What Makes a Wine Great?

What makes a great wine, in my opinion, is a sense of inevitability. Great wines are or become what they are meant to be. They have a sense of cohesion and a sense of propriety and a sense of promise. They do not show all that they will be in every sip, instead, they show you balance now and a hint at their full glory. Great wines are always in the process of becoming…perhaps an apotheosis in the greatest of examples…but always on their way to fulfilling their true natures.


Balance is certainly a great part of it. A great wine by definition is one that on its best day is utterly whole. There isn’t anything more or less you’d ask of it. That wine has the right combination of weight and fruit and acid and tannin and length. All the corners have been sanded and you are left with a perfect sphere. Or to put it another way, like Michaelango’s David, all the excess rock was broken off until perfection was the only thing left. Unlike that statue, though, the state of perfection is unbearably transitory. And it is this quality, this briefness, this mutability, this only-of-the-momentness  that is the true glory of wine.

Really good wine gives a pleasure that is thrilling in its physical briefness, and very long in the memories that it creates. A great wine has the power to transfigure Time.

Age = Beauty?

If you read the major wine magazines such as the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast most of their reviews of high-end wine are accompanied by a recommended drinking window. This “massive” Cabernet will last for 20 years; or drink from 2020 – 2030, etc.

It is thought that more than 90% of wines that are bought in supermarkets and

wineshops are consumed the same day so the drinking window (in this context) is essentially meaningless. But that’s a topic for another rumination.

What’s not meaningless, however, is the notion that part of a wine’s essential quality is tied to the perception of how long that wine can age or how long past release the wine hits its peak. This equation is influenced by all kinds of caveats, and I have spent a career thinking about its validity.

America is a very young wine-drinking culture, and California a very young wine-making area. When you are just beginning to become interested in something you tend to look to

The notion of ageability as a prerequisite for quality was formed long ago and based on a foreign paradigm that doesn’t seem relevant to me any more (viz. California wine).older examples to emulate. And Europe was the obvious place from which American winemakers and drinkers took their cues.  Bordeaux and Burgundy (Cabernet-based wine predominantly, and Pinot Noir) produced wines (generally) much harder in tannin and lower in fruit than their California counterparts. When my father really got into wine in the mid-1960s, the best examples of Cabernet were Bordelais and these massively tannic and acidic wines needed decades to soften and complex up. The same was rarely true of the California example of the grape – especially those wines made in the last 10-15 years


when the predominant wine-making style shifted to longer hangtimes, more fruit, less acid, and less ageability.

One of the great truths and part of the essential nature of the greatness of wine as a thing is that it does CHANGE. Wine evolves; it matures; it lives out its life sometimes grandly and over a great many years and sometimes its nature is that of the May Fly. How wine practically changes is for a long chemistry conversation and is fairly well known. But HOW a wine is going to change or AGE is fraught with so many tangential but crucial questions I’d argue that it is knowable only within a range, and not even very well at that.

Storage conditions – temperature (absolute temperature and temperature range), humidity, absence of vibration and light; quality and integrity of the cork; wine variety; reputation of the producer; winemaking style; appellation; hillside or valley floor…all of these factors will influence the wine’s ability to age, practically speaking. Then when you take into account your personal preferences (freshness of fruit, like or dislike of tannin and acid and wood, desire for tertiary aromas and flavors brought on by bottle bouquet and age) age-worthiness as a signifier of quality becomes much more complicated and ephemeral a conceit.

The wine press and the avid wine consumer have taken a simple Old World reality that high-quality wines needed time to become enjoyable to drink and did their transmogrifying voodoo on it. What we are left with is a tarted-up New World notion that ascribes excellence to a dynamic that began as a purely pragmatic realization.

I would contend that there are no objective measures where affairs of the heart ( and of the palate) are concerned. I can measure the amount of titratable acid there is in a wine, the pH level, the amount of alcohol by volume, and a bunch of other things. What I can’t measure, though, is how these things make you feel, how all of these individual planks combine in your mouth and your mind and your heart to create your individual sense of the wholeness of the thing.

All wine’s can age. Not all, in fact, – most – are not meant to age for a long time. Each time you drink a wine, you are getting only a snapshot of its life; the quality of that life, however, is purely a product of your own needs and desires. Just like the color orange, expressing in words the essence of the thing you are tasting and smelling is nearly impossible.

Great wines tend to get more complex the older they are. Primary fruit and the impolite, exuberant structure of youth give way to integration and propriety and a depth we associate with maturity. Neither state is inherently more valuable or more worthy than the other. These states are not even individual stops reached in the whole span of life; they are only moments in time, fated to change even just a moment later. Really good wine gives a pleasure that is thrilling in its physical briefness, and very long in the memories that it creates. A great wine has less to do with how long it can live and more to do with its ability to transfigure the Time that it has.

Winning the Jackpot Without Betting a Dime

I’ve never seen the odds in cards or craps or slots. Too little control, too much to lose.

Too little control when it comes to sucking the marrow out of the Las Vegas experience

Short Rib Ravioli - Marche Bacchus

Short Rib Ravioli – Marche Bacchus

too…but everything to gain.

June and I LOVE Las Vegas. We go to eat and to relax and to bring Lineage and The Premier Cabernet out to like-minded sommeliers at the great restaurants in town. And as transient as the restaurant business is, we have now begun to create some really great relationships with folks that we’ve dined with a number of times.

