The Evolution of a Wine Critic – James Laube and Mayacamas Vineyards
While visiting a local bookstore that sells mainly used books (yes, they exist), my mother phoned me to see if she should pick up a few older wine books for me. My usual response to my mother, wife, and others looking to pick up wine books that I don’t already own is “buy what you think looks interesting, but there is a chance that I already have them.” This time around, however, my mother hit gold picking up a few books that aren’t already stocked in my library. One of the books she picked up, California’s Great Cabernets from James Laube, was originally published in 1989. It’s a great resource in gaining perspective on some of the old-school styles of Cabernet that have fallen out of fashion. And it also highlights how critic’s tastes change over time.
One winery that I immediately read up on in Laube’s book is Mayacamas Vineyards. To make a long story short, Mayacamas hasn’t changed much in decades of wine making. They have not changed their style, attitude or packaging. Tucked away on Mount Veeder, they make wines that need time to come around and when drunk in their youth, can be a touch backward and/or unforgiving. A different story and experience opens up in the bottle after a few years of aging. About the only thing that has changed at Mayacamas over the past 20 years or so is the steady decline in their scores from writers such as Laube. And like many wine makers who stick their guns, I believe that the Travers family doesn’t care much about not receiving 90+ points from outlets such as the Wine Spectator – they still sell their wine to those that love their style and people like me work on creating converts* for a style of Cabernet that has been replaced by a more modern flashier style.
This flashier, overly spoofed, Frankenwine style hasn’t always been in fashion. As Laube points out in Cabernets,
“Mayacamas Vineyards is legendary for its distinctive, intensely flavored, austere and tannic mountain-grown Cabernets. It’s reputation for producing amazingly complex, long-lived wines is well deserved, for Mayacamas Cabernets typically take a decade or longer to mature fully and shed their tanning veneer… Once they do mature, the Mayacamas Cabernets are as rich, complex, and structured as any of those produced in California. Because of their great depth, concentration of fruit, firm, hard tannins and slow development, Mayacamas has inspired both a cult following that buys the wine through a winery mailing list and skeptics who question whether the wines will evolve, much less into greatness.**”
From his comments at the beginning of the quote, it seems obvious as to which side of the debate Laube found himself 25 years ago. In the header to the winery profile in his book, Laube also classified Mayacamas Vineyards as a California “First Growth” with a collectibility rating of “AAA”
Today, however, Laube sings a different tune. As I combed through reviews of Mayacamas from the 90s (last Cabernet from the estate to be reviewed by WS was 1998), Laube seemed much less enthusiastic about what was in the bottle.****
1998 – 87 points. Herb, dill and cedary Cabernet notes override modest dried currant, mineral and pebble notes in this mature, well-balanced wine. At a nice drinking stage.–1998
California Cabernet retrospective. (from 2009 review)
1997 – 83 points. Dry and austere, with mature, earthy dried cranberry, currant, fresh earth and mineral flavors, ending with dry earthy tannins.–’97 California Cabernet retrospective (from 2008 review)
1995 – 75 points. Stalky green bean aromas and flavors make this a wine for fans of the style. Dry, earthy tannins make it even less interesting to drink.–1995 California Cabernet retrospective. (from 2005 review)
1990 – 85 points. Leans toward the herbal spectrum of Cabernet with a stalky, green edge to the currant and berry notes. Picks up a coffee and cedar edge and turns tannic on the finish. (reviewed in 1995)
I don’t care much for scores, but it’s interesting that Laube no longer lauds the dry, earthy and firm tannins that he thought once made the estate’s wines worthy of high praise. Perhaps these scores is why we saw a dramatic change in the cult Cabernet style that took shape in the 90s as winemakers moved towards more lush, fruit forward wines with more supple tannins. Or wine critics were seduced by this change in style and followed accordingly with a new wave of 95+ scores as wine making became less concerned with the vineyard and more tied into science in the winery.
On a final note, there are a couple of reviews from Laube that for me, illustrates how ridiculous wine scoring systems can be. Below are two different reviews for both the 1983 and 1984 – the first review for each wine taken from his book (for which he tasted the wines between September 1988 and May 1989) and the second review taken from the Wine Spectator online archive.
1983 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon
Tannic and intense, this is one of the better balanced 1983s. Promises a long life in the bottle, with enough rich, ripe currant and black cherry flavors to stand up tot he dry, hard tannins. Nowhere ready to drink, this one will require another decade, probably longer, before the tannins subside. Drink 1997-2005. 90 Points***
Tart and tannic with earthy plum, olive and cedary, cigar box flavors are hard and firm. It’s true to form for an ’83; needs time to smooth out. Tasted September 15, 1988. 80 Points
1984 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon
Light and fruity for a Mayacamas but typical of the vintage, this wine has bright ripe blueberry and jammy plum notes, but it is not nearly as tannic or structured as most Mayacamas Cabernets. it will be ready sooner but will also age well. Drink 1994-2000. 90 Points***
Tarter and lighter than most ’84s, with smoke, pepper and fresh berry flavors, almost like a Zin. Simple, decent but unexciting. Missing the intensity and concentration you expect from Mayacamas. Drink 1992. Tasted three times. From April 15, 1989 issue. 80 Points
Both wines were reviewed at least twice within the same 6-8 month window. These reviews could be of any wine made from anywhere in the world – it just jumped out at me while I was researching the scores for more recent Mayacamas vintages. Though I intended to write this as a short piece on how critic’s scores can change (or be shaped by what’s current in the high fashion of wine), it’s once again obvious to me how assigning points to wine can be a very delicate and unreliable at best, endeavor. How did Laube change his scores by 10 points within such a shore time frame? I am sure this happens all of the time as tasting wines blind is a fun exercise to keep your identification skills sharp, but to score wines this way (or any way I can think of) is both silly and unrepresentative of what’s inside of the bottle.
*I represent Mayacamas Vineyards through David Bowler Wine in New York and New Jersey.
** California’s Great Cabernets - James Laube, p. 253.
*** Ibid. p. 254.