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Earthquake rattles nerves, causes extensive damage in Napa area

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The shaking woke me up at exactly 3:19 a.m. early Sunday morning. It woke Gus up, too. I’ve been awakened many times in the middle of the night by earthquakes but Gus never was. The last several years have been remarkably quiet in the Bay Area, enough so that I’ve had several conversations lately about how “overdue” we seemed to be. The thinking is that small quakes act as a pressure valve to release seismic energies building up underground, so if there aren’t small quakes for a while, you end up with a big one.

Of course, yesterday’s 6.1 on the West Napa Fault wasn’t “the Big One.” Neither for that matter was 1989’s Loma Prieta, which was 6.9 magnitude. But it was still a big earthquake. It lasted for a long time, too. As I held onto Gus—who was freaking out—in the bed, I kept thinking it has to stop soon, because they always do. Loma Prieta, for example, was only 8-15 seconds long, depending on where you were. This one—which I don’t think the USGS has named yet—lasted for what seemed like at least 30 seconds in Oakland, which is an eternity when everything is rocking and rolling. A neighbor told me he’d heard it was 50 seconds long, although I can’t verify that. It was a very noisy event, too; everything in my place was jangling and rattling, although nothing fell down or over, and  strangely, no car alarms went off in my neighborhood.

As soon as the shaking stopped I took Gus and ran over to my computer. Went to the USGS “Latest Earthquakes” website, but it wasn’t even up yet. Then went to their “Did You Feel It?” site, where you can report your own experiences and also see the reports of others. This information is important for USGS to compile “shake maps.” I must have been one of the first to report it, because I didn’t see any other reports, but within minutes other reports popped up, from all over the Bay Area but especially in the East and North Bays. Then I went to Twitter—this was still within minutes of the event—and tweeted. I didn’t see any other tweets. Now, of course, as I write this (Sunday afternoon), #napaquake and #earthquake are the top two San Francisco trending topics. Number three is American Canyon.

AmCan is where lots of wineries store their wines, in the warehouses that line the west side of Highway 29. I suspect reports will slowly filter in over the next few days concerning the extent of the damage. I’ve also heard, at this time, of fairly significant damage at Trefethen, in the Oak Knoll Distrist, and at Sebastiani, which is way over in Sonoma Valley. I’m worried about Jackson Family’s own Carneros Hills Winery, right off the Carneros Highway, which itself suffered fairly significant damage in the way of huge cracks in the asphalt. The Napa Airport, as I write, reportedly is shut down because the control tower was badly damaged. And then there’s downtown Napa. What a mess. Poor little downtown, with its old brick and masonry buildings. They’re the first to topple, as they did in the 2003 Paso Robles earthquake, which killed several people. Fortunately, no one in this earthquake has been reported dead, although scores of people were injured, some seriously. Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in the region. And CNN just reported that initial estimates of damage could run to $1 billion.

We live in earthquake country here in coastal California, that’s for sure. Just in case we ever forget it, something like yesterday happens to remind us. I myself live just about on top of the fault the USGS calls the most dangerous in California, the Hayward Fault. Hayward is the city just south of Oakland. It last ruptured in a big way in 1868; the periodicity is said to be every 120 years. Do the math. A 7.0 on the Northern Hayward would pretty much take out Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward and parts of Silicon Valley. This is a major fear on the part of elected officials; the most they can do is warn us to “get ready for it,” whatever that means. I suppose having an earthquake kit makes sense—some water, canned food (don’t forget the can opener), first aid kit—but what good will that do if your building falls down around you?

I wish all the people in the North Bay and Napa Valley good luck in your recovery efforts. Napa will bounce back, as Paso Robles did. Things could have been a lot worse yesterday, so let’s count our blessings and clean up. Here’s the link to the Napa Valley Vintners earthquake update page, which they promise to update on an as-needed basis. there’s also this Help Needed forum from wineindustryinsight.com.


When it’s time to kiill off a brand

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When is it time to retire a tired brand?

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Procter & Gamble is thinking of dropping one of its flagship brands, Ivory Soap, as part of an effort “to clear out weaker performers to focus on…brands that account for almost all its revenue and profit.”

Ivory Soap’s ads were a part of every Baby Boomer’s life.

Ivory

Who could forget the T.V. announcer telling us “it’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure”? The first Ivory T.V. commercial aired in 1939, on a Cincinatti Reds-Brooklyn Dodgers game, just 5 months after television was introduced in the U.S. By the 1950s, Ivory was a sponsor of soap operas, like The Guiding Light (I still remember my Grandma Rose faithfully watching it every afternoon). In the mid-1970s, Ivory made advertising history by sponsoring the “Nominate the Ivory Girl” contest; we see wineries today doing similar things.

