a left hook to washington’s jaw

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

John Mariani, whom I have never met, is a well-respected wine writer of long standing. He has what seems to me to be a distinctly east coast palate. No criticism intended there – it’s just an observation.

This was brought into blunt focus by a piece that Mr. Mariani posted on the Bloomberg website with the headline “Washington Wines Pack High Alcohol Wallop, Little Else.” Ouch!

I read his remarks with great interest, because I too have found some Washington wines, in some vintages, to be rather overblown, and I have written critical reviews regarding excessive alcohol levels on more than a few occasions. However, it seems more than a little broad-brushed to dismiss the entire output of the state with such a bombastic headline, and as I read through the article, there were a number of indications that this was a pretty quick and generic look at what is really going on here.

“Washington has always prided itself on intense, highly tannic, high-alcohol wines that show well in their youth but often lose brightness and complexity with age,” Mr. Mariani asserts, with nothing to back it up. In fact, some of the wines he singles out for specific criticism come from Woodward Canyon, whose wines have shown a remarkable ability to age, and age beautifully, for several decades or more.

He did enjoy a 2007 Tre Fanciulli from JM Cellars, explaining that “it shows how the terroir of the Columbia Valley, whose south-facing slopes get a great deal of solar radiation, can produce power within a velvet glove.” Even a casual glance at a map of the immense Columbia Valley AVA should make it clear that it has hundreds of vineyards with slopes facing in all directions – east, west, north and south. It’s the vintage as much as the aspect, along with the specific style of the winemaker, that determines when grapes are ripe for picking, and how high the alcohol levels may rise. Save the velvet gloves for Pinot Noir.

Mariani’s conclusion – “Washington vintners should step away from thinking that a bigger wine is a better wine” – is, unfortunately, a thought that many of his readers from outside the region will carry with them from now on. I would suggest that there are far more alcoholic fruit bombs coming from the number one wine producing state, located just a bit farther south, than the small number of such wines that are coming from Washington vintners. I hope Mr. Mariani will return, and take a more comprehensive look at what this state has to offer.

Meanwhile, in other news...

The newbie in charge of Robert Parker-dom issued a breathless announcement regarding the hiring of Jeb Dunnuck to cover the Rhône and various other beats. The news that Dunnuck would also replace David Schildknecht as the designated Washington reviewer was buried beneath acres of such goo as this: “As many of you may have already guessed (and let's face it - Bob hasn't been too good at containing his excitement) the big guy is coming back to California.”

My own excitement is easy to contain, because it doesn’t exist. I am sorely disappointed that once again, the Washington wine reviewing can has been kicked down the road. In less than two decades we’ve gone from Parker to Rovani to Miller to Schildknecht to Dunnuck. How in the world is that going to lend any credibility to the Washington reviews issuing from Parker-dom?

I was privileged to taste and dine with Mr. Schildknecht during each of his visits last year, and a more enthusiastic, dedicated and hard-working wine critic I have never met. To summarily yank him from his new duties, while installing someone who may have something to say about Syrah but can hardly be expected to do justice to the wide range of this state’s wines, is pathetic.


Unknown said...

Paul, the Washington State Wine Commission wasn’t involved in Mr. Mariani’s visit nor did he attend Taste Washington.
We strongly feel that the level of winemaking in Washington State is at a much higher quality and far more diversified than the very small sampling mentioned in the article. We at the Washington State Wine Commission are proactively seeking an opportunity to introduce him to a wider range of wines that showcase our world-class winemaking – from beautifully balanced Cabernet Sauvignons, to our cellar-worthy blends, to our growing success with Syrah and other Rhone varieties, and, of course, our wide range of quality Rieslings. Steve Warner

PaulG said...

Steve, my apologies. I should not have presumed the Commission's involvement, though the timing of Mariani's visit seemed to coincide with Taste Washington. In any event, I appreciate the correction and I have removed the misleading sentence.

Chris Wallace said...

I share your sentiments about David Schildknecht who I thought did a great job covering Washington during his short tenure. His tasting notes were not just excellent, but about as thorough as I have seen. Do you know where he will be covering?

PaulG said...

Chris - here are the latest reviewer assignments as per yesterday's Parker email: the new regional assignments:

Robert Parker: Northern California, Bordeaux, California Retrospectives, Bordeaux Retrospectives, Value Wines

Neal Martin: Burgundy's Côte d'Or, Mâcon, Beaujolais (from 2014), Sauternes, South Africa, Port, Madeira, Banyuls (+ It's 'Business-as-Usual' for Wine Journal)

David Schildknecht: Annual Reports - Germany, Champagne, Chablis, Austria, Oregon, Corsica; Reports every 2-3 years - Languedoc / Roussillon, Loire, Alsace, Savoie, Jura, Switzerland, New York / Eastern USA

Mark Squires: Portugal, Israel, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria

Lisa Perrotti-Brown: Australia & New Zealand

New Reviewer #2: Italy
New Reviewer #3: Spain, Chile & Argentina

dp said...

I posted up an open letter to the editor there at Bloomberg:


Unknown said...

Thanks Paul, I appreciate it. It was great seeing you. Cheers!

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!