Texas Hills Vineyard Kick Butt Cab Estate Texas Hill Country 2012



kick butt cabI’ve been tasting through Texas Hill Country wines the last two weeks.  Texas Hills Vineyard is a highly-regarded winery among the locals and this particular Cabernet has, over the years, received quite a bit of recognition—some call it iconic. I found it to be representative of the middling quality to be found here.

The nose shows black cherry, then a little dusty earth, and finally settles into a flavor profile with prominent cinnamon and clove highlights. It’s pleasant enough but doesn’t exactly leap out of the glass. The medium body palate is juicy and the acidity refreshing but the wine is linear, lacking impact up front and featuring a short finish with very soft tannins that lack grip. Faint apple cider notes on the finish are unusual. The oak is well-integrated and shows off the fruit but there is little to create interest.

This is an approachable wine that is easy to drink but it lacks the bold fruit, depth, and sturdy tannins that premium Cabernet should have. It is a respectable wine but at $25 I’m underwhelmed. It certainly does not kick butt.

Like most of the wines we’ve tasted here it occupies a comfortable niche serving the robust tourist trade in the hills West of Austin; but it doesn’t stand out when compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon from more established wine regions.

I’m camped down the road from that dusty little town with the big name—all because of this little song from Waylon. A comfortable, middle-of-the-road country tune to go with a comfortable middle-of-the-road country wine.

Score: 86

Price: $25

Alc: 13.8%

Wine Tasting and Objectivity


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I pulled together all of last week’s deliberations on wine and objectivity plus several new wrinkles for my Three Quarks post this month. If you think wine tasting is all just a matter of subjective opinion, head on over to Three Quarks Daily to be disabused of the notion.

Budget Wine: The Original House Wine Red Blend American 2013


house wineFamous Washington State winemaker Charles Shaw created this line of wines to bring big flavors to the everyday table at an affordable price. The bottle notes advertise “big, bold, jammy, and smooth”. And that is sort of what you get, although it’s too soft and comfortable to be called bold.

It shows rich blackberry jam wrapped in a light coat of loam with some wood notes and vanilla on the juicy palate. Simple but satisfying up front, the midpalate is lush, smooth and fat but the finish peters off without sufficient tannins or acidity to give it zip. This is not a classically well-structured wine but it has big, juicy flavors without too much overt sweetness and is surely easy to drink. As an everyday table wine to be served with robust dishes it does it’s job well.

52% Syrah, 29% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 4% Sangiovese, 2% Tempranillo.

Pair with the sunny, warm melody of Trey Anastasio’s “Shine”

Score: 86

Price: $11

Alc: 13%

Is Wine Flavor in the Wine or in the Mind Part 2


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wine chemsitryYesterday I linked to and briefly discussed an interesting interview with Barry Smith, a philosopher who works on taste and flavor perception and is a wine lover as well. In the first part of the interview he makes an important distinction between the qualities of wine and our preferences for them claiming that we disagree about subjective preferences but tend to find more agreement and more objectivity if we bracket preferences and focus only on the features of the wine.

In the second part of his interview he briefly lays out a model for how to think about objectivity in wine tasting. But first some background to set up the problem he’s trying to solve. He doesn’t define what he means by “objectivity” but I suspect he has in mind something like this: An objective judgment is a judgment that accurately tracks features of the external world. The question is whether our judgments about wine quality are at least sometimes objective in that sense.

On the one hand, flavor depends on molecules, and taste would seem to be a matter of our sensory mechanisms accurately tracking these compounds in a wine. To the extent a wine taster is accurately tracking chemical constituents of the wine she is tasting objectively. But those who think wine is subjective seem to think our sensory mechanisms aren’t reliably connected to objects in the world. How things seem to us individually is just how things are. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards for judging wine quality according to subjectivists.

It would seem that in order to answer this question about objectivity we need a scientific inquiry that would connect the molecules in wine to the subjective impressions of tasters. But given what we know about the mechanisms of taste, this is a hopeless task. Taste is not a direct perception of a compound but involves very complex mental processes that unite several perceptual modalities into a unified impression of flavor. Taste, smell, and tactile impressions combine with visual and auditory stimuli as well as input from emotions, beliefs, and mood to give us an impression of what something tastes like. It thus seems like flavor is formed in the mind and is subject to a variety of influences unique to each individual. Moreover, the subjective impressions reported by tasters are all over the map and produce  contradictory results not only between individuals but for individual persons from one time to the next. There is room for individual variation because people have different thresholds for detecting molecules and well as different histories, associations, and environments that influence what they taste.

The idea that there could be laws that connect molecules in wine to these unstable individual experiences seems implausible. Yet, in the absence of these law, there is nothing else for wine tasting to be about except how individuals form their own subjective flavor  perceptions. Individual sensory perceptions seem so unstable and widely variable that It looks like the subjectivists have won this debate.

