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The Wonders of Winespeak


Craig Camp
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To be honest, I wasn't old enough to drink wine 40 years ago, but going back to the 1970s, when I was drinking wine, I think the quality was higher back then, and that leads me to suspect it was higher in the 1960s and before, too.  The old wines that I've had from those days would support my position.

Of course California has had some fine wine makers since the days of Prohibition, and even before that. But they were few and far between. That's like saying you could always get decent wine from the top classed growths in Bordeaux. But for high quality wines that were available and affordable to the general public, forget it. Until the mid 60s California wine in general was heavy, oversweet, made in a variety of pseudo-European styles such as "Chablis", "Burgundy", "Rhine" etc, regardless of the grape varieties and growing conditions. That was fair enough because it met the needs of the buying public, like the low end Gallo output of today, and Americans then did not drink wine regularly - even today the per capita consumption is lower than most other wine growing countries in spite of the massive output.

So if you think the quality was higher in the 1960s and before then I suspect a little more research may be in order. Just because today you might dine at the French Laundry and similar top end restaurants you can't say food today is better than it ever was, because these few fine restaurants are beacons surrounded by seas of mediocre to poor burger joints and restaurants.

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Wasn't this thread supposed to be about cat urine? :huh: Or was that simply another euphemism for how badly California wine sucks? Because on that count it seems to me that CK is quite correct in saying that just because one might even enjoy the occasional vintage of, say Ch. Montelena, that does not mean California wine in general (Beringer, KJ etc) is any good. Quite along the lines of:

Just because today you might dine at the French Laundry and similar top end restaurants you can't say food today is better than it ever was, because these few fine restaurants are beacons surrounded by seas of mediocre to poor burger joints and restaurants.

BTW I do hope you're not dissing Taylor's Refresher :wub: here britcook. But perhaps one should question if we are not too demanding of our Californian brethren: it's so beautiful there - why not let that be enough? Plus they have so much neat computer technology. The additional burden of crafting fine wine may be too much: here, a ways down on the yellow banner, an article from California Wine and Food honors "Michael Broadband."

Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at all seasons: That is all there is to distinguish us from the other Animals.

-Beaumarchais

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Until the mid 60s California wine in general was heavy, oversweet, made in a variety of pseudo-European styles such as "Chablis", "Burgundy", "Rhine" etc, regardless of the grape varieties and growing conditions. That was fair enough because it met the needs of the buying public, like the low end Gallo output of today, and Americans then did not drink wine regularly - even today the per capita consumption is lower than most other wine growing countries in spite of the massive output.

So if you think the quality was higher in the 1960s and before then I suspect a little more research may be in order.

Britcook -- I've done my research. Excellent wine was available in any Safeway in California prior to the 1970s from large producers such as Louis Martini and Beaulieu, and for not much money.

And what makes you think that people are so sophisticated and drinking so well today? Just because they buy Chardonnay instead of Chablis and Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Burgundy? They still get wines with substantial residual sugar in them (reds as well as whites), albeit with a lot more oaking, higher alcohol, and a lot more manipulation -- and generally at much, much higher prices.

Edited by Claude Kolm/The Fine Wine Review (log)
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While I agree with Mr. Kolm's assertion that there are many wines on the market today with substantial levels of oak and sugar, I must disagree with the notion that more better quality wine was made in California in the "good old days" than today.

While I am NOT a fan of much of what the Mondavi clan puts into their bottles, I do think their upper echelon wines are quite good. The prices they attach to these are often ridiculous, certainly.

On the other hand, I DO REMEMBER wines in those "good old days." I am not one of those who felt Gallo's Hearty Burgundy was better than some of the Pinot Noirs of the 1970s and it certainly wasn't superior to good producer's wines from the Cote d'Or. California has made fabulous strides in its production of Pinot Noir over the past ten or 20 years.

Not ALL wines from the likes of Louis Martini, Wente, BV or Inglenook were in the "superior quality" category. I do think, though, that today's winemakers might take a look at those old bottlings and see that it IS possible to make 12-13% alcohol, dry wines of modest oak which do age well.

One of the reasons many winemakers DON'T strive to make those sorts of wines (and neither do those wineries today, whomever owns them) is that the business of wine is far more competitive than it was way back when. And winemakers are often driven by point-scoring publications to make bigger and more powerful wines so their products "stand out" in tastings. I believe Mr. Kolm's publication participates in this numerical "scoring" of wines.

California has far more acreage today in prime locations (for quality) than it did 40 or 50 years ago, no?

And more people are farming responsibly today than ever before, no?

Tell me California isn't a suitable place for Syrah, for example.

