Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker to Launch Lifestyle Magazine
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Robert Parker will launch a new lifestyle magazine called '100 Points by Robert Parker'
Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker to Launch Lifestyle Magazine
Robert Parker, the internationally renowned wine critic who popularized the 100-point wine rating scale has signed a publication deal for a new “international lifestyle magazine for ‘high net-worth individuals and corporate leaders.” The magazine will be called 100 Points by Robert Parker and published by Hubert Burda Media.
100 Points will officially launch in June during a series of promotional events hosted by Parker and will initially be published as a quarterly. The magazine will focus on “a well-curated reader offering complemented by essential service elements — useful information that subscribers can use.” Although 100 Points will cover wine, the magazine will also address lifestyle products and experiences.
The editorial staff, according to Burda, will be an international team of writers and contributors, including ad hoc contributions from The Wine Advocate Team. Parker’s original publication, The Wine Advocate, will remain unchanged.
The first of Parker’s planned promotional events will be a consumer tasting at Hedonism Wines. So far, no other events have been announced.
Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.
The ’90s Magazine That Courted Wine’s Early Counterculture
“Ally McBeal getting a bikini wax—peachy, a bit green, a little soapy, a little waxy.”
“The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies suckin’ on some Wint-O-Green Life-savers—cool cherries, minty smiles.”
“Stylistic. ‘Black Hole Sun’ by Soundgarden—an anthem of intensity.”
These are tasting notes that once appeared in one of the country’s top-circulating wine magazines. As dated and hilariously earnest as these descriptions seem today, back when they first ran in the pages of the now-defunct Wine X magazine, they represented an approach to one of the industry’s most enduring challenges: how to convert America’s misguided youth into the next generation of wine consumers.
In his introduction to the 2000 edition of X-Rated Wines: The Wine X Magazine Guide to Wine, a compilation of the magazine’s wine reviews, founding editor Darryl Roberts describes his mission to “offer a new voice for a new generation of wine consumers” by relating wine “to people, places, movies, books, music, and things the vast majority of you can really identify with.”
All too often, this desire to “make wine cool” falls laughably short of the mark. What makes Wine X’s example unique in the annals of wine media history , however, is that (for a time, at least) it actually succeeded.
During the magazine’s heyday in the late 1990s, Wine X commanded an enviable readership. “We had a total circulation at our peak of around 330,000 readers and we had maybe 125,000 subscribers,” Roberts recalls. Celebrities like Tori Amos, Moby and even Dr. Ruth graced its covers, and Jason Priestly was an early investor. (“I like big, fat, aggressive, thick, chewy wine,” the Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob muses in his exclusive Wine X interview.)
The magazine’s influence extended even beyond the confines of its own pages. In collaboration with the Wine Brats—an organization of Gen X wine geeks founded by winemakers Jeff Bundschu, Jon Sebastiani and Mike Sangiacomo—the publication threw massive “wine raves” at venues across the country. Turns out the glow stick-addled parties, organized by Maxwell Leer and Adam Vourvoulis, that made headlines a couple years ago had a forebear.
In retrospect, Wine X anticipated so many of the strategies marketers have recently adopted to reach millennials. “I realized that everyone was only intent on targeting the Boomers who were already drinking wine,” explains Roberts. “My contention was that if we could engage 20-somethings in a style and language that they’d embrace and understand, and show how wine could fit into their lifestyle, they’d be open to drinking wine, too.”
Like so many of its contemporaries, however, Wine X struggled to adapt to the digital publishing revolution and finally folded in 2007. Full disclosure: I never knew it existed until a few months ago, when it was brought to my attention that one of the magazine’s original subscribers, Darin Szilagyi, had purchased the rights to the Wine X brand with plans to revamp it early next year. Normally, the news wouldn’t have captured my attention. But the deeper I traveled down the rabbit hole of Wine X’s curious history, the more I found myself wondering about its legacy.
During the 1990s, when American wine culture was just starting to mature, the media diet available to wine lovers consisted of two basic choices. On the one hand, there was Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate on the other, Wine Spectator. Neither option qualified as particularly unorthodox or edgy. Over time, their perspective came to define the entire discourse around wine, entrenching the conservative (and conveniently commodified) value system of the tasting note and the 100-point scale.
In hindsight, we take this narrative for granted. But the fact of Wine X’s massive readership at the time interjects a big question mark. How different would the conversation be today if there had always been an alternative platform large enough to counter the dominant point of view?
The magazine’s archives, portions of which are still available online, reveal plenty of cringe-worthy missteps and backfires. Cue this novel take on sparkling shiraz, for example: “With the same potential for greatness and a uniqueness akin to Hungarian Tokay Aszu [sic]… Australia’s sparkling red has waited more than a century to enter center stage.” What fascinated me, however—and raised so many nagging “what ifs”—was the way the magazine attempted to insert a counter-cultural perspective into the mix decades before a viable wine counterculture even emerged.
Back in this pre-hipsterized age, the market was far more homogenous, having yet to splinter into the complex minefield of warring aesthetics and ideologies it currently encompasses. So many of the categories that we now celebrate were still lightyears away. This was decades before anyone had ever heard of “grower” Champagne. Confined to a few remote bars in Paris, the natural wine movement hadn’t even started to trickle onto U.S. shores. There was no Etna, no Jura, no orange wine, no Sherry revolution. Beaujolais was still largely resigned to nouveau.
We view these categories as having arisen in opposition to the prevailing Parker-centric paradigm, from which we’ve only recently emerged. Even if Spectator and Wine Advocate did try to embrace some of these expressions early on, they typically did so by encouraging them into their own mainstream mold, rather than celebrating their idiosyncrasies. Wine X, meanwhile, tried to establish an open-minded, non-luxury perspective, which valued the “fringe” as the core of what makes wine cool.
For a variety of reasons (mostly financial), the magazine never fully realized that vision. Which is a shame, because those were the years in which we probably needed it most. Had Wine X survived, let alone flourished alongside its more conventional peers, maybe we would have outgrown the Boomer-era influence of Parker et al. a little sooner, or wouldn’t have succumbed to it quite so completely.
It’s ironic, then, that Wine X is coming back to us at a time when the old guard is rapidly waning. In the years since Wine X folded, Parker sold a major stake of the Wine Advocate to a group of Singapore-based investors (from whom Michelin just bought a hefty 40-percent share). Sommeliers became “somms,” ditching the suit and tastevin for a T-shirt and jeans. The wine media fractured from a few voices too many. Natural wine hit the big time. In place of 100-point cabs and first-growth Bordeaux, we now hunt rare and elusive “unicorns” (and post them on Instagram them for all the world to behold).
Somewhere along the way, we seem to have wound up where Wine X had been heading all along. Despite all this progress , however, I can’t help but wonder where we might go from here. As we’ve learned to embrace and even fetishize esoteric styles, one unintended consequence has been how quickly the fringe continues to be mainstreamed. When even Vogue is featuring roundups of orange wine and pét nat , you have to ask: What truly represents today’s wine counterculture? Where is the edge when the edges have been rounded-off?
When Wine X first launched in the 1990s, the culture war was being waged at its fiercest, and both sides of the battle were more clearly drawn. Since then, notion of cool in wine has become so varied, fluid and multi-dimensional that it’s practically impossible to define. It’s cloudy, funky natural wine, but also classic Burgundy both Golden Age and “new” California Eastern Europe, the Canary Islands, small-production Champagne and beyond.
If anything resembling a wine counterculture does exist today, it will be found somewhere within a postmodern pastiche of styles and aesthetics. And to represent this complex matrix for the next generation of drinkers will be a lot more challenging than name-dropping Drake in a tasting note. At this stage in our evolution, we no longer need wine to be made cool for us. We’ve finally arrived at the recognition that it’s plenty cool on its own.
A Little Weed With Your Wine?
There’s been a lot of buzz about pot and wine recently. It’s hard to separate the toga party contingent’s thirst for a potion into which two psychoactive substances have been crammed, from the more sober, scholarly consideration of the 3,700+ year history of fortifying wine with cannabis. And the allegedly potent healing powers of cannabis-wine are almost always overlooked, advocates complain.
Come on. Isn’t pot-wine just an elevated partying tool? Or can it actually help people who suffer from various maladies? Also – is it any good? And where can we get it?
Historically, wine fortified with cannabis hasn’t been guzzled at the average Thirsty Thursday happy hour. Instead, pot-wine has been consumed during religious rituals and used as a form of anesthesia in surgery. Yes, it’s that powerful.
