A shout-out to Jeff Tweedy’s World Within A Song, although I never heard of him and never heard his band, Wilco. But the man can write, and his new book is ridiculously interesting and endlessly fun.
Considering all the truly awful things that happened this year (and that go on happening), along lines of taking such comforts as one can get, I must express my appreciation for the ubiquity of fried chicken on restaurant menus. Obviously it isn’t all good fried chicken, but simple competition will eventually weed out the lesser examples.
For introverts into “family dramas” in literature, Susie Boyt’s beautiful Loved And Missed is one of those novels that grows in retrospect, such that it was “perfectly good” while reading it but haunting and stubbornly unforgettable afterwards.
There were a few things toward which I was so cool I wondered whether I was the problem, since everyone else seemed to love them. One was the film MAY/DECEMBER which I admired in an unsettlingly ghoulish and voyeuristic way but about which I felt – numbed, disengaged. The other – and this really shocks me – is the new Peter Gabriel disc. I’m baffled at what seems excessive praise, unless one’s favorite Gabriel song is “Sledgehammer.” In that case, boogie on. For me, the virtuosic layerings of style and affect seem to make the paucity of melody, harmony and lyric all the more prominent.
WINE WRITERS: CAN YOU BELIEVE US AT ALL?!?
It depends on the degree to which we speculate. You can rely on us in general as long as you remember we’re fallible – that is, you and we are fallible – but we’re probably more reliable than members of congress, admittedly a low bar, and not quite as reliable as weather forecasters. And speaking of our local meteorologists, they freely admit that their forecasts are less reliable the further out they go. I’ll take “lessons for wine writers” for $200, Alex.
I’m prompted by a bottle of Riesling from Müller-Catoir. It’s the 2014 Breumel in den Mauern Spätlese.
The first thing cellarmaster Martin Franzen said to me when I sat down to taste his ‘14s in March 2015 was, “It’s too soon to evaluate the ‘14s, but we can definitely say they’re better than the ‘13s.” And as a rule, they were. It was the second year in a row that suffered under a mild and clammy September, where the vineyards attracted a host of rots, none of them “noble.” But the growers learned from the previous year’s travails and were better prepared to cope, and most of them did. (Only a few truly luckless growers along the Mosel simply couldn’t make decent wine from rot-ridden vineyards.)
In Austria, also, the vintage was greeted skeptically, especially for Grüner Veltliner. Ignoble botrytis was again the culprit, and my overall impression might have been summed up as – There were good, very good and even excellent wines despite conditions, but you had to be relentlessly selective. That much is a valid statement even today.
Let’s stay in Austria for a minute. It was perhaps 4-5 years later when I tasted a truly superb 2014 Riesling from Willi Bründlmayer – one of a pair, in fact – and Sales Director Thomas Klinger observed “If there are any great wines from 2014 I have one in my glass now,” almost as if he himself couldn’t believe it. A few months ago I was at Schloss Gobelsburg tasting a vertical of Heiligenstein Riesling, which included the ’14, about which I was determined to be polite – I had never liked the wine – but no such diplomacy was needed: It was marvelous.
How does anything like that happen? The answer, if one is being honest, is that I don’t know, and I doubt that anyone really actually “knows,” though some educated guesses are more prescient than others. To be fair, most of the 2014 Austrian whites lay in a liminal zone between “acceptable” and “dubious,” but the good ones, including those that became good ones over time, had developed in ways I doubt anyone could have imagined.
Vintages are designed to make fools of most of us prognosticators. Did the 2013 Austrian wines justify their initial hype – including my own? Not always. Did some of the 2015s suddenly and inexplicably premox – which nobody predicted? Yes, and shockingly. A 2016 1er Cru Chablis, from a good grower and a properly handled bottle, had already started to oxidize, and this was exactly the crisp acid-driven vintage we all insist will “age forever.”
