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The soft bigotry of tasting inexpensive wine

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If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.

BlindJustice

This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.

But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.

My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning  off either side.

If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.

If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.


Matt Kramer got it right about bullies who put wine down

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This think piece by Matt Kramer is a little opaque.(I hope you can open the Wine Spectator link.)  I had to read it twice to understand it—and I’m not sure I do even now—but it seems to be a rebuttal to the notion, widespread in America and somewhat anti-intellectual, that expertise is a form of pretentious bull. With specific regard to wine, Matt asserts that “what we [tasters] taste is real,” his J’accuse! to the doubters who, reading things about Rudi Kuriawan, or how even “experts” can be fooled, think that wine expertise is just so much hooey.

If that was Matt’s point, he’s got it right: great numbers of Americans don’t take wine seriously, even if they drink it, and some of them think that those of us who do take wine seriously are somehow illegitimate—less than true, red-blooded Americans. How and why this notion go so widespread is not hard to understand. It’s not that people think any form of expertise is bunk. Baseball fans respect the serious fact-collector who can cite ERAs going back fifty years. Nobody disrespects an epidemiologist who can cite instances of out-of-control diseases going back to the plague. We listen to movie reviewers thoroughly familiar with the genre.

But when it comes to expertise in wine, people tend to raise their eyebrows. I’ve encountered such skeptical behavior my whole career. It’s like when I meet someone and I tell then what I do for a living, their reaction is a mixture of disbelief, amusement and pity. “Really?” They seem to say. “You get paid for that?” If I was getting paid to be a CIA analyst tracking the worldwide movement of terrorists (another form of expertise) I’d get some respect. Even a restaurant reviewer would be seen in some sort of positive light. For that matter, if I was a whiskey expert, I think people would be respectful.

But wine? Something about it still weirds people out. This is related to what Matt calls “a bullying anti-intellectualism with a long history in America.” It’s the same kind of anti-intellectualsm that still manifests itself as a suspicion of science in this country. When I was a little boy, people called Adlai Stevenson, who ran for President twice as a Democrat (and lost to Eisenhower) “an egghead,” a disparaging word for someone who was educated and tended to think in complex, analytical ways, rather than with emotional gut reactions.

Why should wine, of all foods and beverages, be consigned to the egghead bin of history? It’s not really clear to me, except that, as an historian of wine, I understand its centrality to Western civilization and culture. Our greatest minds didn’t necessarily drink wine (and with most of them, we don’t know if they did or didn’t, for history didn’t record it. Did Aristotle drink wine? Did Thomas Aquinas? Did Shakespeare, Pascal, Gutenburg?) But there is something about wine that is unlike beer or spirits. I can’t pinpoint it, except to say it is a thinking person’s alcoholic beverage. It’s a drink that smart men and women enjoy. I’m not dissing beer and spirits drinkers;; I happen to like both myself. I’m suggesting that wine somehow appeals to a very high level of consciousness in our brains. It awakens something cerebral and thoughtful, but not everybody enjoys being thoughtful. For some people, thoughtfulness is a distraction, or worse, an indulgence in something they don’t even believe in. These are the sorts of people Matt writes about: “skeptics of sensory value, who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers,” when they’re really not.

The history of Prohibitionism in this country is rife with such figures. Whenever they rise up and have power, our country takes a step backwards in its inevitable progress toward the future. So next time you’re enjoying a nice glass of wine, smile at yourself inwardly, and know that you’re helping our country become a better place, for in a very real sense—in carrying the wine flag high—you are.


Why young wine drinkers should know about the classics

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Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.

But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?

By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)

Okay. So two questions:

  1. Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
  2. What are the classics, anyhow?

Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.

But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.

I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.

So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.

This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.


DTC, snobs and market segmentation: A personal view

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“Wines delivered to your door” has been the business theme of direct-to-consumer entrepreneurs since as long as I can remember.

I used to be a member of one of these subscription services, back in the early 1980s. I can’t remember the name (I’m sure someone out there will remind me), but they sold German wines that “arrived at your door” on a monthly basis. I didn’t continue, because I eventually reached the point where I preferred shopping for wine myself, in a store, especially if I could taste it or see a recommendation—and that is the point of this post.

There’s now another “delivered to your door” service, Club W, and while I wish them well, I don’t see how they overcome the challenges that led to failure of almost every one of these ventures.

They all promise the ease and convenience of having pre-selected wines that arrive at your door once a month. They all say the wines are “curated” by experts or, in this case, actually produced for Club W “by noteworthy winemakers who develop their ‘juice’ for Club W exclusively.” And they all make claims that they offer lower prices [even with shipping?] than traditional outlets.