Records of the marijuana plant being utilized for medicinal purposes date back to the 28th century B.C. In China during the second century A.D., archeologists found records showing that the founder of Chinese surgery, Hua T’o, used wine fortified with cannabis resin to reduce pain during surgery.
Religious initiates of various stripes also drank psychoactive wine as part of their practice. Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries (initiations held yearly for the cult of Demeter and Persephone in ancient Greece) and early Christians (including, allegedly, Jesus Christ) are two of the most noted groups of cannabis-wine enthusiasts, but far from the only ones, according to Carl Ruck, a professor of classical studies at Boston University. He coined the use of the term “entheogen” when discussing the use of psychoactive substances during sacraments to free the topic “from the pejorative connotations for words like drug or hallucinogen.”
And unlike the sophomoric Cheech and Chong-esque cackles of glee greeting most discussions of weed-wine, the professor’s pronouncements on the subject are refreshingly staid, reeking more of damp tweed than patchouli oil. The tradition of adding “fortifying herbal additives to wine [have been] documented by archaeological evidence” he says, noting that “entheogens were at the very origin of religion.”
Don’t worry: not everyone whipped out the pot-wine for the E.R., temple and church, even back in the day, Dr. Ruck explains. There were a few Bronx agers who are thought to have used pot-wine as a shortcut to fun. (Toga! Toga! Toga!)
A personal wine cellar in a palace in modern day northern Israel was discovered a decade ago. Dating back to 1700 B.C. it’s the oldest (and probably the coolest) cellar that has ever been found, with a personal stash of more than 500 gallons of wine (it would fill about 3,000 modern bottles) infused with cinnamon, honey, mint and … psychotropic resins.
About 572,762 Californians are thought to be card-carrying cannabis users (out of a population of more than 38 million).
And though he refrained from commenting on the “advisability” of renewing the practice of brewing weed-wine, he did say that “cannabis would be one of the less dangerous additives” to make a comeback, of which there are a few other less promising entries in the wine fortification market. “Evidence for the additives comes from folkloric traditions and the practice is apparently often employed in the making of home brews,” Professor Ruck explains. “One with salamander venom is marketed in the Balkans. Modern Greek retsina is fortified with toxic terpenes.”
Let’s all agree to forget the salamander venom Balkan wine, shall we? Unless you’re up for making a home brew yourself, Marijuana wine is (somewhat) available and legal in America, and probably will become increasingly so in the years to come. (About 53% of Americans support marijuana legalization now, compared to roughly 42% of Americans in 2010, according to Pew Research). Four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska – and the District of Columbia have passed measures legalizing marijuana use, 14 states have decriminalized certain amounts of possession and 23 states plus D.C. have legalized medical marijuana.
While the exact recipes for the pot-wines of yore aren’t available, a commonly used manufacturing method now is cold-pressed, never heated. It may not have the exact psychotropic effect one would expect. Instead, cannabis acts more like an herb would, adding depth of flavor and structure to wines. Melissa Etheridge, who became an unlikely, vociferous advocate of medical cannabis after going through a bout of chemotherapy, has created a line of pot-wine through Greenway in California, called “No Label.”
In California, it’s legal to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal medical use given the recommendation or approval of a state-licensed physician. Patients are commonly issued a cannabis ID card. About 572,762 Californians are thought to be card-carrying cannabis users (out of a population of more than 38 million). Greenway, founded in 2005 in Santa Cruz, the first dispensary in California to be backed by both the city and the state, embraces both the medicinal and the recreational possibilities of cannabis, and is at the forefront of making cannabis consumption as delicious and sophisticated as possible.
“Cannabis is highly medicinal,” Lisa Molyneux, Greenway’s founder-farmer says. “And even when people think they are just using cannabis recreationally or to relax, it probably has an underlying medical or psychological component. Personally, I abhor grain alcohol. Many years ago, I tried cannabis-infused wine that a winemaking friend of mine made for his own personal consumption and I loved it. I got the recipe from him and I started working on my own batch seven years ago. As it turns out, I misunderstood his directions, but even he agrees that my results are better.”
Ms. Molyneux’s products – which consistently win accolades from patients and the press, including coveted awards in the annual High Times Cannabis Cup – come in many forms, including edibles, concentrates, balms and capsules. Her cannabis-wine, developed for her own personal use initially, became a secret cult favorite among California’s in-the-know cannabis consumers who are more interested (or at least just as interested) in the medical uses of the plant as they are in the blissed-out high the toga contingent is after.
Getting the benefits of cannabis from edibles and tinctures are popular alternatives to just smoking the stuff, but Ms. Molyneux’s disdain for the taste and effects of grain alcohol prompted her to try to get her wine tincture on the market, especially when Melissa Etheridge got ahold of her brew and approached her about turning it into the first commercial cannabis-wine available in the U.S.
The Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter is eagerly embracing her role as a “ganjapreneur” and it’s hard to think of a better place on earth than California to launch another wine revolution. California wines are known for their robust, daring flavors and vertiginously high alcohol content (consumers are demanding fuller-bodied flavors from wines, so producers are leaving grapes on the vine for longer to ripen, which ends up imparting more flavor but also packing more alcohol) and California culture is known for it’s paradoxically assertive and laid-back approach to launching and then dominating new, upstart markets and ideas. And winemakers in Northern California have allegedly been making it for decades – it was probably just a matter of time before someone canny capitalized on the opportunity.
“I am a wine-lover and I truly believe that a glass of wine a day can be medicinal too,” she explains. “The problem is, few people stop at one, so the health benefits kind of fly out the window when you’re downing three or four glasses a night. Once I got clearance from my legal team and was able to sell a wine tincture at Greenway, I heard from a lot of wine-loving customers that two ounces of the tincture was all they needed to get the relaxing effects of wine. Ironically, my wine tincture is probably helping people drink and smoke less!”
It tastes just like wine, but you get the herbal kick in the back of the throat from the cannabis.
Ms. Molyneux, who grows Greenway’s roughly 20 strains of cannabis in her backyard in Santa Cruz herself using organic, sustainable growing methods, pairs carefully selected “hybrid” strains with specific varietals. (At last check on Leafly, there were 1,548 strains of cannabis, categorized as Indica, Sativa or hybrid). She has been making cannabis-wine for several years, but because it’s so expensive and time-consuming (her secret recipe and method involves barrel-aging and extraction for about one year), she can only experiment with pairings and batches one barrel at a time still, at any time, she has about a dozen different tinctures to choose from, and she always has core customer favorites (hers is the Syrah and the Viognier, Ms. Ethridge’s is the Grenache, she believes) on tap.
Every strain of cannabis, like any herb, imparts different flavors and Ms. Molyneux pairs them accordingly with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet, Grenache, Chardonnay and Viognier varietals (she uses grapes from wine-makers who grow their grapes organically, but she won’t reveal their names and says that in five years she hopes to have her own organic wine vineyard). Ms. Molyneux says always use hybrid strains because many people report anxiety or rapid heartbeat after consuming sativa strains and pure indica strains can have a somnolent effect.
“Because of the way I make the tincture, it’s much better for you medicinally than grain alcohol tinctures, and it tastes incredible,” she says. “It tastes just like wine, but you get the herbal kick in the back of the throat from the cannabis. The process of making the wine tincture is also superior to grain tinctures because it’s not heated, it’s just cold-pressed, so the slow process of extraction reacts differently in your body. The TCH in the cannabis isn’t activated in the same way as it is in edibles and tinctures that are heated. It’s slower, longer lasting, and more subtle. You won’t feel the euphoria, it’s more like a full-body and mind happy relaxation. My patients with sleep issues, gastro-intestinal problems, especially Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and anxiety problems have told me that the tincture has helped them enormously. Seriously, two ounces at dinner is perfect, and while it won’t make you sleepy, people tell me it delivers the best night of sleep four hours after drinking it that they’ve had in years.”
Anytime a rock star is involved in marketing a legal drug, interest, both genuine and of the gawking variety, will ensue. Ms. Molyneux reports that they’ve had so many inquires from the whole state, her legal team is currently focused on how to ensure that more people in California can legally access it. “It’s a gray area,” she sighs.
But while her lawyers attempt to slash through the red tape cordoning off intra-state cannabis-wine transportation, Ms. Molyneux is tinkering with a new pet project: “I’m working on a cannabis beer now!” she exclaims. “So far, I’ve made an IPA and a Kolsh, both were incredible. Of course, I am only making them in 40-bottle batches and everyone’s mad at me for not making a larger sampling. As soon as it goes through corporate, I should have some on the shelf.”
