In real estate it’s “location, location, location” and in the diamond trade it’s the “4 Cs” – color, clarity, cut and carat (weight) — that are benchmarks of quality. But do any yardsticks like these exist when talking about wine?

Recently, I was leading a tasting and the question arose: “What defines the vital elements that express the quality of a specific wine?”

We discussed terroir (the grape vine’s total environment), winemaking and, of course, marketing among other topics. But nothing concisely answered the question.

While exploring the subject with the tasting group it suddenly dawned on me that a wine’s quality is a measure of its “3 Vs” – varietal, vineyard and vintage. Is the wine expressive of its varietal character? Is the wine true to its place of origin? Is the wine demonstrative of the vintage?

During a spirited discussion, everyone had an opinion but we all agreed on the significance of the 3 Vs and the importance of their order as well. Above all, the varietal character of a wine should stand out and is then supported by its vineyard and vintage characteristics.

Each varietal has its own personality. This truth has been appreciated and handed down for centuries in the growing and making of fine wine in the traditional manner. A varietal’s personality places it as the foundation of the 3 Vs whether it stands on its own (cabernet sauvignon) or is an important part of a well crafted blend (Bordeaux).

But over the past few decades, several influential critics and the 100-point scale have popularized an “international” style in which modern viticultural and winemaking techniques have masked much of the individual character of many wines. When evaluating wines made in this international style, it is often difficult to differentiate a pinot noir from a syrah or a cabernet from a merlot. I have always looked first at varietal character to determine overall quality.

Elements of terroir differ greatly from one vineyard to another, as well as one growing area (e.g. appellation or AVA) to another. Soil type, drainage, exposure, temperature, etc. each add their own fingerprint and contribute to the distinctiveness of the wines made from that vineyard or growing area. Fine wine growers share an appreciation of their vineyard’s individuality and emphasize it to produce quality wine.

A tempranillo from Spain’s Rioja should be identifiable when compared to another from California just as a polished Argentine malbec should differ from the rustic nature shown by the same grape grown in France’s Cahors region. Unfortunately, this is not always possible due to the international style adopted my many of today’s winemakers, but the sense of place continues to be a vital factor in assessing quality.

Not all vintages are created the same, and this variable may be the most dramatic of the 3 Vs. The same varietal grown in the same vineyard and made by the same winemaker can differ greatly from one year to another. This has become even more apparent recently given the wide swings of temperature and rainfall experienced around the globe.

Thankfully, some great wines are always made in lesser vintages, and what may have been an excellent vintage in Napa will not necessarily express the same attributes in Sonoma or the Central Coast let alone Europe or the southern hemisphere. Vintage is the one V completely outside the limits of our control, and is especially important as it may become the final arbiter of the first two in producing a quality wine.

While I’ve always appreciated the significance of each component (varietal, vineyard and vintage) as an integral element in my quality assessment of individual wines, I found it both enlightening and rewarding to simplistically distill the effects of each one down to the 3 Vs. And it also got me thinking about a 4th V — value. But that’s a subject for another time.

Questions and Comments

My Dec. 23 and 30 columns — “Always learning something new” and “Looking back on 2012” — attracted several comments relating to personal experiences. Here are a couple.

Enjoy food? Get dining and recipe ideas sent to your inbox

C. Palmer – Your columns push me to try new wines and explore new wine regions of the world through restaurant wine lists and my local wine shop. My experience is now more adventurous and pleasurable as I explore these new wines and regions through both explicit and subliminal suggestions.

Wine can be enjoyed at many levels from just a natural accompanyment to the meal to a far deeper study of its nuances and history. But at whatever level each of us has chosen there’s always something new out there and the adventure of discovery can be quite exhilarating.

Al D. — Your comment on the pendulum swinging back from overripe winemaking styles to more traditional ones echo my wishes. My hope for 2013 and beyond for the wine industry is that this pendulum continues to swing back to the traditional so we’ll once again see a variety of bright wines and winemaking styles.

The swing of the pendulum has been the result of new wine drinkers coming into the market willing to explore new styles and the industry recognizing the importance of tradition. I can only see this trend continuing and look forward to the effect it has on our choices in years to come.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or e-mail me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.