Packaging is the subject of today’s post. Lowly, decidedly non-glamorous packaging.
Reports surfaced yesterday that UC Davis researchers are “studying the performance – specifically the variability – within different types of closures.” They’re trying to determine if people can tell the difference between wines bottled in natural cork, screw caps or synthetic cork.
Notice that this study, whose conclusions are at least a year away, is not trying to answer that old question of whether wines age better, worse or just about the same in screw tops, natural or synthetic cork. To the best of my knowledge, that question remains an open one. But the UC Davis study will analyze the amount of oxidation that hits Sauvignon Blanc bottled in each type of closure. That should shed a little light on the impact of closures on longterm aging.
The news immediately went national. This morning’s HuffPo reported it, elevating it to the level of drama. “The debate as to whether traditional corks or screw craps produces a better bottle of wine — a controversial one that has divided the wine community — is about to take a scientific turn,” HuffPo said, doing exactly what a newspaper should: taking a dry-as-dust routine announcement of a new study and dubbing it “controversial” and “divisive.”
That’s good writing, my friend.
UC Davis is working on the study along with PlumpJack Winery, which has been using screwtops on some its its high-end red wines for years. This was a forward-looking move on co-owner Gavin Newsom’s part, but then, he’s always been a wonky kind of guy. Personally, as a critic who tastes more wine than the average Joe or Jill, I couldn’t care less what a wine is packaged in. If you had to smell TCA on as many corked wines as I do, you’d feel the same way. (Actually, I’m happy to admit the number of corky wines has fallen over the years. Based on my experience, I’d estimate it as 1 in every 100 bottles. But different people have different levels of sensitivity to TCA.)
The Brits, apparently, don’t much care either about how their wines are packaged, as long as it’s good. The Guardian headlined yesterday: “British wine snobs learning to love screw tops and boxes–Four in 10 wine drinkers now agree the quality of wine in a box or a pouch is as good as the bottled option.” Why the reporter called them “snobs” is beyond me.
Another British newspaper, The Mail, reported on the numbers. “Just 26 per cent of those questioned believed boxed wine was inferior to its bottled counterpart,” and “Screw-top bottles are also gaining in respectability, with just 17 per cent turning up their noses.”
These are good developments. People are learning to judge wines by the content of their character, not the type of packaging. I know, I know, the traditional cork is romantic. That Pop! as the screw extracts it from the bottle is part of wine’s charm. I doubt if the cork will ever go away, not in my lifetime. Or yours, probably, if you’re old enough to read this. But my thumbs–those marvel of evolution–are getting sore after opening more than 100,000 bottles (conservative estimate) over the course of my career. I could use a break. (But please, not synthetic corks. Hate them with a passion.)
The subject of corked wine never seems to go away, and never will, as long as wine bottles are stoppered with natural cork.
Fred Swan asserts that the rate of flawed corks is 2%-8%. That’s a big range. I would shy away from the upper estimate, which in my experience is too high. But then again, people have different thresholds of perception for TCA. I think I’m pretty sensitive to it, but I’ve been at tastings where others (usually Dan Berger) detected (or claimed they detected) TCA and I didn’t. So.
Then there’s the Cork Quality Council. For as long as I’ve been aware of their activities (a long time), I haven’t had a particularly high opinion of them. Hard to say why, even after all these years. I don’t blame them, obviously, for being the vocal defender of the cork industry, but there’s always been something heavy-handed concerning the way they go about it.
Fred’s list of “things we don’t agree on” is too interesting to pass by. Here’s my take on his bullet points.
1. The percentage of wines in the market or consumers’ cellars suffering from cork-derived TCA contamination. I’d put it around 2%. It used to be higher, but I do believe the cork industry has made inroads in solving the problem. However, a single flawed cork is one too many.
2. How to measure that. There’s probably no reliable way to measure it. We’ll have to make do with anecdotal information, such as my estimate of 2%. That’s based on about 4,500 wines I taste a year.
3. How to define “wines in the market”. What’s so puzzling about this? Wines in the market means wines in the market.
4. The quality/validity of the cork industry’s supporting data, my data or just about anyone else’s. See #2, above.
5. The interpretation of their data or mine. What?
6. How bad the effects of TCA contamination really are on a wine as compared to other contaminations such as brettanomyces or dimethyl sulfide (obviously this would also depend on the level of contamination). TCA contamination is always bad. Sometimes it’s unbearable. We don’t have to get into the game of “which form of contamination is worse, TCA or brett?” It’s like someone dying of brain cancer who comes down with a case of anthrax. “Which do you prefer, darling, the cancer or the anthrax?”
