Wine Review: Woof n’ Rose Cabernet Franc Reserve Ramona Valley 2009

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woof n roseLamenting his wife’s death and the collapse of his carefully laid plans, Macbeth famously complains “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

A “walking shadow” was an understudy in a play, not quite good enough for the main role, who finally gets his chance to shine only to be forgotten after the star returns.

Cabernet Franc is the “walking shadow” of the wine world. In France, it has traditionally been an understudy to Cabernet Sauvignon. As an early ripening grape, in Bordeaux it has been used as part of a blend in cool years when Cabernet Sauvignon struggles or when its floral notes are desired to add complexity. Only in cooler regions such as France’s Loire Valley does it routinely appear as a stand-alone varietal, but it typically lacks concentration and takes on green vegetal notes that many wine lovers find unpleasant. So it remains a minor player in the global wine market.

But new, upstart wine regions don’t have to play by the old rules and their unique soil and climate conditions enable new expressions of traditional grapes. Washington State, New York, and Virginia are turning out interesting versions of stand-alone Cabernet Franc. It won’t replace Cabernet Sauvignon in the hearts of wine lovers but perhaps it can earn a more prominent niche for itself.

We should add San Diego to that list of places where Cab Franc flourishes.

As I taste through San Diego County wines, I’ve found several interesting versions of Cabernet Franc. This one by Woof N’ Rose is especially noteworthy—it is sheer power and intensity in a glass but with a unique flavor profile that sets it apart.

The scent of black plum stays in the background lurking behind earth notes of loam and wet leaves. Distinctive hazelnut aromas, unusual in a red wine, are prominent, set off by vanilla notes and a bit of acetone. This is a very complex and interesting nose. On the palate, black cherry and coffee meld with rich caramel, a barrage of flavor supported by a stout and muscular mouth feel with chewy, dry, somewhat woody tannins driving a long finish. This complexity reflects a very serious oak program, a blend of French and American oak.

Big, bold, and a bit edgy,  I wouldn’t call it elegant, but if you want power and complexity you got it .  A long way from the wan and winsome offerings from the Loire Valley, it is no “walking shadow” and deserves a star turn of its own.

As with most of the boutique San Diego wines, the best place to find this Cab Franc is at the winery, where Stephen and Marilyn Kahle will take you through their impressive lineup that includes some lovely blends and a very good Grenache. Tasting is by appointment only.

 

Score: 90/100

Alc: 16%

Price: $24

Budget Wines: Puerto Viejo Malbec 2012 Mendoza

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puerto viejoA unique approach, more old world in style, and a change of pace from all the soft, round, sweet Malbec on the bottom shelf. Berry aromas, dusty earth, and wood notes on the nose.  The berry and coffee flavors on the medium-weight palate are quickly consumed by dry, dusty tannins that drive the medium length finish. Good intensity but a bit austere in the mouth compared to most supermarket wines.  Produced by Bodega Viñas de Vila, a large Argentinean producer in Mendoza.

Recommended if you’re looking for something a little different.

Score: 84/100

Ave. Price: $8

Alc: 14%

What is Good Taste? (and another bottle of Pinot)

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empty bottlesA few weeks ago I posed the question what is good taste, without making much progress on the topic.

It can’t be merely a sense for what is appropriate given contemporary social conventions because people who are alleged to have good taste, artists and critics for example, often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.

But one of the most popular philosophical theories of taste—the causal theory suggested by David Hume in the 18th Century—also seems inadequate. Hume thought of good taste as the ability, acquired through practice, to detect the features of a painting, piece of music, or wine that cause us to feel pleasure. But no list of features will adequately explain aesthetic judgments. To use winetasting as an example, a wine’s quality involves concepts such as structure, balance, complexity, and intensity which produce even more abstract qualities such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. But no list of facts about an object, regardless of how subtle or difficult to discern, will fully explain why we experience a wine as balanced or delicious.

Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It’s not like picking out oak flavors. It’s a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?

I think Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, gets us closer to an answer. When I judge something to be beautiful, I do so because I like it. But what about it do I like? For Kant, the pleasure I get from a genuinely beautiful object does not lie in the fact I find it agreeable. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.

Interpreting Kant is a rather perilous journey but I think he has in mind something like this.

A beautiful object is striving to represent an order or unity that cannot be fully articulated. There are no words or aesthetic principles that can fully describe it.  Contra Hume, we can’t simply point to a set of features that cause pleasure because that will not capture what is unique about a particular work.  So we can’t understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or tax returns that have determinate, repeatable features. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. Yet there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can’t mean anything we want it to mean. We have to search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object while never quite succeeding. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, when the work has an order and unity to it that we sense but can’t describe.