Sauvignon Blanc is being made with some flair at a number of properties, unlike in the "good old days."

California didn't produce Merlot until Martini's 1968-1970 blend. There are certainly a few good estates making that varietal.

California sparkling wines were limited to a few producers back then...today most tasters would agree there is far more well-made bubbly of far higher standard than in yester-year.

A number of vintners are making interesting wines with other European varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo. This is a positive development, no?

As for Monsieur Rolland being "the kiss of death": Much too harsh! This guy has helped elevate the quality of numerous estates. If you want to argue about their "sameness" or his imprint being noted on many of those wines, be my guest. But please don't suggest the guy doesn't have some idea about "quality."

I think Britcook and Melkor make terrific points and Mr. Kolm, while entitled to his opinion, ought to wake up and smell the Cabernet.

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That's exactly why I don't sell any Mondavi wines.  :laugh:

Read your history, you owe him more than you probably think.

What Mondavi did it the past cannot be denied and should be respected. However, this does not obligate us to drink or sell the bland, boring wines they make today. Laurels are not to be rested upon.

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What history?  Before Mondavi set up shop in 1966, there were great wines being produced in California by the likes of Stony Hill, Ridge, Hanzell, Inglenook, BV, Louis Martini, etc.

Right on Claude. Mondavi never made a wine that matched those. Mondavi did not invent great California wine - he invented great California wine marketing. Something I think he deserves respect for by the way.

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(Echezeaux @ Jul 2 2003, 03:28 PM) Mr. Kolm, while entitled to his opinion, ought to wake up and smell the Cabernet.

Seems to me that Claude Kolm (assuming, for the sake of continuity, that CK is indeed a Mr.) is devoted to quality fine wines. I find his points about the caliber and prices of California wines (and others, so far as I've seen) learned and unimpeachable. Au contraire, condescension towards someone with a palate more experienced and sophisticated than one's own seems rather unfortunate.

Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at all seasons: That is all there is to distinguish us from the other Animals.

-Beaumarchais

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Interesting though the discussion on Mondavi is, with good points for and against, back to topic, for people who want to know more about the smell descriptors for wine they could do worse than find out about the Aroma Wheel produced by UCD. And did you see that Mondavi gave $25m to UCD?

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Interesting though the discussion on Mondavi is, with good points for and against, back to topic, for people who want to know more about the smell descriptors for wine they could do worse than find out about the  Aroma Wheel produced by UCD.

We use the Aroma Wheels at Copia for some of the wine classes, they are quite handy.

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(Echezeaux @ Jul 2 2003, 03:28 PM) Mr. Kolm, while entitled to his opinion, ought to wake up and smell the Cabernet.

Seems to me that Claude Kolm (assuming, for the sake of continuity, that CK is indeed a Mr.) is devoted to quality fine wines. I find his points about the caliber and prices of California wines (and others, so far as I've seen) learned and unimpeachable. Au contraire, condescension towards someone with a palate more experienced and sophisticated than one's own seems rather unfortunate.

My only issue with Mr. Kolm's assertions is his mistaken notion that it was "easier" to buy exceptional California wine 30 or 40 years ago than today along with the idea that great California was more plentiful way back when.

Safeway stores did not sell "fine wine" back in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of its wine sales were in the form of jug wines such as those from Italian Swiss Colony, 11 Cellars, Cribari and Gallo. "Fine" wines such as BV, Inglenook, Louis Martini and Wente Brothers were NOT sold in such a venue. Nor were the wines of Heitz, Ridge, Hanzell or Stony Hill.

There were less than 20 wineries in Napa at the start of the 1970s. Today there are two or three hundred. While I am a big fan of some old vintages of Louis Martini, BV and Inglenook, "some" is the key word. I would argue that "great" vintages happened more by chance and less by planning in those days (not to say there aren't difficult vintages...but the so-called poor years demonstrate who know what they're doing and who doesn't).

Keep in mind, too, that Napa's valley floor was planted because it was easier to cultivate. Today vintners (not all, of course) have a better idea of how to produce higher quality wines. More difficult terrains are devoted to wine grapes these days than 40 years ago because the price of wine is such that a grower can expect to turn a profit.

I'm sorry if my commentary is viewed a "condescending." And I don't wish to enter into a debate as to whose palate is more experienced or more sophisticated. Everyone has his or her OWN tastes and we should not feel a need to conform to the tastes of others.

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Sometimes Chardonnay tastes like apple. Is that normal?

(just trying to have a little fun folks)

Firefly Restaurant

Washington, DC

Not the body of a man from earth, not the face of the one you love

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Everyone has his or her OWN tastes and we should not feel a need to conform to the tastes of others.

