Thursday, March 27, 2014

Judgment at Geyserville

The distinguished panel before tasting


How different is it to taste and review wine with a group of people rather than to sit alone and quietly rate them? I find that it’s drastically different, and that it’s a subject rarely written about. (Like just about every damned stupid thing I write about on HoseMaster of Wine™.) Are the reviews of a single wine writer who evaluates wine on his own, in the privacy (or emptiness) of his own mind, more valuable than the reviews of a group of wine experts who taste and talk about each wine they rate? If you look at who wields all the power in the wine world these days, it seems the single reviewer is far more valued. The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator still have the most clout when it comes to wine sales, at least in the United States, and their reviews are done by individuals.

Yet we all profess that wine, more than any other alcoholic beverage, is a social drink. I may occasionally drink wine alone, but when I do, I certainly don’t drink the best wines. I think this is true of most wine lovers. When you share wine with others who love wine, or simply others whom you love, it’s a very different experience. It’s obvious why that is—wine appreciation is subjective. Every beginning wine jackass will tell you that. But instead of celebrating its subjectivity, we try our damnedest to make it objective. Assign it a number, proclaim it Double Gold, slap a badge on it, make a notch for it in our wines-I’ve-had-sex-with bedpost. We preach subjectivity, but our insecurity leads us to pretend objectivity.

Even when I write my much-loathed Wine Essays, I’m influenced greatly by the astuteness of my wife’s palate. She’s a keen judge of wine, and, in many ways, she’s a lot less invested in it, which brings more candor to her opinions. I’ve always tried to see the good in every wine, tried to hear what it has to say, questioned myself when I didn’t like a wine—what am I missing? I think my wife is simply less burdened, and can forthrightly say what’s on her mind. And say it in a thoughtful and insightful manner. Her opinion carries great weight with me, and certainly influences, and often changes, my opinions. Does that make my opinions more or less valuable? Well, hard to see how they could be less valuable, but you get the point.

When you taste wine alone, and taste them by the thousands, I don’t care who you are, it’s boring. Smelling, swirling, tasting, taking notes, spitting, assigning a number…over and over and over. And with only that one scary and insecure voice in your head to listen to. Wine critics are not superhuman, or without human frailty. If anything, they’re more fragile than the rest of us, filled with all sorts of whims and quirks, agendas and insecurities. This is not to insult them, though I do plenty of that, but simply to put their job and what they bring to it into perspective. Like Gods, we assign them omniscience when they are actually simply indefatigable. We believe them to have superior palates, when they actually have merely superior imaginations and vocabularies. What the best critics have is passion, knowledge, experience, and a capacity for communication. What they can’t ever have is objective or perfect judgment. They’ll humbly agree with that, then in the next breath tell you what you should be drinking.

Of course, neither can a panel of judges have objective or perfect judgment. But it’s a joy to sit and taste wines with a group of very qualified wine lovers. Andy Perdue, who runs the indispensable Great Northwest Wines website and is wine critic for the Seattle Times, offered me the opportunity to sit and taste a dozen Cabernet Sauvignons along with him, Mike Dunne, Dan Berger, and Ellen Landis, back in January of this year. They are writing about the tasting from their perspectives, and here I am doing the same from mine. Ellen has published her extensive notes on each wine already. Mike published his thoughts yesterday in the Sacramento Bee (which, due to some dread and mysterious disease, has suffered : collapse). Andy’s column should appear soon (and it has appeared--go here), and Dan has said he will write about the tasting in his worthwhile email publication Vintage Experiences. We’ll beat this dead horse until it’s Elmer’s.

Andy’s concept was to taste Cabernets from Washington against Cabernets from Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Andy brought four wines from Horse Heaven Hills, speaking of dead horses, Mike Dunne brought four from Napa Valley, while Dan Berger brought four from Sonoma County, three of which bore the Alexander Valley appellation. We tasted (at the terrific Diavola Restaurant in Geyserville, a must stop if you’re visiting the area), discussed and awarded each wine a medal, in the manner of most wine competitions. All five of us judge in a lot of competitions around the country, even around the world, so it’s a comfortable and familiar way to give some kind of shape to the results.

