when should a winery wave the white flag?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

When you have been reviewing and scoring wines as long as I have, no matter how fair and helpful you may try to be, some toes are going to get stepped on. Someone’s hard work will go unrecognized, perhaps criticized. Someone’s struggling business will get an extra kick in the rear. It’s just part of the process, and every reviewer with professional creds knows it.

But I have noticed something rather odd. Something that has occurred on more than a handful of occasions over the years. In many, perhaps most instances, where I get an angry email from a winery owner, it is those wineries on whom I have lavished the most praise that get their panties in a bunch most easily.

Perhaps one of their wines didn’t score as well as previously. Perhaps a rival winery, purchasing grapes from the same vineyard, got more praise. Perhaps they just don’t like being scored at all (although they are happy to sell wines using those unwanted scores!). For whatever reason, the handful of wineries that have unilaterally stated they do not ever again want my reviews to darken their cellar door, are mostly wineries that I held in very high regard.

On the other hand...

ancient lakes and ancient hills

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cameron Fries, owner/vintner at White Heron Cellars, passed along this note a couple of days ago. It’s from Karen Thornton, of the TTB Regulations and Rulings Division. “I have some good news! The final rule for the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA was signed Friday and will publish in the Federal Register on Thursday, October 18. The effective date will be Monday, November 19 [sic], which means that date will be the first date anyone can apply to TTB for a COLA for a label with the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA name on it. Looks like 2012 will be a particularly special vintage for winemakers in your area! Congratulations!”

I toured the region in the spring of 2011, and wrote about it here on the blog on April 25, 2011. To recap: “I spent two extremely busy and fascinating days last week touring a region known as the Ancient Lakes. 

If you can locate the world famous concert venue known as the Gorge at George on a map, you are in the Ancient Lakes region. The Columbia river, at one of its most spectacular passages, defines the western edge. Both southern and northern boundaries are ridges of hills, folds in the earth, caused by tectonic movement in Oregon. These ridges run east/west and occur in sequence throughout much of eastern Washington.

top dozen best buys from the northwest

Monday, October 15, 2012

A short while ago Wine Enthusiast magazine published the annual Top 100 Best Buys list (I blogged about it on October 5th). I was especially pleased to see that 16 wines from Washington, Oregon and Idaho were included – an excellent showing for any region, let alone one as small as this.

Those 16 wines were chosen based on reviews that I had submitted over the past year. I thought it would be interesting, using the tools available on the free, online database, to see what my personal Top Dozen Best Buys would turn out to be, based simply on the criteria of price and score. In this type of ranking, I look first for the highest scores, and then rank them by price. A lower priced wine will rank higher than a wine with the same score and a higher price.

Note that the magazine sets the standards for Best Buy designation. The wines must be priced no higher than $15, and the score to price ratio determines if it qualifies.

I did a search of all my Best Buys from November 1, 2011 through September 30, 2012. There were 84 wines in all. Here are the Top 12 in order:

are you, like the british, terrified of sommeliers?

Friday, October 12, 2012

An article in Drinks Business online reports that “the huge majority of Britons are filled with fear when it comes to ordering wine in a restaurant.” Apparently choosing a bottle of plonk is more intimidating than any other part of the dining experience. The article goes on to note that just slightly over 12% of British diners are confident that they will select the right wine.

This raises more questions than it answers, as usual. And if the British are so wine-shy, after hundreds of years experience imbibing fermented grape juice, how bad is it over here in the U.S.?

As per usual when the topic of ordering wine off an impenetrable wine list is raised, some expert – in this instance a fellow named Gerard Basset, who is currently the reigning world champion sommelier – is quoted as suggesting that diners focus on their own enjoyment, and ask for help. “If you know about wines, then great,” says Basset, “but if you are confused or uncertain about which wine to choose, then take advantage of the help to hand. The waiter or sommelier is there to help.”

Are they really? In too many restaurants, the waiter is either bored or busy, and the sommelier is there to sell you something expensive. There is little time for either of them to indulge in a lengthy discussion about your wine preferences, their wine list, and the menu options. Besides which, you are there to enjoy some good food and conversation with your dinner companions, not to jawbone with some geek about vintage variation and cooperage.

