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What today’s social media means for tomorrow’s wine industry

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The advent of the Millennials and social media is said to be revolutionizing consumer behavior in wine to such an existential extent that the Old Order is in dire threat of imminent demise.

From this historical vantage point, some people say that the wine world has gone through two major eras and is now entering a third. Wine 1.0, which lasted for a millennium, saw a few European regions dominating that continent; wine was virtually non-existent in the rest of the world. Wine 2.0, which began roughly in the late 19th century and continues today, saw the emergence of the New World, but that, in reality, was actually (and merely) an extension of Wine 1.0, because the New World mostly meant the former colonies of England (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, America), who carried English traditions to the farthest points of the globe, resulting in the continuation of the domination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. This continuity of English tradition, with its focus on rank, privilege and status, also guaranteed the public’s ongoing fascination with the Great Growths/Grand Crus of France, as well as their equivalents (decreed by cognoscenti) in the New World (Penfolds Grange, Harlan Estate, for example).

Now, according to the new historians, we see the nascent parameters of Wine 3.0. These are clear and distinct. One is that the world has shrunk so that ideas are now global rather than regional. Another is that technology has made the spread of ideas instantaneous. For the first time in history, an idea does not need a physical mode of transportation to convey it to the farthest reaches of the planet: the mere click of a mouse now does that. A third leg of this analysis is that a new generation (Millennials) is fundamentally different from its forebears, if for no reason other than that they grew up in a reality in which the first two parameters (a shrunken world and instantaneous transmittal of information) were taken for granted. The result, says this new interpretation, is that wine has been liberated from the shackles that bound it for centuries.

This is an attractive analysis for those who argue for a more liberal interpretation of history–such as, for example, the one governing a view of America that sees our country continually spiraling upward and outward in recognizing the human rights of all its inhabitants (notwithstanding that the reality of this view is not always consonant with the theory). Thus, the democratization of human society both anticipated and parallels the democratization in consumer wine preferences. According to this view, wines of any variety, style or flavor now may be permitted to stand beside glorious Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon or Burgundy/Pinot Noir: younger consumers don’t care anymore about those old paradigms, nor do they care about Authority. Tannat, Furmint, Rkatsiteli, Welschriesling, Savtiano–Millennials happily embrace them all, perhaps all the more exuberantly due to the fact that they were formerly under-appreciated by those very Authorities whom they reject as arrogant and irrelevant.

This certainly is a viable, even compelling way of looking at things; the fact that it accords well with our own American experience in democratization adds vigor to it. (White male property owners at first had all the rights. Then came non-property owners, women, 18-year olds, African-Americans, the handicapped, the GLBT community; PETA is hoping animals may be next. If white male property owners were Bordeaux, the GLBT community is Rkatsiteli.) The argument becomes even more enhanced when critics of the old school embrace it, as Jancis Robinson did last week, when, in Washington, D.C. to promote her new book (“The World Atlas of Wine,” co-written with Hugh Johnson), she declared that “This democratization of wine is great.” 

Jancis might have been reciting the talking points of the blogging community when she added, “No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments.” This is if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em-ism at its most resilient, although I do wonder if Jancis really thinks of herself (much less Hugh Johnson, God forbid) as “haughty.” At any rate, you can hardly blame a critic these days for going over to that side of the fence.

But I would like to segue now into history to make my point, which is that (as your financial statements constantly remind you), “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” If the study of history proves anything, it is how utterly useless it is in predicting the future. We in the West like to assume that history proceeds according to some kind of orderly, predictable template, like the unfolding of a computer program, so that a proper understanding of the past can result in a fairly accurate knowledge of the future: not necessarily in detail, but in general outline. This philosophy was most famously summed up in Santayana’s slogan that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We study history in order to more perfectly align with its forward direction.

Alas, reality has the unpleasant tendency to throw curveballs at us, upsetting the best-laid plans of men. (Heisenberg understood this tendency toward the erratic in the realm of the sub-atomic.) I referred earlier to Wine 1.0, which was totally dominated by Europe (“Old Europe,” Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously called it.) So, too, has the long political history of the West been dominated by events in Europe (and, after the year 1000 A.D. or so, the entire planet: when Europe coughed, the World caught cold). We saw this appalling phenomenon with the two World Wars, and then with the advent of the Cold War, which quickly spread to every continent on Earth.

