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The wine critic as “god”

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“Proof by ethos” is a term from Artistotle, referring to a method of persuasion, by appealing to a speaker’s authority and credibility. In science, according to a recent paper [more on this later], it refers to a situation in which “a scientist’s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s calculations or results for granted. In other words, nobody questions the validity of that scientist’s claim because of the particular ethos that is associated with that person.”

It is thus more or less identical to the more familiar Latin term, argumentum ad verecundiam, or “argument from authority,” which is often cited as a major potential fallacy in argument: One cites an “authority” to prove one’s position, but in that particular case the so-called “authority” is wrong, so the person citing him also is wrong.

Both concepts—“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority”—are natural to humans. None of us can know everything; we need to trust others to inform us about things we don’t know, or don’t understand sufficiently. It is, in fact, one of the glories of humankind that we are social and trusting enough to turn to the advice of others, sometimes for things that impact our very lives, on the very fragile basis of belief. So“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority” are not bad in themselves. But they must be taken in context: if the “high status authority” we listen to is mistaken, or deliberately misleading, all kinds of bad consequences may ensue.

The recent scientific paper I referred to, concerning the age of the Earth, points out how easy it is even for trained academicians to succumb to the perils of “proof by ethos.” The famous Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, once postulated, in a lecture that was transcribed, that the center of the Earth must be younger than the Earth’s surface by “one or two days” due to the relativistic effects of gravitational time dilation.

(Read the paper yourself. You can skip over the mathematical formulae and pass from the Introduction to the Discussion and Conclusion. Fascinating, paradoxical stuff.)

However, the paper’s authors discovered, through simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, that “years” should have been substituted for “days.” The center of the Earth, that is, is one or two years younger than its surface, not one or two days. “[E]ither the lecturer [Feynman] or the transcribers had it wrong,” the authors concluded. Feynman died in 1988.

The paper’s authors decided that any of Feyman’s colleagues or even his grad students could easily have discerned Feynman’s mistake (if, indeed, it was his and not the transcribers’). That they did not, and for so many years, is a prime example of the danger of “proof by ethos.” Nobody realized that the “days” citation was wrong, because everybody implicitly trusted Feynman so much that it seemed silly to second-guess his conclusion.

We see, in wine reviewing, much this same “proof by ethos” or “argument from authority.” Substitute the words “wine critic” for “scientist” and the opening quote in this post becomes “a wine critic‘s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s [reviews] for granted.”

That’s how it works, isn’t it. We’ve reached a situation in which we—the collective “we” of the wine industry and marketplace—largely accept the “truths” of the critics because, after all, “they”—the critics—possess an “ethos” that places them beyond doubt. So haloed are the critics in the glow of their own infallibility (or the infallibility we impute to them) that their pronouncements have the power of the edicts of a shaman. It is the particular quality of humans that we elevate a select few from our own midst to this priesthood. Unsure of ourselves, irresolute in how to negotiate the world, we confer high status upon them, and then lay our belief at their feet. Only humans need gods. I’ve been that wizard behind the curtain, though, and I can assure you that even the critics, the high and mighty, have feet of clay, and will remain “gods” only so long as “we” so elect them.


Can you entirely eliminate subjective factors in wine tasting?

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If you’re one person, No. A single taster will always be tasting within the parameters of his limitations, e.g. he may be more or less sensitive to TCA than other tasters. He may wince at the smell of pyrazines, or find the heat from alcohol unbearable, or feel that a totally dry wine is too severe.

But how about a group? Can the dynamics of consensus solve the subjectivity dilemma?

Objective tasting has been the unicorn of the wine industry for centuries. A long time ago, it was assumed that an epicure, like Thomas Jefferson, was correct in anything he said about wine. Nowadays, in our era of mistrust of authorities, we no longer take it for granted that anyone can be the supreme expert. “Galloni might not like it, but I do,” the reasoning goes—as it should.

