Vol 2 No 21…what’s in a rating?

Readers here know that TB has little or no use for ratings or wine snobs. Here’s why:

  1. a rating is simply someone else’s opinion of a wine…it doesn’t mean either you or your friends will like it and that means you may be throwing money away or at least spending way more than you need to. The cost is exacerbated by the ratings themselves with the goal to get at least a 90! Can anyone explain the difference to TB of an 89 versus a 90 point wine…because I couldn’t give you a clue.
  2. Prior to the late 1970’s ratings were not used except in professional tastings, and the primary one was the UC Davis 20-point system. Then came attorney, Robert Parker who decided there was too much compression in the ratings so he developed the 100 point system that he posited was easier to understand since it is the way the grading system in school works. That was fine when there was just ONE rater using it. Now there are at least a dozen and possibly double that number or more. Some of them are not independent or are compensated in one way or another for the rating. The stupidity is as one wine shop owner quipped: I can sell all the 90-point wines I have but can’t get them, but can’t sell the 89-point wines I have in stock.
  3. Looking inside the 100-point system you find the following: 50 of those points are a ‘given’. Plonk rates a 50! So why confuse things with that many extra points. Then there are categories for color, clarity, nose, and more with – get this…25 points that can be added to the score. Wow…so one judge might give it a 75 and another 100??? I am exaggerating the differences but you get the point (sic).
  4. One well-known early wine writer, Gerald Boyd, I believe, once wrote why would you buy a wine just because I like it IF you don’t know what I look for in a wine. Fair question, because many accept a rating without questioning and I can tell you I have had many 90 point or higher wines that, not only did I not find astounding, but guests at dinners failed to comment on. Nowadays, at $90 or more a bottle, that is throwing money ‘down the drain.’
  5. What prompted this post? After all, TB has discussed ratings before, including the 10-point system devised by another blogger who boasts of never paying more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Hence, he ‘deducts’ points for prices above $10 and adds points for cheaper ones. So let’s say two wines both end up with ‘7.5’. Which would you prefer? Dunno, but I do know that looking for value and a complex wine are not mutually inclusive.  It is a totally irrelevant system. It is like saying a Ford is as good as a BMW, adjusted for price…really? To whom? To someone you wouldn’t listen to! It began with an article called A Mathematical Approach to the Judgment of Paris, by David Morrison in (The Academic Wino) blog.
  6. Morrison begins with the scores of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. “Its scores (out of 20) were: 10, 13, 14, 14, 14, 14, 14, 15, 15, 16, and 16.5. This means that the wine was judged to vary from Passable (10) to Very Good (16). More to the point, only three of the judges ranked it as their best wine of the day, whereas no less than five of them ranked the Château Montrose wine as their best, although it ranked second based on its average score.” If memory serves, the 11 judges tasted twice, the second time reversing the order, which no doubt led to the wide range of scores. This has been proven in the past and note that even for an experienced taster, the lingering taste of the prior wine can affect the score. Also, note that the point of the tasting was never to prove which area produced the best wine but that California wines could stand up to French wines. Trying to be fair, the tried to pick a vintage which would allow both wines to have matured, difficult since American wines due to higher alcohol (and perhaps more time in tannic French oak?). So they settled on what made them as equal as possible, at that time. Every year since , the  tasting has been replicated with  varying results proving that BOTH countries produce  great wines that mature at different times. Jancis Robinson wrote a great book, Vintage Wine Charts, which you can usually find for a couple of bucks on line. Incredible value. She has dozens of wines in it that she has tasted every year and shows them graphically so you can see where they plateau, sometimes dip for a couple of years, then eventually peak – some in five years or less, some in 30 or more. That is the test of a great wine. A good way to replicate this is with a case of a good wine. Have one bottle, or two a year, about six months apart and see when it tastes the best. When it has ‘peaked’, drink up!

