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Monday special! Two for the price of one! (We take major credit cards)

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Another celebration of stupid

So there’s this D.C.-based guy, Charlie Adler, a wine and food educator, who has a new book out called I Drink on the Job, that seems to be the latest expression of the “you can be stupid and still like wine” movement that is so reminiscent of the teabaggers. [Confession: I haven’t read the book and know its contents only from published material on the web, including the author’s website.] The book, according to this review, “is a series of vignettes illustrating why wine should be enjoyed organically, rather than studied and dissected.” On his book’s website, Adler writes: “’I Drink on the Job’ takes an anecdotal and often humorous look at wine from a slightly different perspective than your average wine book and draws an immediate conclusion – it’s better to ‘drink first and ask questions later’.”

This “wine is humorous” thing (you know who you are, bloggers) is really starting to get annoying. It’s like saying, “Hey, if you don’t feel like taking the time to understand something, just make fun of it, and tease people who do try to understand it.” It’s demeaning and insulting to suggest that wine drinkers aren’t intelligent enough to enjoy wine and study it at the same time. That’s like saying a person can’t like going to the movies unless he also is a film buff. I don’t know any wine writers who ever made that claim. If anything, America’s best wine writers have stressed exactly the opposite. It’s not Adler’s message, it’s the way he says it, by inferentially putting down knowledge in favor of some kind of blue-collar ignorance. “[H]e just wants Americans to consume wine with their meals – everyday!” Adler writes, third-person, on his website. Well, so do we all. But this anti-elitist stance (which is really a dumbed-down form of elitism) doesn’t help advance that goal.

Speaking of new books

We come now to The Wine Trials 2010, which was co-authored by Robin Goldstein, who many of you will remember was the prankster behind that hilarious phony Italian restaurant that won a Wine Spectator award. The new book “recommends 150 wines under $15 that outscored $50-$150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings.”

This time, the book is for real, and fine, as far as it goes; I myself frequently come across relatively inexpensive wines that out-score expensive ones, and I love pointing that out to Wine Enthusiast readers. What I find interesting is the discussion going on behind the scenes of Robin’s book. For example, in this review, Joe Briand, a wine buyer for a major restaurant group, digs into the concept of blind tasting and declares “I believe blind tastings tend to leave the subtle wines that I prefer at a distinct disadvantage to bigger bolder wines which ‘stick out’ more when consumed blind.” That remark, plus others, prompted Wine Spectator’s executive editor, Tom Matthews, always first out of the gate to defend blind tasting, to clarify [in the Comments section] his earlier assurances that Wine Spectator reviewers always taste blind. “I agree with you that we can learn more from a wine the more we know about it,” Tom wrote, and then immediately added, “But in order to evaluate a wine without biases (conscious or not), it’s important to taste blind.”

Do you see the inherent contradiction here? How can both statements be true? If you can learn more about a wine by knowing more about it, then why is it more important to taste it blind, instead of in some sort of context? Well, the answer, of course, is that context is vital for a proper tasting, as Tom knows. There are not simply two ways to taste, blind and open. There are gradations. But the blogosphere has created this impression than it’s an either/or proposition, and Tom, I think, is replying out of intimidation from the Woodward/Bernstein gotcha! crowd.

(By the way, Tom’s job now seems to be damage control: to peruse the wine blogosphere and reply immediately to anything that could possibly be negative.)

Goldstein himself points out the complexities of tasting in this Feb. 13 blog posting, in which he laments that certain luxury producers (he names LVMH [Yquem, Dom Perignon] in particular) “are overpriced,” and he indicts “the mainstream wine media” for not taking “brands to task for this.”

