Archive for the ‘Wine Tasting’ Category

Telling wines apart

Monday, April 14th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

As I was going over the week’s posts for my Good Reads Wednesday, I came across this one from Steve Heimoff:

The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

The gist of the post is that trying to figure out what variety a wine is or which region it is from is made more difficult in light of the “internationalization of wine”.

I can understand this argument in theory. When we say the “internationalization of wine” basically what we mean is that wines have tended to be made in a more and more similar style which can roughly be characterized as very ripe, low acidity, softer tannins, too much oak, etc. Obviously, to the extent everybody’s trying to emulate the same style, it should make it harder and harder to differentiate one wine from another.

And while I would have to admit that the “internationalization” of wine has been going on for some time, I am old enough (unfortunately) that my wine drinking days started in the 70s and I tasted wines from even earlier than that on a number of occasions. While the “internationalization” of wines had probably started by then, it certainly was not in full swing.

I remember hosting a party where a number of my wine drinking friends came over and we tasted quite a few wines blind. The whole point was to try to figure out as much as we could about each wine based upon tasting alone.

I would have to say that this group was a particularly adept group when it came to wine tasting. We all went to numerous formal tastings which were really quite common, even at that time, in San Francisco where I lived.

If you would hazard a guess that our abilities to identify a wine weren’t all that good, you would be wrong. Our abilities were far worse than you could ever imagine. Since, at that time, pretty much all wines were either from Europe or the United States (pretty much California), you would have to figure that we had at least a 50-50 chance of getting the continent right. But we failed to exceed even that incredibly low hurdle.

I would like to say that this was an isolated instance of incompetence, but even when I have tasted with wine professionals results have really been no better. Incompetence has been the norm.

And when you consider that numerous studies have been done with “wine experts” tasting white wines that had been colored with red dye, and the “experts” uniformly identified the wines as being red, and exhibiting flavors associated with red wines, my experience has hardly been unusual.

The thing that makes me wonder about this, however, is that I pretty clearly have in my mind what different varieties are supposed to taste like. A Pinot Noir is supposed to be light, with a strawberry like nose, and devoid of any raisin, prune, or even dark cherry flavors. So it should be a no-brainer to pick a Pinot Noir out from a bunch of other red wines. But it’s not.

I do have little doubt that Heimoff is correct that the “internationalization” of wine styles has made the task even more difficult. But considering how we are all universally awful at this task, and always have been, I’m not sure that the “internationalization” of wine styles really has made very much of a difference.

The 100 point system redux

Monday, March 31st, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon here in Napa, and my main concern in life at the moment is trying to catch up on all my recorded basketball games from the NCAA basketball tournament. I still haven’t gotten around to doing my Monday blog so I need something quick, easy, and hopefully a little sexy.

Ergo, the hundred point system. Added to my need to get back to the TV set is the fact that I don’t think I’ve talked about the hundred point system in at least three weeks.

What brought this all to mind was my reading of Tom Wark’s blog on this very subject, which can be found at:

100 Point Wines and My Worry I Might Have Gone Round the Bend


Suffice it to say that I largely disagree with Wark, who thinks the 100 point system has a lot of value. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. I’m not to talk about whether the 100 point system is good, bad, irrelevant or anything like that. I’m instead going to talk about why we argue so much about it.

And I think the reason is that for so many major issues in the wine world, the hundred point system is at the epicenter of the debate.

I think if you read Wark’s article, his point of view seems to be that you should not think of the hundred point system as being any sort of objective assessment of the quality of the wine. If you do, then you are way off base. You should view it simply as the one critic’s personal and very subjective view of the wine he is tasting. Does it have anything to do with your personal, subjective view? Maybe, maybe not.

And I think even granting Wark the benefit of the doubt, you end up walking away thinking that if the hundred point system is good for anything at all, then it’s not good for very much.

To me, I don’t think giving a 97 to a wine has any more validity than giving a 97 to a van Gogh or a Renoir. It says more about the tastes of the critic than anything else (a point that I think Wark would concede).

So given that pretty much everybody would agree that the hundred point system occupies a spot someplace between mostly and totally irrelevant, why is it here?

The reason is simple. If there is an epicenter that the hundred point system occupies, I think it is in the crosshairs of where marketing meets winemaking. And let’s face it, if something moves cases then it is going to be embraced irrelevant or not. And the hundred point system moves cases. I don’t know the winemaker whose criticism of the hundred point system won’t suddenly abate the moment that he gets a 97 for one of his wines. What does it matter that some other critic gave the same wine an 87? Or a 77? Well, it doesn’t matter at all, since that 97 is gold when it comes to moving cases.

So, as Joel Grey said in “Cabaret” (or was that “Cabernet”?), “money makes the world go around.”

