expert and the novice “taste” the same things, but the expert has the ability to put those sensory impressions into meaningful language, and they have this ability because of experience and the contextual authority it provides. (This is an extremely positive finding for the wine novice, for it suggests that the majority of differences between them and any given expert are not necessarily matters of inherent sensory skill, but rather of training, and that achieving expert status is a mere matter of learning and practice.) The novice, lacking this contextual ability, can only respond to an object of criticism on a more purely emotive level.

This level of response has, somewhat uncharitably, been called “caveman” criticism. What this means is the basic, gut-level responses of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” that form the foundation of criticism become an end in themselves, and are not expanded upon. The populist and democratic appeal of this notion is undeniable, but of what use is it? Unless caveman number one and caveman number two have identical tastes, or one is willing to subordinate their tastes to the other, nothing of utility is communicated. This is unsatisfactory. A critic must ask, and answer, “why?”

It follows, then, that for a critic to be useful he must communicate judgment and opinion with some measure of authority. This means some measure of academic study (one cannot confuse acidity and tannin and be an effective wine critic), it means broad experience in tasting a variety of wines and wine styles, and it means the ability to separate the objective from the subjective and communicate as much of both as is necessary to support a criticism. It also means accepting and embracing the fundamental nature of bias. Incidentally, none of this invalidates the broad field of amateur criticism; this is not a plea to “leave it to the experts,” but rather a roadmap to improved criticism at all levels.

It also follows that a critic must be effective at communication. An unreadable criticism can be forgiven if delivered in an unfamiliar language, but otherwise is virtually useless. The mode of expression can and should differ – no one style will satisfy every audience – but the true intent of the author must be on display and comprehensible to the consumer of the information. This is much less about spell-checking or grammar than it is about clarity; a work of criticism can be as prosaic and scientific or as metaphorically fanciful as one wishes, but at the end the reader should be able to say, “yes, I know what that critic thought of that wine.”

Why not critics?

Because everybody has their own taste. Critics serve an important function in a world with almost too many options, but can never and should never replace or supersede one’s own judgment. This is why wine writing is such a crucial adjunct to wine criticism; the consumers of criticism must have the opportunity to develop their own analytical and authoritative responses to wine, and pure critics rarely fulfill that role. But beyond critics and writers, there exists an infinitely more crucial source of information: personal experience. A successful critic becomes so by the breadth of their context, and a successful consumer becomes so by similar practice. To use critics effectively, one must taste as widely, as deeply and as analytically as possible in order to properly contextualize the information provided. Paradoxically, this reduces the need for reliance on critics.

This is, in my opinion, not a bad thing.

(Reproduced in its entirety from oenoLogic, the best gosh darn site in its entire zip code.)

Boring Bourg, corked blaufränkisch

Heinrich 2001 Blaufränkisch (Burgenland) – Corked.

Blaufränkisch is one of those perpetually underappreciated grapes...not gobby enough for the mass-market, but capable of wonderful finesse and delicacy. This wine, in particular, is spectacular when intact. Unfortunately, this is yet another wine spoiled by a few cents worth of tree. Bring on the screwcaps!

Dupuy “Château Labadie” 2001 Côtes de Bourg (Bordeaux) – Oak, dark chocolate, and snappishly alcoholic kirsch sludge. It doesn’t lack tannin, either.

What, exactly, is the appeal of Bordeaux that tastes like this? Why not just buy cheap California – or Aussie, or Chilean, or whatever-ian – cabernet? This is completely internationalized and anonymous.

More commentary on the Labadie can be found here.

06 December 2005

The rediscovered country (New Zealand, pt. 1)

How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return?

The answer to the first question seems as easy as it is pragmatic: by plane, by boat, by car, and by foot.

Then again, perhaps that’s a foolishly glib response. Life – so the philosophers and the poets tell us – is about the journey rather than the destination, and any journey is a process through which one moves. Is the answer, then, in the process? Eleven tiring months of detailed and sometimes overwhelming planning are certainly one sort of process, but the notion that sparks and fuels the journey ignites long before that. In a very real sense, a new journey begins the moment an old one ends. Yet notions are no more than dreams, and it is we who fashion the ephemeral into our reality. So perhaps the key is what we do to enable the journey…and perhaps changes can only come from within. The place, the day, and the hour become mere spectators to our acts of will.

And yet…and yet…one place, at one time, in one life, can become the unquestionable arena for change, and that place, day, and hour branded on the conscious mind like a moment of rebirth. If it be mere will, why there? Why then? How to reconcile that truth? Maybe the answer is more complicated than any of these musings. Maybe it is the person and the place, in a blessed symbiosis elusive to the philosopher and the poet but understood in the blood of the voyager. If so, there’s only one path to this particular truth: bringing the person and the place together once more.

So it is that, two years, two months, and two days after returning to the familiar pathways of home with new lenses, perspectives, shapes and lights, we’re going back to where everything changed. Back through the lens, to a place and a time and a feeling that it might well be folly to try and recapture. Back to New Zealand.

