Enjoying fall foliage while putting the vineyard to bed
Note from the Cellar: "We're finished!" (...bringing in the 2009 fruit...)

The Rhone Report and the appeal of wine criticism by varietal

Last week, Jeb Dunnuck published the second issue of The Rhone Report, which he describes as a newsletter "dedicated to the wines and grapes of the Rhone Valley".  Issue #2 is a tremendous undertaking, with 72 pages of articles, reviews, and tasting notes.  The bulk of the issue is devoted to California's Rhone Rangers (like Tablas Creek) in which he writes up notes from 88 producers.  In his first issue earlier this year, he tackled current releases from the Southern Rhone.

Amazingly, this remarkable report is (so far) free.  Even more amazingly, it's not done by a wine professional; while Jeb has worked in one of Colorado's top wine shops in the past, he's a software engineer by trade and has produced The Rhone Report in his spare time.

The time when a single reviewer could cover all the world's important wines is finished; the world of wine is so diverse, and growing so fast, that even the world's most respected (and branded) wine reviewers have taken on assistants to help share the load.  Robert Parker now only personally reviews wines from California, Bordeaux and the Rhone for The Wine Advocate, and has added five reviewers who cover the rest of the world.  At Tablas Creek, we last saw Steve Tanzer himself in 2006; we have seen his assistant Josh Raynolds -- a remarkable taster in his own right -- the past three years, and Tanzer has recently added a third expert to the International Wine Cellar.    Magazines like the Wine Spectator (ten, divided by region and varietal) and the Wine Enthusiast (six, divided by region) have long had a stable of reviewers to handle the incredible diversity of the world of wine.  The Spectator, at this point, has three reviewers just to handle the submissions of California wines!

I think it's inevitable that having multiple reviewers housed under the same roof will lead to inconsistencies.  One reviewer's 92-point wine will be another reviewer's 85-point wine, as each reviewer naturally has a style of wine they find most compelling.  And panel tastings are not the answer, as exceptional wines are not typically wines that appeal to every palate.

The advantages of a single reviewer who covers wines from the entire world are obvious: that a consumer can calibrate his or her preferences with those of the reviewer, and then follow that reviewer on his or her journeys through different regions and different grapes.  But given the impossibility in this day and age of one reviewer covering the entire world of wine, it's worth considering what the best way is to break up the wine world into manageable portions while minimizing inconsistency.

Enter the world of varietal-specific wine criticism.  There are now several wine reviewers who publish reports focused on one region, or on one family of grape varieties.  Probably the best known, and most successful, of these reviewers is Alan Meadows of Burghound, who has published his report dedicated to the wines of Burgundy (and their expatriate cousins) since 2001.  His expertise in the notoriously complex world of Burgundy has developed to the point that I recently had an industry veteran tell me that his reviews move the Burgundy market more than those of Parker, Tanzer or the Spectator.  Antonio Galloni made a similar name for himself with the Piedmont Report (now a part of eRobertParker.com) starting in 2004 before being hired by Robert Parker in 2006 to cover Italy for the Wine Advocate.  In both cases, the reviewers were non-professionals who turned a passion for wines from a particular region into a second career.  These regions also had the advantage of both being under-served, at the time, by the most important reviewers of the day. 

It seems to me that a reviewer who focuses on wines from a family of grapes comes closer to the experience that wine consumers have than one who focuses exclusively on region.  [Of course, it's worth acknowledging that for many European regions, place and varietal are inseparable.]  Someone might more reasonably expect the same standards be applied to a Syrah from California as to a Syrah from Hermitage.  Or a Roussanne from Washington as a Roussanne from Chateauneuf du Pape.  And I think that consumers tend to think that way.  A lover of Syrah is likely familiar with the wines from both regions.  I've always found it a shortcoming that the reviewers of Tablas Creek's wines from the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are not responsible for reviewing (and may not have much familiarity with) Beaucastel.

Varietal-specific reviewing makes sense if the shared character of the same grape grown in different areas is more salient than that of different grapes grown in the same area.  And I think that it does.  Comparing a Cabernet from Paso Robles and a Viognier from Paso Robles using the same criteria may not be like comparing apples and oranges, but it does at least seem to be on that continuum.  A Grenache can of course receive reflections from the place in which it is grown, or the winemaker who grows it, but it is still a Grenache.  And a reviewer who chooses to specialize in a particular family of grapes can safely be assumed to be an enthusiast for that grape (after all, who would want to spend a significant time tasting, say, Chenin Blanc if they can't stand the grape?).  So, you're freed from the possible conflict of a reviewer disliking a wine because of the inherent character of the varietal.

Will The Rhone Report take its place alongside Burghound and the Piedmont Report?  I'm not sure.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that anyone is going to make a living writing the "Bordeaux Blotter" when Robert Parker has been the acknowledged expert on Bordeaux for three decades.  And Parker has been largely responsible for the elevation of the Rhone Valley (and, more recently, the Rhone Ranger movement in California) to the forefront of the world of fine wine.  So, there isn't really a void that Jeb is filling.  Parker, in his August 2009 report on the Rhone Rangers, himself reviewed 488 wines from 117 producers.  But Jeb's contributions are still a welcome addition to the world of Rhone wines, and I hope that he continues.

Even if, in the long run, his success means that the Rhone Report won't remain free.  But while it is, go check it out.