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Columns – Rich Cook

Smith-Madrone: Fifty Years On, Cultivating Beauty
Rich Cook
Aug 24, 2021

When twenty-two-year-old Stuart Smith purchased two hundred acres of abandoned vineyard land on Napa Valley's Spring Mountain in 1971, he likely had no idea what was in store for him over the next fifty years. Thanks to an innate spirit of cultivation, he would go on, along with his brother Charles, to consistently produce some of Napa's finest wines, improving and innovating along the way. I gladly jumped at the chance to sit down with Stu and his wife Julie Ann to ask a few questions, and I walked away with a deeper understanding that it's the people and the journeys that they are on that are the true heart of the fine wine industry, and that it is their commitment and artistry that make what you and I get the opportunity to enjoy. I started with a question about the most positive change in the industry over that past fifty years, and that led us down a winding road of stories and insights.

Quarantine Chronicles: Epilogue (I Hope…)
Rich Cook
Jun 22, 2021

Back in October, in the middle of the quarantine, I ended a column with the words, 'I'm ready for 2020 to end. Looking back, I see that the old saw 'be careful what you wish for' is a timeless adage for a reason. To date in 2021, I'm marveling at the tremendous losses we've suffered collectively-and that I've suffered personally. I'll lament a few of these in the paragraphs that follow, but I also wish to focus on the positives that have come from all of this. With a direct assist from the pandemic, I had to rethink how to stage blind tastings of large amounts of product in a different way to comply with safety protocols and regulations to be able continue to give results of those events to both producers and consumers without compromising the integrity of the process. Some of what I've been able to come up with has provided better, more realistic results while slightly reducing costs to producers. Without COVID, such improvements likely would never have occurred to me as I plugged along from event to event, and some of the 'old ways' won't be returning, even as we start being able to sit more closely together at events.

Note to the ABC Club: Time to Disband
Rich Cook
Jun 15, 2021

I count myself fortunate to have the chore of tasting a lot of wine. In the thirty-five years or so that I've been tasting wine - the last fifteen quite seriously - I've seen quality improve at an absolutely amazing rate, and I've seen trends come and go. From the Sideways effect to Moscato's meteoric rise and almost equally dramatic flame-out, forces that affect the wine marketplace keep interesting products coming across my desk. Additionally, continued innovation in practice keeps widening possibilities for winemakers all over the world, perhaps nowhere more so than here in the wild west where a pioneering spirit remains intact. One particular grape seems to remain constant in the quantity that I see, though it has traveled quite a stylistic arc over the years. So, that said, I'm warning you ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) club members right up front: I'm about to talk about domestic Chardonnay and why I think it's one of the most exciting frontiers in the wine world.

Who Should You Trust for Wine Buying Advice?
Rich Cook
May 11, 2021

No doubt you've been exposed to myriad opinions about what makes for the most trustworthy source for good information about a particular bottle of wine. Is it the solo critic, providing a tasting note and perhaps a score of one type or another? Is it a shelf talker perched below a bottle on a shelf, maybe written by the shop's proprietor, or sourced from a popular publication, or even the producer? Is it crowd-sourcing of opinions from purchasers of that particular bottle? Is it a social media post by a friend that extols the virtues of the evening's selection? Is it a medal from one of any number of judging events held annually around the world?

Quarantine Chronicles: Pandemic Perils, Pounds and the Resurgence of the Alt Beverage
Rich Cook
Apr 6, 2021

It seems today that we could be about to come out of the past year of quarantine isolation and all of the things that have come with it. Endless virtual meetings, fancying up the home cooking to simulate fine dining out (and the dishload byproduct), and sitting - lots of sitting - may have finally had their day. I suspect, though, that to some degree, we'll be keeping some of the positives that have come along with the things that we'd rather forget. I'm sure that for wineries that survive partly on a model that involves tourist dollars, a full, unrestricted re-opening can't come a moment too soon. The question for wineries is: If you open it, will they come? And who will 'they' be? And how long will it last?