Well, as a representative of that mainstream wine media, here’s my reply. Anybody who reads my reviews knows that I’m not a slave to prices. I give crummy scores to expensive wines all the time. I don’t have to overtly accuse a wine company of taking advantage of image; my scores are the ultimate accusation. But in general, I agree with Goldstein. He’s on the mark when he writes, “My sense is that, especially when it comes to hazy markets like wine, real human beings—within certain constraints — generally anchor themselves to market prices that are imposed upon them, and generally pay for things what they’re told those things are worth.” That’s true; always has been in the luxury department, and always will be. But it’s also good to let people know that, if they’re serious about not wanting to get ripped off, they need to take the time to educate themselves. A stupid consumer will be taken advantage of every time; an informed one is far more impervious to manipulation.

  1. Book 1–An insult to anyone who thinks wine is to be appreciated, not swilled.
    Book 2–Carping about DP or D’Yquem is nothing more than a cheap shot. The writer simply chooses to ignore that the market is made up of buyers and sellers, and they collectively create the prices for goods. And does the author really think that the people who buy those hundred dollar plus wines care what he thinks of their choices. No, they don’t.

    Steve, since this is Monday, do I get a discount?

  2. Charlie, I’ll give you 10% off by the 12-word count.

  3. I read Wine Trials and thought it was a lot of puffed up baloney. The whole concept of blind tastings being more “objective” is riddled with contradictions and flat out lies. I’ve posted on this topic repeatedly, but it seems we are stuck with this outdated and self-serving concept until enough consumers realize that tasting wine blind is no different than reading a book without knowing the author, looking at a painting without knowing the painter, going to a movie without knowing the director, etc. More objective? Doubtful, and so what? It takes away all context, and context is what makes art so rich and complex. And if tasting blind is so important, why not taste blind at dinner so you can see if you really like the wine with the food, or you are being “fooled” by the label?!?

  4. Paul Gregutt is a smart guy and an excellent observer of the WA wine scene. I love his book, and said so in my newspaper column. But there is language in his comments above that needs to be clarified.

    When Gregutt says that blind tasting arguments are riddled with lies, he is not factually correct. He is stating an opinion. He may find some arguments by some people to be wrong, but the heart of the blind tasting argument is not a lie. It is an opinion.

    And that opinion states that competent tasters, knowing only variety, vintage and general origin (Burgundy, Chianti, West Coast of the US) have enough context to judge the wines they are tasting in peer to peer blind tastings.

    Please note that we are not talking about one wine consumed with dinner. We are not talking about one wine handled for hours with friends. We are not talking about the experience of a single wine. We are talking about the judging of many wines against each other for the purpose of identifying character and making judgments of quality.

    Mr. Gregutt’s arguments are not facts. They are argument, and some of his arguments are surprisingly farfetched by my lights. He says that art cannot be judged without knowing the artist. I guess, then, that new artists ought not apply. I guess that my visits to the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires to see the single best collection of modern South American art in the world was a waste of time because I did not recognize the works of a great many artists.

    Frankly, this is hooey. It is argument for argument’s sake, and it surprises me that Mr. Gregutt would make those arguments so vehemently. Let’s just take one more. Blind tasting of food. What silliness is that. Sure, food has eye-appeal, but it is judged on the palate. It has no label. It has no AVA. It has nothing but the name of the ingredients and the name of the restaurant. We judge it by how it tastes and we are not biased by names like Williams Selyem or Staglin or DRC or Ch. Margaux. Yes, eating at The French Laundry or Paul Bocuse does bring a certain amount of bias.

    And, yes a bad bottle of Leonetti Merlot will be recognized as a bad bottle whether it is blind or not–just as the meal at Bocuse, supposedly enjoyed by my wife and I, turned out to be a disaster for all kinds of reasons–we knew it without being there blind. Frankly it would have helped to have been blind as we would not have witnessed the uneven treatment afforded a couple of tables while everyone else was left unattended and also the visual sloppiness of the restaurant’s signature dishes.

    But, this is wine we are talking about. And if Mr. Gregutt thinks it is OK to bring together one hundred WA Merlots and taste them with the labels showing, that is his privilege. I hope he tells the people who read his judgments that he came to them as he did. If so, then they can decide if that is OK with them.

