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What Are Wine Writers Really For?

Gerald Asher

The title “Masters of ‘Minor Wines'” at the head of Michel Bettane’s column in a recent issue of World of Fine Wine summed up neatly his argument that wine writing and wine criticism have become circumscribed by popular taste. Writers and critics, he complains, are so focused on new releases of young wines, often of entry-level style and quality, that they either ignore or have forgotten what makes a wine “great,” worthy of aging and worth buying even at a higher price.

Populist wine critics know their audience, and, as high-tech meets market demand, there will always be an abundance of inexpensive, attractive young wines they can write about. But Bettane, a former editor of the Revue du Vin de France, makes an important point: If a valuable part of the work of a writer or critic is to reveal wine to the reader, helping form his or her taste rather than just pandering to the lack of it, then he himself needs to have experienced wine at its best, when both young and evolved, and to understand what it is in a young wine that ensures its development. Above all, he or she should know that great wine has little to do with today’s obsession with heft, scale, “sweet-spots” and fruit-cup “complexity.”

Age and California wines

I read recently in a wine blog that California wines are at their best when young, so the main selling point for them should be that they don’t need to be aged. To say that California wines are at their best when young prompts two questions: Does the writer mean all California wines? And how does he define “best”? Doesn’t such a statement mean that what you taste in any young California wine is all there is and ever will be? I know we live in an impatient age, but is there so much confusion among both writers and critics that they do not see the difference between wines that do or don’t need the softening of age to be drinkable and wines that have qualities which age alone can spin into poetry you can taste? Wines that benefit from aging are usually also agreeable when young because a quality essential to any positive development in bottle is impeccable balance.

The job of a critic is to help consumers recognize such wines and understand what their distinction means, to identify their structure so that it will never again be confused with the oppressive bulk of raw tannin. He should help the consumer recognize the difference between tartaric and malic acid and understand the role each will play as the wine develops. Tartaric acid eventually smooths out while contributing to the development of wine’s ever-evolving bouquet and flavor. In a young wine, you can feel its presence on your tongue while malic acid clings to the gums and, in the long term, contributes only a hard quality to the wine. Even while young, does the wine have depth? Or is everything on the surface? Does the impression of the wine change from opening sip to final swallow? It’s difficult enough for the uninitiated to notice how a wine unfolds on the palate without being distracted by superficial and subjective references to tropical fruits and berries. If emphasis is always on the primary (and ephemeral) fruit of a young wine, no matter how agreeable, then it should be no surprise that many will accept the notion that a young California wine is already as good as it will ever be.

Patience rewarded

On a recent night, with a roast sirloin, I had a Charles Krug Napa Valley Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 1974. I’d read a tasting note about this very wine in a popular blog and was encouraged to pull out a bottle from my own stash. Mine was ullaged into the shoulder (as auctioneers like to say) but decanted immediately before dinner, it was exquisite. The extraordinary bouquet and flavor, delicate but persistent, carried no memory of primary fruit. It brought a nostalgic reminder of the summer of ’74 — warm yet even — and ended with a vibrant but silky dry note. As a fine California wine, it was perhaps just past its prime. Yet no 2-year old California wine, no matter how “concentrated,” could offer a similar experience.

Anyone who has the foresight to put a few bottles away from time to time — not “collecting” exactly, just tucking them into whatever space there is — can usually look forward to a similar harvest of patience rewarded. Right now, look for a few Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ’07s with promise, those with firm elegance and flavor that lingers after the swallow. Future pleasure won’t be the result of a wine’s early superficialities or of power you could choke on. Those who write about wines and judge them have a responsibility to keep their early notes so they can refer to the clues they offer when discussing the same wine in its maturity. The fact is, when it comes to fine wine, most of the florid tasting notes served up to us are meaningless. When a fine wine is young, it needs a brief but careful analysis, not buckets of adjectives. A terse frame is what we need as a foundation when we come to write about the mature wine. What we then have to say in response to what we find in the glass is as much emotional as it is intellectual anyway. We taste a mature wine in our heads, and even if we could find words for what we are thinking, they would be barely translatable.

Gerald Asher is an award-winning wine writer and the author of the just-released “A Vineyard in My Glass.” He has spent his life in the wine trade, in London, New York, Paris and San Francisco, and served as the wine editor of Gourmet for 30 years. In 2009 he was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame.

Photo: Gerald Asher. Credit: Andrew Teran