Quite right indeed :biggrin:

Edited by lissome (log)

Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love at all seasons: That is all there is to distinguish us from the other Animals.

-Beaumarchais

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What history?  Before Mondavi set up shop in 1966, there were great wines being produced in California by the likes of Stony Hill, Ridge, Hanzell, Inglenook, BV, Louis Martini, etc.

Right on Claude. Mondavi never made a wine that matched those.

Not being a huge fan of the Mondavi wines across the board, but I might point out the results of the Grand Jury Europeen tasting some years ago. The "jury" (comprised of European judges including the likes of Michel Bettane, Bernard Burtschy, Thierry Desseauve, Armin Diel, Peter Dipoli, Michel Dovaz,Joel Payne, Jacques Perrin, Jancis Robinson, amongst others).

Chardonnays from around the world were entered. Three vintages: 1989, 1992 and 1994 (the tasting was in 1997, I think). A winery might get lucky with one wine in a particular vintage, but this three vintage idea evens the playing field. You have to perform well on a consistent basis to fare well.

Here's a list of the "players"...a rather formidable list of winemakers:

Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet (Olivier Leflaive)

Chablis Les Blanchots (Domaine Laroche)

Chablis Valmur (Raveneau)

Chardonnay (Ca' del Bosco)

Chardonnay (Donatsch)

Chardonnay (Rebholz)

Chardonnay Gaia e Rey (Angelo Gaja)

Chardonnay Grand Ardèche

Chardonnay Milmanda (Torrès Miguel)

Chardonnay Mountadam

Chardonnay Private Reserve (Mondavi)

Chardonnay Roxburgh (Rosemount Estate)

Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets (Jean-Marc Morey)

Chevalier-Montrachet (Maison Bouchard)

Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles(Maison Jadot)

Corton-Charlemagne (Bonneau du Martray)

Corton-Charlemagne (Maison Louis Latour)

Meursault Charmes (Lafon)

Meursault Perrières (Jean-F. Coche-Dury)

Montrachet (Domaine Prieur)

Montrachet Marquis de la Guiche (Drouhin)

Nuits Saint Georges Clos de l'Arlot (Clos de l'Arlot)

Pouilly-Fuissé (Domaine Valette)

Pouilly-Fuissé (Mme Guffens-Heynen)

Pouilly-Fuissé Hors Classe Hors Classe (Ferret)

Puligny-Montrachet Clos du Cailleret (Chartron)

Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes (Domaine Sauzet)

Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles (Domaine Leflaive)

Like it or not, the winner of this prestigious tasting by a large margin was the Robert Mondavi Winery. The runners up were Meursault Charmes du Domaine des Comtes Lafon & Montrachet Marquis de la Guiche de J. Drouhin.

I'd say that's a nice feather in Monsieur Mondavi's chapeau.

I hardy-ly agree with someone's remarks about resting on one's laurels.

But this is a matter of perspective. For those of us who are critics or critical consumers, we may have encountered wines we don't find to our taste. But the producer (Mondavi or anybody else) may be quite happy with the quality of their products.

Is it a qualitative judgment or is it a matter of style which is even more subjective?

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Not being a huge fan of the Mondavi wines across the board, but I might point out the results of the Grand Jury Europeen tasting some years ago. 

Chardonnays from around the world were entered.  Three vintages: 1989, 1992 and 1994 (the tasting was in 1997, I think).

These types of tasting are pointless and tiresome. The results are always the same. Mondavi is made to taste good young and they don't worry about the future. Lafon makes wine that does not even show its best stuff for ten years. Even then I would rather drink a young Lafon any day over any wine Mondavi EVER made.

Every giant winery like Mondavi can find some special barrels out of the thousands in their cellars to show well in tastings. Some people make wines for tastings other people make wines that matter. Mondavi needs the press from those few special barrels they can come up with to sell the rest of the stuff they make.

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These types of tasting are pointless and tiresome. The results are always the same. Mondavi is made to taste good young and they don't worry about the future. Lafon makes wine that does not even show its best stuff for ten years. Even then I would rather drink a young Lafon any day over any wine Mondavi EVER made.

Every giant winery like Mondavi can find some special barrels out of the thousands in their cellars to show well in tastings. Some people make wines for tastings other people make wines that matter. Mondavi needs the press from those few special barrels they can come up with to sell the rest of the stuff they make.

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He will downgrade a perfectly delicious, interesting, complex wine if it is ready to drink in its youth ???

No - just fat obvious ones with no acid and too much residual sugar.

And so the Robert Mondavi Reserve wine is "fat", "obvious" "low in acidity" and has "residual sugar" ???

