Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two arguments about typicity in wine

Two arguments about typicity -- one I sort of won, and one I clearly lost -- are what I remember most from judging at the new Sunset Wine Competition.

First: Should a great wine get a gold medal if it doesn't taste like you'd expect it to?

Second: Should I reward a very typical varietal wine with a silver or gold medal, even if I don't like it?

Both of these arguments lasted more than five minutes, and while we reached agreement on the first, we never did on the second.

I sat on a 3-person panel at Sunset's new-and-not-improved competition* with two Master Sommeliers. The idea was to mix up types of judges, because winemakers look for flaws, sommeliers look for typicity, and who knows what writers look for?

* The magazine used to do only Best in Class by price category for wines nominated by a critic or sommelier: in 2010 there were just 8 awards. Now any winery can pay to enter and 50% of the wines get medals, like kids get for finishing two laps in the pool. There are 72 pages of medal winners. We are all champions! On the bright side, the magazine took in a lot of money -- publishing isn't what it used to be -- and I got a little cash too.

The first wine in question, I know now, was DeLille Cellars Columbia Valley Chaleur Estate Blanc 2010 ($36). At the time, all we knew was that it was 77% Sauvignon Blanc and 23% Semillon, and was in the Sauvignon Blanc category.

All three of us agreed that it was a great, gold-medal-worthy wine, one of the best we tasted in two days. Clearly barrel-aged, it was complex and exciting, with kumquat fruit, good acidity and a long finish. But one of my panel mates refused to give it a gold because she said it didn't taste like Sauvignon Blanc.

This argument went on for a while. We learned the wine didn't say "Sauvignon Blanc" on the front label, and as far as we could tell the winery didn't apply to put it in that category. Still my colleague wouldn't budge.

Finally we were able to get the wine moved into the white Bordeaux blend category, where it won not just a gold, but Best in Class. I'm glad we compromised and everyone was happy except Buty Winery, which would have won best in class for that category if we hadn't moved the DeLille (Note to self: drink more white Bordeaux blends from Columbia Valley.) 

But I'm still unhappy with my panel-mate's original position, which was that if the wine stayed in the Sauvignon Blanc category, she would give it few enough points to prevent it from getting a gold medal. To me, this is taking typicity too far. We all loved the wine -- isn't that enough? You tell me.

A little later, we got a Sauvignon Blanc that was so herbaceous that I found it unpleasurable. There was no doubt about what it was, even from a distance. But I wouldn't personally drink it.

Naturally, my panel-mate wanted to go gold, or at least silver, because of its typicity. I wouldn't go higher than bronze. The wine -- Trecini Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($13) -- got enough points to get a compromise silver. It's cheap enough that you can try it for yourself and tell me whose side you're on. (If it doesn't float your boat, try our Best in Class, the Kingston Family Vineyards Cariblanco Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16) from Chile. My notes are "ripe and tropical with good integration of herbaceousness.")

Compromises like these are commonplace at wine competitions, and are one of the reasons I enjoy judging with other professionals. It's always good to hear what other people think about specific wines.

I wonder about how important typicity is to consumers, and what decision readers would make about two wines like that: an atypical but delicious wine, and a very typical but not pleasurable wine. I'd love your thoughts in the comments.

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Andrea said...

I would much rather drink an atypical but delicious wine. I enjoy surprises!

Waynegrape said...

It's an interesting and frustrating discussion, and one close to my heart...
One of the most important wine guides here in Italy has refrained from giving it's highest honor - to an admittedly spectacular wine - because the wine is considered so "atypical".
They actually admit the wine is fantastic, and if it weren't 100% Friulano, they'd consider the highest award, but it's too intense and dense for a "typical" Friulano...Argh!!

Amalie Robert Estate said...

Hi Blake,

I am curious if (or how) the concept of the evaluating the growing region and vintage conditions ever come into play when judging wine in this type of venue? Or any other?

Full disclosure: I grow Pinot Noir in Oregon.

BTW: Nice tribute to Mr. Parker.



W. Blake Gray said...

Ernie: Sunset grouped European wines by region, and all other wines (New World) by grape variety. We got some Pinot Noirs on my panel but weren't told the region. We did know the vintages for everything.

