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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.

Comments (17)

Alan wrote:
04.23.06 at 3:41 AM

I agree 100%. Some of my favourite whites to drink are Sauvignon Blancs from NZ and elsewhere. I think some of the NZ wines ARE great, varietally speaking as well as being value for money. Now, what kind of consumer would I be if I read into Mr. Steinbergs ideas and stopped purchasing good value wine? Stupid!

Alan wrote:
04.23.06 at 3:43 AM

Apologies to any Steinbergs out there, I did mean Steinberger.

Jeremy wrote:
04.23.06 at 7:26 AM

Because "everyone else is busy docking points from these wines because they're under $20" I can afford to drink them. If every bottle I drank cost more than $20, I couldn't afford to visit my favorite Californina wineries twice a year.

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the bargains of the wine world right now. I'll thank this man for keeping some of my favorites at that bargain price- as I sit out on my patio this summer and drink one.

Jack wrote:
04.23.06 at 8:08 AM

This just seems to me either/both a) an article written with almost the entire purpose of Trying to be Controversial or b) he's never had a great SB, which could easily be true. Still, I vote for "Trying to be Controversial". (And, it's not like he responded to Tom Wark's post on this same subject, nor I doubt he'll do so here.)

Perhaps we should be glad that the Sauvignon Blanc gods have conspired to keep him away from the best bottles of P. Cotat, F. Cotat, Sanct Valentin, Movia and Didier Dagueneau?!

Marcus wrote:
04.23.06 at 9:35 AM

Personally, I think I have had a "great" Sauvignon Blanc. Not just in comparison to other Sauvignons, but to any well-crafted wine. It was the 2000 Château Haut-Bertinerie premières-côtes-de-blaye.

Wino Bob wrote:
04.23.06 at 9:37 AM

Nothing better on a hot summer afternoon than a cool crisp bottle of SB from NZ or SA.

caveman wrote:
04.23.06 at 11:21 AM

When I saw this reference on Tom's Site I thought it was a joke. I 'm with Jack here, belly up to the bar dude and drink some Cotat, or come on up and I'll open a magnum of Jolivet's Les Caillottes (2001)...


Kevin wrote:
04.23.06 at 6:48 PM

This was discussed on one wine forum I frequently lurk about and I was of the same opinion, what was the point? The first thing I didn't understand was the "overrated" part. If we were talking about cult Cabernets from California, then I'd understand, even though it would be nothing new under the sun.

Personally, I still love inexpensive Rieslings from Germany and Washington for my favorite summer quaffers, but a crisp Kiwi SB or Sancerre is hard to beat for summertime sipping and food pairings.

As my mother taught me, if you've got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.

Steven Lanum wrote:
04.24.06 at 8:43 AM

Why does Steinberg or Steinberger think every wine has to be "profound"? That's what comes of drinking points, not wines. All I know is that Sancerre is one of my FAVORITE wines.

Tyler T wrote:
04.24.06 at 9:28 AM

Alder, once again you make some great points. Our wine tasting group (which consists of winemakers and viticulturist) discussed this issue recently. As you pointed out, the 100 point scale is not absolute, SB will never receive 100 points. But certainly there is a 'perfect' or 'great' SB out there that deseves 100 points, no? Being the nerd I am, I looked at Wine Spectator scores over the last 20 years, SB has never received higher than a 94, and that only 3 times. (Out of almost 4000 ratings)! The argument could be made that they just haven't come across a perfect SB, but I would suggest that 100 points is really relegated for Cabs, Grand Cru Burgundies, and Sweet Wines. Incidently, if you see a SB that received a 91-94, you know they must think it is really good, since this is essentially their '100' for SB.

TRairden wrote:
04.24.06 at 5:39 PM

Cliff Lede SB 04 -- Not 100, but a solid 93-94 IMO... (WS gave it a 92 eight months ago). This may be lighter than a "great" red or even white burgundy, but it has noteworthy complexity in both the nose and the palate, and is a very engaging wine.

Natester wrote:
04.25.06 at 2:46 PM

Wow, I guess Mike Steinberger doesn't care for SB. Isn't that why DNA created humans with different palates?

Personally, 99% of white wine that I drink is SB (well in my ideal world anyway). also, to respond to a comment posted earlier, Kim Crawford, for the last 3-4 vintages has beena truly great SB, so he has had one, he just doesn't like them. More for us!

cd wrote:
04.26.06 at 3:27 PM

The most intriguing white wine I've ever had was SB - 2000 Baron de L (poiully fume). The aromas from this wine were intoxicating (for lack of a better word), truly outstanding!

Alder wrote:
04.27.06 at 12:21 PM

CORRECTION: I've just received a nice note from Mr. Steinberger letting me know that he plans on joining the conversation here. He also made it a point to correct an innacuracy in my post regarding the number of Sauvignon Blancs he has tasted:

"I didn't say that I've tasted dozens of Sauvignon Blancs; I wrote that I taste dozens of Sauvignon Blancs each year. Given that I've been on the "tasting circuit" for about a decade now and have been writing about wine for almost seven years, I figure it adds up to at least several hundred Sauvignon Blancs in total--enough, I think you would agree, to qualify mine as a reasonably informed opinion. Whether one thinks mine is an erroneous opinion is, of course, an entirely different matter."

Mike, we look forward to your response.

Sergio Arango wrote:
04.30.06 at 10:02 AM

I thought those kind of remarks to disqualify a whole varietal were made only by instant wine gurus that appear quite often. And to make a generalization from a lousy dinner which can spoil ANY wine is to much. SB is a top tier varietal with no doubt. This is proof that we can't rely only on wine critics /writers.

bud carlos wrote:
05.03.06 at 10:48 AM

Most wine writing is trite, silly and boring. That's because wine writing is such a haven for amateurs. If you're a writer/editor, as I am, and a wine person, as I am, you appreciate Mike Steinberger. He writes professionally, seems to know his stuff,and doesn't fear being provocative. But I lost some of my admiration for him with this piece, not just because he dissed sauvignon blanc, which is permissible, but because in so doing he wrote that "the only important wines made with sauvignon blanc are ..." Important? Wines aren't important. Expensive, yes; rare, maybe, but important? To suggest they are panders to the wine snobbery guff that plagues us all. I hope Mike Steinberger joins the forum as promised and returns to earth (or terroir). But if he doesn't, I hope he finds time this spring to enjoy a nice Sancerre which, next to Champagne, is surely the world's greatest aperitif wine. And I hope he takes another look at Didier Dagueneau's overpriced, overoaked Pouilly-Fumes, which, to use his word, try too hard to be "important."

The Corkdork wrote:
06.23.07 at 1:26 PM

One of my favorite wines of the moment is Mia Klein's Selene Sav Blanc. It's unctous, precise, serious wine. As for Michael's rant, first of all, don't write when you're mad at your 4 year old. 2nd, don't take your 4 year old out to eat. 3rd, for God sake, some wines are just simple --like the KCrawford. Don't expect Chave White Hermitage from supermarket wines...CD

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