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Rating The Wall Street Journal Wine Column At 92—This Time

By Charles Olken

Wine columns are like vintages. Each one stands on its own. I have not been a fan generally of the WSJ wine writings. The audience is too rarified, the tone too snooty, the lack of respect for California about what one would expect from New Yorkers.

But I have to admit that Lettie Teague’s column last week hit a populist tone that surprised me and had me wondering whether she had somehow found “religion”. One never knows where these things come from, but I got a clue that I was in for a different kind of ride the minute that I saw the name Gerald Weisl as a source of her new-found wisdom.

Gerald is the owner-operator of the Weimax Wine and Spirits in Burlingame, California and a frequent member of our tasting panel. His attention to detail in choosing the wines he sells, his disdain for pomposity, his wicked sense of humor and his finely honed palate all endear him to us—and fortunately, he likes us or we would be at the sharp end of his stick—and no one has a sharper stick in wine country than Gerald except the Hosemaster of Wine.

So, when Mr. Weisl popped up as one of Lettie Teague’s sources, there were only two possibilities on the day. Either she was about to proclaim Weisl as a vinous outlier or she was about to get a lesson in the views of real people and how to serve those needs. Happily, it turned out to be the latter.

Teague set about to list ten half-baked “common wisdoms” she frequently hears in wine country and ostensibly evaluates them. Her conclusions are not all that different from our own, but to be fair, her conclusions are not always her own but those of others. At least, those “others” are well-chosen and do try to debunk some of the more offensive common wisdoms in the wine world.

I wish time allowed me to assess them all in full, but the weekend is approaching and both you and I want this column to end before then. So let me try to be brief, but, in so doing to be a lot more pointed than Ms. Teague. And, I will today address the first five of her ten points, and be back in this same space on Tuesday next to finish up.

Please note that the opinions expressed below are those of the management—full stop.

The Higher The Price The Better The Wine
Teague concludes this thought with the comment—“I have had $25 bottles that were truly first rate”. OK, you get a 9 of 10 on that one, Lettie. The problem is that she has not defined “truly first rate”, and I will confess that the greatest bottles I drink, and the wines I cellar for later, rarely cost as little as $25 these days. So, Teague loses two points for exaggeration but gets one back for populism. The majority of wine I drink, for which I pay to put on my table on a day to day basis does cost more like $25 than $100. And it is all pretty good to my palate. But, first-rate (i. e., it rates first), well, those wines are simply pricier. Which is not to say that all pricey wine is first rate. I almost docked Teague a point for missing that essential truth, but she deserves credit for taking on the shibboleth of high price—and in the WSJ at that.

Wine Is Made In The Vineyard
Well, yes and no. It is de rigeur for makers of high-priced wine to give credit to the vineyard, and, there is much truth in this point. There is a reason why some pieces of dirt are more highly regarded than others, and that is because they seem to give the world better wines. Teague quotes Weisl again that a winemaker can screw up good potential, and that is true enough. It is further true that every action in a a winery, from the biggest and most manipulative producer to the smallest, most “natural”, one-man band, is the result of someone’s thought process. It is utter nonsense to try to speak of wine quality without also speaking of the winemaker regardless of how much love we give to the source of the grapes. Once again, Teague loses a point for missing the ultimate relationship re vineyards and wine.

No One Cares About Scores Or Wine Critics
Teague gets 11 of 10 and my thanks. It is unusual for any wine columnist who is not a critic to say nice things about critics. But, the recent rise in the criticism of critics and of their roles is fueled not by the millions of folks who pay for those opinions, but by people (somms, retailers and wineries that tend not to get high ratings) who wish to create a different universe—one in which their opinions reign. Oh, well.

Winemakers Make Wines For The Critics
So, I was visiting a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains recently and heard the winemaker say that he was changing the style of his wine because a San Francisco sommelier told him that low alcohol and high acidity were the ways to go. Never mind that his previous vintage had received fairly positive reviews. The fact is that some winemakers react to anything and everything and some simply do not give a damn for anything but their own palates and preferences. 9 of 10 for being mostly right—but failing to notice that the “people” drink what they like and any critic whose palate does not align with a piece of the populace will not have much of a following.

High Alcohol Wines Aren’t Good
Another Spinal Tap moment for Teague. 11 out of 10 here. Perhaps it is because California wines get pilloried with this nonsense that I give Ms. Teague extra credit. Or perhaps it is because I am astounded that a New Yorker actually came out and threw this bit of stupidity under the bus. Wine is not to be judged by alcohol content or any other number but by taste. It is high time that we as winelovers start insisting on that point as the only measure of a wine’s greatness.

And, that was the half-time whistle. See you on the other side of the weekend. And my thanks to Lettie Teague for bring a fine sense of proportion and logic to discussions that all too often are bound up in polemics.