Quarantine Chronicles: Wines from Old Dirt That'll Make You Feel Young
Rich Cook
Mar 2, 2021

t's been just about a full year since we went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that year has gotten me to feeling a little older than I think it should. Less physical activity combined with a full wine cellar does have a tendency to lead to first world problems like an expanding waistline and a general feeling that time is passing without any adventure factor to mitigate the piling up of days. After a zoom meeting focused on historic vineyards in Lodi, a small town not far south of Sacramento in California's San Joaquin Valley, I decided to journey away from my comfy San Diego cage for a closer examination of a vineyard whose wines put a spark in my step. I grabbed my wife and a couple of trusty traveling companions from my quarantine pod and headed north up the I-5 to meet up, in socially distanced fashion, with wine and food industry veteran and Lodi guru Randy Caparoso for what would turn out to be one of the most informative tasting experiences I've ever had.

In Vino Veritas - A Useful Allegory in the Age of the Big Lie
Rich Cook
Jan 19, 2021

In wine, there is truth. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that truth is a pretty hot commodity right now. After a few years of the 'Alternative Facts Era' (which is hopefully taking its final breaths on the same day that this column is published) I couldn't be hungrier for an unobstructed view of truth bolstered by actual factual evidence and the perspectives of experts whose hard-earned expertise has been severely undervalued of late. I believe that wine and the truths that lie within might just be instructive for a time such as this. One of the reasons that we treasure wine is that its inherent truths are self-evident. When we open a bottle, pour it in a glass and raise the rim to our nose, the wine begins to reveal itself, and for better or for worse, the truth begins to come out. Often our first impression of the wine is less-than-favorable, particularly when it comes to newly released wines that are structured to age into the future before their full truth can be exposed. With a little time, and awareness that certain factors can mask the underlying truth, what may have presented poorly initially can, ultimately, present beautifully. If you are paying attention, that wine will show you what it is.

Toast 2020's Departure with Some Unique Sparklers
Rich Cook
Dec 15, 2020

As we look to the close of what has certainly been the most tumultuous year in recent history no matter where you might be in the world, your thoughts may be further than usual from the annual thought of selecting the perfect bottle to ring in the new year. I don't know about you, but in my household, sparkling wine isn't the only option for the event, but it certainly will be on the menu. As you look back on the things that popped out as silver linings - the good side of the unexpected consequences of pandemic restrictions, political upheavals, and so forth - take a look at these unique offerings from the world of bubbly, where silver linings and individual character abound.

A Zinfandel Heritage Renaissance is Underway…
Rich Cook
Nov 10, 2020

I recently got reconnected with my wine roots, thanks to an invitation to write about some hidden vineyards in central and southern California as part of a continuing series on legendary Zinfandel vineyards. The task brought me back to things that attracted me to wine in the first place - the stories of people and places that produced deliciousness in my glass. After an early introduction to wine via finger-hooked jugs of off-dry rosé, it was Zinfandel - the red kind - that got my attention in the early 1980's and sent me down the road I've enjoyed driving on ever since. While on that road, I've noticed that the wine writing community has more than its share of 'Zinfandel Infidels' who often dismiss domestic wines that start with the letter Z for what they call more 'noble' red varieties. I'm here to argue that it's time for the outsiders to come back in and witness the ongoing renaissance that goes by the nickname 'Zin.'

Wine Country Fires - Again?
Rich Cook
Oct 6, 2020

As if 2020 hasn't been a year of enough trial and tribulation, at this time of writing a good portion of our beloved wine producing regions are again under fire threat, with huge loss of property, inventory and vineyard land already in the books for the year. When lumped together with other wine growing area fires that have occurred in California over the last 13 years, the damages total billions of dollars in property damage and firefighting costs, not to mention priceless loss of life. From a wine production standpoint, the time that fires occur can have an even larger impact than loss of structures and equipment. This year, perhaps more than anytime sine the 2008 vintage, many wineries fear that a portion of their harvest may be smoke damaged to the point of no return, meaning that entire crops may not even be harvested.

'The Wine Glut' Finally Comes Home to Roost…
Rich Cook
Sep 1, 2020

It seems like I've been hearing about a wine glut for several years now. Each year more and more land has come to be under vine worldwide thanks to increased demand, and experts have been quick to celebrate the 'coming discount prices.' I don't know about you, but in my world the celebration seems to have preceded the 'coming discounting' for about the same number of years that the coming has been promised. Yet, here in the chaos of a pandemic that has closed winery tasting rooms-even as demand for wine is slackening as spirits become more popular, the 'coming' may finally have arrived. If, that is, you know where to look….

