The central paradox of wine tasting is this: While professionals indisputably have educated palates, nonetheless they disagree with each other concerning individual wines to a considerable degree.
How can this be?
The simple answer is that, wine tasters being merely human, and wine tasting not an exact science, you would expect variations in tasters’ conclusions, the same way that film reviewers will often come down on different sides about a movie.
Still, every wine company on the production side of the business has, or wishes to have, a core of tasters, whose competence cannot be doubted, in order to weigh in on such things as new SKUs, or how to improve existing ones.
So what is the difference between a “competent professional” taster and just anybody? Well, Mr. “Just Anybody” is as entitled to his judgments about wine as anyone else. It’s a free country, and there is much to be said concerning the value of the opinion of the non-professional. Since the majority of wine consumers are non-professionals, their voices deserve to be heard. Or so it would seem.
The most esteemed professional taster, at any given winery, is usually deemed to be the winemaker. We assume that winemakers have excellent palates, because they spend their time tasting wine, analyzing it both intellectually and in the laboratory, comparing the wines of different producers and in general being experts.
However, winemakers have their own deficiencies concerning their tasting abilities. For one, they may not be naturally gifted (in the sense of being super-tasters). For another, the winemaker is in constant danger of developing a “house palate.” Then too, you can’t assume that every winemaker is widely familiar with competitive benchmarks. They may not have the budget to taste deeply. (What does a bottle of Montrachet cost these days? $800? And that’s if you can even find it.)
Still, it’s essential for the decision makers at wineries to assemble a tasting team. Which barrels will make the cut for the reserve? How shall the Meritage be assembled? Can we raise the price on the Sauvignon Blanc this year? Which blocks do we use in the estate Pinot? These are tough questions; ultimately, they are questions concerning quality. And quality is the realm of the tasting professional.
You do not have to be blessed with a natural palate to develop a professional one. If fact, as I’ve said many times before, there are huge risks in having a super-palate. (If you’re more sensitive to, say, TCA or brett than 99.9% of the people in the world, you’re not really the most representative person to recommend wine.) What it takes to develop a professional palate is nothing more or less than repeated tasting, and note-taking.
But back to the paradox I spoke of at the top. How can it be that professionals disagree, and what are we to make of those disagreements? Fundamentally, this throws a monkey wrench into the works. How can we believe anything that the professionals say when we know that they can differ, sometimes radically, in their evaluations of a wine?
There’s really no resolution to this problem, except to pick the critic you trust and disregard the others. This, though, brings us to the notion of crowd-sourced wine tasting. The concept is that, if you have enough participants, you can eliminate the outlying extremes and find a consensus, right there in the juicy middle of the bell curve.
I suppose this makes sense, in a scientific way. And morally, “the majority rules” in a democracy. But does this middle way bring us closer to the truth in wine tasting?
Hmm. Talk about timing…
It’s been one of the big social stories for the last several weeks, this tale of the Black women who were escorted off the train. You know the facts; I don’t need to go through them. What I find interesting are (a) the reaction in Napa Valley itself, as I perceive it to be through letters to the editor at the Napa Register, and (b) what this says about race, culture and the very image of “wine country.”
Concerning (b), it’s no secret that wine country has always been pretty lily-white. It was in the 1970s when I first began visiting, and it still is today. Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.
Why is that? The main reason, I think, is that people of color in this country generally make less money than white people. Wine is an expensive “hobby” and it’s even more expensive to visit wine country, which tends to be located in high real estate areas, with pricy restaurants and costly lodging. Add to that that the appreciation of wine has historically been a Caucasian thing. I think all races and ethnicities like to drink alcohol (provided they’re not on the wagon), but different races and ethnicities have preferred different alcoholic beverages, and wine, which really developed in Europe, has been a white drink. Finally, the “lifestyle” associated with wine has definitely been a white thing—and an elitist white thing, at that: Even many white people are turned off by the whole sipping-and-swirling thing. (Sometimes it even embarrasses me!)
