I was rummaging through my bookshelves and came across an old copy of Decanter magazine from June 1993. The cover story was “What will you be drinking in the year 2000?”
Decanter asked their “panel of experts” a series of questions. How did they do? Let’s see. (I’m eliminating two questions: “If you could own a winery anywhere in the world, where would it be?” and “With what do you hope to toast the arrival of the year 2000, where and with whom?” These are not predictive questions, but simply preferences.)
1. Which countries/wine regions will produce the best values? “Eastern Europe naturally appeared in most people’s answers.” Well, this didn’t happen in 2000 and it hasn’t happened in 2011, at least here in America, so the panel of 14 got that wrong.
2. Which countries/wine regions will produce the highest quality wines? “Most of those questioned felt that Bordeaux and Burgundy will continue” to lead the world in quality, “while some areas of the New World will be snapping at the heels of the Old.” Which new areas? “California (particularly Sonoma and the Napa Valley) and Australia (the Yarra Valley did well.” They got that right, although the experts didn’t foresee the rise of Santa Barbara County, which has a level of wine quality easily as high as that of Sonoma.
3. Which grape varieties/blends do you expect to be the most popular? “Few of those questioned see a loosening of the Cabernet Sauvignon/Chardonnay ‘stranglehold’,” the article said. So the experts got that right, too. However, “Steven Spurrier and Andrew Jefford…felt that Cabernet’s position would have been challenged by Syrah and Merlot.” That didn’t happen, did it? Syrah’s in perpetual trouble, and while a lot of Merlot is sold, it’s mainly low-end stuff. Particularly disastrous was this prediction: “Other varieties which many felt will come further to the fore [were] Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera, not just in Italy, but in many other countries all over the world.” That certainly hasn’t happened, in 2000 or today.
4. What will taste trends be–to even drier wines, or will richer, sweeter styles have made a comeback? “Opinion was split between those who saw the current fashion for fruity, oaky, rich, powerful wines continuing to grow and those who feel that by the year 2000 the consumer’s palate will ‘grow up’ to appreciate something that is considerably drier.” The predicters of “fruity, oaky” wines got it right: the consumer preferred those big, extracted, Parkeresque wines in 2000 and throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The question in 2011 is whether the consumer’s palate is ‘growing up.’”
5. Will the best sparkling wine made outside Champagne be as good as Champagne? “Responses ranged from simply ‘No’ to ‘yes.’” I think we’d have to say that, with rare exceptions, Champagne remains the definitive sparkling wine. California has great bubbly, as good as Champagne, IMHO, but nowhere near the range and diversity of Champagne.
6. Will there be any serious contenders for Bordeaux’s crown? “This question proved almost as contentious as the last.” A few experts suggested Eastern Europe [not!], Australia, the South of France and Chile. The only mention of California was this oddity: “…but for the phylloxera outbreak California might have been a contender.” I’m glad I wasn’t the one who made that utterly wrong prediction. Even in 1993, everybody knew that, while it would cost California wineries billions of dollars to replant to phylloxera-resistant rootstock, the end result would be a rise in quality, and relatively quickly. I remember; I was here, writing about it. We knew that growers would be able to more properly match varieties, clones and rootstocks to specific terroir conditions, and that they would improve their canopy management systems and, in some cases, even their row orientations.
So next time you see predictions, understand that it’s just some “expert” tossing a coin.
* * *
Tomorrow night, Thursday April 7, is Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Town, at San Francisco City Hall. I hope to see you there!
No blog today
Can hardly think
Last night I had
Too much to drink
Pinot Noir, Port and Champagne
Are guaranteed to fry the brain
So today is pain and sorrow
But Steve’s blog will be back tomorrow
Oded Shakked, at Longboard Vineyards, shared the below email with me yesterday. He thought I’d get a kick out of it. I’m reproducing it here, because I think you’ll get a kick out of it. (I’ve edited the email a little, and also removed the sender’s name.)
