Wine Spectator: Shock and Syrah

I don't read Wine Spectator because I want to; I read Wine Spectator because I have to. As the largest consumer print magazine devoted to wine, it claims to reach 2.2 million affluent wine lovers (its actual audited circulation was 347,000 in June 2002). As such, it holds enormous sway in many wine circles, including casual wine consumers looking for the latest wine trends or just searching for wine recommendations.

Being a wine reporter who's been very focused on Santa Barbara County and Central Coast wineries for the last two decades, it's important for me to understand what a national publication thinks about my winegrowing region. And while Wine Spectator is helpful in many ways (wine education, for example), they don't always get things completely right, depending on their particular biases.

Consequently I was intrigued by the cover of Wine Spectator several months ago (dated Jan. 31), headlining a feature called "Smart Buys" and another report entitled "California Rhones: What's Hot Now." Since the Central Coast is Rhone country, I immediately turned to the latter story under the moniker of "Syrah's Rising Tide." A full-page photo of pioneering viticulturalist John Alban is on the facing page. Check, Wine Spectator got that right. Rising star vintner Andrew Murray is on the next page; check, they got that right too.

Reading further, I expected to encounter some mention (at least) of California Rhone pioneer Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wine Cellars. Wrong! His name is nowhere to be found in the piece nor are any of his wines recommended. They missed the boat on that, I thought.

Much later, after calming down and perusing the rest of the magazine at my leisure, I was relieved to find Mr. Lindquist featured instead in the "Editors' Picks" story on "Smart Buys" subtitled "An Insider's Guide to Uncovering Terrific Wines at Reasonable Prices."

Qupé Recommended are the Qupé 2001 Syrah-Rancho Arroyo Grande, 2001 Syrah-Central Coast and 2001 Chardonnay-Bien Nacido Reserve Block Eleven. I guess the mag felt Mr. Lindquist got enough exposure in the smart buy section that they didn't really need to mention him in the California Rhone section. So, Qupé got justice in a roundabout way.

But on a little closer inspection and after spending some time doing research, I uncovered a curious Wine Spectator anomaly, one that affects not only Qupé but nearly every Rhone style producer in California. And therein lies the basis for today's cautionary tale.

The man who wrote both Mr. Lindquist's profile and the California Rhone story is one and the same, Wine Spectator's principal California wine taster, James Laube. He is based in Northern California and consequently displays a typical North Coast bias.

Having said that, I would take his word on any Cabernet recommendation because he knows that varietal category backwards and forwards. However when it comes to his thoughts on California Rhone wines, I am less than enthusiastic. It's not necessarily that he doesn't understand those wines, but maybe he just doesn't appreciate them or what an accomplishment they are.

My reference for both French Rhone and California Rhone wines has always been Robert Parker's newsletter, The Wine Advocate. Very early on, he enthusiastically championed these wines and frankly, I discovered a lot of Chateaneuf du Papes (1988, 1989, 1990), Cote Roties and, yes, California Syrahs based on his descriptive advice. So just as nothing more than an amusing exercise, I decided to compare Mr. Laube's Wine Spectator ratings of California Rhones with Mr. Parker's Wine Advocate ratings (Issue 148, dated 8/23/03), based on similar 100 point scales.

Amused I was not; shocked I was! Wine Spectator ratings are consistently several points below that of The Wine Advocate; that may not seem like a lot but just ask any wine wholesaler or merchant how effortless it is to sell a 90 point Syrah, as opposed to one that gets 87 points.

Now I'm not only talking about Qupé here, but also Alban, Consilience, Epiphany, Foxen, Jaffurs, Kunin, Longoria, Margerum, Fess Parker, Tablas Creek, and TAZ, all of whom were under rated by Wine Spectator. The guy I feel the most sympathy for is Matt Garretson in Paso Robles, who makes intensely concentrated wines under his Garretson Wine Company label. Wine Spectator gave his wines scores like 76, 82, 83 and 86 while Wine Advocate gave them 89, 92, 88 and 91 respectively. That's a pretty wide point swing!

Qupé To cite one further example, the 2002 Qupé Marsanne is given 80 points by Wine Spectator and listed without comment. Wine Advocate, on the other hand, says it's an 87-pointer, citing the aromas and flavors of "citrus oils, pears and oranges in its crisp, lovely personality."

My own tasting notes indicate floral - particularly jasmine and white gardenia - aromatics and good fruit on the palate backed by a rich butterscotch tang on the finish. Does that sound like what constitutes an 80 pointer to you?

So the moral of today's story is, don't necessarily take the advice of the leading purveyors of numerical wine info as gospel. There are a lot of agendas out there and a lot of axes to grind.

Don't buy into everything you see in Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Wine-X, and Wine Country Living. Heck, don't even believe what I say either because most of it is just an OPINION!

Author/vintner Alexis Lichine once observed that reading was fine for gaining wine knowledge, "but there is no substitute for popping corks." Please enjoy a bottle of wine tonight; forget the numbers and savor the experience.

June 26, 2004

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