I’ve been thinking a lot about evaluating wines vs. enjoying wines -- and there is a big difference.
By day, I taste dozens of wines a week, sometimes hundreds if I’m judging a competition, and the task is to judge each one in some context. Is it true to type/varietally correct? Are the fruit, tannin, acid and barrel characteristics in balance? Are there secondary notes in the wine -- such as earth, minerals, cedar, spice, herbs, bacon fat, etc. -- that add complexity, or is forward, ripe fruit the only thing going on?
Is the wine light, medium or heavy on the palate? Is the alcohol level obvious, or unobtrusive? Is there detectable residual sugar in a wine that is presented as being dry? Does it have a refreshing finish, or is it neutral or dull? Is there enough structure to suggest improvement in the cellar? If so, when is the optimum drinking window for this wine -- this year, or in 10 years?
No matter what the varietal or appellation of a wine, I go through this sort of mental checklist when I taste on a formal basis. I try not to pre-judge a category before I’ve tasted the wines, and attempt to keep an open mind on every bottle. I have been blown away by some wines I expected not to like very much -- East Coast hybrids such as Diamond and Niagara, and South African Pinotage, to name just a few -- and have been hugely let down by some California Cabernet Sauvignons, Oregon Pinot Noirs and Washington state Rieslings.
Yet by night, when it comes to choosing a wine I want to drink with dinner, or on a summer Saturday afternoon on the patio with friends, the bottle I open usually has little to do with scores or stars assigned to wines during the evaluation phase. I might give a wine 92 points (or 18 points on a 20-point scale, or four stars on a scale of five) if it’s remarkable and well-made, then say to myself, “But I don’t want to drink it.”
For example, I don’t enjoy drinking high-alcohol (16 percent and higher) Zinfandel; it’s just too much for my palate and overwhelms the foods I like to eat. Yet I know a good (meaning balanced) Zin when I taste it, no matter what the alcohol percentage is on the label, and have no problem assigning it a high score. I may not pour myself a glass, but there are a lot of Zinfandel fans who would, and my rating and tasting note should reflect the style in which the wine was made, praising the winemaking skill which achieved balance in this potent style. Then I walk the opened bottle across the street to my neighbor, who adores big, rich, heady red wines.
What I actually drink -- meaning enjoy a glass or two -- depends on my mood, the weather, and/or what I’m cooking. One night recently, I had a big lunch and decided to go light at dinner, with a vinaigrette-dressed salad of spring greens, some toasted hazelnuts and crumbled fresh goat cheese. With it, I drank an inexpensive Gazela Vinho Verde, a light, refreshing, low-alcohol white wine from Portugal. It was wonderful with the salad, though if I’d been asked to score this wine without food, I would have given it a solid yet unspectacular 85 points; with the salad, it was a 90-plus -- and the neighbor didn’t get a drop.
A recent tasting at Grey Stack Cellars, in Sonoma County’s Bennett Valley sub-appellation, further demonstrated how a wine can knock my socks off in a formal tasting, yet not be the bottle I grab for the meal.
Peter and Marie Young grow wine grapes in Bennett Valley, a small (just 650 acres of planted vines) American Viticultural Area (AVA) southeast of Santa Rosa, nestled between Sonoma Mountain, Bennett Mountain and Taylor Mountain, and not far from well-known Matanzas Creek Winery. Bennett Valley is one of the coolest AVAs in California, with fog and temperatures similar to those found in the Freestone area of the Sonoma Coast and some parts of Green Valley in the Russian River Valley.
The Youngs and their winemaker, Pat Sullivan, produce two Syrahs (in addition to a terrific Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis-like Chardonnay, Grenache, Syrah-Grenache blends and a lovely Rhône-varietal rosé), and the two Syrahs could not be more different.
The 2006 Marie’s Block Syrah ($38) is typical of cool-climate Syrah, with a clean nose of berries and spice, medium-full body, crisp acidity and just 13.5 percent alcohol by volume. It’s a restrained wine, sophisticated rather than showy. My score: 94.
The 2006 Narcissist Syrah ($48) -- appropriately named because it is indeed all about itself -- is a huge wine, viscous, ripe, toasty and potent, at 15.5 percent alcohol. Yet the weight and alcohol are balanced by firm tannins and refreshing acidity. The grapes were allowed to get riper than those used in the Marie’s Block Syrah, and the Narcissist lots were aged longer, in new, heavy-toast Francois Freres French oak barrels. Score: also 94.
Two styles, same quality, same balance, same score.
Yet after the tasting, with four of us sitting down to a casual lunch of salumi, deli salads and cheese, we all went for the Marie’s Block Syrah, knowing its leaner, more elegant style would be the better partner for the meal. I would always favor it over the Narcissist, simply because the Marie’s Block suits my personal taste at this stage in my life. Yet Narcissist deserves equal praise/rating for what it is; if my lunch mates had had a thick grilled steak on their plates, they might have gone for the Narcissist.
For all wines, and particularly for Syrah and Shiraz (as the varietal is known in Australia), it’s important for wine reviewers to not just list flavor descriptors in their tasting notes, but also to explain the style of wine. Syrah/Shiraz is grown all over the world, in myriad climates, soil types and exposures, and with a clonal and rootstock diversity to dizzy the mind.
Winemakers decide how ripe to harvest the grapes, which yeasts to use during fermentation, and which types and toast levels of barrels to use during aging. As a result, Syrah/Shiraz wines be jammy, alcoholic, spicy, meaty, smoky, earthy, minerally, oaky, refreshing, viscous, restrained, tannic, plush, flabby, and jumbles of the above.
It’s incumbent upon wine reviewers to tell consumers just what sort of wine they can expect to get when they open a bottle, whether it be Syrah or any other varietal or blend. I vow to do a better job in my own wine descriptions, and urge other writers to do the same. We owe it to our readers.