Zoom Zoom…
Rich Cook
Jul 28, 2020

Greetings from Critics Quarantine, where intrepid wine writers' passports and global entry cards are rendered useless, collecting dust until the day a boarding pass to a remote wine region pops up on our phone screens and we can head to the airport. In the meantime, I'm pleased to report that all is not lost, thanks to Zoom and creative thinking on the part of producers and marketers to get messages to us so that we can get them to you in turn. Here are highlights from a couple of Zoom tastings in which I've participated during the past month….

Quarantine Chronicles: Dreaming Remote, Enjoying Local
Rich Cook
May 19, 2020

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get a little stir crazy. Doing nothing but working from home, taking occasional trips out for food, the rare trips to the office and the complete reimagining of other jobs has me dreaming of what I'll do once restrictions are lifted. Mrs. Wine Critic and I were scheduled to be in Great Britain two weeks ago, taking in the new sparkling wine region southeast of London (and the new staging of Les Miserables at the Sondheim) but it was not to be, and I suspect it won't be for some time to come. Since the easing of restrictions will likely go out in small doses and keep travel fairly local, let's pay an introductory visit to some of my favorite local producers here in San Diego County - California's original wine region - and see a renaissance in progress. Maybe I'll entice you to travel this direction when the world opens up again.

Stuck at Home with Wine … What to Do?
Rich Cook
Apr 14, 2020

The times we're currently living in have required some altering of our day to day lives. Thankfully, wine continues to be enjoyed around the world, yet even that is looking and feeling different than usual. You may find yourself consuming more of it than what's normal for you, or perhaps you're going through your stock slower than you might - I'm sure there are as many variables as there are wine drinkers. As we stare down the possibility that we might be somewhat isolated for some time to come, I offer a few suggestions here that might lessen the disruption while keeping you sane and drinking well in the process.

A Judgement of Judgement
Rich Cook
Mar 10, 2020

Where did the idea for "blind" wine competitions come from, and why did it take off? I suspect it has largely to do with a tasting that came to be known as The Judgement of Paris, where in 1976 Stephen Spurrier assembled the best of France and the best of California for a blind tasting. The results put California wine on the international stage, and it's impossible to overstate the importance that single event had on the California wine industry. In addition, it had the effect of emphasizing the idea that tasting wines blind, side by side, is a way to minimize any prejudice that might play in to rating a wine. In the wine world, or more accurately the wine business, this idea can be of great benefit to both producers and consumers.

One Hundred Points?
Rich Cook
Feb 4, 2020

I was struck recently that over my twelve plus years writing about wines that I've only given out four perfect scores to wines, and perhaps more strikingly, that I've given two such scores in the past two months. This got me wondering: What is it that gives me the inclination -- or even the right -- to drop such an 'honor' on a bottle, and why does it happen so infrequently? And beyond that, why should anyone care?

Appellation St. Helena: A Great 'Where' in Your Glass
Rich Cook
Dec 10, 2019

As wine lovers, we have a desire to know more than simple matters of taste. We seek a deeper understanding of exactly how what is in our glass came into being to enhance the experience, to contextualize the aromas and flavors that we sense, and gain some insight as to why we are receiving such pleasure. Aficionados can, to a person, point to a specific bottle that somehow awakened a passion for learning all that can be learned about how THAT got from the ground to the glass - THAT scent, THAT taste, THAT joy. For some, the quest focuses on the 'where' of the equation. Where in the world did this come from, and what about 'the where' helps to explain the why, the how and the who of the glass in question?

Postcard from 'Bollicine di Montagna': TrentoDOC Takes Its Place on the World Stage
Rich Cook
Oct 8, 2019

Although TrentoDOC (short for Trento Denomiazione di Origine Controllata - thanks for that, marketeers!) has been around since 1993, its declaration was made possible much further back, when Giulio Ferrari sourced fruit in the Dolomite foothills around Trento back in 1902, with the intent of making a sparkling wine that would rival those he found in Epernay. Today that hope is a reality, with the DOC counting 53 producers among its ranks and soon to add two more. TrentoDOC is a sub appellation in the northwest portion of the larger Trentino region, focused specifically on 'Metodo Classico' sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier, with most producers focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.