That may well be true in Club W’s case. The claim that their “exclusive” winemakers “have great talent but may lack access to capital enough to get their wines made and into the market” certainly rings true. That is a common challenge for winemakers, especially younger ones, who may have access to interesting grapes, and are making interesting wines, but have no realistic way of getting them to far-flung customers.

What are those wines? I went to Club W’s website and tried it out. They ask you to answer a couple of (kind of silly) questions, and then, after you give them an email, Facebook or Twitter account, they “recommend” appropriate wines. For me, they suggested three brands I’ve never heard of: a Wonderful Wine Co. red blend from Paso Robles, a Black Market Cabernet-Petit Verdot blend from Livermore, and Casa de Lila Airén, a white wine from Spain. Beyond these three wines, there are others on the website I could buy. They all have attractive labels, and I wish I could go to a tasting and try them out, because at $13 a bottle, that’s pretty affordable. There’s also a “Curator’s Choice” menu for wines costing $14 and up.

Now, any and all of these might be wonderful wines. Or they might not. The problem is, even thought they’re just $13 a bottle, I don’t want to buy a pig in a poke: A wine I’m not familiar with. Under their “Tastemakers” dropdown menu they have the names and pictures of folks I guess are some of their winemakers: a fine-looking bunch of men and women, young and appealing. There’s also a cool recipes link. That’s all good.

So I have mixed feelings. A lot of thought obviously has gone into Club W. The website is really nice. But I just don’t see how they get around the fact that you can’t taste the wines before you buy, or even see what the critics have said, since they’re club exclusives and have never been professionally reviewed. (I do make an exception for winery wine clubs: people join them because they know and trust those wines, so even if they haven’t had the latest vintage, they possess plenty of prior evidence that they’re much more likely to enjoy the wine than not.)

Finally, although this isn’t Club W’s fault, I hate the way the Wall Street Journal portrayed Club W; their headline reads “Club W Raises $9.5 Million To Appeal to Wine Lovers, Not Snobs.” Can we please get over this “snobs vs. everybody else” nonsense? I mean, does Lettie Teague write for the “Snobs” in the WSJ? I have news for you: All wine writers write for the people who read them; all wineries produce wine for the people who buy them. There are indeed snobs in the world of wine, as there are in other arenas, but they are the exception to the rule, and to toss the word “snob” around so much is really misleading to young people, who may end up thinking that wine isn’t for them because they’re not snobs and don’t like being around snobs.

Instead, why can’t we talk about beginners, amateur wine lovers and experts? The experts aren’t “snobs,” they just have a lot of experience, nor are the beginners “idiots” because they have little experience. Some “beginners” will be “experts” someday; will that make them “snobs”? So really, anyone (writer, blogger, winery, ad agency) who throws around the snob word so insouciantly is just indulging in lazy language that moreover insults a significant number of wine lovers.

And then there are new wine companies targeting everybody: I got this blast email from one of them just this morming: I omit the winery’s name: “We here at ___ have created a wine that will capture thegrowing new generation of social media savvy, adventurous, health consciouswine drinkers as well as the seasoned, more experienced ones.” Talk about something for everyone! Beginners, Millennials, twitterers, greenies and granola munchers, Baby Boomers, old folks, and snobs. Sic semper, market segmentation!


The Empire Strikes Back: Laube Takes on IPOB

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Brother Laube comes out swinging against In Pursuit of Balance, in the Sept. 30 issue of Wine Spectator. (Sorry, no link. The Spectator has one of the best firewalls in the business. No subscribe, no read.) I’d been wondering how long it would take him. After all, Jim is famous for giving high scores to ripe, plush wines that can be high in alcohol—which is exactly what IPOB is against. You might even say that IPOB is the anti-Laube (and anti-Parker) establishment. So Jim had to declare himself sooner or later. He’s a nice, modest man who doesn’t pick fights, but even shy folks fight back, if attacked enough.

 

LAUBE

This isn’t to say that Jim is merely defending his own reputation. For there is something fundamentally irrational about IPOB. Jim implies this when he says that IPOB “admittedly [is] unable to collectively arrive at a definition of balance,” which is true enough: Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of wine critics, sommeliers and merchants believe that the rationale of IPOB is for wines to be under 14% alcohol by volume. But I’ve heard co-founder Raj Parr say, at an IPOB event, that that’s not at all what IPOB is about. So what is it? IPOB’s Manifesto defines “balance” in rather boilerplate language. It doesn’t say anything about alcohol levels, only that alcohol should “coexist” alongside fruit, acidity and structure “in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” But there’s something tautological about that statement, not to mention deeply subjective. Which leads back to the question, What is IPOB really about?

Well, publicity, for sure. There’s some real marketing genius at work with IPOB, which in the few short years of its existence has become something of an insurrectionist force rather like, well, another 4-letter acronym group: ISIS. I Googled “In Pursuit of Balance” and came up with 155,000 hits, but that doesn’t even begin to measure the impact IPOB has had in sommelier circles from San Francisco to New York and beyond. IPOB has, in effect, gone viral.