It would be presumptuous to give any kind of validity to the results of our group endeavor. For the most part, it was just fun. These are opinionated, articulate, thoughtful, slightly wacky folks. Hell, they invited the HoseMaster, which speaks volumes. I won’t bore you with tasting notes. I’m perfectly capable of boring you without them. But I’ll share some random thoughts with you, all of which are generally useless.

I am of the opinion that often the best, most interesting, wines in a tasting like this land in the middle of the final rankings. The most polished and least offensive wines drift to the top, often engendering the least discussion and disagreement. I’m not convinced that makes them the best wines. In fact, I think it only makes them the safest wines. Or, from another perspective, it makes them the wines that show themselves the easiest and quickest. I think I am more attracted to wines that make a slow striptease of it, showing one seductive layer after another, but only after some coaxing, and probably a bunch of money. I’ve learned this from years of experience. Some of it with wine. I’m rarely wildly passionate about the highest ranking wines. It’s the ones in mid-pack that usually enthrall me.

Two wines emerged on top, the Jordan 2010 Alexander Valley and the Kendall-Jackson 2010 Grand Reserve Sonoma County. This surprised all of us, especially when we found out that Mike had included some Napa Valley heavy hitters—Montelena, Corison “Kronos,”  Smith-Madrone “Cook’s Flat,” and Antinori’s Antica. I liked both the Jordan and the K-J. So Sonoma County came out on top, at least on paper. The judges’ decisions are final, after all.

Were those the most interesting, most compelling, most discussed wines? Not to my recollection. I was especially fond of the wine that ranked somewhere in the middle—Double Canyon 2010 Horse Heaven Hills. I’d never heard of the winery, but I loved the wine. It had just a touch of herbs, sage I thought, which I adore in Cabernet, and it was silky and elegant. I kept going back to it, a sure sign a wine is compelling. Though you often don’t vote for it as your favorite, the wine that has the least left in the glass at the end of a tasting is certainly the one that was most fascinating to you.

Corison’s famed “Kronos” bottling also finished in the middle of the rankings. I used the word “simple” for it in my notes. That’s certainly wrong, and, frankly, embarrassing. But that’s the danger of tasting but a few sips of any wine. It’s the equivalent of speed dating. You really don’t want to run your life by shallow evaluations. When the tasting was finished and we ordered dinner, it was the “Kronos” that I reached for. I never picked up the top two wines. The "Kronos" is a brilliant wine, a wine that outclasses its judges. And will end up being a trophy wine in anyone's wine cellar.

So what do we gather from this Judgment at Geyserville? In a word, squat. I learned a lot from tasting with such a grand bunch of talented wine folk, but our results were only mildly interesting. Like I have to tell you that.

Ever ask yourself what would have happened if the Judgment of Paris in 1976 had been overwhelmingly won by the French wines? It certainly could have happened that way. Maybe they should have gone Best Out of Three. There’s no doubt the results of that famous tasting changed California’s wine future forever. Would that have been the case if it had been a single wine critic passing judgment? Did the fact that it was an all-French panel make the results more valid? I’d say no to both questions. Did it prove California wines are better, or as good as, their French counterparts? Of course not. It didn’t prove much at all; and but for the presence of one reporter, it would have been as lost to history as our first Judgment at Geyserville most certainly will be. The Judgment of Paris proved only the power of the press, not the superiority of the wines. What did our little Geyserville tasting prove? We like to drink wine in the company of our peers, and eat pizza. Not necessarily in that order.

The more distinguished panel after tasting

25 comments:

gabriel jagle said...

I judged my first wine competition a couple weeks ago. I was with two winemakers that I respect tremendously, and one wine writer. We could all agree on which wines were absolutely terrible. After that, it was mostly just a guessing game.