What is really striking is that the good 2014s are seriously good, and they have a set of flavors in common across national borders, so that you can identify the vintage whether it’s an Austrian or German or Alsatian or Loire wine in your glass. The Catoir Riesling that led to these musings was riotously good in a highly particular way. And beware, because now we arrive at all the “issues” in wine description. (Not the silly ones; the difficult and serious ones…). My shorthand for the ’14-flavor is something I call “sweet-green.” It addresses lime-blossom, linden, wintergreen, osmanthus, and the “orchid” taste of (so-called) orchid oolong teas. If someone at the table said “anise hyssop” or “aloe vera” or “verbena,” I’d know what (s)he meant. But the overriding state of affairs is, it smells and tastes like a 2014, even if you can’t say WTF you mean.
For some years now, I have tried to repel the question of how a wine or a vintage will “age.” First of all I am mindful of the many vintages that aged quite differently than I supposed they would. If you encounter a wine writer who is serenely confident in such predictions, step on that person’s face with both feet. “(“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” as the saying goes.) The writer you can trust is the one who is less categorical, not only in this judgment but in all judgments. Yes of course, we have to sound like we know what we’re talking about, but this can be misconstrued by y’all, and also by we ourselves.
If we’re careful and lucky, what we attain with experience is a humble knowledge of how contingent this all is. I’m not saying that nothing can be known; I’m saying that salient among the things we can know is the limits to what we can know – or knowfor sure. If you read my writings about wines, you can be certain they are as I depicted them that day, even if we wouldn’t use the same terms. You can be sure they’ll be faithful to my description for some time, maybe months, maybe even years, depending on where they were in their evolutions at the moment I tasted them.
In 45 years tasting, I have arrived at certain hypotheses on which I can confidently rely, as long as I never forget that any hypothesis is only valid until and if something calls it into question. I will write them here as statements, but please know this is a linguistic convenience, so as not to clutter my sentences with constant qualifiers. That said….
The idea that vintages “age on their acidity” doesn’t seem to be valid. I’ve seen it disproven too many times, both from low-acid vintages that aged magnificently and from high-acid vintages that went egregiously kaput over time. For white wines (at least to a greater degree than for red wines) we need acidity but we shouldn’t relish it. “If X is good then X+Y should be even better” is a fatal mistake if you’re buying to lay down.
It seems to me that vintages age best on fruit, on their total density of concentration, and on balanced components. A pragmatic approach to sulfur doesn’t hurt! A controlled oxidation early in the winemaking often acts like a vaccination against a later oxidation. But you can trust fruit more than anything, it seems to me.
For example, the 2018 German Rieslings are developing beautifully; they are expressing the fragrance of the vintage, they are showing immense charm, and their tertiary notes appear with complexity. The 2019s, in contrast, was generally thought to be the “better” vintage, and may yet be in the fullness of time, but I have a tiny nagging doubt. They have more muscle than they have fruit per se, and while I love their ripe roasty aromas I sense that theirs is a juiciness that may be more perishable than we expect.
Some vintages are great on paper. German 2007s were positively drenched with extract – they called it the “150-day” vintage because of the ungodly length of time between flowering and harvest, and when they were young they were stunning. Surely this of all vintages would go the distance. But not all of them have.
It is a truisim that wines are diminished by bottling, and that we merchants should avoid being seduced by gushingly expressive cask samples. Good advice, in general. But some vintages are improved by bottling, which can reveal structural contours barely incipient in cask. Shape gives narrative to a wine, and few things are more elegant than form.
Do not construe anything I’ve said here to challenge the value and dignity of expertise. I believe in expertise. And most of the true wine “experts” I know are happy to be mistaken (which is how we all learn) and delighted by the surprise of a wine or a vintage that evolved other than we anticipated. Do not confuse expertise with omniscience. And be suspicious of any and all statements that smack of omniscience or that present as absolutes. I wince to see those “drink now or keep for 6-7 years” at the end of too many tasting notes. That writer, believe me, does not know that the wine will reach some imagined pinnacle in “6-7” years. In fact you can be wary of anyone who insists that drinking a wine at the “best possible” age is the best possible way to drink wine. I mean, you can try – god knows I have, and still do – but man, you have to tolerate a lot of disappointment.
The most any of us can say is “This is the sort of wine that usually ages well, if you like mature flavors, but this is no guarantee,” or “These high-acid years are dubious wagers for aging, but if you insist….”