But sometimes, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re dealing with in a wine. Is it really balanced? Is it really dry? Is it reduced? What do we mean by “creamy” or “rich” or “spicy”? These are the kinds of things two tasters can easily disagree about, sometimes violently; but if you have a group, you can more easily arrive at a consensus. Or so the theory goes.

My own approach to these matters has been based on my experience as a wine critic. I’ve said for years that, if you’re a consumer interested in wine, then find an expert you trust, and stick with him. (And it doesn’t have to be a critic. It can be a merchant, or your sister-in-law.) In other words, find someone whose palate you relate to, and trust.

But there is something to be said for a group consensus. We’re all part of a group: the human race, and moreover, of a sub-group within it: American wine consumers. Group influence, AKA peer pressure, can be strong, especially when people are as unsure of wine as most people are. And—just to underline my point—everyone is unsure of his or her palate: not just ordinary consumers, but critics, winemakers, even, dare I say it, Master Sommeliers. Everyone seeks refuge within the safe harbor of a peer group. It’s the herd instinct that makes, for example, impalas cluster together when lions stalk the perimeter.

Whether you go with group consensus or individual reviews, is up to you. It depends on your purpose. But I do think that, if you go with the group, you should make sure your group knows what the heck they’re talking about. These crowd-sourced reviews, where anyone can weigh in no matter what their professional qualifications, are questionable to me. Does that sound anti-democratic? Pro-elitist? I guess it does. But I do think reviewers need to bring credentials to the table.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Red blends and old vines: A connection?

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I realize that the connection between the modern popularity of “red blends” and old-vine vineyards is tenuous. But I think a case can be made that not only ties them together, but presents evidence that our taste in wines is pretty much what our distant ancestors’ was. In other words, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

That red blends are huge in the marketplace is proven by IRI data. Red blends beat all varietal types in case sales over the 52-week period in America ending Feb. 21, 2016. As Lettie Teague, in the Wall Street Journal, put it, slightly more than a year ago, “domestic red blends are some of the most sought-after wines in the market today.”

In fact, so cool have red blends become that Nielsen recently called them “the craft beer of the wine category—hip, different and trending.”

But precisely why they’re so popular is less easy to analyze, it seems to me. True, as Lettie points out, red blends “are cheap and they’re easy to drink.” But so are a good many other red wines. I don’t think the fact that they’re blends influences consumers in any particular way; the consumer may not even understand what a “blend” means, as opposed to a varietal; and I’m not sure the industry has figured out a way to calibrate “coolness,” except in a retrospective way that is not particularly predictive. Besides, I bet the same consumers who buy red blends also (contrarily) believe that varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are the best red wines. So, from a consumer-psychology point of view, the explanation of the popularity of red blends is ambiguous.

Probably it’s as much a question of branding than anything else. The most popular red blends are known, not for being blends, but for their brand names; and branding, as an advertiser will tell you, is the greatest accomplishment a product can achieve. Still, one factor—connected to Lettie’s “easy to drink” comment—may be that a blend, be it red or white, can make for a more complete, wholesome wine, because a single variety on its own may contain divots—imbalances of acidity, or aromas, or flavors, or mouthfeel, or tannins, or bitternesss—that a blend can compensate for.

By this I refer to the gestalt of a wine—when the sum total of its collective parts is greater than any of the individual parts alone. But this isn’t some modern discovery of our enlightened age. Vintners appear to have long understood it, which may be why the old Italian-American immigrants to California planted their vineyards to many different varieties. This often is explained as their solution to vintage challenges: early ripeners could compensate for early rains that hurt late ripeners, and vice versa. No doubt this is true, but I think the Italian-American winemakers also knew that a mélange of varieties in the vineyard could give them richer, rounder, more complete wines.

Yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat talks about this in focusing on one particular winery, Carlisle, whose Willowside Road Vineyard was planted in 1927 (by an Italian-American) and contains at least 39 separate, distinct varieties (Carlisle’s owner, Mike Officer, had the grapes analyzed at U.C. Davis). Carlisle long has coveted these old-vine vineyards and, as the Press Democrat article notes, “he helped found the Historic Vineyard Society (historicvineyardsociety.org).” Many vintners, particularly in Sonoma and Napa counties, deserve credit for helping to preserve these antiquarian treasures. I want to mention one, Don Hartford, of Hartford Family Wines, who has been instrumental in protecting old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. This is a labor of love, but it pays off: Hartford’s vineyard-designated Zins, such as Dina’s and Fanucchi-Wood Road, obtain very high scores from the major critics.

The question of why these old vineyards can perform so spectacularly fascinates me. One explanation is that the vine roots have dug deep into the earth, encountering minerals that don’t lay near the surface. Another is that their yields are so low. A third possibility is precisely what I’ve mentioned, that they contain numerous different varieties that make for a more complex wine. Who knows? But they are treasures. If you’ve been buying the newer red blends that are popular and inexpensive in the market, you might want to search around for a harder-to-find old-vine red wine from Napa or Sonoma. It will cost you more, but it will open your eyes to the magic of some of these old-vine blends, which are among the great red wines of the world.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Another wine-rating system, this time based on 1,000 points

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Forget about arguing over the differences between 96 and 97 points. Now we can debate the finer distinctions between a score of 875 and 876. Or 943 and 944. Or 563 and 562. Whaaat?? That’s right. There’s a new wine rating kid in town, called Wine Lister, and it uses, not the familiar 100-point system, but a thousand point system.

No, this is not The Onion. How’s it work? Well, according to their website, they gather data from multiple sources “to give a truly holistic assessment of each wine,” and the reason for a 1000-point system is because Wine Lister “can actually differentiate to this level of precision [which protects] the nuance and meticulousness of the exercise.”

Well, yes, I suppose a 1000-point system can be described as more “nuanced” than a 100-point system. But really, people who believe in score inflation now have a powerful new arrow in their quiver with which to criticize numerical ratings. From their press release, Wine Lister seems to be using only three critics at this point: Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni and Bettane+Desseauve (a French-based, sort of a Wine-Searcher website).

At first consideration the notion of a 1000-point system sounds dubious. It does present us defenders of the 100-point scale a certain conundrum: after all, if the 100-point system is good, then a 1000-point system has to be better, right? Maybe even ten times better. Of course, this can lead to a logical absurdity: How about a 10,000-point system? A million-point system? You see the problem.

Of more interest to me than how many points the best system ought to have are the larger questions concerning the need for a new rating system, and the entrepreneurial aspects of Wine Lister’s owners to launch one at this time. Consumers already have many, many wine rating and reviewing sources to which to turn, both online and in print. They don’t seem to be demanding yet another one. Why does Wine Lister feel their time has come?

Well, maybe it has. Any startup is a gamble, and in the entrepreneurial world of wine reviewing, which seems to be undergoing tumultuous changes, anyone can be a winner. Antonio Galloni took a huge gamble when he quit Wine Advocate to launch Vinous, which has turned out to be such a huge success. Will Wine Lister be? I don’t know, but it has good credentials. What it has to prove is that it’s more than a simple compilation of Jancis-Antonio- Bettane+Desseauve reviews. They’re also factoring in Wine-Searcher, and there’s even an auction-value component (although most consumers won’t care about that). But beyond being a “hub of information” (from the press release), I think Wine Lister’s limitation is that wine consumers seem to want a personal connection to the recommender they listen to, which an algorithm cannot provide. I could be wrong. I’ll be following them on Twitter @Wine_Lister and we’ll see what happens.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Let’s get a new AVA for Alexander Valley’s east mountains

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Why does the Alexander Valley AVA include the mountains? It makes no sense. A “mountain” is not a “valley,” and vice versa. And yet, the Alexander Valley was given AVA status by the federal government in 1984 despite the soaring Mayacamas range that forms its eastern wall.