“My name is M.___ and I am reviewer of wine. I live in Brooklyn, NY and I am meticulous with keeping a record of every wine I drink. I am one of the highest sheer volume reviewers on wine social networking site Snooth (I am not an employee of Snooth)…and I have synched up my Twitter account to automatically post any wine I review on Snooth. (I have over 1,300 Twitter followers)
I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. I also generally wait at least month from receiving the bottle to account for travel or bottle shock.
I just would like for you to think about the percentage of the bloggers you send samples to that actually give you coverage…i know for a fact that many bloggers out there simply write about a few of the sample bottles they receive and either re-gift or drink the rest without any fanfare…I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.”
Oded used the word “chutzpah” to describe M.____. Chutzpah, in case you don’t know, is a Yiddish word, derived from the Hebrew, and is used with reference to people who are so audacious in their approach as to approach insolence. It can be used positively (e.g., George Steinbrenner was said to possess chutzpah, which is a quality New Yorkers like) or negatively, in the sense of tasteless self-promotion.
Let’s look at this from M.____’s point of view. Of course he would “love” to be added to Oded’s sample list. (And how many other vintners did M.____ blast his email to?) Think of all the free wine! I can’t say for sure whether or not M.____ is correct when he accuses “many bloggers out there” of not even bothering to write about the samples they get. Maybe some P.R. and marketing people who read my blog will write in and let us know how they determine which bloggers to send samples to, and how they follow up to see if the wines are actually written about.
I did a little Googling on M.____ and found that he’s been sending this same email out for more than a year. He seems to be a young guy; his Facebook page (at least, I think it’s his; all the clues add up) says his interests are “poker, TV, red wine, live comedy, live music, Sirius satellite radio” and he’s married. M.____ and I have 14 Facebook friends in common, all from the wine industry.
Actually, I can’t get too upset about M.____ and his email. He’s just using today’s technology to bust into the industry. When I was busting in, I used the telephone and the U.S. Postal Service, and I was pretty aggressive in my own way. I knew what I wanted, I knew whom I wanted it from, and I pounded on their door until I got it. I had, in other words, chutzpah. So does M.____. I don’t know what else he’s doing to become a wine critic, other than sending out blast emails. I would hope he has a few other tricks up his sleeve. But you know what? I wish the guy luck.
Dept. of Oops!
“Napa Wine Co., which annually crushes 7,000 tons of grapes for more than 60 wineries, apparently contaminated some wine with cleaning detergent,“ the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat is reporting. The paper says Jayson Pahlmeyer’s Pinot Noir “was being tested to determine how much, if any, was impacted by the accident.”
Not that I feel it needs defending against the knuckleheads who are always attacking it, but– well, sheesh, I guess I do feel it needs defending!
Here’s one of the best (independent) rationales for the 100-point scoring system — independent, because it comes from someone who has nothing to gain from praising it. His name is Neil Monnens, he publishes an online wine guide called the Wine Blue Book, and he was quoted in an interview in the blog Good Grape: A Wine Manifesto last week.
Wine Blue Book researches the scores that wines receive “from leading wine critics,” according to its FAQs. (I couldn’t find anything on the site that identifies who the critics are; if I missed it, sorry.) Then they come up with an average price to determine a “quality-price ratio.” In the Good Grape interview, Jeff Lefevere asked Monnens, “Since you and I last talked, have you seen an increase in the use of points as a scoring mechanism,” and here’s what Monnens replied:
Yes. Some folks continue to dismiss the 100 point system but they choose a 10 point system and then score wines 8.9 or 9.6 which just translates to an 89 and 96. The 20 point system is the same but just 20% of the 100 points. The folks who dismiss the system advocate “trust your retailer” but since a retailer’s income is dependent on the wine the consumer purchases, I would rather trust the scores the critics provide since their income isn’t dependent on the consumers purchase.
I’m glad somebody’s finally talking some sense, besides me ; > The 100-point system isn’t any different from a 10-point system (as Monnens explained), or a 20-point system (which is actually what Wine Enthusiast’s is, since we don’t publish scores below 80 points), or a 5-star system (which is really the equivalent of 80, 85, 90, 95 and 100 points), or any other icon-based system you can think of. I think it’s also important to understand, as Monnens pointed out, that a critic’s income — mine, anyhow — doesn’t ride on the scores he gives. Believe me, I’ve given lousy scores to Wine Enthusiast’s advertisers and high scores to wineries that never advertise anywhere. So he’s right when he implies that a critic like me has far less incentive to inflate scores than does a wine merchant.
