A newspaper editor told me about 28 years ago that nobody cared how I did my job as a wine writer as long as I continued to do it with the same proficiency that he said he appreciated.
Thank goodness he was a wine lover!
But as a result, he spiked what I considered to be a fine column I wrote about how I evaluated wine.
I did not, alas, save a copy of that column, but no loss, since had I saved it, I might have tried to resurrect it. And I’m sure I would’ve discarded most of what I wrote.
Lots have changed since then and I’ve altered my wine-evaluating strategies to seamster them to current times, new wine styles, new grapes and myriad other wine stratagems that comprise the vast (and getting vaster) 2021 wine world.
Back then, wine was simpler; today’s wines are more complicated than ever.
I live by few rules in seeking quality wines — and good value. Of course, I always look for wines that taste good. But in the 1960s and ’70s, evaluating wine wasn’t problematic because a huge percentage of all wines had some form of technical flaw, which made discarding them easy.
That problem has been solved; the percentage of flawed wine today is negligible. But the more I learned about wine, the more I developed a sense of what all wines should have. And casting out flawed wines was replaced by casting out wines of bad style.
Using historic models, I formulated opinions about whether certain styles suited me and most readers, which includes sophisticated buyers, and also those on a budget.
I believe one key element of excellence should be a wine’s manifest destiny: It should smell and taste like what it is supposed to smell and taste like. One example suffices. I tasted a Pinot Noir recently that was so big, chewy, and thick I believed it was a Syrah. It had nothing to do with Pinot Noir.
Years ago, I wondered about my high rate of “discardence,” so I did a count. When I’m judging wine at a competition, as I did last week, the percentage of wines that I seriously consider recommending is about 15%. Many of the others are sound and tasty, but fail to cut the proverbial mustard. They are:
— wines that don’t smell like the grape named on the label.
— red wines so concentrated, with high alcohols and low acidity, that they don’t go with food. (Some are actually sweet!)
— wines with light varietal character masked by alcohol or oak.
— wines that the winemaker chose to manipulate, interfering with Mother Nature’s greatest wine gifts: regional and varietal personalities. (I.e., Chardonnays that pointlessly were pushed through malolactic fermentation, sacrificing essential acidity and mugging it of some fruit. Hint: Butter is not a fruit.)
— wines with so much roasted-oak flavoring that its main aroma descriptors are bacon, chocolate, mocha, coffee, and cherry-flavored pipe tobacco. As my St. Helena colleague and former superb wine writer Bob Thompson once told me, “If I wanted oak, I’d chew on a tree.” (Hint: bacon is not a fruit.)
Decades ago, most wines reflected the vineyard manager’s influence. Fifty years ago, growers would tell winemakers how the vines were doing, and quality winemakers would work within that framework.
Today most wineries love later-harvested fruit, which makes bigger wines. As a result, many wines are being made by widely accepted formulas – including many inexpensive wines that are being made to be “soft and plush.” It’s a format that sells.
Evaluating wine is time-consuming; it ain’t a gut reaction. When I recommend a wine, I rely on a 45-year history of doing it — and it’s both a pleasure and an agony. Here are some strategies I employ.
1. Does a wine have the proper aroma, taste, and structure to recommend, especially if it’s intended to go with food? This is nearly a mandatory issue and often has science behind it (i.e., does it have proper acidity?).
2. Does a wine display expected features from its main grape variety and/or the region it comes from? (I.e., does a Russian River Chardonnay have any character from its grape and area?)
3. Is the wine priced fairly?
Here we run headlong into a dilemma. I could write all day long about great red Burgundies or Barolo, or First Growth Bordeaux, or exalted German Rieslings, but if prices are in the triple digits (or even higher!), most newspaper readers would lobby for my head.
This doesn’t mean ignore great wines that sell for a lot of money. But wine has to be among the finest of a genre, like years ago when I suggested that some readers consider acquiring Aldo Conterno Soprana Bussia Barolo, which then sold for well over $150 a bottle. It was spectacular.
After tasting a wine that displays either a unique or classic personality, I then put it through tough tests. White and rosé wines usually are evaluated slightly chilled, then go into the refrigerator overnight. The next day I can see what the wine would be like when stone cold.
Then it’s left at room temp for several hours and I’ll try it again to see if exposure to oxygen caused an appreciable change.
If the wine passes most of the tests, I go further, often into a second day, again to see if it is so fragile that it has deteriorated. Some wines will display such fragility that I believe they might not age well.
Red wines get the same sort of treatment, but with a twist. Any wine that seems structured to improve in the bottle, as many are, must be at least as good 24 hours later as they showed when they were first opened.
An important point: for a wine to age well, its chemical composition is key. That includes acidity and pH (science again!). I don’t know of another wine writer anywhere who is more fixated by these two statistics than I am.
Indeed, when a winery asks if I’d like to try a new release, I always ask to see the technical sheet that includes those two numbers. I won’t waste my time with any wine whose chemical composition is radically different from what I already know is an essential part of the wines I appreciate.
(European wines typically pass this test; most California wines fail. I don’t blame winemakers for this. I blame marketing departments who tell winemakers how to make wine that sells.)
Finally, in certain special cases, I take opened bottles of some wines to serve blind to a winemaker friend, who also teaches wine chemistry. We have lunch at a local café and I get his take on them.
By the time I’ve reached the conclusion that a wine is worth suggesting, I’m pretty certain I’m right.
As a final comment, I occasionally recommend wines made in a style I do not like or approve of – but suggest that some people might like such a thing.
Wine of the Week update/correction
2017 Strada al Sasso, Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione ($50): This great wine from Jackson Family’s handsome southern Tuscan estate Tenuta di Arceno, was highly recommended here last week. The winery-importer suggested retail price is $55, though many discounters have it for around $45. Last week we said that one retailer had it discounted to less than $30, but that was an accident, since corrected. The lowest price I could find is roughly $36.
Wine of the Week
2017 Rodney Strong Merlot, Sonoma County ($23) – I tasted this wine side-by-side with another Merlot, which sells for about $30. Though I liked the other wine, this held its own in more ways than I imagined. Its aroma is attractively Merlot-like and it also has a low pH of 3.58, which gives it an excellent structure for pairing with medium weight foods. Another bonus is the fact that it’s widely available nationally for about $15, making an excellent value.