I’ve celebrated the fact over the years that wine has become more and more appealing to non-white people. Based on economics alone, the wine industry can’t succeed simply by selling to a portion of the white population, it has to sell across all racial and ethnic demographics. That’s been happening, despite the fact that the wine industry was slow, very slow, to figure out how to appeal to non-whites—much slower than beer and spirits. I was pointing this out decades ago: the wine industry has to learn how to make itself appealing to non-whites.
The fact that the Black women’s book club was on the train in the first place is a good sign. That might not have happened ten years ago. So count that as progress. And what of “wine country”? Well, the concept of “wine country” is aspirational. It’s about making more money, living in a nicer house than perhaps you already do, in a nicer place, and being able to afford “the finer things in life.” There’s nothing wrong with aspirations. They’re a form of hope—and hope is important to staying alive and moving forward. I, personally, would not want to live in wine country, as I am city born and bred, and prefer the liveliness of the urban environment. But even I can see the graciousness, the cultivated ambience of wine country. Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that. And just because wine country is wealthy, doesn’t mean it’s bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, the North Coast wine country has been represented in the Congress for many years by Mike Thompson, a good Democrat. So I don’t think there’s anything redneck or conservatively hateful or racist about wine country.
As to the reaction to the Wine Train event itself, the letters to the editor have been running fairly heavily against the women. The general reaction in the valley seems to be that the women were in the wrong, that they should have apologized (not the wine train), and that they’re only suing for the money.
I think that, until and if there’s a trial, and more witnesses step forward, none of us who were not actually on the train know what really happened. We know that at least one person complained; we have the Wine Train’s statement that the women were asked multiple times to tone it down, and apparently didn’t. There’s the issue of marching the women through several cars, but we don’t know why that was—many of the letters say that not all the cars are exit-able. I’d like to have more people who were on the train come forward and tell us what they saw and heard, but so far that hasn’t happened. We do know that the head of the Wine Train apologized and said that his employees were 100% wrong. If that’s the case, then perhaps the women do have a case. If the women really were obnoxious, and deserved to be removed (as apparently happens fairly often), then why did the Wine Train head say those things?
As for the charges of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, maybe the guy the ladies hired is, maybe he isn’t. But guess what? Suing isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a Latino or Asian thing, it’s as American as apple pie. We’re the most litigious country on earth, and, while I deplore that, it has nothing to do with the race of the lawyer or the litigants. If somebody thinks they can make a little money by filing a civil lawsuit, they’re going to do it.
We’re dealing, here, with the Rashomon Effect. It may never be possible to know exactly what happened. This is an age of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Even if all the facts ultimately come out, people will argue about what they mean. So there’s always going to be some ambiguity.
I do think the discussion this has engendered in Napa Valley has been a healthy one. I don’t think the Valley needs to wear a hair shirt, but I do think that conversations of this sort always are helpful, even if they’re uncomfortable. I also think there should be a conversation in the Black community (as I believe there already is). I’m personally tired of some of the memes that are floating around: that there’s “Black behavior” as opposed to “White behavior.” I live in Oakland, one of the most racially- and ethnically-mixed cities in the U.S., and I don’t live in the Hills, I live downtown. I can tell you that when it comes to civility and respect, there’s only one behavior, and that’s human behavior, and it’s ultimately based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
The Bronx Wine and Food Festival! Who woulda thunk?
I am a proud Bronxite. I lived at 760 Grand Concourse for seventeen years, in the same 4-room apartment with my parents and older sister. It wasn’t until I went away to college, in Massachusetts, that I left The Bronx—and even then, I returned often to my parents’ apartment, on holidays. So I know the Bronx inside out—and believe me, The Bronx is the last place on earth I ever expected to have a wine and food festival! (Well, maybe Kabul is more unlikely…but not by much.)