Another controversial non-grouping, different from what Sunset has done in the past, is that wines were not separated by price, and we had no idea what they cost. I can't disagree with the philosophical fairness to the wineries and wines, but it is part of a shift on Sunset's part from arranging this for consumers' benefit to structuring it for producers.

Unknown said...

I have never fully understood those who maintain a rigid fidelity to wines of tipicity. I sometimes wonder if it’s a sommelier conspiracy to minimize the difficulty of the blind tasting portion of certification exams. What other motivation could explain a requirement that every wine contain characteristics considered typical of its varietal composition? What’s more, many take the typicity mandate further to include characteristics of the growing region.

I fail to see how any argument about typicity could last more than five minutes. What possible defense could be posited to support such an arbitrary prescription? If a judge samples a Viura that is the best Sauvignon Blanc he’s ever tasted, should he advise Sauvignon Blanc lovers never to drink this wine because it is a fraud? If a wine is capable of delivering pleasure, isn’t that enough?

In my view, the ultimate purpose of reviewing and judging wine should be to provide consumers with candidates for purchase. Its goal should be to reduce the odds of consumers wasting their money on wines that do not please them. Removing non-typical wines from the pool of candidates does nothing towards this end – unless, of course, the consumer happens to be a sommelier who is inexplicably and indefensibly offended by a wine which doesn’t live up to a dogmatic notion of typicity.

While I’m sure many critics would disagree with my goal of criticism – arguments over the role of the critic have raged for centuries – there is little doubt that it reflects the primary aim of the critic’s audience. As such, an experienced, thoughtful, and insightful critic, whose first allegiance is to his readers, not his ego, would be compelled to acknowledge the pleasure which awaits those who do not share his particular sensibilities. Yes, tell us when you think we might like something, even when you don’t.

Randy Caparoso: said...

Anal wine geeks would obviously be far more concerned with "typicity" than average consumers, and consumers are always more "right," Blake... thanks for standing your ground! R

Patrick Frank said...

Great subject for discussion. Varietal typicity seems to be a refuge for people who want to fit things into boxes. Zinfandel had no "typicity" for a long long time. And what counts as a "typical" CA Syrah?

Joe Roberts said...

Most people care if the wine itself is a good or great drinking experience, I think. I'm a geek, and I certainly care more about that than I do typicity!

McSnobbelier said...

Key here is the diversity of the Judging Panel. I fall on the sommelier side for the first wine and the winemaker side for the second. The excessive herbal notes are considered a flaw by some very stringent winemakers.

However on the typicity side I think with both a Sommelier and Wine Educator brain... 'cause a good Sommelier and Edu tries to help all consumers better understand wine so they can enjoy more and buy better for less.

If a new(ish) wine consumer falls in love with the DeLille Cellars Columbia Valley Chaleur Estate Blanc as a Sauvignon Blanc will they be disappointed when they spend the same money on a Sancerre? And by disappointed, I mean pissed. But if that same consumer knows the important details that make the Chaleur taste as it does, then they might be thrilled to taste a barrel fermented SB/Semillon blend with more Semillon in the blend and a lower price.

Pinot said...

IMO, typicity is important as I want to know what to expect when I buy a bottle of wine.
1.IE If Sancerre and Bordeaux Blanc were to be interchangeable, each would eventually lose its character as a region. You would then have "Cali Sauv blanc" syndrome - meaning you never know what it is until you pop the cork.
2. A real world example of this is playing out right now in Alsace. We have a huge delta in RS levels among producers. As a result, the same wine from same region could result in a very different product in your glass.
Creativity is great, but there is a reason accepted norms have come to be.

Douglas Trapasso said...

I just recently joined a tasting group. These folks are very cool people; smart, funny, very welcoming to a newbie like me.

But when it comes to wine, they are beyond hardcore, they are 100% core. It's funny just watching their body language and listening to their voice intonations between when we are gathering for our tasting evening, just setting stuff up, and when we jump into our first wine. They get All Business very quickly.

I sort of get it. They work in the wine field professionally, and I don't yet. They all dream of being accepted by the Supreme Court of All That is Good and Noble in Wine.