In conclusion, there is only one wine critic that matters: you! If you don’t like it, you aren’t going to care if Parker, The Wine Enthusiast, or any other critic says…on the other hand, if you wish to be a wine snob, that is your prerogative too. But you are wasting your money. If you like Two Buck Chuck (which TB happens to find repulsive), so be it…or any number of cheap wines…including ‘pop’ wines. But try to take one night a week and try something new…that is a good goal. I would say that for most people you should be able to get a high quality wine for $30 or less…and anything over $50 is likely due to the rating – unless you have tried it and found it absolutely thrilling.

That’s my opinion…go get your own! Just enjoy your wine, whatever it may be!



Vol 2 No. 20…wine tidbits

Here are just a few things TB has observed since the last missive:

BPA’s – no longer a health hazard in wine due to the amount you would have to consume to have a negative health effect, this from the FDA. BUT TB advises those of you who drink from box wine encased in plastic to observe expiration dates, they are there for a reason, and if you see a lot of boxes with them, find another wine merchant as it shows their lack of inventory control and attention to wine products.

Corks – a lab has been able to isolate different phenol’s in corks. IF they can nail this down and why not? They did it with gene’s afterall. It would then be possible for a winemaker to isolate and use corks that would enhance the taste of their wine but also to make that taste more consistent in both the same and subsequent vintages.

Wine Theft – Having lived for nearly 30 years in the S.F. Bay Area, I have visited many of the wine shops around San Francisco, and weeded out the ones that did not meet my expectations. The main one I eliminated was Premier Cru in Oakland, but on the basis of snobbery prior to their arrest on multiple criminal charges that has not been adjudicated yet, but a lot of customer money was lost and will not likely be recovered – they better watch their backs though because one group they preyed on was Chinese wine buyers of Bordeaux futures and California wines for export to China…one never knows.

One I respected was Beltramo’s in Palo Alto, which sadly is going out of business after more than 50 years. Just before the last day theives broke in and stole $55,000 worth of wine in a case similar to last year’s French Laundry winery (not the same perps as they were caught and the wine recovered although the condition will only be known by tasting it). Foe their closing sale the owners had brought their library wines out and put them on display making the theft a ‘piece of cake’. Let’s hope they catch them and throw the proverbial book at them!

WTSO – in No. 19 I talked about www.winetillsoldout.com. I have now made two purchase from them. I wrote to customer service on both issues. The first was on the retail price shown first. I asked this because I was seeing prices well below that. It was explained that they use the one provided by the winery at time of release, but also list the ‘best’ online price, so you can compare. This satisfied me fully! The second was on a delivery problem that I won’t mention because they handled it ethically and I don’t want anyone to get the idea and try to get wine for free. I will only say it was a slipup that they stood up for and offered me a full refund or more of the same order. That was very responsible and I don’t know many online companies that would do the same. The point is: if you have a complaint write to them immediately. I was amazed at how fast they responded allowing us to resolve the problem to my, the customer’s satisfaction.

Meiomi Pinot Noir – originally, it was an extremely good value and available at Costco and other retailers who stocked it after tasting it and noting the quality. I wasn’t aware of this but it was owned by the Wagner family who makes Caymus, Conundrum, and other brands. This is from the Wine Spectator and is shocking but not surprising to me:

“Aiming to become an even bigger player in the California wine business, Joe Wagner has agreed to sell his Meiomi brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. The 33-year-old Wagner told Shanken News Daily that he’s selling Meiomi—one of the U.S. wine market’s hottest brands—because the deal will give him the liquidity necessary to become a much larger landowner. Wagner says he hopes to amass 2,000-3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.

“Constellation is paying a hefty price for Meiomi. Wagner told SND, a sister publication of Wine Spectator, that the deal price was roughly a 24 times multiple against the brand’s present and future earnings.

In striking the deal, Constellation adds a brand whose recent performance has been nothing short of astonishing. Wagner developed Meiomi in 2006 while he was a winemaker at Caymus, which is headed by his father, Chuck, and the wine was released in 2009. In 2010, the brand sold 90,000 cases. Last year, the California wine brand won Impact “Hot Brand” honors after advancing by 41 percent to 550,000 cases and was named Wine Brand Of The Year by Impact sister publication Market Watch magazine. Wagner told SND that Meiomi, which retails for around $25 a 750-ml., is on pace to sell more than 700,000 cases in 2015.

