Wine Ink: When evaluating wine, judge by the bottle
April 22, 2017
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Pacific Star Winery “It’s My Fault” (non-vintage) — This easy-drinking red wine made from dolcetto, negroamaro, barbera and charbono, all Italian varietals grown in Mendocino County in California, is named such because the Pacific Star Winery sits squarely on the fault line. That would be the Pacific Star Fault, which runs to the San Andreas. Perhaps that is what makes it such a fun bottle to drink when gazing at the Pacific. You can only get this beauty from the wine club at Pacific Star; visit www. pacificstarwinery.com.
It’s My Fault (part deaux)
In last week’s column, there was a photo of a winery building that was first built in 1886 by pioneering winemakers Jean Adolph Brun and Jean V. Chaix. I neglected to note that the winery building and the vineyards surrounding it no longer belong to Ladera. The PlumpJack Group purchased the winery in October 2016. It is now part of CADE Estate Winery property.
Also, the Spire Collection, of which La Jota Vineyards is a part, is a portfolio within Jackson Family Wines, not under the brand Kendall-Jackson. Apologies for any and all confusion this hath wrought.
At a wine tasting this past week, I, like the other people in the room, focused intensely on the nine glasses in front of me. The representatives of the wineries sat at a table in front of us, and as we picked up each glass to examine and taste, they told us about the vintage, the vineyard and the wine.
Dutifully, we looked deeply into the first glass, swirled the wine and, on cue, tasted it. We made our own personal determinations of what the wine was like, and some of us made notes. Then we moved along to the next glass. Pretty standard stuff.
But toward the end of the tasting, one of the speakers said something that flipped a switch for me.
"You know, writers and tasters and wine people, we all gauge wine based on our first sip,'" he said. "But you know it's the bottle that counts. People who buy and drink our wines, their experience really is not based on a sip or a taste; it's about how much they like the whole bottle."
Sometimes the simplest things are the easiest to forget.
IT'S THE BOTTLE, STUPID
If you are playing golf, you don't rate the golf course by the first hole. You don't call a ski mountain flawed after your first run. And foreplay does not necessarily make for great … um … you get the picture.
But in the world of wine, we often gauge, measure and score a bottle based on that initial taste. It is part and parcel in wine to make a determination of the bottle's quality or desirability based on our impressions as we take that first sip.
Dan Stotesbery, the man who instigated the "whole bottle theory" at the tasting, was right. The point of having a bottle of wine is not to "rate it" with the first taste. The point is to enjoy the process of buying, opening, tasting and drinking the bottle. The pairing of wine with food, sharing a moment with friends, taking a prodigious guzzle from the glass during a great conversation, getting a little loose — these are all reasons why we love a good bottle of wine.
So why is the wine-drinking experience treated differently than a ski slope or golf course? I (and Dan), blame the writers.
WHY WINE IS DIFFERENT
Since the beginning of time, ratings have been a way of keeping score. The assignation of a number is a way to determine who has won a game, who has the most stuff and, in a subjective sense, who has the best stuff. Wine often was given one to four stars in the early days of wine journalism by writers looking for a device to rank wines.
In the 1950s, Dr. Maynard Amerine, an enology professor at the University of California Davis, devised a 20-point scale for rating wines. In that weighted system, points were awarded or deducted for a wine's attributes, such as appearance, color, aroma, body, acidity and flavor. The idea was to scientifically and objectively rate a wine with little room for subjective input. The flavor component, for example, merited just 1 point.
In the mid-1970s, Robert Parker was a lawyer and an amateur "wine geek" before the term was even created. According to Elin McCoy in her Parker biography "The Emperor of Wine," Parker and a friend, Victor Morgenroth, devised a scale that would prove to be far more powerful and popular than the rather restrictive UC Davis 20-point system.
Knowing that all Americans came through school using a grading scale based on 100, Parker and Morgonroth simply extrapolated the 100-point system to wines. In their system, every wine began with 50 points. Then points were added for flavor and appearance (1-5), aroma and bouquet (1-15), flavor and finish (1-20), and finally, overall quality or the opportunity for improvement with age (1-10). Viola! A scale for evaluating wines was established that had room for subjective wiggle and could be as easily understood as a baseball batting average or the grade you received on your history essay in school.
Today, the most ubiquitous way to sell wine is to say "such and such" gave it a 90 points-plus rating. And those ratings are based on folks sitting in a controlled environment, much like my tasting, taking a sip from a glass, making their own personal determinations of what the wine was like and making notes.
Be your own expert. Judge by the experience. Judge by the bottle.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.