Archive for November, 2009

Crying uncle

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Once more, I allowed myself the masochistic enjoyment of entering into a debate about wine evaluations and ratings. Each time I get into one of these debates is always scheduled to be my last, but for some reason I can’t stay away. It’s possible that I am guilty of the identical trait that I level against wine critics: hubris.

This is the issue in a nutshell: wine critics claim generally that experience is far more important than knowledge; I claim that without knowledge, experience is only as important as the lessons learned from it.

What critics mean is that if you have many years of experience tasting and consuming wine, then you have enough information to make quality assessments concerning wine.

My claim is that in order to assess quality you first need established standards and then you need to be trained in identifying them. It’s simply not enough to have been tasting wine for some time.

About tasting wine, most critics claim to taste wine blind, but do they?

Sure, most reputable critics taste wine without knowing who produced it, but they also taste the wine knowing what it is: a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, etc. That’s hardly a blind tasting.

Perception often gets in the way of an assessment. If you know you are tasting Chardonnay your brain will seek those traits in a Chardonnay that you have come to know through experience, but your brain may also overlook those traits in the wine that detract from its varietal characteristics—or, your brain may simply fabricate the traits that it expects should be there but may not be there.

We taste with our senses, but we make decisions with our brain.

Remove advance perception (hints) and people’s tastes mechanisms become confused. The trained, knowledgeable taster picks up the hints on his or her own. If you can’t find Chardonnay traits in the wine, it’s either you or the wine at fault; there are ways to find out which.

The other problem with wine criticism is its insistence on working from a purely subjective base and then passing it off on the consumer as if it were an objective result—in the form of a score. When you look into the scoring system and what each number means you find that the numbers are tied to vague concepts of quality that cannot be duplicated consistently among tasters. This situation is tested when a truly blind tasting includes multiple tastes of the same wine yet produces a wide variance in results.

The reason for this problem is that assigning a number to a concept says absolutely nothing about the thing being evaluated. The emphasis is on the person doing the evaluation.

I both blame and understand the wine industry for the situation in wine criticism. On one hand, the industry hasn’t decided definitively what constitutes wine quality or if it has, it doesn’t seem to be telling anyone. On the other hand, having a volume of favorable opinions floating around has opened up a marketing tool for wineries (many critics no longer report on the wines that they hate).

Whenever these debates get going, someone is sure to say that if I were to win the argument, I’d be taking the soul and enjoyment out of wine by making the quality assessment technical. It’s a specious and diversionary accusation. Critics can’t have it both ways: are wine evaluations about quality or are they about enjoyment? Quality standards can be measured; enjoyment is a nebulous concept that changes from person to person.

If wine critics care about credibility then they should gladly embrace establishing a universal evaluation system instead of a calibrate-to-my-fabulous-palate system.

Still, I’m so overwhelmed by this subject and my inability to persuade the critics that I have decided to join them. That’s right: I’m crying uncle and becoming a wine critic, and here’s my system.

First, noticing that wine rating systems have inflated over the decades anywhere from a 10 to a 100 point scale, I’ve devised the ultimate scale: 200 points.

Second, since I already know that I am evaluating wine, and every wine that I evaluate will claim to be wine, in my system every wine starts with 100 points for being what it says it is.

Third, my system is so simplified that you the consumer don’t even have to wonder about my talent, experience, knowledge or anything else. If I don’t like a wine, it receives 101 points. If I like it, it receives 200 points—end of story.

If you agree with my score, then we are calibrated.

If you don’t agree with my score, what’s wrong with you? This stuff is quality.

Geez, wake up fellah! Have you as much experience as I have?

Happy Thanksgiving—I’ll return soon after this holiday fades into the past.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Shoched, shocked!

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Patient: “Doctor, doctor, Claude Rains is in my brains or at least one of his characters is. All day long for the past week my mind has repeated over and over, ‘I’m shocked to learn that people cheat!’”

Doctor: “That’s probably because people do cheat and also because you’ve been told this over and over. When was the last time that you remember someone telling you that people cheat?”

Patient: “Hmm. All this past week.”

1. Decanter magazine reported that an Australian wine writer has written wine tasting notes without ever having tasted the wines. Skinner

2. The Wall Street Journal reported that critics and wine reviewers are just like the rest of us—none of us can accurately reproduce our own tasting notes and ratings. WSJ

3. A Rochester, NY news anchor outed a blatant attempt to pass off paid for advertising as free wine expertise. WHAM

4. The head of the Specialty Wine Retailer’s Association tells us that the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers repeat and repeat lies so that they can maintain their distribution monopoly.
Fermentation

Doctor: “Well, I can see why you might have had this recurring thought in your brain. It seems that much has been going on lately in the wine world—much crap, too.”