7. Whether or not there’s any relevance to the fact that “corking” occurs after a winemaker has relinquished control of the wine, as compared to issues with fermentations, sulfides, brett, etc. There’s no relevance. I mean, if you get a horrid bottle of wine, who cares when it turned horrid? It’s just horrid, that’s all.
8. The significance of consumer preference in determining whether or not cork is the best closure for wine. Obviously, marketers have to take consumer preference into account. I don’t think there’s any question that screwtops are cleaner than corks. But it’s also true that consumers misunderstand screwtops and have for years. Why? It’s not the writers’ fault. We writers routinely tell consumers not to panic over screwtops, but they don’t listen to us. Put the blame on sellers, I say, especially merchants and on-premise wine servers. That’s where I think you get the attitude.
9. The pros and cons of alternate closures. I hate most of the artificial closures, especially those rubbery things, often luridly colored, that expand once you get them out, so you’re unable to restop the bottle. I’ll take a screwtop anyday.
10. The type of closure we would prefer to have on wine that we bought for our own consumption, whether immediate or after 15 years in the cellar. Here’s where we get into arcane discussions worthy of Talmudic scholars. Does wine age in a screwtop? I don’t know. Do you? I’m sure that studies will be brought to my attention proving every which way. All I can tell you is that there’s nothing romantic about opening a very old bottle and finding the cork a slimy mass of blackened, filthy goo.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And in times like this, when consumers are loathe to spend money, it becomes more necessary than ever for wineries to figure out ways to encourage them to do so.
As a critic I’ve seen almost every way there is for wineries to attract attention to themselves. They’ll resort to oversized bottles so heavy you have to use two hands to pour from them. They’ll put more and more outrageous things on the label. Critters and various colorful modes of transit (trucks, wagons, bicycles) seem mercifully to be on the way out, but on the way in are larger point size for type, greater contrast of colors on the label, and more psychedelic use of gold. It’s the label as roadside billboard. Of course, bottles wrapped in tissue paper suggest that the wine inside must be very special indeed, as is the case with bottles that come in wooden boxes.
There is a cottage industry of packaging redesigners, to whom despairing marketing and sales people turn in roughly the same way a worried man might go to a psychic for consultation following a broken love affair or economic crisis. “[T]hey are hoping that some magic combination of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page can coax diners into spending a little more money” is how the New York Times yesterday described how restaurateurs are trying to lure in cautious diners. The same can be said of wineries. Production people come up with their own “magic combinations.” If you can’t sell your Cabernet Sauvignon, what about a Malbec instead (grabbing onto Argentina’s coattails)? How about a cleverly-named proprietary bottling incorporating the owner’s children’s names, or something French-sounding?. There’s as much psychology involved in buying decisions as anything else. One restaurant cited in the Times article “not only excites the taste buds but goes to work on the mind.” This is crucial because flavor occurs, not in the taste buds, but in the brain, which is the seat of our sexual fantasies.
We humans, it turns out, are as irrational as invertebrates when it comes to choosing our delicacies. “[T]he psychology of the menu”, a complex interplay of graphic design, word and image association and subtle tricks played on the mind (e.g. cost sans dollar sign is said to be less threatening, so that 9 is friendlier than $9) represents the summitry of the restaurateur’s — and the P.R. agent’s — art. “The hidden persuaders,” in Vance Packard’s term (the title of his 1957 book), provided pre-”Mad Men” evidence of hidden tactics advertisers used to sell products. The ultimate in subliminal was said to be barely perceptible (to the naked eye) images of writhing nude human torsos in airbrushed ice cubes floating in cold, refreshing glasses of cognac and other spirits — images that the eye missed but that the reptilian id did not. There are wineries right here in Northern California that are not above mixing eye candy in with their message. The handsome young man from Livermore and the hot young woman from Napa Valley, both of whom are used in their company’s pictorial ads (and you know who they are), come to mind. What’s surprising is that the wine industry does not use sex appeal more than it does. Perhaps it’s a form of prudishness, or maybe the industry just feels it’s “above” pandering to that denominator. But if the suggestion of salaciousness can sell everything from Volvos
it can certainly sell wine. I’m not suggesting that we start having young winemakers in bikini briefs and thongs appear in wine advertisements (although that could be pretty cool) and I certainly wouldn’t want to see old winemakers scantily clad. But the wine industry is stuffy and tight-cheeked when it comes to portraying its own image and it could have more fun and try new things. And by the way, a sincerely meant message from this blog:
In my business I see a lot of spin, not only from the usual suspects — wineries and their P.R. reps — but from other parts of the industry. The cork producers send me material showing how green their forests are and accusing alternative closures of all sorts of nastiness. The screwtop people send out press releases saying you’ll never get TCA from a Stelvin. Now, the bottle industry has crashed the spin-control party.
