pros and cons

Monday, November 02, 2009

Judging by the amount of e-mail generated just over this past weekend, Jay Miller’s Oregon and Washington reviews (in Wine Advocate Issue #185) are the event of the year as far as wine retailers are concerned. Miller visited Washington last May, which means many of the wines reviewed were tasted pre-release. In his introduction he notes how “consistent” vintages are in Washington, opining that “the principal variable from one year to the next is heat.”

That would seem to downplay the impact of late and early freezes (such as happened this fall on October 9 – 10) as well as the occasional vine-killing Arctic blast (such as happened in 2004). In my experience, these events are far more vintage-changing than the occasional heat spike in July. Vintners, your thoughts?

Miller’s extensive reviews cover (by my quick count) more than 550 wines and over 135 individual wineries. There was statewide coverage – with Woodinville and Walla Walla getting the lion’s share of the attention. Wineries on the Olympic Peninsula (just a single wine from FairWinds), in the Puget Sound AVA (one dessert wine from Mount Baker), or Lake Chelan (only Nefarious was mentioned) got short shrift. Miller does not post a full account of the total number of wines and wineries he actually tasted, so there is no way to tell who (and how many) he left out.

Without knowing the total number of wines tasted it is impossible to do any meaningful statistical analysis. But out of what was reviewed in print, the percentage of 90+ wines seemed very high. While this is certainly a welcome event in terms of sales, it essentially reduces the 100 point scale to what might as well be a four star system. Give one star to wines rated 89 and below; two stars to those rated 90 – 92; three stars to those rated 93 – 96; and four stars to those 97 and above. Same same.

I am not going to comment on specific reviews, other than to note that Mr. Miller did find quite a few (relatively) new, small, interesting boutiques, and called a number of them “new stars.” The most obvious big winners amongst the plethora of 90+ scorers were Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cayuse (with the most high scores, including a 99 and four 98s), Gramercy Cellars, Grand Rêve (95, 95, 96 and 97 for their first four releases), K Vintners (Royal City scored highest at 98), Leonetti Cellar, Long Shadows, Quilceda Creek (the only other 99 – no one got 100), Sheridan, Waters, and Woodward Canyon.

But dozens of other wineries have 90+ numbers that they can promote, and in this difficult economic climate, they would be silly not to. As with any list (my own included) there will be plenty to argue about. Who was over-praised, who was dissed, who was missed? What are the pros and cons of this long-awaited coverage? Or to be more circumspect, who is the pro, and what is the con? I would love you to post your thoughts for further discussion. If you are a winery owner, please be forthright. This blog is a “safe” space.

For another thoughtful look at the Wine Advocate ratings, check out Sean Sullivan’s excellent blog:


James M said...

I have to agree with the fact that heat events are the most challenging aspect to our vintage variations given there are no catastrophic weather events. When we began searching out sites that could reliably ripen late season varietals such as mourvedre, cinsault, carignan, and counoise we sought out not only some of the warmest sites in the state, but also some of the best protected sites in the state. In ten years we have not been significantly impacted by a winter freeze, nor have the majority of our vineyard sites frosted yet this year. So yes, early freezes can impact some sites, but most top end vineyards are planted varietally correct and are typically ripe before the freezes. said...


Thank you for your review of Jay's review. I think it is great for Washington to score so many 90+ wines but it just further diminishes the scoring system itself. If average wine is now 89 or 90 points and higher what value is the scoring system itself? I wish we could get back to where the "points" meant something. I am in and around the wine industry so generally I will take a writers opinion of a wine and compare it to what I have had and like so I can get a better understanding of how they are scoring. Ex.Robert Parker and Australia I knock 10 points off and I have what I would rate the wine type of review. For the average comsumer though they are walking into retail shops and seeing "Double Gold" from Herbs Wine Review or a saturate 90 point scale. Us wine geeks I think get the reviews its the average wine comsumer that is not always well aware of how many high scoring wines are available. Unfortunately we live in a world that the shelf talkers can sell more wine than the educated staff members at retail shops. I hope more retailers will help educate the consumers and hope more reviewers will wait 10 years to be dishing out their 100 point "perfect" wine. As for your 100 point wine, it added value to the review that you had not been handing them out to anyone and everyone so I went out and bought the Royal City Syrah, havent opened it but I felt if it took you 10 years to find a 100 point wine then I can have faith it was worth it.
Thanks again for the review

Pasquale said...