As a result, my generation–the Baby Boomers–was obsessed with Europe. As a history buff, I’ve read about Europe all my life, and can tell you that, before 9/11, there was hardly a serious history book that even mentioned Islam. The Muslim world was seen merely as an adjunct of the great Western powers (subsequently joined by China, hardly a Muslim nation). The study of Western history tended to be about the causes and aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, and how those continuing power politics were shaping the political and economic realities of the world.

Suddenly, 9/11 occurred–and now Europe, with all its past problems and glories, seems almost irrelevant. If you know history at all, you will find that shocking. And yet, it happened: Europe was wiped out of global historical calculations overnight. History threw a curveball at the world, which didn’t see it coming. And the world now is scrambling to catch up.

I say these things simply to point out the uselessness of predictions based on prior assumptions, that how things appear today is necessarily prescriptive of how they will be tomorrow. We do certainly have a spike of interest in this social media phenomenon–an interest pushed by a media eager to report on “trends”. But one cannot extrapolate from this any conclusions concerning how wines will be described, popularized, marketed or sold in the future, much less what kinds of wines the people of the world will demand. A fundamental truth of human experience is: For now, we see through a glass, darkly. Paul’s conclusion from that is that mankind ought to be charitable. Mine is that proprietors of wineries ought to be skeptical.

Could the Internet itself be the curve ball that history has tossed at the world? Yes. But the outcome of that phenomenon is no more predictable than that of the world’s current situation vis-à-vis the rise of militant Islam. Nobody knows where that is going, and to make any predictions whatsoever based on what has happened in the past is futile and possibly dangerous.

My friend Rajeev, whom I mention here from time to time because he is emblematic of so many other small business owners, just enrolled in a social media course in Palo Alto, which he will attend next week. He has been reading and hearing so much about how entrepreneurs like him should be diving into social media that he’s finally decided to tackle something he’d been avoiding for years. He told me of his hopes and expectations: that mastering the intricacies of Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will help him make more money. Rajeev even used the metaphor of exploring a new land. I listened sympathetically but with (I must admit) some inward humor, and thought of Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, in which the singer meets the captain of three ships sailing toward America, as the singer is heading in the opposite direction. “He said his name was Columbus,” the singer sings, “[and] I just said, ‘Good Luck.’”

 


Psst: There’s a global wine shortage. Pass it on.

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If I see one more report of a “global wine shortage,” I’m gonna hurl.

It all started with a report from Morgan Stanley, the big investment bank, that “Global wine consumption has been on the rise almost without interruption…since the late 1990s,” while at the same time, “World production hasn’t managed to keep pace.” Next thing you know, every news outlet in the world is screaming that the sky is falling. My in-box has been filled with such reports, thanks to Google Alerts. Here, for instance, and here, and here, and here.

The Morgan Stanley report went viral, instantly, but does it hold water? My first reaction, yesterday, was not to believe it: California, which still supplies the lion’s share of wine to the U.S., had its biggest crop ever in 2012, and 2013’s harvest apparently also will be a large one. (We don’t have the details until the Dept. of Food and Agriculture issues its Crush Report next year.) And, this just in: In Washingron State, the 2013 harvest will be the biggest ever.

My skepticism also was fueled by my increasing suspicion of “news” on the Internet. Reporters eager to file deadlines rush to embrace findings from “authoritative” sources, and Morgan Stanley certainly seems like an authoritative source, doesn’t it? And yet we’ve seen all too often how “authoritative sources”, including–gasp!–banks, sometimes get things wrong. (Ever hear of sub-prime mortgages?)

Then lo and behold, Thursday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article in the print edition on the subject. The online version was headlined “Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage.” Here it is.

In it, the paper’s reporter, Stacy Finz, cited numerous people holding important positions in the wine trade, banking and analysis, each of whom said, in effect, that the Morgan Stanley report is twaddle. Go ahead, read Stacy’s article.

