Pinot Now

Radical Wine Thought

Category: Cosmology

Keep Drinking, OR, How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Fruit Bomb

A few years back I held regular tasting parties in which everybody brought a bottle of red wine under $15 in a brown bag, and we did a mass blind tasting of 10 to 20 wines. I did this three times with three different groups of friends over the course of a couple years, and I know for a fact that some people snuck in wines over $15.

The results? The same wine won every single time: Yellow Tail Shiraz.

This might have been why I stopped doing the parties. The point – that I hadn’t been trying to make – had been proven. Despite what any of my friends may have thought or said about Yellow Tail Shiraz, if they didn’t know they were drinking it, they loved it.

The more I learn about wine, the more I think that those tasting parties were microcosms of everything that has been going on in the entire wine industry in the 21st century. The globalization of a single (YTS) style of wine-making, the bias of the 100 point scale towards essentially more expensive versions of YTS (an ironic combination of elitism and garishness), and the resulting reactions against these developments… all, really, came from a bunch of YTS-loving Americans (a few other nationalities were represented at my tastings too).

So while recently pulling a shift at the wine store where I act as guide for the perplexed once a week, I read the intro to the third edition of The Wine Trials.

If you haven’t read it, it’s probably worth a read, if only to reinforce the findings of my blind tastings with more scientifically rigorous blind tastings: that if you don’t know what you’re drinking, you are likely to enjoy Yellow Tail Shiraz more than just about anything.

This is of course a gross over-simplification of the WT “manifesto.” So let me give a more detailed summary (I love that oxymoron):

1. There are many wines under $15 that you will enjoy more than much more expensive wines. This is especially true of champagne/sparkling wine/cava.

2. If you know a wine’s cost or brand, and it is expensive or a brand that you like, you are likely going to enjoy it more. In other words, perception influences taste.

3. Many of the “revered” top-tier wine producers – like LVMH who produces Dom Perignon among many others, and Veuve Clicquot – spend more on marketing than on wine making. In other words, you’re paying for what’s ON the bottle rather than what’s IN it.

4. The 100 point scale favors expensive wine.

5. It’s a near statistical impossibility to get consistent ratings or awards for the same wine when judged in multiple competitions or by different judges, or even by the same judge at different times. In other words, wine awards and scores are almost completely arbitrary.

While these points can all be very liberating to the consumer, there’s something contradictory at the heart of the of the Wine Trials manifesto.

Mr. Goldstein, the author, uses these points to make the compelling case that we should all trust our taste, and value brand less. The whole book is built around the recommendations that follow the manifesto, over 100 wines under $15 that were preferred in blind tastings to similar wines over $50.

However, near the end of the manifest, he bemoans the fact that wine producers are using the consumer’s preference for certain styles of wine (yes, YTS) to influence their wine making toward that style. He doesn’t want wine makers to make wine for anyone other than themselves. He wants diversity of wine style to be preserved. Please, dear god, don’t let La Tache start to taste like Castle Rock!

So I finished the manifesto thinking “hmmmm.” It seems to me, that if you’re going to write a book celebrating the power of the consumer to make their own decisions about taste, and promoting inexpensive, crowd-pleasing wines, then you can’t turn around and complain about the global dumbing-down of wine.

People vote with their dollars, and if you encourage everyone to believe that their taste is god, they’ll spend money on the easy pleasures of the uneducated palate. And producers will chase those dollars.

Say what you will about wine, though, there IS a learning curve. You can be taught to taste more, to taste differently, to taste without prejudice, to understand what you’re tasting. In many cases these things have to be learned.

Tasting something as complex as a good wine is not intuitive, though it can have intuitive elements. YTS succeeds in pleasing many because it plays to the intuitive elements: sweetness and richness predominantly.

YTS, along with many, many other globally-styled wines (Menage a Trois is one of my favorites), strives to have no unfamiliar or sharp elements, like minerality or acidity or tannins, that intrude on the intuitive pleasures and require interpretation or education to understand. It aspires to be simply pleasurable, because that’s where the money is. It is, and this is neither compliment nor insult, the water of wine.