I really like your take on the experience, and I agree that it is usually the shallow and showy wines that will show best in that type of tasting. I also agree that the Corison wines are brilliant, subtle, and classy; and I'm not surprised that they didn't show well in a dog & pony show.

Regardless, it sounds like you had a good time tasting delicious wine with a good group. Give yourself a gold medal for living well.

PaulG said...

Re: the wife palate. Mrs. G is my go-to palate whenever I am fatigued, bored, uncertain or simply overwhelmed. She tastes wine quite differently than I do, with none of the baggage that weighs down judges and critics. She says she tastes colors (whatever that means). But is she ever good at it! Last night I opened and poured (blind, with no clue at all what I was up to) two wines from my cellar. There was a 2010 'Silex' Vouvray, and a 1995 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva. With no hesitation she sipped the first wine, said "France… Chenin Blanc." Bingo. A bit later I served the second wine. She immediately said "Italy… older… 1990s…" Dear God - I wish I was half as good. And so, I would bet, do most of the members of your extinguished panel.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gabe,
Judging does give you a very different perspective on the subjectivity of taste, a topic everyone yammers about. But tasting with peers, people you respect, does drive the point home. Shitty wine is shitty wine. Those are easy to dismiss. The rest of the wines are then subject to the individual tastes of the judges, and the circumstances of their position in the flight, and many other relatively minor factors. Not so much guessing as trying to hit a hundred moving targets with four different guns at the same time.

But, yeah, the real point was the joy of tasting with very experienced and talented wine folk.

Paul!
How the hell are you? I miss your blog. You had a blog, right?

Professional wine people often bring too much baggage to tasting wines. It's just the way of the world. My wife has tasted a lot of great wines with me, so she knows the difference. Only she doesn't feel any need to be right, or to overanalyze every wine. She just drinks it and usually pins it down with just a few words or two. I have to put it in context, try to figure out how it was made, compare it to previous vintages or comparable producers...all that crap.

So, yeah, she's a better judge than I. Except of people.

Mike Dunne said...

You share your best wines with others? That's novel. No wonder I don't have any friends.

I like your take on the tasting, being candid, putting it in context, and providing the Big Picture while also being personal. And funny: "We'll beat this dead horse until it's Elmer's." Don't be offended; there were other funny lines as well.

I tried to be too analytical, getting hung up on tasting notes, always a mistake. If you want to find the column anyway, go to sacbee.com, find the food and wine tab, scroll down the left column of that page, click on more headlines and continue to scroll. It's a lot of work, I know, but Sacramento is such a hot culinary town these days - restaurants closing as well as opening - that the food and wine news gets updated almost hourly, and yesterday's news is, well, yesterday's news.

In that column, incidentally, I suggested that the same wines be retasted by the same group in three or four years, but that got edited out. With a little age to the wines - and the judges - I wouldn't be surprised to see the ranking turned upside down. Hope to see you before then.

David Pierson said...

Regarding your pics.. that scandal rag Frank once ran a pic of Jabba the Hut and Princess Leah in that gold bikini with the cutline: Alex Frame president of CBC Radio and some woman from CBC pictured exactly here..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Mike,
It was your column in the SacBee that reminded me to write this piece. Tasting with three working wine journalists, I decided my best option was to take a completely different angle. Comparative tastings are interesting, and we've all done hundreds of them, but what you take away from the experience isn't really the order of finish, or tasting notes. It's the social aspect of wine, the fun we had doing it, that is the takeaway. I thought at least ten of the Cabernets were pretty damned good. Then it's just about style preference and price.

I enjoyed the company. Your wife was there, Mike, and I've judged with her. She's good. Who needs me?

David,
The before and after pics just made me laugh, they're so stupid. I Googled "Photo of one woman and four men" and those are two that came up. Music lovers may notice the after photo is of The Platters. Appropriate because one of their big hits was "Great Pretender."

Thomas said...

Ron:

You know that I noticed the Platters. Yes, The Great pretender was among their hits, but how did you manage to find a picture of the group when Zola Taylor was in the lead? She didn't sing lead often, at least not on their early hits. But I digress.

When I produced commercial wine, I always brought my latest "discovery" to my wife so that she could taste it and put me back in my place.

It's interesting, but after a recent to-do over at Wark's place, I was thinking about how what Maynard Amerine was trying to accomplish with the 20-point evaluation scale is so vastly different from what has become of wine evaluation. His main concern was to identify what constituted quality, not how best to score for marketing.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thomas,
It was simple luck that Zola Taylor came up in my Google search. But when I saw it was The Platters, I had to use the photo. Yes, I knew you'd spot them.

I'm never going to get involved in a debate at Wark's place. No one ever concedes anything to anyone else over there--it's the old wisdom that when one Poodle starts barking, they all start barking.

Amerine's scale was meant to be precise, and to measure the components of wine in order to find ways to improve it, or uncover where the winemaker went wrong. The 100 Point Scale is shorthand for avoiding all that. It does simply stand for an opinion, the opinion, usually, of one person. So it has the same value as a Tweet. Which is to say, very little to no value. Twitter isn't going away either.

Drew M. said...

Sounds like a great night. Not surprising that the '10 Kronos finished mid-pack here. If I have learned one thing in the years since I first tasted Cathy's wines, it's that there is little more rewarding than letting them sleep for a while.

Thomas said...

Ron:

Another phenomenon of wine evaluations is that dessert wines seem often to trump all others.

Re, the Platters: by the time they were through, there must have been half a dozen different groups called The Platters. It was a legal mess. I hate to admit that I am old enough to have seen the group perform at Alan Freed's show at the Brooklyn Paramount--barely old enough, of course.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Drew,
Agreed. But my own tasting note on the Corison could not be more embarrassing, and that was my point. Bloggers tend to glamorize these sorts of blind tastings, pretend that there is great value in the results, try to gain attention for their breathtaking wine tasting skills, when it's always something of a crap shoot. Those of us who have done this for a living recognize their ploys. It's something of a shame that newcomers to wine don't get to see behind the curtain very often. Thanks for chiming in, Drew.

Thomas,
I hate judging dessert wines. I have so little use for them, and, as you note, tasting panels tend to overvalue them.

Can't say I ever saw The Platters, but it's cool that you did. I still like "Great Pretender" for its fabulously maudlin lyrics and background vocals. Just a classic 50's song, very McCarthy era.

Thomas said...

Ron:

I didn't mind judging dessert wines, but I did take note how so many judges acted as if they had been waiting a lifetime for that category to arrive. I guess, like consumers, wine judges claim to like dry but drink sweet.

One type of wine that drove me nuts was sparkling red wine. It's like the kitchen sink thrown into a bottle--tannin, acid, bubbles, some sugar, ML, and on and on.

You ought to hear me play "Great Pretender" on the piano--or maybe not.

Did you know their first hit, "Only You" was originally written for the Ink Spots? No, I never saw the Ink Spots! Maybe Charlie Olken did.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thomas,
Maybe if competitions had you judge dessert wines first, rather than after four flights of Petite Sirah or Nebbiolo, they wouldn't be so overmedaled. I don't mind judging them if they come from a place where dessert wines are understood, Sauternes or Niagara or Australia, it's judging the rest of the garbage that nauseates me, I think.

I didn't know that about "Only You." As for the Ink Spots, hell, hardly anyone even knows what ink is any more.

Dean Tudor said...

Holy cow!! A very serious blog entry...congrats on joining the mainstream, Ron...

I often taste with my wife, who has no palate memory but does know how to taste, and can give me copious notes "of the moment" before she forgets. Otherwise, she can barely distinguish later between red and white wines...

