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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A critic's responsibility
Wine critics pride themselves on providing consumers w/ precious information. Whether it be a hidden value discovered, or an over priced hack-job avoided, critics are an invaluable tool for consumers w/ neither the time nor resource to taste the sea of bottles available for retail purchase. While a wine aficionado’s dollar can go a lot farther now thank to various publications bevy of tasting notes and numerical evaluations at their fingertips, I believe there are inherent shortcomings in the current mold of your average critic's recommended reviews. My particular issue does not concern the realm of a taster's subjectivity, nor the published marathons of abstract poetic jargon used to describe a wine's flavor, not even whether or not scoring a wine by points is relevant (or soulless, for that matter). My problem is one of heat.

I know, you’re a tad confused at my nebulous comment, but let me back up a minute. I have to reiterate how powerful wine critics have become. Not only do high praise and 90+ point scores bode well for wine sales and recognition, they further influence how wines are made. I don't need paragraphs of support to prove that Robert Parker's consummate California push towards riper fruit, longer hang time (best utilizing what the sunshine state's terroir has to offer) and more impressively styled, blockbuster wines has had an effect on how California producers make wine. During the 90's, when California wine giant Tim Mondavi was shaping his wines w/ more of an elegant, Bordeaux-like fashion, Parker slammed him w/ awful reviews (which lead to crappy sales and a convenient change of heart in his winemaking methodology). There is a slew of examples how winemaker's apprehension from bad critical reviews (and lackluster profits) has greatly determined their wine making philosophies, but the Mondavi & Parker struggle should suffice for the purpose of my point.

Back to heat. By heat, I mean the impression that an overly alcoholic wine leaves in your mouth, burning your tongue like the California sun after a wretched Napa Valley heat wave. You see, in order to have "Parker pleasing" opulent, plush and unctuously textured wines, you need riper grapes. As grapes ripen, they accumulate sugar (measured in brix). Fermentation converts all this excess sugar into alcohol. Obviously a consequence of ultra-ripe California grapes is an alcoholic elixir tantamount to an after-dinner fortified port. I've bitched about this in various posts, but I have decided to propose a solution, which requires cooperation from the wine writing collective.

Now tasting notes and scores given by critics can sound deceivingly familiar. For example, a right bank Bordeaux from Canon La Gaffeliere during a banner vintage (like '95, or '98) can be described as 'huge, impressive, blockbuster, spicy, long, etc.' Sounds good right? 95 points, a classic rating...I'm in! Now, to contrast I'd like to mention a deceptively similar example in a 2004 Alban Syrah. 'Wow, massive, silky tannins, massive, rich, spice, etc.' Alright I am Para-phrasing but you get the idea. Here's my issue (and this isn't a California stab, I love a lot of their wines):

The Alban Syrah has well over 16 percent alcohol....I'm drunk just thinking about it. The 10 plus year old Bordeaux (nearly all merlot, by the way) is barely pushing 12 percent alcohol. Both of which were given rave reviews, inciting consumers to buy. Now a savvy wine aficionado appreciates the differences between Bordeaux and Central Coast Syrah, but after reading the reviews of both wines in the Wine Spectator (or Wine Advocate, whatever), the consumer is interested in having both wines in their cellar. While these wines have a substantially different 'buzz power,' the critic doesn't yet guide the consumer on how these dramatically different wines should be enjoyed. The point I'd like to make is that wine is almost never drank in isolation. Wine is a source of intellectual, as well as passionate pleasure. The dinner table is still the most common of places to find wine as an accompaniment, but w/ the advent of sheik wine bars and their rise in popularity there has been an expansion in the social versatility of America's new favorite beverage. The 'foreign' concept of having wine w/ lunch, which initially led me to believe that the French were sots, is actually slowly coming into favor in America's more dynamic urban areas.

Now Bordeaux wines need little illumination as to where they belong. In good vintages, red Bordeaux has the acidity, tannin and balance to match up to a wide variety of cuisines, and, w/ its modest alcohol levels, it isn't a prohibitive mid-day selection. But what about the beast John Alban created (and critics universally love)? Granted it's undoubtedly impressive. Hell I'd yell out 'wow' if I were sticking my nose into a glass, but what do we do w/ this dolled-up drunken dog? Will it be the replacement for my after work scotch? That animal will liquefy just about any food on the table (and send me home early for fear of being slapped w/ a DWI from the local authorities). So do we just sit around it in astonishment? Considering it resembles port, perhaps the sweet tannin are better matched up w/ the after dinner, dessert fare?

Listen, I don't want to be insulting, but the critics created this monster and now we have to deal w/ it. I don't believe wines of this girth should be panned, because it would be counter-intuitive to what the critics have been promoting in California. I do think that a threshold has to be created; I suggest an alcohol level of 15%, in which critics need to start deducting points. James Laube of the Wine Spectator has said "wines can be big and balanced," which I agree w/, but how big is too big? Wines w/ alcohol levels that exceed 15% must be handled in a particular way. I suggest:

  1. Creating a separate category for these wines in each periodical’s critical review section. The alcohol level needs to be stated in the review.
  2. If the review is laudable, some suggestion should be made on how the wine critic believes the wine would be best consumed (wine is typically, in fact, a complement isn't it?).
  3. The score should be reduced accordingly w/ each degree the alcohol exceeds 15%. The overwhelming majority of the wine consuming population would agree that 16.4% alcohol is 'too much,' which obviously affects balance (which should affect score, but I don't think it has been nearly as much as it should).

The benefits to this are two-fold. One, the consumer will not be fooled into making a regrettable restaurant purchase based on a score that didn't take practicality of pairing into account. Two, it will begin to moderate the aggressive techniques that winemakers (especially Rosenblum, the iconoclast Helen Turley, Fess Parker and John Alban) have adopted in response to Parker's past California criticism. He told them to take advantage of their climate, they responded extremely, in my opinion, now it is time to make the pendulum balance out. If critics punish the overzealous, over-ripe alcohol bombs, things will come back into balance. If critics continue to praise overly alcoholic subtlety killers, things will only get worse.

It is the critic’s responsibility to soften the roar of the animal they have created. If they don't, we'll be forced to keep our California Zinfandels locked in the Brandy closet. Nothing like a 99 point rated nightcap!


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