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Let’s not make wine more complicated than it already is

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In the immortal words of Vince “Buzzsaw” Kosciuszko:

Now that I’m retired

I can’t get fired!

So I feel free to express my REAL opinions on wine stuff. There’s a video going around Facebook that I disagree with, even though it portrays a lot of heavyweights who, IMHO, are simply wrong. (They include Phillippe Melka, Andrea Robinson, Bo Barrett, David Breitstein and others.)

The video apparently was first posted by Karen MacNeil, although she didn’t create it. I got it on my Facebook feed via Paul Mabray, with whom I’m friends. The video’s central message is that wine goes through ups and downs, “ebbs and flows” over time after it’s bottled. A major “down” or ebb” is “the dumb phase,” which Andrea calls “one of the deepest valleys a wine can stumble into.” Melka adds that, in such a dumb phase, “The wine totally loses harmony.” “Blank, disheveled, like the whole core of the wine is gone,” Karen MacNeil chimes in, comparing it to “a really bad hair day.”

Andrea explains why ordinary consumers should care. “As the wine lover, the big problem is, you don’t know when that’s going to happen.

The video is cleverly done—high production values, as they say. No wonder: It was created by Partners 2 Media, a Yountville-based media production firm (although it’s not clear to me who paid for the video, or why it was made, or who was paid to be in it, if anyone, all of which would be nice to know). After I watched it, I felt compelled to make this comment on Facebook:

This is essentially marketing bullshit from winemakers. It’s an excuse they tell when their wine doesn’t taste good, or when somebody doesn’t like it. “Blame it on the dumb phase, not the wine.” Well, sorry. A good wine is always going to be good at any age. Besides, this kind of nonsense just makes consumers even more confused than they already are. This is a really stupid and misleading video.

Bo Barrett actually has been talking about “the dumb phase” for decades (he might also have called it “the dip”). I remember him explaining it to me way back when I was at Wine Spectator. He said that, in his case, it applied specifically to Chateau Montelena’s Estate Cabernet, which (if I remember correctly) he said starts out really fresh and delicious (I agree), then slips into “the dumb phase” at about the age of 4 or 5, only to re-emerge some years later, and then plateau for a long time. I took, and take, Bo at his word: surely he knows his own wines better than I, or anyone.

But after my long professional career, I’ve come to regard certain statements about wine as problematic, and this is one of them. As I noted (and as Andrea says), the trouble is that the consumer not only doesn’t know when the wine is going to turn “dumb,” the consumer isn’t even in a position to know if the wine is “dumb.” If the consumer finds the wine too austere, or reserved, or tannic or just plain mehhh, how does it help her to have the idea in her head of “a dumb phase”? This is why I said this just makes consumers more confused than they already are. The implication of “a dumb phase” is that the wine just needs more time in the bottle and all will be well. But how much more time? What can the consumer reasonably expect in another three, six, ten years? If she tries it again and still doesn’t like it, does that mean it’s still in a dumb phase? Or is it just not a particularly interesting wine for her?

The oddest thing about the video is the star commenters telling us that even though the wine may taste awful, it’s actually pretty good. “There’s nothing wrong with the wine,” says Karen. Bo adds, “The consumer should know that the wine tastes fine. It just doesn’t have the aroma.” How can the wine have “nothing wrong with it,” how can it “taste fine” while it simultaneously “totally loses harmony” and “the whole core is gone”? This bizarre incongruity goes unexplained.

As a critic, my ambition was to liberate consumers from the onus of confusing and misleading beliefs about wine, which have been, and continue to be, so harmful to the industry. Consumers should not have to worry that, if they don’t like a wine, it’s because they’re not drinking it at the right time, or they don’t know how to understand it. That just makes them feel insecure. Having said that, I do realize that the wines this video is talking about are the one percent of all production that’s expensive and might benefit from time in the cellar. Still, I feel like a better message would have been the one I’ve consistently given: A good wine will taste good at any stage of its life (except, obviously, if it’s too old or hasn’t been stored well). You can open and appreciate a good wine anytime you want. Even the experts will disagree over when a bottle is ready to drink. It’s all subjective. We should tell consumers who buy these expensive wines (if they don’t already know, and they should), “Different people will like this wine at different points in its life. Some people prefer older wines, some don’t. Besides, all bottles age differently. It’s a crap shoot at best. A good red wine, like Chateau Montelena, should reasonably be excellent for the first eight or ten years of its life. After that, it’s all about personal preference.” In other words, no confusing stuff about “dumb phases.”

