“So, you’re a wine expert.”
If you write of wine regularly, that’s the first comment you likely hear from a new acquaintance.
After four decades at this gig, I’ve become fairly adept at deflecting it, eager to move to a more compelling topic, like the wine in the glasses we hold.
There are no experts in the world of wine, if by “expert” we mean someone as knowledgeable about the wines of Jura as he or she is of the wines of Clarksburg. The field is too scattered, varied and evolving for anyone to be an expert.
The best a wine enthusiast can hope for in seeking guidance is to get it from someone inquisitive, open-minded, and eager to learn of wine –how it came to be, and the people responsible for it. That’s the standard I hope to meet in these columns.
With the start of a new year, the timing is right to address other comments and questions this wine columnist hears:
Wine writing long has appealed to me because it provides so many angles of approach. A wine may be the inspiration, but the story it has to tell can be as much of agriculture, people, history, conflict, science, business, politics and trends as the aesthetic rewards of what’s in the bottle.
So that’s the goal – to put wine in context, to tell a story that is informative, timely, helpful, diverse and hopefully entertaining.
First, I look for quality and value – a wine that expresses cleanly, clearly and confidently its heritage. Beyond that, again, I select wines on the stories they have to tell.
I believe in blind tastings, and look to them for subject matter; as a consequence, I eagerly judge at wine competitions – 15 over the past year.
Because this column focuses largely on wines from the immediate Sacramento area – the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi – I visit local appellations, generally focusing on a vintner who is generating buzz or who otherwise I’ve been tipped to.
I attend trade tastings, occasionally meet with winemakers traveling through Sacramento, browse local wine shops and grocery stores in search of material, and almost nightly taste one or two wines with dinner, jotting notes on each.
It is fun. Whether in California or elsewhere, wine regions tend to be in the world’s more historic, dynamic and scenic areas, with food as accomplished and vital as the local wines.
No, I won’t whine, though wine writing has a couple of drawbacks. Wine competitions can be brutal. They demand a degree of concentration that is exhausting, at least for me.
And the impact of alcohol, tannin and acid from tasting 70 to 100 wines a day can be felt for more than a week afterward.
And at some point, you have to write.
That can be fun, too, until I get to the tasting notes. To make them fresh and relevant without slipping into obscurity and silliness is the biggest challenge in writing of wine.
I’m not comfortable with the widespread scheme of rating wine on a 100-point or similar numerical scale, despite its popularity. It’s a shorthand way that implies that complex quality can be reduced to a number. It also suggests a scientific exactitude that is impossible, given the subjectivity of wine.
Rather than cut to the chase with a number, I’d rather give readers a grounding in why a particular wine impressed me, hoping to provide them with information that helps them make their own informed buying decisions.
My preference runs to a wine that tastes alive. I like it to have lift, tension, a kind of electrical current. It can be light or it can be heavy, but it can’t be listless. It should evolve in the glass, unfolding with each subsequent sip, revealing something new. I put a priority on a wine’s finish; I want it to linger with brightness and spunk.
Many years ago, I joined the era’s most prominent wine writer, Hugh Johnson, for lunch in San Francisco. This gave me the chance to ask him what he felt made a great wine. He replied:
“A great wine is a wine that makes an impression you can’t ignore, and it always leaves questions unanswered. Great wines never end in an exclamation mark. They always end in a question mark. They tease you. The way they do that is because they are very, very long.
“The greatest test of a wine’s quality is how long it lasts on the palate. Short wines just say what they have to say and shut up, but all great wines stay with you. They keep asking you to come back, try me again, see what’s happening to me.”
That’s stuck with me.
Each year I fill a small binder with notes from my nearly nightly tasting of wine. Before I open this year’s fresh book, here’s a look at the three most impressive wines in the binder from 2013:
• Bradford Mountain Winery 2011 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel (14.5 percent alcohol, 1,700 cases, $22): This is zinfandel at its purest and most drinkable, an exquisitely fresh and balanced take on the varietal. The fruit is all sun-warmed raspberry patch, shot through with a spiciness that must have originated in the cinnamon family. The judicious addition of a bit of petite sirah and the brief aging of the wine in oak barrels only intensified its complexity without distracting from its vibrant core.
• Flora Springs 2010 Napa Valley Trilogy (14.5 percent alcohol, 7,500 cases, $75): A giant flashing neon sign along Highway 29 through Napa Valley couldn’t say “Fruit Ahead!” with more electrifying buzz than this elegant and zingy blend. The Bing cherries that in Napa Valley are labeled “cabernet sauvignon” are backed with welcome complicating notes of olives and herbs. For the record, the wine is mostly cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, malbec and cabernet franc playing crucial if understated back-up roles.
• Ten Acre 2011 Russian River Valley Jenkins Vineyard Pinot Noir (14.1 percent alcohol, 180 cases, $65): This release again shows that pinot noir need not be densely colored to startle the palate with uncommon lushness, earthiness and complexity. As you taste it you envision workers at a sorting table, setting aside just the smallest and most pristine berries for this wine. The grapes then didn’t seem so much crushed as hugged, yielding a pinot noir on the intense berry side of the varietal’s flavor spectrum, and spicy with several turns of the black-pepper grinder.