So why would P&G kill the brand off? “Marginal or underperforming brands collectively are holding back the company, which needs to be more nimble in a competitive environment,” says the WSJ, noting that Ivory’s share of the U.S. bar soap market has dropped to 3.4%, down nearly 20% from ten years ago.

No doubt company execs feel a strong bond for Ivory, which “got P&G into the magic of branding.” But no management team can afford to keep a dying brand on life support forever. So how does a company know when it’s time to pull the plug?

That brands come and go is no secret. Ever hear of these wineries: Monte Vista, Old Madrid, Mancuso, Garrett & Co., Colton, Poway, Scatena Bros.? All were thriving 70 years ago; now, all gone, alas. Why? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s maxim suggests that the demise of each winery or brand is due to its own peculiar causes; but we can generalize about them all and say they failed to keep up with the times.

You can tell when a winery’s failing to keep up with the times by looking at who it sells wine to, especially through its club. Are its customers all “of a certain age”? If they are, the winery has one foot in the grave, literally. This is why wineries are so interested in reaching out to Millennials. At least, they’ll be around for a while.

Actually, the analogy to “pulling the plug” is apt for this reason: How do you know when it’s actually time to do it? This can be an unbelievably difficult decision for a wine company trying to figure out what to do with an underperforming brand. Ownership may have a lot of time, experience and love invested in the brand; there’s always the chance that things can be turned around with the right marketing and sales plan. One doesn’t want to act precipitously: once you’ve killed a brand, it ain’t ever coming back.

I think I know some brands out there in California that won’t be around ten years from now. I could be wrong: there are brands I thought were moribund in 2000 that are still alive. Anyhow—have a great weekend!


The changing approaches to wine writing

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I don’t think wine tasting notes are in “big trouble,” as this op-ed piece by Lewis Perdue suggests, but Lewis is correct to point out their inherent subjectivity and overall fuzziness. He’s hardly the first: People have complained about winespeak for generations. “Hocus-pocus,” “the double brusheroo” [love that] and “trying to make things complex and involved” were just a few of the accusations leveled against wine writers by Mary Frost Mabon, in her 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines. Forty-six years later, the British writer Andrew Barr, commenting (in his book, Wine Snobbery) on such descriptions of wine as “strawberry ice cream,” “browned rice pudding,” “baked bananas” and “old-fashioned sweet peas…stewed in butter,” said such descriptions “merely serve to increase wine snobbery.”

Lewis, in his piece, reaches to Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends on what the meaning of is, is,” to suggest how puzzling it can be for wine consumers to make sense of winespeak. He very properly points out all the reasons, genetic and environmental, why different people experience things differently on a sensory level (or at least describe them differently). But he doesn’t entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater by calling for the elimination of wine writing. He allows that “wine writing is hard.” He is aware of the “vocabulary crisis” we writers often experience: “the similarity of [so] many wines” poses the risk of every review sounding like every other review. And certainly this is an ongoing problem: when he talks about the “thesaurus writer,” I had to giggle; next to my desk is not one but two thesauruses (thesauri?), as well as dictionary. Many are the times I sought a synonym for some adjective or verb, because I’d been over-using it.

To the extent there’s a problem (and if enough people complain, then there is), what’s the solution? Assuming we want to keep wine writing in some form (we do, don’t we?), there are two alternatives: One, which we might call the “full scale ahead” approach, is suggested by Lewis: Nailing down a specific taste or smell to an analogous real-world object requires good writing, astute perception and the ability to summon the right word.” This approach implies that there are objectively correct ways to describe wine: the successful writer simply (or not so simply) has to muscle through the mist and find the precise formula. This is certainly the rather flamboyant approach taken by many modern wine writers. Oz Clarke hews this way better than most: witness his descriptions of some of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs: “more damsons in 1989, more raspberries and blackberries in ’88, more plum skins and fresh pepper in ’87.” And: “violets in 1989, …a favored kid glove thrown down on a dressing table in the ’88, toastier, deeper, becoming husky-voiced, dark and stately in the ’87…”. [Love that, too, especially while Lauren Bacall is still on my mind.]

On the other hand is the “less is more” school that prefers to hint rather than elaborate. No one is more understated than Harry Waugh. Here he is on a Freemark Abbey 1970 Cabernet Bosche, which he tasted during a visit to California in 1972 (and this is a fairly long review for him): “With this wine there has been blended 10% of Barney Rhodes’ 1970 Merlot. What a color and what a fabulous bouquet. A beautiful dark color with a fabulous Cabernet bouquet. A splendid powerful wine which will certainly make a great bottle.” No blackberries, no black currants or cassis, no fribble-frabble about “kid gloves” or “husky voices,” no window of drinkability, just Harry’s immediate, visceral reaction: Me likee.

