“Life’s too short to drink bad wine” is bantered about by many wine lovers who quest to only drink the very best wines. Well, to do that you have to drink a lot of wine, and the math major in me thinks that means you will run into lots of lesser wines that just don’t please ya. But are all of the latter wines bad?
Show me a definition of bad that is universally recognized and I’ll yield. Until then I have to go with making the distinction between flawed (and therefore bad in an objective sense) and not for me (not flawed, but not my style) when I think about wine. Furthermore not everyone is as adept as others at picking up flaws, so that means how people regard a wine is going to vary and a sense of “rightness” becomes elitist. I’ll say this much, if you are lucky enough to drink only “great wine” good for you. Secondly bring your ass and your great wine over to my house more often!
Post -#WBC11 there has been a fair amount of buzz about conference logistics, participant antics and the quality (for some people an apparent lack of) of the Virginia wines available for tasting. Hardy Wallace threw the gauntlet down today with his inspired post, Catfish? Wine Bloggers Conference. His post essentially suggests that because there wasn’t enough critically negative comments about the wines that the lot of conference attendees could be accused of being bottom feeding catfish just looking for free booze. Okay, he has a right to his opinion. And he's asking a question. That's fair game. Since I am comfortable with the diverse goals and voices of the attendees, had critical comments to share, and had some shared with me, I fundamentally disagree however. Even with the meta-message, that we can’t be fair if we aren’t being critical in both directions, being held up I still say it doesn’t fit here. But that isn’t point. We may never agree.
But that isn't the only answer. Sometimes in life (and what I am about to say next is a crude male convention, but the metaphor does apply to the critics job) you have to whip out your balls and put them on the table and see how you measure up. I’ve only got the one, but don’t pity me because I have more mojo in the one than most guys will ever have; so I am not afraid. I do want to thank Hardy, the inspiration is welcome and it now makes the most sense for me to act instead of talk here.Part of making great things happen is how great you are doing it.
I’ll make my point most poignantly by taking a look at my homemade wines I shared at the conference. I brought a 2010 Strawberry, 2009 Hard Cider and a 2010 Dandelion to share with whomever was up for a taste. In the end I didn’t have to worry because the bottles didn’t stay full for long. But that is the rainbow or the unicorn in the story.
These were not my best wines, well maybe the strawberry is one of my best, but I brought them because they reflected my home state and a great DIY ethic, something I am a big proponent of. All three are award winning (and golds too for all you haters!) so I had some confidence to back me up.
The strawberry is off-dry and presents a nose and mouthful of strawberries. It is what is says it is. And everyone agreed on that. I think the acid sugar balance was off in 2010 from 2009. I have already factored that into my 2011 batch that was already resting when I was in VA. Of the tasters I shared it with only a few folks didn’t want to take a second sip, whereas most people gave it a fair taste , only dumping so they could move on with agility. The overwhelming feedback was that it was a well made wine with big aromas and flavors. A good warm weather drinker. Totally fair, it is fruit wine after all. I wasn’t hoping to topple any great wine empires with it.
I popped open the cider during Saturday dinner. The wines on the table (which were slow to come) weren’t doing it for any of us and I thought the change of pace would be nice. My cider is still (no bubbles) and with a few ticks of residual sugar comes across and only slightly sweet. Again, comments about the big aromas. I announced it on Twitter and had people coming running. I used a blend of sweet and tart apples and a variety of yeasts in 2009. This one was made from a sweet mead yeast which left the residual sugar around naturally. I make a dry style that is much more like English ciders, but I find most of my friends don’t like it so I don’t make as much of it. Cider is a fascination to many (sadly) and I think many of the tasters were primarily hoping to try something different and from another place. I’m happy to oblige! I got lots of positive comments and nothing outright negative. And I asked. I handed the partially empty bottle to another table on the way out. I heard it was empty before I was out the front door!
Now for my thoughts the dandelion. This wine was an experiment and a shout out to my great great uncles & grandfathers who made this shit in their basements just because they could. It is a funky wine with aromas of herbs, grass and flowers. The citrus and sugar needed to make the post-fermentation gasoline drinkable resulted in a nice and pleasant, although offbeat, wine a great refresher when well chilled. This wine is the one many more people opted not to take the second sip of and you know what, good for them! It isn’t for everyone, but the shear fact I was able to give them their first taste of dandelion wine and they didn’t spit it out in my face was pretty cool. I wasn’t looking for worship here, and the honest feedback I did get will help me in my future wine-making.
