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On Wine

Dan Berger, On Wine: A question of age, Part 1 of 2 parts

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 6, 2021 series
  • Updated

In the five decades I’ve been a wine collector, I’ve met dozens of people who called themselves wine lovers — but then I realized they knew almost nothing about wine.

I recently grasped why that is: They didn’t have to know anything – someone else told them what to buy. The only thing people needed to know besides the price was how many points it got.

When I first began seriously looking into wine about 1970, I was considered an odd duck; people said I was fixated on an obscure subject, some of which was accessible only by learning some chemistry, botany and other abstruse topics.

But I was OK with that and so were many of those with whom I consorted. Some ended up in the wine trade and made it a career. Others became wine collectors.

As a full-time journalist, all my wine inquiries came on vacations or days off. I read books on distant wine regions, soils, climates; took courses at UC Davis; attended sensory evaluation classes; took mail-order wine courses, and attended tastings with a now-defunct wine society.

Friends joined me on the learning curve. We’d gather often to taste wines we’d bought. I even talked my way into Joe Coulombe’s staff wine evaluations at the fledgling “Trader Joe’s,” when that chain had just three stores.

Writing about wine started with calls to winemakers to get specifics on how wines were created.

By the mid-1980s, however, I began to notice that the inquisitiveness about wine and its regions had begun to evaporate among the growing legions who were discovering wine.

Starting in the early 1980s, I began to meet lots of people who said they were wine lovers, but who knew nothing more than numbers affixed to the wines by wine critics.

About 1987, I wrote a humor article for a wine publication in which two guys get together to try some really old wines in the year 2019, which then was really far off.

The host says they’re going to try three old Napa Cabernets. He names them, all-stars of the 1970s, including 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.

“What do you know about them?” asks the guest.

“Well, this one got 99 points,” says the host.

The guest then asks, “What else do you know about ‘em?”

And the host says, “Nothing, 99 points.”

Soon after, I made became fascinated to determine how much actual wine knowledge most people had — especially those who paid exorbitant sums for some of the best wines.

I never pointedly asked questions to find out what the self-professed “wine lovers” really knew, but it was evident that in most cases, these people ended their comments by quoting a two-digit number, or infrequently 100.

Vineyards? Appellations? Vintages? Winemakers? No one seemed to care about any of that as long as the score was high enough. Scores began appearing in newspaper ads and on restaurant wine lists.

(Typical mid-1980s wine question: What grape variety is Barolo made from? Answer: How many points did it get?”)

It was becoming apparent that facts didn’t matter. They still don’t for most people. Just last week I asked the public relations director for a high-image Rutherford winery why the front label of its Cabernet didn’t say “Rutherford” – probably the single most acclaimed sub-district in the Napa Valley.

The only thing on the front label is Napa Valley. She replied, “No one asks about Rutherford anymore.”

I contend that one key reason Americans know so little about all wines is the dumbing-down of wine education so that all anyone needs to know is what score it got.

(Point of reference: I do not score wines and never have. For me, distinctiveness, varietal charm, balance, and personality are far more important.)

I may be really thick, but I simply don’t understand scores. In 1989 when I joined The Los Angeles Times as wine columnist, my first column, written literally on deadline, derided the hundred-point scale by suggesting that there weren’t enough points to describe the myriad elements in all wines.

What we really needed, I wrote, was a Dewey Decimal System of wine scoring – 999 points down to 999 one-thousandths of a point. Some people weren’t amused.

In a few days, I’ll join several California winemakers and a friend from Hawaii for three events in which some classic older wines from his cellar will be served. Some are so old (1960s!) they actually pre-date the period when wines were being scored.

This isn’t a competition. It’s simply to enjoy some of the classic Cabernets my friend had in his cellar under perfect storage conditions, and it allows us all to get together to discuss some of the details that make these wines so special.

Among the winemakers who will be there is a man who actually made several of these wines 50 years ago. We anticipate some fabulous stories from him about that era, what he faced, some of the people he worked with, and the condition of the grapes in each of the vintages.

This, more than any score could ever possibly do, is what wine is really all about, but the vast majority of people who buy wine simply don’t care to investigate even the simplest of factual details that could immeasurably enhance their enjoyment of the product.

One of the aspects of the scoring of wines that has always mystified me is that the current mode of the day, in terms of Cabernet production, is for a high-scoring wine to taste good now. But most winemakers will tell you, if they’re candid, that a red wine that tastes great when it’s young is no guarantee that it will be sublime and display excellence when it’s older.

Some of those who buy these wines either do not know this fact or choose to ignore it. If you want to put a wine in the cellar for 20 years, shouldn’t you know something about its composition, the elements of it that are intended to protect its fruit from deterioration?

If you’re intending on buying a performance automobile, would you not ask for some of the technical details?

Next Week: A few tips on buying wines that will improve in the bottle.

Wine of the Week

2016 Mathew Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($120) – There are simply not very many Napa Valley Cabernets any more that are being made with the proper statistical constituents to live beyond a decade and still deliver characteristics of maturity that once was the hallmark of all such wines.

I’ve written about the few that fit that mold over the years. Most of the newer properties that have been established over the last decade or two are making wines that are succulent, relatively tasty, and have such incredible concentration it seems as if they will last for a long time. But by analyzing the statistics, I’ve concluded that most of them will begin falling apart at approximately 10 years, unlike the 1960s and 1970s Cabernets that we will be trying next week.

Here Mathew Bruno winemaker Stephens Moody and Dr. Nichola Hall used Rutherford fruit to craft this attractive, nicely balanced Cab to reflect a trace of the herbal signature of the area, with good acid-pH balance (6.6 g/L acid, 3.65 pH; see next week’s article for details). This wine is already showing traces of how well it will age. Now five years old, it is approachable now (decant for best showing) and it will live for at least another 15 years with good storage.

David Duncan, CEO at Silver Oak Winery, discusses how the pandemic has impacted the U.S. wine industry. He tells Matt Miller and Amanda Lang on 'Bloomberg Markets' that the pandemic spurred a 'flight to quality' with people spending more time at home.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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Related to this story

Wine “experts” come in all shapes and sizes, from generalists to specialists. What constitutes expert knowledge in one area of wine may have no meaning in other areas. This is one aspect of wine that makes it such a complex and difficult subject to master.

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