At a recent Court of Master Sommeliers intro course/test (I passed, yay!) we did multiple blind tastings throughout the weekend. The attempt was to get us to identify wines – grapes used, region made, vintage – by their characteristics of sight, smell and taste. I noticed how difficult it was, for most everyone, to distinguish wines from Chile, Australia, Argentina, and California – the New World – while the wines from France, Italy, and Germany were all so remarkably different.

Perhaps Old World wines are what they are because they’ve grown out of and are still, to some extent, part of their cultures, whereas New World wines are part of, mainly, the world of commerce.

What’s lost in the globalization of the YTS style, though, is diversity, individuality, terroir, vintage… but who really cares if you like it, right? Well, I guess that’s the question. Do you care?

If you don’t, then you’ll be relieved to know that you can stop paying for over-priced luxury brand wines that are selling you a lifestyle, rather than a wine. There are plenty of inexpensive wines of uncomplicated pleasure to be had. God knows, you can’t go wrong with YTS at seven bucks a bottle. And you’ll find plenty more throughout the New World.

Unless of course you care that people see you drinking Veuve Clicquot more than you care that it’s made from cheap grapes and tastes worse than, well, cheap champagne. In that case, feel free to feed their corporate marketing machine. I wish I had your money.

But if you care about that world of wine that has been evolving over millenia to express the various cultures and lands where it has been made; if you care to expand your tastes, nay, your very soul, beyond the bounds of the familiar; then you have a more difficult, but also more fun and potentially more rewarding road ahead: self-education.

It’s going to cost you a bit more, both in time and in cash, because it takes some studying to learn about how good wines are made and what makes them distinctive. And some of the most interesting wines – I won’t call them “best” – do cost more because of the care and attention given to the grapes both in the vineyard and in the winery.

But there are those fascinating and affordable wines you would never get to experience unless you branch out into the Abruzzos, Burgenlands, Cahors, and Duoros of the world. And the good news is that caring about diversity, valuing it, can have the same affect as knowing a wine is expensive: you’ll start to get more pleasure from the diverse tastes.

Even if you don’t care, and just want your YTS, the good news is that if you keep drinking, sooner or later you’re probably going to want variety. If for no other reason than boredom, you will likely then start caring about diversity and individuality in wine. Just hope it isn’t too late to find some.

Merlot vs Pinot

Miles, from the movie Sideways, refused to drink Merlot (with now infamous emphasis). Within a year of the Academy Awards where Payne & Taylor took home the Oscar for a screenwriting adaptation, Merlot sales had dropped over 40%. Pinot Noir on the other hand, Miles’ favorite, is enjoying an unprecedented heyday. Yes, this shows the power of movies to influence our lives, but unfortunately it also shows that the subtlety of good storytelling is lost on the general public.

Miles hated Merlot. He also disparaged Cabernet Franc. But remember his precious 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, the wine that was a metaphor for Mile’s life, that he finally guzzles at the end when he has learned whatever it is he learns? It is a little known fact, except among wine geeks, that the Cheval Blanc is a wine made of a 50/50 mix of, you guessed it, Merlot and Cab Franc. It was a brilliant move on the part of Payne & Taylor, to underline the contradictions inherent in their complicated protagonist. One of those juicy tidbits that makes Sideways a movie to revisit. Unfortunately devastating to California Merlot producers.

Merlot is the most predominantly grown grape in Bordeaux. The hands down most expensive and revered wines in the world, the Bordeaux first growths, are made with differing mixes of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, and a couple other grapes. Lucky for the French, they name their wines after the location from which they are produced rather than after their varietal, so the unwitting American Merlot snob wouldn’t be deterred from spending a small fortune on Merlot. It’s not Merlot… it’s a Chateau d’Whatever.