    As for me, I review several thousand wines a year for a paying audience. So does Steve Heimoff. So does Jim Laube. So do lots of other critcs. Most of those critics review wines blind. Not all certainly, but most do.

    I would much rather taste WA Merlots mixed in CA version blind. Because they will rise or fall on their own merits. I don’t need to see the label of Duckhorn to judge it–mostly positively but occasionally not. I do not need to see the label of Cycles Gladiator to judge it blind and find that it has out pointed some high-priced efforts. Maybe I would come to exactly the same conclusions if I were looking at the label. But maybe that $10 effort would have simply rated a bit lower and not earned the same kind of favorable commentary. I can’t prove it either way–and neither can Mr. Gregutt.

    But, folks, if you believe that people like Steve and me and the other critics have a fair knowledge of the wines we are judging, then I submit to you that you, the consumer, get a much fairer shake when we taste blind and call ‘em as we “see” ‘em.

  5. Thomas Matthews says:

    Steve,

    I acknowledge that blind tasting has drawbacks, and is not appropriate for every context in which we drink and enjoy wine. But if Paul Gregutt is asserting that blind tasting is less objective than non-blind tasting, I think he is ignoring a large body of research that offers evidence to the contrary.

    I defend blind tasting best methodology for wine criticism because as I understand the scientific studies on perception, judgment and bias, it is the only way to give every wine the opportunity to be evaluated without preconception, fairly and equally. I think Charlie expresses the argument very well.

    Most of your writing suggests you agree with this line of reasoning, but sometimes I can’t really tell. What is your opinion on the relationship between blind tasting and wine reviewing?

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor

  6. Tom, I could write a book on this subject — in fact, I am. I think there are endless ways to write about and talk about wine. As long as the writer is transparent about his or her methods, then readers can make up their own minds whom they trust.

  7. Yes, I plead guilty to being a bit over-wrought on this subject. It is simply a reaction to the received “wisdom” that blind tasting is more objective, more fair, and flat-out better for judging wines. Charlie you subvert your own food argument by noting that “eating at The French Laundry or Paul Bocuse does bring a certain amount of bias.” Of course it does! Are you suggesting that restaurant reviewers should be handed plates of food at neutral locations so they don’t know where and by whom it was prepared? That’s the logical conclusion I draw from your argument. If blind tasting is so objective, why is it that wine competitions (always done blind) turn up such absurd results as often as not? Do I taste blind? Yes, on many occasions. Does blind tasting change my opinions? Yes, sometimes it does. Do I therefore think that tasting blind delivers “better” or “more objective” results? Absolutely not. It is – in my opinion – far more important to judge a wine with reference to its producer, its vintage, and its track record. In other words, in a context of information. You want to line up 40 merlots and compare them blind? OK, you might find that a pricey one shows poorly on that occasion. But suppose that winery is known to release wines early, is known to make wines that require cellaring, wines that actually age beautifully. Should it be penalized because your bottle of Cycles Gladiator came right out of the chute with gobs of fruit? I think not. My rant is opinion, you are correct. But so is the ongoing myth about blind tasting. I’d love to see some of this “large body of research” to which Mr. Matthews refers. I hope it’s not that same “Wine Trials” book!

  8. Hi Steve, thanks so much for the review – and for starting a fascinating discussion on the nature and uses of blind tasting. I’m an associate editor and contributor to the Wine Trials, and unsurprisingly I agree with Charlie and Tom that blind tasting is the fairest way to evaluate a large number of wines relative to one another – even if that is not the way the typical drinker enjoys them and even if context does indeed add to our ability to appreciate wine in everyday settings.

