Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Professional wine tasting notes are for the reader, not the writer

Ten years ago I went to the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium and hated the session on writing tasting notes so much that I have complained about it ever since. This year the Symposium went virtual, with an interesting, diverse set of speakers, so I signed up. 



Perhaps this was predictable: while I enjoyed some of it, I hated the sessions on tasting notes so much that I was either going to complain for the next 10 years, or write this rant.



Here is the TL;DR version:


* The point of being a professional wine writer is to get paid. That's what “professional” means.


* A professional writer writes for two audiences: readers, and the editor.


* Professional tasting notes are for the reader (or paying editor), not the writer.


* The point is to communicate an idea of what the wine tastes like. 


* Most tasting notes are boring. Long conversations about them are even more boring.

* Everybody hates scores! Except for most of the wine trade and most consumers.


* The writers who score are more successful than the writers who don’t.

Now here's the rant version:



Naturally the session kicked off by mocking a Robert Parker tasting note. They are eminently mockable. But Parker is by far the most successful professional writer of tasting notes the world has ever seen. This is like directors of dinner theater mocking big Hollywood movies. 



Here is what Parker did better than anybody: he communicated excitement. Berries burst from the glass. Flavors explode in your mouth. The finish lasts for a full minute! It’s easy to mock the fruit salad nouns of blackberries, huckleberries, marionberries, loganberries, etc. Where Parker succeeded was the verbs. Wines in Parker's tasting notes were alive and active. 



I say this despite the fact that Parker’s 99-point wines, where he found endless layers of flavor, often tasted like monolithic assaults on my mouth. But that's a question of personal taste, not Parker's writing. 



Lyrical writers like to call Parker clumsy. Maybe they are Mozart and he is Salieri. But in writing tasting notes, we are not drafting a masterwork that a future generation will discover 100 years from now. 


After attacking Parker, a writer who’s retired, the Symposium failed to talk about any of the current Advocate writers, or the Wine Spectator critics, or Antonio Galloni of Vinous, or Jeb Dunnuck, or James Suckling. These are people who make a living writing tasting notes! Unlike Eric Asimov or Jancis Robinson, who would be successful wine writers if they never wrote another tasting note, these writers’ whole careers are based on them.

Are they the best at it? Define “best.” They have people who pay for subscriptions to read their tasting notes every month. Do you? I don't.

Encouraging writers to write unusual tasting notes is a literary exercise in the worst literary genre imaginable, and it’s not the path to getting paid. If there’s a publication out there that will pay writers for tasting notes in haiku, I want to write for them. (Text me!) But, generally, they don’t. I loved WineX magazine as literature; it famously described a wine as "Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower." If somebody got paid to write that, more power to them. But I have no idea what that actually tastes like (and frankly, ewww). It’s no coincidence that Wine Advocate is still in business and WineX is not.



Rant Part Two

Writers should be aware that others don't share the same cultural references. English critics often say wines taste like “pear drop;” I have no idea what that tastes like. An Indian sommelier on the panel said she had read about blackberry flavors for years – but had never tasted blackberries, because they don't grow in India. OK, remember that if you write for an international readership (I do.) 



What I am trying to do, in a tasting note, is give you some sense of how the wine tastes. I also use that opportunity often to do a little more storytelling -- but about the wine, not about myself. 



If I write a feature about Oregon Malbec, I sometimes add a tidbit that doesn’t fit in the main story, but might help you appreciate the wine. If I have 35 words for a tasting note, I might spend 25 on storytelling. But those other 10 words have to explain whether or not readers will like the wine.



A lot comes down to ripeness and body. For me, "restrained," "fresh," "savory" and even "salty" are positives. But many consumers want powerful, rich, fruit-driven wines. If you help your reader it's easy for someone who doesn't share your taste to parse your notes to see if a wine might appeal to them.



The Symposium did make a few useful points. Nobody should call a wine "masculine" or "feminine" in 2021 because nobody knows what that means anymore; half the women in San Francisco can kick my ass, and the other half say, "What do you mean, only half?" Using the word "exotic" just says you're not a very international person. Why would yellow curry be "exotic" and not tater tots? 



When bloggers get together, we tend to support the most florid, least helpful tasting notes possible. We praise the literary quality of lengthy notes that can be poems or meditations on the writer's childhood.



Twice in the last 10 years, I held my tongue in the Symposium while everyone praised tasting notes like -- these were actual ones from this year -- "It reminds me of the trunk of my grandfather's car," or shades of Wine X, "That tastes like kissing Antonio Banderas." (We need more info -- is he a smoker?)


But we’ve been round this problem before. We had this conversation 10 years ago and, just like last week, the discussion quickly deteriorated into exactly the same kind of discussion bloggers always have about tasting notes. If you want to blog and write whatever you want for no money, then do so -- that's what I'm doing right now. But if you want to be a professional, it's an entirely different conversation.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beautiful scenes from this spring's dangerous frost in Tuscany


The story of 2021 for the wine industry in most of France is going to be the devastating frost that might reduce the crop by half or more, nationwide.