Of course, some objects won’t repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we’ve come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. But according to Kant, an object is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. The object has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it. Beautiful objects inspire us to dream up new principles because no principle is adequate to grasp it.

Taste is therefore our ability to determine whether an object is worth reflecting on, whether it will repay our attention and produce endless fascination. A person of good taste discovers new patterns to explore,  finds unexpected avenues of meaning, and responds with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something.

So what do we discern when we identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? Perhaps these are clues to the presence of some new, unexplored facet of the wine that encourages exploration. But there is something that doesn’t seem right about this. Don’t we revel in the deliciousness or elegance without worrying about where it is taking us.  Kant’s view seems too intellectual, too bound up with understanding to account for our fascination with the sensuous surface of things, the pure enjoyment of appearances.

So I fear we are not quite there in our pursuit of good taste.

Maybe if I open another bottle the answer will become clear.

Bordeaux Bashing! Is It Justified?

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bordeauxWell, what if your neighborhood market increased their prices 200% over ten years. They might come in for a little criticism.  An average release price for 1st growth Bordeaux wines in 2000 was $424. By 2010 the average release price was around $1000 per bottle and will be substantially more when they are ready to drink. Bordeaux has priced themselves out of the market of wine lovers and are now chasing the nouveau riche in Asia, who are looking for status symbols. So some Bordeaux bashing is well deserved.

But Bordeaux also comes in for criticism because of its unique ranking system. In 1855, in preparation for a world exposition, wine merchants ranked “left bank” Bordeaux properties according to the price of their wines and the vineyards’ reputation. First growths were the most expensive and celebrated, 5th growths were the least so, although worthy of being in the game. (The “right bank” was excluded and they now have their own classification system) If you weren’t on the list, marketing your wines was a challenge. It is remarkable that the ranking, with only minor modifications, is still in use. Despite the fact that vineyards have changed ownership, generations of winemakers have come and gone, tastes have changed dramatically, and so has the weather, the Bordelais still use this ranking system to determine price and quality.

Is this classification still relevant? The Wine Elite and the San Diego Wine Society fearlessly came to the rescue last Saturday, setting out to answer this question with a blind tasting. We tasted five Bordeaux wines each from a different growth. Limitations of budget and availability prevented us from tasting wines of the same vintage so there are limitations to this “test”. The five Bordeaux were as follows:

1st Cru   Château Margaux 2004

2nd Cru Château Durfort Vivens 2010 (Margaux)

3rd Cru Château Langoa Barton 2003 (St. Julian)

4th Cru Château Brainaire Ducrux 2006 (Pauillac)

5th Cru  Château Haut-Bages-Libéral 1995 (Pauillac)

Are these classifications even a rough guide to wine quality? Well, clearly the Chateau Margaux is worthy of its status. Although 2004 was an average vintage, this beautiful wine has the classic Margaux elegance with lovely floral notes to offset the rich blueberry flavors and dry, silky minerality. But the 2nd Growth from Durfort Vivens was a bit of a puzzle. Plenty of intensity and lots of earth notes but rough around the edges—the acidity and tannins were not integrated. This wine needs 5 more years in the cellar but it has the stuffing to age well.

The 3rd and 4th growths were similar with black current and leather aromas and a soft, supple palate. But the Langoa Barton had more weight and presence than the Brainaire which seemed flat and a little dull and neither had the power of the (still young) Durfort Vivens.

The surprise was the 5th Cru Haut-Bages. Despite its age, it has plenty of fruit left mixed with mushroom and pencil lead, and a refined palate with soft, round tannins. This wine displays all the virtues of even a moderately priced, well-aged Bordeaux.

So what conclusions can we draw? It is difficult to compare wines of such sharply varying vintages and this is too small a sample to count as more than a single data point. But with one exception, I thought the ranking of these Chateaux conforms to their quality level. (There was of course a good deal of disagreement on that point among the participants.) The one exception?  I suspect the Haut-Bages deserves better than its 5th Crus rank. Yes it is hide bound, officious, subject to corruption and surely inhibits creativity, but this ranking system is not without its virtues. It preserves the focus on terroir which the French value highly and, if you know the system, gives consumers a good idea of what is in the glass.