    Tom alludes to the large body of scientific evidence that suggests that blind tasting is more objective. A few examples (beyond the Wine Trials study which Paul seemed to dismiss out of hand): wine researcher Frederic Brochet fooled 57 French wine experts by serving them two identical wines, one in a Grand Cru bottle and the other in a Vin de Table bottle. The subjects preferred the wine from the Grand Cru bottle by a wide margin, using terms like “excellent,” “complex,”and “long” more than twice as often than when describing the same wine from the Vin de Table bottle. Conversely, they used negative terms like “unbalanced,” “flat,” and “short,” more than twice as often for the Vin de Table bottle.

    Similarly, in a study of 20 subjects (not trained tasters) who were given the same wines repeatedly along with varying information on the supposed prices, preference correlated dramatically with the “price.” More interestingly, when drinking those wines in an fMRI machine, the brains of subjects actually responded differently when they were told wines were more expensive.

    No one is suggesting that critics would deliberately manipulate their judgments to accord with popular wisdom or their own preferences. In fact, studies have shown that when price is revealed AFTER a wine is tasted (but before a taster is asked to give a score) the score remains consistent; drinkers will usually not revise their initial judgment in order to bring it into line with the new information. This suggests that drinkers are actually influenced by non-blind tasting at the moment of the initial experience. It is not merely that the drinker says the wine tastes better because he knows that it is Ch. Margaux – it really does taste better to him.

    If it really does taste better, though, then why taste blind? I’d argue – and I think many would agree – that that is simply not a fair advantage. It would of course penalize an unknown producer for producing a wine that is better – a wine that, if served out of that same Margaux bottle, would in fact garner even higher ratings. And if a critic’s rating is unavoidably colored by deep respect for Ch. Margaux, it would be of little use to a drinker who does not know anything about the first growths and only wants something that will taste delicious with his meal.

    Of course the idea that anyone – whether Spectator or The Wine Trials – is suggesting that there is no place for context is a straw man. The history of a wine, comparisons from vintage to vintage, and watching a wine grow through the years are what make wine so fascinating. And I for one think reviewers would be doing a service to readers by including contextual information when it comes time to write a review – noting that your Merlot showed poorly at tasting but is likely to bloom after some cellaring, for instance. For reviewers who issue scores, of course, the issue is somewhat trickier. Do you adjust that Merlot’s score upwards once you know the producer and are confident that it will in fact develop well?

    Still, the basic rationale for blind tasting is, for me, extremely persuasive. Perhaps you are entirely confident Paul that you would not have been fooled by that Grand Cru bottle in Brochet’s tasting; I suspect I would have been. I’m inclined to continue tasting wine blind for reviewing purposes, then – and happily drinking it non-blind at home, where the little extra enjoyment I derive from seeing that Ch. Margaux label is no one’s business but my own.

  9. Not to beat a dead horse, but reviewers do bring context into their writeups of the wine. It is one thing to taste a tannic wine and say, “wow, this is tannic, I wonder if it will ever age out”. It is quite another to say, after removing the cover of the bottle, “This is a tannic wine from a producer whose wines have shoned that they will age out”.

    The question you raise and the answer you give is what I believe qualified reviewers bring to the table. We bring context even in blind tastings because we know about the aging curves of sturdy Napa Cabs and we know the aging curves of soft and luscious Merlots. And, to split the difference, we know the aging curve of the tannic, full-bodied Duckhorn Merlots.

    Since we do not know what the wine is when we taste it, we are tasting for depth, balance, adherance to typical varietal expectations, etc. Once those judgments, including the qualitative judgments are made, good reviewers can add commentary about adherance to place and about longevity.

    The judgments both before and after knowing what the wine is are interconnected, but it is not quality that changes when the wine is revealed, it is context and the further ability to understand the wine.

  10. Note to Paul Gregutt–

    You are indeed correct. The best way to judge the quality of a meal is to be served that meal without knowing which restaurant cooked it.