The beer will likely be much less expensive than the wine, which averages about $16-$20 an ounce, with a six-ounce minimum purchase. “The cold-extraction cannabis drink is seriously the best way to enjoy your meds,” she says. “It really is just a matter of time I think before other makers around the country will be finding ways to get wine and beer tinctures on the market. It will be good for everybody.”
Ms. Molyneux’s recipe is proprietary, and more than likely requires more gear and know-how than home vintners can muster. While we would never encourage illegal activity, DIY cannabis wine-making is a thing, and recipes are available online, most of which point to an original piece in The Daily Beast. It’s not as simple is garnishing a glass of Syrah with a bud. Aspiring cannabis wine-makers have to actually make wine because it’s the fermentation process that extracts the THC from the wine. Here’s a quick guide:
1. Buy a kit, available online or in home brew shops.
2. Drop 1 lb of cannabis into a cask of fermenting wine. The fermentation process converts the sugar in the grapes into alcohol, and the alcohol extracts THC from the cannabis.
3. Wait a minimum of 9 months before bottling.
4. What you do with that wine when it’s finished is between you, your doctor and your toga.
“I believe that the most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves.”
But do the bottle reviews help to achieve this goal? I would say they do not. In fact, they do the opposite. By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random.
With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb. The best consumers can do is to learn whether their own tastes correlate with one reviewer’s more than another’s.
I believe that the most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review .
For one thing, bottle reviews are not that trustworthy. More than any other beverage, wine is subject to the context in which it is drunk. Perceptions of a particular wine change depending on your mood, what you are eating, the weather, how long a bottle has been opened, how long it’s been in a glass, the temperature of the wine, whether you are listening to music and countless other considerations.
For that reason, reviewers often try to eliminate context by paring away these outside elements. All that is left, and all that is judged, the thinking goes, is what’s in the glass.
Five Weeknight Dishes
Emily Weinstein has menu suggestions for the week. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.
- This coconut fish and tomato bake from Yewande Komolafe yields a gorgeous, silky ginger-coconut sauce.
- This tasty recipe for sheet-pan chicken and potatoes by Lidey Heuck is really nice without being fussy.
- This vegetarian baked Alfredo pasta with broccoli rabe is inspired by pasta Alfredo, but with green vegetables added.
- Kay Chun adds asparagus and snap peas to this spring vegetable japchae in this vegan take on the classic dish.
- You could substitute chicken or another type of fish in this summery grilled salmon salad from Melissa Clark.
Is that a good thing? I’m not convinced. Usually, wines are scored in mass tastings where very little time can be devoted to each bottle. The critics taste, spit so as to diminish the effects of alcohol, evaluate, maybe taste and spit once more, and move on to the next glass.
These sorts of tastings are generally blind, meaning that while reviewers may know what sorts of wines they are tasting — Argentine malbecs, say, or Sonoma cabernet sauvignons — they do not know the producers of the wines.
At The New York Times, we continue to do blind tastings for our monthly wine panel columns. Short of spending a week or so in a particular wine region, tasting a number of bottles is a good way to get a sense of what’s available to consumers. We try to put these tastings in a more general context so that they are not merely critiques of bottles but recommendations of a type or style of wine.
We also limit the tastings to 20 bottles to avoid palate fatigue. Many wine critics will taste far more in a sitting, more than 100 or so in a day. It’s a bit like a baseball team playing a quadruple-header. They might get through it, but the end will not be nearly the same quality as the beginning.
Proponents of blind tastings assert that they free reviewers from any sorts of preconceptions they might have about particular producers. I have my doubts: Reviewers ought to be professional enough to overcome their preconceptions, because it deprives them of useful information that could contribute to their understanding of what’s in the glass.
Yet in some circumstances, blind tasting can be a useful educational exercise. I don’t think it’s always necessary, but our wine panels will continue to do it.
In any case, my bigger issue is with the quick tasting and spitting, which is the only way to get through vast numbers of bottles. Some wines can be evaluated this way, especially commodity wines that have been produced and stabilized to maximize consistency and eliminate uncertainty.
But unlike soft drinks, good wines are not stable. They change continually, and trying to define them at one particular moment is like photographing the sky and assuming it will always look like that picture. It’s one reason I advocate drinking rather than tasting, getting to know a wine over time, with a meal, rather than relying on the quick transitory sample.
Perhaps a better way of making useful recommendations to consumers is to evaluate producers rather than particular bottles. Producers can be assessed for their styles of wine, their methods of production and farming, how they think about wine and so on. Many writers do this already, generally in books (rather than in periodicals) as this sort of evaluation does not have to be repeated with each new vintage.
They can likewise assess importers, the styles of wines they prefer, their ability to find skilled producers for their portfolios, their determination to ensure that wines are properly shipped and stored.
This sort of information is more useful, easier to store and recall, and longer-lasting than the fish-wrap of bottle reviews.
Back when Mr. Parker began writing about wine, his view was that many famous wine producers were coasting on reputations, and that most wine writers of that era were giving them a pass because they enjoyed cozy relationships. Sometimes, the reviewers themselves were members of the wine trade.
The wine world was smaller and clubbier then, with far fewer wines available in the United States. Wine is a much more competitive business today, with more good wines from more places in more diverse styles . The quality standards are higher than they have ever been.
The best way for consumers to negotiate this confusing but pleasure-packed landscape is with some good general knowledge and the courage to explore.
Wine writers have so much to offer beyond the bottle reviews: introducing unfamiliar regions, grapes and producers while revisiting old ones offering critical appraisals of styles and assessing what’s new and what’s ripe for rediscovery.
Many writers are doing this already. But this sort of wine writing is still subordinate to the dutiful bottle reviews, which in the minds of most readers contain only one salient bit of information: the score. Bottle reviews, ultimately, are a dreary service.
Perhaps Mr. Parker’s greatest contribution to wine writing was his infectious enthusiasm. Whether people ultimately agreed or disagreed with his taste, they were inspired to want to find in wine what he so exuberantly found himself.
The biggest gift wine writers can give to their readers is inspiration, arousing in them the sort of excitement that motivates learning. From there, consumers can travel to their own muse, which is the best possible outcome.
The $9,000 Bottle of Wine
I’m in the back row of the steep-pitched amphitheater at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in the Napa Valley. There are 19 glasses of wine in front of me. Not just any wine. The combined street value of the bottles currently in this room runs into the tens of thousands. Standing below me, presiding, is the man arguably responsible for the wines’ stratospheric price tags―wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.
The charity tasting is filled with winemakers who’ve lined up their costly wines with their peers’ for Parker’s comments. And with others who’ve paid $1,000 just for a taste of Harlan, Colgin, and Screaming Eagle. As for me, I’m here to find out if a $500 bottle of wine tastes any better than my typical BevMo splurge.
Welcome to the world of California cult wines. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignons, and mostly from the Napa Valley, they’ve brought an obsessive edge to making great wines, and even challenged the idea of what wine is for: sensory pleasure or savvy investment?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
For tasting participant Bill Harlan, the road to cult status began with the land. Setting out to make a Napa wine comparable to the legendary first growths in France, he spent years negotiating to buy a piece of property with the right stuff: the well-drained hillsides and volcanic soil known to produce great grapes.
Harlan found his perfect plot tucked in the western hills of Oakville. Then he set to the painstaking work of getting the basics―rootstock, varieties, clones, spacing, trellising―just right. Today, Harlan cherry-picks his vineyards to produce fewer than 2,000 cases a year of his namesake label (which sells for $350 a bottle to the lucky few who buy it, untasted, months in advance).
Another cult wine superstar, Ann Colgin, also understood from the beginning how expensive it is to coax even a great vineyard to produce the very best grapes it can. But she added another reputation-launching detail―an inaugural winemaker whose name practically had the word “cult” attached to it already. Helen Turley had made Peter Michael and her own Marcassin label household names―at least in houses with rich wine cellars. As it works out, creating a successful cult wine is like creating a winning baseball team. George Steinbrenner knew Alex Rodriguez was worth his salary. Colgin knew Turley was worth hers.
The cult winemakers have calculated that they can earn as much money selling a few bottles of expensive wine as larger wineries can selling many bottles of cheaper wine. But the success of that business plan requires a final element―publicity, of a specific, discreet, word-of-mouth variety. And ideally from Robert Parker.
There’s no better proof of Parker’s influence than the triumph of possibly the most famous of California’s cult wines, Screaming Eagle, and its then-winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett.