Is my point that Merlot is actually better than Pinot Noir? No. The moral of this story is that prejudice is always silly. Great wines come from every family of grape, and your particular tastes on any specific occasion often play the most important role in determining if you will love or hate a wine. So go out there and drink some #@%ing Merlot!

Pinot Now Recommendation:

Try some Napa Cellars Merlot. Full of hypocrisies and contradictions, rich with metaphor and insight, this vino will appeal to both the undiscerning layperson and those with a taste for subtlety. Pairs well with In-&-Out and an unprejudiced heart.

“Approachable” is a Euphemism

Wine lingo can be as esoteric as entertainment industry gab, and it tends to sound twice as pretentious. A “hot” wine is overly alcoholic. The “robe” is the color of a wine. A “varietal” is the kind of grape from which a wine is made. A person who loves wine? Yes, a “wine-o,” but also, technically, an “oenophile.” How do you even pronounce that?

The descriptors that are the most fun personify wine. At a wine tasting you might hear people nod and agree, with a straight face, to a wine description such as “rich and well built, with nice legs, a sexy mouth feel, and a silky back end.”

One of the silliest words I’ve heard used to describe a wine is “drinkable.” Really? Because I assumed this was meant to be poured down the drain. That’s why I’m spending the ten bucks. My drain needs a wine rinse. Even better is “very drinkable.”

But the term I find to be the most insidiously pretentious is “approachable.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this tossed around in wine shops, in wine magazines, and on wine bottles. What bothers me about this word in particular is that it is used almost exclusively as a signifier. And what does it signify? Usually that the person speaking it thinks that the person hearing it has very little knowledge of and therefore pedestrian tastes in wine. Or it’s code for those in the know that a wine is not sublime.

What it means, essentially, is that this wine appeals to the undiscerning masses. It’s uncomplicated, unrefined, fun. Yes, you’ll enjoy it. Everyone does. In other words, “approachable” is a highfalutin way of saying – if I may coin a new wine term – “slutty.”  Take it as you may, at least we’ve left the realm of pretense… and at Pinot Now, there’s no shame in a wine that goes down easy.

Que Syrah, Sirah?

In most grocery store wine sections you’ll usually find bottles of Syrah in the same vicinity of bottles of Petite Sirah. Unfortunately this is probably because the person who stocks those shelves doesn’t know very much about wine. Though it sounds the same, Petite Sirah is not a baby version of Syrah. It’s a completely different grape, known in other climes as Durif. About the only thing they share in common is that both types of grapes are used to make red wine.

Shiraz, on the other hand, is Syrah… just different names. The Australians call it Shiraz and claim they are being true to the grape’s origin, which is reputed to be the city of Shiraz in southwest Iran… known as the city of Poetry, Wine and Roses. The French apparently wanted to make Shiraz sound a little more pretentious, so they renamed it Syrah. The Californians knew that they could charge more for a wine made from a French sounding grape, so they stuck with Syrah for the most part. Since they are grown upside down, the Australians may just like to be a little contrary too. They also produce Durif.

Can all of this get a bit confusing? You bet shiraz.

Pinot Now Recommendation:

Yellowtail Shiraz or Yellowtail Reserve Shiraz, $6 to $12 – it’s inexpensive, it’s rich, it’s inky dark and chocolaty. You can buy it at your local gas station, and it’s probably made using techniques that are illegal in other parts of the world, but Yellowtail Shiraz has won my personal wine tasting competition two years in a row. Serve it in a decanter and your guests will say it’s the best wine they ever had.

A Brief History of Wine, Part 1

Did you ever wonder about the history of edible plants? I grew up with a garden that contained Rhubarb. My mom always told me, “Don’t eat the leaves. Only the stalks are good.” How did she know this? My guess is that her mom told her the same thing, and her mom’s mom told her mom, and so on backwards through time… to what?

