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The Critic vs. the Computer: A case of perceptual discrepancy

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Did you know that I prefer organic wines to non-organic wines? I didn’t, either. But then I read this new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists, entitled “Does Organic Wine taste better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” and I found out that, yup, I do.

Well, kinda sorta. See, the paper’s authors decided to study “data from the three influential wine expert publications: Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator,” and as it turned out, “During our period of study [74,148 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009], the main tasters for California wines for Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator were Robert Parker, Steve Heimoff, and James Laube, respectively.”

The big P-H-L! They took our scores, crunched them in that esoteric way only economists can, and lo and behold, “Our results indicate that the adoption of wine eco-certification has a statistically significant and positive effect on wine ratings.”

How much? Not a lot: Being eco-certified,” the authors found, “increases the score of the wine by 0.46 point on average.”

Well, one hardly knows where to begin. Right off the bat, I have a problem when the lesson that people will take away is that P-H-L (and by extension major critics) prefer organic wines to non-organic ones. Less than half a point difference? I suppose if they fed 74,148 scores into a computer and found a 0.46 point difference, then who am I to argue with HAL? But a 0.46 point difference doesn’t seem like very much to me. It’s not even round-uppable to the higher score (87.46 rounds down to 87).

But wait, there’s more. The following factors also had an impact on the scores of organically-certified wines, according to the paper:

  • ” a 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease score by 0.003

point.”

  • ” An increase in the number of years of certification experience by one [winery] decreases score by 0.09 point.”

Confused? I am. So the more cases wine the winery produces, the lower the score is; but the longer the winery has been certified organic, the lower the score also is!

How about the winemaker’s hair color? Did they include that?

The authors also counted the number of words in each review and found this: “Next, we examine the impact that eco-certification has on the number of words used in wine notes. As shown in regression (1) of Table 6, wine notes of eco-certified wines are not significantly longer than those of conventional wines. However, as shown in regressions (2) and (3), eco-certification increases the average number of positive words by 0.4 but has no statistically significant impact on the number of negative words.”

My interpretation of this is that it’s gibberish. The authors compiled a list of words [Table 7] but I don’t understand how they infer whether their use is positive or negative. Is “jammy” positive or negative? Do Parker, Laube and I even use it in the same way? How about “offbeat”? Is that good or bad? And “peat”: if I tasted that in an Islay Scotch it would be good, but in a Chardonnay?

The authors also state something that I don’t think is objectively true, or, even if it is, is irrelevant. “Second, as a related point, wine experts have a better knowledge about wine eco-certification and are able to differentiate between different types of eco-labels, namely organic wine and wine made with organically grown grapes, which represent different wine production processes with different impacts on quality.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know the difference between different types of eco-labels. There are so damn many (different certifying agencies, “natural,” biodynamic, etc.), I get confused—and, while I’ll let Parker and Laube speak for themselves, I bet they get confused, too. Besides, if “All the publications claim blind review,” as the paper’s authors write, then we critics don’t even see the labels when we’re tasting and reviewing (much less would we have a tech sheet in front of us).

But finally, this statistic seems to be to be the last nail in the coffin of the study: “On average, 1.1% of the wines in the sample are eco-certified.” By my calculations, that’s a little over 800 wines—out of 74,148. I fail to see how you can extrapolate any useful information from such a small sample, compared to the huge number of wines in the study. Apples and oranges.

I’m no economist, it goes without saying. If I were, I guess I’d spend my days crunching numbers and coming up with interesting factoids. But I have to say, I don’t see the point of this particular study—not if it’s going to be used to make a claim that I don’t regard as true. For the record, let me say that I do not think organic wine is better. And you know what? I don’t care what the numbers say.


Still keeping my critic’s spurs on, and National Drink Wine Day!

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Although I ceased formally to be a wine critic nearly two years ago, when I quit Wine Enthusiast to begin working at Jackson Family Wines, there are still some wineries that want me to review their stuff on my blog.

