The movie awards season always brings out the critic in me. (Granted, that doesn't take much, but it's really hair-trigger during awards time.)
Whenever I see a bunch of nominations—or in my case, a bunch of wines up for review—I always look not at who got the big numbers, but to see who's missing. Partly it's a "rooting for the underdog" thing. After all, we know the Big Boys will get included. It's always the smaller-scale possibilities that slip through.
We see this all the time, never mind who's doing the reviewing. Partly it's a function of time and money. A lot of small winegrowers simply refuse to participate. They don't submit samples.
When I've asked growers why, the answers have included the cost of submitting samples; an ignorance (and lack of initiative) in knowing where and how to submit samples; a disinterest because they're selling everything they make (a lucky few, I would think); and, not least, a conviction that the reviewer would be unsympathetic or worse to the winery’s style. All of these reasons are understandable.
Writers and reviewers, for their part, can be hamstrung by minimal or non-existent budgets for buying wines and, due to lack of exposure from insufficient travel, out of touch with what's happening on the ground. You can't go everywhere. And once you've been somewhere, you tend to seek new destinations, the better to broaden (as opposed to deepen) your knowledge.
Bottom line: We live in an imperfect world. But you already knew that.
Such acknowledgements made, let's cut to the chase. Whenever I read an article on a wine category I always look to see if the reviewer was informed/thorough/curious enough to include what might be called "off-the-radar" producers. Granted, you can't get 'em all. But did they at least get a few of them?
For example, if the category is, say, Zinfandel, I always look to see if the likes of Saucelito Canyon Vineyard in Arroyo Grande is at least mentioned or, better yet, tasted. Ditto for Sky Vineyards astride the crest of Mount Veeder in Napa Valley.
Why these two? Because in this taster's opinion they create some of the most distinctive, original and compelling Zinfandels in California. A reviewer who has made a point of tasting, or at least mentioning, these wines is on the inside track, at least by my lights.
Let it be said—indeed, it can't be said too often—that a challenge such as this admits no sanctimony. Too often I've seen some ego-swollen wine jock crow with smug condescension about how so-and-so didn't mention or taste such-and-such. Nobody gets to it all, even great specialists. There's always somebody or something that you miss.
I mention this because I recall, with a chagrin that lingers to this day, a lunch I had with Andrew Caillard, who is a principal in Langton's, which is Australia's most prominent wine auction house. We were brought together in Sydney by a mutual friend.
Caillard generously brought several Australian wines that he thought I might enjoy tasting. We got to one, a 2002 Cabernet-Malbec blend, that rocked my world. It was, hands-down, one of the finest Australian reds I've tasted.
"What is this wine?" I exclaimed. "It's extraordinary."
"It's a Cabernet-Malbec from Wendouree," he replied.
I immediately confessed, with embarrassment, that I had never even heard of Wendouree, let alone tasted their wines.
Caillard was gracious. "Don't feel so bad," he said. "Wendouree is a tiny winery in Clare Valley. It's almost impossible to get their wines because they're nearly all sold to private buyers who are on a mailing list. They do come up at auction occasionally, but that's almost the only way to obtain them if you're not on the list."
Pride going before a fall and all that, I felt that, being a frequent visitor to Australia and having lived in Melbourne, I would have at least heard of Wendouree. But I hadn't. Suitably chastened, I was very happy to subsequently pick up on the micro-winery (400 cases total) Adelina Wines, which is near Wendouree in Clare Valley. It, too, is extraordinary. I mention this not only as a mea culpa, but also as a cautionary tale.
I would like to know which producers you look for as a shorthand method of assessing a review. I'm curious to know not only which producers you check for, but why.
This last point is critical. For example, whenever I read a piece about Oregon Pinot Noir, I always look to see if wineries such as Westrey, J. Christopher and Evesham Wood are mentioned.
Why those three? Partly because they are small and don't typically appear among the usual roundup of tasting suspects. But really, I look for them because I admire their respective winemaking philosophies, which share a common (or rather, uncommon) preference for restraint and detail, the absence of apparent oak and an impressive consistency across both vineyards and vintages.
Maybe the taster/reporter chooses to disagree, preferring a different style or just not reaching the same conclusion about quality. Fair enough. But if producers such as Westrey, J. Christopher and Evesham Wood aren't in the mix, then an important component of Oregon wine is missing—a component that I, as a buyer, am particularly interested in. That's why I look for certain producers and calibrate a reviewer's palate to my own, accordingly.
Surely you have similar such "trail mark" wines or producers that give you a hint of whether a reporter or taster is on top of the scene, as well as whether he or she shares a palate sympathetic to your own.
(We see the same thing with restaurants. A recent article in the New York Times generated a certain amount of smirk in San Francisco as an out-of-town writer extolled his go-to restaurants, missing what the foodies in that food-obsessed city consider their best, most cutting-edge, restaurants. He was clearly out-of-date. Readers, in turn, weren't as well-served as they might have been.)
So, what are your nominations for your "revealing" wines? What wines or wineries do you look for when you see someone discussing a region or doing a roundup of wines?
And here's the key question: What makes your nominations worthy? Forgive me, but it's not enough to say that the owners are really nice or the winemaker gave you a personal tour. This is no time for sentiment, but rather, for rigor.
Do you have look-out-for nominations for, say, Sauvignon Blanc? I myself always look to see if Spring Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is included, as I consider it an extraordinary version of a warm-climate, fig-scented Sauvignon. Similarly, I always look to see if Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc is present, as its high-elevation, low-yield stoniness and diamond-sharp flavor delineation is virtually unrivaled in California.
You get the picture. So what have you got for Cabernet Sauvignon? Pinot Noir? Unheralded wines from France's Languedoc or Italy's southern zones such as Sicily, Apulia, Basilicata or Campania? The choices are obviously vast.
And your inside track winners are … ? The envelope please.
Brent L Pierce — St. Helena, CA — February 15, 2011 3:48pm ET
Sam Monteleone — Kansas — February 15, 2011 5:51pm ET
Steve Kirchner — huntington beach, ca — February 15, 2011 7:00pm ET
Marlene Rossman — Newport Beach California — February 15, 2011 8:35pm ET
Joshua Kates — Indiana — February 15, 2011 9:23pm ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — February 15, 2011 11:59pm ET
William Magoon — Scottsdale, Arizona — February 16, 2011 12:09pm ET
Wayne Clark — Portland, Oregon, USA — February 16, 2011 2:09pm ET
Rob Dobson — Off the Grid — February 16, 2011 3:46pm ET
Rob Dobson — Off the Grid — February 16, 2011 4:10pm ET
Joseph Kane — Austin — February 16, 2011 4:15pm ET
Tom Miller — Vestavia Hills, AL — February 16, 2011 5:55pm ET
Michael Nappi — Staten Island, New York — February 17, 2011 5:17pm ET
Thomas A Kramer — Northbrook IL — February 19, 2011 9:38am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions