Thursday, March 23, 2017

Giving Wine a Pop Quiz

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 14 - 2010

Wine, even basic-yet-tasty wine, really fascinates me. This is why I loathe the 100-point scale for assessing wine. Scoring wines in this way is…you know, I can’t actually say what I’m thinking, because I want this to remain a family-friendly site.... Okay, how's this: giving wine a numeric score is the crowning achievement of the boundless limits of superficiality. Before someone raises the alarm and I have to start stuttering and backpedaling, I should say that those who engage in this practice are not themselves superficial (to my knowledge). My issue is that, even if you read the tasting note (which is supposed to illuminate the score), grading a wine so specifically is a perfunctory way of taking stock. Sounds like a paradox, I know, considering that spending the time and mental energy to award a score ought to allow you to get lots out of the wine, but it fails to take contextual usage into account. Does anyone--other than a wine critic--drink wine with a mind to a hierarchical score? Even wine critics (well, most of them, anyway) don't do this for pleasure. I can tell you what we (since I suppose I’m one, too) do is compartmentalize: we taste through a whole lineup of wines as a part of the job, little sips and sniffs at a time, no food, except for the occasional piece of bread or a cracker. For good old fashioned joy, however, we just pop the cork and go. Wine is (and has always been) meant for that much nobler pursuit.

Wine is part of a larger "something" than simply tasting through a group of wines. Certainly we drink wines without food, but in those situations we are--ideally--having a larger experience not fully dependent upon the wine. Wine is an obvious partner for food, but it is even better when shared communally, food or no. Scoring creates a hierarchy, placing some wines over others and pushing people to buy the “best”--which in the case of wine, is not only an extremely subjective notion, but is, more importantly, dependent upon the circumstances surrounding its consumption. Here you find a limitation on the relevance of such a detailed assessment of a wine’s quality based on its own merits (especially in relation to its peers). Speaking of peers, here's another problem that often arises with wine judging: how do you grade a sweet Riesling against a dry one? Why would you do that? The sweet wine's peers are other sweet wines, yet they are often the highest scoring wines out of a lineup of Rieslings that range from dry to sweet.

Score Your Wine with Thought for Your Food
You're not going to use a dessert wine with your chicken Tetrazzini, but you might be delighted by an off-dry German Gewürztraminer, especially a Spätlese. Is that twenty-year-old dry Riesling great with your steak? Believe it or not, of course it is! But the Riesling Kabinett from Germany is...well, not the right wine for a hunk of beef. What do you do with that Pinot Noir that is a little too acidic to drink on its own? Do you not buy it because it got an 84? No! Make the purchase and serve a crab salad powered by celery root and radishes! It'll be an absolutely sublime pairing, but the 92-point Pinot Noir that you may want to buy (for no other real reason than that it got a 92) is probably going to clash with the same salad. Judged by its own charms, “free” of outside influences the 84-point wine suffers, but if you serve it with food, it might taste like a wine which, at that moment, is so great that you can't imagine anything better. If that's the case, shouldn't it get 100 points? Oh, but you'd have to specify that it was only that way for the crab salad. Which is what should be said every time someone publishes a score for a wine, because it's only a 92-pointer (and then it’s actually only a 92-pointer for the critic writing about it) when you drink it without unusual external influences--the air quality in the room should be normal, there are no ancillary odors like mildew or a piece or Parmesan on the counter, and of course there can be no food.

Putting Points in Practice
That 92 is not real (oh, but is it ever seductive…). For argument’s sake, let's try to warm up to the 100-point system by applying it in (an imagined) real-time. Think of it as a pop quiz for your wine. Let's say that 92-point wine is not a Pinot Noir but a Côte Rôtie (Syrah-Viognier blend) from the Rhône Valley--Yves Cuilleron’s Terres Sombres, a very fine example from that appellation. However, you’ve chosen to have it at your favorite restaurant with sable in a white truffle nage, which is not a good pairing, so tragically, it'll only get an 81; move on to the leg of lamb with lavender jus and it jumps up to an 88; but with the venison steak and blackberry beurre rouge--it's a 96! But then you catch the eye of Jensen, the chump from your spouse’s office (every office has one) who just walked in the door right as you put a glistening morsel of venison in your mouth, and he decides to come join you, uninvited. You coolly take a sip to still your inner assassin and--oooh…I’m afraid that taste of wine is only going to get a 73…even a great wine can’t wash away the bitter taste of jackass.