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He will downgrade a perfectly delicious, interesting, complex wine if it is ready to drink in its youth ???

No - just fat obvious ones with no acid and too much residual sugar.

And so the Robert Mondavi Reserve wine is "fat", "obvious" "low in acidity" and has "residual sugar" ???

Is that a rhetorical question?

I do not see the point is trying to establish the personality of the Mondavi winery based the the tiny output of their reserve wines as compared to the sea of neutral wines they produce under their many labels. This is like defining Chevrolet by the Corvette. Mondavi is what they are - a producer of good solid wines in large quantities.

By the way the Mondavi Reserve wines are famously bad value. It is easy to find other California wines of equal quality for much less. If the wines are so great why did Tim Mondavi get canned? Why is their business going down the tubes? The reason is Mondavi offers wines that are a bad value that do not compete well in today's marketplace.

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By the way the Mondavi Reserve wines are famously bad value. It is easy to find other California wines of equal quality for much less. If the wines are so great why did Tim Mondavi get canned? Why is their business going down the tubes? The reason is Mondavi offers wines that are a bad value that do not compete well in today's marketplace.

One might also argue that any "prestige" bottling, be it Stag's Leap's Cask 23, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, DRC's various wines, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family, Harlan Estate or Mondavi's Reserve wines are "bad values."

I would agree, I can find wines which please me more than do the Mondavi Reserve wines. But enjoying a bottle of wine isn't always about finding the best wine for the least amount of money.

Any fool can spend $5 on a bottle of wine and get hosed, as can anyone buy a $100 bottle and get taken.

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To Echezeaux:

One of the reasons many winemakers DON'T strive to make those sorts of wines (and neither do those wineries today, whomever owns them) is that the business of wine is far more competitive than it was way back when. And winemakers are often driven by point-scoring publications to make bigger and more powerful wines so their products "stand out" in tastings. I believe Mr. Kolm's publication participates in this numerical "scoring" of wines.

I use a combination of numerical and letter grades in a way that no other journalist that I know of does. Certainly you do not mean to suggest that people are making wine in a way to please me at large tastings so that they get high numerical scores. Assuming you concede that, what is the point of mentioning that I use points in my publication? If you know my publication, you know that my tastes do not go for bigger and more powerful wines.

My only issue with Mr. Kolm's assertions is his mistaken notion that it was "easier" to buy exceptional California wine 30 or 40 years ago than today along with the idea that great California was more plentiful way back when.

Safeway stores did not sell "fine wine" back in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of its wine sales were in the form of jug wines such as those from Italian Swiss Colony, 11 Cellars, Cribari and Gallo. "Fine" wines such as BV, Inglenook, Louis Martini and Wente Brothers were NOT sold in such a venue. Nor were the wines of Heitz, Ridge, Hanzell or Stony Hill.

As for whether it was easier to buy exceptional California wine 30 or 40 years ago than today along with the idea that great California wine was more plentiful way back when, it all depends on how much exceptional wine you think is being made in California today. To my tastes, very little.

So Echezeaux, you are an expert on what Safeway was selling in the 1960s. List your credentials. Mine are that I worked at Safeway in 1965 and 1966. I stand by my assertion that one could by good wines from the likes of BV, Louis Martini (MOUNTAIN Cabernet, BTW), and if you want to add Wente to the list, so be it. Without a doubt, one could buy plonk there, too, and nothing I have written above is contrary to that.

As for your pointing to the grand jury tasting, I agree completely Craig’s assertion. Moreover, what is the point of comparing Chablis with Montrachet, two entirely different wines, in a blind tasting? Just because they’re from the same grape? My views on blind tasting can be seen here

As for the members of the grand jury, those whose tastes I know have substantially different tastes from mine. For example, Ms. Robinson, in listing her favorite white Burgundy producers couldn’t find room for Carillon, Roulot, Niellon, François Jobard, or Drouhin, all of whom are among the producers I prize most highly.

Echezeaux, I participate on this and other bulletin boards for fun and because I find them interesting. It is no fun and not interesting to to interact with someone such as you who seems to believe that he has a monopoly on the truth, especially in such a subjective area as taste in wine. If you don't agree with me fine, but you are no more correct than I am. With that, I am out of here. Life's too short to spend interacting with imperious characters such as you.

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I didn't mean to offend anyone on this forum.

I'm sorry some of the particpants have a limited appreciation for some of today's wines.

It is a bit like those who wax nostalgic about baseball players from the 1950s and 1960s and who are unwilling to give credit to some of the marvelous athletes in the game today.

:huh: Again, apologies if I've been "imperious."

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