    But, you are only correct to a point, because there is no good way to have twenty pieces of pork belly from twenty restaurants served to you in a peer-to-peer tasting. If there were, we could have that discussion of which methodology is preferred. Besides, as our sad experience at Bocuse proves, ambiance only takes you so far if the food is below expectation.

    There is a reason, however, why many food reviewers do their reviews anonymously. That is to eliminate the potential of the reviewer sample. It is for that reason that some wine reviewers purchase the wines they review.

    My first hope for all reviwers is transparency. My second is the honoring of their commitments–as we have seen this year, there are reviewers who say one thing and do another. After that, I would personally prefer that all wines tasted comparatively be tasted blind because I believe that blind tasting is simply the best way to give every wine a fair shake. That is why I do it, and, while I disagree with you, Paul, it was more the rhetoric than the position that encouraged my lengthy response.

  11. I very much appreciate the thoughtful discussion. It’s one I would be delighted to continue with any and all of the participants over a good bottle of wine – brown-bagged of course!

  12. Charlie, Steve, Thomas, et al.:

    In your individual methodologies, does a 2007 Cabernet from Napa or Livermore or Paso Robles constitute a wine tasted blind? Do you include vintage and appellation information when you are tasting a variety?

  13. Steven, I usually know varietal type/family. I may know that a lineup of Cabs is, say, all Napa, or a combo of Napa and Sonoma and Paso Robles — whatever. But I don’t know which wine is which when I do the actual tasting. I also don’t know vintage when I taste, although I do know that the wines are always current releases.

  14. OMG.

    “little girl,” and this is my inner industry voice speaking, “how can ANYthing you try to say to these big boys have meaning?” let me see.

    first of all, aMEN to charlie olken. how on EARTH can there be a comparison between wine and literature and art? when a book is published under an author’s name it is typically written by that author. when a piece is painted or sculpted or drawn or whatever, it is typically done by a single person. AND, there is NOT a rush from year to year to throw a product out to the market. if an artist doesn’t find the “right” inspiration? the right light, the right eaves-dropped on conversation that might help them move from scene A to scene B? they wait for that perfect moment of creativity. they may wait years.

    wine, on the other hand, is a yearly offering and goes through so many seasonal iterations, and besides WEATHER (but that only matter if you’re one who cares about what weather provides you that year), there are changes of management and winemakers and vineyard operators and fruit sourcing; disagreements and squabbles and wife/husband swapping and whatever else. and unless you can claim the entire cycle from start to finish under a VERY WELL CONTROLLED environment, including the people attached to that environment, then there is absolutely little sense in having “context” for a label having their wine rated. unless, of course, the critic speaks to these company changes AFTER their blind tasting.
    those are my two little girl cents.

    and “show, don’t tell” goes a LONG way in marketing, btw.

    and steve, from what little i know of you, the audience reaching for a book called, “I Drink on the Job”?!?? you’re worried about them? good lord, man. you are so much better. don’t sweat it.

  15. Steven–

    At Connoisseurs’ Guide, all the reviewers know is the category and vintage. No appellation info save for the fact that we are a West Coast oriented publication so folks know they are not tasting Pauillacs or Australian, etc when the category is Cab Sauv.

    We taste two flights of eight per session, usually taking about three hours from start to finish, including time to taste, to discuss, to unwrap and for any further discussion. At our night-time tastings, we then take the wines on to dinner with dishes that are hoped to be appropriate to the category.

  16. Steve & Charlie:

    Thanks for the info. I wonder if the the Wine Spectator follows the same austerity-of-information format?

  17. Charlie,

    If I may….one of the (minor) issues I have had with Connoisseurs’ Guide is tasting Oregon Pinots with California Pinots. You say you don’t taste Pauillacs or Australian with Cab Sauv but it seems that Oregon is a distinctive region from CA, right? — Or perhaps do you taste all Oregon together in the flight of eight per session and then rate them and just include the printed reviews in with CA? — Thanks for the clarification.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

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