When I lived there, The Bronx was home to the greatest number of Jews in the world, outside Israel. But it was a very ghettoized borough. Across the tracks, in the East Bronx, were the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Scattered here and there through central and North Bronx were Italian and Irish enclaves, marked by the presence of 19th century Catholic churches constructed invariably of red brick. There were African-Americans, but not many: in those years, black people tended to live in Harlem.
In other words, these were not populations that drank wine! But they did celebrate their food traditions. Jewish “culinary” tradition consisted of the foods our Eastern European and Russian ancestors ate in the shtetl—what we today would call “deli”: lox, smoked whitefish, brisket, egg noodles, bagels and lox, boiled meats like corned beef and pastrami.
Over the decades after I left, The Bronx, particularly the southern end where I grew up, went through another demographic shift. The Jews left; Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean nationalities (Haitian, Dominican) moved in. Once, when I visited my old homestead in the late 1990s, most signs of the Jewish past had disappeared: there were bodegas instead of delis, but what was eerie was that the infrastructure of my childhood—the six-story apartment buildings, the old wrought-iron lampposts, Joyce Kilmer and Franz Siegel parks, the imposing statuary of The Bronx County Court House—remained. It was a very emotional visit.
Since then, I’ve followed media reports on how The Bronx has become “the new Brooklyn,” with invasions of yuppies taking advantage of cheap rents and easy subway access to midtown and downtown Manhattan. (They also call Oakland “the new Brooklyn.”) It is, I suppose, this upscale-ization of The Bronx that prompted the organizers to launch this Bronx Wine and Food Festival, which occurs in conjunction with—hold your breath—Bronx Fashion Week.
Well, The Bronx as cultural hatchery is nothing new. My borough was the home of Hip Hop; also of Anne Bancroft, Carl Reiner, Penny Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Calvin Klein, Dominic Chianese, Tony Curtis, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy (yes, he was born in the Riverdale section). E.L. Doctorow, Danny Aiello, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Incidentally, why do I capitalize “The” on “The Bronx”? Because we were taught as schoolkids that the borough was named after an early Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. He had a farm up there when it was all countryside. If people from Manhattan visited Jonas, they’d say they were going up to “The Bronck’s place.” “Bronck’s” became “Bronx,” while the use of “the” was akin to the way in San Francisco they say “The Mission” (for the Mission District) or The Sunset (for the Sunset District).
I’d love to go to The Bronx Wine and Food Festival. I won’t make it this year: maybe in 2016!
Have you noticed how much sub-tropical moisture we’ve had since May? It seems like once a week the remnants of some hurricane or tropical storm are blowing over us. We even had heavy rain. We always get a little of this stuff, which is known as the North American Monsoon, but this year it seems really dominant. Typically, Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico get the heavy summer rainfall associated with it; California, especially along the coast, doesn’t. This year represents a big shift.
Several winemakers have told me the same thing. So I asked my meteorologist friend, Steve Paulsen, who’s the morning weatherman on KTVU-TV, what’s up, and he replied: “Not only do I think you and your friends are correct but I also feel we’ll see a lot more later this month and into September. Two different animals though. The ‘rain’ we had back on June 10th was the remains of Hurricane Blanca which came up from Baja. Monsoon moisture from AZ then made frequent visits throughout much of July. Then the remains of Hurricane Dolores brought torrential rain to SoCal. What we saw yesterday was the blow-off from Tropical Storm Guillermo. An unusual summer indeed. Very warm ocean temps.”
I’m not the only one who’s been impressed. Just yesterday, the California Weather Blog (CWB) reported that we’ve had “[q]uite a few waves of monsoonal moisture [which] have brought intense mountain and desert thunderstorm activity, some of which has locally made it into the coastal plain and Central Valley.” (The coastal plain is, of course, wine country.) In fact, CWB called those remains of Hurricane Dolores that Steve referred to “the most significant California tropical remnant event in recent memory” and added this startling fact: “the official city of San Diego observation site recorded more rainfall in 3 days during July 2015 than during all previous months of July since at least the 1800s….combined.” And how’s this: “[A]lmost all of southern California experienced more rain during one weekend in July 2015 than did most of Northern California during the entire month of January 2015.” I need hardly remind my readers that summer is California’s dry season; the rain is supposed to fall in the winter and early spring.