But not so fast.

Smith argues that we should think of flavors as intermediaries between compounds in the wine and our individual reactions to them.

What I say is, you need an intermediate level. We need a level in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions, and this is flavour. Flavours are emergent properties: they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry. Then these flavours are things which our varying and variable perceptions try to latch onto. Each flavour perception is a snapshot of that flavour. We don’t even want to think of it as static: we want to think of a flavour profile: something which itself evolves and changes over time. As a professional taster you are taking snapshots in each of your tastings and trying to figure out what the flavour properties of that wine are that will continue to endure and alter as the wine ages. How would it taste if it was a degree or two colder or warmer? You make predictions and then you can go back and sample it later and say, I was right: I figured that it needed another hour in the glass and needed to be one degree warmer and it would change like this. The thing about which you are making the predictions is flavour. This is what depends on but is not reducible to chemistry. Now you have two tough jobs instead of one, with this intermediate level. One task is to say, what is the relationship between the chemistry and the flavours that emerge. The second task is what is the relationship between individual flavour perceptions and flavours? These two jobs need to be done independently, but they have to reach the same terminus. Having this intermediate level gives you the job of saying how does my individual experience as a taster lock on to flavour, and how does the chemistry give rise to flavour. Don’t try going from the chemistry to perception, you need that middle level.

Smith is claiming that in addition to the objectively-observable, chemical constituents of the wine and the private, individual taste experiences of tasters, there is a third, intermediate object that is just as real as the chemical properties of the wine. This intermediate object is a dynamic flavor profile that each taster is trying to identify, yet is independent of our individual psychological experiences. These intermediaries are caused by the chemical compounds in the wine but there is no purely chemical description of them since they are emergent properties that depend on human  perception. They are the intersection of chemical properties and human perceptions but not reducible to either. Thus, our individual perceptions are tracking something—this intermediary object called flavor that is relatively stable and not dependent on individual perceptions.

The upshot is that individual variations in taste experiences, whether between individuals or between taste experiences by the same person, are different ways of perceiving the same thing. Each taste experience is a snapshot of a larger whole that is the wine’s flavor. Thus no one ever experiences the wine as a whole; it’s never present all at once but transcends each individual taste experience. When I taste apricot or perceive balance, I’m sensing a larger whole that is given to me via those impressions on the way to grasping it as a whole.

How do we know whether our individual perceptions are tracking this intermediate object. Well, we don’t know for sure, but when we make predictions about the wine and how it might be perceived under a variety of circumstances if those predictions are confirmed that is an indicator that we are tracking the wine’s flavor. (It strikes me that if a consensus were to emerge about a wine among knowledgeable critics that also would indicate, without guaranteeing, that we are tracking flavor but Smith does not mention this.)

When the chemical properties of wine interact with human perceptual mechanisms flavor emerges. That flavor is not dependent on my perceptions or your perceptions. If you or I were to cease existing, the flavor of a wine would still exist as long as human beings can taste wine. In that respect flavor is like a dollar bill. A dollar bill is real, as real as a tree or rock. But it’s value as a medium of exchange depends on human practices. If human beings didn’t exist it would just be a piece of paper. Yet it’s value is not reducible to the chemical constituents of the paper nor is it reducible to your individual willingness or my individual willingness to accept it as payment.

So what is the cash value of Smith’s hypothesis? It provides grounds for rejecting radical subjectivism about wine tasting by clarifying what wine tasting is about. Wine flavor is not something that happens within each individual taster. It is an objective feature of a world in which human perceptual mechanisms function in a particular way. When those perceptual mechanisms are functioning properly and sources of bias are reduced that interfere with their functioning there is no reason to think human beings are incapable of accurately recognizing wine flavor. It is difficult to do so and we make many mistakes. All individuals judgments are defeasible and judgments about personal preference have no claim on objectivity. But it leaves much we can say about which flavors are present, whether a wine is in balance or not, has a long finish, is tannic or soft, etc.

Is Wine Flavor in the Wine or in the Mind Part 1


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wine judgingLast week Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic of wine and the objectivity of flavor. I haven’t waded into these waters in awhile so it’s time to revisit the issue.

The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind” . On the one hand, there are chemical compounds in wine that affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms. Those chemical compounds can be objectively measured. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive these compounds. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. Each person’s  response is utterly unique to her and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

The problem with this view that wine tasting is subjective is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating distinctions in wine quality to others. If wine quality was purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find among experts?

The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:

I think when critics say it is all subjective, they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don’t see why critics couldn’t be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can’t they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it’s not to your taste.

This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. Suckling gives 94 points to a wine; Parker might score it an 88. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they often agree about the features of the wine but disagree about whether they like them or not.