Screaming Eagle’s current general manager, Ursula Hermacinski, remembers when the label went from mere wine to icon. She was a wine auctioneer, and a case of Eagle came up for bid. “It was the ’92, with a release price of $50 a bottle. But the bidding was astonishing―$1,000, $1,500 … The case went for $9,600. I thought, Something’s wrong here.”
What was “wrong” (or right) was that Parker had praised the wine in his newsletter, The Wine Advocate. For the collectors who could afford to buy at the top of his 100-point scale, Screaming Eagle’s status was sealed.
Today, almost every wine claiming membership in this “cult” has consistently earned scores in the high 90s to 100 from Parker. That means they presumably have what some have called “the Parker style”―fruity, lush, deep, round, and ripe.
Back at the Greystone tasting, we’re all waiting to see what Parker thinks of the 19 wines he’s chosen as the California Cults. And we want to see how our opinions of the wines compare to his.
He tastes. We taste. Are the wines three, five, 10 times as good as their $50 counterparts? No. That’s why they call cult wines a phenomenon. But are they good? Yes, and how―powerful, complex, elegant. All harbor the hefty levels of alcohol that distinguish most California Cabernets from their French cousins. But while many possess almost shameless layers of ripe fruit, others are leaner, almost Bordeaux-like―testimony to the diversity, not the monotony, of Parker’s taste.
As for Parker, affable and unassuming, he minimizes his influence over winemaking styles. “Hey, I’m a fruit guy. I’m only one opinion, but wine is made from fruit. It needs to have fruit.” Still, he makes a striking pronouncement, sure to ruffle some feathers in Bordeaux: “I think people need to come to terms with the fact that they”―meaning California Cabs―“are better wines.”
“YOU COULD SAY THE SAME ABOUT A FERRARI”
As for the average wine lover getting a taste of those “better wines”―well, that can be a challenge. Take Screaming Eagle. The Napa Valley winery makes only about 500 cases of its legendary Cabernet each year, and only the lucky souls on its mailing list get to buy them―at $500 per bottle.
Check on eBay a few days after the mailing-list champions claim their bounty, and you may see a bottle or two of the Eagle selling for $900, even $1,300. (Or, for a bottle of Barrett’s ’92 Screaming Eagle, as much as $9,000.) If you’re planning a big night out, you can order it from the wine list at places like Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco and Crush in Seattle―for $1,600 to $3,000.
“Honestly, these high-end wines aren’t for everybody,” says Colgin. Still, she adds, they bring attention to Napa Valley and fuel quality winemaking there. If cult wines seem elitist, says Bill Harlan, “you could say the same thing about a Ferrari. Is Picasso uninteresting because the average person can’t afford one?”
Our picks for the best of the best, and a few other names to keep your eye on
Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. presided over a remarkable tasting on October 25, 2007, at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. The title: California Cult Wines. And the wines: 19 Cabernets and Cabernet blends that he had picked himself―all from the Napa Valley, and all of which have gotten very high scores from him on a consistent basis (read on for the complete list).
SUNSET’S PICKS FOR BEST OF SHOW
They don’t call these wines “cult” for nothing. Except for the Opus One, all of these particular vintages are sold out at the wineries, and some, such as Colgin and Screaming Eagle, are notoriously difficult to find in any corner of the wine market. If you want to splurge on a coveted label, try the wine list at your favorite high-end restaurant, or scope out the market at Wine-searcher.com. (Our estimates of these bottles’ current worth came from Jason Alexander at Vintrust.)
But if your pockets aren’t Grand Canyon–deep, don’t despair. A couple of our top picks from Parker’s tasting can be had for ready money right now, proving that not all great wine requires years of waiting.
Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley). Elegant fruit, with touches of minerals and soy on the nose, gives way to a gorgeous floral palate, layered with blackberries and licorice.
Price at release: $195 (sold out)
What it’s worth now: $350
Wait list? Yes. The winery tries to limit the wait to one to three years, closing the list to newcomers if it seems as though the wait might be longer.
Caymus “Special Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley). Generous oak houses loam and soy aromas, followed by soft, cedary, spicy dark fruit, with hefty tannins underneath.
Price at release: $136 (sold out at the winery may be available at high-end retailers)
What it’s worth now: $160
Wait list? No
Colgin “IX Estate” 2004 (Napa Valley). A stunner―silky, elegant, and clean, with deep mocha, dark berries, and cassis flavors.
Price at release: $250 (sold out)
What it’s worth now: $400―and hard to find
Wait list? Yes, estimated to be three to five years. (There are 3,000 people in line ahead of you.)
Opus One 2004 (Napa Valley). After an earthy, dark, and beautiful nose (Bordeaux-like) full of berries, cedar, and tobacco smoke, the flavors on the palate build slowly and last long, in perfect balance with the nose―bright and silky at once.
Price at release: $180 (current release)
What it’s worth now: $180
Wait list? No
Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville). Pure cassis and a whole forest of cedar intense and balanced.
Price at release: $500 (sold out)
What it’s worth now: $1,600―if you can find it
Wait list? Oh, yes. The wait to purchase this wine is infamous. Six years? Eight years? Every enophile has a story.
Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Napa Valley). Lean and well structured but approachable. A classic dark and brooding Cab, with blackberries and cocoa.
Price at release: $78 (technically sold-out may be available at high-end retailers or the winery, though)
What it’s worth now: $95
Wait list? No
In his bellwether role, Alexander advises keeping an eye on these promising Napa Valley Cabs.
Ghost Block The “ghosts” honored on the label are pioneer winemakers who rest in peace in a tiny 150-year-old cemetery near the Rock Cairn Vineyard this wine is from. The family who makes the wine has harvested that vineyard for at least 100 years. $55.
Maybach Family If you visit this winery’s website to find out about its sole offering―the Materium Cabernet, first released in 2007 for $110―you’ll see this: “Dear Friends of the Winery, Thank you for your interest in the Maybach wines. The launch of our 2004 ‘Materium’ Cabernet Sauvignon was a success and we are currently sold out. Our 2005 Vintage has been bottled and we anticipate a Spring 2008 release.” $110.
Scarecrow Bret Lopez, formerly a professional photographer, has come home to make wine on his grandfather J.J. Cohn’s old Rutherford estate, where he played as a child. $150.
Tierra Roja Vineyard & Winery This wine comes from the reddish hills east of Oakville―starting point for many of the Napa cults. $105.
–Sara Schneider with Elizabeth Jardina
THE COMPLETE GREYSTONE CALIFORNIA CULT LINEUP (in alphabetical order)
Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley)
Beringer “Private Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley)
Caymus “Special Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Colgin “IX Estate” 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dominus 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Howell Mountain)
Harlan 2004 (Napa Valley)
Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Joseph Phelps “Insignia” 2004 (Napa Valley)
Kapcsándy Family State Lane Vineyard 2004 (Napa Valley)
Opus One 2004 (Napa Valley)
Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville)
Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville)
Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Napa Valley)
Shafer “Hillside Select” Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Stags Leap District, Napa Valley)
Sloan 2003 (Rutherford)
Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (St. Helena)
TPG Co-Founder Bill Price Makes Great Wine You Can't Buy
"There's a great joy in creating a product outdoors in one of the most beautiful places in the world," says Bill Price, onetime private equity hawk turned stealth wine mogul. "This morning I was out walking through a vineyard to see if we were ready to pick, and the fog was burning off and the sun was coming up and the birds were chirping. Pretty great way to spend your workday."
Price, 57, one of the founding partners of private equity giant Texas Pacific Group (TPG)—"I was the 'Pacific' part," he says—spent several careers worth of other workdays before following his passion into the California wine business. He controls seven wine brands and five vineyards, but for a player of his stature he is almost invisible to outsiders. There is no William Price Vineyards mega-winery off the Route 29 wine road, or anywhere else. And frankly, if you don't already have a line on his best wines, like Kistler and Kosta Browne, you will have to go to some lengths to taste them. In other words, things are working out just way Price planned them.
Recruited out of Berkeley's Bolt Law School in 1981 by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in LA, Price was recruited out of his comfortable life at the firm—he surfed in the mornings and rode his motorcycle to work—by Bain and Company, where he rose to become partner and co-head of the financial services practice. He left as part of an executive insurrection against the then managing partner on the eve of the Age of Mitt. Then work turned into work: He signed on as vice president of business development and strategic planning at GE Capital, where Gary Wendt was helping burnish Jack Welch's reputation by driving a $400 million business toward $1.2 billion.
GE Capital's relentless culture was a shock to Price's system. "Bain had been about teams, and all just,"—Price hugs himself and puts on this comical faraway, lovey-dovey expression. "On my first day at GE, a fellow executive described it as a place where everybody came through the doors with both six-guns blazing every morning, bullets flying up and down the halls. If you survived, you got up the next morning and did it all over again."
