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The power of social media…sort of

38 comments

I was sent a bottle to review. It was the Keller Estate 2009 Precioso Pinot Noir, with a Sonoma Coast appellation. As you can see from the picture, the neck is enclosed in black wax, with a bulbous top that hides the rim. As soon as I saw it,

my spirits drooped. Uh oh, one of those. I hate these wax tops, but still, it’s my duty to open them. Sometimes, it’s not hard at all. The screw goes right through the wax into the cork, and even though there’s no place to properly rest the claw when you extract, it’s usually doable, although I do use extra caution because I don’t want the claw to slip and gouge my palm.

However, sometimes that wax seal is so hard that I just give up. That’s what happened with the Keller. I tried cutting the wax with the blade on my somm’s opener; it was like trying to cut concrete. I thought about using the blunt end of my chef’s knife, to crack the wax until I could break it and chip the whole thing off; but then I thought about the hundreds of tiny little pieces of plastic-like wax that would litter my countertop and the floor. Been there, done that. A flash of resentment arose; the Keller people are just trying to justify the price by putting the wine into an extra-heavy bottle and then enbalming it in that ridiculous tomb of wax. So I gave up.

Went to Facebook, put the picture up, and wrote: “I tried to get the hard plastic capsule off this wine and couldn’t do it without risking driving the corkscrew into my palm! So sorry, I won’t be reviewing this wine.” Didn’t mention the brand; didn’t want anyone to think I was picking on Keller (although, yes, it’s obvious from the picture).

You never know when you put something on Facebook if you’ll get any replies or how many. In this case, as of this writing, 63 comments. Well, about 10 were replies from me, so let’s call it more than 50. That’s a lot of comments for a Facebook post.

One of the comments was from Keller’s proprietor, Ana Keller. A nice lady. She wrote her reply exactly 30 minutes after I posted. In other words, it took a mere half hour for my post to find Ana! It reminded me of Rick’s line, in Casablanca: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. That is the power of social media! I don’t know how Ana found out, who told her, etc. But it blows my mind that information passes so quickly around the world.

It seems to me, reading the comments, that other people are bothered by this trend to put wine into impressive packaging as a statement. I’m not picking on Keller; lots of wineries do it. I try to put myself into their shoes. Their thinking must be, “We worked really hard on making the best wine we could, and it deserves to be perceived as special.”

I can understand that. But there’s also a form of hubris behind it. What matters is what’s in the bottle, not what it looks like. In fact, if anything, when I see a big, heavy bottle and a fat, heavy blob of wax on it, my suspicions are aroused. Liptick on a pig? In most cases, I will admit, the wine inside a heavy bottle and a waxed seal is usually pretty good, but that’s not the point. The point is, We’re trying to make wine more accessible for people. Less intimidating, not more; friendlier, not less. By “friendly,” I don’t mean a simple, modest little wine, without presumption. I mean the physical act of opening it. Lots of people are actually intimidated by a corkscrew (which is why the screwtop has been so welcome). I sometimes wonder if the people who dream up these impossible seals have actually tried to open the bottle. If they’d put themselves in the customer’s shoes for a moment, instead of trying to make a statement, they’d realize that their creative bottling concepts can be self-defeating.

Maybe I’ll try again to open the Keller Pinot. I’ll use some of the suggestions in the comments: heating the seal. Heating a knife. That seems pretty silly to me–should a consumer really have to go through all that hassle?–but I have given the Precioso Pinot really high scores in the past (96 for the ‘05, 95 for the ‘07), so I might be missing out on something special. But I’m telling you, if I slice my hand open, Ana Keller is gonna hear from my attorney! (Just kidding.)

  1. Steve, there you go confusing me (Easy to do), I had come to the place where I thought we had nothing in common (excluding wine) and you said: “It reminded me of Rick’s line, in Casablanca: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” I love that movie, but I prefer this quote as it relates to your essay: ” that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Though I appreciate your staying on-topic. Also, could you do something with that awful picture? It hurts my eyes just to look at it.

  2. PAWineGuy says:

    Hold on… I thought your assistant opened the bottles that you review so that you can taste them “blind?”

  3. PAWineGuy, I never said that. I’ve written repeatedly that I set up my tastings. I taste single-blind, not double-blind, meaning that I know what bottles are in the lineup but I don’t know what I’m tasting when I taste it.

  4. Dennis, which awful picture–the bottle, or me?

  5. doug wilder says:

    I’d use a Rabbit on something like this. I don’t know how a sommelier would handle opening one at a table. Be interesting to get their perspective.

