For those of us making a living writing about wine, there’s a choice we have to make. Do we position ourselves as experts or generalists? Do we specialize in just a few areas, going deep, or do we try to maintain a global focus, covering all regions more generally?
For anyone starting out, I’d say focus on the former, but don’t neglect the latter.
You want to become the go-to writer on a few areas of expertise. That’s the way to get work. There are just too many wine writers and not enough work for all (even all the good ones), so you have to have a point of difference, as well as being an excellent taster and writer.
There are real dangers with the generalist approach. If you try to cover the whole world of wine you’ll be spreading yourself too thin, and any serious attempt to cover every significant region will leave you a sleepless workaholic.
Having said this, the best approach is to specialize on the platform of a strong general knowledge. You have to put the work in to gain the sort of context where you can do ‘specialist’ well. If you want to be a really useful specialist, you need to benchmark with the classics; to have an understanding of what the aesthetic system of fine wine considers to be ‘great wine’.
Consider the wines of a new world country. You’d expect that the best source of knowledge on these wines would be a local writer – someone on the ground in the midst of the action. But if they don’t have access to wines from around the world, and in particular the established old world classics, then they are lacking the context that would make them an even more useful authority. A critic from outside that country might have the advantage of better context, but then they have the disadvantage of distance, without the easy access a local wine writer might have.
So my answer. If you are starting out now, in a crowded field, work hardest at being a niche player, but in order to do this well, you need to make an effort developing general context.
On my last day in San Francisco I met up with Blake Edgar, editor at University of California Press (who have published 3 of my books). It was a beautiful day, so we sat outside at the Market Bar restaurant in the Ferry Building. I’d brought along a decent bottle of Champagne in the hope that they’d allow us to open it, and they did for a fair-enough corkage fee of $25. I’m not sure Blake is used to drinking at lunchtime, but it was a beautiful bottle that exceeded my expectations.
Champagne Agrapart Terroirs Extra Brut Granc Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This is fabulous. It’s half Avize, with the rest from Cramant, Oger and Oiry, and the dosage is 5 g/litre. Complex, taut, fresh with lovely weight and nice density to the citrussy fruit. It’s not at all austere: there’s a fruit richness and purity here, as well as subtle toastiness and nice structure. A lovely fizz. 94/100
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A few weeks ago I posted about the ML wines competition held by Lallemand in Madrid.
The results are now out (click on the image below to see it full size as a pdf).
I was impressed by this affordable Portuguese red. yes, it has seductive ripe fruit, as you’d expect. But it has more than this: a lovely floral, meaty perfume and nice freshness. It does what an inexpensive red should do: delivering pleasure, without spoofiness. Available from the Asda Online wine shop, which also has the lovely Vincent Careme Spring Vouvray and the super Fossil white.
Conde de Vimioso 2011 Tejo, Portugal
13.5% alcohol. From João Portugal Ramos’ Falua winery in the Tejo region comes this really attractive, full flavoured red. It’s a blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragones (Tempranillo), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, showing sweet, intense blackberry and black cherry fruit with a floral, meaty edge as well as some spiciness. Chunky and dense, but quite delicious with enticing florality on the nose. 90/100 (£8.50 Asda Online)
It’s official. California is exciting place for Pinot Noir, and there is now now shortage of elegant, detailed, supple, world class Pinot Noir here, if you look in the right places. The In Pursuit of Balance tasting held in San Francisco in March 2014 showcased the top Pinot Noirs from California, and from the many wines I tried, I’ve selected 10 that I think will surprise many who haven’t yet discovered the ‘new’ California. I must add a caveat: this is a personal selection, and to a degree it is a little arbitrary, because there were just so many good wines it is hard to separate them. And I didn’t manage to try all the wines on show.
Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 Sonoma Coast, California
Made by Ross Cobb, who is also winemaker at Hirsch (since 2010). Pale cherry red colour. Fresh, floral, bright red cherry fruit nose with some fine, slightly edgy herby/spicy notes. The palate has freshness and finesse, with some fine herbal notes under the pure, silky, sweet cherry fruit. Profound wine. 96/100
Littorai Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma Coast, California
Pale in colour. Fresh aromatic sweet red cherry fruit leads to a silky, fresh, sappy palate that just about defines the term ‘elegant’ as it relates to Pinot. So beautiful, pure and refined. Stunning. 96/100
LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Sonoma Coast, California
This is the first time I’ve tried the wines of Katy Wilson, and I was impressed. This is supple and sweet with some spicy notes under the fresh, silky, ripe cherry fruit. There’s real detail and complexity here: a generous wine but one that’s still really elegant. 95/100
Tyler Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills, California
From the original 1971 plantings, Justin Willett has produced a beautifully poised Pinot. Fresh, fine, floral, sappy nose. The palate is precise and pure with expressive red fruits and a lovely mineral dimension. Sophisticated and fine. 95/100
Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills, Calfornia
The packaging here is making a nod at DRC. It’s a bit like playing football wearing a Brazil shirt. This has a fine, expressive nose with spice and herbs complementing the floral fruit. The palate is tight and structured with some edginess, and a grippy finish. But this complements rather than takes away from the fine, pure fruit, and haunting minerality. Just beautiful. 95/100
Hirsch Reserve Estate Pinot Noir 2011 Sonoma Coast, California
Fine, fresh and pure, this is an elegant expression of Pinot, showing red cherry fruit and minerals. It shows purity and detail, with an expressive personality, and lovely freshness. 95/100
Kutch Falstaff Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma Coast, California
Jamie Kutch’s Pinots are quite structured and intense, yet they don’t lack elegance: wines for the long haul. This is from a very cool site, it’s 100% whole cluster and 25% new oak. Sweet, lively, aromatic cherry and plum nose. The palate is fresh, pure and concentrated, with lovely bright fruit, boldness, and good structure. 94/100
Ceritas Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Central Coast, California
From a vineyard planted in 1980, just east of Hirsch, dry farmed with Calera clone on own roots. This is pure and taut, with nice raspberry and cherry fruit. It’s fresh, precise and detailed, and has the structure to age nicely. 94/100
Chanin La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Santa Rita Hills, California
Gavin Chanin’s wines have the prettiest labels in the state, but fortunately what’s inside the bottle is pretty, too. This is from a vineyard with similar soils to the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard, and was first planted in 1997. With 40% whole cluster, this Pinot has some edges. It shows supple, fine, pure cherry and red fruits with some grippiness and nice detail. Fine. 94/100
Copain Wentzel Pinot Noir 2011 Anderson Valley, California
Wells Guthrie makes some of the leanest, freshest, bravest Pinots you can find, and I really like them. This has a fresh, floral, aromatic nose. The palate shows precise, vivid, focused cherry fruit. It’s youthful and primary, with nice grippy structure, and I reckon it’s one for the long haul. 94/100
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On Sunday night I was lucky enough to drink two wines that are important bottles in the story of Pinot Noir in California. I was with Raj Parr, Sashi Moorman, Jasmine Hirsch and Jamie Kutch at Zuni, and these remarkable wines were brought out. It was an immense privilege to be able to drink them.
Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir 1979 Santa Ynez Valley, California
This is from the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard in what’s now known as the Santa Rita Hills, which Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted in 1971. 13.2% alcohol. Warm, sweet, textured and spicy, this is a generous wine showing sweet plums and black cherry fruit, with a lovely warm spiciness and a soft, broad mouthfeel. It has aged beautifully into a mellow maturity. 94/100
Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard 1985 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
A celebrated wine in the history of Californian Pinot, a bit of internet research tells me that this was picked as the best wine at the state fair in 1987, and helped establish the reputations of Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. There was some disagreement in our small group about this wine: I really liked it, but others weren’t so keen. It shows vivid, bright cherry fruit with warm notes of herbs and spice, as well as hints of malt. But as well as the aged characters, it remains floral and fine. It is certainly still alive. 94/100
So, I got a text from Joshua Thomas: ‘Are you interested in brunch?’ Of course! So I headed across town to meet him at Nopalito for a Mexican brunch. The walk from where I’m staying on Geary took me through some sketchy areas, as I cut down Taylor to Market and then hit Fell. There were a lot of rather scary looking people hanging around, but as I proceeded along Fell things became much better. Nopalito is on the intersection between Oak and Fell on Broderick, and it’s a lovely place to brunch.
You just don’t get decent Mexican food in the UK, so this was a real treat. We had a few dishes, and they were all fabulous, including the very indulgent carnitas, which is delicious, fatty, meltingly soft pork that you wrap in tortillas.
We had a couple of beers each, too: the Moonlight ‘Reality Czeck’ Czech Style Pilsner from Santa Rosa, and the Magnolia Brewery Proving Ground IPA, which is made just around the corner in upper Haight. We later walked past the brewery.
Refreshed and refuelled, it was time for a brisk stroll around the neighbourhood. Josh took me to upper Haight, on the boundary of the Golden Gate Park, and then we walked down from here to Lower Height. It’s a famous part of San Francisco, with strong associations with the hippy era. In fact, it’s still pretty hippy. Everyone seems to be smoking weed, and you can buy tie-dyed clothes.
Lower Haight is home to one of the world’s great beer bars, Toronado. It’s quite small, decidedly old fashioned, and rough round the edges. But it has some incredible beers. We stayed here a long time, and were joined by Ross Cobb, of Cobb Wines and also winemaker at Hirsch Vineyards, as well as a couple of hipster friends of Josh.