What did I think about the Virginia wine? I found much of it to be undistinguished, with many of the reds coming off like wines from lesser Bordeaux or bulk wines from the Rhone. Some aromas, some flavors with manageable acidity and tannins, but in general not setting off any fireworks for me. For the whites the intense focus on Viognier was an interesting ride, one I wrote a little about while I was still there. After stepping off the Viognier train I was left with a sense that grape and what it can do is still be very much explored in Virginia.
In that Virginia Viognier post I left off with a question as to which of the styles, oaked or un-oaked, was the likely style for which people should expect from the state as its official grape and wine. I prefer the latter style because I like the fresh fruit and pungent floral aromas not to be dried and toasted. So I wondered why the oaked style was so prevalent in the state. The answer is that producers have been making this choice differently from one year to the next based on vineyard conditions and/or a desire to try different things to learn and grow. Some make it, but aren’t set on it, while others believe it to be the expression they want to put forth. Alright, so now to name names.
Of all the Viogniers I tasted these are the ones I was most excited about:
Delaplane Cellars 2010 Maggie’s Vineyard – This was my favorite of the pre-conference virtual tasting. The dried fruit flavors, touch of sugar and the long finish really worked for me.
Jefferson Vineyards 2010 – this was one of the last Viognier’s I tasted on Friday. I realize it is only 75% Viognier, but it is fresh, aromatic with a good deal of fruit on the palate. It was very clean finishing. I’ll be shipping some of this soon.
And more whites I would definitely recommend
Barboursville Vermentino – this was a stand-out refresher at Mount Vernon. Big nose with a crisp, dry finish.
Gabriele Rausse Chardonnay – this is a great drinking wine and one that did some of its best work in the heat!
I wasn’t surprised the cider was refreshing, it’s how I drink the homemade stuff at home! Hats off to both places for using some great apples to make a sparkling product that can be enjoyed by so many people!
Cooper 2010 - had the best balance of oak to stainless.
And a few whites that I felt were under-performers and need to have their game upped in future years
Breaux Vineyards Viognier 2010 – This was served at dinner. Served a little warm and the oak was way too big.
Ducard Signature Viognier – I found heat from the nose through the finish. The lack of balance that created didn’t help me give the nose much time.
Veritas Viognier – Also a dinner paired wine. Light aromas, acid out of balance.
I’ve been pulling together my ideas about the red wines from Virginia. My premise after tasting a bunch of them is that a focus on the blends will be their key to success. Why do I say this? Because most of the Bordeaux varietals on their own were boring and lacking in distinction. I found many of them to be one dimensional and where some of them had good character, I think they should be matched with worthy peers to great more dimension in a blend. There are examples of that, and I think more would be a good thing. The least interesting wines, those with very subtle aromas and flavors, might not good candidates for rescue, what can I say?
Which ones grabbed me or gave me ideas?
Barboursville Octagon – I had this at least 3 times and in vintages 2002 and 2006 (that I found from my notes, but thinking one more). The nose on the 2006 was what got me. The richness of the 2002 in comparison was one of my motivations to think blends was a key story. It is Merlot driven but still not fooling around.
Tarara TerraNoVA – I had this from a magnum twice, and didn’t get the year either time. I like a rich red wine and the Tannat in this is going to create port like characteristics. Bring it on! I enjoyed it both times. I’m buying some!
Barren Ridge 2008 Meritage – This Merlot driven blend from 2008 was tasty, but light in the nose. It needs some time.
Jefferson 2008 Meritage – I thought the Jefferson from 2008 was nuanced with spice and some good sized tannins, though it still tasted young.
Tarrara CasaNoVA 2008 – This is the wine that I speed tasted my first thought about the trend of the blends being the best in show for me. Lovely ideas!
Which reds were worthy on their own?
Ducard Cab Franc Reserve 2009 – I think this wine had a good balance of mint, cherry and a solid structure; but it could use some time.