Now who is constantly scoring their wines like this, really? I'm sure someone does. It's probably Jensen.

Wine Assessment that Makes Sense
I don’t find anything wrong at all with tasting wine critically. I enjoy it very much, and do it as often as I can. It is stimulating and engaging, and can even offer marvelous emotional rewards. My view is simple: I don’t think that giving wine a numeric grade is a good idea. Perhaps there is a need to use some kind of system to readily communicate the quality of a wine. There are plenty of ways to do it, but I’m not sold on most of them. There is the commonly found 20-point scale, which I find only slightly preferable to the 100-point approach. I’m amused by the people who try to convert the score someone gives in the 20-point system into the 100-point system, as if that would actually tell them anything. A wine that gets a 16.5 would work out to about an 83. Usually the 16.5 is a pretty good wine, but an 83…well, I wouldn’t have wanted to get that score on a test (although, I got plenty of them)! I’m a bigger fan of the zero to three stars approach, because there is much more room for interpretation in this scheme. Of course, some will suggest that this is nothing more than a four-point scale, but that’s only true if you need to see wine assessments in point form.

In the end, I’d just as soon recommend a wine straight up, no ratings. I share how I experienced the wine and try to guide a customer based on their personal tastes, if I happen to know them. Wine is so useful, and even soulful…it seems shameful to me to place it in the straightjacket of a point score.

Popularity: 10% [?]

The Gift in the Glass

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 6 - 2010

Peace had come to our kitchen.

At last.

My wife sat across from me as we shared a glass of wine. Our children had just gone upstairs to get ready for bed and, like old friends and lovers do, we settled easily into this potentially misappropriated moment (siblings often need policing, you know). She slipped her hand into mine as we each shared our news of the week. We continued to drink the wine as we had during dinner, though the passing of it back and forth between us became more rhythmic as our dialogue evolved, a slow heartbeat of sniffing and sipping—the peaceful sonic canvas for our conversation.

Eventually we heard arguing going on upstairs. Since we hadn't sent the kids upstairs to argue, it was time to get them back on track. It’s a common tale. Parents of older children may recognize this scene with varying degrees of fondness, and I have no doubt that young parents are living the realities that lie behind it--working all day only to be stretched thin by working another job or trying to get their children to their next time-occupying cliché, and then home to some semblance of nutrition. I don’t know about you, but this is the sort of thing we like to complain about, but only so that we don't come to resent it too much. And all of this racing around makes us cherish these moments alone together even more.

The wine, a red Burgundy (Pinot Noir), was notably delicious, but integral as it was to our brief encounter, we didn't speak about the wine at all as we sat alone, and this is as it should be. Wine can fit so perfectly in these situations--it was both the hub on which we built our intimate moment, and the insulation around it. Some cynics might contend that it would have gone the same way with a Diet Coke, but a Diet Coke doesn’t smell like this wine did…when was the last time the experience of your soda was like nestling your nose in a pillow of cherries strewn with violets? Would our conversation have been different with another drink? I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the long-striding, carefree direction that it did. Perhaps, if we hadn’t found the wine so appealing, our experience would have been different, but it was right for us at that moment. The wine, and expressly the sharing of it, elevated our experience like nothing else could have.

How do I know? Before heading off upstairs, my wife stood, glass in hand, and, eyebrows raised, offered the final sip to me. I shook my head, so she drank it, and right as she did, I heard her breathe in: an inward sigh, a breath searching for a final bit of sensory enjoyment before having to tackle something else. I know that breath. I have made it myself, and with wine you’d do that without thinking.

Who’s doing that with Diet Coke?

Popularity: 4% [?]

Writer Stabs Self with Corkscrew, Staph Follows

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 1 - 2010

Wine writer Burke Morton, jack of all trades, master of two (according to him), narrowly avoided a date with the undertaker after opening a bottle of wine. He stabbed himself with the worm of his corkscrew while trying to remove a stubborn cork from a bottle of '97 Marcel Deiss Engelgarten Riesling. His sixth and final bottle of Engelgarten almost turned out to be his last bottle ever.

"The damn cork on that wine...I've never gotten one out without it breaking. Spongy and brittle from the very beginning--worse than the cork on an old bottle of Chateau Musar!" Morton said from his hospital bed, clearly expecting me to know what he is talking about. "It made me so mad that I stabbed myself when I tried to slam the corkscrew back in to get the rest of the cork, but I missed the bottle and got my left index finger. That's what I get for being so hot-headed."

