Interview with Mark Squires: Keeping Score

Over the last several years, Israeli wineries have been winning more than their fair share of international recognition and awards. When visiting any of the best Israeli wineries, the recognition they seem to hold most dear is that from Robert Parker Wine Advocate. 

To dive further into the subject, David Rhodes chats with The Wine Advocate's own Mark Squires about his perspective about the international wine trade and specifically about Israeli wines.*

You've been writing about wines for about nearly two decades now. How has your approach or appreciation for wines changed?

That’s about right in terms of when I decided to publish on a site of my own—some of my favorites from circa 1980 are still my favorites. But one thing I have concluded more emphatically based on watching how great wines develop—some things you only gain from experience and time!—is that the ability to age and develop is important to me and part of what I consider to make a great wine. The difference between good and great is the ability to hold long enough to change, improve and develop complexity and harmony in the cellar. That’s my philosophy. My reviews therefore tend to lean up a bit for wines that are ageworthy... I will trade off “drinks great now” for “has the ability to age and improve in the cellar”... there is often a trade-off. I’d rather have so-called rustic than so-called generic and one dimensional (wines). Of course, no one demands that a $12 value wine last for 20 years. When you start having pretensions of greatness, complexity comes with it and age worthiness gives you the time to develop complexity.

How many opportunities do you have to drink wines from regions you don't cover? You seem to have a wide spectrum of regions to cover with Portugal, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania.

I still drink a lot of other wines, including Bordeaux and Barolo. Of course, I came into wine drinking classic wines. I cover emerging regions now, but I have always been eclectic in what I admire. I think “same old, same old” is boring. No one can drink the same thing all the time. An open mind is required. I’ve never understood people who drink just one thing all the time. I have favorites, too, but there are too many fine things made in too many places to just fixate on a couple of things. I do think, too, that is a good to have a broad perspective no matter what region you cover. I can’t just be a cheerleader for one place. I have to be able to put them into some international context.

Are you writing mostly about wines being imported into the United States or do you also get to create interest and demand for wines which haven't yet found an importer? 

I originally—for about a nanosecond—when I was assigned by Robert Parker to cover Portugal decided to cover only wines with USA importers. I quickly decided that made no sense. We are a publication with international impact and international subscribers. Plus, there is a catch-22: namely, sometimes wines that deserve importers have none because they can’t get any press.

So, I decided to make it simple—I review everything sent to me at this point. I know both wineries and subscribers who think that is important, so I intend to keep doing that.

Some writers and magazines won't publish a score that's they consider too low. Do you hold your punches or just promote the wines you recommend? 

I publish whatever my opinion is. If I’m sent a wine, I review it and publish on it (but for oddities where, say, I fear it was corked, or unfinished or something like that). I’m sure that policy scares a few off from submitting. In fact, I know it has. The chips fall where they may.

When asked if I would ever make wine I said, owning a winery is like owning a boat, typically its more fun if your friend owns one. Have you ever been tempted to make your own wine? 

Nope. You know how to make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one. Hey, I don’t even have a small fortune. No point worrying about it.

You're writing about a lot of Old World (traditional European wine regions) and what some might consider New World (post- Columbus wine region) wines? Since some are designed to pair better with food, do you think the 100 point scoring system favors New World wines over Old World wines? 

Any hierarchical ranking system that focuses on the wine itself levels the playing field, which I consider to be a good thing. That has nothing in particular to do with the 100-point system, which is merely one of many such. All wines can succeed in hierarchical systems if they are good enough. The Bordeaux wines getting big scores and selling for absurd prices at the moment wouldn’t have cashed in if they were disadvantaged by such systems, right? One thing a scoring system of any sort does, though, is be egalitarian. Your reputation and history don’t get you an extra 10 points. You are judged on what you produce.

How many wines can you typically taste before fatigue sets in and do you have any tricks to refresh your palette? 

I once did 200 in about 4 hours. I was sloshed, even though I didn’t swallow an ounce! That experience was one of the things that led me to a “go slow” philosophy when I finally got to chance to do this at an upper level for a major publication. I had thought about that for a long while actually. I have nothing but scorn for blowing through zillions of wines in a hurry...I can raise my glass to my lips 600 times, but that’s not how wine should be evaluated for publication.

