grace under fire

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yesterday’s blog entry talked about the results one new winery reported following some positive reviews. Today I want to look at the other side of the coin. What happens when the reviews are unexpectedly downbeat?

The major publications that use the 100 point scale use 80 as a cut-off score. Any wine worth less than 80 points is not scored or reviewed. I think Robert Parker cuts it off at 85. And in practical terms, the 100-point scalers don’t give a rat’s tail about much under 90.

But in most of my writing, and much of the reviewing that goes on in newspapers and on blogs around the land, there is no score. That does not mean that all reviews must – or should – be positive. If you are already blogging, you may have grappled with this question yourself. Does a free sample obligate you to write a positive review? Or any review? I think the answer to both questions is a solid ‘No!'

But I’ll go further. I think that in order to be a legitimate critic, it is imperative to point out problems as well as successes. I always try to do this in a kind way, and I’ve lost count of the number of wines I’ve let go without a review because they were a first-time effort, or extremely limited production, or there was at least a ray of hope in some of the winery’s other releases. I don’t believe in beating up on a struggling business.

The situation that occurred with Ravenswood was different. Here was a well-known, highly-regarded winery and winemaker, whose single vineyard zinfandels had long been one of the highlights of my wine tasting experience. Yet, inexplicably, a few vintages back, the set of six came in and seemed to fall really flat. Having applauded them in vintage after vintage, I felt it only fair to say that the wines from this particular year seemed to me to be sub-par.

I included a short note to that effect at the end of my newspaper column, writing that “For many years I have looked forward with great anticipation to the arrival of each new vintage of single vineyard zinfandels from Ravenswood. These six wines, from old vine sites in Sonoma and Napa, cemented Ravenswood’s reputation as one of the very best zinfandel producers in the country. It grieves me to say that a sharp decline in their quality seems to have knocked them off that pedestal. The new single vineyard zins are so astringent, with sharp, unintegrated acids, that after just a sip or two it is difficult to taste the fruit.”

Rather than simply dismissing the criticism or cutting me off, winemaker Joel Peterson made it a point to look me up on his next trip up to Seattle. We sat down for a couple of hours and discussed his career, his approach to winemaking, and other topics of interest. He did not criticize my critique, and instead poured some unreleased wines from the next vintage. We both politely agreed to disagree on the current wines. To this day, I can’t say if something went sideways, or if I had a bad palate day. But subsequent releases of the Ravenswood single vineyard zins have been back on track.

In fact the 2007 lineup is the best in memory. All six – Barricia, Belloni, Big River, Dickerson, Teldeschi and Old Hill – show exceptional fruit concentration, depth and detail. They are distinct from each other, yet together make for a marvelous package of wines that really demonstrate the unique delights of old vine zinfandel. And when you taste old vine here, you are back 70, 80 or 100 years – not 20 or 30. Some, such as Old Hill, which I had the pleasure of visiting this past winter, are field blends of up to 16 different varieties. Some are pure zinfandel.

I would suggest that if you have a tasting group, or can collect six or eight friends with an interest in classic old vine wines, that you go in together and purchase the entire set, and taste them blind to see how they fall out. These are glorious wines. And I will forever recall the absolute class and grace that Joel Peterson showed when he came under critical fire.


scott said...

PG – Good post. I appreciate your approach to reviewing wine in that it seems more encompassing and with perspective, rather than simply going down some technical check list.

1WineDude said...

Joel is good peeps - had a great interview with him over lunch some time ago.

Totally agree with you that there are times when negative feedback and constructive criticism serve a purpose, and are better than no feedback or criticism at all.


The Nose said...

Honesty in writing about is appreciated.

Bad palate day..that too happens and sometimes, for whatever reason, we can't find the center point to clearly evaluate. (If my team just lost..not good day to taste.)

Joel is indeed a classy gentlemen who makes his wines like Clapton plays his guitar. And the pair make for me a fine wine experience.

Winefashionista said...

Not at all surprised Joel took the time to talk with you, he's the real deal. I also tasted the latest Zin series and the wines are superb. If you are going to review wine, you've just got to be honest. Some bottles will have technical problems, others you may not like but are made well, but that's personal preference. If it's not made well, you gotta say so.

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