When two former Bain clients hatched a plan to help Continental Airlines emerge from bankruptcy in 1992, Price jumped at the chance to join them, and Texas Pacific Group was born. (Though his GE saga would have one final karmic short-circuit: Among Continental's largest creditors was. GE Capital. When Texas Pacific sought to restructure the debt, the jilted, still-steamed Wendt insisted on Price himself showing up. When he arrived, he found Wendt gazing out the window of his—Price's—emptied-out old office. After a dramatic pause, Wendt, still with his back turned, said, "Well! Is that Mr. Price? Here to steal my money?")
Price was laughing the evening last summer he told the old war stories, ensconced at the corner table in Café La Haye off the town square in Sonoma. But you could clearly see the appeal of showing up for work in a vineyard.
TPG, which Price left as partner emeritus in 2006, was an exciting ride and afforded him a fine life indeed: He splits his time between San Francisco and Hawaii his 90-foot ketch, designed for him by sought-after Dutch naval architect Andre Hoek, had pulled into San Francisco Bay earlier in the day. He shares his office premises these days with his family's private museum of vintage Aston martins, Maseratis and Ferraris.
His old company did famous deals—Ducati, J. Crew, Petco, Del Monte. But it was a mid-level score that actually changed Price's life: the 1996, $350 million purchase of Napa Valley's Beringer Wine Estates from Nestlé. (Packaged with some other winery purchases, TPG would in turn sell Beringer to Fosters in 2000 for a reported $1.5 billion.)
"That deal was transformational for so many people," Price says, recalling Beringer employees who told him they had put their kids through college on the stock. But it's not hard to see the effect that the Beringer years had on him, too: Very likely the beginning of the end of Bill Price, globe-spanning PE scout definitively the birth of Bill Price, California wine man.
He expresses his revelation succinctly: "In the wine business, everybody is passionate about his product. In a private equity firm, people are in it because they like the challenge and want to make a lot of money. But let's face it, they are not passionate about spreadsheets."
As we talk at Café La Haye, we are sipping a bottle of Price's own Three Sticks Pinot Noir. ("Billy Three Sticks" being the nickname hung on William S. Price with a "III" after his name by childhood surfing buddies back in Hawaii.) Its grapes were sourced from Sonoma County's Durell, the most famous of Price's vineyards, and the wine is good, even very good. As he explains, "This is the label I started to express my own vision. Most of what I do is helping other people execute their visions."
There are a fair number of those "other people" these days, given the steady expansion of his portfolio, including last year's purchase (for a reported $100,000+ an acre) of Sonoma's 138-acre Gap's Crown Vineyard. Asked to estimate the worth of his wine holdings, Price will only say "in the hundreds of millions." At first glance, his holdings are something of a mixed bag, a collection of small-to-medium sized labels and wineries and a patchwork of vineyards. But in talking to Price, you see a unifying strategy—a kind of controlled carom shot—beginning to emerge.
Perhaps surprisingly, most of Price's holdings are based in Sonoma County, rather than in instant-brand-recognition Napa. It is a sprawling place, Sonoma—a Rhode Island and a half in surface area—with many versions of cool on offer, but none of them confer Napa-plutocrat-style bragging rights. There is plenty of money in low-key Sonoma County, to be sure, but it is generally not the Next Step in Life for guys with Big Shot-itis.
Price has his own, disarming explanation for his love of Sonoma. "When people ask me why I have seven properties in Sonoma and one in Napa, I say that when I came to Sonoma, the first call I got from my neighbor was, 'Bill, it rained last night and my cow drowned and washed up on your land. Can I come get it?' Back when I was in Napa, the first call I got from a neighbor was a guy saying. 'What were you thinking seating my wife next to so-and-so at your house last night?' Thanks, but I'll take the Sonoma neighbor."
But there's another explanation, too. While Napa is arguably saturated with Cabernet Sauvignon brands elbowing each other aside for market share, Sonoma County still has a frontier aspect new opportunities beckon. In particular, Sonoma has emerged as one of the New World's cutting-edge regions for producing fine Pinot Noir, the wilting belle of a wine grape that made Burgundy famous. And, states Price, "I am definitely a Burgundy man."
He is also a business man, something of a rare bird in the wine trade at his level of sophistication. His Big Idea—really two ideas—is, "To share my business expertise and financial resources with extraordinarily talented winemakers and together create the type of iconic brands that sell direct to the consumer."
The Price Idea is on full display when we drive up to leafy Sebastopol to visit Kosta Browne. Two restaurant workers' shoestring startup in 1997, Kosta Browne was plucked from obscurity by the raves of critics like The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker. Suddenly an outfit that could barely afford barrels was beating back customers with a metaphorical bat. Enter Price, with those "financial resources": In 2009, a company Price directed bought a stake worth $40 million and controlling interest in the brand.
As we pull into The Barlow, a kind of office park for artisans that hosts among other enterprises a baker, a distiller, and a Tibetan art gallery, Price smiles, "I always say that I'll put money on the inside of a winery, not on the outside. I made a little exception for Kosta Browne."
Kosta Browne's "bay" in The Barlow has been converted into a shelter magazine-worthy hospitality space with creamy leather chairs, black and white faux bois ceramic tiles and a professional catering kitchen, all under a soaring, steel-girded ceiling. But the real eye-popper is through the rear door: a hangar-like, 25,000-square foot dream winery.
The winery's level of detail—the placement of catwalks and drains and hose stations and yes, the basketball hoop—is remarkable the level of investment for a small brand, head-spinning. This includes both cutting-edge equipment, like an optical sorter that blows undesirable grapes off the intake belt with a puff of air, and pricey grape-scouting fundamentals. In 2012 Kosta Browne bought 190 lots of wine, sourced from 34 vineyards, to winnow down and eventually craft its 11 Pinot Noirs and one Chardonnay.
And here's the thing: Although the brand produces and sells a generous 20,000 cases, very few new customers ever get the wine—it sells out through the winery's mailing list and to select restaurant clients. "It is kind of weird," says winemaker Michael Browne. "We spend hours showing people around, and they say, 'Great, so where do I buy some wine?' And we say, 'There isn't any.' And they do a kind of double take—'Wait, what?'"
"Yeah," Price chimes in, in mock puzzlement, "How does this business model work?"
Very well, apparently. In a notoriously low-profit business, Price claims that several of his brands enjoy margins of 50% or higher. Call it the Stardust Factor. Labels like Kistler and Kosta Browne enjoy such an avid fan-base (there is supposedly a 10,000-person waiting list just to get on Kosta Browne's buyers' list) that they can charge full retail prices ($70-$90 a bottle in Kistler's case) and cut out the wholesale tier almost entirely. Like the old farm, the Trenton Roadhouse, Price is renovating for Kistler, and the 170-year-old adobe constructed by General Vallejo he is restoring for Three Sticks, Kosta Browne's sleek reception area isn't a public tasting room, but an invitation-only, high-end-customer relationship tool. It is part of Price's dictum that in a hyper-competitive environment wineries have to evolve new ways to create intimacy with their customers, especially when they reach out to them directly.
As a business model it is a balancing act, of course. Since non-list drinkers only rarely bump into a bottle at a restaurant, and those actually enrolled on the Sacred Scroll can't taste before they buy, the model relies on word-of-mouth for fresh customers, and repeated leaps of faith by the old. It is an individualized, consumer-by-consumer process, and wine collectors can be notoriously fickle—hot brands come and go in California. Nor has Price managed to ignite the heat under every label in his portfolio. His Russian River Valley producer Gary Farrell Vineyards, likely his largest-volume brand, operates like any normal winery, selling through multiple channels.
But wine icons aren't built overnight, and Price, the old PE guy, is to all appearances in this for the long haul. High on the list of mistakes he won't make, he says, is trying to hook a wine label to the latest wave of consumer fashion. "This is a very complicated business where understanding the grapes from a single piece of property and how a winemaker wants to use them is a long-term game," he notes. "If you don't stay committed to your vision you are lost."
The passion for putting his own vision to the test still burns. Price recently sought out a 27-year-old Santa Barbara winemaker named Gavin Chanin, whose Pinot Noirs knocked him out, offering a balance of lower extract and alcohol with an intense clarity of flavor not quite like anything else in Price's portfolio. He and Chanin will launch their 50-50 partnership Lutum label this month. Just get your name on the list early.
