Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recycle Bin, Week of July 21

It's another mixed bag of goodies this week with some real winners.  

2010 Novelty Hill Merlot Columbia Valley $20
About a year ago I picked up a case of the stuff for a party. A lot was left over and little by little I began sampling through it. I have always thought it was fine - good, but not noteworthy. But now it has come into its own. This wine is drinking like a serious heavyweight contender; broad-shouldered, with the structure of a top class Cabernet, but still true, dense, solid-core Merlot fruit. An attention commanding wine. Very enjoyable. Alas, it was my last bottle. Keep your eyes peeled for more on the shelves out there.

2013 Macphail Rosé of Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast $22 (Sample)
Two things immediately stand out about this wine from the first taste: first, you know this is made from Pinot Noir. Second, you've never had a rosé like this before. Soft and round on the approach, it eases into a long mid-palate with comforting flavors of slightly smoked Pinot Noir fruit before developing into a pleasing, long finish. Unusual and alluring. To be clear, this is not your garden variety, dainty luncheon rose - no, no.  This is a hairy balls, drink while camping with your buddies rosé. Yeah, you read that right. The winemaker's passion for this bottling shines through with clarity. 

2010 Garafoli Piancarda Rosso Conero Marche $18
This wine has been reviewed here before, but it deserves another mention because if there is a more seductive Italian red for the money, I am unaware of it.

2013 William Hill Sauvignon Blanc Central Coast $14 (Sample)
This is what California Sauvignon Blanc used to be known for: bright, refreshing, and bursting with fresh-cut grass and Granny Smith apple flavors. This one also has a slight tartness to round out the acidic thread,  which pleasantly balances for the whole package. A real gulper.

2012 William Hill Merlot Central Coast $14 (Sample)
Benefiting from a little time decanted, this is as advertised: Merlot from the Central Coast. Textbook Merlot fruit, simple framing. On its own it fizzles, but give it some grilled chicken and it'll pop for you. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Maybe It's Time To Rethink Points (A Little)

Earlier this week, the Recycle Bin reviewed two so-called 94 point wines.  Yeah, from time to time I get sucked in by the numbers just like you do.  Each of those wines presented as well-made, if pedestrian and undifferentiated.  Neither was particularly reflective of its origin, and neither was noteworthy for its complexity.  More importantly, neither provided a terribly compelling drinking experience - something which I found to be at odds with a score reserved for outstanding, exceptional wines.

In fairness, tarring their legitimacy by calling them "so-called" is inaccurate.  They are 94 point wines.  At least according to Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.  There's no taking that away from their producers and marketers.  This is not the first or last time I'll disagree with Mr. Parker's indefatigable palate, but he is no less entitled to his professional perspective than anyone else.

Questioning the relevance of the 100 point scoring system has for years provided cyberspace with almost limitless material for productivity-killing debate recycling.  Whenever writers get bored and lazy, they dust this one off and fire it into the blogosphere.  Its close cousin is the more philosophical and less vitriolic "wine tasting can never be objective" thread.  It's tempting to pluck such low hanging thematic fruit, but you already know how those stories conclude (if at all): point systems are flawed, every critic's taste is different on different days, publications dependent on advertising for revenue are prone to conflicts of interest, and so on.

All of these conclusions are sound, but none do more than wave a caution flag for consumers.  And that is not especially helpful.

For all the flaws scoring metrics possess (100 points, Tre Bicchieri, Davis 20 point scale, etc.) it's also worth acknowledging that there is tremendous utility in them, too.  Paradoxically, these metrics serve as much as sign posts as they do protective blinders.  Any non-savant drinker simply cannot digest the merits of each of the thousands of labels competing for attention and hard-earned shekels.  So, wines sporting a quantification of their quality helpfully narrow the overwhelming into something more manageable.  Forgetting for a moment how many precious gems are overlooked when looking at shelves through 90-points-or-better glasses, a smaller field dotted with signposts helps consumers navigate what is an increasingly confusing and hype-fueled marketplace.

"Ah...", the wine cognoscenti say, "...but what good is a number if it's so biased, so distorted by personal preference, so riddled with business influence?"  Hell, I'm still shaking my head at how those two wines deserve such high scores, so I get it.  But this tit-for-tat has been played out ad nauseum.  Average consumers have no time or appetite for the vinous subculture's dysfunction - nor do they have patience (quite rightly so) for the suggestion that they need to become more educated to properly enjoy wine.

With so much my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric seemingly intent on annihilating the opposing perspective, is there any chance of finding a peaceful coexistence?  Better yet, is there any hope of quieting this noise that only adds to wine's elitism?

Maybe.  And maybe it's a simple as a collective reshaping of what wine scoring means.  The entire industry could benefit, too.  What would this cool-ade taste like?

"Here's a wine I gave 94 points to because I think it's terrific.  It's not the only wine from this producer and it certainly isn't the only wine from this little corner of the world.  You might like this wine as much as I did.  Whether you did or not, both the winemaker and his/her neighbors are deserving of your attention and exploration.  You will not be disappointed."

Determining what wines we like or don't like, and what wines to buy or avoid, can only be instructed through experience.  Threaded together, these experiences comprise legs of a journey not unlike hiking through a park.  If you can humor the analogy, the idea is that, aside from the occasional "Beware of bears" signs, you're pretty much free to go wherever you please (exploration is encouraged).  The park rangers (critics) provide sign posts along the way to guide you to what are the most popular destinations (high scoring wines).  As you hike along towards one vista or the other, you stumble upon unmarked paths the guidebooks (wine scoring publications) don't tell you about.  As remarkable as your original destination might be, this detour leads to discovery of something previously unknown to you (a wine with no pedigree, score, or San Francisco-based PR firm).  Discovery is exciting - and with wine, how hurt can you really get in the process?