For example, consider these two tasting notes regarding the 1990 Chateau Margaux:

JAMES LAUBE: “A tight, hard-edged and unyielding young wine. Some cedar and currant flavors attempt a coup on the finish, but they’re tightly wrapped in tannin. 86 points.”

JAMES SUCKLING: “Slightly dumb now. Ripe, almost raisiny aromas and flavors that develop a minty, menthol accent. Full-bodied and rich with loads of tannins. Needs time. Better after 2005. 90 points.”{Thanks to Bob Henry in a comment thread for these notes.]

“Tight” and “dumb” mean essentially the same thing–the wine is not very expressive. “Tightly wrapped in tannins” and “loads of tannin” again have similar meanings. Suckling mentions over ripe qualities which appear early in the taste experience; Laube focuses on the finish. They are clearly focusing on different aspects of the wine. But the essential descriptions “closed” and “excessively tannic” are shared by both critics. Both agree that the wine needs more time, Laube calling it “young” and Suckling saying “needs time”.What they differ about is how much to discount the scores given these factors. Suckling is more forgiving than Laube. They seem to agree about what they taste. What they seem to disagree about is their preference for wines that are ready to drink vs. wines that need age.

No doubt preferences are subjective; but it doesn’t follow that perceptions are. Of course, critics sometimes disagree about what they perceive as well, but those disagreements are less extreme than some of the commentary would have you believe.

There is an important philosophical question here: Can you separate how something tastes from whether you like it? It seems that we can. As Smith points out, if we could not separate them we could never acquire new preferences. If you hated broccoli as a child but like it as an adult you must be able to separate taste from liking.

That is a persuasive argument although it could be argued that there was just something about broccoli you didn’t notice as a kid that has now come into focus. Did broccoli as a child taste the same as broccoli as an adult, the difference being you now like what you hated in your youth?Or does the broccoli taste different now? I think the answer to this is not clear. Yet it is a crucial question to answer. If we can separate what we taste from whether we like it then we can view wine criticism as involving two aspects; description which legitimately aspires to something more or less objective, and a verdict which will rely much more on personal taste. A good critic then should be able to keep the two tasks distinct and communicate that distinction to readers.

There is much more to Smith’s interview on this topic which I will cover in a post tomorrow.

Wine Review: Soter Vineyards North Valley Chardonnay Willamette Valley 2013


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soter chardFor many years they tried to grow good Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley without much success until they figured out that the California-sourced clones were not a good match for their soils. But since importing the Dijon clone from France in the late 1970’s, the quality of Chardonnay from Willamette has slowly improved and today it seems everyone is jumping on the Chardonnay bandwagon. And why not since Chardonnay sells.

In general, Willamette Valley Chardonnay is crisp, lean, and fresh with modest oak and very little of the buttered-popcorn opulence that traditionally characterized Chardonnay from their neighbor to the South. This bottling from Soter is typical.

White peach and lemon provide a foundation for lovely hazelnut aromas; with aeration the crushed rock characteristic of Willamette Valley really shows. This nut/mineral coupling sets this wine apart.

There is more peach and apple on the taut palate. The medium body still manages to feel delicate until early acidity rushes in and forceful minerality takes over. The  long, mouthwatering, lemony finish is on the tart side but still acceptable.

This is not gorgeous, rich, or complex. With only 13% new French oak (30% used), and only 37% undergoing malolactic fermentation, the winemaker’s aim is clearly to let the fruit speak. It is a wonderful food wine that rocked a plate of pasta with red sauce.

Fresh, lively, and a little sassy but poised–like Tegan and Sara’s “The Con”

Score: 88

Price: $32

Alc: 13.2

Italy Returns as Top Wine Producer



italy wineThe 2015 harvest is over and the International Organization for Vine and Wine predicts that Italy will likely reclaim their position as the world’s biggest wine producer edging out France, largely due to better weather in Italy.  Italy is likely to produce 48.9 million hectolitres, a 10% increase over 2014. France’s production will increase 1%. This despite the fact that domestic consumption in Italy and France is declining and both countries have government-supplied incentives to rip out unprofitable vines.

Spain will remain in the third spot.

As for the U.S., the largest wine consumer in the world, we are the 4th largest producer with an estimated 22.1 million hectoliters, an increase of 1% over 2014

Lindeman’s Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon South Eastern Australia 2014



lindemans bin 45Some Australian Cabs have a distinct aroma of mint or eucalyptus that makes them endearing and unique. This bargain wine has a bit of that character on the nose complementing red current and black cherry aromas with some dusty baked earth and hints of vanilla. A good introduction. But in the mouth, the opening of sweet fruit quickly turns to sour cherry and that tartness persists becoming more and more prominent as the wine evolves on the palate ultimately ruining the experience. The acidity sticks out like a sore thumb. The  tannins are soft but persistent enough to give some length to the peppery finish but the wine is too awkward to be fully enjoyed. With food like a burger or pizza, that sour character is masked and the wine will seem refreshing but I can’t recommend this as a sipper.