I came away from this tasting with the thought that Bordeaux will be back. It is widely reported that, with the wine market now a global market brimming with quality wine from all over the world, wine lovers have moved away from the staid, over-priced Bordeaux. They do have to get their pricing in line with global markets. But this tasting brought home to me the fact that Bordeaux wines exhibit a distinct style that is not duplicated anywhere else in the world. There is nothing like a well-aged Bordeaux.

To break up all this “dirt and acid”, 5 other wines were included within our blind tasting. But there was never any doubt when we were tasting one of the Bordeaux. I suspect wine lovers after traveling far and wide will still want to sample that dirt and acid from time to time.

The other 5 wines were:

Le Pont 2010 Bandol

Pierre Amadieu 2011 Vacqueyras

Nada Fiorenzo Barbaresco 1998

La Conreria Priorat 2009

Windsor Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Estate Reserve Sonoma

Budget Wine: Smoking Loon Red Loonatic Red Wine Blend California NV

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smooking loonRed Blends are the new black. All the big wineries are making them, and their sales have been on the upswing for several years.  Although some of the best wines in the world are blends, this new breed of supermarket blends are  inexpensive and have the reputation for being sweet. They are aimed at a younger crowd just graduating from drinking soda pop.

Given that reputation, I’ve ignored them. But I’ve always respected Smoking Loon, a brand of budget wines made by the Sebastiani family, so I decided to finally try this one, which is a blend of nine grapes led by 28% Syrah.The results are decidedly mixed.

This wine is as aromatic as any inexpensive red I’ve come across. Dark cherry, smoke, dark chocolate, vanilla and cedar notes compete for attention; a very interesting nose. But for anyone accustomed to dry wine this is hard to drink.

The soft, fruit-forward palate gives way to big, cloying caramel flavors, and some awkward acidity that turns the finish sour. There are no tannins to integrate the acidity; the wine is seriously out of balance.

At 16 g/l of residual sugar this wine should carry warnings about tooth decay. If you have just discovered adult beverages then congratulations and give this a try. But it is just too sweet for anyone accustomed to real wine although it might pair well with ribs smothered in barbecue sauce.

Score: 80/100

Price: $5-$10

Alc: 13%

Why is Wine Extraordinary?

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old bottlesIt is not just a beverage but a revelation, almost a spiritual experience for some people. For others, wine is a subject that commands years of deep and sustained attention. Why?

David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:

A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…

“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …

Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.

The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.

But there is something missing in this explanation.

It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.

But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.

Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?

Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are  beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.

Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone  was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.

Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.

Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.

It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.

Some Really “buggy” Winemakers

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microbesWe know soil influences the taste of wine. Expert tasters can identify the region a wine comes from by identifying taste components, and wine sourced from vineyards with the same weather often has a significantly different flavor profile. But scientists are not sure how soil influences the wine, and the scientific consensus has changed over time.

Will Lyons has a quick summary of the evolution of the science of terroir:

…in the late 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was that the vine’s roots acted as a sort of vacuum pump, sucking up nutrients from the ground, thus giving the wine its distinctive mineral character. In the recent update of his book “Wine Science,” biologist Jamie Goode highlights the process of cation exchange, whereby roots trade hydrogen ions with cations attached to negatively charged soil particles.

But recent studies have focused more on the importance of vines’ water retention, saying that constant access to water—but not too much or too little—is the key to producing good wine.

More recently, scientists have shifted their attention to soil microbes. This report from last November summarizes research from a UC Davis team:

They found that the structure of the microbial communities varied widely across different grape growing regions. The data also indicated that there were significant regional patterns of both fungal and bacterial communities represented in Chardonnay must samples. However, the Cabernet Sauvignon samples exhibited strong regional patterns for fungal communities but only weak patterns for bacterial communities.

Further tests showed that the bacterial and fungal patterns followed a geographical axis running north-south and roughly parallel to the California coastline, suggesting that microbial patterns are influenced by environmental factors.

Taken together, these and other results from the study reveal patterns of regional distributions of the microbial communities across large geographical scales, the study co-authors reported.

One group of microbes was associated with chardonnay musts from the Napa Valley, another from  Central Valley and a third from Sonoma. We can’t infer a cause from a correlation but the correlation is striking enough to be interesting.

Maybe it’s not the crisp, flinty taste of limestone we detect in that Chardonnay but the influence of some “creepy crawlys” with long Latin names. Tasting notes of the future might extol the buoyant, infectious flavors of  Clostridium Achromobacter

Melville Estate Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2012

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melville chardA good wine is kinetic, moving about the mouth in undulating waves of  complementary flavors. This Chardonnay from the western side of Santa Rita Hills has that cool weather dynamism that defines the newer breed of California Chardonnay.