Las Vegas is the kind of place you want to have your wines. There are more Master Sommeliers here than in New York; the quality of the restaurants attract people who are passionate about food and wine; and the traffic is truly international, so there is that chance that someone at CarneVino or Bouchon or Delmonico’s will taste our wines here and bring back a great memory to their home an ocean away.

On this most recent outing we ate at Jaleo in Cosmopolitan and had amazing Tapas. The Chorizo with olive oil mashed potatoes and Endive with Orange and goat cheese were amazing dishes. We didn’t know until recently that one of our good friends is the sister-in-law of Jaleo’s owner and master Chef Jose Andres. Small world. That’s another great thing about Las Vegas too.

Another first time spot for us was Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesar’s Palace. Classic French cuisine; classic (and utterly spectacular) service. Chef Mathieu Chartron prepared one of the great foie gras dishes I’ve ever had and the soups were rich and light and perfect.

Year of the Horse: Bellagio Conservatory

Year of the Horse: Bellagio Conservatory

And as great as the food was, the people (true professionals!) who took care of us were every bit its equal: at once, gracious, on point, and warm. It was as if your friends decided to put on the perfect ballet in your family room. Just an amazing experience. Thank you General Manager, Alain Alpe, and your team!

Marche Bacchus off the strip was a great lunch choice. About 20 minutes away from the Bellagio, this restaurant is also a wine shop (and one with an amazing selection of some of the best wines in the world). June and I had a table in the enclosed patio that looks right out onto a lake where black swan, ducks, and turtles meander a few feet from you.

photoWe finished off the weekend, as we always do, with brunch at Bouchon. One of Thomas Keller’s bistros, Bouchon has the best roast chicken to be found, amazing pastries, and a stellar wine program. One of our friends, Paul Peterson, is the sommelier here, and he treated us to a great tasting of Loire Valley and California Cabernet Francs. He was incredibly generous with his time, as well. This is THE perfect spot to finish up a trip to VinCity.

I’m a very lucky man to be able to combine the things I love to do most with the woman I love best; I’m sure there are Las Vegas trips ahead…here’s to hoping they’ll all be as great as the one that just ended.

“Vin City”

In a couple of days June and I head off to Las Vegas for a couple of days of work and R&R. Like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, Las Vegas has done a remarkable job carne_vino logobranding itself. Whether it was the “Sin City” of the ’50s and ’60s or the ideal place to bring the whole family it became in the ’90s and ’00s, Las Vegas has had the ability to become whatever it needed to match (or in some cases, create) the prevailing zeitgeist. And like those aforementioned cities, Vegas, too, has become a mecca for some of the world’s greatest chefs andrestaurateurs.

bouchon logoLas Vegas sprung up from the barrenness like a sandstone Shangri La in the 50s, and the

free buffet was king. Now however, chefs such as Mario Batali, Guy Savoy, Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller, and dozens of others have built gastronomic outposts here that rival in quality restaurants in any city in the world. In a single hotel there are more Michelin stars than there are drunken revelers at Mardi Gras.

World-class food attracts world-class wine and wine professionals. In 2012 there were twice as many Master Sommeliers in Las Vegas than there were in New York. This

Delmonico SteakHouse logo

confluence of great food and great wine people has made Las Vegas a very important market for us. In a recent article, sommeliers note that their international guests still find California an enduring vinous sign post. Master Sommeliers are very good at bringing new and small brands to the attention of their guests. We have thrived in this dynamic.

So, June and I will spend the next few days introducing our new releases into the market, saying hello to old friends who have supported our wines in the past, probably (ok, certainly) eating spectacularly well, and generally soaking up the spectacle that is the world’s greatest food court.

In Praise of: Basketball, Bourbon, and BBQ

pigolbittiesThe Wine Life is the best life.

But the Three Bs need to have their stuff rendered unto as well.

I used to watch a ton of sports, was a rabid Oakland Raider and A’s fan, the world coming to a stop every time McGwire or Canseco came to bat. Either the world got too busy or the Raiders just too damn bad, but I stopped watching those teams for the most part.

I’ve never stopped watching the Golden State Warriors, though. Through the decades of suck there were occasional glimpses of beauty…the drafting of Chris Webber (which quickly turned into disaster), the We Believe team’s playoff run. Then came Steph Curry.

St. Steph as he’s called. Purest shooter ever, all around good guy, potential Superstar. He makes you feel good about rooting for professional athletes again. Fifth year in the league, first all-star game (first Warrior voted in as a starter since Latrell Sprewell), and the only reason to watch the game show that is the NBA All-Star contest. More than reason enough, though.


I’ll be watching it with June while drinking Bourbon and eating BBQ in downtown Livermore.

warriorswallpaperBourbon is Whiskey but made only in Bourbon County Kentucky…so like appellated wine in that regard. And Bourbon is like wine in that it tastes great and makes you glad to be alive. And the fact that it’s made by passionate people who love what they do, makes it like my wine.

And though I don’t eat it often, sometimes the cure for what ails you is The Pig. The Pig over a fire, slowly. The Pig in little pieces with jalapenos and cheese and chips. The Pig in bigger pieces with sweet sauce and just a touch of heat. The Pig, The Pig.

So that’s what’s in store in the Wine Life today. Here’s to deliciousness and beauty into your Life too!