Promoting Elegance in CA Wine

Something very encouraging and thoughtful is happening at the Wine Enthusiast Magazine. It’s a trend that affects it’s scoring of California wines. In a word, that trend is Elegance.


Some folks follow the scores and reviews of wines at wine publications closer than other. I fall into the "closer than others" category not so much because I want to get my hands on the high scoring wines but because these reviews and ratings do indeed drive sales.

What Steve Heimoff seems to be doing with his reviews of California wines is promoting up those wines that deliver elegance and balance over pure power, a characteristic that seems to have been in vogue and still is with many wine consumers.

Heimoff is the Wine Enthusiast’s Senior Editor and the main sources of reviews of California wines. I noticed his trend of scoring up wines that he saw as balanced and "elegant" first when I closely read a set of California Syrah reviews he produced that clearly was an attempt at making a statement. Many of the most sought after Syrahs in California were rated down for being clumsy, over worked, flabby and over extracted.

This morning I was looking over a set of reviews of CA Pinots that appeared in the magazine’s November 1 edition. I was looking at those Pinots that got the lowest reviews and what I found were words and phrases like this:

"Heavy an Soft"
"a bit Sweet"
"a bit heavy"
"a very ripe, almost late-picked style"
"fairly full and heavy for a Pinot"
"A bit heavy and hot"
"This is ripe, super extracted and ponderous"

When looking at the highest rated wines I found words like this:

"high acidity"
"elegantly silky"
"juicy acidity"
"the delicate elegance a pinot should have"
"delicate and silky, almost weightless"
"Elegantly silky mouthfeel"
"brisk acidity"
"Texture is delicate and silky"
"high acidity and wonderful dryness"

Get where we are going with this. I don’t know if Steve is attempting to make a statement, or even trying to influence wineries with his focus on elegance and acidity to the detriment of sweet, heavy and overly ripe qualities.

It’s easy enough to check out Wine Enthusiasts ratings and reviews. They’ve revamped their website and it looks good. The review search feature, which requires a free registration, works just fine. My only complaint is I wish I could search all the reviews based on words, rather than just the criteria they allow such as appellation, vintage, varietal, score, etc.

Watchers of the wine industry have stated categorically for years that reviews influence the way wines are made, presumably because wineries want to make wines that get high scores. I think this is a the case to a degree and among some winemakers. If so, I hope they are reading Steve Heimoff’s reviews in the Wine Enthusiast.


4 Responses

  1. Ken Payton - October 18, 2006

    Yet another superb blog entry. Acid, balance, structure, elegance, may we not also pray for moderate alcohol levels? Perhaps the Wine Enthusiast can lead the way, in the American wine press anyway, to a greater appreciation of varietal expression. Syrah in heading for the same fate as most Cal. cab: flabby, over-extracted, high alcohol sameness. Someone once said, I think it was Laube of the Wine Spectator, that Syrah could become the new Merlot. He may be right.

  2. Jeff Lefevere - October 18, 2006

    Excellent observation, Tom. I think too often that bombastic adjectives have made “elegance” seem “austere” when that shouldn’t be the case.
    Here’s hoping that a restrained style of wine makes its way back into wine and Pinot’s taste like Pinot’s and not Syrah’s w/o the white pepper.

  3. Joe - October 18, 2006

    Must agree with you on the overhaul at Wine Enthusiast — it’s for the better and was long overdue. Another thing they changed is their point-of-sale materials. The shelf talkers they used to sell to suppliers were flimsy and unattractive, but they must have changed suppliers because what they offer now are defintely sturdier and more eye-catching. But then, I follow things like that closer than others 🙂
    But just wanted to add, their overhaul has affected both the consumer and the trade — for the better.
    Now the main subject, the wines. Could the change in palate have anything to do with the recent Pinot Noir phenomenon?

  4. Fredric Koeppel - October 20, 2006

    In an interesting coincidence, I was just leafing through the Burgundy section of the 2007 edition of Anthony Dias Blue’s slender but omnibus “Pocket Guide to Wine.” The Burgundy ratings and comments are by David Russell. The most frequent criticism of Burgundy estates and producers here is of the “international” or “modern” style and of the insistent or ponderous use of new oak, the result being wines that are over-rich and do not express the character of the vineyard. These wines are described as “blurry and indistinct” or “clunky” or “compromised” and so forth. Perhaps as Burgundy moves away from its (one hopes) brief fad with toasty new oak and high extraction that the more traditional, articulate manner will influence pinot noir makers in California and Oregon and wake more winewriters — Steve Heimoff clearly in the vanguard — to the importance of elegance and finesse and detail.

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