Let’s put it this way. Who, with even a little wine experience, has not tasted a young wine, formed an impression, and then come back two to three hours later and found it to be completely different, almost as if it is not the same wine anymore? This myth of a magic palate getting everything there is to get in quick tastes of zillions of wines is just that—a myth. Wine takes time. Yet, in a lot of these marathon tastings there is no time to retaste anything or spend time with it. It’s “boom—boom—boom...” And you’re done. It’s bad enough having to taste, say, 150 wines in a huge tasting. But if you want to taste each of them five to 10 times over a period of time, as I typically will do for the bigger wines, that’s the equivalent of tasting 750-1,500 wines instead of 150, right? I.e., you can’t survive that physically. So instead something has to give and you sacrifice more intense evaluation for speed and quantity. I’d rather sacrifice speed and quantity.

That’s a long way of saying that I rarely will go through more than a couple of dozen wines in a day when making final evaluations for publication. When I’m on the road, it may be considerably more—I can’t always tell a winery I may not see again for a year that I’ve reached my limit! But typically my final reviews in large part for that reason are not from winery visits, but controlled, peer group tastings at home.

Of course, how many you can go through and at what pace also depends on what it is. It is pretty easy to blow through a bunch of €3 whites from Portugal. It is not so easy to blow through a bunch of 2009 Douro Reservas just bottled with significant tannins and potentially long futures ahead. Especially given what my job is—seeing young, recently bottled wines—big wines can be in very strange places when they arrive. They need a little extra time.

Are there wines you look forward to tasting each vintage? 

Yes, some days are fun, but keep in mind—this is tasting, not drinking, which is sometimes regrettable. It’s not as much fun when you typically wind up pouring the remnants down the drain. I used to worry about that—but there is not much else to do with it when you’re constantly opening lots of bottles. They don’t last forever once opened. But for intellectual curiosity or whatever, I do have high hopes for certain types of wines. At the moment, I think I am most curious about Xinomavro, the indigenous Greek grape that I think will be a huge hit eventually.

What was you impression of Israeli wines before they came under your purview? How has it changed? Some Israeli wineries seem to have become favorites, which wines and wineries have become consistent performers since you started and who might you say are up and comers? 

My first trip to Israel was 1987—the wine scene was quite awful. I wasn’t there as a wine tourist, but I was already into wine and disappointed. In particular, most of what you could find of any quality was overpriced (presumably overtaxed) imported wines. So, things have changed a great deal. Even in the time I’ve been covering Israel, I think quality has improved noticeably in two ways: more consistent and impressive performances from the top performers like Castel, Margalit, Yatir and their ilk; and more wineries that weren’t at that level suddenly proving that they can make interesting wine, too. Everyone, it seems, is poised to make a statement.

It seems odd to talk about big wineries as up and comers, but I have to say I’ve been impressed by the last groups of wines from Recanati (their 20009s are their best lineup ever) and Barkan. Carmel has become quite consistent, and there are a host of wineries I can count on to do something interesting like Avidan, Clos de Gat and Alexander. Then, there are small, little known boutiques that suddenly appear and are doing interesting things, too. Maor is making a nice Syrah, for instance.

I also think the “green” or vegetal issues I’ve had with a lot of Israeli Bordeaux blends are improving. Some have tried to attribute this to national taste. I don’t think that’s the case at all. It is a mostly a pyrazine issue and that mostly requires proper vineyard management to handle correctly. I’m not getting as many vegetal notes these days. So, some things are improving, I suspect, in the vineyard.

How would you describe Israeli wines to someone who hasn't tried them before? 

It’s just wine. Forget the Kosher stigma. Think of it as wine. Go from there.

What varietals or styles would you consider Israel's strengths? 

Bordeaux blends [a combination of two or more of the five Bordeaux red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot & Malbec]. That’s the tradition, right? The emerging Israeli style in Bordeaux blends is also I think on the elegant, more European side. Things like Yatir Forest and Castel can be very graceful, for instance. There are counterpoints, of course. (Tzora comes to mind….)

There are also a host of people—Carmel, Barkan, Recanati, Clos de Gat, and others—making some awfully interesting Syrah [notice Mark says Syrah not Shiraz although they are the same grape]. It’s eventually going to be an Israeli claim to fame in my view.