I don’t know if this is related to climate change or global warming or what, but for those of us who’ve lived here for a long time, it’s really strange. Meteorologists are trained scientists; they don’t freak out easily, or say something’s “unusual” unless they really, really think it is. When we get century-long records being shattered, the weathermen sit up and take notice. And now, here comes what some people are calling a “monster” El Nino.
Wouldn’t it be bizarre if we went from extreme drought to floods and mudslides? But then, climate change by definition is giving the world bizarre weather patterns.
* * *
I just got my favorite wine store newsletter, from Kermit Lynch, and as always, I read through it. Wow, when did French wine prices get so high? I don’t mean Burgundy and Bordeaux, I mean everything. I used to drink a lot of Faugeres; now, Kermit has some for $72 a bottle! Yikes. We hear a lot about the French shooting themselves in the foot, price-wise, at least here in the States. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worth it, since I haven’t had it. I’m just boggled.
Despite my Ph.D. in meteorology and the fact that I successfully predicted both the drought and the most recent lottery number*, I have no idea if this El Nino that seems to be brewing in the Pacific will have the desired impact here in dry, dry California, where we’re currently in the midst of a horrible fire season, and the worst months lie ahead.
No wonder everybody got so excited when predictions of a new El Nino started surfacing some months ago. I’ve been watching the media on this, and the drumbeat is getting louder and louder. Now, the San Francisco Chronicle (which has been covering the drought quite closely) is forecasting that this winter’s El Nino will be “worse than ‘97-‘98” and could in fact be a “monster.”
That is great news, but if you really pay attention to these things you know that El Nino, in and of itself, is a very poor indicator of coming precipitation. Just three days ago, the same Chronicle noted that “some of the state’s wettest winters have occurred when no El Niño was present, or during the opposite condition, La Niña, in which the Pacific Ocean is cooler than usual,” and they added this kicker: “Fact is, out of 23 El Niño events over the past 65 years, only nine resulted in wetter-than-average winters.”
Still, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is bullish. In their most recent update, they predict “a strong [El Nino] event” that will achieve “peak strength” early this coming winter, followed by “a 90% chance that El Nino will continue through [the] Northern Hemisphere winter” and then “last into early Spring 2016.”
What does NOAA think it means for rain? Here’s a map showing the current prediction status for next December, January and February, traditionally California’s rainiest months.
You can see that NOAA is thinking the big rains will be in the far southern part of the state. According to the map, Northern California, from about Mendocino down to San Luis Obispo, might be slightly higher in rain than normal. From SLO down to about L.A. the chance of higher than normal increases, although not by much. It’s not until you get from L.A. south to San Diego and Mexico (where the darker green is) that there’s the greatest chance for significantly higher rainfall.
That’s too bad. The majority of California’s water comes from Northern and Central California’s reservoirs, water tables and Sierra snowpack, so even a ton of rain and snow in the San Gabriels and the deserts will make barely a dent in the drought. Still, one can always hope.
* Actually, none of these claims is true, but it was fun to say them
Have you noticed? They’re everywhere. I swear, they’re reproducing like spores. Why, just the other day, I went down to my local 7-Eleven to get a quart of milk. The refrigerated section includes chilled wine, and when I was browsing the cooler looking for the non-fat, I must have seemed puzzled, for a well-dressed young man, the kind you might see downtown in the Financial District on any work day, approached me.
“Can I help you, Sir?” he asked.
Startled—for I’m not used to being approached in a 7-Eleven—I replied, “No thank you.”