Marketers in every tier rely heavily on points.  Points substitute for time-consuming back stories and  education and tastings.  Despite the efficiency and simplicity of this, a 90+ points-only world would be a more homogeneous, boring world.  If critics and marketers all shifted their mantra to include a simple message, horizons would be broadened while helping shrug-off elitism, reducing confusion and boosting enthusiasm. 

Naive?  Hopelessly.  If I've learned anything about the wine business in the last few years it's that reluctance doesn't begin to describe this industry's approach to change.  But when critics begin to champion wines by association, the balance of the business will parlay that into broader, more diverse promotion - something three tier players are already equipped to do and would readily engage in.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Recycle Bin, Week of July 14

Hello everybody!  This was a week of learning to trust your gut.  As you'll see below, there were some wines that held much promise, but failed to deliver - including two so-called 94 point wines - a strong reminder that one man's 94 pointer is another man's meh.  (And vice versa.)  We start with disillusionment from Portugal (but still holding out hope!), dive into what to Robert Parker considers wines of "...outstanding...of exceptional complexity and character" these days, and round it out with some good values.  Cheers!

2011 Luis Pato Vinho Branvo Beira "Vinhas Velhas" €11
Interesting, but only in a wine geek's way. Very briny and light with faint fruit and an efficient finish. For all the hubbub about this wine both in Portugal and stateside, it's not nearly as enjoyable as you'd think. Perhaps it's over the hill already?

2013 Doural Branco Duoro $8Light bodied and lean with a prominent acidic streak, the fruit on the nose doesn't carry through much to the palate. Thin and quick, this, too, is a largely forgettable wine. 

2012 Bodegas Castano Yecla Solanera $16
Fast, racy, intriguing nose with a dizzying frequency of scents.  Medium-bodied and sharp flavors flanked by prominent acidity and a bit of heat.  Certainly serviceable, but little more than that. Again,
94 points? 

2012 Olivier Hillaire Cote du Rhone $18
This wine has been a real head-turner in vintages past; the 2010 and 2011 were stunners.  But the 2012 was, well, okay.  $18 is a lot for a Cote du Rhone - and the fact that it's being marketed as a declassified Chateauneuf du Pape doesn't sway me from that opinion, either.  Still, this is a producer I always keep an eye out for - and you should, too.

NV La Marca Prosecco $14 (Press sample) 
This bubbly has been reviewed here before.  So, is it still as good as it was?  Yes.  And a good reminder that bubbly isn't just for anniversaries and Valentine's Day.

2012 Fontanafredda Lange Rosso Gia (1L) $14
Gotta love the one liter packaging here. It says "family dinner wine", which is exactly what this is. A simple, pleasant, and enjoyable Piedmontese table red. Fresh and lively, it will go with almost anything. Try serving slightly chilled. A good value. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

What Happened To Cameron?

Cameron Hughes.  It wasn't too long ago that his wine company was the darling of the press, and these pages were no exception.  As the blockbuster 2007 vintage in Napa Valley was coming online, the recession was really taking hold.  This convergence - and a hell of a good story - helped catapult Cameron's stardom.  And it didn't hurt one bit that back in 2010 and 2011, you could score a $16 Chalk Hill Cabernet, a $20 Stags Leap Cabernet, or an amazing Russian River valley Pinot Noir for $15.  Those were the days when CH Wine created a new market and enjoyed sole occupation thereof.  And it was as great for consumers as it was for the company.

No mas.

The latest indication Cameron Hughes' growing pains arrived in inboxes yesterday - the pimping a new Napa Cabernet:
"This is a single vineyard wine from St. Helena. The NDA is a mile long, and we're sworn to secrecy. That said, we're happy to go along with the program because they regularly produce wines from $75/bottle to well over $100."
The air of exclusivity and hushed, super-precious tones are de rigueur for CH.  But here's what's changed the most:

Oh yeah, and it's only $29?  Huh?  Used to be these wines occupied the <$20 sweet spot.  WTF?  A quick glance at their online store reveals that all of their lot series Cabernets are all $25 an up.

But hold on a second, isn't this new release a relative bargain?  Doesn't it normally sell for $75-100?  No.  You've got to read the fine print.  Besides, $75 is about average for Napa Cabernets anymore - and not for anything particularly special.  Even if it was a re-labeled $75 wine, a 60% discount almost brings the QPR (Quality-to-Price Ratio) into the realm of reasonable.  Almost.

This is hardly an isolated example, either.  In the last year or so, Cameron's forays into European wines have run the gamut - from Cotes du Rhones on the low end (which the local super market can't seem to move no matter how low they price it) to spendy Burgundies, Brunellos ($39), Barolos ($29) and others.  How successful has this been?  Don't know, but the compelling product he brought to market a few years ago is nowhere to be found today.

So, has this negociant gotten too big for its britches?  Perhaps.  Probably, even.  But one thing's for certain - as his prices have not-so-subtly crept up, Cameron Hughes has positioned himself to compete in an increasingly difficult price market.  And in the meantime, other negociant models such as Mark West, Castle Rock, and others are upping their game while keeping prices low.  So, am I still buying Cameron Hughes wines?  Not really.