Not that the public shouldn’t trust their local wine merchant. If you can get a relationship going with a trusted one, it’s as valuable as having an outstanding physician, analyst or personal trainer: someone you entrust yourself to, and who you know won’t screw you. That’s a good person to have in your life. But so is, ahem, a good wine critic.
By the way, that dream job at Murphy-Goode is getting ready to announce their Top 10 applicants, on July 7. They’re already narrowed it down to the Top 50. If you haven’t watched the videos, which are posted on the website, you’re missing out on some really great entertainment. Some of these people are so clever and talented, it just takes your breath away.
Dept. of Oops!
“An Italian priest caught driving over the alcohol limit pleaded to police that it was only because of the Holy Wine he had drunk as part of the mass, Ansa news agency reported…the 41-year-old priest is set to appeal against the ruling, saying his alcohol consumption was not “voluntary” since it was part of the Catholic ritual…”
Officer, I swear it’s not my fault! I involuntarily had to drink 106 wines because it’s part of the ritual of being a wine critic! If you don’t let me go, you’re a, uhh, criticphobe!
Well, I didn’t really invent the Internet. But I did write an article in the May, 1997 issue of Wine Enthusiast — twelve years ago — that was pretty prescient in its predictive power. (And that is a 98-point alliterative triumph.)
I came across an old copy of the ‘zine last week. Re-reading my article, Wine on the Web, I was reminded of the heady excitement of the mid- 1990s when the wine industry and the Internet collided. But what really struck me was how many of the issues back then are still with us, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable.
By the second paragraph, I’d identified the key: “…vintners sense an opportunity to market their wines…”. I quoted the then-PR manager of St. Clement to explain why her winery had rushed to set up a Web page. “We didn’t have a goal,” she explained. “We just knew we had to be a part of it.” From there, I quoted Peter Granoff, an original founder of Virtual Vineyards (which went belly up; it’s now morphed into wine.com). “[M]ost wineries are still caught up in the Web for its own sake and are struggling to find out what to do.”
Peter, or that PR manager, could say precisely the same things today! It’s amazing that, as far as we’ve come, most California wineries remain well behind the digital curve and don’t seem to know what to do with the Internet, including social media (which didn’t exist in 1997). True, most wineries have a website. But most of them are boring, unfriendly, and not even up-to-date with new vintages (which you’d think would be easy to do with a computer). Wineries should be leading other businesses in forging ahead on the Internet, not dawdling behind.
I also wrote: “There are only two things a winery or wine company can do on the Net….marketing and sales. Although intimately related, they’re really quite different.” I called marketing a “soft activity,” meaning it did not directly make money. Concerning sales, I wrote: “this is the hard part of the transaction. It’s where the customer actually forks over a credit card number.”
Couldn’t have said it better today.
I quoted an electronic marketing expert: “The question today is whether the Web’s primary value to business will be as a revenue builder, a cost-cutting device, or a brand builder. I believe that brand-building will win out.” That woman was right. We’re seeing that brand building and customer loyalty are the end products of web sites, blogs and twitter, not sales in and of themselves, much less cutting costs.
In my article I also quoted Granoff as saying it didn’t make sense for mass-produced wines, which are readily available in supermarkets, to sell direct over the Internet. “Why would you buy it on the Net and pay the extra cost of shipping, and then have to wait to get it?” The same is true today. Instead, he and others told me, it would be smaller wineries that would benefit from DTC sales. (Of course, this was well before the Granholm v. Heald 2005 Supreme Court decision.) Let’s hope that day is near when all 50 states allow shipping of wine. That will be the salvation of many small family wineries that otherwise may not make it.
I quoted de Toqueville: “Time has not shaped it into perfect form…and it is almost impossible to discern what will pass away…and what will survive.” He was speaking of America in the 1830s, but we could use those exact words about the Internet right now.
