Sine Qua Non Shot in the Dark - 100 points or 86?

sine qua non shot in the dark

I have just written up Thursday night’s tasting of cult Californian wines.

It was an eye-opener. One wine in particular polarized option. For me it was the worst wine of the night: over-ripe, and with an unpleasant roast coffee overtone. One or two others liked it. Robert Parker gave it a perfect 100 points out of 100. These are the tasting notes of collectors who drink this wine on Cellartracker.

And it retails at £475 a bottle. My score? 86. Maybe that was a little generous, because I didn’t like it at all.

How do we deal with these sorts of divisions of opinion among critics?

First, we need to recognize that they exist, and are actually relatively common. We need to avoid being dogmatic, and avoid using situations where we feel someone else has got it wrong as a chance to bash them. Rather than focus on what we don’t like, we should be telling people about what we do like: it’s much healthier. Critic squabbles aren’t much fun to watch.

But we also need to avoid the platitude, ‘Oh, wine tasting is just subjective, and people should like what they like,’ because this renders the whole venture of wine criticism and assessment meaningless.

I think this is actually a poor wine. It’s not because of the ripeness and alcohol alone, because – after all – I love many Ports which are extremely ripe and have 20% alcohol. It’s because of the balance (it lacks it), the dead fruit (it’s just lacking definition), and the roast coffee character (it tastes like coffee Pinotage, which is OK if you like that sort of thing, and readily available at around £6 a bottle).

It’s just madness that this is 100 points and £475 a bottle. I don’t want to be part of any fine wine aesthetic system where this wine is held up as a benchmark.

25 comments to Sine Qua Non Shot in the Dark – 100 points or 86?

  • Richard

    Always amusing to watch you finding new ways of saying ‘I’m right and you are wrong’.

    Also interesting that you call the subjectivist viewpoint a ‘platitude’, especially after saying ‘we need to avoid being dogmatic’.

    Nor does the subjective viewpoint render wine criticism meaningless. You just have to find a critic who’s taste aligns with yours.

  • I must agree with Richard on this one. I don’t quite understand how being subjective is a “platitude”. Subjectivity in wine assessment is a fact, we don’t need to find excuses for liking or not liking a wine. We should stop trying to find the Holy Grail of objectivity, especially when referring to a drink meant for personal pleasure and enjoyment.

  • I recall Jancis saying in her autobiography that the best tasting committees are committees of one! The reason being that when a wine like this turns up the committee designs a camel instead of a horse.
    I also recall that on the 1999 MW West Coast USA trip it was clear, even after a day or so, that there was a clear difference between the North American palate and the European, at least in terms of intra-IMW tasters.
    I think the thing to do is to point out why you like (or dislike) a wine as clearly as you can, using simple words, so that your readers can decide if they agree with you or not. If everyone agreed with my tastes, the world would be very boring – I don’t buy into the so-called Natural Wine movement but some of these winemakers put some amazing wines out there for us to try; others fail miserably.
    I wonder if the real issue are those “squabbles” where egos, rather than well-reasoned points of view, come to the fore (hot oaky Bordeaux, anyone?)? Personally, I think you usually write them as you see them and that most of your viewers like your honesty, so I wouldn’t worry too much (especially as the sky blue devils are going to win the Premiership!!!)!

  • John Artmann

    This assessment is purely anecdotal, since I never tasted this wine, but the “roasted coffee” flavor is usually a byproduct of heavily oaked wines submitted to thermo-vinification/pasteurization and/or spinning cones. Both techniques are commonly employed in California.
    These practices should not, in theory, be associated with cult and/or highly priced wines, for they eliminate most of the risk and uncertainty involved in the grape growing and winemaking processes (i.e., craft); and, basically, make every wine taste the same.

  • Eoin

    What struck me most about your right up of the tasting was the amount of times the word sweet was used in your descriptions.
    Would it occur that often in notes from a tasting of 10 equivalently priced European wines?

  • bob parsons alberta

    Jamie`s take on the wines served at the Portugal event make for some interesting reading (yes, I am a P fan).
    None of these California fruit-bombs have any appeal in my opinion but one has to taste them as a wine critic/writer.

  • Tom Bexton

    How do we deal with these sorts of divisions of opinion among critics? Jamie; we can’t – thats it really. Wine critics are like DJ’s; you support the man/woman who you understand and share certain tastes and recommendations with – it becomes clear very quickly if your not on the same ballpart, if not, you move on.