There is an easy way to avoid all of this nonsense, and no sommelier in the world will ever suggest it. That’s why I’m here for you!

a tuscan super in price

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Being time-challenged this morning, I turn to Wikipedia for a cogent synopsis of the history of Super Tuscan wines:

“Super Tuscans are an unofficial category of Tuscan wines, not recognized within the Italian wine classification system. The origin of Super Tuscans is rooted in the restrictive DOC practices of the Chianti zone prior to the 1990s. During this time Chianti could be composed of no more than 70% Sangiovese and had to include at least 10% of one of the local white wine grapes. Producers who deviated from these regulations could not use the Chianti name on their wine labels and would be classified as vino da tavola – Italys' lowest wine designation. By the 1970s, the consumer market for Chianti wines was suffering and the wines were widely perceived to be lacking quality. Many Tuscan wine producers thought they could produce a better quality wine if they were not hindered by the DOC regulations.

to air is human, to forgive? – dat's da wine!

Monday, October 08, 2012

In yesterday’s Wine Adviser column in the Sunday Seattle Times, I took to task a number of wine-related accessories, most particularly the wine aerators. I wrote: “Another category of gadgets that seem pointless to me are the aerators. There are several options, none cheap, and some even claim that your white wine needs to be aerated differently than your red wine. Give me a break!

“Anything that beats the heck out of your wine is running completely against the grain of what the winemaker has so carefully tried to do, which is to batter the wine as little as possible. The stresses of bottling and bouncing around during shipping often put wines through what is aptly-termed bottle shock. The wine goes dumb, sometimes for weeks. So why take a perfectly sound wine, fresh out of the bottle, and put it through a mini-hurricane? Better idea – buy a decanter – the original aeration device.”

At least one reader took the trouble to write a rebuttal.

wine enthusiast top 100 best buys for 2012

Friday, October 05, 2012

‘Tis the Top 100 season, and the first of the Wine Enthusiast end-of-year wrap-ups is just out. The November issue cover story is the Top 100 Best Buys, an ever-popular category with particularly excellent wines this year.

Wines that are designated Best Buys throughout the year must fit very specific price/rating guidelines. The searchable (and free) database allows anyone to select Best Buys from specific reviewers, regions, and/or timelines. Or just his the “all” button and you can see everything that was a candidate for this list. The introduction notes that there were exactly 1134 wines in the running – less than 7% of the total number of wines reviewed. So the Top 100 represents about 9% of the 7% – not much!

Of course, as the magazine’s designated reviewer for all Pacific Northwest wines, I have some serious skin in the game. And much as the entire list is of interest, it is the wines that I have reviewed that command my attention first and foremost. At such times, I am proud to be a homey, and this year, as in all recent years, my “team” has done me proud.

The U.S. placed 30 wines in this Top 100, and out of that 30, more than half (16) came from the Pacific Northwest. Amazing, considering the region’s overall production is less than 10% that of California.

Breaking it down, there are 12 white wines, and 4 reds. There are 9 from Washington, 6 from Oregon, and 1 from Idaho. There are 5 rieslings, 3 pinot gris, 2 chardonnays, one sauvignon blanc, one gewurztraminer; and one each merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and red blend. A pretty good spread across multiple varieties and AVAs.

it’s just bidness

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I’ve come to conclude that I’m a naive dreamer when it comes to wine. Perhaps I’ve just read too many press releases trumpeting “passion”, and heard too many stories about people who sacrificed everything for the goal of making fine wine. Somewhere along the line, I came to believe, without quite realizing it, that everyone wanted to make great wine. Or at least good wine.

Not true!

In fact, there are some mighty successful wine businesses that have nothing to do with making great wine, or even good wine. Now, of course, some of the big corporate entities are not in it for greatness, or art, or anything but the big buck. Understood. But I now see that there are also smaller, family-owned wineries that don’t seem to give a hoot about making particularly good or distinctive wines. They just want to make wine that sells. And by golly, they are good at it!

should wine reviewers criticize pricing or just wines?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Let me set this up with a couple of true stories. In the spring of 2007, I received samples of four wines from a new producer in eastern Washington. Neither the winery nor the estate vineyards were familiar to me. The owner noted that this was “a dedicated red wine facility” and sent along four releases from estate grown grapes. In my original tasting notes I scored them 82, 81, and two 'not reviewables' (meaning not commercial quality). The best of the four, which received the 82, I noted was “sweet and grapey, soft and chocolatey, an uneasy mix of ripe berries and milk chocolatey oak. Nothing is quite integrated, and the acids stick out as if the wine had been badly acidified.” This 82-point effort carried a suggested retail price of $70.

The two unreviewables were priced at $50 and $80. The prices, as well as the poorly done packaging and amateurish winemaking, captured my interest. As a general policy, I will not come down hard on a brand new winery. If the wines are bad, I simply won’t publish any reviews. But in this instance, I went a step further. I contacted the winery owner, expressed my concern over the poor quality of the wines, and mentioned that he might consider sending them to a lab for professional analysis.

His response was not what I expected.