At first, I found this surprising. My blog has never been a wine-reviewing site. I had an unspoken agreement with Wine Enthusiast, while I was there, that I wouldn’t “compete” with them in that arena, and so I didn’t. And once I went over the Jackson Family Wines, I thought it would be a little weird to review the competition.

But JFW let me know that it was alright if I continued reviewing, and so, when the odd box does float in, I’m happy to review it. But it does make me wonder why a winery would care what a little old blog like mine cares about their product.

I figure that it’s getting harder and harder to get publicity for your wines these days. There are so many magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites that review wine—for a fee, or for free, depending on what the owner thinks he can get (what the market will bear). There are endless blogs that review wine. Many stores review wines nowadays, putting up little shelf talkers. And of course there’s word of mouth, both the old-fashioned kind in which a human actually physically interacts with another human, or through “social media,” a term that seems increasingly bizarre, but unfortunately we have nothing with which to replace it.

So I put myself in the vintner’s shoes and try to imagine how I would go about getting publicity for my wines if I were a winery. And I suppose one answer is, “We might as well send it to Heimoff. He still has some credibility.”

* * *

I did not know—did you?—that today is National Drink Wine Day!

Even Perez Hilton has taken notice on twitter, and I see on my own twitter feed that #nationaldrinkwineday is the top-trender in San Francisco.

But of course. We’re civilized here. Does anyone know who started this thing? Can I just declare “Tomorrow is National Long Haired Chihuahua Day”? Would anyone care? Anyhow, happy National Drink Wine Day! Drink some wine. Drink some beer and booze while you’re at it, but don’t forget to stay hydrated. And if you’re feeling a bit bummy check out this video of Anderson, Kathie Lee and Hoda. It’s how the 1% drink.

 

 


The heavy hand of neo-prohibitionism, Down Under

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In the late 1980s and 1990s we witnessed a movement in this country that came to be called “neo-prohibitionism,” a neologism that expressed a very dangerous trend.

The “prohibitionism” part was of course a reference to the disastrous “noble experiment” by which America outlawed alcoholic beverages between 1919 and 1933. That stupid, unconstitutional ban was overturned by Repeal, which itself was pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became President, proving once again that, yes, it does matter who occupies the Oval Office, because they’re not all the same.

“Neo” comes from the Latin root-word for “new.” Thus, “neo-prohibitionism” constituted the “new prohibition” or, at least, an inclination on the part of some Americans to enforce their view that the consumption of alcoholic beverages—if it could not be entirely outlawed as their predecessors had accomplished in 1919—at least could be slowed down and perhaps, at some local county and township levels, eliminated completely.

How these “neo-pros” went about their business 25 years ago was nefarious and broad-ranging. They advocated massive tax increases on alcohol (when you heavily tax a thing its consumption always falls), they put on a scare campaign about the dangers of foil capsules, they put their weight behind Mothers Against Drunk Driving (which had begun as an anti-drunk-driving group but morphed into an extreme anti-alcohol one) and they became associated with anti-alcohol fronts such as the San Rafael-based Marin Institute (now renamed Alcohol Justice). These anti-alcohol forces eventually were defeated, because they failed to gain traction among normal people, and due also to the courageous efforts of Wine Institute and its then head, John DeLuca.

Down but not out, however, the neo-pros remained silently active in their burrows, and not just in this country, but across the English-speaking world. (And isn’t it interesting that Islamic fundamentalists share with the neo-pros a common fear and loathing of alcohol?) The latest country to witness a resurgence of neo-prohibitionism, to a shocking level, is Australia, where police in the country’s largest city, Sydney, recently raided a bistro on the charge that its wine list, written on a blackboard, was “promoting unsavoury antisocial behavior.” How’s that? Apparently, in the view of the local constabulary, the bistro was encouraging people to drink!

We’ve seen this kind of response right here in my home town of Oakland, where there’s long been a movement to limit the number of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods, on the grounds that they sell cheap booze to people who then go out and commit crimes. That is a legitimate concern on the part of city government. But the Sydney bistro, 10 William Street, is not a liquor store; it is a wine bar-restaurant whose menu includes gnocchi with duck, mushrooms and ricotta, and grilled bonito with iceberg lettuce and ink vinegar.