Is it really to the advantage of the "average" wine drinker to decern the difference between a 88 and a 91 point wine. On the contrary, itwould seem tha. We are all better off to leave that to the wine snobs such as we are and let the massses continue to enjoy the wines they are drinking? To the point, unless truely great wine makers are going out of business due to lack of interest, it would seem the system, as it were is working fine.

Tom (Seattle) said...

I've been drinking Washington wine for roughly twenty years. I can say the vast majority of wines I drink and prefer come from Walla Walla and Woodinville. Most wines from Yakima disappoint, and don't get me started on Puget Sound or Chelan!

Parker is a worldwide brand. If he misses boutique wineries outside WW or wherever, I would look to local writers like yourself to point them out. I don't see this as a significant criticism at all; if anything an opportunity.

Second, it's not like his list of top wineries is really in question. If his highest scoring wines were Kestrel and Pine and Post, I would raise an eyebrow. The fact an East Coast guy comes in and tells us Cayuse, Betz, Long Shadows etc... are making the best wines in WA, I say tell me something I don't already know!

The wines he likes is solid. The fact he scores higher then some doesn't really bother me. Subtract five if you think he grades too high.

Personally, I think Cayuse makes some of the best domestic syrah. I can't think of a single producer in the US I prefer more. Why should Cayuse score 93? Who rates higher? I think most of us Washingtonians are too modest. Our wines are good. We don't need to apologize because someone from outside really, really likes our wines. If the market disagrees with Jay, it will become apparent.

For those that disagree, let's use real examples of wines. Recently I opened a Syncline Elena from 2007. It was fantastic. I rated this wine 92. Jay gave it 93.

Grand Reve? This summer I had the number two series as the top wine in a flight of Washington syrahs. I scored it a 94. Two real world examples, and I was within one point of Miller.

Miller scores high, but he knows good wine. I'd like to see more specific examples from critics of wines they think are simply rated too high.

PaulG said...

I don't believe I said that Jay Miller's scores were too high; rather that the percentage of high scores was such that the 100 point system was in practical terms a four star system. I specifically avoided any wine by wine critique of the scores - as I wrote: as with any list (my own included) there will be plenty to argue about. I agree that the top scorers are all deserving of the praise.

Don Phelps said...

I thought Tom's comment about the best wines coming from Walla Walla and Woodinville was interesting in that he down played wines from other areas but failed to recognize that most of the grapes that go into wine from Woodinville, and a significant percentage of those in Walla Walla, are from the larger Yakima and Columbia Valley AVA's. He may prefer wines made by vintners in Woodinville and Walla Walla but should not deride other areas. Quality grapes and experience are the two things that make outstanding wines and take time to attain and comparing two locations/vintners that have vastly different histories is unfair to the wine industry in Washington.

Tom (Seattle) said...

A few comments:

Re: four star system

This is what makes the argument against the 100 point scale so funny. The reality is Parker has always had a 16 point range. Wines below 85 are only reviewed when he feels like getting snarky about a wine. This leaves 99% of his reviewed wines to fit in to a narrow range.

Jancis doesn't like the 100 point scale, so she uses the 20 point system. Again, most of her wines end up between 16 and 18.5 using her scale.

The differences are non-existent!

When Rovani scored Washington he used an 85-94 point scale for all intents and purposes (only QC broke the rules). Miller is more like 90-99. I think the wines in general have gotten better since Pierre was here. The difference may not be as vast as would first appear.

Re: Yakima wines disappoint

I only said the wines disappoint, not the AVA should be disbanded! Perhaps in time the best reds will come from Yakima. Maybe in five nears Naches will be the new hot bed of reds, or Whidbey Island. But this was taken in the context of a discussion of where an East Coast Wine Critic should be concentrating his reviews.

I hope Chelan gets there too. But it's not the hotbed of winemaking just yet, and that was really all I was trying to say.

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