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Do Wine Scores Matter? James Suckling's retirement from Wine Spectator will tell us for certain.
Toward the end of the workday yesterday, I sent an instant message to a former colleague of mine at Wine Spectator magazine, where I worked for three years. I was annoyed that the Scarsdale, N.Y., retailer Zachy's had a $70-ish price listed on winesearcher.com for a particular bottle I wanted, but when I clicked through to the Zachy's site, I'd be charged a Benjamin.
Like most wine geeks, I think that whatever little nuisance I'm facing at the moment is right up there on the importance scale with financial reform, the World Cup and the BP oil spill. Yet the Zachy's discussion lasted about 12 seconds before my former colleague wrote back to me, "Check out our homepage for some big news. now."
I expected the usual thing that qualifies as "big news" in the wine industry: Grand Cru vineyard sold to Russian oil baron, rich Napa wine icon dies, the magazine's publisher Marvin Shanken passes a kidney stone --that sort of thing. Instead, it was the story I never expected to read: Senior editor and European bureau chief James Suckling, one the world's most powerful wine critics (alongside Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker), is retiring after 29 years at the magazine.
It's perfectly understandable if you don't consider this news on the order of Hetfield leaving Metallica, Big Bird quitting Sesame Street or Joe Isuzu leaving. well, you get the idea. In fact, the cartoonish references are perfectly appropriate considering Suckling's very public jet-setting, Ferrari-driving, Cuban-cigar-smoking, elbow-rubbing lifestyle with rock stars, winemakers and rock-star winemakers alike, often chronicled in his own blog. Laugh all you like (as he can at himself), but in the past three decades, few have had greater influence on the wines you drink, from what's available in your local wine shop to what's on the list at the highest-end restaurants.
Whether you realized it or not with every glass you ordered or bottle you bought, particularly in the past decade as American wine consumption and collection boomed, few critics have mattered more than James Suckling. Buyers of Bordeaux wines for auction, retail and restaurants alike keep a close eye on Suckling's scores and purchase accordingly (William Echikson's tell-all on Bordeaux, Noble Rot, perhaps best conveys Suckling's influence, not to mention his unparalleled work ethic and competitive streak).
Well, according to the story on Wine Spectator's web site, Suckling's primary areas of expertise have been allocated to other staffers in the magazine's New York headquarters. Vintage Port will go to Kim Marcus, who has rated Portuguese table wines for several years Italian wines will go to the very talented Bruce Sanderson, unquestionably the world's most respected taster of Burgundy and Champagne and Bordeaux goes to James Molesworth, who already handles the hefty loads of South America, North America (except for California, Washington, Oregon and Long Island), South Africa and France's Rhône and Loire Valleys. (Decanter.com is covering the backlash by some Spectator readers over the magazine's belief it can cover European wine regions from New York).
The choice of Molesworth is obvious, and perhaps even appropriate in that he and Suckling have uncannily similar personalities. Both are guy's guys, they work hard and play hard, both have the ear of the publisher and both are larger-than-life personalities that naturally ingratiate as well as infuriate. Their professional respect for each other was never in doubt, yet perhaps because of their similarities, the two often clashed internally publicly, before the crowds at the magazine's annual New York Wine Experience, they never seemed to skip opportunities to take shots at each other. (I'll never forget when, at a blind tasting in which the thousand-person crowd at Wine Experience had rated Molesworth's South African pick slightly higher than Suckling's choice of Chateau Pontet Canet 2005, 96 points and No. 7 in the 2008 Top 100, Molesworth declared, "Hey, at least I beat Suckling!")
While some wonder if Molesworth can do as good a job covering Bordeaux from New York as Suckling did from Europe, it leads to a simpler, overarching question: Will Molesworth matter as much?
If his track record is any indication, the stars are aligned. Under Molesworth's criticism, the wines of the Rhône Valley, Chateauneuf-du-Pape in particular, have seen serious escalations in scores, price and prestige among collectors. He's wielded similar influence over the wines of Argentina, South Africa and, most notably, Chile. On Spectator's Top 100 list of 2008, it was the Chilean wine Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta 2005, championed by Molesworth, that bested the highly acclaimed 2005 wines of Bordeaux --scored by Suckling-- for the No. 1 spot. Molesworth has moved other wine markets, so it's only natural to assume that he can be a top consumer advocate and influence the most important region of them all.
But almost like when the New York Times' Frank Bruni handed off the restaurant beat to Sam Sifton, there looms the question as to whether the industry and the general public will take Molesworth as seriously as they did Suckling. In other words, we'll finally learn if there's a difference between the influence of a Spectator score, and a Suckling Spectator score.
With Robert Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter, the scores and notes of Parker himself carry more weight than those of the critics he trusts to cover other regions--no one questions this. The same goes for Spectator: A 95-point score for an Oregon Pinot Noir means something but a 95-point score by Suckling for a Bordeaux wine means everything --millions of dollars, pounds, euros, yuan and rupees exchanged. A Molesworth-bestowed Bordeaux score may not have the same effect.
I have no doubt that Molesworth is up to and aware of the challenge he now faces. Perhaps the younger, U.S.-based, Twitter-prolific Molesworth becoming a brand all his own as Suckling did before him could result in a more unified American marketplace, demanding higher-quality wines and fairer prices from Bordeaux. Or maybe a Spectator score just becomes a Spectator score, just as a Times restaurant review is now just a review, not a Bruni review. Maybe that would be the best outcome since, in theory, that $100 wine at Zachy's would carry the $70-ish price that it should.
My guess: Expect more of the same. If I learned anything in my three years at Spectator, it's that Molesworth loves a challenge and is as much a believer in the 100-point scoring system as Suckling. And let's not forget, Suckling isn't dead--he's just retiring from Spectator, so he might take his pen and palate elsewhere.
Moreover, part of being a connected, engaged American wine drinker these days seems to be measuring one's own opinions against those of the critics, and agreeing or complaining accordingly. Simply drinking wine for the enjoyment of it is a skill many wine geeks--myself included--have yet to learn. And maybe we don't want to.
Cataloging the Wine of Bordeaux
Charles de Gaulle famously lamented the difficulty of governing a country with 265 different varieties of cheese. He could also have mentioned France’s multiplicity of wines but sensibly skirted the subject: the patchwork quilt of French wine production is daunting enough for wine experts, never mind generals. Bordeaux, for example, has 10,000 producers and 57 appellations. How do you decide what’s good, bad or paint stripper in all that? Has anyone mustered the courage and temerity to catalog or classify the wines of Bordeaux?
The short answer to the second question is that many have tried and most have failed. As a result, the answer to the first question is “with great difficulty”. What we have at present in Bordeaux is a hodgepodge of lists and rankings that seek to make sense of—and rate—the region’s output, but which generally add to the confusion.
Since 1954, for example, Saint-Emilion has divided its better wines into two main groups: the top châteaux can call themselves premier grand cru classé (with Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc by common assent occupying a special top niche within that category), while the others are merely grand cru classé. They have a chance to be promoted, because the classification must be revised every ten years, but therein lies the fly in the fermentation—because although producers are happy to be promoted (it generally means they can charge more for their wine), nobody likes to be demoted. Downgraded châteaux fought hard enough that the most recent reclassification attempt, in 2006, ended up in court. The result is that the current Saint-Emilion ranking generally reflects the previous 1996 classification plus the eight 2006 promotions, but no demotions—i.e. nobody loses except the puzzled consumer.
A similar fate has overtaken wines carrying the so-called cru bourgeois accolade created in 1932 by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and bestowed on some 444 leading vineyards of the day. Efforts to update the classification in the new millennium threatened a significant contraction—to 247—in the number of producers considered worthy of the cru bourgeois distinction. Lawsuits from domains facing dismissal followed faster than you can say cabernet sauvignon. The outcome—pleasing no one—was the outlawing of the term cru bourgeois as a designation of rank. Although, of course, châteaux that adhere to certain production methods and quality standards are now able to apply, annually, to use the term on their labels. Clear as claret, no?
So it’s confusion all around, and nowhere more so than with the mother of all rankings—the classification of Médoc wines drawn up in 1855 for the Exposition Universelle de Paris, an exhibition intended by Emperor Napoleon III to showcase France’s artistic flair, agricultural bounty and industrial prowess. He ordered Bordeaux’s wine brokers to compile a list of their best wines but didn’t specify how they should make their selection. Even in that pre-litigious era the brokers realized that a ranking relying on subjective criteria like taste was likely to prove contentious, so they selected their wines on the basis of the prices paid for them over several recent vintages—reasoning no doubt that price was a fair guide to quality. The result was a selection of 61 wines divided into five groups with premier grand cru wines—so-called “first growths”—at the top: Châteaux Latour, Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. At the bottom were 18 fifth growths. It was probably as good a guide to the best of Bordeaux as one could wish back then, but it was no more than a snapshot of the 1850s.
