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Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes

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I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.

Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.

It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.

But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.

Haring

There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.

It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.

So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.

It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.

There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.


Lessons learned from recent fake wine scandals

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It’s clear that fake (often expensive) wine in China has become a monumental problem. As much as 50% of the foreign wine for sale in that enormous country appears to be phony, and that nation has been “reluctant to address the issue of counterfeiting,” Maureen Downey, a rare wine appraiser based in San Francisco, told the South China Morning Post.

The problem is especially acute in Hong Kong, due to the oceans of money there, and also in part to “the Asian fear of losing face,” Downey says. The rich dislike admitting that they’ve been victims of scams. Of course, the recent conviction of Rudi Kurniawan, an Indonesian, only adds to this fear on the part of wealthy collectors that all is not well. “Even if you’re rich, you’re still being hoodwinked. You’re still being taken for a ride,” Michael Egan, a witness for the prosecution in the Kurniawan case, said. This must make it difficult for collectors to look over all those marvelous bottles in their cellars and wonder what’s real and what isn’t.

It’s not just in China that bogus wine is a problem. Twenty percent of all the wine sold in the world may be fake, with online sites like eBay particularly notorious for peddling bad bottles. (I mentioned bogus Screaming Eagle on my blog nearly two years ago.)

That this wave of fakery is happening today should come as no surprise. In an era where phishing and identity theft are big business, brewing up a phony batch of Romanée-Conti is right in tune with the international criminal ethos that seeks to liberate people from their money through fraudulent means. The crooks who sold $12,000 bottles of  fake DRC, mainly in China, were, in fact, merely the latest in a long historic line of wine counterfeiters who have practiced their black craft for centuries. In their 1992 book, The Chemical Revolution, the authors cite an 18th century London scholar who described how “a fraternity of chemical operators,” working “in underground holes, caverns and dark retirements,” could “squeeze Bordeaux out of sloe [prunes], and draw Champagne from the apple.”

What is it about humans that makes us so credulous a species? You can’t fool most animals, who can sniff out the false, dishonest, dangerous and insincere things of the world. But people seem willing to be fooled and fleeced. Added to the problem is that many people who buy these bottles either don’t even bother to open them (they just flip them online), or, if they do pop the cork, they don’t have the experience to know what the wine should taste like.

To understand why people are so easily duped, you have to ask, as Marcus Aurelius did, “This thing, what is it in itself? What is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?” What “this thing”–wine fraud or more specifically the willingness of people to be its victims–is, is the desire to have something rare, which most other people cannot have, and thus to raise, in one’s own eyes, one’s own self-esteem, and also one’s esteem in the eyes of others. This implies, naturally, that humans suffer from low self-esteem, a problem I will leave to psychologists to explain. I suppose it has to do with ego. Animals don’t have egos; only we humans are blessed, or cursed, with them.

Victims of scams, fortunately, can learn from their experiences. Once burned, twice shy, goes the old saying. I’m sure the Chinese have their own version of our slogan: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So perhaps, in a few years, we’ll look back at the explosion of fake wines in China as a temporary glitch in that country’s upwardly spiraling learning curve.

These episodes of wine counterfeits also point up the importance of third-party certifying agents who can guarantee the wine’s provenance. Would you ever spend thousands of dollars on a bottle if you didn’t know exactly where it had been all its life? I wouldn’t. I’m basically a trusting person, but–having been ripped off myself–I’ve learned you can’t be too careful these days, what with scam artists and sleazeballs waiting for the slightest opportunity to steal our money. As for Aurelius’s question, “How long will it subsist?,” P.T. Barnum had the answer for that a long time ago: There’s a sucker born every minute.


Where are the Faces?

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In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.

“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]

“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.” 

It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.

Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.

I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.

Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.

Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.

Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.

But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.


How people buy wine: friends vs. scores

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I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.

That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)

There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”

As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”

Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.

I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.

But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.

This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.

So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.


When wine doesn’t have to apologize for being what it is

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It’s funny, isn’t it, how we hierarchize wine. It’s almost reminiscent of the Indian caste system, in which the highest caste was the priests, then the warriors, followed by merchants and then, at the bottom, the untouchables.

Maybe the British social structure is more apt, with royalty at the top (themselves intensely hierarchized), then gentry of various orders, followed by an elite class of merchants and, finally, the poor. America is supposed to be a classless society, but it isn’t, as even a brief exposure to the Napa auction proved.

I suppose there’s something in human nature that likes to classify things, including where people are on the social scale. We do the same thing with wine. The First Growths and Grand Crus of France are wine’s Brahmins and Kings and Queens. Here in California, their equivalents are the you-know-whos of Napa Valley that go for high triple digits.