MALAISE IN THE GERMAN WINE MARKET?
I hear tell of it. I haven’t seen the numbers, and such evidence as I have is basically anecdotal, though the anecdotes are informed and given to me by professionals not prone to hyperbole.
If true, it would be both cognitively dissonant and also very sad, because German wine seems to be in a period of noteworthy creative turbulence – the good kind. We’re also gaining access to entirely new regions (new to us at any rate) and to the fervently enterprising work being done in them: Baden, and Württemberg. If anything this should be a time of increased interest in German wines. And yes, I’ve sung this tune before, but if I look at the “scene” among German vintners today, it has changed so much in the last 20-30 years that the market ought to have changed with it. What’s holding it back? I wish I knew.
I have some ideas, more “notions” than fully thought-through. They have to do with the nature-of-the-beast itself.
In the era before climate change, there’d be a notable Riesling vintage every several years, maybe two or three times per decade. Buyers would emerge for those vintages, and there’d be a healthy business to tide us over until the next “great” year came along. In effect, drinkers were balancing what they bought with what they actually drank. Today we have viable vintages every year (with isolated exceptions), which means there’s no vintage-bump because now they’re all good. But – we’re not drinking the wines any faster, and so we regard the newest “excellent” vintage and think we have no space for it until we drink down what we have.
If I’m correct, the problem lies in the way we prioritize what we drink; it doesn’t lie in the wines, nor in the bromides we repeat about the “market” or about “the German language” or any of the other reasons we’ve all trotted out over the years. We simply don’t drink the wines nearly often enough.
Here are some other notions. One is the prevailing technical competence at work among German vintners. (A not-so-ancillary footnote to this is the queasy matter of sulfur, “queasy” because it’s a signaling metaphor for persons eager to be aligned with the virtue system of the zeitgeist, and as such it is usually misunderstood.) Such competence finds itself at odds with a market’s thirst for “funk.” Germany is viewed as a place from which “technically perfect and thus both sterile and politically incorrect” wines emerge. Such thinking is wrong, obviously, but hard to struggle against. It can be hard to debate with people for whom the idea of cleanliness and deliciousness is irrelevant at best, and regarded with suspicion at worst.
I also wonder about the movement toward dry wines. Now don’t roll your eyes; I love the new generation of dry German wines, which constitute the majority of my German drinking today. (For the moment we can disregard the clunkers, which do exist in ever-shrinking numbers but which are a subject for another day.) In the main, German white wine is predominantly dry, and is consistently good, often excellent, and sometimes world-class and superb. So what’s the problem?
Maybe it’s this. Germany has become another supplier of dry white wine, and I would say it is yet another supplier, competing against nearly every white wine from every place on earth. The drinker, now comparing apples to apples, often finds it easier to approach wine from the other zillion possible sources, which are, if nothing else, SIMPLER.
I want to avoid repeating this debate as it pertains to the actual wines. That debate is largely a thing of the past. The wines are richly worthy of all the love they can possibly receive. This isn’t about them. It’s about a dichotomy of thought ably summarized by David Schildknecht when he divided the dialectic into “Us Too” versus “We alone.” To the vast world of dry white wine options, the Germans have arrived saying “Us too,” and regardless of the claim they have to stake – which in my view is a compelling one – they have placed themselves within a crowded field.
The ”old” genre of German wine (thankfully not extinct, yet) was if nothing else unique. That kind of wine was not being made anywhere else, and one speculated whether it could be made anywhere else. As a genre it started to fall out of favor (though we’re encouraged to see it being revived and appreciated, at least by the growers themselves). And yet the cure was perhaps at least as bad as the disease. You might protest that both types of wine continue to exist and the buyer can select what she prefers. Fair enough. And yet any clear eyed observer sees that the sharp end of the marketing prong points to the dry wines (and especially to the “GG” class) as that-which-is-most-attractive in contemporary German wine. I have a modest philosophical objection to that idea, but forget it! The larger point is how one is positioned in a big complex matrix of competition. We have the kind of wine y’all prefer, but it appears you can choose from among 687 other options… is maybe not the cure for We make a certain kind of wine that no one else can make, though it’s not a “popular” style…
My final musing has to do with an unintended consequence of something we say we want, and ought to want: small-batch, individual wines of distinctiveness and specificity. Here I would argue that NO wine culture on earth does more to honor and preserve this principle. And what do we do? We greet it with a yawn, if not an outright hostility toward a shining gesture of particularity which we despise as being “too complicated.”