In other words, it went from a limited production wine to a mega under Constellation which nobody even heard of (unless you were a wino who drank Wild Irish Rose), and only gained ‘credibility’ by buying the Mondavi brand then going on a shopping spree which has made them one of the top three wine companies in the world. Wagner noted that “no vineyards were included in the sale.” It’s cheaper now…and now YOU, the consumer know why. What next? Boost production to 1 million cases to compete with Fred Franzia’s ‘Two Buck Chuck’? For those not aware his company is Bronco Wines, which owns 40,000 acres of vineyards in California, and bottles as Charles Shaw (an interesting story in itself), and is sold almost (?) exclusively through Trader Joe’s. For the record, Franzia is a convicted felon for using inferior grapes and bottling them as varietals. He didn’t go to jail but instead paid a several million dollar fine (the prosecutor said not sending him to prison like the others involved was the biggest mistake of his career…why didn’t he? Franzia convinced him that the town where it is located, Ceres, Ca., would suffer economic disaster without him). Oh, and about those 40k acres: the longest rows of any winery. Why? So the ‘tractor’, not hand pickers, doesn’t have to waste time turning around, but note you get unripe grapes, stems, and an occasional poor rodent in the mix, but hey at $2.99 or so, who cares? Not the people, mostly seniors, that drink it. There have been efforts made to elect him to the California Winemakers Hall of Fame, which will lose all credibility if it does and shame those who deserve it. Franzia is not a winemaker, but he isa a marketing genius whose only  claim to fame is getting rich…but isn’t that what Constellation Brands as done off Mondavi’s reputation? Wonder what’s in the Woodbridge these days?

Last week I attended a telecast with the Wagner Family at Total Wines, discussing their brands followed by a tasting of their full line, sans Meiomi obviously and all were great.

Sorry for the rant, but TB is about people with passion who make REAL contributions to the wine industry and are not in it merely to enrich themselves or use their fortunes to bid up Napa Valley land (and other places..including Bordeaux), to make small lots of wine with a flying winemaker, get a 90 point rating and sell it at absurd prices due to the small volume. That is wine snobbery at its worst. Not saying these wines aren’t good, just ridiculously priced!

If you are still with TB…thanks for reading…I know I feel better now!


Vol.1 No. 19 …how sad it is…

As mentioned in TB’s last post, it was hard to focus on writing (impossible?) following that awful tonsillectomy. That said, time wasn’t wasted as he read several valuable wine books, and some that he found irritating but good tools of how he did want and did not want to write ‘his’ book. In later posts, I will provide names of the ones I found of value and a brief synopsis.

As one of the authors started out, “why another wine book?” That in itself is a valuable question as most aspects of wine and the industry have already been written abuut, both by ‘experts’ (pseudo-experts?), and those who are very angry…how can one be angry about something that lends to socializing and relaxation to life? Dunno. Who is the best judge of what is good wine? You, the consumer…all that matters is your taste and price range, not what TB or anyone else says. Therefore, while TB might mention a wine he truly likes, he won’t tell you to like it, nor will he EVER accept anything of value for any comments or recommendations – there are far too many that do!

What they are angry about is wine prices! One says “you should never pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine.” Never? Who says? That blogger and now author, who has never (by his own admission) even taken a wine appreciation course, and has devised a ten point rating scale where after HE has tasted it and evaluated it, and then subtracts points for each dollar above ten! This says that economics drives supply and demand, not pleasure. Of course with all those 90 and 95 point scores facing you when you go to purchase, you are influenced by them (or at least until you realize that your tastes might be different from the scorer, be it Robert Parker or some other ‘eggspurt’).  But do you buy a car based on price or on a rating provided by Consumer Reports or a car magazine? Would you buy a house based on price rather than location, location, location?