Dept. of Oops
The Associated Press is reporting that “A man suspected of breaking into a Maine restaurant will have to get used to jailhouse food after workers at the eatery discovered lobsters and wine missing – and the suspect asleep on a bench. Police said [name withheld] broke into the Portland Lobster Co. through a rear window and stuffed his pockets with cash before chowing down on the better part of 11 prepared lobsters worth about $300. He washed it all down with a white wine…”
Same thing happens to me when I eat 11 lobsters. I just wanna close my eyezzzzz and drifffftt… By the way, I went to the Portland Lobster Co.’s website to see what white wines they have. I hope the thief washed his crustaceans down with the J. Lohr Chardonnay because that’s what I would have picked.
And you thought “Sonoma Coast” was too big
The TTB in its wisdom announced its latest Frankenstein AVA yesterday. Quote from the PDF: “The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a final rule in the Federal Register establishing the Upper Mississippi River Valley viticultural area. This viticultural area consists of 29,914-square miles…”
In other words, just your typical tiny little appellation.
Thirty-thousand square miles! That’s 175 miles on each side. Here’s the truly pathetic part of the press release: “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.” Yes, it’s truly helpful to the consumer to know that the wine hails from somewhere in the upper Midwest.
Your wine comes from someplace in here
I liked Eric Asimov’s mea culpa last week when he wrote about how he had mistaken a Syrah for a Pinot Noir, in the company of people he was having dinner with at a restaurant. Of course, it’s always gracious to acknowledge one’s faux pas with a dash of self-deprecating humor, and Eric did, claiming that one of his missions “is to do away with the aura of omniscience that so often adorns wine writers.” Well, there’s nothing like getting the variety wrong, in public, to take that aura of omniscience and pulverize it to smithereens.
It does happen to the best of us. Harry Waugh‘s famous, and similarly self-deprecating, remark that he hadn’t confused a Burgundy for a Bordeaux “since lunch” comes to mind. Now, Eric put up a little fig leaf to hide his nakedness when he said that, after all, it hadn’t been a light, silky wine he’d confused for Pinot Noir, it had been a Copain Syrah — Copain’s style being dense, dark wines. Here’s where the psychology comes in. Eric knew he’d ordered Copain off the wine list. His brain was expecting a broodingly ripe, dark Pinot Noir, so when he tasted the Syrah, that same brain censored, in essence, the wine’s “Syrah-ness” (pepper? violets? crushed blackberries? meat?) and hallucinated instead a “Pinot Noir-ness” that was in accordance with Eric’s expectations.
Remember all the debate in the blogosphere last summer about whether wine tasting is “subjective” or “objective”? I should think that this settles the matter. It’s “subjective” because the brain can never be entirely neutral. Somebody once said that Andy Warhol’s films of the 1960s, such as Sleep or Empire State Building, were the only authentically neutral films because they had absolutely no point of view. But that’s not true. Their point of view was precisely that they had no point of view. And the reason they had no point of view was because Andy Warhol had decided to simply point his camera at something, and then leave it running while he read magazines or went to the bathroom. His films therefore did have a point of view: boredom, banality, unconventionality.
The most extreme example of a wine taster having no point of view with regard to the wine is the Master of Wine tasting blind. This is supposedly the classically objective way to critique a wine. The mind as a camera, capturing incoming information, with the brain functioning as a computer, analyzing it in a completely detached way, then printing out data in the form of a review. But does anyone really believe a person can function like Frank Herbert‘s mentats, in Dune, which Wikipedia defines as “humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability…the embodiment of logic and reason”? Can’t be done, and that’s the overarching reason why wine reviewers must approach their jobs with humility and even a bit of apology. As Eric discovered, mistaking a Syrah for a Pinot Noir comes with the territory.
Okay, so what happens when that “aura of omniscience” is stripped away from a wine writer? It’s not exactly a case of “the emperor has no clothes.” But it does mean that wine writers not only have to review to the best of their ability, they also have to be great historians, students of popular culture, with an aptitude for science and geology and — above all — transcendent writers.
This emperor is missing some clothing!