But the 100 point system sits not just at the epicenter of marketing versus winemaking, but also at the center of the dispute about objective versus subjective when it comes to wine quality. We would all like to think that wine quality is an objective thing. But the evidence seems to be largely to the contrary. Well, not all the evidence. We would all agree that a corked wine is, objectively, a bad one. Most of us would agree that a badly oxidized wine is also a bad wine, again in an objective sense.

But do we all agree that a oaky wine is a bad wine? Or a very tannic one? What about one high in acid, or one low in acid? Of course not. I don’t think raisins have any place in the taste profile for a wine, but obviously lovers of late harvest Zinfandel cherish that flavor.

But we hold on to the belief that wines are subject to objective evaluation as we do to other beliefs that are cherished, beautiful, and patently false. To abandon the hundred point system is to abandon our most closely held beliefs about wine and, for that reason, it will never happen.

What You’re Tasting in Wine ~ 10 Rules

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014
Image via Wikipedia

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Since I couldn’t really think of a whole lot to write about this week, and was more interested in watching the NCAA basketball tournament, I decided to republish a post from several years ago. Here it is:

Because there’s so much misinformation out there about flavors in wine, I thought some “quick and dirty” rules for red wine would be helpful. These rules should be taken for what they are, generalities that admit of exceptions.

Rule 1.  If you taste something in a wine that you would describe as a fruit flavor (e.g., strawberry, cherry), it probably comes from the grapes. If you taste something that you would describe as a spice (cloves, cinnamon, dill), it most likely comes from oak (though sometimes from something else, but not the grapes).

Rule 2.  If the wine tastes of green peppers or green olives, that comes from underripeness in the fruit. (In some wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, some, but not too much, of those flavors are normal, and are not a defect.)

Rule 3.   If you detect something that you would describe as wet socks, wet dog, barnyard, or Band-Aid, it comes from a yeast, Brettanomyces (often referred to as “Brett”). While many consider this a defect, to others these flavors add interest and complexity. However you feel about Brett, it is common in many Old World wines, particularly Burgundy. Brettanomyces can also result in a clove flavor, similar to what can result from oak.

Rule 4.  The rotten egg smell in some wines comes from the development of hydrogen sulfide. Left untreated, hydrogen sulfide can develop into other sulfidic compounds giving various off-flavors, including garlic, onion, rubber, asparagus, and canned corn.

Rule 5.  Flavors of cedar come from oak, usually French oak. American oak is more likely to contribute dill, honeyed, or coconut aromas. The scents resulting from oak also vary as a result of toast level. The lower toast levels contribute vanilla and spice notes; slightly higher toast levels contribute lead pencil and cedar, while the highest toast levels produce the smoky aromas, such as bacon and char. Since different types of barrels (or oak alternatives) made from different oaks and toasted to different levels can be blended into one wine, a wine can possess a number of these oak flavors.

Rule 6.   Different fruit flavors correspond with different ripeness levels in the fruit. Bright fruit (e.g., strawberry) is the earliest, then the dark fruits (progressing through cherry to blackberry), followed by prune, then raisin (overripe).

Rule 7.  If the wine smells like sherry, then it is “oxidized”, which, as its name implies, results when oxygen gets into the wine. Normally, the preservative sulfur dioxide in the wine binds to any oxygen, thus protecting against oxidation. Once the sulfur dioxide is exhausted, oxygen will interact with the wine to produce a chemical, acetaldehyde, which is what causes the oxidized aroma. Older wines, since more time allows more oxygen to seep into the wine through the cork, are more likely to be oxidized than young wines. Any wine left open too long after uncorking will become oxidized.

Rule 8.  If the wine smells like wet cardboard, it’s “corked”. “Corkiness” results from the presence of a chemical, TCA, which comes mostly, though not always, from bad corks.

Rule 9.  If a wine smells like nail polish remover (or less often vinegar), it is due to volatile acidity, which results from a microbial infection of the wine.

Rule 10.  A puckery, astringent sensation results from the tannins in wine. Technically, it’s not a flavor at all, but a tactile sensation. People vary greatly in how much they like or dislike tannins. A soft wine is one with less tannin, a structured wine with more.

Joseph Swan 1993 Pinot Noir

Monday, March 10th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I’ve been trying to clear out a large number of older wines recently. My general advice for California wines is to drink them up within 10 years. In typical “do as I say, not as I do” fashion, I have a large number of wines from California that are definitely beyond the ten-year point.

And, in general, I should’ve followed my own advice. Most of these wines are hollow ghosts of their former selves. In many cases, they are totally over the hill, showing an unacceptable level of oxidation.


I know I have often made the case that California wines simply don’t age that well. And, in general, I think that that is a true statement of the state of affairs. But do California wines not age well because of some innate characteristic or because of how they are made?

Entering the fray on this question is a wine that I opened last night, the 1993 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir from Lone Redwood Ranch.

