We recently visited VGS Chateau Potelle in Napa Valley’s quaint town of Saint Helena and encountered a wine rating scale that we think has some appeal: VGS. Even casual wine buyers are familiar with the more common 100-point wine rating scale that Robert Parker first introduced in the 1980’s in The Wine Advocate. Since Parker introduced this scale, it has been adopted by virtually all wine publications. This rating scale has some appeal, especially in the United States where most schools and universities grade on a scale of 0 to 100. A zero equates to total failure and a 100 suggests perfection.
While we find the 100 point scale to be useful, the “VGS” designation that we learned about at Chateau Potelle is one that we think could have broad appeal to the full gamut of wine consumers – snobs and novices alike. When we sat down last week at VGS Chateau Potelle for our tasting with Shelby, we figured “VGS” stood for the name of a corporate parent or ownership group. In our defense, it was our first visit to the winery and we knew little about them other than we had tasted a luscious bottle of their 1996 Zinfandel at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley the week before. “So,” we asked, “who or what is ‘VGS’?” “That stands for ‘very good shit,’ she explained. At first we thought this was a gag but it turns out that the letters do in fact stand for those descriptive words. As the story goes, some visitors to the winery many years ago described the Chateau Potelle wines as “very good shit” to the winemaker, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux. Apparently, he was not offended by this designation and latched onto the letters “VGS.” Over the years, VGS has become a more prominent feature in the winery’s branding to the point where, today, both the tasting room and the bottles are branded “VGS Chateau Potelle.”
Without reservation, we can say that the 1996 Zinfandel that we had at Chez Panisse was VGS. We decided to taste the current Chateau Potelle Vintages to see how they ranked on the scale.
We sat down for a paired tasting – four wines overall with a small bite to complement the wine. We started with the 2014 Chardonnay, which was paired with Vichyssoise with Dungeness crab. We have to say, the bites were delicious, not surprising when we found out that they are provided by one of Napa’s highest-rated restaurants, Michelin-starred La Toque. Given that Chateau Potelle’s winemaker is from France, we were expecting more of a French-style Chardonnay – crisp, bone dry, no oak, and very light in appearance. Instead, the Chardonnay turned out to be very yellow, similar to the Chardonnays made in Napa in the “California style.” However, the flavor was not buttery like a typical California Chard – it was a mix of both styles both in terms of color, aroma and flavor. Overall, a nice wine.
Our second wine was the 2014 Zinfandel – nearly 20 years younger than the wine we enjoyed the previous weekend – paired with bacon rillette. We found the 2014 Zin to be a very nice wine – balanced fruit, spice, smooth tannins and a nice silky texture. It was difficult not to compare it to the 1996, and in that comparison it could not hold up as the older wine had such intriguing texture and flavor.
Our third wine was the 2014 Potelle Two – a quasi-Bordeaux blend; we say “quasi” because in addition to the traditional Bordeaux blend varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the winemaker has blended Syrah and Zinfandel. This wine was very balanced and drinkable for such a young red wine and paired nicely with a Spanish Idiazabal cheese.
The fourth and final wine was Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Mount Veeder appellation, paired with Niman Ranch beef. With just over 75% of its grapes coming from Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is labelled a Cab but could easily be considered a proprietary blend as it includes Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec. The wine was very balanced but more powerful than the Potelle Two, with a stronger and longer finish and stronger tannins. Also, there were more layers of flavor in the Cab – something that can be cellared and enjoyed for years to come.
We enjoyed the wines and had the good fortune to be attended by Shelby who not only shared her deep knowledge of the wines with us but also engaged us in a lively conversation about her Armenian family and the current state of U.S. politics. We also enjoyed the tasting room which is cozy and arranged in away that allows groups to enjoy sit-down tastings with a fair amount of privacy and personal attention. There is also a lovely outdoor area that felt very much like a French garden that we would have loved to enjoy had it not been raining for what felt like the 100th consecutive day in 2017. When we get back to Chateau Potelle to try some more VGS, we will choose a sunny day and have our tasting outside.
We’re not sure a new rating scale for wine will catch on, but we would like to propose three levels for wine quality:
“S” – for truly shit wine, the one that you regift as soon as you get it, or use it for cooking. Not even good enough to be a “Tuesday night wine.”
“GS” – for wines that are good shit; not very good, just good. Definitely worthy of Tuesday night but also good enough to take to a restaurant for date night.
“VGS” – for the very good shit wines that you drink for special occasions and hide from friends or family that can’t tell the different between S, GS, or VGS.
What do you think – can this rating scale catch on?
John & Irene Ingersoll
February 10, 2017