The dangers of mindlessly embracing every new report or study without subjecting it to proper journalistic scrutiny are obvious. A local ABC News affiliate in reaction to the report ran this online article suggesting that wine lovers “might want to start stockpiling your favorite bottles.” Forbes picked up on this and wondered if the looming “shortage” doesn’t “present a good investment opportunity.” Next thing you know, here’s the L.A. Times, parroting the warning: “You may want to start stocking up now.”

It’s like that old party game of telegraph, where one person whispers something in someone’s ear and then, ten people later, the message is total gibberish.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing that there may be some upcoming shortage of wine in the future. Just last May, I blogged about similar reports that were surfacing about global shortages. However, as one of my esteemed commenters–the Hosemaster of Wine himself–wryly noted at that time, “isn’t there a shortage every ten years or so?”, the implication being that perhaps, just perhaps such dire predictions of shortages might benefit certain parties who stand to make more money if people start hoarding and prices rise. Who could such parties be? Hmm.

What troubles me about this latest feeding frenzy of media speculation is what has long bothered me about the Internet: “news” spreads virally around the globe and is routinely accepted as true by lazy reporters who then in turn are cited by even lazier bloggers, ad nauseum, until everybody believes it, except for the inconvenient fact that It may not be true. And if it’s not? Nobody’s going to come back in two years and accuse Morgan Stanley of getting their facts wrong. And even if someone did, I’m sure Morgan Stanley wouldn’t care.


Do we really need all these wine certification programs?

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The issue of wine education always has lingered around the edges of those of us lucky enough to make our living, one way or another, through wine.

The question boils down to this: What sort of formal certification, if any, ought to be required? We all can agree that knowledge is needed, whether you’re a sommelier, writer/critic, merchant, or working in some other corner of the industry. But how should you get that knowledge?

Through most of history knowledge was acquired in informal ways. In the old days, if you wanted to work in the wine trade, you apprenticed with people older and more experienced than you. (Indeed, this is how people like Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh got started.) Later–as my generation matured–you could self-educate yourself, through the many books and tasting societies that sprang up across the U.S.

Then wine became big business; and like all things when big money is involved, the rules began to change. As competition for jobs increased, employers felt they could tighten up the requirements. In the 1990s, it became evidently more important to have some sort of title: a Master of Wine, or a Master Sommelier. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the 21st century that certifying entities themselves began competing to attract candidates and their tuition dollars.

Today, I’ve lost count of how many different certifying entities there are. I hear from them all the time. In addition to the M.W. and M.S. programs, the Society of Wine Educators has their Certified Wine Educator and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications. The Culinary Institute of America runs several certification programs, and then of course there’s the well-known WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) program, which offers multiple levels of certification. (Jancis Robinson  recently promoted it at a speech in New York.) I could list many other similar programs, but the point is that, to get a job these days in the wine industry, most likely you’re going to have to possess at least one certification.

I’ve long had mixed feelings about the process. I recognize the importance of certification for getting a job: it’s similar to the need for a college degree if you want a career in a profession. So I can’t blame anyone for doing whatever they have to do to work in the wine industry. At the same time, the proliferation of certifying agencies raises the prospects that some may not be the path to the gold ring they claim to be. After all, when everyone has some kind of certification, employers will just raise the bar even higher.

Jancis made a very interesting remark in her speech. “Without [certification], you just tend to stick to those regions or varieties that you personally like and you risk never being in a position to discover new things.” I agree with that, to a certain extent: All of these certification programs, as far as I can tell, educate the student about all the world’s wines, so that you come away with a catholic [small “c”] understanding of wine. Nothing wrong with that, but is a universal understanding of the world’s wines necessary for a job in the wine industry? Possibly for some sommeliers and merchants, it is. But I’d wager that 90% or more of jobs in the wine industry don’t call for a universal knowledge of wine. Many, perhaps most writers and critics do focus on a single region (I certainly do), and I don’t think that makes us less effective in our jobs. One could argue it makes us more effective: Perhaps not as broadly conversant, but more deeply knowledgeable than a universalist like Jancis. Let’s say you end up taking a job with a winery or wine company as, say, a brand manager. You don’t need a worldwide understanding of wine: If you’re marketing a California winery, then a knowledge of South African Chenin Blanc isn’t necessary. It can’t hurt, but it’s not integral to your job.

