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Confessions Of A California Palate

By Charles Olken

Let’s face it. I taste thousands of California wines every year, both for publication here in Connoisseurs’ Guide to California and because there are plenty of great tastings available in which someone else is pouring the best of California. I just can’t resist.

But, as much of a Californian as I have become in my five decades here, I have never felt the need to proclaim our very good local efforts as anything other than that. Yes, I make comparisons, and I have more than once put California wines at the forefront of my judgments.

Glad to get that out of my way.

Now on to the real matters at hand.

I have too often seen California wines described as if all were made of the same narrow cloth—and I saw that same mistaken bias show up again in a tasting of White Burgundies just days ago. Now, far be it from me to criticize my fellow tasters. Most are experienced makers and sellers of California wine, and several have been at it for at least as long as I have. But here is what happened, and it has me scratching my head and wondering where I went wrong.

We gathered at the deliciously delightful Piperade restaurant in downtown San Francisco to taste ten White Burgundies blind. The group has been tasting Burgundies as a side note to their careers in California wine for some three decades now, so this was not some new venture for these folks. I was happy to be an invited guest.

It is the wont to the group to insert a ringer in each tasting. You can imagine, California, New Zealand, even Aussie Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as a logical outsider. But in this case, the wine was a Chardonnay from the south of France—Limoux to be exact. We, of course, did not know which wine was the ringer nor its provenance. But, it is part of the proceedings for each who cares to guess, to put a dollar into the pot and winner takes all.

No one got the ringer, and this $35 wine did quite well matched up with Corton-Charlemagnes and hyphenated Montrachets and their ilk. But that, in itself is not the story.

We wine most often nominated as the ringer, including by yours truly, was a rich, fruity, outgoing effort, a 2010 Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Marquis Laguiche. My table mate, during the tasting, leaned over to me and whispered that the wine was totally New World and that it was so fruity that he wondered about residual sugar and botrytis. The winery website describes it as a marvelous blending of mellowness and acidity. I rated it second, while the group rated it sixth because a couple of folks rated it tenth on the grounds that it was the outlier.

Well, outlier or not, this lovely wine stood out because it was more generous than so many of its fancy counterparts. And that is the real lesson here. This wine was indeed an outlier, along with the Limoux. But it was tasty and those of us who liked it and thought it to be the ringer were guessing it to be either California from one of the better vineyards like Hyde, Hudson, Ritchie and the like—or possibly a Western Australia Chardonnay, possibly Leeuwin Art Series or Cullen.

We missed it because we had a preconceived notion that all White Burgundies had to be tight and still developing, which was the case with so many of the very good wines in the tasting. I brought a Latour Corton-Charlemagne rated third by the group overall, and my notes called it “younger”.

So, yes, generalizations abound, and a bunch of experienced pros fell victim to them. It was not the first time and it won’t be the last, and, truth be told, this was a pretty darn good group of wines with no real clear winner and save for the one slightly corked bottle and one bottle going over the hill, both of which finished at the bottom of the rankings by large margins, all the wines were well appreciated.

Still, this tasting reinforces something I argued over on the Steve Heimoff blog regarding New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. There is a general style to which many wines adhere, but not all, and to accuse all NZ Sauv Blancs of being high in acid and smelling like cat pee on a juniper bush simply misses the mark as clearly as saying that all California Sauv Blancs suffer from Chardonnization.

Everyone gets it wrong once in a while. Fortunately, it is just wine we are talking about.


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"Confirmation bias" and white Burgs
by Bob Henry
Posted on:5/22/2016 2:01:00 PM

The bias you refer to is this one:

French has gone through some pretty lean vintages lately.

A wine from a "better" (sans hail/frost/excessive or untimely rain) vintage would definitely stand out against wines from mediocre vintages like 2011 and 2012 and 2013.

What was the spectrum of vintages tasted?

(At my organized Chardonnay comparison tastings, I threw in one or more "ringers."  When tasting white Burgs, I threw in California Chards like Peter Michael and Mt. Eden and Stony Hill made in a more "Burgundian" style.

The tasting participants fully embraced them as French wines, and praised them accordingly.  Only after the "top 3" preference vote was recorded were the paper bags taken off the wines, and their identities revealed.  The participants were pleased to see the California wines earn their acclaim.

I have done similar comparison tastings with red Burgs vs. California Pinot Noirs.  And red Bordeaux vs. California Cabs and Cab-blends.

With red Bordeaux inserted into a California line-up, their "French funk" [brettanomyces?] bouquet gave them away . . .

The converse was never the circumstance: California Cabs and Cab-blends inserted into red Bordeaux tastings never stood out.  The absence of "funk" was simply accepted without question.)

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