  6. Doug Wilder, you’re right. I hope some somms or wine service people will weigh in.

  7. PAWineGuy says:

    I apologize for my error Steve… but as you know, that’s not single blind or any other kind of blind.

  8. When I see a waxed bottle I think to myself “there’s a bottle for laying down” (and because I’m of a certain age, my sub-conscious always adds “and avoiding”).

    As a producer I can say there is a satisfaction in putting Our Finest (um) Stuff in fancy package that says “this is special, pay more for it, and leave it in your cellar for a while.” This is not hubris in the sense of defying the gods, but an expression of pride in what we have accomplished.

    And it is super easy to open a waxed bottle, if you invest $30 in a butane kitchen torch. Just give the top a couple licks with the flame and wipe off the melted wax with a paper towel.

    However, waxed bottles make it more difficult to set up a blind tasting, single or double, when you have only one or two waxed necks sticking up out of the tops of the bags.

    Esthetic considerations and consumer difficulties aside, there are situations where waxing the bottle is justified on the grounds of economy: limited runs of big bottles. They probably exist and surely can be manufactured, but in nearly 30 years I can’t recall seeing a proper foil on any bottle 3 L or larger.

  9. What PAWineGuy said is correct. Steve, I’m not knocking you for the way you taste wine (I often taste with the label(s) in plain sight), but the fact that you keep claiming that you taste blind is ridiculous. Why don’t you save the brown bags by just using your hand to cover each label as you pour, that would accomplish about the same amount of plausible deniability of bias as your current method.

    Also, I’ll save you the effort of opening the bottle, your score for the Precisio is going to be 95 (maybe 94 or 96). You’re going to post again on it without the score, telling us we can see it in WE. You’re also going to damn, yet faintly praise, social media without really saying anything. Finally, you’ll also start talking about AVAs and the Sonoma Coast issues thereof. Oh, you might mention Gus, too. :)

  10. raley roger says:

    Kyle,
    You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, and I have been hard on Heimoff myself, but try writing a blog post every single day. It’s not easy to do and I know a fair number of people who read Heimoff over a cup of coffee every week day.

    It’s just natural that some topics will be repeated. Felt your comment was maybe unnecessarily harsh, but then again, that’s the great thing about social media. Everyone’s allowed to chime in, in a rather democratic fashion.

  11. My second paragraph was meant more as a joke. I apologize if I hurt Steve’s feelings (I doubt that I did…). I totally understand that daily posting is quite the task. I have trouble with 2 or 3 a week. I commend Steve for his efforts both on and off the blog. I enjoy reading what Steve has to ramble on, I mean write about, each day. I actually probably enjoy the comments even more. This interaction is the purpose and power of social media.

    I do stand by my comments about “blind” tasting. I’m not damning Steve for tasting the way he does, but the defense he gives for doing it. Just like most people don’t care that Suckling got paid to make videos (he is a filmmaker afterall), but that his excuse doesn’t hold much water. Next time Steve is in Colorado, I will welcome him to partake in a true blind tasting with me (and others).

  12. Very interesting post.

    First of all, you can just send the bottle my way. I’ll happily do what’s required to get past the waxy gatekeeper. You’re even welcome to come over and sip with me once I accomplish this.

    As for the power of social media, it’s definitely information moving at light speed. Fun experience to witness with your own eyes though. This seems like an example of Wine Gone Viral, on a number of different levels.

    Regarding the packaging. I always view those hefty bottles like a man with slicked back hair, dark glasses, driving an expensive sports car. Total overcompensation. I worked for a winery who marked up their prices after rolling out a new label. Their logic was the new pretty label somehow made the same wine worthy of a higher price. Nonsense. If the wine is good, set the price accordingly. Save the money on the Mike Tyson (heavyweight) bottles and do a favor for the environment in the process. Much classier than lipstick on a pig (love that visual, though Miss Piggy is one classy pig).

    Blind tasting, double blind tasting. I’m keeping my eyes and my mouth shut on that topic. Looks like you’ve got plenty of opinions on the subject though.

  13. Patrick says:

    I agree with Steve that wax seals are too much. Hard to open, can’t stand ‘em, can’t see any reason why in the 21st century we should even think about using them. Except for some perverse presumption.

  14. Steve, you knew I would have to comment.
    The first wax top I encountered was in 1966 when I purchased a case of 1957 Tinta Madeira Port from the late David Ficklin in Madera. I Still have three bottles and I can tell you that black wax has done a wonderful job of slowing cork deterioration.
    We have used it (lipstick red, of course) on our own co-fermented red Bordeaux field blend for what we feel are practical reasons since 1999. I’d say that decorating with either lipstick or with tatoos is still, thankfully, a matter of personal choice.