But is it? How complicated is too complicated? Let’s look at one winery as a test case. It’s a winery I love, a guy I think is a genius, a man who seems to have forgotten how to make mediocre wine; in short, the kind of vintner toward whom we should be rushing. But we are not rushing. Take a bow, Christian Dautel.
What is his production? Let’s divide it by grape variety, starting with his amazingly tasty reds.
He has a TROLLINGER. He has three LEMBERGERS, and six PINOT NOIRS.
He has a few little ancillary items, including (in his words) “the dreaded Rosé.”
He has two excellent SPARKLING WINES
He has two CHARDONNAYS and three PINOT BLANCS
He has five RIESLINGS
Broken down by category, there are six wines in the everyday “estate-level” category. An importer might well carry all six. They might include the Rosé (dreaded or otherwise, as the wine itself is good), and they’d certainly want one of the “prestige” Pinot Noirs (maybe both), and even if they ignored the astonishingly good “Gipskeuper” bottlings of Pinot Blanc and Riesling, which offer astonishing value, they’d be looking at an offering of 9-10 wines – and little wonder the buyer is paralyzed with too many options, and chooses something easier. The vexing dilemma for the merchant is that all the wines are excellent, and it is painful to leave any of them behind.
This is the fine-wine business at its finest, I would argue – but who does it serve? I’ve often said the fine wine ethos is gorgeously inefficient, but if it were my cash on the line I might be less dismissive of efficiency. Can the world afford to support a culture displaying such idealism, however lovely we may find it to be? Multiply the Dautel example by 300-400 other wineries, and then consider the “malaise” in the German wine market again. Either be careful what you wish for, or else put your money where your values are – or where you like to imagine they are.
A FINAL SLICE OF OPINION
If one is a film reviewer, one sits through the film for a couple hours, and sometimes more than once, if the film is enigmatic or interesting.
If one reviews any sort of live performance art (e.g., dance, theater, concerts) one watches for as long as the performance entails.
If one reviews restaurants one (usually) eats several meals in them, and looks for a through-line in the variety of impressions one may have formed. This takes many, many hours.
If one reviews books, one must (alas) actually read them, and this can entail quite a lot of time.
And yet, if one reviews wines, each wine is tasted and spat out, sometimes many wines, wine after wine after wine, with the reviewer spending perhaps up to ten minutes per wine, before issuing a description and an opinion. Though it is understood that people are subjective and fallible, wine reviewers are experienced professionals who offer well informed judgments. But sadly, these judgments are yoked to a ridiculously and speciously precise “scoring” scale, which imposes an absolute value upon a sensual, transitory experience.
Whereas reviewers in every other aesthetic field spend more time on the subjects on which they comment, few if any of them use a scoring shorthand of more than 1-4 (or 1-5) stars. While these are relatively imprecise, they get the job done. No reader, looking at a 4-star restaurant review complains “That’s all well and good but I want to know exactly how good it was. Was it a “93” or a “97”????
But wine, the thing upon which the least amount of time is spent, is subject to the most tortured degree of specificity. Does this strike you as odd?
No one would ever hire me as a wine “reviewer;” I’m too contrary and too prolix. But if they did, I would deploy a simple but useful scale to accompany my breathless prose. It might look like this:
And for anyone who hasn’t already guessed the meanings of these acronyms, they stand for Good, Really Good, Really Fucking Good, Seriously Fucking Good, and finally, Fucking Spectacular.
If there is a reader for whom this scale would be frustratingly vague, do make yourself known to us.
And for you, and for all the rest of us, a happy 2024. May your New Year receive at least a “90” if not a “96.”