Fast forward to 2010 and the snapshot, alas, is still with us—as dated as a daguerreotype print despite efforts to revise it to reflect the ascendance of some châteaux, the decline of others and the demise of a good few. Many of the châteaux enshrined in the classification no longer work the same vineyards as they did back in 1855 others have been divided and some have amalgamated. And let’s not forget that with one exception—Château Haut-Brion from Graves—the 1855 ranking only considered red wines from Bordeaux’s Médoc region, thus excluding some of today’s stellar performers—Pomerol’s Château Pétrus, for example, or Saint-Emilion’s Château Ausone and Château La Mission Haut-Brion in Graves, all of which are equal to the premiers grands crus and certainly command comparable if not higher prices than the top Médoc wines.
Attempts to update the 1855 classification have consistently foundered on the rocks of inertia and vested interest, and nobody in Bordeaux seriously believes it will be reformed any time soon—if ever. A near-miracle occurred back in 1973 when Baron Philippe de Rothschild, after years of lobbying, managed to persuade his pal Jacques Chirac (then Minister of Agriculture) to issue a decree promoting Mouton-Rothschild to premier grand cru. But few other vignerons have the Rothschild clout and the rest of the classification has remained static as if preserved in amber.
So if the official rankings are unreliable, what’s a Bordeaux lover to do when it comes to choosing wine? The answer would seem to be trusting the experts—the wine merchants and gurus like The Wine Advocate‘s Robert Parker, who know the region inside out and who taste enough of Bordeaux’s finest to be able to provide guidance not only for châteaux but also for vintages. But this approach is not without its complications. Even the experts can disagree, and Parker in particular is a controversial figure whose power, some say, induces producers to make wines that conform to his tastes rather than the dictates of their own terroir.
Wherever the truth lies, Parker is hugely influential: last year many wine merchants were so convinced of the mediocrity of the 2008 vintage that they declined to visit Bordeaux for the traditional en primeur tasting of the new vintage, where judgement is passed and prices are set. Many of those who did attend the tastings judged the vintage to be better than they expected, but the consensus among the cognoscenti was that even the Bordelais, who have a reputation for rapacity, would not be able to justify another price increase. But they reckoned without Parker, who turned up in time to sample the vintage and spent ten days tasting and re-tasting more than 400 of the 2008s. His verdict: “It did not take me long to realize that the 2008 vintage was dramatically better than I expected.” Many of the 2008 wines, he said, compared favorably with the superb 2000 and 2005 vintages. Not surprisingly many of the cognoscenti swiftly revised their opinions, and prices firmed dramatically.
But if they disagree on the merits of different vintages, most experts agree on which Bordeaux are the very best, and in that the 1855 classification still has some relevance. All four of the original first growth châteaux would surely make it into a new classification, as would latecomer Mouton-Rothschild. Many believe that La Mission Haut-Brion from the Graves region deserves a place in the top ranking and a few might argue that Palmer, currently a third growth, could hold its own at the top table. And Ausone, Pétrus and Cheval Blanc from the right bank (north of the Dordogne River as opposed to left bank wines south of the Garonne and the Gironde Estuary) are uncontested stars. Buy them if you can afford them.
It’s lower down in the firmament that opinions diverge. Triage based on price alone, as in 1855, would propel a number of châteaux into the ranks of the grands crus. These include Châteaux Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Bailly, Pape Clément, Haut-Marbuzet and a number of others. But rating a wine is really not just about price. It’s about the reaction—almost chemical—between individual wines and wine drinkers. Bordeaux is not a homogenous region but a complex combination of different terroirs. Merlot is the dominant force on the right bank of the Dordogne—in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion—whereas cabernet sauvignon rules in the left bank Médoc. The advent of a skilled winemaker or owner with deep pockets can make the difference between an underperforming château and a rising star. Fashion plays a part, and so does publicity: in Asia a popular Japanese manga known as Kami no Shizuki (The Drops of God) has such a huge and faithful following that the mere mention of a wine in its pages can cause a buyers’ stampede.
So we thought a little subjectivity would not be amiss and asked three of our favorite experts to select some unclassified Bordeaux they believe are good enough to compete with the classified growths—the sort of wines that Anthony Barne of auction house Bonham’s calls “the likely lads”—wines that perform well year in and year out. His list: Sociando Mallet and Lannesan (Haut-Médoc) Labégorce (Margaux) Haut-Marbuzet and Les Ormes de Pez (Saint Estèphe) Bonalgue (Pomerol) Roc de Cambes (Côtes de Bourg) Maucaillou and Poujeaux (Moulis) and Moulin Saint-Georges (Saint Emilion).
Wine writer Jancis Robinson, of London’s Financial Times, has recently been tasting the 2006 vintage, with results you can find on jancisrobinson.com. Ten of her top-scoring lesser-known wines divide right down the middle, with five from Saint Emilion-Angélus, La Gomerie, L’Hermitage, Pavie Decesse and Tertre Roteboeuf—and five from Pomerol—L’Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur, L’Evangile, Valandraud and Vieux Château Certan.
And finally, Steven Spurrier, the expert and wine merchant who organized the notorious 1976 blind tasting in which upstart American wines outclassed some of France’s finest, has given us his top picks from the 2006 vintage: Phélan-Ségur (Saint Estèphe) Gloria (Saint Julien) Latour-Martillac and Branon (Pessac-Léognan) Joanin- Bécot (Côtes de Castillon) Clos Badon and L’Hermitage (Saint Emilion).
Obviously, expert opinions do diverge—only that last one, Château L’Hermitage, turns up on two out of the three lists. But you can rest assured, all these wines are good.
Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker to Launch Lifestyle Magazine - Recipes
I don't normally do this, but as I helped craft the press release and have inside knowledge of this situation because of my position with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, I am just going to repost the original press release here:
On November 29, 2016, an insect capable of damaging Colorado’s wine grape crop was confirmed in Mesa County. US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service entomologists positively identified grapevine phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) on Vitis vinifera grapevines in the Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is a federally designated grape production area in western Colorado. Phylloxera is an aphid-like insect that feeds aggressively on grape roots.
“Nearly 75 percent of our grape acreage is in the Grand Valley AVA, which stretches along the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction, and is known for its unique environment and high elevation allowing for production of world-class quality winegrapes,” said Doug Caskey, Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Executive Director for the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
In its full life cycle, phylloxera can take multiple forms. The most serious and damaging form, which was recently discovered in Mesa county, feeds on roots of grape plants. It can damage the plant by disrupting water and nutrient flow. Initially, infested plants appear weakened, stunted, and with leaves lighter in color which may look like they are suffering from a nutrient deficiency. In addition, phylloxera can live out another stage of its life on grapevine leaves. This less serious form feeds on leaves that causes leaf galls to develop, but generally not on V. vinifera.
“The Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University are actively investigating the source and working with the vineyard owner to contain and eradicate the pest. Extensive surveying is also continuing to determine the scope of the infestation,” said Laura Pottorff, CDA’s Nursery and Phytosanitary program manager. “Hopefully we caught this quickly enough to protect Colorado’s grape crop.”
Recommendations for Grape Growers
The Colorado Department of Agriculture is urging vineyard operators to contact their supplying nurseries to find out what, if any, procedures they have in place for identifying and stopping the spread of phylloxera. Colorado grape growers should also take the following precautions:
1. Watch plants for symptoms of chlorotic leaves, stunting and other symptoms that mimic nutritional deficiencies. If detected sample the roots of plants for presence of phylloxera.
2. All harvesting and cultivation equipment should be power washed or sanitized between fields.
3. When purchasing grape nursery stock, request that the plants be hot water dipped prior to shipment.
4. Examine and inspect all new nursery stock prior to planting, or schedule an inspection by CDA staff.
5. Consider use of root-grafted grape nursery stock.
Colorado has approximately 150 grape growers tending 1,000 acres of vineyards and more than 140 licensed commercial wineries. These vintners produced 166,000 cases of wine during the 2016 fiscal year, which equaled more than $33 million in sales.
What Wine Twitter Taught Me About Wine
A decade ago, Harvard scientists stumbled upon an important discovery about the universal behavior of bubbles. When bubbles burst, they do not vanish quietly they metastasize. The penetrating force causes the thin film encasing the captive air to fold in on itself, warping into the shape of a donut, before surface tension cracks the donut into a ring of smaller bubbles. Of course, it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to understand how bubbles react to surface tension. All you need is a Twitter account.