I’ve long watched the increasingly unaffordable cost of college tuition and wondered why this country doesn’t go over to a different form of career preparation. If someone wants to be an auto mechanic (actually, a pretty good job these days), or a lawyer, or a diplomat or clergyman or computer programmer or winemaker, is it really necessary to do four years of undergrad (learning about stuff you will never, ever have to use), not to mention additional years of post-graduate study, plunging the student ever deeper into debt? I don’t think so. The old concept–liberal in thinking, generous in outlook–that the model citizen ought to be widely educated in all areas of human knowledge necessarily is being replaced by a reality-based paradigm in which specific, vocational-based education is seen as more viable and affordable. In the same sense, I wonder if this new cottage industry of wine certification programs is really good for the industry. In my view, we’d be better off going back to an apprenticeship system where the ambitious young student finds herself a mentor in the area she wants to work in (and, vice versa, where a mentor is looking for a good mentee). If additional study of the world’s wines is needed, there will always be ways to get it. But I can guarantee you that, in most cases, it won’t be needed–and, if you do get certification, within a couple years you’ll forget three-quarters of what you paid for anyway.


A Golden Age for the Golden State

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Much is made of so-called “golden ages”: of television (the 1950s), of Hollywood films (1930s-1940s), of rock and roll (the 1950s and 1960s), of Ancient Greece (somewhat mythic; Hesiod referred to it as the time of heroes, gods and men).

In wine, Bordeaux is sometimes said to have enjoyed its golden age in the 18th century, as the great chateaux were consolidated, often with architectural gems, and the wines were widely exported, resulting in an increase in price. What about California?

Earlier this year, Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer penned a piece, “Is this really a golden age for wine?” When he turned his attention to California, he saw only a single place–Napa Valley–and answered his own question in the negative. “Napa’s golden moment,” he declared, “is now past.” True, Matt did perceive golden age-iness in other places in the world, such as the Cote d’Or, Central Otago and Willamette Valley. But as for the rest of California outside of Napa, nada.

Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, although that Napa-centric shortsightedness is harder to forgive. But let me suggest why I think this is the golden age for California wine as a whole. I actually agree with Matt that Napa Valley is getting “a little thick around its middle.”  He’s right that Napa no longer bursts with the sense of excitement it did in the 1960s and 1970s. In Napa’s behalf, though, it can safely be said that it’s making its best wines ever. Napa Valley remains the point of reference for all of California, and for that matter, for the New World. You’re either for it or against it, but you can’t escape Napa: any statement about California automatically includes a reference to it. Napa’s sort of like the Clintons are to American politics: you may love them or be tired of them, but they are still the 800 pound gorillas.

Matt erred in not considering other regions in California. I have argued, passionately and publicly, for Paso Roble’s recognition as a hotbed of innovation at this time. Nearby Monterey also is in a state of remarkable ferment, with younger winemakers moving there to see what they can do (just as they did in Napa in the 1960s and 1970s). As for Santa Barbara County, I’m a huge fan: there’s no thickness to its middle. Santa Barbara growers and vintners absorbed the lessons of more northerly wine regions, improved their viticulture and enology to the most exacting standards, and now are turning out impeccably tailored wines, of nearly every variety and blending type in California. I could continue to list smaller appellations that I think are performing at very high levels.

There are additional factors at play that keep California exciting. Vintners have developed an exquisite sensitivity to their vineyards: the degree of coordination of root stocks, varieties and clones, trellising, pruning and harvesting decisions has never been as well understood as it is now. (Obviously, I’m referring to the highest level of wineries.) The inrush of young blood is having exactly the kind of galvanizing effect it always has in all areas of life: winemakers in their twenties and thirties, who hope to establish good careers, realize they have to do things differently from their forebears, and this they are doing: witness the explosion of serious new wines from varietals that were hardly ever planted in California before the 2000s.