Jim also referenced the “contentious relationship [that] has developed between somms and producers,” and I’m glad he did, for his voice carries weight. His message—to somms—is that if they don’t put certain wines on their lists just because of “a number” (alcohol percent), they do a disservice to their customers, who may prefer those kinds of wines. Somms, of course, are famous for not liking wine magazines and wine reviewers, who are threats to their existence: If all you need is a famous critic’s score, then somms would be out of a job. So joining forces with IPOB is, for a somm, a way of fighting back against a media elite they never much cared for anyway.

Be that as it may, this is not a quarrel among equals. For Wine Spectator’s senior columnist—one of the most powerful wine critics in America, if not the world—to throw down the gantlet to IPOB is a significant gesture. Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully, and mostly without snark. (Well, “dim somms” wasn’t his invention, it was Helen Turley’s.) I think In Pursuit of Balance must reply to the rather serious charge that it fundamentally doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

READERS: You can comment here, or join the conversation at my Facebook page.


The last word on single-blind, double-blind and open tasting

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I don’t know that I’ve ever fully laid out, in this blog, my views on the three most common forms of wine tasting: single-blind, double-blind and open. So let me do so.

I’ve long argued that no one way of tasting is “right.” Each has its pluses and minuses. If there were one “correct” way we all would have accepted it by now, so the fact that we haven’t suggests there is no one correct way.

Single-blind tasting, in which you know something about the wines (maybe their region, variety and vintage) is useful, in that it’s blind enough to prevent bias, but gives you some context in which to make evaluations. This question of “context” has been woefully underreported by the wine and academic media, in my judgment. Why context matters is difficult to prove to those who think it doesn’t; it’s an almost political point of view. But suffice it to say that context gives the taster at least some parameters within which to base his conclusions. The following metaphor is a little stretched, I’ll admit, but gets the point across. Let’s say a juvenile is on trial in a courtroom for some youthful infraction. The D.A. wants to throw the book at the kid, but the judge permits his parents and teachers to testify. They offer a view of the kid that’s far different from the one the D.A. presented. The judge, after taking all these views into account, adjusts his sentence accordingly. That is “context.”

Double-blind tasting by contrast allows for no context (except, obviously, knowing the color and stillness or bubbliness of the wine, which may be sweet or dry). To extend the above metaphor, the judge allows no “character witnesses.” He simply bases his conclusions on the law/s the defendant is alleged to have broken, and makes his sentence based on prescribed punishments. This is “unfair” in that it fails to take anything into account other than the actual act of lawbreaking; but one can argue (and extreme law-and-order societies do so argue) that it is after all the fairest, most objective and consistent and least emotional approach to jurisprudence.

Open tasting must break with the metaphor and use a different rationale. In open tasting, you know exactly what you’re tasting. The argument in favor of it is that it’s only fair to know all the facts before making a judgment. This is why so many proprietors insist on critics visiting the winery and tasting with the winemaker; they will not send wine to the critic to taste anonymously in some lineup. This approach, too, makes sense if you view it through the lens of another metaphor. Let’s say your child wants to marry someone. You, the parent, feel you should have some say in the matter: your child’s protestations of love for the fiancé are not enough to convince you that this is a marriage that will succeed. So you insist on meeting the lover and knowing more about him or her: About the parents—the financial situation—the prospects for making a living—the person’s moral fiber—his or her commitment to your child. Surely this is not an unreasonable approach for a parent: He wants to experience the lover “openly.”

How a person tastes wine depends on his reason for doing so. A negociant or a winemaker assembling a final blend may decide to taste double-blind: the sole purpose is to produce the best wine possible. A wine critic may choose to taste single-blind, as I did at Wine Enthusiast (and as I believe many other major critics do). But a wine critic also may choose to taste openly, as I know for a fact some of the world’s most famous English-speaking critics do. They will argue (and who am I to disagree?) that they are perfectly capable of disregarding their knowledge of the wine so that they arrive at an objective conclusion. One can even suggest that open tasting is simply an extreme case of single-blind tasting: After all, if you already know something about what the wine is, then how much “worse” can it be if you know still more?

In the end, we can conclude one thing with certainty: The critic who tastes openly will be a lot more consistent in her reviews that the critic who tastes double-blind. If you value consistency in critics (and the winemakers I know say it’s the single most important thing they look for), then you probably want your critic to taste openly. Finally, I’ll just say that this discussion involves a lot of inside-baseball stuff: All this may be controversial within the critical/winemaking community, but the general public doesn’t give a hoot how their critics taste. They can’t be bothered with the details: All they want to know about is the review and score.


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