How has your opinion of kosher wines changed since you started covering Israeli wines? Are there any mevushal (flash-pasteurized) wines from Israel or elsewhere you've tried that you liked and can you noticeably tell a difference? 

I’m not a Kosher wine reviewer. Let’s make that clear. I treat the wines strictly as wines. They perform or they don’t. They compete or they don’t.

Mevushal is another matter and it’s important not to lump it in with all Kosher wines. I’ve had a couple of mevushal wines I’ve liked (The Cave for instance) but frankly most have been plonk. Now, the question is whether that is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not. That is, unlike The Cave, most are not made to be serious, high end wines. I think they are generally intended to fulfill a more limited purpose. I have a lot of doubts about the process. But there are very few true “A” or “B” examples at a high level to make comparisons readily available. If they have a case to make, let them make it. But at the moment, if one named all the top Israeli wines that have created excitement, how many are mevushal and burnished Israel’s reputation, how many are Mevushal ? [most Israeli wine today is made non-mevushal and is made mevushal upon request for export of the least expensive wines by larger wineries]

Price wise, Israeli wines seem more competitive on the high end than as value wines, do you think Israeli winemakers should try to market wines outside of the box such as unique blends and lesser known varietals (such as Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Gewurztraminer) rather than Bordeaux or Rhône blends and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? 

Keep in mind that while things like Carignan and Petit Verdot may impart some identity, pretty much no one has succeeded in making them incredibly popular grapes that people flock to. SO, I don’t know how much marketing advantage they will lend. Try everything. See what works. Who knows? It might.

As for price competition, I do not agree that Israel is so competitive on the high end. There are too many Israeli wines priced like premium wines that do not drink like premium wines. They would have trouble competing in Italy or France or Portugal or Spain, to name a few. The advantage of having experience in other regions is that you see what the universe looks like. It’s amazing what I can buy in a good Portuguese supermarket for €5-10. Some of those would compete pretty decently—and I’ve given some 90 points—with premium Israeli wines.

In fairness, I can of course play such price games with most anything. It is easy to humiliate fancy wines with huge price tags by finding competitors who charge less and perform about as well for many palates. Israeli wines are not the only ones subject to that! Still, I think OVERALL, Israeli wines tend not to justify their price tags. I’m constantly sitting there saying to myself “Nice little wine!” Then I look down and see a $45 price tag, which is not such a “little wine” price.

How does Israel compete in the marketplace? That’s the burning question now. 

That is, if I conceded that Israeli wines are mostly priced right—as to which I have mostly doubts—the truth is that to break into the international marketplace they may need to be priced still better to entice new drinkers. One reality is that the wines tend to say two things on the label that may cause consumers not to spend as much: Israel and Kosher. Like it or not—and life is unfair!—people will pay more to try an established name. And too many I feel are scared of the word “Kosher” and they don’t understand what has changed about that. I think there is one hint—there needs to be some aggressive marketing that addresses that issue head on.

SO, why will a typical, international, non-Jewish consumer buy Israeli wines? Something has to make them want to try Israel. If Pichon Lalande and Castel have the same price and score—they don’t of course—people are most likely to buy what they know—unless they need a Kosher wine. The question then become: Does Israel have any interest in marketing beyond its ethnic (and often religious-needs) base, or is it conceding that marketplace to other countries? To compete with everyone, it is necessary to compete with what the world makes in both quality and price, especially if you are the new boy on the block. If not, the region will never grow or develop beyond the ethnic base.

I think this is the big question for Israel. I think there are a lot of nice wines. I don’t think there are many, if any, great ones, yet, but improvement is steady and there is a lot to like. There are a lot of things I would be happy to drink, fewer I’d buy giving my many options as a non-Kosher consumer (Jewish, not observant) and the price tags. So…how do you get non-Jews to become regular customers? I think that question needs to be answered.

With Israel only exporting between 5 to 10 % annually of its 35 million bottles of wine and over 50% to North America that would seem to be a question worthy of further exploration.

*This article written by David Rhodes was originally published on Israel Wines in 2012. A Hebrew version of this article can be found here.

Photo by Oren Shalav.

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