There are so many intricacies to wine which can make just walking into a proper wine shop a daunting task for the uninitiated. But one doesn’t have to know all that much to be a good wine buyer. There is method to the madness and ways to make small pieces of information work for you. Like this: When in doubt, go Rioja. The Spanish region of Rioja makes some of the nicest wine in the world, per dollar spent (particularly red Tempranillo), and most wine shops will carry at least a couple of them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re in a wine shop that can’t sell you a decent Rioja for $15 or less, you should find another shop. Also, OR pinot noir is pretty amazing stuff these days and in 2008, they had one of their best vintages ever, so you can’t go too wrong with most any bottle from that region and year, and again, most decent shops will carry at least a couple, though the best ones can be costly. There are numerous recent examples of these little generalizations that can help: ’05 Bordeaux, ’09 Sonoma Chard, ’07 North Coast everything.
On a critical level, it’s relatively silly to generalize like that. Every single bottle of wine comes down to the grapes grown in a particular place and time and the choices made by the winemaker who begins the winemaking process with those grapes. But generalizing is like playing the percentages and certainly is no sillier than rating wine on 100 pt scale, implying that linear perfection can be achieved. One of the reasons I drink wine and- to this day- one of my favorite wines in the world is 1986 Dunn Vineyards Napa Cabernet. Some guy named Bob tells me it’s 92 points good. This isn’t far from walking into the Louvre, finding yourself before the Winged Victory of Samothrace, taking in its mass, its setting and the nuances of its construction (and destruction) and proclaiming, “I give it a 93.” Both of these things are artistic expressions in their given mediums and they are each effective on their own terms, to an open recipient. Empirically they are high quality examples of what they are. But assigning them numerical values and insinuating that they have a linear place in a measurable hierarchy from shit-on-Hellfire to absolute perfection is comical. But people like numbers, marketing is important, and anything that can be quickly described as an “A” should sell briskly.
A few weeks back I was invited to a private tasting in Boston, held by a group of three friends (thanks Noah, Steve & Tad!) who take turns hosting themed wine nights for each other and their guests. The premise of the tasting I attended was Cultish Cabs and the line up looked like this:
Since it’s not the clearest picture on this blog, here’s what we tasted (left to right): Whispering Dove Cabernet Oakville 2002, Whispering Dove Cabernet Stag’s Leap 2003, Agharta Syrah (Pax Mahle) 2004, Lail J Daniel Cuvee 1999, Dunn Cabernet Napa 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 2003, Scarecrow 2006, Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. What follows is more of an experiential tale than a set of proper tasting notes as I spent more time enjoying than note taking while amongst these friends.
This particular evening, it was decided that there would be an initial blind tasting, for fun, and after all guests made there guesses, decanters were properly labeled, so everyone would have accurate palate reference. The ’06 Scarecrow and the ’94 Dunn were both the crowd favorites and were the two wines that nearly everyone guessed correctly during blind tasting. As far as I’m concerned, Dunn Cabernet is the classic long lived Napa Cab in the same way that Chateau Haut Brion is the classic Bordeaux. As of this year, Dunn’s ’86 and ’87 Napa Cabs are still drinking quite well, with little sign of their age. This particular ’94 Dunn Napa, while showing beautifully, still has a number of years to improve in bottle, and many left to live. The 2006 Scarecrow, being such a big wine from a recent good vintage (sandwiched in between 2 great vintages), was supple, round, and encompassing. After significant breathing time, it was damn near seamless. There was a waft on the nose and considerable weight on the finish that our host insisted tasted of “vanilla cake”. While I experienced no crumbs, the vanilla (rich rather than sweet) character was undeniable and quite stunning. And while I know the price of this wine is relatively high (bordering on absurd), it’s a truly beautiful product, inside and out.
When I was first invited to this tasting, our fearless host expressed his desire to locate a bottle of Screaming Eagle for around $1200, which is next to impossible, making the cost of said Scarecrow seem quite reasonable. To most mortals, Screaming Eagle isn’t a real wine, but a legendary endpoint of what the highest end of the market will bear (or would bear before the Chinese started paying $1500 a pop for Lafite too young to drink, and then started drinking it). For pennies on those dollars, I brought the two bottles of Whispering Dove which I snapped up with great curiosity back when they were released for around $30/btl.
While every wine opened on this particular evening was well worthy of it’s company, the ’02 Whispering Dove Oakville not only had the most mysterious pedigree of the bunch, but was also 3rd on just about everyone’s blind tasting preference list, and was, by one less experienced taster, mistaken for Scarecrow. To the best of my knowledge, this wine was only produced in 3 vintages from ’01 to ’03, and was very likely different grapes (and likely winemakers) in each release. Rumors that Whispering Dove was in fact declassified Screaming Eagle juice were quickly dispelled, but that didn’t change the marketing boost it got from the false notion. Nor does it change the fact that the 2002 Whispering Dove was most certainly vinified by someone who knew how to handle reserve quality Oakville fruit. And I will likely give my remaining stash another 3 or 4 years before tasting again.
And then there was the obviously out of place ’04 Agharta Syrah, which while cultish, contains no cabernet, and was not part of the blind tasting. Bolstering said cultishness, prior to it’s debut, it was given a 98 point rating by some guy named Bob and before that it was vinified, oaked, aged (58 months!), and bottled (unfined & unfiltered) by a winemaker named Pax. And while Pax himself has said that the just released ’05 is “twice the wine” as is this monsterous and complex ’04 Agharta, he’s almost out of running room on the 100 point scale. I’ve tasted it on 3 occasions and giving notes would require the transcription of a short novel I haven’t yet written. It’s deeply complex stuff that changes dramatically over many hours of breathing and is an experience in itself rather that something to drink with any nameable specific food stuff. Structurally the experience of this debut Agharta is similar to Sean Thackrey’s Orion in that the sheer number of flavors per breathing time makes these wines infinitely faceted (and fascinating) gems. Looking forward to following the evolution of these bottles over the next decade or two.
And I don’t mean to disparage Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a reason it has the reputation it does. Yquem has been producing some of the words finest sweet white for centuries. By the time Jacques Sauvage was granted feudal tenure over Yquem in 1593 special growing techniques and late harvesting were already in practice and the estates finest vintages live for over a century. Very few estates, winemaking or otherwise enjoy such a rich history, which certainly comes with a hefty per bottle tariff, here in the future. For my dollar, if I’m going to spend way too much money on a half-bottle of sweet white, it’s more often going to be a 6 puttonyos tokaji, essencia, or something on which the Austrian genius, Alois Kracher, once had his hands.
Speaking of which, our final wine of the evening was Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. The Mr K series was a partnership of Sine Qua Non proprietor Manfred Krankl and the aforementioned Kracher, which ended abruptly upon Kracher’s untimely passing. Kracher’s family continues to produce the eponymous wines that made him famous. While the SQN Mr K The Nobleman 2002 (Chardonnay) is one of the lighter, thinner wines ever produced under this label, it is still a beautiful, balanced, nuanced, (almost) unreasonably honeyed joy to sip. The ’02 Nobleman is only “lesser” in the way that a mediocre Radiohead record is still worlds better than all of the crap on the radio. This golden wine is a treat on it’s own, but pairs well with a range of cheeses and non-chocoalte desserts, and with residual sugar at this level, the remaining wines may outlive many of us.