“The Trouble with Wine Writing.” Review: Charles Krug Cab Sauv 2014

Last year, Sonja and I visited the Charles Krug winery, the oldest winery in the Napa Valley, about a month after its infamous owner, Peter Mondavi, passed away. There, I purchased and later reviewed one of their 2013 Cabernets. The wine was excellent, precisely my proverbial cup of tea, and using my value-based rubric that offered 5 points of a potential 100 point score based on the cost of the wine, the modestly priced 2013 earned a whopping 95 points, one of the highest scores I ever assigned to a wine. You can read that review here, if you’re so inclined:


Last night, I met a friend for a drink at the Piedmont Bistro in Lincoln, and there had a glass of Charles Krug Cab Sauv from the subsequent 2014 vintage. It was again, excellent, and while I knew I would review it today, I knew just as well that my approach this time would be far different.

The problem with reviewing wine, and I say that as if there were only one, but the biggest problem as I see it is the relentless pursuit to quantify art, to assign a numerical score to something that would be better considered in other ways. As a classroom teacher, this is the same problem I have with grading poetry, or standardized testing in general.  Wine is beautiful and unique; how much more so young minds? And yet we relentlessly attempt to determine their quality and value using what amount to little more than cookie cutters. We try to determine what they understand based only on what we understand, and in so doing we sell them short and stifle their ability to grow.  In the classroom, where I make most of my money, I do what I’m required to do by my employer, and I grade what I must, attempting to remain ever mindful and supportive of that which is far more important. When it comes to wine reviews, however, which for me amount to more hobby than career, I gave up that pursuit a while back. But having said that, once you abandon the rubric, you’re left solely to your own devices.

In writing, especially in writing things like reviews of products, even artful ones, to be read is to be relevant, and the reverse is just as true. Presently, wine arrives at my house en masse, often in unsolicited samples, though far more often in shipments I know are coming. I try to keep up, reviewing everything I get on Vivino for the nearly 30K people who read me there, and putting others into this blog and sometimes articles for various publications. In all of my reviews these days, I’ve attempted to break free of the 100-point rubric and offer instead a candid opinion about the wine and a story about drinking it. My friend Jean once told me that “Ultimately, wine is a mood,” and that sentiment has informed much of my writing about wine. I view wine as a compliment to a life well lived, a pairing with other, greater experiences, from weddings to an evening in watching Game of Thrones. In every instance, I attempt to portray a balance in my writing that suggests that the wine is beautiful and important, yes, but not the entire story. Like a beautiful painting hung on a wall, it may be truly exquisite, but the most important part of the wall remains the studs that keep it from caving in.

For the most part, winemakers and winery owners have told me they appreciate this new approach. One winemaker told me recently that “As soon as you give a wine 89 points, I can’t publish the review anymore. People only buy wine that scores 90 or above.” I suspect that even Robert Parker would confess that this is not how those scores are intended to be used; I’ve had tons of wines that Parker has assigned scores in the high 80’s that were excellent. 89 doesn’t mean bad; it means pretty damn good, but as far as consumers are concerned, why pay for a B+ when you can get an A- for the same price?  I can’t say I don’t understand that mentality. I just think we’re using the wrong system for scoring wine.

And that’s ultimately why I do this the way that I do, why I sit here typing away at anecdotes and musings, hoping that something I write will resonate with readers on a personal level, whether it relates to the wine or not, and then tying my thoughts on the wine in later because, well, because at day’s end that’s really what I’m supposed to be doing here, isn’t it? Is it? Who knows? Tomorrow, I may do it differently.

So this wine I had with my friend last night, the Charles Krug 2014, remember that? It’s really good. 89 good? 95 good? How about you just consider the fact that I taste a few hundred Napa Cabs a year, and I’m saying it’s really good, damn good even. That must mean something, right? Massive upon the palate with a full body of fine tannins, there are gorgeous layers of deep overripe purple fruit, with hints of cassis, mild spices, and maybe a hint of cedar. It lingers upon the palate for a while, making for a nice long finish that I appreciate in Cab Sauv. Arguably a fruit-bomb, it’s still young yet undeniably age-worthy, and while it drinks well now, I look forward to seeing what it can do with another decade to mature. Like me and my reviewing, it is a work in progress.



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