I appreciate what I am learning and I AM having fun, but I did get into a very heated argument with two of them recently by suggesting (very tactlessly, I will admit), that the SCoATiGaNiW is just about reflecting dogma and parroting it back to the 1% who are already members of the group.

Honestly, I am still an agnostic about Terroir and typicity and the importance of the whole AOP concept (call me the Ron Paul of Wine, and I won't object).

How many of the typicity "shoulds" are based on hundreds of years of objective tasting, by wine lovers and haters of all types, and how much of it is based on marketing, politics and the type of groupthink my parents taught me from a very early age to hold in suspicion?

Does the wine taste good, does it blend (or counter, if I am in the mood for that) with my meal and does it get me buzzed? If my wine does all that, I am happy. Everything else is just a bonus.

DAPZ said...

Tipicity is extremely important to me. I am a Somm, involved in blind tasting groups and although I admit that is frustrating to blind taste wines that don't reflect what they should, this is not the main reason.
Why do we do blind tastings anyway? This is not jiiust a game. If you are able to correctly identify a wine by appearance, nose ans taste only, then you must have a pretty good knowledge of the varietal ( structure as well as taste profile), region and even vintage. You should be able, by asking simple questions, to assess your customer's taste and recommend something that will give him/her a pleasurable experience at your restaurant, which is what our job is all about.
Why is Tipicity important to the customer: because if they are say Chinon lovers, they would like it to be somewhat green and funky, not big and ripe. I understand that the average drinker won't even know the difference. But if they really get into wine, they will someday. People have different tastes, thank God. The wine world would be boring otherwise. Vive la difference!!!! But let's give to them what they are expecting to be in the bottle!!!! Great post Blake.

Unknown said...

Great fodder for discussion. As a former somm and now professional winemaker, I do my best to walk the line between typicity and distinctiveness. One of my professors at UCD said making wine is like an electron diagram with a circle drawn around the "cloud" of potential locations that includes 90% of those locations. The dots inside the circle represent varietally correct wines, with the very center representing correct, fault-free, nondescript wine. The closer the dots are to the line the more distinctive the wines can be, but anything outside the line loses varietal cahracter. I feel my job is to get as close to that line as possible without going outside the circle. Why? If my wines are not inside the circle, which represents varietal typicity, then I have not upheld my repsonsibility to the fruit and the efforts of its grower. I use the same approach for varietal blends in which the "map" is of regional, rather than varietal, typicity, ie CdP, Pomerol, or WA state, and my goal/expectation is for the wine to represent the conditions in which the varietals therein are grown. Thanks, Blake. As usual, an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Frederick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frederick said...

Typicity matters. If it is entered in the wrong class it gets a zero (unless the chairman wants to move it). So categorization is an important set up of the competition (why judge Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs against Niagara Pinot Noirs against Central Otago? Keep it apples to apples. A perfect Beaujolais should get a Gold, even if it is not as good as a Bronze Taurasi.

Price does not factor - just the best quality, as long as it is typical of the category. That is why expensive wines have nothing to gain, and rarely enter competitions. Lafite or Prada Enea or Ciacci Piccolomini in a county fair???? Never.

If the wine is typical and good for it's type, of course you have to score it well even if you would not drink it personally. (I give a clean, well made Cali Syrah a Gold, even though it's Blueberry Pancake Syrup to me).

This is all cut and dried in the judging realm. Guides & books are not competitions.

Vintage does not factor (because it is a blind competition). A great wine in a poor vintage might be an average wine overall and not a gold medal.

Competitions are not judging for consumer preference or personal preference, they are judging for professional opinion. (Which still leaves a little gray area compared to "facts" and arithmetic). I made a pun!

There is no varietal typicity. Only 'varietal within region within vintage' typicity. Even that is troublesome if it is not a varietal wine. (ie. a blend).

Competitions are not hedonistic impressions or reflections, they are more akin to grading a test or essay. There has to be measurable standards.

Lastly, competitons like printed reviews are about commerce - making money - so don't get so correct/incorrect. Just judge like the event director tells you to and pocket the cash.

Rick Schofield
Port Ewen, NY