A Critique of a Critique

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smThe Wine Curmudgeon posted a blog last week, “Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine” (which can be found at http://www.winecurmudgeon.com/my_weblog/2013/03/five-things-the-wine-business-can-do-to-help-consumers-figure-out-wine.html) that I found of interest, both for those points I agree with, and those I don’t.

The point of the post was to offer five suggestions on how the wine industry should deal with the consumer.  The five are listed below, in italics.  My comments follow each.

• Stop worrying about vintage. One of the few things that every wine drinker knows is that vintage matters, even though that’s becoming less and less true. Vintage – the year the grapes were harvested – matters for an increasingly small percentage of wine; most of the stuff we drink every day is made to taste the same regardless of the vintage. In fact, Barefoot, one of the most popular wine brands in the U.S., is non-vintage (its grapes come from different harvests). It’s actually possible to make better quality wine this way, mixing and matching the best quality grapes from various vintages. One example: the $10 Little James Basket Press wines.

I both agree and disagree with this one. Vintages do make a big difference, particularly in Northern Europe. They may matter less in California, but the last few vintages have definitely shown that they matter here as well. But the idea that wines can be made non-vintage (i.e. blending different vintages together) is one that has never really taken off, despite the fact that it is definitely the better way to make wine. The more material the winemaker has available to him, the better the chances are that he’ll produce something that’s really good. This is recognized pretty much throughout all winemaking in all kinds of different ways (different varieties, different clothes, etc.), Yet when it comes to vintages this idea receives short shrift. That may be crazy, but it’s so ingrained into the wine market that it’s not going to change, at least anytime soon. At least not for what are considered to be premium wines.

• Use less expensive bottles: It’s one thing to use a heavy, costly, imposing bottle for a $150 cult Napa cabernet sauvignon. But producers who don’t use the best made and least expensive bottle for a $10 wine are raising the price of the product without adding quality or value. For example, why do most wine bottles still have punts – the dimple on the bottom of the bottle – when it’s cheaper and just as effective to make a bottle without one?

Well, I can answer this question. The simple reason is that heavier bottles are perceived as being higher-end, and therefore people will pay more for them. Does that make any sense? Probably not. But then pretty much everything having to do with packaging of a wine, or any other product for that matter, doesn’t make any sense either. You can rail against the inequities of life and stupidities of the consumer, but that doesn’t get your wines sold. If you want to sell wine, you have to do this stuff.

• Stop obsessing over oak. High-end wines that need thousands and thousands of dollars worth of oak to pull their various parts into a coherent whole should spend time and effort describing the oak process and how it works. But the rest of the wine we drink – 90 percent? – either doesn’t need oak or uses a substitute, like staves or chips. And these wines are often perfectly fine. Sometimes, they even make the $10 Hall of Fame.

Personally, I would not only stop obsessing over oak, I would stop using it, either altogether or at least in the high quantities that it’s used throughout much of the wine world.  For some wines, I wouldn’t argue that some oak is helpful. But I would like to feel like I’m drinking a grape product not a tree product. With lots of wine, it’s hard to tell. I like pepper with my salad, but a few turns of the peppermill is enough. I certainly wouldn’t want to dump the whole container of pepper on the salad. But that’s what many winemakers do with oak.

• Appellation isn’t the be all and end allAppellation – where the grapes were grown – matters almost not at all for most of the wine we drink, and consumers (especially younger ones) are paying less and less attention to it. They want malbec or moscato, and they don’t really care where it’s from. And, truthfully, given modern winemaking techniques, the goal is (as with vintage) to make the malbec taste like malbec, not like it came from California or Argentina. This is another opportunity to make less expensive, quality wine by mixing grapes from different appellations, and not worrying whether the bottle says California or Argentina.

This one I could hardly agree with more. If anyone could, with consistency, identify which appellation a wine came from tasting them blind against other similar wines, I might feel differently. But to a large extent this is just a marketing ruse. As far as the idea of blending wines from different appellations is concerned, see my comments above concerning blending of different vintages (great idea, will never happen).

• Write back labels in English: One wine that costs around $10 promises things that are all but impossible for a wine at that price: “chocolate and hints of licorice.” Or, to go to the other extreme, the wine drinker who buys another wine “prizes the simple things in life: spending good times with close friends.” Both do the consumer a disservice. They’ll assume they’re wine idiots because they couldn’t taste chocolate and licorice, and be totally confused by what the second wine is supposed to be. One solution, as advocated by W. Blake Gray: simple terms that we all understand, like rich, robust and fruit.

I have always been a big believer that there are only a few things that people can agree on with any consistency when it comes to a wine.  Flavor is not one of them. Acidity, tannin, sweetness, oak level, maybe, even probably. Yet most wine is described primarily by its flavor profile. So what that nobody can agree on it. A simple description like “rich, robust, and fruit” beats the usual drivel that we see on the back of a wine label, even if it’s generality means it really doesn’t say that much about the wine.  Perhaps this situation would be a little better if there were a little bit more honesty in the comments on wine back-labels.  But I don’t think we’re going to see a description such as “lean, fruit challenged” any time soon. I think it’s fair to say that back label prose is going to continue to be one of the worst examples of writing in the English language.

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