Winemaker Fred Franzia says, “you should never pay more than $10 for any bottle of wine.” Oh, how special! But who is Fred Franzia? He is the head of Bronco Wines…never heard of them? Then what about Charles Shaw, aka Two-Buck Chuck, the most popular (sic) wine in America? Frankly, if TB was Fred, he might say the same thing, but he isn’t! Just as some critics rate quality, or their definition of it, a growing number of writers and bloggers rate based on price (and some are compensated, either directly or indirectly for their comments), and again, who says that my taste in wine is the same as theirs?

There is a laboratory in Napa where a winemaker can take a sample of his wine and have it analyzed. By chemical analysis and especially phenol’s, they can tell her what she needs to do to make a 90 point wine…guaranteed! …and it works as they have been doing this for well over ten years! So much is this process utilized (some call it ‘chemical soup’), that the number of 90 point wines has gone off the charts…how many times have you seen a wine in a store with an 80 something rating? One store owner even said, “I can’t keep a 90-point wine in stock and I can’t sell a wine with a 88 rating.” If that 90-point only buyer is you, you have become a wine snob…but isn’t just as bad to say ‘never’ pay more than $20 or some other arbitrary number…by the way in 1970’s prices that is about a $5 wine…about what Mondavi, and other major producers were able to get for their wines (if you doubt this, I have bottles with $4.95 price tags on them…one is a Mondavi Cab. I also paid a ‘huge’ $25 a bottle for the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, which I purchased a case of from Joe when it was released. It was so good I suddenly realized that I was down to ONE bottle! There is one bright side to those high ratings (Robert Parker, who was extremely stingy with his 100-point ratings on a scale he devised or at least made famous, has now give well over one hundred wines a 100-point rating…absolute perfection, and not just a bit of grade escalation): while the 90 plus ratings attract buyers, the awards are not causing the prices to jump as much as before…just bought more.

I held on to that bottle and finally sold it at auction with my Bordeaux wines and a bottle of Screaming Eagle. The Eagle sold for $800 at auction and the Heitz for $400! I couldn’t afford to drink either one, and as then-winemaker at Screaming Eagle, Heidi Barrett said after a Jeroboam of her wine sold at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000 (to put that in perspective that equivalent of six bottles worked out to just under $23,000 for a four-ounce glass): “It’s wild. You drink it, and it’s gone. My brain doesn’t get it.” …and if Heidi’s doesn’t, ours shouldn’t even be able to fathom the idea.

This brings us to another conclusion: most wines at even $100 aren’t within the reach of (or desire?), most people. Back in the late 1980’s it was being touted that the Japanese would buy up all the great wine in the world…well, they didn’t since their economy imploded in 1989 and hasn’t recovered since. Then in the documentary Red Obsession, they projected that the Chinese would do it…and like the Japanese their obsession was with only the top first growths from Bordeaux and Burgundy. There was a setback however since much of those purchases were for ‘gifts’ to business associates and to grease the palms of government officials. That put a damper on the price escalation but not enough to stop the top Bordeaux from selling for well over $1,000 a bottle!

But where are these wines going? Again, dunno. But they are being shipped to warehouses where they are traded – much like bitcoins – with no actual deliveries made. Some of these warehouses have sustained losses and at least one went bankrupt…still the prices continue to rise. To TB, it is a toss-up between who is the bigger fool: the bitcoin or the Bordeaux buyer? Meanwhile, the winelover is being cheated by not ever being able to taste these wines.

Back to the anger. In the preface to one wine book, an author who has asserted to teaching more than a thousand wine classes, and even more wine expos, states: “I am beholden to no one in the wine industry. I am a nonlistener to wine talk and a nonbeliever of wine publicists, and I have zero interest in winery owners, winemakers, and their glad-handing gunsels. ‘Shut up and put it in the glass,’ I say. I am difficult, I admit it. But it’s the best way I’ve found to wade through oceans of mediocre wine in my search for pearls.”  You aren’t difficult…you are impossible!

I purposely give no attribution to these two gentlemen, however I am indebted to them for focusing me on what I want MY book to be about: the faces behind the wine.

