WINE: LETTIE TEAGUE
Lettie Teague Takes on Ten Wine ‘Truisms’
heard such saws as ‘the higher the price, the better the wine’ and
‘Old World wines are better than New World wines.’ But are they fact
Feb. 13, 2015 9:44 a.m. ET
ILLUSTRATION: EDD BALDRY
SOME PHRASES are
repeated so frequently they are eventually assumed to be true. Maxims
such as “high-alcohol wines aren’t good” and “a great wine must
be age-worthy” are just two I’ve heard recited by oenophiles again
and again. But are they opinion or truth? I compiled a list of the 10
phrases I’ve heard most often and asked a few wine professionals and
knowledgeable amateurs which ones they thought were closer to fiction
and which should be called facts.
1. The higher the price the better the wine.
marketers are responsible for this notion, said Gerald Weisl, proprietor
of Weimax Wines & Spirits, a shop in Burlingame, Calif. Or perhaps
it’s driven by the ego of the winemaker, he added. Chris Camarda,
proprietor of Andrew Will Winery in Washington state, agreed with Mr.
Weisl but maintains that producers are pressured to price their wines at
a certain level, lest they not be taken seriously. He told a story of a
Seattle wine merchant who recommended Mr. Camarda’s top wine, Sorella,
to a shopper who had asked for “the best Washington state wine.” But
when told the bottle cost $65, the customer rejected the wine as “too
cheap.” It couldn’t possibly be good, he said. This is one maxim
I’m happy to say I’ve never believed. I have had truly first-rate
wines that cost $25 a bottle—and less.
2. Wine is made in the vineyard.
has become a favorite of seemingly every winemaker in the world. The
phrase suggests that a good wine isn’t a product of technical work
(e.g. filtration, nonnative yeasts) but simply good fruit. When I asked
superstar Napa winemaker Aaron Pott what he thought, he replied,
“There is nothing more true.” Of course, Mr. Pott works in a
rarefied world with rarefied fruit, so no doubt it’s true for him. But
as Mr. Weisl wisely pointed out, “A winemaker can screw up years’
worth of viticulture if he or she doesn’t make good decisions in the
cellar.” Mistakes can come in the form of the wrong fermentation
temperature or the smothering of beautiful fruit with excess oak.
Perhaps a better saying might be “A good wine starts in a good
3. No one cares about scores or
oenophiles I polled were at odds over this. Ian Dorin, wine director at
the Wine Library, in Springfield, N.J., thought scores were important to
only a tiny segment of drinkers. “Brands are what drive people to buy
wine—ratings don’t really sell wines,” he said. But my friend
Alan, a knowledgeable and opinionated oenophile, believes that in such a
highly competitive market, scores are more important than ever. Scores
help distinguish one wine from another—for buyers and sellers alike.
I’d say this rule is true but only for scores higher than 90 points. I
can’t think of a wine drinker who seeks a sub-90 point wine, or a
producer likely to tout a wine with a lowly score.
4. Winemakers make wines for the critics.
drinkers aren’t alone in chasing high scores; conventional wisdom
holds that vintners do as well. They have (ostensibly) figured out the
palates of powerful critics and make wines they will like. Fiction or
fact? Absolutely fact, said Mr. Camarda. “I see people making wine to
fit certain critical biases,” he asserted, describing a Bordeaux he
tasted recently as so ripe and alcoholic, he said, it was more like an
Australian Shiraz than a Bordeaux. There was no question in his mind the
wine was inspired by a producer’s looking to impress critics who love
powerhouse wines. I think Mr. Camarda is right—but the adage holds
true for only a narrow segment of the market. There is a veritable ocean
of mass-market brands that doesn’t seek reviews or scores. And,
ultimately, pandering to critics pays off for very few winemakers.
Indeed, only a tiny percentage of the world’s wines are even reviewed.
