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Thursday throwaway: on “simple” wine appreciation, U.S. wine production and the status of reviewers



Why is “simple” the new mantra for everything, including wine?

Did it start with the “For Dummies” books? Then there’s that drumbeat in the blogosphere that peddles “unserious” wine appreciation. What’s that all about? I Googled the term “wine made simple” and got 181,000,000 hits! I have no problem with clarity and preciseness in speaking and writing about wine, but I don’t see how this dumbing-down of it to some kind of level of purported simplicity adds to the conversation.

We want everything nowadays to be fast, easy, quick, simple, mindless, whether it’s selecting a travel destination from a Top Ten list, a recipe, a life mate (“speed dating” got 127,000,000 hits on Google) or an understanding of the wines of Bordeaux.

It used to be that people understood that acquiring true knowledge was hard. Skilled practitioners took on apprentices, who studied for years to master iron work, or shoemaking, or stucco painting, or, yes, wine. Even 20 years ago, no one would have dared to write a book about wine without having first probed the topic for many years. Today, you can publish a book knowing almost nothing. Just have the word Simple in the title.

When did wine get so complicated that it had to be simplified, anyway? This meme that things were too hifalutin for the ordinary person to grasp is comparatively recent. It began in fact in the period immediately following the Repeal of Prohibition. Mary Frost Mabon called her 1942 book “ABC of America’s Wines” because, she wrote, “It takes the hocus-pocus out of wine-drinking.” When Leon Adams, the founder of the Wine Institute and no intellectual slouch, wrote his 1958 tome, he called it “The Commonsense Book of Wine” to combat the “nonsense” and “confusion” that, he claimed, had plagued the “bewildered layman.” Justin Meyer, well-known to generations of Napans as the founder of Silver Oak Cellars, called his book (with a forward by Robert Mondavi) “Plain Talk about Fine Wine,” a title meant to teach readers about wine “in straightforward language” (even Mr. Mondavi called it a “fun” read).

Nobody has to apologize for writing a good wine book that challenges readers to make some effort to understand a complicated subject. But people should apologize for writing a bad wine book, on the pretext that it’s “simple.”

* * *

Great news from Wine Institute: On the heels of two gigantic harvests (2012 and 2013), U.S. wine sales are up in both volume and value, with the most popular varieties remaining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot still sells more than twice as much as Pinot Noir, while Moscato has overtaken Sauvignon Blanc! (That’s pretty amazing.) Even sparkling wine is up, a stimulus to those wineries who produce it or are considering doing so. California accounts for 90% of all U.S. wine exports—no surprise there. The state of the California wine industry, in other words, is sound.

* * *

Interesting article in the U.C. Santa Barbara student newspapercon how “experts” will rank the exact same bottle of wine differently at different times, and sometimes significantly, provided they don’t know what it is. There now have been enough credible studies on this topic to cast a general pall over the wine reviewing industry, and this is something that industry is going to have to address. I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw, but it does undermine public confidence in the ratings game.

I disagree, however, with one characterization that reporter Jay Grafft made: that in a competition, “just about every bottle of wine has the same exact chance of receiving first place–that is, a completely random chance.” If this were true, then, as Grafft writes, “a team of coin-flipping monkeys [could] decide” which bottle came in first place.

I remain convinced that, for all its subjectivity, there’s enough objective reality in wine quality for professional judges to single out the better ones from the not-so-good. Notice I wrote “professional judges.” By that I mean people with considerable experience under their belt. So I wouldn’t want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Yes, let’s recognize the fact that there is—as I’ve written for years—a bothersome randomness to wine judging. The reviewing system is not perfect. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Reviewing remains necessary, if for no other reason than that consumers like it and depend on it to help them make buying decisions.

  1. Steve, you actually *need* to accept that categorization, because it’s actually mathematical. See for more details on it (I am actually one of the people in that study, by participating in the CA State Fair wine comp. in 2013). The results were statistically similar no matter what the judges experience level. As I wrote then, whatever data revert to mean over time must, by mathematical definition, be random in result. Now, we can and should speculate about the causes, and it does NOT follow that the wine comp. judges determinations are random because they lack skill (the study doesn’t take into account many other factors that might be statistically relevant, such as settings for the comps., instead treating them as statistical noise – I think, inappropriately).

  2. Hodgson of Humboldt strikes again. But there is a solution to the randomness of competitive judging by experts. Don’t use experts, use the people who buy the wine and crowd source a larger cross section of wine drinkers.

    Our wine club, which contains very few cogniscenti, uses a tasting panel of 16 to 28 members in evaluating a smaller selection of wines (from 14 to 18). No unnaturally precise 100 pt system is used. Instead 8 cateories from quaffer to remarkable. Most average scores run between what would be the eqivalent of 86 to 89.

    But every once in awhile a wine emerges where the average score exceeds 4 stars (90-92pts), meaning it appeals to wide array of palates.

    We’ve repeated the same tasting with a different order of bottles and got the same results.

  3. Steve,

    The Wine Institute report notes that CA wine sales were up 3% in volume. Which sounds good until you stop to consider that production was up 13% from 2011 to 2012 and another 9% from 2012 to 2013. And, at least a few of our vineyards in 2014 have a record number of clusters. — Maybe I am just looking at the glass half-empty, but that all concerns me.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Adam, I guess you’re going to have to work harder to sell wine!

  5. Steve,

    Everyone is going to have to. As a sign of what yields are doing, the recognized price of Sonoma County Pinot Noir on the bulk market has declined from $25 a gallon 15 months ago to $16.50 a gallon now….at the same time grape prices are going up and wineries are more leveraged because of the large crop (and part of their valuation for that ability to borrow is the value of the wine in barrel).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. Bob Foster says:

    Hodgson’s work is fatally flawed. He assumes every bottle of wine tastes just like every other bottle of that same wine. Not so. Time and time again I find bottle variation among bottles of the same wine.

  7. doug wilder says:

    I agree with Bob Foster about bottle variation. When tasting samples, sometimes the wine is in some way less expressive than I expect, but not what I would consider flawed. Opening a second bottle can have as much chance to dispel those notions as confirm them.

  8. Just a little note about Google, Steve: If you don’t put quotes around a collection of words when searching, you’re not searching for a phrase; you’re searching for pages that contain those words, in any place on the page. If you put quotes around “wine made simple” you will search for the phrase, not simply the words, and your hits will fall by around 99 percent.

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