In competitions, I've found that we can all agree on the losers, no problem. Yet, when we must declare a winner, we have to wax on about its strengths, etc. Pfui.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dean,
Oh, I can do serious, I just can't stand to read it when I'm finished. I sound like the kind of blogger I constantly insult. I should do a parody of myself. Plus I always think that Washam being serious is as pathetic as the "serious" wine writers occasional attempts at comedy. But a piece like this is a nice break for me from the pacing and rhythm of satire, which is far more demanding. The challenge with a piece like this is to make it interesting--a challenge I seem to have lost.

One wine expert in any family is plenty. And the talk about most of the wines my wife and I drink lasts about 30 seconds, which seems to be sufficient.

Wine judging is great fun, but, alas, also great, as you so eloquently put it, Pfui.

wine man boy said...

I like your wife's uvula better.

Charlie Olken said...

I see that our buddy, Mr. P, has carried out debate from Mr. Wark's site over here. I'm not biting, Thomas.

But as to the UC Davis 20-point system, it may not have been about marketing, but then neither is any other system. It is all about information.

And, when done blind, then some of the results that we see in print are just plain non-reproduceable unless one does as Ron just did and filter the information through the knowledge that comes when the wine is revealed.

This last move of Ron's, and frankly of most of us who do blind tastings, is both useful and scary. Useful because when a wine like Corison, or Gary Farrell Chardonnay or a Zin blend tasted with varietal Zins are revealed, we learn something more, and that is where intelligent use of background comes in.

But scary because if one can change one mind after seeing the wine, then why taste blind. And if blind tasting is better than tasting with labels showing generally, then where does this circle end.

My answer is that it ends with the writer of the evaluation. Do we agree or do we find a pattern of favoritism for fancy labels or certain styles?

So, Ron, thanks for the comments, but how do we know that you were right or wrong the first time or the second time. We don't. We either trust you or we do not.

Before answering, remember that we have tasted together.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy,
I suppose the real question is whether I trust my own first answer, not whether you or anybody else trusts it. And the answer to that question is, not really. Wine is such a moving target. And tasting with you and Stephen certainly taught me to understand that just as wine changes with airing, so do opinions. Doesn't that make sense?

And since the evaluation of wine is universally admitted as subjective, isn't favoritism a norm? Even if you don't see the label, Charlie, I've seen you recognize the producer as one you like. And you're not wrong that often about that, I'm sure. So "blind" is, in some sense, a denial of your experience and tasting acumen. If I hear a bunch of singers without knowing who they are, I'm still going to recognize Ella or k.d. or Susie Arioli, and love them accordingly.

I mentioned the Corison gaffe only to illustrate fundamental human stupidity--something not given enough weight when we rely on the 100 point charade.

When all is said and done, I admire what you do at CGCW. And like the measure of great wines, you have the track record. I'm just a piker.

Andy Perdue said...

Nice photos, Ron. Thanks for making me look skinny.

Vin de Terre said...

My cat is a keen judge of wine. I proffer my glass, and the longer her nose twitches before she loses interest, the better the wine. Wish I could read her notes.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Andy,
And nicely tanned, too.

I'm trying to figure out which guy I am in the first photo. One of the ones with his pants pulled way up, I hope.

Hey, did you publish your thoughts on the Geyserville affair? I haven't seen them if you have. Let me know and I'll put in a link to it, which should get you at least six hits.

Vin,
I don't have a cat. Though ranking wines on a Pussy Scale has some appeal to me. 89 Twitches and one big Furball might be a nice score.

Thomas said...

Cats don't like Sauvignon Blanc because it smells to them like human pee.

redmond barry said...

So you've sent your CV to Diego?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'd reply, but I haven't the foggiest what you mean, Redmond Barry. Do you mean CV to Diageo? Or 105 to San Diego? Those make about as much sense.

But, hey, thanks for commenting.

Charlie Olken said...

I think he means Diego Garcia.

He either wants you to go there, or he means some failed left-handed pitcher who can neither throw strikes nor make jokes.

Man, anybody can be a tater here, no matter how common.