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Gerald Weisl
by James Rego
Posted on:2/19/2015 12:52:40 PM

At one time, I kept a thousand bottle cellar and so I tasted and bought a considerable amount of wine from various bay area merchants. I dealt with merchants from San Jose to Santa Rosa and  a good many in the East Bay as well; of all the merchants that I encountered along the way, Gerald , was the finest merchant, I have ever dealt with.  I tasted with him many times in his tasting bar. He  has an extraordinary palette and he truly excelled in finding the extraordinary value for his customers. His eyes lit up and he would say," Jim, Jim, you have to try this-it's five bucks" ( this was back in the seventies and eighties). I enjoyed his enthusiasm and to this day, his "Best  Buys " are something to consider; I only wish, I lived closer to his shop! Fond  memories, indeed!

Masters of universes
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:2/20/2015 9:40:05 AM

I think it's clear that when it comes to media, everyone lives in their own universe -- be it WA or WS, New York or San Francisco, Tokyo, Rome or London. Coming from my own planet, I'm not partial to numbers, but 100-point critics clearly hold sway over most segments of the market and industry; particularly for wineries heavily invested in wines that are sold by numbers (wineries who make just a few appealing wines and have no trouble selling everything without scores are naturally those who wouldn't give a damn about critics).

My only caveat to readers is always:  beware of writers who speak in polemics.  The world of fine wine -- similar to any discipline of the arts or crafts -- is far from black and white. It's plainly ignorant to say "high alcohol is bad," although it's perfectly easonable to say that many wines could be improved if only the grapes were picked at lower sugars and the wines vinified a little lighter, a little finer and more delineated, despite any numerical ratings at stake.

And I agree, Charlie, someday we'll stop hearing the silly bald statement, "wine is made in the vineyard."  As Ron Washam is fond of saying, "if that's the case, why the hell do we need wineries?"  Of course, wine is made in wineries.  Even the French vigneron, with his little vineyard surrounding his quaint fairy tale home, has his "winery" in the basement.  

Still, the wine universe is divided among basically two kinds of fine wines:  wines that are deliberately skewed towards tasting like a brand, a "house" style, or to capture some kind of "varietal" character; and wines that are crafted to express as much of a vineyard's or region's (whatever the size) typicity as possible. The latter exists in the U.S., although in the definite minority. You would think the latter dominates Old World wine countries, but in reality commercial demands also make vineyard focused wines a definite minority in European wine regions.

Point is, there is no pat answer. Not to violate protocol of avoiding commentary on fellow wine writers, but personally, I would pay zero attention to anyone prone to self-assured statements. Always a bad sign. You just should not follow anyone who lives in a bubble.

Gerald Weisl
by David Vergari
Posted on:2/20/2015 9:41:01 AM

I'd love to meet the guy.  Someday.

Common Wisdom
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/20/2015 10:00:32 AM

"Common Wisdom" is often not all that wise but rather is trendy and sycophantic (if that word exists--or even it it does not).

We too often lose sight of essential truths and rely on the common wisdom when we think we actually know better. Whether it is red wine with fish where, to my great surprise, sommeliers that I trust have served me both Syrah and Etna Rosso with fish and were spot on with their choices or alcohol levels in wine as defining lines not to be crossed, we need to be far more open-minded.

That was the unexpected brilliance of the Teague piece. 

Note to Randy: one bit of essential beauty about wine is that I am right, you are right, Jon Bonne is right. We are all right. You are absolutely correct in saying that we all live in our own universes. As critics, we have followers who agree with us and naysayers who think we have missed the boat. All I ask is a little humility. In being right for ourselves, we have got to be "right" without denigrating the views of the other folks. 

"Conventional" and "received" wisdom
by Bob Henry
Posted on:2/21/2015 2:16:20 AM

We all assess wines through the prizm of our own experience.

But the most discerning wine drinkers continually challenge their comfort zone and expose themselves to novel experiences -- by grape variety and region and vintage and style.

No one mounts an assault on Mt. Everest on his first climb.  You hone your skills by conquering lower elevation peaks.

Similarly, no one starts out drinking DRC and Petrus and Yquem.

Wine enthusiasts work their way up the "quality pyramid," and by doing so gain self-confidence.  (And along the way hope they discover some overachievers at affordable retail prices.)

Don't make the classic newbie collector's mistake of going "all in" too soon with any one or two types of wines.  Your palate will change over time -- becoming more discriminating.  So will your preferences change -- valuing subtlety and nuance over exaggeration.

I continually wheedle and cajole folks to be backward-looking as well as forward-looking.

Seek out well-made, well-stored, well-priced older wines at auction.  Let those antecedent wines inform your judgment on whether you even enjoy the bouquet and flavors of aged wines.

(If not, then buy contemporary wines and drink them soon.  Fuhgettabout assembling a wine collection and storing it in a wine locker or home cellar.)

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