Contrary to the author cited, I have met dozens of winemakers and wine advocates (not you, Mr. Parker), in the U.S. and Europe. Most of them are hard workers who consider themselves in agriculture, as Joe Heitz told me. Look at their hands…some of the women in the industry have hands and faces weathered by the sun working in something they love. I first had wine when I was six years old! SIX! It was Christmas and it was decided I should have a very small sip of wine…but my dad was pouring and without realizing it filled my glass after I had had my sip. I liked it and soon my uncle saw my eyes rolling in my head and very discretely took me for a walk around the block. From about 18 I tended bar at my other aunt and uncle’s parties. I was fascinated by wine, and later Trader Vic, the greatest mixologist of all time. When I lived in San Francisco I was fortunate enough to meet him….that is where I settled on Trader Bill as a moniker – both for my earlier financial blog and now my wine endeavors (I like it that Trader Joe’s is also on a similar vein and will discuss theirs, Costco’s and now Total Wines in future posts), and  Now that I am 70, I have about 52 years of experience with wine…yet, I would consider myself an advocate…not an expert!

I have long contended that if you taste wine in a setting where you have access to the owner/winemaker, not some twenty-something college student being paid to pour and maybe recite a few lines about the wine and the winery, you will mentally score the wine higher…and that, folks, is a good thing.

That is enough for now, with more on the book in later posts.

Thank you for reading,


©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 2 …do I care what Parker/Rolland think?

I’ve looked at wine from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s wine’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know wine at all.

– with just a tad of literary license from Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell

If the above causes you to ask if he doesn’t know wine, why write a blog? TB would answer, “I know something about wine but I don’t know what you, dear reader, like. Neither do the guru’s: Robert Parker, who gave us the 100 point grading system back in 1978, and which is now copied by at least half a dozen other wine writers/critics; or Michel Rolland, who consults for over two hundred wineries, and whose goal is to bring the same attributes to all of them. Rolland was immortalized in Mondovino, as a Tiparillo-smoking, jovial fellow being chauffeured all over France…and elsewhere in the world, along with the Mondavis (not to be confused with the MonDAVIES – Bob’s estranged brother). Interestingly, Mondavi was at its zenith when the documentary came out in 2004, but then was sold to Constellation, and has lost its aura…and when you lose your aura in wine, the fall from grace – Can be a long plunge.

Let’s get this straight: if you like Two Buck Chuck (now $3.89 by the way), or Gallo Hearty Burgundy, who is Parker, or Rolland, or Trader Bill, or anyone to set you ‘straight’? What a boring world it would be if everyone liked exactly the same wines…oops, the wine snobs already do which has escalated the price of those 90-100 point wines as speculators, not consumers, buy them and trade them among one another further driving up the price. Some people have never even seen the wines they own and never will.

In Red Obsession, it was said that the Chinese could become the buyers of all the Bordeaux in the world. Flash back to about 1988 and the same was being said about: the Japanese! Arigato! If you don’t believe this, go to this link, just published today: Lower wine prices, less Chinese demand

The above is as negative as you will see in this blog and it is not intended to harm anyone named, but when TB saw this cartoon (sorry, unable to find it so will just have to quote it), at his 50th birthday on the Napa Valley Wine Train, it became indelibly printed in his brain:

Customer tasting at wine shop: “This wine is terrible!”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90…

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!!!”

That epitomizes the wine snob who knows little about it but thinks he can look smart by serving and pointing out, “this is a 90-point wine.” It brings about the question: when is the last time you saw a wine displaying a rating below 87 in any store?

In Sideways, Miles was the epitome a wine snob (by the way, it was more disgusting than funny in the book). He loathed Merlot – as if there were no good Merlots, only plonk. He had obviously never tried a Duckhorn, especially the Three Palms, or any of the other wines not produced for the ‘cocktail’ crowd. Instead, he loved Pinot Noir, especially Burgundies. Yet his favorite wine was Cheval Blanc, a beautiful St. Emilion, which is…100% Merlot (in the book he only mentions Chateau Petrus, also 100% Merlot)! For all you France haters, how do you think they feel about us for all those ‘burgundies’, and ‘chablis’ we sold for a couple of bucks a bottle?…not to mention Champagne!