Not exactly a poor-neighborhood gin joint!

Reaction to the Sydney cops’ heavy-handed approach has been predictably scathing. One patron who was dining there during the raid called it “bizarre” and said she was “very annoyed.” Twitter lit up with the usual snark: “full nanny state mode,” “Shock: people want to consume wine with dinner,” and I love this one: “Police claiming 10 William Street is operating as a bar, not a restaurant, clearly haven’t tried the pappardelle.”

Well, that’s the best way to counter-attack these neo-pros: Make them the objects of ridicule. Look, they will never go away. Sometimes they’re visible, sometimes they retreat, but they’re always plotting to get rid of Demon Rum. Carrie Nation may be dead these past 115 years, but her repressing spirit haunts us still.


French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

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Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

* * *

The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.


Fred Franzia largely got it right

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I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.

As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.

Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”

I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.

I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).

I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.


As consumers turn against Big Box stores, supermarkets feel the heat

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The death of the Big Box store (think Wal-Mart) has been widely predicted, as for instance here, here and here.

Just about every major trend we’re following right now bodes poorly for power center retail,” says the Business Insider article. Those trends include the facts that “Americans are driving less than they have in decades. Populations are flocking to smaller, urban communities over sprawling suburbs. And consumers in their 20s and 30s increasingly prefer small, local shops to big-box retail.”

It took a little longer for this rejection of the Big Box concept to spread to the big supermarket, but now, it has. The U.K. last year saw its first decline in supermarket sales in two decades, and America isn’t immune: “U.S. supermarkets are stuck in time-warp,” USA.com announced, adding, “The bland midmarket, hi-lo, be-all-things-to-all-men strategy is not working.”

Speaking of Mid-Market and supermarkets, today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a front page article, “Trying to mimic Ferry Building on Mid-Market” [link not yet available], that tells the story of how a big supermarket, Market on Market, faltered, precisely because it tried to “be-all-things-to-all-men.” A little background: The Mid-Market stretch of S.F.’s Market Street has for years been a sorry spectacle of homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution and low-end stores. That all began to change when San Francisco persuaded Twitter to headquarter there (in exchange for controversial tax benefits). Now, Mid-Market is becoming a yuppie haven: rents there are going up as fast as anywhere in the city. Mid-Market had never had a nice supermarket. So the owners of Market on Market thought the time was ripe to open one.

Turns out their assumptions were wrong. Those young tech workers don’t want a big supermarket. They want what Whole Foods offers: ready-to-eat food, often impulse-driven, and small, specialty cubicles run by independent purveyors: a pizzeria, ramen shop, créperie, sushi bar, fish monger, tea shop, microbrewery and so on. They want, in other words, to feel as though they’re in the marketplace of some old European village. So that’s what Market on Market will now offer them: similar to what famous Ferry Plaza has been offering shoppers for many years.

San Francisco being the trend-setter it is, this movement likely will spread around the country, first to other urban areas and then to hipper suburbs. It’s reflective of the same yearning for authenticity and quality we see in the wine industry and the consumer’s preference for wines of terroir, connected to the land and owned by a family—wines with stories that make people feel more human. I know that, speaking for myself, it’s almost unbearable to shop at Safeway anymore. The place just seems like, well, it’s stuck in a time-warp from 1965. Whole Foods is much more in my comfort zone (although it’s more uncomfortable from a dollar point of view); and Rockridge Market Hall is even more of a trip for me: I can’t exactly explain the exaltation I feel when shopping there, but where Safeway feels pedestrian, Market Hall feels like a trip to the Marché International de Rungis without leaving Oakland.

It always surprises me to see so many young people thronging my local Whole Foods: I wonder where they get the money. But they do, and whatever their financial situation maybe, it’s clear that they’re voting with the wallets for higher quality food, the feeling of being philosophically and organically connected to what they put into their bodies, and a more welcoming shopping experience. The wine industry could learn from this example.


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