5. High-alcohol wines aren’t
certain cadre of wine drinkers, both amateur and professional, loudly
decry wines with high alcohol levels, often anything over
14%—coincidentally, the number at which wine is taxed at a higher rate
in the U.S. As far as I can tell, this cadre is composed chiefly of wine
bloggers (Google the words “anti high-alcohol wines,” and you’ll
see what I mean). But the facts don’t seem to
opinions, nor do wine drinkers seem to care. The world produces and
consumes an enormous quantity of wine whose alcohol content is well
north of 14% (Napa Cabernets, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and wines from
Spain’s Priorat region, to name a few). My friend Alan calls this
lower-alcohol edict “one of those self-important decrees no one in the
real world pays attention to,” and I think he’s right.
Higher-alcohol wines come from riper fruit, the result of warmer
temperatures. And some of the best vintages of Bordeaux have been
produced in warm years, i.e., 1947 and 1982.
6. Great wine must be age-worthy.
This has been
a dictum for decades, perhaps centuries: A wine isn’t truly worthy
unless it improves over time. But is this true? After all, many wines
are consumed with much pleasure in their youth. “Great wine is a wine
that’s great at the moment,” Mr. Dorin opined. “It’s the moment
that makes the wine.” I do think he has a point. Greatness is
subjective: What’s great to me might not be great to you. And yet a
wine—typically a pricey one—that transforms with age, that not only
endures but improves and evolves into something more nuanced and
complex, can objectively be said to have merit. I think this saying is
not only true, it has stood the test of time.
7. Old World wines are better than New World wines.
consultants were divided on this, and even at odds with themselves. Mr.
Pott thought it was both true and not, as did Mr. Camarda. A New World
wine is shorthand for any wine made outside Europe: in Argentina, New
Zealand, the U.S., etc. The two men gave nods to the Old World
sensibility—hundreds of years of tradition, including personal
engagement with the vineyard. So did my friend Alan, although he
wondered what might truly be considered a New World wine in the first
place, with so much new exploration, new plantings and New World
winemaking technique (such as temperature-controlled fermentations) put
to use in the Old World. Perhaps Mr. Camarda said it best when he
answered, “It depends.” Personally I think a hybrid is best: Old
World sensibility matched with New World innovation makes the best wine.
Although that may be a bit long for a maxim.
8. Sommeliers only like obscure wines.
been to a restaurant whose sommelier has compiled a list of wines you
don’t recognize—and can’t even identify as red or white—this
seems to be an incontrovertible truth. But according to Michael
Madrigale, head sommelier of Manhattan restaurants Bar Boulud and Boulud
Sud, only sommeliers who want to feel superior to their customers adopt
this stance. “They drive a wedge between themselves and the wine
drinker,” he said. While I appreciate sommeliers who are forever
questing for something interesting and new (it was thanks to Mr.
Madrigale that I first discovered Canadian Gamay) they do need to
remember that their customers might also prefer familiar wines such as
Sancerre and California Chardonnay. Mr. Madrigale includes both on his
lists. Perhaps this saying should be amended to “Bad sommeliers only
like obscure wine.”
9. Red-wine drinkers are more sophisticated than white-wine
great English wine writer Harry Waugh declared, “The first duty of a
wine is to be red.” The idea that red-wine drinkers are connoisseurs
rather than mere consumers has held for decades. But many wine
professionals think otherwise. “If you’re really into wine,” said
Mr. Madrigale, “it’s the opposite.” White wine offers a broader
range of possibilities, is more versatile and is easier to drink without
food. Mr. Camarda had a funny take on the fallacy. “It’s because
chicks drink white wine,” he said jokingly, although there may indeed
be a sexist perception that red wine is more important and sophisticated
because it is more manly. Naturally I, and Mr. Camarda, think both this
perception and the adage are false. Some of the most complex and
compelling wines in the world are made from white grapes (Burgundy,
Vouvray, Mosel Riesling and Champagne), and I know plenty of non-chicks
10. Wine is hard.
Is this a
saying or simply a complaint? It is certainly a statement I’ve heard
often. Despite numerous idiot’s guides and self-styled wine experts
who claim that wine is simple, learning and knowing about wine is
challenging. Or at least it is for anyone seeking something beyond a
merely consumable beverage. Wine is the study of multiple subjects
simultaneously—history, geology, cartography, geography, politics,
chemistry and a good bit of sociology. Anyone who claims otherwise is
deliberately underplaying the complexity of the subject—or lying to
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
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
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
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,
Winemakers Make Wines For
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
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.