Patient: “Doc, it doesn’t bother me so much that there are cheats, mainly because I’ve known it and have been saying it for years to anyone who would listen. Although, I don’t call them cheats; I call it gaming the system, the system being that so many people have no security about their own palates and their own ability to seek out what they like in a wine that they have presented the charlatan class with a fantastic opening.”

Doctor: “Charlatan? Isn’t that a little strident?”

Patient: “OK, call them mountebanks instead. What should we call people who make voluble claims to skill or knowledge? Nice? Honest? Real? Friendly? Of course, there are other words to describe people paid for practicing deception…”

Doctor: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but your time is up. We’ll talk about this next time. Ok?”

Patient: “Sure. I’ve got to go anyway. I heard about a great deal on a Parker 95 that a retailer has on his shelf for a price that is too low to pass up, even if the 95 was issued for a previous vintage of that wine…”

Doctor: “Do you mean that retailers also cheat?”

Patient: “I didn’t say that. I don’t pay you to put words or anything else into my mouth.”

Doctor: “Oh, but you do. However, like a wine geek, you don’t like to face reality.”

Arguing again

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

Snowflakes

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Have you heard that every palate is a snowflake?

What a lovely sentiment; its meaning is, of course, that we have individual and unique palates.

Now aren’t we special.

Presumably, the snowflake concept tells us that wine is subjective and that what one person finds tasteful another may not. But it says even more than that. If no snowflake is alike, then the millions of wine consumers in this world account for millions of palates, and not one is like another therefore, talking about what you taste in a wine is akin to talking to yourself.

The problem with this snowflake concept is that many who say such things happen to also be people who make a living telling the rest of us what individual wines taste like or they are people who tell us what the wines they want to sell to us taste like. Really now, if every palate is a snowflake, then how can someone else’s wine description possibly benefit the rest of us?

Maybe those who tell us what to taste in a wine do so because they are endowed with a universal snowflake decoder. Or maybe at birth they were given the gift of a snowflake that represents the entire blizzard. Or maybe the snowflake sentiment is disingenuous drivel.

My suggestion to wine reviewers: please, dispense with the metaphors. If we are the individual arbiters of our own taste, through our own palates, then it seems that you have some explaining to do concerning the benefit of your wine review.

On the other hand, if you truly believe that yours is the accurate and superior snowflake—just say so. That way, we’ll know that we should disregard our own sensory information and go by yours.

If you choose this route, would you consider shedding the number ratings and just get on with the lecture?

Snowflake or no snowflake, some of us are math as well as palate impaired.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.

A True Wine Culture

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Have you heard about the drop in interest in high-end wines because of the crummy economy—you have heard about the economy?

Think about it for a minute: the economy tanks and among the things that tanks with it are sales of wines that most of us can’t afford to drink regularly. What does that say about wine and about us?

Many of us find it easy to wax romantic over the notion that Europe is a wine culture, a place where families drink wine together everyday at meals, and although there’s evidence that things are changing in Europe, the wine culture thing has been true for quite some time. But what exactly do Europeans drink everyday?

It’s doubtful that most Europeans can afford a daily dose of Petrus, Giacosa, Pesquera, or the latest in Grosse Gewächse wines. No, that’s not the everyday wines of Europe. In fact, in every European country that I have visited, the everyday wines generally come pouring out of nondescript carafes or they are each country’s version of the Italian Vino Da Tavola; in other words, comparable to an American low-priced wine.

A true wine culture doesn’t talk about it all day, as many of us do. A true wine culture doesn’t spend its time searching for Nirvana in numbers. More important, a true wine culture doesn’t flee the product at the first sign of an economic downturn. That’s because in a true wine culture, there’s always a carafe nearby of solid, healthy wine either made by your father, your friend, or the family with the vineyard and winery down the road.

In a true wine culture, you don’t need labels, you don’t need age restrictions, you don’t need ratings, and you certainly don’t need 50 states with 500 separate regulations. In a true wine culture, you don’t need Wall Street to guide your wine drinking habits. And in a true wine culture, you should be able to get wine stamps with your food stamps!

Also, in a true wine culture, the lower cost products are a lot better than some of the plonk I’ve tasted lately because I can no longer afford the better stuff.

PS: I do wonder about the wine critics who tell us about those marvelous $30 and $40 bottles of wine for lunch. One for lunch and one for dinner everyday, and I’d be eating, er, drinking all my book sale profits, if I ever make any.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.