Until I got an email this morning from a winery in Tuscany, I wasn't aware that Italy faced the same fear. Nor, I'm sorry to say, do I know anything about the extent of the damage in Italy.

Take a look at these photos taken on the nights of Apr. 7 and 8 by Enea Barbieri at Tenuta di Trinoro in the Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. Val d'Orcia is right next to Montalcino, so if it experienced a frost event last week, it's likely that Montalcino did also, and I worry about nearby Montepulciano as well.  




The PR firm that sent the photos didn't say anything about damage to the grapes. Temperatures apparently reached -4.5ยบ Celsius. The vines themselves are not at risk from temperatures that low but after budbreak, it is possible to lose that year's crop.

Thus the winery staff of 36 spent the day and night placing 3000 impromptu candles made of buckets filled with wax. 

 



The press release says, "At Tenuta di Trinoro operations started at around midnight, with careful monitoring of the falling temperatures, until fire had to be set to stacks of firewood piled around the vineyards; then the 3.000 candles were lit. This kept the air around the plants above 0° degrees, while all around the vineyards, temperatures as low as 4.5° below freezing point were registered."

Pre-pandemic I had the privilege of visiting Tuscany often and, in addition to making some of the world's best wines, it is a beautiful place. Art is a part of life there, so perhaps it's not surprising that  photographer Enea Barbieri could find aesthetic inspiration in difficult circumstances.

There's nothing more I can say but to send my best wishes to the vignerons of France and of Tuscany for better weather going forward in this challenging year. And thanks to Tenuta di Trinoro for turning trauma into inspiration. 



Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How do people choose which wine to buy? An informal survey

Last month I was staring at three bottles of wine. Each was the same grape variety and from the same basic region (but not sub-region). I didn't know anything about the producers so there was no reason to blind-taste, but before diving in nose-first, I got to wondering -- if I was in a store or restaurant, and these three very similar bottles were on offer, which would I choose?

This is a question that comes up for wine lovers all the time. You're in a store; you want, say, Sauvignon Blanc. There are three from a region you like from producers you don't know. How do you choose?

I put the question on Twitter. My Twitter followers are not a randomized group. I have never done any data analysis (and don't worry, I never will), but I assume that at base, they are people very interested in wine and in learning more about it. This is a niche in the wine market, but one that spends a lot of money on wine. So what would my followers say?

What most surprised me is that most people did not mention price. Also, very few people mentioned critic's reviews, though several mentioned social-review aggregator sites.

A few wine retailers suggested asking the retailer for guidance, and I support that suggestion, but it's not an option at big stores that don't specialize in wine (Costco or supermarkets, for example) or restaurants with no sommelier on duty.

I collected some of the most enlightening responses. I wasn't looking for wit (though I got plenty; my followers are clever.) Instead I was looking for honesty: a window into why people choose the wines they do. 

One thing is universal: the label matters. We may all interpret its message differently, but it matters. For many years when I bought French wines I was a sucker for a bottle with a croix on the label; I'm not religious so I can't explain it. I can explain some of my other parameters: lower alcohol for me is is a plus, though I don't apply it to differences less than 0.5%. Organic or biodynamic viticulture is a plus. I try to avoid wines where the tasting notes on the back label sound like something I wouldn't enjoy (very helpful with Chardonnays.) But would I pick a single-vineyard wine over a regional wine of the same price? I'm not sure.

Here is what my Twitter followers said (each is a separate comment; I haven't formatted all as tweets):

actually, I would purchase all 3, taste them, and only then go back and purchase the one I liked best.

Assuming I didn't know any of the producers and couldn't research them on my phone: vintage especially for places like Bdx, any tech. info like pH and oak aging to determine the style, and finally the price.

 

I would choose the label that has an animal on it.

Region for varietal, then price as a guide, then interwebs/ Vivino for reviews


 

Probably the label that WASN’T touting ORGANIC and BioDynamic whatnots...

If I were in a retail outlet, I’d ask their opinion. Otherwise I’d see what they said online as well as what others said about them online. Failing either of those options being available, either the most resolutely old-school in its packaging or the confidently off-the-wall. 

 


I’d check the back labels, see who the importer was, and go with the one I was familiar with. 


Bio of owner/winemaker. Looking for people I know about in their background. I have found a lot of great new wines by following winemaker's interns. Then CellarTracker, Wine Berserkers, or industry people who I trust and align with their palates.

Two answers: 1. ABV%, Vintage, $. 2. Champagne

 

Producer , importer , price

Artistic merits of label.


Fun question. Assuming I knew zero about the producers, I’d have a quick look at Delectable/CellarTracker, scan avg takes, look for ppl I recognize and how they describe the character.

Vineyard 1st. Failing knowledge or Google the label.

I face this question all the time and it's the reason I go with the recs of a retailer I know and trust. Lacking that, I look for something distinguishing on the label, such as certified organic grapes.

Prettiest label.

color

This one is my favorite, because I assume he's telling the truth and it's an interesting idea:

xxxxxxx

You know what nobody at all mentioned? Closure type. Nobody said they would buy the one with the screwcap, or the one with the cork.

The data is not at all scientific, but one of the most interesting things about an exercise like this is to learn that even among people with similar interests, we all think differently.


Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Monday, January 18, 2021

I drank smoke-tainted canned wine and liked it

Sans Wine Co. makes some of the best canned wines in the country, and to prove that fact they held an online media tasting last week of three different vintages from three varieties. They wanted to prove that canned wine can last on the shelves: apparently it can, as the 2017s were just fine in 2021. I also learned something more significant.

We tasted nine canned wines: three Cabernet Sauvignons, three Carignans and three Rieslings. I'm not talented enough to interview people, taste wine and take notes all at the same time, so I tasted the wines beforehand.

My favorite wine of the nine was Sans Coyote Rock Block Poor Ranch Vineyards Mendocino County Carbonic Carignan 2018. I'll share my notes, unedited after what I later learned, out of respect for Sans owners Jake Stover and Gina Schober, who have pledged to be completely transparent about their wines.

"Much like the '17: smells fruity, red berries, a little denser. Best aroma of the three. Juicy, fruity, with enough freshness and good depth. Ambitious: this is a wine that's not just trying to be portable. But it still has the immediate appeal of a carbonic* wine."

(* "Carbonic" means carbonic maceration, a technique often used in Beaujolais that usually results in fruity, easy-to-drink wines.)

 Well, that aroma and depth of flavor I liked so much were apparently enhanced by 8 mcg/liter of smoke taint compounds, which is, according to ETS Laboratories, above the perceivable threshhold (Stover said ETS says 6 mcg/liter is the threshhold.)

Stover, who makes the wines for Sans, says their Zinfandel from the same vintage, which we didn't taste, also has smoke taint above the threshhold.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," Stover said. "It does show to us (in the Zinfandel) but it's also a lot of people's favorite wine."


Just as Stover and Schober risk some of their reputation by being honest, so am I. At professional tastings there's often a lot of one-upmanship on finding "corked" wines. I have sat with many <del>egotists</del> professionals who want to make sure everyone at the table knows they were RIGHT about that wine, and they noticed it first.

I didn't catch the smoke taint in the Carignan, and I liked it when tasting it, so I decided to double down and we drank that wine with dinner. The safe thing to do would be to say, "Oh, now I get it. Ewww!" (Something else I have seen many people do at professional tastings.) That didn't happen.

Knowing that I was consuming a smoke-tainted wine didn't change a thing: We had it with country ham and beans, and it was fine; we finished the (375 ml) can. Granted, that was smoke on smoke, but I didn't choose the meal based on the wine; it was what we were planning to have anyway. Ironically, the 2017 Sans McGill Vineyard Rutherford Riesling, which I liked on its own and which wasn't smoke-tainted, was not as good with the meal. Maybe the smoke helped the Carignan.

You could take that under advisement: if you have a wine that you believe might be smoke-tainted, maybe drink it with barbecue. But honestly, I liked it just fine on its own. 

UC Davis professor Anita Oberholster said last year that about 25 percent of people cannot detect smoke taint in wine. Perhaps I am in that 25 percent. If so, I'm really lucky, as I will be able to fully enjoy a lot of deeply discounted wine in the next couple years.

There are other possible explanations:

* The smoke taint compounds were barely over the threshhold. Perhaps I would have noticed a little more smoke taint, or I would have noticed it more in a different grape variety like Pinot Noir.

* Guaiacol compounds, like sulfites, are naturally occurring in wine grapes and oak barrels and perhaps this particular low level worked like oak staves, adding flavor without being a negative.

* Smoke taint can bind with compounds in the wine and be released months or even years after bottling. It's possible that these compounds were still bound and therefore not truly perceptible, even though they were technically over the limit.


The last caveat is an important one. Maybe if I drank the same can of wine a year later, more bound compounds would have been released and I would have noticed it. If you suspect a wine in your cellar might be smoke-tainted, it's smart to drink it sooner rather than later.

I respect Stover and Schober's honesty and suggest that you try their wines. Their business is based around making good single-vineyard wine from quality locations and adding nothing to it, not even sulfites. That may be safer in canned wines because, unlike in a bottle, there is no headspace of air below the cork or screwcap; a can can be completely oxygen-free. This is probably why they were able to prove their point. Sans wines are real wines and have vintage variation, but I noticed no deterioration over time.

Ironically, it's easier to find their wines in bottles right now because Whole Foods liked their canned Carignan enough that it asked them to bottle some up for national distribution. It's Whole Foods: after Schober pounded the pavement to get small stores to carry their relatively pricey cans (most sell for $10), the business they founded to make quality canned wines currently makes more bottled wines.

"There's a surprising amount of Carignan planted in California," Stover said. "The key is finding old vine vineyards. There's enough Carignan out there for 600,000 cases. We'll never get there." Right now they're just under 10,000 cases, bottles and cans combined.

I tried their Carignan in the bottle a few weeks ago and liked it: it's vibrant, with a tart red plum character that's both refreshing and food-friendly. I don't know if that one had smoke taint also, and since I enjoyed it I don't care.

If you want to test your own threshhold, buy the Sans Carbonic Carignan here.

Read my feature from 2017 about how a Tinder date led to this canned-wine couple.


Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.