One of TB’s favorite wine writers in San Francisco…sadly, he can’t recall the name…once spent a column on wine writers. He posed: how can you use someone’s wine recommendations without knowing if what they like in a wine is the same as what you look for? Good question…any takers?

Also in Sideways: it was amazing how Miles always brought out the best and most expensive wine when he was trashed! By the way, TB has had this happen after several glasses of wine at a dinner and had that urge to (and satisfied it), bring out some of his best bottles…with little or no recollection of how they tasted with the palate numbed. There’s a lesson here!

TB observed ‘the Sideways effect’ almost immediately when in wine shops the Merlot came down from the eye level shelf to the bottom, changing places with the Pinot Noir…and TB has had some not-so-well -made Pinots. Note that Robert Veseth, now professor emeritus at Puget Sound University, observed the same thing and wrote a paper on it from an economics point of view, the impetus for his blog The Wine Economist and a new career.

Let’s go back to the Parker/Rolland paradox: for all the good they did in improving the quality of wine – globally – they have homogenized it…like buying one brand of milk over another…ok, maybe buying Coke (the drink) over Pepsi. What is missing is something found in the best wines: terroir (tere-wahr).

Terroir is the summation of all that goes into a wine from the soils and climate, to the way the vines are planted. It is what distinguishes a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from other Cabernets, or a fine Chablis with its flintiness, from any other Chardonnay.

Now for the consequences: imagine a farmer growing corn, and some ‘expert’ comes along and says he is rating your corn an 87? What would he do? Escort the guy off his farm…and probably not in a pleasant way. But take away all the romanticism and wine is just that: farming, and farming means you can do everything right and still have a bad crop…you hope, (pray ?), for the best. But the farmer doesn’t see the price of his wine double or more with a 100 point score, instead the independent wine buyer who does his own research pays for it. Relief may be in sight as this 2015 prediction states: 2015 wine predictions

On this you don’t need to take TB’s word. He was told this by none other than Joe (Joseph) Heitz. TB, with a group of friends, which included Joe’s nephew from Reno, Nevada, was invited to lunch on the Heitz’ deck and enjoyed some of their Riesling and wonderful sausages on a beautiful Napa morning. This was followed by a tour, in which, Joe said that vineyard land could not go any higher and still allow the buyer to make money. I bought a case that day of the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Cabernet…$40 a bottle, I believe. Remember, Heitz was the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon in America. At that time Mondavi Cab was about $7.50 a bottle (don’t laugh, TB bought the 1972 with $4.95 price tags). In 2000, TB put some of his older wines up for auction, including his last bottle of the Heitz: it sold for $400 – is any wine worth that much? It’s WINE, not art, and meant to be consumed…and don’t forget old wines don’t taste anything like they did when young.

If you want proof of just how much impact Parker and Rolland have had consider this article published on Aug. 6th 2014 – my 45th wedding anniversary by the way – remember 1976 was pre-Parker AND Rolland, then came the conversion (capture?); are we about to go round trip? You decide…1976 Wine Judgement: then and now

Maybe you should just trust your own taste buds. If you like a wine, buy a case of it and drink it over the next 3-5 years…be able to serve it a dinner when it might be worth 2-3 times what you paid for it. That is the fun of wine…not ‘hoarding’ it, right?

If you can find it, Jancis Robinson wrote a book, Vintage TimeCharts, which graphs how wines she tasted lasted over the years…it is extremely valuable in knowing just how long most wines will keep, and how long the best can keep. It tracks wines from as far back as 1989 to 2000…some of the best! Highly recommended, and here’s the good news if you are interested: you can buy it online for $4.95 or less! A wonderful addition to any wine library. TB would add that Jancis is one of the great wine writers, long on fact, short on ego.

Well, dear reader, hope you found this as interesting as the trip down memory lane was for TB. Ah, but there are a million wine stories in the Naked City…this is just one of them (anyone remember?).


©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.