Slender and lean but brisk and full of vigor, the Melville has a wonderful evolution on the palate.  Nutmeg and hazelnut succeed fleeting apple flavors until they too give way to swelling tides of minerality, ending in a powerful, persistent finish as satisfying as you will find on a white wine. The nose shows floral notes, sea breeze, and lemon prevailing over the standard roast pear and red apple which appear as background notes.

There is no malolactic fermentation to round off the flavors and the use of neutral oak keeps the vanilla and butter in check. A little steely and uncompromising. Poised, self-possessed and focused without being overly friendly, yet reeking of quality like Lady Mary of Downton Abbey.

I love this wine.

Score: 93/100

Ave. Price: $23

Alc: 14.5

Budget Wine Review: Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 California

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bogle zinBogle, as usual, hits the mark with this one, with grapes sourced from old vine vineyards in the Sierra Foothills and Lodi.

Good intensity but with some alcohol on the nose. The trade-off is a melange of lovely baking spice notes, red licorice, and bay leaf, with vanilla surrounding the black cherry core. There is enough fruit to leave an impression of sweetness but savory wins the day.

Very light and svelte on the palate for Zinfandel. The elegant, vivacious mouthfeel, crisp acidity and soft tannins make this a crowd pleaser, despite a short finish. If you’re not a Zinfandel fan try this. You might change your mind. There is not a hint of overripe fruit that often mars this varietal.

Score: 88/100

Price: $8-12

Alc: 14.5%

Should the Wine Critic Be Blind?

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blindtastingsmall1Blind tasting, in which the person tasting the wine is prevented from knowing the producer and/or price and in some cases the variety and region, is thought to be the gold-standard of wine criticism because it preserves objectivity. But some features of a wine cannot be evaluated without knowing variety and producer. You can’t evaluate whether a wine is typical of its variety or consistent with a producer’s style without knowing these facts.

Fred Swan at Norcal Wine produced a terrific summary of the pros and cons of tasting blind. Some critics taste blind and other’s don’t

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

Steiman is worried that a critic with an agenda or theory about what wines are best is likely to be biased if tasting non-blind.

But other critics are concerned that blind-tasting excludes important information that users of the criticism want to know:

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

I have found blind tasting to be important in training one’s skill as a wine taster. It forces you to really concentrate on what you’re tasting because you are grasping for any scrap of information your senses give you. But I have also found that when tasting blind, I devote so much attention to trying to guess region and varietal that I focus less on quality, which is not a good thing for criticism.

In the end, whether blind tasting is useful or not depends on the purpose of the review. As Swan notes, consumers looking for a good buy benefit if the critic is blind. On the other hand, high-end collectors looking for age-ability and the track-record of a wine need reviews that are non-blind, as do consumers who want to know the story behind a wine.

As for me, on this blog I taste non-blind. That is in part for logistical reasons. It’s a huge challenge for one person to set up blind tastings, not to mention the cost involved in opening 5 or 6 bottles simultaneously.

But more importantly, Edible Arts considers wines as works of art. And I’ve never heard of a film, art, or music critic who evaluates works without knowing as much as they can about the object of their review. All art evaluation requires judgments about how a work compares to others in its genre, how successful it is as a manifestation of its style, what it says about trends, and most importantly what the work means and how the aesthetic features of the work contribute to its meaning.  None of these judgments can be made without knowing who produced the work and what the appropriate categories are for understanding it. Knowing what the work is attempting to achieve is essential for judging whether it achieves it aim or not.

The same holds for wine. Without knowing the varietal, the region, and the producer it is hard to know what the wine is aiming for and what the flavors and textures mean. The winemaker’s vision will in part be a product of where the grapes are grown, the style in which she chooses to make the wine, etc. Whether the wine is successful or not depends on knowing those facts.

Furthermore, unlike most critics, I do not taste many wines in one day. I focus on one wine and how it evolves over the course of an evening and how it  drinks the next day as well, and always in a quiet place with no distractions. I want to see the wine from as many dimensions as possible. It is not at all clear to me how this tasting regime mitigates worries about objectivity. It seems to me the more you taste a wine, the better your chances of uncovering mistaken impressions one gets from an initial tasting.

But at any rate, for my purposes, this multi-dimensionality is more important than objectivity. And that requires non-blind tasting.

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