The two approaches are as different as can be. Harry’s—the “less is more” style—for all its elegance and brevity is, I think, on the way out, if not already dead. Parker pounded the nails into that coffin. Which leaves us with the “full scale ahead” school. See you tomorrow.


A new winery P.R. website is born

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This is pretty cool—a new blog that addresses the practice of wine public relations, wine media trends, marketing ethics and news commentary.”

Lots of blogs, including mine, have written stuff over the years on these topics, but I don’t know of any blog that is solely dedicated to them. The creators, Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur, call their site SWIG.

I’m sure it will be a success, especially if Tom and Julie Ann—both old friends of mine—keep it free. It’s not clear to me how often they’ll post, or if they view SWIG as a vehicle to drive paying customers to their own, separate public relations firms. Nonetheless, P.R. is a subject of importance and ongoing interest to winery principals—as well it should be—and so SWIG will probably be eagerly read. (Besides, as we all know, Tom is an entrepreneur who knows how to successfully start things up!)

I do want to comment on something Tom wrote on their website. “There is a body of knowledge which guides all publicists, regardless of industry, as well as there being a body of knowledge that guides wine publicists specifically. The intersection of these two bodies is what Julie Ann and I had in mind to explore here at SWIG.”

This is true, as far as it goes; but what interests me is where winery communications is going, as opposed to where it’s been—and believe me, it’s going someplace it hasn’t been before. For that matter, so is the entire wine industry; the two are interrelated. For it seems to me that we are leaving, if we haven’t already left, the “classical” era of winery P.R. and are chugging along into one that—as with all futures—we see only “through a glass, darkly.”

Tom has it exactly right when he states “The Number One Golden Truth of Wine Public and Media Relations [is] YOU MUST ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” In past “classic” times, this wasn’t always appreciated by the crafters of publicity messages. Back then, advertisers felt free to lie, knowing that no public agency or consumer outrage would check them. This 1930 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes actually had the nerve to suggest that smoking was good for your throat and lungs!

LuckyStrike

 

Tom’s claim notwithstanding, not all wineries always tell the truth. There are lies of commission, and lies of omission; you can’t know what you don’t know, and wineries sometimes don’t want you to know all the stuff they do (like adding mega-purple, or blending in Central Valley grapes, or putting a little Syrah into that nice Pinot Noir, or soaking the Chardonnay in wood chips, or reducing the alcohol by technical gizmos).

But in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to keep anything secret, so wineries are better off figuring out how to be completely candid, even when it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. You can always turn a lemon into lemonade, as Dear Abby used to say.

However, the bigger questions remain: Why does a winery need a P.R. and communications firm? If they can’t do the job themselves, how should they choose an outside firm? How can they measure the return on investment they pay to the outside firm? Answered in reverse order, it can be awfully hard for a winery proprietor to tell if his P.R. firm is worth it. The P.R. people will tell him it takes time for plans to achieve fruition, which is true; they say, also, that some of their results aren’t measurable, which also is true. This is why some wineries remain locked into unholy matrimony with P.R. companies for years, yoked to firms that are not helping them. It’s also why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wineries will peremptorily fire a very good P.R. firm that actually is advancing their cause: they get nervous, or their brother-in-law tells them he has a better firm, and so the pink slips go out. (Do firing managers still give out pink slips, or am I dating myself?)

How a winery should go about choosing an outside firm is one of the biggest decisions they’ll make, and also one of the most difficult. If I was a winery, I’d ask my successful friends, who represents you and how are they doing? But I’d also apply good, old-fashioned common sense: Do you like the firm’s owners? Do they seem honest, up-to-date, familiar with digital communications and social media? Or are they stuck in anachronistic approaches? Finally, why does a winery need a P.R. firm? It’s all about communication, stupid! The days are long gone when a winery proprietor could sit alone, in splendid isolation, and think that his wine will go out there and sell itself. That used to be true, in certain circumstances and to a certain extent: for example, wineries that were located on well-traveled tourism routes could depend on an influx of visitors who would buy the wine, even if it was horrible. That’s increasingly hard to do, as consumer’s palates are educated. And some wineries coast on their reputations for years, depending on their old customers to continue buying them. But guess what? Old customers die.