Even back when I was researching my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I concluded that the mountains deserved their own appellation. After all, just on the other side of the Mayacamas, the Napans had done a pretty good job of sub-appellating their peaks: Veeder, Spring and Diamond. Why, then, was the same mountain range, except on its other slope, not sub-appellated, but spooned into the nonsensical moniker of a “valley”?

When you get to 500 feet, 1,000 feet, 1,500 feet or more above the floor of the valley, you’re obviously dealing with very different terroirs. The temperature during the day is lower because, along California’s coast, you lose a degree or so with every hundred feet of altitude. During the nighttime, the temperature is generally higher at a higher altitude because of the well-known phenomenon of temperature inversion. The peaks also are usually above the fogline, which makes the solar patterns entirely different from down on the floor. The soils way up high are sparse and infertile, compared to rich alluvial dirt down below. Even the flora is distinct. Clearly, there should be a new AVA, or perhaps several, for the high Mayacamas peaks east of Geyserville and Cloverdale.

I doubt that the TTB, or the old ATF of the Treasury Department, would approve an Alexander Valley AVA today, as currently bounded. That department has evolved over the years in intelligent ways; they’ve become more discriminating in what they look for in an AVA. This is a good thing, but it naturally implies that, at least here in California, we need to take a second look at some of our more antiquarian appellations. You know I’ve long argued that Russian River Valley is in serious need of sub-appellating. I feel the same way about Santa Rita Hills. Maybe it’s even time to split Anderson Valley into Boonville, Philo and Navarro, since the Deep End is quite different from inland. But of all the miscalculated AVAs in California, none is in need of alteration as much as Alexander Valley.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms

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Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Whither Syrah? Nobody really knows, and neither do I

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There, I said it. When it comes to predictions about Syrah, it’s the blind leading the blind.

When you’ve been around this industry for a while, as I have, you hear certain memes resurrected over and over. One is “Zinfandel’s new face.” Another is “Why don’t Americans like Riesling?” Still another is some variation of “Up-and-Coming Varieties.” But perhaps the most regular is exemplified by Wines & Vines’ new blog post, “Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding Its Niche?” written by a talented writer, Andrew Adams, who’s been with W&V since 2012, and—unlike many wine writers—has actual dirt-in-the-boots winemaking experience.

Andrew was coming off a Washington State trip and so naturally had good things to say about Syrah. He struggled in his mind to understand how the Syrahs he tasted could be so good, while at the same time, Syrah sales have been tanking for years.” How can this be? It is, as the King of Siam said, a puzzlement.

We can begin explanations with the theory that Americans don’t understand what Syrah is because they’ve heard of Petite Sirah and Shiraz and can’t tell the difference. That is perfectly understandable. Most consumers are busy enough without having to understand such arcane distinctions. This suggests that the “wine industry,” whatever that is, needs to do a better job of explaining Syrah to people, but that’s easier said than done. Wine writers have tried for years, with very little success; writers have to do more, but wineries should not depend on them to solve their Syrah problems.

Gatekeepers such as sommeliers and merchants are also part of the solution, but the problem there is that, being sales-oriented, they’re not going to put much energy into pushing a variety they perceive as a poor seller. Can’t blame them for that. So, given the under-performance or under-interest of the media and gatekeeper sellers, there’s not much more than can be done.

But what of quality, you ask? Well, as Andrew correctly notes, there are fabulous Syrahs out there, not only from Washington State but California (my bailiwick). Individual wineries that have developed a reputation for Syrah will be able to sell it, but overall, I think the challenge here is that Syrah isn’t different enough from Cabernet Sauvignon for consumers to “discover” it. Cabernet is so embedded in their heads as the #1 full-bodied red table wine that it will take a gargantuan effort to make them think of Syrah as an alternative. When it comes to lighter-bodied wines, there’s no shortage: Pinot Noir is the undisputed leader, Tempranillo is coming on strong, and there are many other candidates; but Syrah is not lighter-bodied. For Big Reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is like FDR during the ‘30s and ‘40s: so dominant a force, so overwhelming, that no other candidates found the oxygen to break through.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


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