We stated off with Pliny The Elder from Russian River, on tap. This is an incredible beer: pale, complex, hoppy, fresh and perfectly balanced. Then the Hop 15 double IPA, which was pretty strong but just amazingly focused and well balanced. Then the Bochor Jacobins Rouge, a really complex sour beer, animally, bretty and quite wine like. Then La Merle Saison, a yeasty, smooth Belgian-style beer. Then Allagash White, a complex fresh lemony wheat beer.
After this, it was back to Josh’s place, where he did sabrage on a magnum of Billecart Salmon. It was pretty cool. Here’s the film:
We followed this with some Madeira: first a Barros e Sousa 1980 Terrantez, and then a 1908 D’Oliveras Boal. Both were incredible. I even took notes:
Barros e Sousa Terrantez 1980 Madeira
Fresh, spicy and tangy with citrus fruit, nuts, spice, raisins and herbs. So complex. 95/100
D’Oliveras Boal 1908 Madeira
So complex with herbs, spice, tar, some treacle. Sweet, concentrated and intense with amazing complexity and depth. 97/100
After all this, it was time to head off for dinner. I hadn’t expected to be out quite so long. But it had been an epic time.
So I am in San Francisco, a lovely place to spend a few days. I’m here for the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) conference on Monday here in the city. [You'll be able to watch the seminars live on their website.]
Last night, after I arrived, I headed off for dinner at RN74 with IPOB organizer Jasmine Hirsch, Joshua and Meg Thomas, and Donald and Beth Plumley. It was a really lovely evening, with good company, and RN74 is a great place to eat. It has all the important bits right: the space, the menu and (of course) the wine list.
The highlights: excellent bone marrow, superb truffle risotto, and perfectly cooked steak frites. And the wines! We drank quite well. RN74 has an epic wine list.
Pierre Peters Les Chetillons Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil Grand Cru 2006 was a good place to start the evening. It’s very pure and fine, showing youthful, direct flavours at the moment.
I just loved the Roulot Meursault Tesson Clos de Mon Plaisir 2011. This is a precise, linear, minerally white Burgundy with amazing purity and a lovely flinty, matchstick edge. Roulot take their wines from barrel after a year and transfer them to stainless steel tanks, but with the lees, a process that helps in the development of this pure, linear, reductive style.
Donald Plumley brought his Soliste Saint Andelain Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Lake County, California. It’s a lovely precise barrel fermented Sauvignon showing great depth and precision, with the oak perfectly integrated. Fresh and linear, this will age really well, I reckon.
Time for some red Burgundy, in the shape of Ghislaine Barthod’s Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Aux Beaux Bruns 2008. Barthod’s style is one of freshness and precision, and this is a lovely, expressive wine with bright fruit, and just enough generosity to cover the structure.
Samsara Turner Vineyard Syrah 2010 Santa Rita Hills, California was one of the wines of the night for me. It was served blind, and immediately we were all calling ‘Syrah’ because of the beautifully perfumed,aromatic, floral olive and black cherry nose. It’s a very fresh cool climate style, with lovely precision. This is 100% whole cluster, and the stems really work in this context.
Jamet Cote Rotie 2008 is a fabulous wine. We had the choice of 2008 and 2009, we chose well I reckon. It’s dark, precise, fresh and meaty with some tapenade character as well as lovely black cherry fruit. Some people thought there was a bit of brett there, but I wasn’t getting it.
We finished with Champagne Bereche et Fils NV, a beautifully fresh, almost structured fizz, showing lovely precision.
A good way to start a trip.
Methode Cap Classique, aka MCC, is the South African designation for quality sparkling wines. I was really taken by this example, from Villiera. It’s made without any added sulfur dioxide, and aged for a decent length of time in the bottle before disgorgement. I love the rich flavours and the way they are nicely countered by citrus freshness.
Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a lovely methode cape classique with no added SO2 and 34 months bottle maturation. A full yellow colour, it has a fine nose of toast, almonds and lemons. The palate is really fine with nice taut citrus fruit and also notes of brioche and nuts. Rich but fine, and really harmonious. 91/100 (£10.99 Marks & Spencer)
This is fabulous, and it’s cheap. It’s a £5.49 wine that has more than a hint of seriousness, as well as a lot of fun.
Marks & Spencer Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche Gamay 2013 France
12% alcohol. Made by Cave Saint Desirat, this Gamay has lovely aromas of cherries, herbs and flowers. The palate is juicy and fruity with lively red cherry fruit underpinned by some mineral/stony notes and some peppery hints. There’s a subtle greenness that works really well, too. Deliciously vibrant, this is a wine I love to drink, at a remarkably low price. 88/100 (£5.49 Marks & Spencer)