Blenheim Cabernet 2009 – I found a little density in this young wine and can’t wait to try some as it ages.
Which ones would I blend with?
Afton Mountain Cabernet – I didn’t find a lot of depth here, but a varietal correctness is not a question. Could help with mellowing something bigger.
Sweely Merlot 2007 – this was solid but not potent. A great blender for a Meritage.
Which ones might not have a lot of life left?
Sweely Cabernet Franc 2007 – it was very mellow with any concentration. Might be too light to help blend anything that wasn’t huge to start.
Michael Shaps 2007 Meritage – I almost didn’t take of sip of this wine after a few comments at the table. It was very unbalanced and aggressive.
Ingleside Vineyards 2006 Petit Verdot – This varietal wine came across as very light from start to finish. With the steak at dinner it didn’t really do anything either.
So what are the above named producers supposed to think about how their wines fared in my criticism? I hope they understand the respect I have for them in their pursuits, because making wine isn’t easy, and making good wine is even harder than that. Trust me, I’ve been at it for 8 years and made some sucky wine. But, I am most hopeful that they will see that I am sharing what I perceived and what my experience tells me about where the wines could go. If they are open to feedback and willing to keep striving to make better wine each year, who knows how much the feedback could help?
I’ve read post-conference reviews of many wines I didn’t try while I was there so if something great exists that is made similarly to something I am not hot on, I may well not know it. I aim to be educated so leave a comment telling me what I should know. Who knows I might even order some just to check it out. I’ll put my money where my mouth is.
So for all you catfish out there a roll call is been ordered. I showed you mine, you gonna whip out yours?
I don't have balls. What's a girl to do?
I don't criticize because who am I to do so? You think Picasso didn't have a nay-sayer or 2? I will tell people if I like their stuff. I have sometimes told people their stuff wasn't for me.
BTW, I wasn't drunk until I attended our own private party, well after any WBC vinos were poured.
Jason, thoughtful post. Everyone is entitled to their approach to wine, and the beauty is that wine can be enjoyed at a multitude of levels to match the amount of discernment the drinker is willing to exercise.
I respect and am in awe of the energy you put into trying everything you can with a critical eye. That's a feat and a strategy for sure.
Quick note that it was fun to drink the strawberry and apple stuff you made. Thanks for sharing, they were learning points for me on non-vinifera.
But here is my overall view....I learn about wine so I can cull wines out of my target. I want to drink the absolute best possible and highest quality wine to match any dining or social moment. It is part of the game and fun for me...how do I get top quality wines in my glass more consistently. It is my mission and my own strategy, but as you lay out, it is not a plan for everyone.
Great to meet you at WBC. You have become an honorary member of our New England blind tasting group if you want. Word of warning though, we only blind taste top quality great wines:-)
Jason - loved the dandelion wine! When my friend Scooter's dad gave it to us, he made me promise that we wouldn't even attempt to drive anywhere after the first glass. Yours was more restrained in that department, which I appreciate at my more advanced age.
WBC was also a good reality check for everyone close to VA wine. In taking a step back, especially listening to people who came with an open mind, it's good to see that there are some producers kicking ass and some who need to step it up. I think everyone will benefit from the feedback. It's just that sometimes one (me) can overreact and feel like another high school just came in and defaced my mascot if it's not all glowing praise. Hey, we all got issues.
Jason - I also had more than a few sips of your dandelion wine. Unlike my partner, this was my first experience with anything like this, so I'm still not sure how I feel about it (it would take more than half a glass to help me figure that out), but it definitely seemed well made and intriguing. As for your VA wine impressions, we differ a bit on the hits ad misses, but that's iwne...not everyone will agree and you did a good job of talking about what was and wasn't working for you. I think all regions need critical feedback in order to continue to evolve.
...oh, and the TerraNoVa from Tarara was the '08.
I grooved on the dandelion, once I got past my initial "what the hell?" moment. And the cider rocked the house. Hear to DYI.
Great meeting you at WBC.
Have to agree on the Rausse Chardonnay. I was so happy to see it on the wine list at Maya, (thus the recommendation) and then to get another glass when we walked into Monticello... yum.
That experience alone was worth the heat.
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