Oh…and as for the answer to the second question? That is a matter for more deliberation and consideration. For while the answer is both known and undoubtedly contains a metaphor of revelatory metaphysical significance, I’m not sure I’m yet up to the decryptive task. In any case, here it is: no, you can’t, because it’s raining so hard that the road is closed to traffic.

Ah, but that’s a much longer story

Graves errors

Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2003 Graves (Bordeaux) – Marlborough sauvignon blanc: tropical fruit, zingy gooseberry, and residual sugar (or at least something that does a good imitation thereof). At $15.99 locally, it’s about the same price as the mid-level “Cellar Selection” Sauvignon Blanc from Villa Maria, which actually has a little more verve. But I don’t mean to choose for anyone else.

Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2002 Graves (Bordeaux) – Fairly tight, showing green-streaked citrus and apple aromas with a firm acidic foundation and occasional razor-slashes of minerality. It responds very badly to air, but for the first hour or so it’s quite nice, and laser-sharp with food.

(For commentary on these wines, visit oenoLogic...the site, the lifestyle, the cheese sandwich.)

(Notes below reposted from elsewhere, for tagging purposes.)

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

Westport Rivers 2000 Brut “Cuvée RJR” (Southeastern New England) – I serve this blind, and it’s amusing to hear the guesses. I doubt there’s much Massachusetts wine served in Auckland’s French bistros…or Auckland, or New Zealand, or really anywhere outside New England. I find it lemony and frothy, showing ripe apple and a big burst of fruit with a rather abrupt finish, but it seems to be a bigger hit at the table. The ’98 was better.

Trinity Hill 2003 Tempranillo Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – New Zealand winemakers work from a very limited palette of grapes. From region to region, winery to winery, one finds so many of the same grapes (vinified with the same profiles in mind) that a certain ennui is inescapable. No doubt the market has much to do with this state of affairs, but one hopes that as the industry moves inexorably towards maturity, new varietal horizons may be reached by some adventurous winemakers.

Yet, thankfully, not all New Zealand wines taste the same. The most obvious separator of all these identi-grapes is winemaking, but also at work are the first stirrings of terroir. It’s hard to identify much of the signature of the land when a vineyard site is still in its teens (and an entire region, like Marlborough, is barely in its thirties), but some sites are older than others, and certain things may be said, or at least theorized, by those with viticultural and/or tasting experience. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made along the way, winemaking will continue to obscure and obliterate terroir, and marketing will wield its nefarious influence (putting brand identity ahead of site identity), but the attempt to identify emergent site-specificity is an absolutely necessary step in the development of New Zealand as a world-class wine producing country. The Gimblett Gravels are, along with the much more controversial Martinborough Terrace, early steps in that direction.

This wine, however, doesn’t do much to advance either notion. Raw plum, strawberry and rosemary are rather dominated by volatile acidity and goopy chocolate. It’s dark and juicy, but there’s just too much wrong with it. Points for effort, but a barely honorable mention for execution.

Johanneshof 2001 Riesling Auslese (Marlborough) – Massive acidity is completely and oddly separated from thick, lemon, apple and lime leaf fruit with a cardboardy texture. More strange than good at this stage, but a few years in the cellar will probably help.

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

There are few in the world of wine communication who do not dabble in both the broad-spectrum field of writing and the focused practice of criticism. Yet it’s remarkably easy, given any list of well-known names, to separate the critics from the writers. Why should that be? And does it matter?

(For more, proceed to the oenoLogic faq.)

Clicq away

Veuve Clicquot Champagne Brut (Champagne) – Overly-toasted and leesy, with some timid malic acid hanging out in the background. Too much winemaking applied to too little fruit.

Veuve Clicquot Champagne Brut (Champagne) – Still very toasty and leesy, though with more dark, red-grape fruit and a slightly more vivid finish. But I remain unconvinced by the quality of the grapes in this wine.

For commentary on these wines, click here.

The myth of objectivity

Other than the tangled web of critical ethics, no subject causes as much confusion and consternation among readers (and the critics who love them) than objectivity.

Wine can be described via chemistry, which means that much in its makeup can be measured. Things like acidity, tannin, dry extract and residual sugar (to name a few) have numbers attached to them and can be quantified. Viticultural and winemaking techniques can be specifically iterated. Matters of geography and personnel are definable. There’s more along these lines, but I trust everyone gets the idea. This, and only this, is what’s indisputably objective about the description of wine.

(For the rest of this essay, click hither.)


Wouldn't it be wonderfully circular to herein reference a new feature of oenoLogic that announces the existence of this blog? Especially when said blog is meant to announce new features on the aforementioned site?

OK, OK, maybe this only amuses me.

You might get eaten by a grue

Empty, isn't it? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, amuse yourself on the still-under-construction http://users.rcn.com/tiverson/ site, which will soon be the identically-under-construction http://www.thoriverson.com/ site.

(Does it make sense to start new construction projects when the first one is nowhere near done?)