Well, it would seem we would have to conclude that at some point the world was a blank slate and our ancestors were hungry. They either drew straws, flipped a Drachma, or picked that gullible cousin, Grug, to take a bite out of the various plants around them. “Here, Grug. Try this little red phallic thing growing in this wildebeest dung. Looks delicious.” After several hours of observation, if Grug was still alive they added a new item to the menu. If Grug was dead, for generations to come parents would tell their kids, “Don’t eat the leaf of that plant. Grug ate the stalk and he was fine. But when he ate the leaf he spewed green slime and turned inside out.” Of course if Grug was alive, but suddenly standing upright, speaking a new language, and seeing God…they might have discovered hallucinogenic mushrooms. But that’s another article.

Isn’t it amazing the variety of edible plants we now have? Think of all the poor, gullible cousins who sacrificed their lives so that we would know what we could and couldn’t eat – which brings us to the grape. The grape was one of those discoveries that must have been cause for celebration. It’s pretty, it’s sweet, it’s juicy… and it doesn’t kill you! We probably stopped trying other plants for a while once we discovered the grape… why risk death when you’ve got something so yummy and safe already?

So here it is… an end-all, be-all scrumptiously perfect edible plant and what do we do? We jump up and down on it, mash it into a big mushy pulp, and then let it rot. So I ask you, from an evolutionary standpoint, does that make any sense at all? I can see why some might point to divine intervention in the case of the invention of wine. I mean we couldn’t even legitimately ask of the inventor, “What was he drinking?”

Whatever the happy accident that caused it, wine has been around since before recorded history. It’s first mention was around 5400 BC in Sumeria. Back then it was socially acceptable to be drunk. Heck, the gods went around smashed most of the time. It was almost a sign of being godly. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods had a being whose sole purpose was to make wine for them – Siduri, the Woman of the Vine. In the Hebrew Bible, the first thing Noah did when he got off the ark was plant a vineyard, make wine, and get plastered. What would you do if you just spent a year on a boat with thousands of animals and ancient plumbing? Jesus was a big fan of wine too. His first miracle in fact resulted from his having forgotten to bring a gift to his cousin’s wedding, so he made up for it by turning the water into wine at the reception.

What about recent history? Read A Brief History of Wine, Part 2.

A Brief History of Wine, Part 2

The U.S. is responsible for nearly destroying wine forever, and also saving it… twice!

In 1863 an American grape vine root louse hitched a ride on a native species of grape vine taken from America to England. This louse, known as phylloxera, eats grape vine roots, causing the vines to die. Not a good thing if you like wine. By 1865 the louse had made its way to the mainland and over the next 20 years it destroyed over 75% of the grape vines in Europe. You think the Europeans don’t like us now? Imagine if they were sober!

Extinction was near. They didn’t know what to do. Until one day a Texan realized that American grape vines had evolved a tolerance to the louse by growing roots with thick, strong bark. The European vines could be grafted onto American roots, and thus be saved. And that’s what they did. One by one, every vine in Europe was grafted onto American roots, thus saving the vines from extinction. What I want to know is did we charge them for those American roots used to save the European vines from the American louse… hmmm?

While our hit-louse was wreaking havoc on the European continent, the U.S. wine industry was enjoying an unprecedented boom. Coincidence… hmmm? However, it didn’t take us long to screw that up. In 1920 Prohibition cut the legs off the wine business. Never mind that Jesus himself had made some fine wine in his time, the “Drys” claimed the mention of wine in the Bible was misinterpreted grape juice. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the wine industry had been decimated, as had respect for legal authority. Another irony: the term “wino” was coined during the 1920’s… when you couldn’t drink wine… hmmm.

Well, the U.S. is now just as good at making wine as we are at making war, and perhaps a bit better actually. But there are lessons to be learned from knowing your wine history. Primarily: enjoy it now because you never know when we’re going louse it up again. And buy a round for your European friends… we owe ‘em one.

Pinot Now Recommendation:

Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel – From Lodi, California, this gargantuan flavor bomb owes some of its immensity to vines that are up to 110 years old – which means they survived louses, Prohibition, two World Wars, Vietnam, and every other pestilence in the last epoch of trouble… and they’re all the sweeter for it. Taste the love.

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