I can’t even remember when I bought this wine, but it was a really really long time ago. Even when young, this wine was, in my opinion, a wonderful example of what Pinot Noir should be. It was light in body, high in acidity. As all Pinot Noirs should be.

So how was it last night? Well, in a word, spectacular. It is one of the best Pinot Noirs I have ever had. Generally, we think of the best aging California wine as being Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot doesn’t seem to last nearly as long. But this wine certainly put the lie to that generalization.

It is certainly the case that if you start with overripe grapes which are low in acid and tannin, and simply put them through the fermentation process without making adjustments, you’re probably going to end up with a wine that is not going to last terribly long.

If you start off with that same wine, but add a decent amount of acid, and maybe even some tannin, that wine should fare appreciably better.

If you start off with a wine that is not overripe, and maybe even a little underripe, with tons of acidity, it will do much better still. While tannins help, we know in general, and the Joseph Swan in particular, are not overly endowed with tannins. Certainly, when you think of what Pinot should be at its best, lots of tannin doesn’t factor into the equation. But this wine is certainly evidence that with enough acidity and being otherwise in balance, a California Pinot Noir can last a really really long time.

I’m not really sure how to describe this wine, since old Pinots tend to develop a nose which is unique unto itself. All of the usual descriptors that we apply to younger wines just don’t seem to have a place when talking about a wine of this age. I guess the best descriptor that I could give it is “old Pinot”.

So, if the question is whether California wines usually don’t age well because of innate characteristics or, instead, how they are made, this wine certainly comes down hard on the side of “how they are made”. I’m quite sure that these grapes were not picked too late, and I suspect that they naturally had plenty of acidity. It’s also possible that acid got added after harvest, though I tend to doubt this.

At any rate, this wine is simply glorious. It is everything an old wine should strive to be.

Robert Parker

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

One of this past week’s events that was commented on in a number of blogs was the appearance of Robert Parker at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Vinography posted a video of the presentation but the audio quality was so poor it was a struggle to try to understand it, so I gave up. I did read some summaries of what he had to say, which I guess were somewhat interesting, but only somewhat.

But this got me thinking about Robert Parker and his affect on the wine business. I can’t say as I had spent a whole lot of time thinking about Parker, at least until this week. But it’s hard not to acknowledge that Robert Parker has had a major effect, in some ways good, and in some ways not so good.

On the good side of the ledger, Parker has certainly brought a lot of attention to wine. And, as they say, all publicity is good publicity.

And, as wine writers go, I think there is a lot to commend with Parker. I believe he sincerely tries to be honest and balanced, and that his ratings reflect his true opinion of the wines he’s tasting, divorced of bias or influence.

Do I put much stock in his ratings? I would have to answer that question “No”. But then again, do I put much stock in ratings by any writer? Not really. I guess there are some that maybe I give a little bit more weight to than others. And, in that sense, Parker is not one that I pay any attention to at all.

It must be granted that everybody has their preferences. And therefore no wine writer has a monopoly on what tastes good and what doesn’t. I think if you can find somebody whose tastes seem to parallel yours, then maybe what they have to say is worth a listen.

But Parker’s likes and dislikes when it comes to wine don’t parallel mine in the least. I would say, as a general rule, Parker likes wines that are soft (that is, low in acid), oaky, and with a touch of Brett. I tend to like wines that are racy (that is high in acid), with little or no oak, and no Brett. So, obviously, Parker and I are not much of a fit.

But that I don’t gravitate towards the wines that Parker likes in no way denigrates his tasting abilities and his recommendations. There are obviously tons of people out there whose likes more closely parallel Parker’s than they do mine. For those people, Parker can probably be a valuable source.

On the negative side of the ledger, I think Parker has done a lot to create the ultra-premium, cult-wine, feeding frenzy that turn off so many people to wine. Let’s face it: a well-made, even exceptionally well-made, wine costing $10-$15 without any name recognition is unlikely to get much attention from Parker. If you are a first growth Bordeaux, then Parker is great for you. But how many people devote much of their wine consumption to first growth Bordeauxs.

I think Parker has also done more than anybody to elevate a few critics to pretty much what counts as superstardom in the wine world. I can’t say as this is a welcome development. Again, it smacks of elitism when what would be of greatest benefit to the industry would be removing so much of the stigma attached to wine. I think we would be better off with more consumers who maybe don’t know all that much about wine, and aren’t interested in spending beaucoup bucks on a bottle. In fact, it is those consumers that even now constitute a large majority of our customers. For the industry as a whole, expanding that market rather than catering to a relative few who are obsessed with the best that money can buy is, in the long run, a better strategy.

But if you look at anyone in any sphere of life who has had a major impact, there are few that are unmitigated goods or unmitigated bads. The more important thing, looked at from a historian’s point of view, is not whether they changed things for the better or for the worse (always something open to debate anyway) but whether they change things at all. In that regard, you would have to say that Parker has been a great success.