  • Steve Connolly

    This is why we love wine! I was interested to read the high cellar tracker ratings. Does this link in with the recent post on the blind tasting of cheap Rioja? If I’d paid £400+ for a wine, you bet I’m going to love it, especially if it has been canonised by Pope Robert. This could just be the personal taste issue (I can’t stand chateau musar for example) or is it a case of Emperor’s new clothes. In the end this particular issue is of no relevance to me as I will never spend even close to that on a bottle (or even a case) of wine. However, in terms of critics disagreeing, as the previous poster said, there’s nowt we can do about that except find the ones we mostly agree with.

  • John Smith

    Rather than focus on what we don’t like, we should be telling people about what we do like: it’s much healthier.

    I think this is actually a poor wine.

    It’s just madness that this is 100 points and £475 a bottle.

    So Jamie, you give this wine 86 out of 100, then tell us that it’s a “poor” wine? Why in heaven’s name would you score it 86pts, then??

    Your post is totally contradictory. Telling us that we should embrace our differences etc, then telling us that someone else scoring it 100 is “madness”, just because you disagree.

    Very odd.

    You’ve just contradicted yourself, Jamie.

  • Living in Napa, and working at a winery in Oakville, I have of course developed a bit of a *house* palate for California wines. It never ceases to amaze me how worked up and virulent non-Americans get about Napa’s cult wines…if you don’t like them, don’t buy them, simple. Moan, moan, moan! Each vintage sells out whether you all like them or not.

  • Alex lake

    Critic squabbles can be quite fun to watch…

    What we want from critics is accuracy, honesty and transparency. But we don’t expect them to “get it right” everytime – partly because there isn’t one “right” and partly because they’re only human – so relax!

    I had a SQN wine recently. At first I didn’t like it, but then (and I may have been influenced by the chat around the table) it grew on me and I ended up really liking it (but nowhere near enough to pay the asking price).

  • I also agree with Richard.

    I like this quote regarding critics:

    “You have to choose which critics you want to listen to. We all have rather different perspectives on wine. In the end, reader’s need to decide whether or not a critic’s particular perspective is useful for them, for some or even all wine regions.”

    That’s what Jamie wrote in the larger writeup of this tasting, and I agree completely. But I find what was written in the blog post contradictory, as others have outlined.

  • I think it is right to point out that different critics can and do taste, describe and rate wine differently. They are a guide, nothing more, nothing less. I personally find that I learn a little from finding out what wines the critic prefers to drink in his or her “personal capacity”.

    If your post is in effect a call to respect a diversity of opinions in wine, then bravo! My experience is exactly that, though I personally think that subjectivity plays a greater role in tasting than perhaps is suggested.

    Concluding by not wishing to be part of a “wine aesthetic system that upholds this particular wine as a benchmark” and juxtaposing a fellow critics’ high score of the same wine in the previous paragraph, seemed however somewhat inconsistent with these sentiments. Perhaps both worlds can subsist, happily even.

  • Patrick

    With regard to those ‘virulent non-Americans’ someone quotes – I think the reason for the reaction is that they regard these wines as just not very good for the price. The price being as much, if not more, a factor of the perfect storm of hype, limited supply, abundance of money and Parker scores than the liquid which I’m sure is technically well-made.

    Price alone doesn’t (and thankfully shouldn’t) reflect quality – look at Andy Carroll…

  • It is “the perfect storm” but who am I to say what a wine is worth, surely it’s simply what someone is willing to pay for it, hype or no hype. The Knight family who just paid $70,000 for 5 cases of Dana Estates 2010 Cab, at Premier Napa Valley, probably don’t particularly care for your perfect storm scenario – it wasn’t even sprinkling in Napa that day!

  • Lee Newby

    Vintners’ Premiere Napa Valley is a fundraiser so prices go crazy, they are not real. And as to this issue, I agree with Jamie, the “Cult Cabs” labelled 100 by Parker are often 100s for him and his following not the world, his list of Bordeaux 2009 100s moved the Fine Wine world last week, I’ll sit it out I think the 2010s will be better. As Lewin MW has pointed out Bordeaux will get better until the water is gone, so look for best of the century 10 times in the next 20 years.

    Price escalation in Napa has led to many bank foreclosures, if the wine didn’t make a Parker 95 and $100 a bottle it’s all over, new owner new label same stuff. Vinogirl maybe some of the wineries are selling out but many list have opened up over the last few years and some is even making it to retail that was never seen a store in the past.