  1. Steve, I’ll have to disagree with you on this, at least in part. I have (rarely) encountered wines that appeared to go through a “dumb phase;” a bottle might be fine early on, but then a year or 2 later it wasn’t (but not corked), at which point I put the rest away for a few years. As I said, that’s been very rare, and made rarer by the fact that I rarely buy quantities of any particular wine for aging.
    And I do totally agree with you on this:
    “The oddest thing about the video is the star commenters telling us that even though the wine may taste awful, it’s actually pretty good. “There’s nothing wrong with the wine,” says Karen. Bo adds, “The consumer should know that the wine tastes fine. It just doesn’t have the aroma.” How can the wine have “nothing wrong with it,” how can it “taste fine” while it simultaneously “totally loses harmony” and “the whole core is gone”? This bizarre incongruity goes unexplained.”

  2. “Now that I’m retired
    I can’t get fired!
    So I feel free to express my REAL opinions on wine stuff.”

    Are you suggested that your previous wine commentary was influenced by previous employers??

  3. Is it really controversial that some wines go through a dumb stage? Anecdotally, I’ve seen it a bunch – especially in Rhone whites. Doubtless, you’ve seen wines extremely reserved early in their lives, only to blossom later… so why so hard to believe that a wine could shut down and reemerge later?

    Sure it’s a confusing topic and likely abused by some wineries who wines never develop any charm. But it seems a bit excessive to claim that this phenomenon doesn’t exist.

  4. Carlos De Toledo says:

    Dishonest wine producers and merchants are specialist at invoking the ‘dumb phase’ clause for very expensive flashy wines bought by the unaware neo-millionaires from emerging countries.

    Italian winemakers are masters of the universe on the subject. Any $ 300 bottle that doesn’t take good enough (most don’t) isn’t ‘ready yet’. Wait 15 more years, they say. Normally these wines come from very new appellations or have vague names (such as supertoscanni).

    Agree completely that a good wine is good at any point in time…and that it’ll only improve if properly cellared, but it’ll never be dull, bland.

  5. Blake Gray wrote an insightful article for the Los Angeles Times “Food” section on why you want to decant a bottle of wine: to blow off the sulphur products that mask the underlying fruit aromas.

    Quote:

    “The word ‘closed’ does not have a physical meaning for sensory testing,” says Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-wineair6-2009may06-story.html

    If you have a case of wine, you are looking at potentially twelve different wine drinking experiences.

    A bottle that “doesn’t taste quite right” and falls short of your previous drinking experience could be suffering from a matrix of maladies.

    One is cork taint. A few years ago, the Wine Spectator reported (as memory serves) that upwards of 8% of all bottles they sampled for review were “corked.” That can account for one disappointing bottle in your 12-bottle case.

    A second explanation is a cork’s failure to keep its seal, leading to premature oxidation. The percentage of bottles affected within a 12-bottle case is unknowable.

    A third explanation is whether the wine is blended prior to bottling. Some vintners don’t create one master blend — they bottle from discrete barrels. Those barrels may represent different plots of land picked on different days, from a different “field blend” mix of grape varietals . . . producing different bottles of wine within your 12-bottle case.

    A fourth explanation is brett affecting one or more of those discrete barrels . . . producing different bottles of wine within your 12-bottle case.

    A fifth explanation is premature oxidation (pre-mox). First observed in older white Burgundies, more recent research as reported in Decanter magazine finds “super-ripe, oaky, low-acid reds” are also at risk. (Example: 2003 red Bordeaux.)

    And this sixth explanation: maybe its your palate that is temporarily “off” its game, and not the wine itself?

  6. I have cited two different examples of premature oxidation: from the cork failing, and from “super-ripe, oaky, low-acid reds.”

    For the second example See this Decanter article:

    http://www.decanter.com/features/premox-has-the-crisis-moved-to-red-wine-245696/

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