Finally, I’d say that the relationship between a winery and it’s P.R. firm cannot be one based only on occasional exchanges. It’s all about intense teamwork these days: neither side—winery or P.R. firm—can generate the best ideas, but only both sides working together, so that brains can rub against each other, causing sparks of imagination and creativity that are geared toward the winery’s specific needs and talents. The winery that blithely accepts from its P.R. firm a template with a boilerplate approach is asking for trouble.

Anyhow, like I said, I’m sure Tom’s and Julie Ann’s new venture will be a success. I wish them good luck, and I’ll be reading SWIG (and often commenting on it) whenever they post.


A winery digicom manager on his job

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Mark Gordon is senior digital communications manager for La Crema Winery. He oversees all digital media outreach for the company’s various brands, including social media, blogs, and web development and design. He’s also my colleague. I interviewed the 46-year old recently in Healdsburg and began with a tough question.

SH: Aren’t you too old to really “get” social media?

MG: I’ve been involved in the web since its infancy. What you tend to find after a while is what goes around comes around. Something that’s being touted as new and innovative is something most likely that’s been done before. A case in point would be Facebook. It’s AOL done right–an evolution of that. And I bring a varied background. I cut my teeth in journalism, back when cutting-and-pasting was actually cutting and pasting things! So having a good foundation in writing, wordsmithing and knowing the basics of journalism helps on digital, because it all comes out in storytelling.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is social media to a winery?

I’d say that social media is probably an eight. But marketing yourself digitally is a ten. By that, I mean social media is a tactic, but there are other tactics out there as well. The key is in finding the right blend that resonates with whom you’re trying to attract as a consumer.

What social media channels do you work with?

All the usual social media suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. That’s where we play the most, as far as social’s concerned. All those channels are designed to drive people towards our own properties, particularly those that have blogs, where we can tell more long-form storytelling and deliver more meaningful messages. Pulling that circle out a little wider, I’d say then you talk about sites where link-sharing is important: StumbleUpon, or reddit, or some of the “food porn” sharing sites, like foodgawker. And then another circle is getting relationships going on with other influential publishers, so your message can be carried outside your sphere of influence.

One year, MySpace is big; the next, no one uses it. How do you stay on top of social media’s fast evolution?

Agility. As a digital strategist, the important thing is to look in your crystal ball and see where you think things are trending. I mean, Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling.

What is the role of wine bloggers?

Wine bloggers are in the mix. They can be influencers, people who can help carry a message on behalf of a brand. For us, one of the most important things for wine bloggers is obviously that earned hit.

What does that mean?

“Earned media” means a blogger writes about one of our brands in a manner in which they’re not paid for their work. So we get them samples, or it happens completely organically that they review one of our wines, and that’s a super-valuable thing for us as a company to have those impressions out there on the web.

What about paid wine bloggers?

We call it “influencer outreach.” It’s identifying folks who resonate with our core consumer, and finding ways to work with them. In some cases, it may be something where we pay them as essentially a journalist for hire, to not only write stories on our behalf on their blog, but through other channels. If they have a big following on Pinterest, maybe we do something with them. If they’re influential on Facebook, maybe we ask them to post on our behalf.

Is that all transparent?

It is transparent. The Federal Trade Commission now requires any sort of paid content marketing to be disclosed. So all the folks we work with disclose that.

La Crema just launched, with your help, Virtual Vintner last Monday. What is that?

Virtual Vintner is a crowd-sourcing platform where we’re tasking members of our community and people who are enthusiastic about wine and winemaking techniques to help us craft, from grape to glass, the next La Crema wine. We start off with the decision that will set the course for this adventure, which is whether you want to make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. And from there, it becomes a choose-your-adventure style program. At each step of the journey, we’re not only asking folks to make decisions, we’re giving them the tools they need to make a decision that resonates best with what their personal tastes are, and educating them on the process of winemaking.

How long does the contest last?

We don’t consider it a “contest.” There are contest elements within it, but it truly is an interactive journey. Within that map of different elements—the varietal, the region, the vineyard, the barrels and so forth–we’ll ask people to make a series of choices.

Will there be winners?

Over the various stages, every time you vote, you’re entered in a sweepstakes, and the winner of that particular sweepstakes will come out to Sonoma County for a one-on-one at La Crema, to meet with winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, maybe get to do some barrel sampling.

So they get a nice vacation!

They get a nice vacation, yeah. And there will be other “contests” as well. Once we get the wine into barrel, Virtual Vintner will have a flavor-describing contest, where participants will have this ability to assume what the tasting profile on that wine might be. They’ll write up a series of tasting notes, and whoever comes closest to what our expert panel determines the flavors to be, will win another prize.

How can people learn more about Virtual Vintner?

You can go to LaCrema.com, or directly you can go to vv.lacrema.com.


Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.


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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