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04.22.2006

Why Slander a Grape?

Frequent readers will know that I have a lot of respect and admiration for Michael Steinberger. I think he's a great wine writer, and up until last week, I counted him among the few wine writers I enjoy that also lacked a veneer of pretense and snobbery. But then I read this.

I don't know what happened to Steinberger. Perhaps he got up on the wrong side of the bed. But in the course of 1500 words or so, he manages, putting it bluntly, to tear Sauvignon Blanc a new one. Why this poor varietal should come under attack, is a mystery to me, but in addition to making Steinberger look a bit like a pompous ass, it provides a good occasion to talk about an interesting issue.

Steinberger's main point is this: Sauvignon Blanc makes wines that rarely rise above the level of pleasant, and never reach profound. He makes this assertion, and is then careful to ensure that we understand he speaks from his experiences of many different kinds of Sauvignon Blanc from many different places in the world, from the Loire, to New Zealand, to South Africa, to California, to Chile. As an aside, he claims to have tasted "dozens" of Sauvignon Blancs, while I would prefer someone making these sorts of statements to have tasted hundreds. In any case, he feels that he's never had a Sauvignon Blanc that comes close to a great Chablis, or a great Merlot, or even a great Chenin Blanc.

To which I say: so what?

There is a whole school of thought in wine criticism and wine connoisseurship which predicates its evaluation of wines upon an assumption of an objective standard of greatness. The thinking goes something like this: even if you ignore the extreme variance in everyday opinions between major critics, sommeliers, and the most knowledgeable wine collectors around the world, posing the question "which are the great wines and vintages of the world" will yield a pretty definite and consolidated response. Pretty much everyone who knows A LOT about wine will agree about what lies at the top end of the scale.

So the thinking goes that these wines, then, are the standards against which we must measure greatness for wines of that type. By extension, every Pinot Noir must be measured against the 1965 La Tache Burgundy, every Cabernet-based blend must be measured against 1982 Chateau Latour, and so on.

While straightforward and logical, this approach to evaluating wine has a very narrow application. It is fine for arguments about the world's greatest Pinot Noir or Cabernet or Syrah among Those Who Know. It is entirely useless for perhaps 70% of the wines of the world which have never had a representative Great Wine, and it is doubly useless for even most wine lovers, who care less about what is Great and much more about What They Will Like.

Which brings me back to Mr. Stick-in-the-mud.

Of what use is it, and to whom, to say that Sauvignon Blanc is "overrated?" To compare even the best Sauvignon Blancs to the best white Burgundies is both ridiculous and unhelpful. There are plenty of grapes which will never make wines that have the depth and complexity of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet. But they can still make really excellent wines from them that people will enjoy. And if we're really talking about "overrated" let's actually look at the ratings. When was the last time anyone saw a Sauvignon Blanc rated more than 92 points by any major wine critic?

Which brings me to a related point. I think there should be such a thing as a 100 point Sauvignon Blanc. Just like there should be a 100 point Prosecco. Or a 100 point Muscadet. I'm out there looking for them. Nearly everyone else is busy docking points from these wines because they're under $20. But at least they're not telling people not to buy them.

What does Mr. Steinberger hope to achieve by warning people off of an entire varietal? Perhaps the ripping out of a lot of Loire acreage. Perhaps he's looking to see what sort of version of an intifada the New Zealand Winegrowers Association might put together. In any case, I'd say he's doing his readers a disservice.

Why not point us all to the best examples of the form, and let us make up our own minds? A simple idea, but perhaps Steinberger finds that also too pedestrian.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.