When Morton struck his finger, the corkscrew didn't go all the way through the skin, but only got the top layers. Apparently that was the problem. "A staph infection got in between the layers of skin, and...well, my wave is now one finger shy of a hand."

Morton, a classically trained musician, was remarkably sanguine about losing a finger, but the percocet may have been helping to dull more than just the pain: "Well, I wasn't a very good pianist anyway, though I sure will miss shredding like Hendrix." Even so, he manages to look at the bright side, "I like to learn, and now I'll have to relearn the home row."

Speaking with Morton's doctor, it becomes clear just how confused Morton has become. "A staph infection? Could be, but what makes him think that, I wonder? Does he think he lost his finger because of Impetigo? I haven't seen an adult with that in ages. He had a Felon infection, which I can tell you is quite painful, but we don't know what caused it. It could have been Staphylococcus aureus, but since we cut the thing off, we didn't bother to culture it--couldn't afford to because of cut backs from his insurance company."

Aside from the snarky doctor's breach of HIPAA laws, perhaps that's the bigger story here.

Popularity: 13% [?]

One Region–Any Style

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Posted by Burke Morton On March - 10 - 2010


Or, Problems with Stereotyping

Wine itself is not terribly complicated. All the variables involved with wine make it a tall mountain to climb, though. The way we deal with it is to try to make it simpler, and this is the right thing to do. But the route to simplicity has been paved with generalizations and stereotypes. This is the easier way to go, I suppose...after all, we're taught to stereotype from a young age--German Barbie anyone? Ooh--I almost missed the obvious one: Malibu Barbie! Anatomical absurdities aside, do all girls from Malibu really look like this? If so, my inner Ken will be moving to California.

If not, as is of course the case, then such painful inaccuracies must exist everywhere we use stereotypes, and within the wine world, these generalizations are increasingly erroneous. For example, it would be insanely short-sighted of us to expect the people of a wine region to make wines in one general style, yet we do that very thing every day when we suggest that there is a specific "style" of California Chardonnay or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Those terms--especially "California Chardonnay"--have been in use for so long that anyone, at least anyone who has some wine experience, will know what you mean. It is certainly easier than saying, "a low-acid, milk and butter-flavored Chardonnay with new oak treatment of some kind and significant residual sugar," or something along those lines, but this stereotype is becoming obsolete. The breadth of variety in style is just too broad to justify this--just ask the people making Chardonnay at Lioco, Ridge, Hanzell, Radio-Coteau, Au Bon Climat, Arcadian, Ancien, to name just a few. The Chardonnays from these producers are as different from each other as they are from the California stereotype, so they are really problematic: they fall under the rubric of "California Chardonnay" but they are perhaps more accurately, if a little too generally, categorized as "French Style" Chardonnay. But neither do they taste like they came from France, and there we've stereotyped another category--two categories, actually: wines from France, and Chardonnays from California that are noted, not for their sense of too-muchness, but for their sense of site specificity.

This stereotyping of wine styles (and countries!) doesn't do much good anymore, and I'm not pursuaded it ever did anything other than make my job selling wine easier. Aussie Shiraz has been assigned a stereotype, but if you have a bottle from Yarra Valley or Margaret River, those wines will bear little resemblance to the stereotypical (oops!) Shiraz from Barossa, McLaren Vale, et al. Oh, but now the salesman in me feels the need to say what they ARE like! Is it easier to say that Yarra Valley is a cooler climate, so the Shiraz is less "ripe" (read: overripe) and sweet and is lower in alcohol than "other" OZ Shiraz? Or what if I said it is a more European-styled Syrah (it's the same grape, just a different name)? I'd argue that the latter is easier.

But that's all it is. It does no justice to the wine in the glass, nor as I have said, to the region in comparison. Besides, it supposes that you are already familiar with European Syrah, and if you are was it an archetypal European Syrah? What the heck would that be like anyway?

I know that we need to have a frame of reference to quickly process our experiences, but it is far more useful to simply describe the wine in question based upon its own merits. This has little to do with justice or fairness to a wine. It is, rather, an acknowledgement of the complexities of wine without oversimplification. Not only that--it also raises the excitement factor, because if you benchmark a particular Australian Shiraz against a counterpart from France, and the person you're talking to doesn't like French Syrah, then they'll lose interest. However, if you describe it on its own merits, the wine stands a better chance of providing enjoyment, which is what it is supposed to do in the first place.