What I wonder is, we all know that pigeon-holing human beings into a caste system is wrong. All men are created equal and all that; all are the children of God, and each person should be appreciated for what he or she is–or so our liberal philosophy says. Regardless of whether  or not we actually believe that, it’s patently obvious that we’re comfortable putting wine into castes. If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s neighborhoods, we might say there are Pacific Heights mansion wines, North Beach artisanal wines, Mission District working class wines, and finally there are ghetto wines nobody would ever be caught dead drinking or serving, unless they were poor and couldn’t afford any better.

I’ve always been of the opinion that all wines should be treated equally, which is to say, with respect. That comes from the way I was raised, in a household where my parents idolized FDR. They were far from wealthy and had to watch their expenses, so I grew up understanding the concept of value.

Today, I love value in a wine. I give credit to the Broncos and Wine Groups of California, companies that make wine affordable for the masses. Sure, you can call those wines peasant wines, the equivalents of the untouchables, the dreaded lower classes whom British royalty were so snobbish toward. I know people who would refuse to drink these wines; they’d rather drink nothing than to sully their palates.

But that’s a wrong-headed attitude. If I were a billionaire I’m sure I’d drink my share of old Burgundy, but I’m not. One of these days I’ll be cruising the supermarket wine aisle again, like I used to, looking for affordable wines. Here are some of the best value brands I’ve reviewed this year–some old names, some new names, all worth a round.

Kendall-Jackson Avant

Firestone

Bogle

L de Lyeth

Pedroncelli

Smoking Loon

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi Private Selection

Greystone

CK Mondavi

Kirkland Signature

Happy Camper

Geyser Peak

Ballard Lane

Line 39

Nickname

Avalon

Bota Box

Are these great, world-class wines? No. But they’re the wines I’d be drinking if they were all I could afford, and they’d give me plenty of pleasure. All of them should be the envy of the world, when it comes to producing dry, properly varietal wines at a price ordinary working people can afford.


Talkin’ 100-point blues

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READERS: I’m still buried in meetings at Wine Enthusiast for our annual winter conference. Please enjoy this post, originally published in July, 2008.

* * *

There’s been a lot of chatter out there lately about the 100 point system. (Even my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has written skeptically about it.) While I might have thought this was a bit of a dead horse, the issue does shed light on, not just how some of us rate wine, but how we think about wine.

As a person of interest at Ground Zero of the 100-point scoring system, I’d like to offer my thoughts. What I meant by the debate shedding light on how we think about wine is this: Wine is something that people rank (consciously or not) on a qualitative basis. Other things we rank are films, automobiles and politicians. Things we don’t tend to rank are those we take for granted. Probably no one ranks paper clips.

We know all wine isn’t the same and even if we’re not wine drinkers we’re aware that some wines are better and more expensive than others. Once you get into the ranking game, you’re opening the door for experts to come in and decide what’s best, what’s better, and what’s not so good.

So the concept of wine critiquing works for me. As to how it’s done, it’s important to keep in mind that people want visual symbols to reference, not just text. A few years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle stopped using visual symbols in their wine reviews and went to text only. Readers revolted, and the paper had to restore the icons.

I guess there’s fundamentally no difference between a numerical score and puffs, stars, glasses or any other symbol, and so I can’t make an argument on logical grounds that the 100-point system is inherently better. I can only say why it works for me at Wine Enthusiast.

To begin with, it’s not really a 100-point system, it’s a 20-point system. We only publish wines with a rating of 80 or above. Everything else is given a code number, “22,” and consigned to the database’s bowels, where the public will never see them.

Since I work with a 20-point system, not a 100-point one, I don’t have to defend the extraordinary practice of giving a 67 to something instead of a 66 or a 68 or for that matter a 71. How you can slice the baloney that thin is a mystery to me and a little spurious.

So what’s the difference, you ask, between 82 and 83, or 91 or 92? It’s something you feel in your bones, head and heart. The bones are your first instinct. The head is your considered opinion based on further tasting and reflection, and the heart is when you’re sure you’re right and have nothing to be ashamed or afraid of, but can hold your head high and say, “This is what I believe.”

All this raises profound questions, which may be summed up by Alder Yarrow’s query at his blog, a few days ago: When it comes to wine critics, “whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?”

I’m not sure that this period of the public’s reliance on critics will be seen kindly by future generations (assuming there are any). We may one day be viewed as the equivalent of soothsayers or snake charmers or seers who read the entrails of beasts. But for now, wine critics are a vital part of the industry, along with the 100-point system. As for the who-do-you-trust part, I’ll leave that for others to decide.


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