  15. You need an exacto knife! I would use hedge clippers!

  16. or a freakin’ lazer! Haha

  17. I could care less if the Steve or anyone else tastes the wine blind or not. How often do consumers taste blind? Almost never. What is the problem with the judge tasting the wine exactly as the the consumer does? Furthermore, in my opinion, it helps when the critic knows exactly what they are tasting because the score should reflect whether or not the wine is varietally correct, a good example of the AVA, representative of the vintage, etc. Lastly, their reputation rides on how accurate they are so if they have any ulterior motives, their credibility will eventually suffer.

  18. Tamara, lol!

  19. Kyle, your reply shows a misunderstanding of the difference between “single blind” and “double blind.” In a single blind tasting, the taster has some knowledge of what there. We can argue over how much knowledge is too much, and how much is just right, but there’s no denying that I taste single blind.

  20. PAWineGuy says:

    Eric,

    I don’t disagree with you at all. However, Steve has criticized other critic’s tasting policies, while at the same time insisting he tastes “blind”, which he does not.

  21. So, in this instance you take your jack hammer, remove the capsule so the top now looks like other Big Glass bottles and wrap it in a paper bag making sure you don’t know where in the sequence it is located, though the heaviness of the bottle will tend to give it away, unless half the others are also ecologically insensitive in order to strut their stuff.

    The day will come when the new lighter bottles will be consider desirable from a marketing point of view. Also 85% of all Aussie wines are consumer friendly with their screwcaps. The industry over there even developed a cap for bubbly which maintains the pressure after being opened.

  22. PAWineGuy says:

    In a single blind trial or tasting, the taster knows NOTHING about the wine being tasted. In a double blind tasting the taster and pourer both know nothing about the wine.

    Any other definition is wishful thinking.

  23. The heavy bottle and “wax” treatment for French and Portuguese import wines often also mean poor taste. As it seems the opposite in the US, assume that means they are good marketers.

  24. I’ve found that you can loosen up those plastic wax seals by running them under a hot tap. Not ideal for wine, I know, but better than ending up in the ER!

  25. Jim Day says:

    Steve,
    It’s really simple to open the hard “wax” bottles if you use the correct corkscrew. You need to use the common type with the arms/wings on two sides and a ring/base that rests on the top of the bottle. The brittle “wax” will break and remain on the top of the cork as you pull it out. Those double arms also make it easier to apply the extra force needed to break the wax and pull the cork.

  26. Steve, since your ended your reply with a question mark I’m not inferring that you’re in jest. So, though I’m taking a big chance with this, your picture is wonderful and I’ve always thought it did you great justice.
    However the phallic bottle of Keller wine could have been presented in extraordinary ways, or it could have at least been level to thwart the notion that the photographer had too much to drink.
    Tamara , you sure did make us laugh with that obvious retort of having Steve ship those waxed bottles to you. (“Why didn’t I think of that?”)

  27. OK, first of all, it was my call to wax the bottles. Second, the following vintage (2010) we got rid of the wax. That shows you that at least at our small family company (and many wineries) we learn and correct from our mistakes. So… I will send more samples and some bandaids (please hold the lawyers!)
    FYI, for me on a personal note the most puzzling thing was being called a nice lady…. my friends cracked at this… sarcastic, loud, opinionated maybe but nice, huh? Well maybe the wines have spoken well for us in the past!

  28. Ana Keller, you ARE a nice lady! And a funny one.

  29. Steve, I know full well what single-blind and double-blind mean. While PAWineGuy is correct when it comes to scientific experiments, for wine tasting single-blind refers to when a taster knows a piece of information such as price range, variety/style or geographic region. When you know every bit of information about all the wines you are tasting, just not necessarily which bottle is in each bag (though I would expect a man of your intelligence can figure it out quite well), you are not really blind tasting at all. How do you confuse yourself after the bottles are in bags? You’ve admitted that tall and/or heavy bottles that stand out are easily identified during your tastings. Do you play a game of shells with yourself? I really want to know how you make yourself not know what is in the bags?

    As I’ve said before, I have no problem with they way you taste or even reviewing wines non-blind. As long as you (and all wine critics) are honest and transparent with how you conduct your professional work, consumers can decide which critics to place their faith in. My concern is that you’ve convinced yourself of something that just isn’t true.

