WE + WS + Paso Robles = Hunh?

Saxum Winery Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator are arguably the burly boys of the wine magazine world. They and their tasters can make or break the reputation of a winery (deserved or not…but that’s a debate that will never be resolved) by the flick of a pen. Or tapping of a keyboard as the case may be. Their tasting notes, ratings, and recommendations are read avidly by millions of wine fans, and we all look forward to their yearly Top 100 lists.

It is no secret that I’m quite the Paso Robles wine aficionado. What they do with Zinfandel and Rhône blends is terrific, but it’s more than that.  The talented winemakers there also do amazing things with grapes sourced outside of the region.  For instance, Hug Cellars makes some of the best Pinots I’ve ever tasted, and the grapes are sourced from various coastal areas. Other wineries, such as Sculpterra, Villicana, Ecluse, Estrella, and more, have estate-grown wines, right in the Paso Robles AVA. Quality grapes plus passionate winemaking equals great – if unheralded – wine.

The only part I don’t like about Paso Robles is that it’s getting larger, and I can’t make it to every winery when I visit!  So I have a few favorites, some on the to-do list to visit, and some where the owners have become friends, so every wine visit to Paso means that I stop by to say hi.

And now we get to the puzzle.

Both magazines publish an annual list of their Top 100 wines of the year.  Wine Spectator’s list tends to be all-encompassing; all price points and areas are represented on the list of 100.  Wine Enthusiast, on the other hand, has two lists.  They print a Top 100 list of wines that tend to be – at least to the casual wine drinker – more of the special occasion, top-shelf type wines, while their Top 100 Best Buy wines are good value wines.  Or, rather, good quality wines that don’t require a lot of money to purchase and to enjoy.  That seems fair.

While I understand the herculean task of tasting  and rating hundreds of wines each year can be a daunting and burdensome task (my heart bleeds), I am often puzzled by their results.

First a disclaimer.  I have not tasted all of the wines that they taste. It’s simply not possible. In addition, while I love Paso Robles wines, they aren’t the only wines that I drink.  I love wines from all over with French (dammit) wines being some of my favorites. Don’t tell anybody, but I believe that wines from Sonoma and Napa make up the bulk of my collection, and I really like them.  I love the wines that are coming out of Chile, South African Pinotage if they’re well made, and like most of the wine unwashed masses, unabashedly love Australian Shirazes and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.  So I *get* that tasting a lot of wines is, contrary to popular perception, really a lot of work. And tasting a lot of wines is important in gaining perspective about the quality that’s coming out of different regions.

Judging wines takes a great palate, knowledge, and analytical abilities which, frankly, not everybody has.  When I recover it in the server meltdown archives, I’ll reprint my rant about tasters where I focused on Robert Parker, who is highly regarded as one of the greatest wine arbiters.  While he was the focus of that particular rant, I’m reserving my wrath to one of my absolute favorite magazines, Wine Enthusiast.

Which brings me back to the beginning.  Top 100 wines and all that entails.

Wine Enthusiast actually has Top 200 wines, as I mentioned earlier.  Their lists have wines from all over, including Portugal, South Africa, Argentina, France, Italy, and Spain. The omnipresent Napa and Sonoma wines are there, as well as several from the Central Coast area of California, including Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, and Edna Valley.

So, pray tell, why didn’t they find one single wine worthy of mention from Paso Robles? Not one?

“Oh Irene,” you’re probably saying, “you sound like you’re having a sour grapes moment. They just didn’t find anything. There was nothing there that they liked. If there was something there that they liked, then it would have shown up on a list somewhere.”

Well, then I’d say that you’re partly right. But not completely. I’m definitely having a sour grapes moment.

Because, the magazine everyone loves to hate – but still reads avidly – managed to include two wines from Paso Robles in their list of 100.

Okay. So what’s your point, Renie?

Because Wine Spectator’s top wine of the 100 is a Paso Robles wine.  From Saxum winery. Numero uno.

Are their tasters so very different from those at Wine Enthusiast?  Or is there something else going on here? (By the way, that’s supposed to sound mysterious).

The Wine Spectator Wine of the Year is 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard red blend. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to get to Saxum yet, so I can’t count them among my friends, but I’m raising the roof over their coup with enthusiasm!  I haven’t tasted this wine, and it looks like I never will.  While Wine Spectator lists the price at $67, the lowest price I could find today was $149.  Ah! Fame!

And Wine Enthusiast missed this one. Hm.

The other Paso Robles wine given a Wine Spectator nod, by the way, is 2007 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, which, along with the 2006 (pictured), I happen to own.  Luscious white, and you know how I feel about white wines.  Nice for an appetizer or to be polite when doing a tasting, but gimmee the red!  However, these Esprit de Beaucastel wines are ageable whites, and I’m not exaggerating when I say luscious.

But I digress.

And lest you decry my criticism of Wine Enthusiast’s slightly odd ratings as unfounded, maybe you can answer me this.  On the Wine Enthusiast “main” list they have a 2007 Williams Selyem Litton Vineyard Pinot Noir that they gave a rating of 100.  Ostensibly, a perfect wine. Why, then, did it only make it to number 78 on their list? Hm.

I spend a lot of time tasting wine over the course of a year, and while I won’t even begin to claim to have the expertise of the professionals, I taste enough to know the regions I like (California, France, Oregon) and the regions I’m still trying to “get” (Italy, Spain). This last year I’ve tasted wines from Eastern Europe (not as bad as you might think), as well as from the most popular areas. While I have my favorites, I’m always open to tasting more wine.

With that being said, I know that the tasters at both magazines have the expertise, analytical skills, and palates needed to do the job. And the way I figure it, Wine Spectator must have AT LEAST as many tasters as Wine Enthusiast. Yes, my tongue is firmly in cheek. Glued, even.

Maybe somebody can explain it to me.  But in my opinion, Wine Enthusiast’s list this year was a little peculiar in its logic.  They didn’t chose a single one from the up and coming Paso Robles region, and their perfect wine ends up near the bottom of the list.

Go figure.

What do you think?

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