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Friday Fishwrap
Finding Great Wines—The Search For Utter Brilliance

By Stephen Eliot

Just what is it that separates very good wines from the great ones? Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Are some varietals inherently incapable of producing truly great wines? Are Cabernet, Syrah, Pinot, Nebbiolo, Riesling and Chardonnay really the only grapes that deserve the 95+ point reviews that nothing else ever seems to receive?

In the world of wine journalism, these questions are not new, but neither are they at all settled. These days, if you search long enough, you will find a champion for most every grape that has ever been fermented into wine, and, in some circles, obscurity seems to be seen as a virtue. It is as if “new” has become synonymous to “important”, or at least a prerequisite for it. The look-at-me race to be first in touting a new old grape seems ever more crowded, yet at the end of the day, the classics do seem to prevail.

I think there are reasons. Humankind is not new to the winemaking game, and if certain grapes are accorded higher standing than others, it probably has something to do with centuries of experience. I do not think, however, that the club of truly great wines is absolutely exclusive and one of permanently barred doors.

Greatness for me is measured by a wine’s varietal accuracy, its intensity, complexity, beauty and balance… and by balance I do not mean high acid and low alcohol, but rather the way a wine’s pieces all fit together in a manner that no one aspect is so dominant as to make moot all the others. It all comes down to the unquantifiable ability of a wine to deliver a broad range of character. Being delicious is fine, but greatness demands something more, and the “more” has to do with a wine’s capacity to involve and draw me more deeply in.

Now there is no question but that for me that has happened far more often with the Big Six varietals mentioned above, but encounters with what I would call greatness have come from supposed lesser contenders as well.

As but one case in point, one of last year’s great eye-openers here at CGCW was the remarkable Stolpman “La Croce”, a blend of Sangiovese and Syrah, and I hold fast to my belief that fine Sauvignon Blanc gets far less respect than it should. Anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting the compelling Pouilly Fumés of the late Didier Dagueneau surely knows what I mean, and a glass of the latest “Essence” from Grgich Hills -- the catalyst for today’s musings by the way-- will leave anyone scratching their heads and wondering why so many regard the grape as a second-class citizen. And, please, do not get me started on the topic of Zinfandel.

Yes, I do expect more from the so-called “classics,” and with experience has come a certain set of standards I want them to meet. That said, my four-decade search of discovery is as exciting now as it ever was, and some of the most satisfying and memorable moments of all have been those when greatness appears in the least likely places.


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The search...
by Ken Musso
Posted on:2/18/2013 8:15:17 PM
Read your article with interest and respect. I grow and make Dolcetto and Nebbiolo not because I try to compete with my Italian heritage but because of my heritage. Imagine my total surprise when I read the Purdue harvest report article that pointed out that the single most increase of produced wine last year was what? Nebbiolo? Can that possibly be? Last I checked there were less than 200 acres of the grape in California.I love what these grapes achieve in California and wouldn't ever trade them in, that is give in to the notion that because they are Italian, they are automatically better in Italy.
"Varietal Accuracy"
by Joe Czerwinski
Posted on:2/19/2013 8:04:37 AM


I find it interesting that you choose to include varietal accuracy as a component of greatness.

As varietal expression is surely influenced by many factors, exactly what model of the variety does one measure against?

Varietal Accuracy
by Stephen M Eliot
Posted on:2/19/2013 3:29:35 PM

Hi Joe, and thanks for a very good question.

 I do not hold to any one "exact" or absolute model for "varietal accuracy" and my personal veiws of such are fairly broad. Take Cabernet, for example; I would not argue for the Medoc or Rutherford or Coonawara. etc., as any ideal standard for measurement, but the best Cabernets from these districts would never be mistaken for anything other than Cabernet. Cabnernet is a broader theme within which a multitude of variations can exist.

Fine Cabernets always share some commonalities of dark fruit and structure that separate them from, say, Pinot Noir. If the grapes are so ripe that the wine has become amophorous or so over-oaked that its essential fruit is muddled and unexpressive, then, for me, the mark of varietal accuracy has been missed.

Quite simply, can I clearly recognize as Cabernet, whatever its idiosyncracies might be? If so, the requirement for accuracy has been met. But, as I have said, that is only one of the many parts which in sum add up to a wine's greatness for me.


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