  • CHRIS ROBINSON

    Surely a key part of your assessment was the ability to deliver varietal character, something that no one could reasonably disagree with. I recently had a Sine Qua Non pinot that was the strangest thing, no pinot character at all. That for me is a fail. As to palate structure etc we all have personal points of view and I would guess we all agree no point of view is wrong. But not being varietal in aromatics and taste is simply wrong. How was the SQN on this dimension?

  • Eric

    It’s actually quite hard to accurately vocalise this type of opinion, I prefer jamie’s “what the hell?” type response to someone trying who is trying to be generous with a wine because of it’s price tag. Subjectivity is a little too fashionable these days. Whilst it makes wine tasting more generally accessible, it also devalues professional opinion if every difference of opinion is answered with “well, we like what we like”. In those cases we could (hypothetically) ask anyone at random off the street to join in and rate their thoughts alongside tasters with 30 years experience.

  • Richard

    Eric, I think you are missing the point.

    These weren’t people off the street but professional critics. And they liked the wine the Jamie disliked. So what do you say when critics disagree? Two possibilities… ‘we all have our own opinions’ or ‘my taste is superior to yours’. If you go for the former then you are back to the oh-so-fashionable subjectivity.

  • I believe there are two aspects to wine evaluation: quality assessment and hedonistic enjoyment. The former is mostly an “aprioristic” objective enterprise. The latter is, fundamentally, a subjective, aesthetic inference.
    Quality assessment involves the objective judgment/pricing/valuation of the techniques, methods (e.g., grading artisanal/handcrafted practices and “risk” levels accepted in order to pursue a unique result) and economic inputs (grapes, soils, land, geographic origin, barrels, length of the “elevage”, capital intensiveness, human capital, etc.) applied in the grape growing and winemaking processes.
    Aesthetic inferences, on the other hand, “rest solely in the eyes of the beholder”, rather than “representing inherent qualities of the composition itself”.

  • Further to Peter’s comment:

    If it’s true that wine criticism is a combination of these two things – (1) objective quality assessment and (2) subjective enjoyment – what’s the ratio of these two things in the score out of 100? And is that ratio the same for all critics?

    Just thinking from a consumer’s point of view, looking at a score of say 86 – how much does it tell us about whether it’s a well-made wine, and whether the critic enjoyed it? Would two separate scores be more useful?

  • Eric

    Or Richard, when critics disgree someone could directly address the comment that this wine tastes like coffee pinotage and is unbalanced (for example, I don’t know if anyone actually did). There’s ways of explaining a point of view in debate other than “my taste is superior to yours”. Peter and simon, I agree completely and there’s definitely a wide range of emphasis in scoring between different tasters which can make it difficult as a consumer.

  • riaan

    Damn, right Jamie stick to your guns mate.You sure did poke a darn hole in the SQN wine fans pockets ,sounds to me I can buy a 10 quid Pinotage that give me the same wine,what a steel.Pinotage forever,Krankl need to start making Pinotage instead.

  • Alastair

    Richard, the word is “whose,” not “who’s.”

  • Greg Wright

    Jamie I am mostly on your side with this one. Not just because of the score it got but the fact that it is so darn expensive. Manfred Krankl makes wines his way and the way he likes and that is what I admire about winemakers like him. However, he sources his grapes from a lot of different vineyards, some which he owns and some he doesn’t. The funny thing is that Ojai makes a syrah from White Hawk vineyard as does Krankel. I am sure Krankel mizes those grapes with others to create his wines but for this example let’s say most if not all comes from White Hawk. The difference between the two wines is: price ($40-$45 for the Ojai $200-$300 for Sine Qua Non), one is picked very ripe and is highly extracted the other is not overly ripe and over extracted. One is lavished in oak for 2-3 years the other 1+ years and not overly oaked. Now with that you have two very different styles of syrah from two producers who believe in two different philosophy’s. This again is a good thing, many people love the Sine Qua Non style (even though most people can’t afford or find it)and a lot more like Ojai’s style and can more easily afford and acquire it. However, the critics (mostly Parker)prefer Krankl’s style so he is making wines that satisfy people and critics. Ojai is making wines in a different style and price range that is better suited for most wine lovers. This is why tasting notes Jamie are more important that actual scores. Scores pretty much mean nothing unless you are locked arms with the critic giving them and agree with his style of wine.

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