Quirky, with plenty to like but, in the end, fractured, like Pavement, from a 1999 performance of Shady Lane

Score: 81

Price: $6

Alc: 13.5%

Peasant Food Texas Style: Chicken Fried Steak


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Peasant food is fascinating. At worst it is inedible. By necessity made from humble, common ingredients often of poor quality, when prepared carelessly it’s worse than fast food. But when prepared with pride and care, it is an attempt to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is nobility in refusing to equate flavor with wealth or abundance and integrity in recognizing that feeding a family means more than grimly slopping  mediocre food on the table.

The countless home cooks through the ages, often living on the edge of penury, who use creativity and resourcefulness to put refined, satisfying dishes on the table are culinary heroes every bit as praiseworthy as today’s celebrity chefs.

In culinary matters, Texas is best known for brisket and chili but its iconic dish is really the humble chicken fried steak—a think slice of cheap steak, pounded with a mallet until tender, dusted with seasoned flour, dredged in a mixture of milk and eggs, and then well-coated with more flour before being fried in leftover grease and served with a flour thickened gravy made with cream or milk. I guess it’s called “chicken fried” because it resembles fried chicken without the bones. The origins of the dish are murky but it was probably invented by struggling German immigrants in the mid-19th Century using the tough, stringy meat from a decrepit, backyard cow to duplicate weiner schnitzel.

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of chicken fried steak—I’ve had too many microwaved patties with mushy breading slathered with a flavorless, pasty gravy while slumming through the South looking for cheap eats. But I’ve never been to Texas Hill Country in central Texas where the dish likely originated and where they still take pride in it. That’s the thing about peasant food. Its made of ordinary ingredients; only love and pride that can make it special. To get the good stuff you have to go where its humble origins still stir the emotions.

So when we pulled into Johnson City to do some wine tasting I couldn’t resist the advertisement for Hill Country Cupboard: Best Chicken Fried Steak in the World (Over 3 Dozen Sold).

Self-deprecating humor is a virtue when selling peasant food.

I don’t know about “best in the world” but the CFS was damn good. To my mind, CFS must meet 4 criteria to be worth eating:

1. Meat that is tender but with some chew

2. A thick, highly seasoned crust with lots of crunch that will stand up to the gravy. (This means fresh oil at just the right temperature to guarantee  crispness)

3. Made- from-scratch gravy, creamy not gloopy, with lots of cracked pepper, I mean lots of pepper!

Hill Country Cupboard’s CFS met all of them. Traditionally it’s served with mashed potatoes and green beans. But I couldn’t resist the country fried potatoes and freshly made frijoles with tomatoes, onions, peppers and epazote. The sides were as compelling as the main.

I haven’t tried the wines yet but at least the cheap eats will satisfy.

Bacon Kills!!!!


baconSince the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced on Monday that processed meats fall into the same cancer-risk category as tobacco smoke, we’ve been treated to thunderous headlines such as this one from the Guardian, “ Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes”. Most of these stories included a statement about how much additional risk bacon lovers were taking on:

The IARC’s experts concluded that each 50-gram (1.8-ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%

Sounds serious. But it’s entirely misleading. I know writers don’t write there own headlines but you would think editors would read at least a summary of the research before they impose this nonsense on the public.

Here is a quote from the World Health Organization’s Q and A accompanying their report:

Q. Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Tobacco
smoking and asbestos are also both classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).
Does it mean that consumption of processed meat is as carcinogenic as tobacco
smoking and asbestos?
A. No, processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as
tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT
mean that they are all equally dangerous
. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the
scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of
risk. [emphasis added]

In other words, WHO has decided that there is now sufficient evidence that processed meat causes cancer and thus belongs in the category of known carcinogens such as cigarette smoke. But this says nothing about how large the influence is on cancer rates or how much additional risk bacon lovers incur.

In fact most of the stories I’ve read fail to explain that 18% increase in the risk of colorectal cancer. I’m no statistician but from what I understand it means this.

Colon cancer affects about 4.5% of the population. But an increase of 18% does not mean your cancer risk goes from 4.5 to 22.5%. It means that if you ate processed meat everyday your lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer goes from 4.5% to 5.3%, an 18% increase from the baseline, not an absolute increase of 18%. Of course, from the perspective of world health, that is a lot of additional cancer. Health authorities are right to recommend guidelines that reduce consumption. But each individual’s increased risk is rather small. It’s a good idea to cut back if you’re a daily bacon hound, but occasional users—meh.

A lot more people will die from the stress of fear-inducing headlines than from eating a little smoked meat.


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