But he was not to be dismissed. “Don’t be intimidated by all the wine,” he smiled kindly. “I’m here to help,” and with that, he showed me the silver tastevin he was wearing on a shiny red ribbon around his neck.
Yes, it turned out he was a sommelier, and 7-Eleven has hired somms to work in their stores in better neighborhoods such as mine.
If you think that’s freaky, last week, after I did my workout at 24 Hour Fitness, I went to the juice bar for a smoothie. Before I could even order, a sommelier came over and smiled. (I could tell she was a somm because she, too, wore the inevitable tastevin, plus she had on a big white plastic nametag that read, “Hi, I’m Pam, your sommelier.”) I had to fight her off, she was so determined to sell me a nice little Vermentino.
Well, I defer to no one in my liking of and admiration for sommeliers, but isn’t this getting a little out of hand? Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported on how “growing numbers” of sommeliers are invading our public spaces. Trade tastings are “mobbed” by them; “Hundreds…are studying for the sommelier exams” (and that’s just in Los Angeles!). There have been reports of huge backups on the 405 on days when sommelier examinations are being held.
Wouldn’t you know there’d be a backlash? A friend of mine, who lives in Venice Beach, told me she’s seen people on the boardwalk this summer, in between storms, circulating petitions to limit the number of sommeliers in L.A. According to the petition, “Sommeliers have the same effect on neighborhoods and working people as Uber and Airbnb: they force rents up, driving poor people out of town.”
Here in Oakland, where the sommelier population has been growing faster than that of any other demographic group except for pit bull owners, the City Council has scheduled a public meeting for next Aug. 21 to discuss the issue. The problem seems to be that every store owner who sells alcohol feels he needs to employ a sommelier on the floor, and this, in turn, is causing runaway inflation in the cost of goods, and customer complaints of being accosted. Not only that, but so many people want to be sommeliers that companies are having a hard time attracting applicants for other types of jobs, such as janitors, fire fighters and code writers. One local politician was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I’m not saying sommeliers are bad, but there has to be a balance, and finding where it is is the job of we elected officials.”
The situation reminds me of when I was a kid in The Bronx. At that time, housewives were just starting to enter the work force, and one of the jobs they did was to sell Tupperware at Tupperware parties. At one point, it seemed like half the ladies you met sold Tupperware. Eventually, of course, market forces resulted in a correction, and nowadays you run into very few Tupperware salespeople. I suspect the same thing will happen with somms. I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and it turns out that, for a population of 320 million people in America, we need 1 sommelier for every 126 citizens (I’m not counting illegals). That means we need 2,539,682 sommeliers to adequately serve us. I then did another quick count of the number of actual and potential sommeliers in the U.S., and it comes to 14,576,892, with a margin or error of plus or minus 4,730. That means that we are WAY oversupplied with sommeliers. I don’t know what all the somms who can’t get jobs are going to do. In fact, it’s already starting to hit home: Just this past weekend, I was driving in Oakland and came to one of our fabulous six-way stoplights. There was a grubby young dude sitting on the median strip, holding a cardboard sign that read HOMELESS, HUNGRY, PLEASE HELP. Being the compassionate guy I am, I rolled down my window and gave him a quarter; but, as I knew it would be at least five minutes before I could drive on, I asked him, “Stranger, how’d you come to be so down on your luck?”
“Ahh, t’is a sad story,” he replied, in an Irish brogue. His blue eyes were clear and sad, his face lined, his red hair stringy with dirt. He told me he’d gotten his Senior Sommelier Certification and was working at a top restaurant for a few weeks, but then lost his job when Occupy Oakland smashed his restaurant’s windows, and now he can’t get another job because for every opening there are at least 500 applicants.
We had better get used to this, because it’s going to be happening a lot. Perhaps, with their knowledge of wine, all these millions of unemployed somms can be wine critics. I hear it’s a good job and, while the pay isn’t so hot, the hours are easy and the perks are super.