Popularity: 2% [?]

Rosé Shows its Mettle

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Posted by Burke Morton On July - 16 - 2009

Rosé...or: How Long Do You Age Your Rosé?
I conducted a little mini-tasting on my deck today--we don't get such beautiful days here often...besides, where else should one have a tasting of Rosé? I opened six wines: 2008 Muga, 2007 J.K. Carriere Glass, 2005 Domaine Ott Château de Selle, 2004 Château Musar Cuvée Rosé, 2003 (!) Pascal Cotat Sancerre, and 1998 (!) Domaine de la Mordorée Tavel.

The idea was to have some wines with presence, and to see how they held up. Hard to rank these, given that they were all sensational. I bought these over the past five years, after having tasted them in their youth, so I was predisposed to like them--take that at face value. I knew that the older ones should hold up, and I am happy to report that they did.

Experiencing the Wines
That the Mordorée Tavel was brilliant was not a shock, but it was so warming and suffusing that I didn't relate to it much as a Rosé--it had taken on a life of its own, in much the way that older Alsatian Muscat does (where the orange blossom scent is gone and replaced by caraway, which gives it a quality of ancient wisdom in a package that still seems youthful). It had a curious meat-juice quality that was so fresh and deep that my first thought was of the Grilled Duck Breast Salad I used to get at one of my previous restaurant jobs.

I suppose that I was drawn most closely by the Cotat Sancerre Rosé. It has some red wine characteristics, and as it warmed up, it displayed more of that tone, and this is not uncommon with Pinot Noir rosé. It never lost its rosé-ness, however--there was an ineffable notion of sunshine through it--and yet it was six years old. A year ago I wrote that the '04 from the same producer was the best Rosé I had ever had. This doesn't top that, but it's smashing wine that supports the legacy of quality from this estate.

Domaine Ott releases this wine a vintage behind the current wines in the market, and I bought it in the fall of 2007. It was moody (for rosé) and deep, possessing traits akin to white Burgundy, which is the style cultivated by this estate for this wine (they have others that are more crystalline and gossamer, but Château de Selle is their "serious" wine), and it was perfect for a day like today. Had it been hot, I would probably have enjoyed it anyway, as the weight of the wine is not its main feature, but because it is barrel fermented, its edges are more integrated.

J.K. Carriere was a sensational delight, again. I am amazed by this wine and its depth of flavor and richness of texture. Other than because it's rosé of Pinot Noir, it has these qualities because Jim Prosser, the winemaker/owner of J.K. Carriere, dumps Chardonnay lees [lees are the dead yeast cells, grape skins, seeds, pulp, et al., that settle to the bottom of a fermentation tank when fermentation is complete] into the wine, giving it that creamy texture and moody aroma. If you can lay your hands on some of this wine, I would do it.

Chateau Musar was fabulous. I have heard that it is entirely Cinsault, but I'm going to have to look that up. Current vintage is 2005 (in this market, anyway), and I believe the '06 is on the way, so this '04 is a bit behind, though not really by Musar standards. It was still fresh and lively, and it had an exotic, heady aroma, which I enjoyed greatly. I have come to expect this in Lebanese wines...I would like to see them achieve better market penetration. Dark color--I've had some some Pinots Noir from Germany and Alsace that aren't this dark!

Muga--for $15, you should be buying this wine, by the case if you can. Wow--has some Viura blended into the Tempranillo, and it works wonders. Not that Tempranillo needs help, but it makes it more of a rollicking experience. Gloriously beautiful color--salmon-ish, not unlike the Domaine Ott in that way,

So I had all of these wines with a lunch of Italian bread, Caprese salad, and some balsamic-marinated portabello mushrooms, and the pairings were remarkably reliable. Only the Muga and the Tavel tangled with these, and for differing reasons. The Tavel's acidity was not prominent, and so it bucked against the mushrooms, and the Muga tasted fine with the Mozzarella, but not so much once the tomatoes were introduced.

All this tasting was done with the swirl-sniff-sip-spit method, of course, but I did return to the J.K. Carriere for an actual drink of wine.

There's always an exception to every rule, but I hope we can put to rest the notion that Rosé doesn't age.... The lion's share of Rosés don't age well, so perhaps it would be better to say that some Rosés improve with age. The task is to find them.

Popularity: 4% [?]

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You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 64% [?]

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