  30. I believe that wax is looking good and make the wine look batter from a marketing point view specially for expensive and superior wines, which can age for a long period of time, but I a agree with Steve, sometimes is hard to get it off. We have used wax on some our wines like port and some magnums as well.
    Cheers
    Petar

  31. Nice article!Thanks

  32. Nice interaction, and great realisation of the instant reach of the global net that surrounds us! As a wine producer i can say that weve been tempted to use wax and have even succmed large format display bottles, however any sommelier worth their tastevin will tell you in no uncertain terms that these bottles with wax tops are avoided in restaurant service at all costs, they are simply too messy and too fidgety into the bargain. As a word of advice, if i may, to fellow producers – please dont do it!
    In fact and here’s a change of tack, even cork is just too messy and frankly unreliable, we know that the industry number for cork failure is around 6%, i guess as long as you get a 6% discount on all your wine purchases than thats no problem. The truthis that we know of a better way to close bottles and its called Stelvin. Yes we will lose some of the romance, that same romance we had with a horse and buggy, the romance of setting the points in your cars distributor with a timing guage, before electronic ignition, the romance of propellors before jet engines whisked us away, sadly i guess this is the price of progress. But the fact remains it delivers a more reliable, consistent product and after 2/3 years in growing and production who would willingly, in their right mind, risk their product on a piece of bark that just doesnt make it home 2 nights every month? Truly not a marriage made in heaven!

  33. I didn’t read all the comments, but did anyone suggest port tongs?

    Once,many decades ago I was given the task of appraising an underground, dirt floor cellar and collection of wines from the 19th century. They were all sealed with hard wax. Over the years on many of the bottles the wax had cracked and some insect had gained entry and bored through the corks. All the cracked wax bottles were only partially full and vinegar. But where the wax had remained intact, the wines were low neck in ullage and remarkably well preserved.

    Maybe the ultimate solution is a wax sealed screw cap. Figure out how to open that combo! :>)

  34. Morton: Are you really Michael Broadbent? And was that cellar Glamis Castle?

  35. No and no, but Michael was, in fact, the auctioneer.

  36. Marlene Rossman says:

    Years ago, when I was a somm at New York’s French Culinary Institute, there were fewer wax encrusted bottles. The few times I got one, I could not use a Rabbit (forbidden for somms on the job), so I blundered through with the knife of my Laguiole. It took some doing and was messy, but I slightly turned my back against the diners, so they wouldn’t think I was a klutz!

  37. I note the confusion regarding blind tasting in some of the comments.

    The words double blind have a specific meaning in science and in sensory analysis. When you say something is double blind in scientific or medical research setting it means that not only does the patient not know what is in the pill or treatment, but neither does the doctor. This guarantees that no clue or information passes between the doctor and the patient, nor can there be any bias on the choice of the patient and the treatment.

    In sensor analysis it has been well proven that a taster will grab at any clue as to a samples identity. (For example, using black glasses is not enough to prevent bias in a trial where you are looking at taste differences, but there are obvious differences in wine color. Tasters will actually look at their spit to get a clue. So a black spittoon is required.)

    It’s human nature. The same goes for the possibility of information passing between the person serving up the samples to the taster. Or perhaps the server puts the samples in a logical order. To be absolutely sure there is no bias in a wine tasting the samples are blinded, numbered randomly to prevent number bias, mixed up by one person. A second person who has not witnessed the initial blinding of the samples then comes in and takes the samples to the taster. This is a double blind tasting. The taster knows the server doesn’t know anything so he is not biased by anything the server might do or say.

    A (singular) blind tasting does not employ the “blind” intermediary, but almost always has a qualifier. The taster was blind as to the producer, but knew appellation, variety and vintage. The taster didn’t know the producer or the appellation, but was told the variety. The taster knew the producer, but was blind to and asked to guess the vintage. Or the taster was blind to the producer, vintage, varietal, cellar treatment, barrel age, and region. All of these are blind tastings. The last one is not referred to as “sextuple” blind, it is just a blind tasting with the specific unknowns noted.

    In a winery who values their sensory analysis even routine inventory tastings are served up double blind, though the taster may know they are all cabs or they are all from a given vintage. It is a tiny extra step to ensure there is no unwanted bias and that the hard work of wine tasting is worth it.

    Knowing the producer, but not the variety can lead to bias as I found out the other day when a friend brought one of his wines to lunch in a brown bag and asked me to identify it. As he is a producer of Bordelais red grape varieties, I was biased in the guessing game and guessed the perfumey, soft wine was a Merlot from a new planting. Nope, it was a Pinot from Carneros. A little side project. I swear if it had been served up to me without knowing who the server was, I think I would have nailed it.

  38. Morton confused a Merlot for a Pinot! Hahahaha! But seriously, it’s as easy as falling off a log. I do it with some frequency. Good for Morton for fessing up!

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