By Taylor Cram
A while back, I posted “The Great Syrah Debate” talking about the issues that the varietal Syrah has to deal with in the market place. Additionally, over the last year or so, I have become intrigued by west coast Syrah (and other Rhone varietals) and its (their) potential to become (or, critically speaking, already become) one the most important varietals in this country. I have been exploring as many different wineries, terroirs, and styles that the west coast has to offer. I firmly believe that there are a number of truly world class Syrahs already coming from the west coast, including wines from Charles Smith, Beckman, and Arnot Roberts. This does not include some of the hard to get wines from SQN, Alban, Saxum, and Rhys that I have yet to try.
Anyways, Larry Schaffer, owner of Tercero Wines, weighed in and shared his thoughts on the struggle that Rhone varietals face in this country. Ironically, Rhone wines themselves still sell like hotcakes. Because of his input and further conversation with him, I was intrigued enough to buy some of his wines. I ordered five different wines from him: one white, one rose, and three reds. I have opened three of the wines, thus far, and have enjoyed all three of them. I had enjoyed a Grenache Blanc within a few days of receiving the wines and found it to be generous, harmonious, and full of life. About two months ago, I dug into a bottle of Syrah with my brother-in-law. We both found it intriguing with layers of cool dark fruit, plenty of minerality, and a structured, framed body. The only thing I am not a huge fan of with the wines are the labels. Sorry Larry, but they need some work!
Just the other day, Robert Parker came out with his most recent issue and reviewed the west coast Rhone style wines in his article, “The Annual Look at Central Coast Rhone Rangers.” Anytime a new issue comes out, it ignites significant discussion on the internet chat boards. People chime in looking for scores on favorites or wines that they are interested in. There are always a few controversial wines/reviews that spark a wild debate about Parker, his palate, and the wines. This issue is no exception. Tercero wines have been almost universally panned. With scores ranging from no score to an 86, the scores, technically speaking, are in the barely above average to very good range. The debate arises from the tasting notes rather than the scores themselves. I for one find the scores a little odd. I find the tasting notes REALLY odd. As most know, I am not a fan of scores in general. I think that they have done a long term disservice to the wine industry. A ton of people, actually most, disagree with me and love the quality definition a point system provides (full disclosure, I do use “points” to sell wine because, and only because, that is what customers expect.) I feel that points have eroded consumer confidence in their own palates, have caused high quality wines to be ignored, have created manufactured wine styles, and have dramatically increased the price of wine. I believe that the best way to review a wine is with words. The tasting notes ultimately matter. Personally opinions matter, but only in the sense, that when a professional reviewer understands the context of how and why a wine was made. What I mean is, a reviewer needs to be understand that wine is an individual experience and each palate is going to interpret that experience differently. One can say, personally I found it to be X but fans of X are going to find in Y.
The oddly low scores for Larry’s wines inspired me to open another bottle of a Tercero with dinner last night. I grilled up cinnamon chili rubbed pork chops and served them with house favorite citrus herb quinoa. I grabbed a bottle of GSM Cuvee Christie 2007. I cracked the top and poured a tasting sample in my glass and gave it an immediate taste. While, it was initially a little quieter than the Syrah, I found it to be quite interesting. Robert Parker on the other hand had this to say:
“I love the idea of the proprietary blends proprietor Larry Schaffer has put together for the 2007 Cuvee Christie (64% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 18% Mourvedre). However, the Cuvee Christie is tart with excessive acidity and not enough fruit or texture.” 80 points. Wine Advocate # 190 Aug 2010.
What? This wine does not lack fruit or have excessive acidity in any stretch of my imagination. Is it juicy and jammy? No. It is lush with lots of new oak? No? Is it trying to be? Not at all. Don’t get me started on tart! Larry is trying to showcase both the cool side of Syrah and cool climate terroir. He is not trying to make a big sexy styled wine. I found the Cuvee Christie to be dark and pure, with a medium bodied plum and cherry mid-palate, and having good texture and soft tannins. It was a more controlled version of GSM and I liked it. Also, just for full disclosure, Parker’s defintion for a wine with a score between 80-89: A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws. Does that sound like Parker’s tasting notes?
Parker has every right to review any wine in any manner that he sees fit. If he thinks Larry’s wines suck, that is his right. Do they suck? My opinion is not at all, but Parker can without question pan a wine that he feels is inferior. The problem is that with all the power Parker wields that Tercero’s wines will suffer, unnecessarily, because he does not make ‘Parker Palate’ wines. On Wine Berserkers, a three page thread is raging on, in part, defending Larry’s wines and offering significant theories about the notes and scores. http://wineberserkers.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=29718. I am not going to side with one theory or another, but I can say I have enjoyed Larry’s quite a bit so far. For some counter point reviews, check out cellartracker’s page on Larry’s wines: http://www.cellartracker.com//list.asp?szSearch=tercero&Table=NotesWine
The problem I have is the power that reviewers have can put undue pressure on a small winery. Trust me, I am not suggesting that reviewers should just write puff pieces and cheerlead for the sake of cheerleading. They should be critical or they would serve no purpose. They shouldn’t be required to be nice. But the rub is what if the reviewer is wrong? Parker has been called the most influential voice on wine in this country. He can literally make or break a winery. Consumers have become so reliant on his voice (and the voice(s) of other publications) that so few minds can decide for themselves if bottle of wine is good or not. A score and a review has become a crutch. What happens when a voice gets tired or it loses strength? What happens when a reviewer has lost a step or is trendy towards an extreme outlining style? Has Parker lost his fastball? In reality, it doesn’t matter because he is still on the mound and nobody is taking him out. And it sucks for a guy like Larry. His wines are interesting and worthy of attention. To the point where, maybe, I can convince Larry to send an allocation of wines to the store. His wines are good and will survive this press.