In furtherance of California’s Golden Age, we’re now going into two consecutively great vintages–2012 and 2013–that will result in stellar wines. Quality is going to soar as they are released over the next 5-6 years. It’s an exciting time to be making, and drinking, wine: A Golden Age for the Golden State.


That pesky quality-price ratio: QPR reconsidered

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I suppose I can see the logic (if that’s the right word) of charging many hundreds of dollars for a wine of known provenance (Lafite, for instance). But when a new brand, right out of the gate, releases itself at triple-digit prices, some sense of justice in me is aroused to the point of disgust.

I wrote “releases itself” but that is, of course, an intransitive verb structure, the kind we writers recoil from, because nothing in this world occurs intransitively. So let me rephrase it: When a new brand is released by its owners at triple-digit prices, something in me is disgusted.

I could choose from among any number of Napa Valley wines to illustrate my point, but since I have to live, and get along, with these people, it’s probably a better idea for me to turn abroad. To Australia, in this case, where the new Thousand Candles winery has released a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, both at the price of $110 U.S.

The winemaker, William Downie, told Bloomberg News’ Elin McCoy about “the surprising backstory” (McCoy’s words) concerning the wines’ “true expression of the site” (we’ve heard that before). “I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I?” Downie said. (Never mind that Thousand Candles’ owner is anonymous, and Downie didn’t disclose his/her identity; what kind of “story-telling” is that?)

Downie did admit to McCoy that “We have been accused of hubris,” referring to the controversy that gripped the Australian wine scene when the wines’ prices were revealed. Indeed, Qantas Airlines’ online web site said “No inaugural wine release was more controversial than that of Thousand Candles…”. (I should add that I have not tasted the wines, nor has anyone at Wine Enthusiast, yet.) Such reviews of them as I’ve found online have been mainly positive. Most emphasize the wines’ uniqueness, and that may well be true.

There are certainly arguments supportive of releasing some new brands at high prices. One is the pedigree of their creators; indeed, this is generally the most-used rationale. Such-and-such a famous viticulturalist and winemaker is involved; such-and-such great terroir: these usually are the prime justifications. In the case of Thousand Candles, there seems also to be a desire, on the part of the winemaker at any rate, to reassure the world that Australia, despite its well-publicized woes, is capable of producing top tier wines. Now this gets us into the through-the-looking glass world of perceptions: If a wine costs that much money, surely it must be good!

We know, from studies and through anecdotal evidence, that the tendency of the consumer to believe that price and quality are related is practically hard-wired into the brain. I don’t quite understand what the evolutionary value of such reasoning is; perhaps someone can explain it to me. But it’s a powerful driver; even if you intellectually understand that price and quality aren’t that tightly connected, a high price has an emotional impact on most people that’s makes it hard for them to reasonably dismiss it. Look at art: if it’s a scribbled daub on the bulletin board at a local school, it’s considered minor. Put it in a fancy frame, in a museum, and suddenly connoisseurs are willing to pay millions for it.

There’s something else going on with these super-expensive wines that also touches in on human psychology. It’s the feeling that, even if you taste the wine and don’t particularly care for it, there must be something in you that’s missing in action, not something in the wine. If you tasted a Two Buck Chuck and thought it was a thin disappointment, you wouldn’t give it a second thought: It’s just a cheap wine that doesn’t deserve to have you lavish time and energy trying to understand it.

But a $110 wine is somehow different. Consider this review of Thousand Candles, from the Wine Will Eat Itself blog. The writer, Jeremy Pringle, is trying very hard (it seems to me) to be fair and objective in his assessment, for which I give him credit. He doesn’t robotically fall into line worshiping the wine, just because it’s expensive. Instead, he revisits it, thinks about it (a lot), considers the opinions of its critics, doubts himself, and retastes–these all are admirable qualities for a wine critic to possess. In the end, he writes, while the wine may not immediately dazzle (“Those who criticize this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on”), he concludes that “it is a cerebral wine…best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate.”

