Wine Trials

When I first saw the title, Wine Trials, I immediately thought it had something to do with a recent story about phony wines that a collector discovered and was suing over—but I was wrong.

The Wine Trials refers to wine tastings hosted by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, two WSET certificate holders who are behind the Fearless Critic Restaurant Guide series. The tastings are organized in a successful effort to show that consumers and wine critics aren’t exactly synchronized. According to the results of these tastings, which have become annual events, wines that consumers prefer are generally inexpensive and not the same as the wines that well known magazines and critics routinely rate highly, and which are usually expensive.

According to Goldstein, the major difference between the Wine Trials tastings and the wine magazines or critics is that the latter do not taste blind. Anyone who isn’t a stranger to this blog knows how strongly I believe in truly blind wine evaluations.

Still, I have a problem with the Wine Trials take on the issue of inexpensive versus expensive wines as it relates to blind tastings.

Surely, wine evaluations should always be done blind, but whether blind or not, wines preferred by untrained tasters are likely to gravitate toward a taste for the easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex. These are the attributes that the common wine consumer is accustomed to and to whom the mass production wine industry caters. It stands to reason that in a blind tasting, consumers would prefer them over the more complex wines, which seem always to cost more, too. The seasoned wine geek normally eschews such wines, often deriding them. No matter their claim to the contrary, wine critics aim their evaluations and ratings at those wine geeks, because that’s where the lemmings with money are located.

This is not to say that the wines that receive high critic ratings are either better or worse than the mass-produced wines, and it is not to justify ridiculous prices many of the rated wines command. This is to point out that the Wine Trials tasting system is as biased on one side as the wine critics’ rating system is biased on another side. One must keep that in mind when trying to use one evaluation to discredit another. No matter how you cut it, each evaluation is audience-specific—that’s why to me proper training is important for wine evaluations to mean anything of substance.

Having said that, I also believe that the Wine Trials performs a service for consumers by helping them understand the real meaning of wine, which is something that should be consumed for enjoyment and not because it costs a lot or receives certain numerical accolades. Simply put, the Wine Trials is a way to inform consumers to consider what they like and not what they are told that they are supposed to like in a wine. Such a message is a threat to self-appointed arbiters of taste and I am glad for that.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining the Fearless Critics at a dinner to highlight a few of the 2010 Wine Trials picks. The idea was not only to show the quality of the inexpensive wines in the list, but to also show them with food. The following is my assessment of that evening.

We were greeted at the door with a glass of sparkling wine—blind. My first impression of the wine was that it contained a minimum of about 2% residual sugar; I didn’t like it. I questioned the decision to serve something that sweet as an aperitif, and it did not enhance the Alsatian tart that was served with it. In addition, the wine showed minimal complexity—no yeastiness, which I seek in sparkling wines. Until I learned otherwise, I thought it was Prosecco with small bubbles!

It turned out to be a two-time Wine Trials top sparkling wine pick: Domaine Ste. Michele N/V Brut, Washington State.

The sparkling wine seemed to prove my earlier point concerning the general consumer preference for easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex…

The first course was roasted red beets and frisée salad with goat cheese over apple.

The wine was Domaine Wachau 2007 Gruner Veltliner, Federspiel Terrassen.

It had a fine nose but it was rather thin on the palate, lacking the signature Gruner spiciness.  With either the beets or the apple, it was a bust, but with the goat cheese, it was quite a good match.

The lobster bisque that followed was among the best I have tasted recently. It came with a small crab cake seated atop what tasted like a mashed potato but was billed as a sugar cake.

Unfortunately, the bisque was almost marred by the Marques de Caceres 2007 Rioja White.

The wine was woody, slightly oxidized, and truly D.O.A. when put up against the fabulous bisque. (I have since been informed that this wine was produced in stainless steel, and after reading a few reviews of this wine, with so many references to fruitiness, I’m baffled. Maybe this is a case where we should have been tasting blind and I was guilty of making a pre-conception evaluation.)

Have you ever tasted a monkfish “osso buco?”  I can now say that I have, and that I liked it—a lot. It sat over well-prepared, al dente saffron risotto alongside two ribs of a rack of lamb, over sautéed spinach, which was too mushy to be called sautéed.

Other than the spinach, the dish was nicely done and this time the wine pairing was perfect.

It was Bodegas Lan 2005 Rioja Crianza, a wine with hints of dark fruit and light wood, finished with interestingly subdued but still available tannin.

The next course, the cheese plate included a fine Gruyere which was unfortunately accompanied by a nondescript blue cheese.

The blue cheese did not pair with the wine at all, but the Gruyere showed a distinct affinity for the Altano 2006 Douro Red, which was solid, if medium bodied. I loved its enduring finish.

Finally, I am not much on desserts so I was not likely to eat the chocolate cupcake with the hot chocolate inside it and what tasted like a cherry sorbet but was not listed on the menu.

The wine was a raisin-like, sweetness restrained and delightful Patras Kourtaki Mavrodaphne non-vintage.  It made me glad that I ate the chocolate, as the two were made for each other.

Responsible for the food was the Swiss chef, Claude Solliard, at Seppi’s Restaurant, at Le Parker Meridien. In all, it was a fine evening, although I wondered how many of those everyday consumers eat such meals with such wines.

It appears that Robin and Alexis are onto something, but the Wine Trials message could use some refining. Untrained wine evaluations may get you a wine that you like at a decent price, but it really doesn’t dispute the claims of professional critics.

I expect that over time, Wine Trials will get the refinement it requires and it will prove to others that the price of solid wine need not be prohibitive.


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
December 2009. All rights reserved.

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