In mid-January, New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner posed a simple question to Twitter: What the fuck am I supposed to say to indicate the wine I want from a wine list? Attached was a photo of a wine list, with understandably confusing inconsistencies in what was being denoted: Some entries listed the name of the wine, others the varietal or region, others both.
I am an actual professional restaurant eater and I still have no ducking clue which of the many many words on a wine list is the one word I’m supposed to say to indicate that this is the wine I want a glass of pic.twitter.com/NyINumC6Fz
— Helen Rosner (@hels) January 16, 2020
The seemingly innocuous tweet became a micro-phenomenon the way many viral tweets do: It found the sweet spot of being deeply relatable to many people, and treasonous to an oenophilic few. Responses ranged from:
How is this a wine list and not a Clickhole post
— Tacob Jaber (@jacobtaber) January 16, 2020
(Translation: You are absolutely right, Helen, this list is comically hard to follow.)
I agree with this. This list (a nice one) is a prelude to a conversation. That said, there ought to be a better way to strike up a conversation with customers.
— Pete Wells (@pete_wells) January 16, 2020
(Translation: Yeah, it’s a little abstruse, but think of wine selection like an intro to dance class. It takes guidance, communication and, sometimes, a little hand-holding. )
I have the exact same problem with ordering food. I said three times the other day I want the “pine nuts, garlic”, but no, the snooty waiter insisted I should have said “rigatoni with pesto”. HOW CAN ONE KNOW? https://t.co/zC1Lt4Sq8i
— Peter Pharos (@PeterPharos) January 16, 2020
(Translation: You’re a hypocrite.)
The tweet created space for some wine professionals to reconsider their methods of communication. For other wine insiders, Rosner’s position as a food authority made her judgments ring hollow. “Foodies resent the subject of wine because its complexity undermines their sense of mastery of the restaurant experience,” tweeted wine writer Aaron Ayscough, whose earnest defense of wine’s esotericism cast him as an antagonist in the network of tweets and subtweets, leading him to call the entire ordeal an “oenophobic foodie manhunt.”
From my vantage, Rosner’s original tweet was objectively perfect: There was a little something for everyone to agree or disagree about. Twitter’s wine bubble was forced to confront an outside force and it folded in on itself—just as the scientists said it would.
I am probably one of the “foodies” Ayscough had made note of. There are certainly some sensory experiences I’m more privy to than others, and I feel completely comfortable synthesizing flavors and experiences and histories into a legible mood board. Wine, on the other hand—and the language around its flavors, experiences and histories—has always felt impenetrable. So it was a bit of a delight to realize that, as I dug into the tweets from the many different tiny factions that splintered off in response to Rosner’s question, a nascent wine education was underway. I’d stumbled into a conflict zone that might help me better understand the values and anxieties that define current wine culture. Maybe I could at least begin to learn about wine the way so many people take in any kind of knowledge these days: by diving headlong into Twitter wormholes.
It’s not a perfect means of conducting an experiment, to be sure. Social media as the construct we know it to be today is no more than 30 years old wine, a social medium, dates back more than a handful of millennia. In that time, it has been codified in myriad ways across just about every conceivable academic and practical discipline. It is art and it is biology it is language and it is history. It is an object of obsession, the cause of debilitating hangovers in your misguided 20s, a cultural and generational divide and a thermometer for our increasingly fevered planet. It is a little bit of everything, but not to everyone. That’s the rub. Codifying wine in a way that might serve and support a more general audience has always been something of a holy grail. Or, perhaps, an ultimately destructive concession.
Wine might just be doomed to feel exclusionary. Insecurity is built into the discourse the way anything popularly considered elitist esoterica would be, in or outside the States. In response to Rosner’s tweet, software engineer Kelly Ellis tweeted, “I would immediately find a list like this so intimidating that I’d choose something random in a varietal I already know instead of trying something new, just because I’m afraid of embarrassing myself.” Of course, that sense of insecurity cuts both ways, which gives both novices and experts shields to protect the ego instead of bridges for reaching understanding together.
and (2) when people want to know why people hate wine people, it’s because of that snap instinct to circle wagons and assume everyone doesn’t understand or like us.
this weird insecurity has hurt the wine world immeasurably. we need to do better. that’s all.
— Jon Bonne (@jbonne) January 17, 2020
As I stalked Twitter, I wondered about the man who approached the grail of wine populism: Robert Parker, who more or less constructed wine’s modern mythology over three decades with his industry-changing 100-point rating scale. But the critic—inarguably one of the century’s most influential, in any field—hasn’t tweeted in three years. Still, it feels like he’s remained a vital substrate in the wine world everyone seems to be, in one way or another, responding to the monolith of that influence.
Contemporaries, like James Suckling and Jancis Robinson, who, at one point, may have pushed back against the dogma of Parker, now serve as the new old guard of wine expertise there are the antagonists from the natural wine world, like early evangelist Alice Feiring (whose first book was titled The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World From Parkerization) and Rachel Signer, the creator of the natural wine magazine Pipette. Feiring and Signer, and other devotees of natural wine, advocate for a style and philosophical approach to winemaking that is now as mainstream as any—something Parker called “vinofreakism” back in 2010. Then there are the new antagonists, who skewer the template of wine expertise shared by the old and new guards alike. It’s perhaps best seen through sommelier Adam Vourvoulis’s @natural_whine Instagram account, which freely delights in poking fun at the wine industry’s many pretentions and hypocrisies. (Vourvoulis once co-wrote arguably the most confusing wine list in history.)
These different factions appear to operate largely in silos, each with their own sense of time and priority. There is a bit of whiplash going from, say, a @natural_whine post mocking the way people use modern wine jargon to the Twitter account of a British critic like Tim Atkin (a contemporary of Robinson and Suckling), who spends much of any given year abroad, spending weeks in a region to compile long, detailed reports. Atkin operates as the kind of gatekeeper that wine critics have traditionally acted as, making use of his access by giving the best recommendations he can offer and sharing relevant histories. Experts like Atkin may always be arbiters of taste, but social media has worn away at the sense of gatekeeping. Winemakers can now readily share their own stories without a proxy, a means of communication that shares an ethos with the natural wine boom: It’s easier to tell a story if you have nothing to hide.
“It’s not natural wine the conventional wine people are upset about, it’s the use of technology to push it,” Vourvoulis wrote in an Instagram caption in early February. “Social media has brought natural wine to the future and left the old guard behind as it screams MAKE WINE GREAT AGAIN to nobody.”
But beyond the tweets about vertical tastings and minerality and mousiness, and the Instagram memes about starter kits for the burgeoning natural wine enthusiast, there is a sense that, for once, the dangers targeting each faction in the wine world are one and the same.
The planet’s climate crisis is a problem of the now. Regions of California and Australia, two of the most highly publicized wine hubs leveled by wildfires, are having to rethink their growing practices with future catastrophe in mind. It’s a mindset being adopted even in less-extreme circumstances. U.S. import tariffs are problems of the now. The 25 percent import tariff on wines and other goods from the E.U. enacted in October 2019 has already been disastrous for small importer businesses the mere possibility of the proposed 100 percent tariffs could threaten tens of thousands of jobs as businesses look for ways to cut costs. That isn’t even taking into account the wine sold at restaurants, which will have significant price hikes to keep up with their already narrow profit margins either the consumer foots the bill, or the restaurant closes. The othering and factionalization that can happen within communities are rendered meaningless when the whole is imperiled. (The threat of an entirely destabilized U.S. importing industry was, indeed, used as a cudgel against Rosner’s musing.)
Everyone moved on from Rosner’s tweet within days that’s just how Twitter works. There are real problems that loom over the wine community, and some that require a great deal of intellectual reckoning. But in social echo chambers, folks tend to hunker down, pick a side and spar with the devil they know. Rarely does it end with any kind of mutual concession.
Ultimately, the biggest thing I learned about wine through Twitter is that the predispositions required to stomach social media are more or less the same conditions necessary to embrace wine as a part of one’s identity. It seems impossible to appreciate wine without dipping into at least some of the pretensions of the lifestyle, the same way it’s impossible to get much out of Twitter without appreciating inane joke constructions optimized for the 280-character format. Both realms can feel suffocatingly insular and unintelligible to the uninitiated. But that’s part of the allure, isn’t it?
Watch the video: Wine Advocate Editor-in-Chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW tastes Château Angélus 1990-2016.