The bottlers heretofore have been quiet, but I suppose it was only to be expected they’d speak up now, what with the Recession forcing so many people to buy their wines in boxes, PET containers and so on. It’s the A.B.G. movement — Anything But Glass — and it’s freaking out the bottle manufacturers.
Yesterday, I got an e-blast informing me how much wine consumers prefer glass over everything else. The email had a link to the Glass Packaging Institute’s website, which reported on a brand new survey headlined
98% of American wine consumers with a preference prefer wine packaged in traditional glass bottles… reaching nearly 100% for younger wine consumers, ages 21 to 35.
According to the poll, when consumers were asked “Which type of container do you prefer when you drink or purchase wine?” 97.6% replied glass bottles. When asked “Which container do you consider best for recyling?” 73.2% answered glass. And when asked “Which container do you think does the best job of keeping the original flavor of the product” fully 95.3% replied glass.
The problem with these questions and answers is that they don’t tell the whole truth. If the 97.6% who prefer glass were asked if they preferred to spend $10 for a 750-ml. bottle as opposed to $18 for a 3-liter bag-in-a-box, which is the equivalent of $4.50 per 750-ml., what do you think their answer would have been? If the 73.2% who think glass is more recyclable than a box or PET container had the truth explained to them, their answer would have been quite different. (Is glass more recyclable than cardboard or aluminum? I don’t think so.) As for the 95.3% who think glass keeps the flavor of wine better than a box, they’re not only wrong, they’ve never had a bottled wine finished with a moldy cork.
Years ago there was a best-selling book called “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.” Its basic premise was that you can prove anything you want to in a poll. Here’s the money quote: “For any given issue, there is a whole range of possible opinions, not just two. The more complex the issue is, the greater the range. Nevertheless, most pollsters try to fit all opinion into the neat categories of agree/disagree, favor/oppose. These simple categories…make for powerful headlines, but they mask the color and depth of public opinion as it truly exists.”
That’s what I think is happening in this bottle survey. The pollsters asked the people simplistic questions — questions whose answers they knew they’d get — and the public replied exactly the way the pollsters knew they would. Then the pollsters present the “findings” as evidence of glass’s superiority, and of the public’s “strong” preference for it. I don’t think the public has a powerful feeling against boxes and such — especially younger ones — which is why boxed wine sells in far greater quantities than bottled wine.
By the way, I’m not saying I don’t like bottles. I do. Nor am I saying the best wines don’t come in bottles. They do. I wouldn’t want to see bottles go away. All I’m saying is that it’s awfully easy to bamboozle the American public with polls, be they about politicans or packaging.
I came across this blog that calls steveheimoff.com one of the 5 best wine blogs. The others: Vinography, Wine Library TV, Asimov’s The Pour, and Dr. Vino. Quite a prestigious list! Thank you very much, Clinton Stark. I’m honored.
People call people like me “gatekeepers.” Beyond the obvious definition of a person who controls passage through a gate, the more modern meaning of gatekeeping is a cultural one: according to Wikipedia, gatekeeping is “the process through which ideas and information are filtered for publication.”
In the wine industry, in addition to writers and critics, gatekeepers include any professionals who interface with consumers and can influence what they buy: sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine shop personnel.
I have always taken my position as a gatekeeper very seriously. But I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always do a very good job at giving consumers true, useful information about wine they can use to bust through stereotypes. I was reminded of this yesterday when I wrote my post about screwtops and somebody commented that screwtops would be a lot more acceptable to diners if sommeliers pushed or at least didn’t oppose their use. That led me to think, What else are we gatekeepers not doing enough (or doing too much of)? Here’s my top 10 list of things that gatekeepers could do a better job of letting people know:
1 screwtops aren’t just for cheap wine
2. the relationship between price and quality is not as absolute as most people think
3. just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing
4. a high score does not reflect a wine’s affinity for food
5. a particular varietal that comes from a region famous for that varietal can be terrible
6. the weight of the bottle is meaningless and can be misleading
7. ditto the beauty of the label
8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15
9. a wine described as “dry” can actually contain residual sugar that interferes with food pairing
10. the official alcohol reading on the label can be seriously off
I’m sure I could come up with others, but then it wouldn’t be a Top Ten List.