I understand where he’s going…kind of. But why would you give a wine so much power over you, if your first impression of it is “Meh”? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s expensive, because it has a “surprising backstory,” because the chattering classes are all mumbling about it, and because you, as a wine writer, don’t want people to think you’re not “up” on the latest important developments. So you give that wine extra consideration–extra time in the glass–extra thought. You want to find great stuff in there, so you look, and look, and look, and talk and talk about it, and suddenly, Voila! There it finally is: great stuff.

Well, this of course is precisely the reason to taste blind. But I am not ignorant of the fact that there’s a huge other side to this debate, and that is, as Pringle writes, “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Evidently, tasting Thousand Candles requires context. Does tasting Lafite require context? Does Harlan Estate require context? Does an Arrowood Cabernet require context? Does Two Buck Chuck require context? Where is the line? How does the critic determine which wines require context, and which can be summarily dismissed?

Good questions; no good answers.


Who makes the best wine critics, supertasters or the rest of us?

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Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about so-called “supertasters” — men and (more frequently, women) with more than the usual quantity of tastebuds in their mouths that makes them unusually sensitive to flavors.

supertaster

The term had been coined by a Yale professor, Linda Bartoshuk, who in 2004 vividly illustrated the difference between super- and regular tasters with this metaphor: “Supertasters…live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters [sic] are in a ‘pastel world.’”

I remember at the time feeling slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t a supertaster. For some reason, I developed the feeling that being a supertaster made one a better wine critic. For example, Robert Parker was said to be able to identify wines double-blind, surely the mark of a supertaster. And Jim Laube’s well-known sensitivity to TCA, which suggested supertasting abilities on his part, was enough to bring wineries to their knees.

I, by contrast, had to be content with a palate that was, at best, no better, if no worse, than everyone else’s. It caused me some moments of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be telling people what wine tasted like, if I didn’t even have a super-palate?

All this was brought up again last Saturday night when I had dinner with old friends, one of whom is a supertaster. I knew she wasn’t a big fan of seafood, but during the course of our meal, her other food antipathies emerged. Rosemary, for example: she can’t bear it beyond a miniscule amount, because it overwhelms everything else in the food. Frankly, my friend confided, being a supertaster isn’t a blessing: it’s a curse. In fact, she added, that’s why she decided not to become a wine writer. (Her work is in a separate field of the wine industry.) She’s so extraordinarily sensitive to everything that she figured she could never be objective.

Well, that cast things in a different light for me. Maybe, I figured, it’s not so good after all to be a supertaster. So I Googled up the term and found a whole bunch of suggestions that supertasting ability can indeed be a drag.

For example, here, from Yale Scientific (Bartoshuk’s own university), the professor says supertasters are “also super-perceivers of…the burning sensation of…ethanol [the alcohol in wine],” which causes them “oral pain [and a] burning sensation.”

That, surely, must be a handicap, if not an outright bias, for  a wine critic, especially of California wine.

The British publication, The Guardian, addressed the issue squarely on when it wrote, “It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry.” The website How Stuff Works amplified on this theme: “Usually, it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing. But a heightened sense of taste, no matter how delicious it might sound, is really no joy.” Since everything is amplified, sensations like the pepperiness of a Syrah can be overwhelming. Slate Magazine, asking “whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine,” concluded that “being a nontaster [i.e. regular taster] was not the career death sentence [for a critic] it appeared to be. For another, being a supertaster turned out to be not nearly as good as it sounded; in fact, to the degree that it matters at all, it is probably more of a liability for a wine critic than an asset.” [Bold face mine] The “flavor of alcohol…astringency and acidity…spiciness [and] bitterness” that characterizes so many wines “may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.”

Well, I’m ready to buy into Slate’s suggestion that “being a supertaster is no blessing when it comes to wine.” But it does make me wonder to what extent the modern wine style (often called Parkerised) of exceptional ripeness, fruitiness, softness and sweet oakiness is the result of the domination by supertasters of the wine criticism business over the past 25 years.


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