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Radical Wine Thought

Category: Tasting Wine

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.

Tasting Wine, Part 1: Wine Country

Here are some insider secrets that will help you prepare for a weekend in wine country.

  1. Pack a lunch. Restaurants in wine country are often few and far between. The ones you find will be overpriced. Plus, you won’t get through many tasting rooms on an empty stomach. The max is around 8, and that’s pushing it… trust me. The bar crackers only go so far.
  2. Bring a date who is allergic to alcohol. They will come to be known as your “designated driver,” but let them discover this destiny along the way. Staggering sideways toward the car and dropping your keys as you fiddle with the lock is a good way to encourage them to discover their destiny. Then be effusively grateful. If needed, convince them to come with promises of all the great restaurants in wine country. Dates with sulfite allergies work too, but make sure they haven’t brought a secret stash of whiskey. Search them if necessary.
  3. Make evening plans. Tasting rooms usually close at 5. That’s usually a few hours before your buzz peaks. Do the math. I suggest over-priced dining, drinking of bottles you purchased during the day, fire of some kind, hot tubs, movies, skinny-dipping and dessert. I suggest doing these first one at a time, then all at once.
  4. Use Vegas money rules. At first you’ll just pay for a tasting fee. Then another. Then you’ll taste an amazing wine and you’ll have to buy a bottle. Then you’ll go to a winery where everything tastes good and you’ll say “One of each!” At the next one you’ll reason, with what seems to be utterly sensible logic, that you drink wine all year so you might as well get the buying part out of the way when you can taste what you’re buying, and you’ll come home with a year’s supply of pink champagne. Whatever you do to protect your money from yourself in Vegas, duplicate it in wine country.

Read Part 2 now: At The Bar.

Tasting Wine, Part 2: At The Bar

There’s no right or wrong way to taste wine, but there are some things that will make you look really really stupid. The key to wine tasting is understanding that although in truth the whole experience is a glorified version of bar hopping, maintaining the illusion that that it is a process of appreciation, education, and sophisticated shopping is half the fun. These tips will prevent you from inadvertently violating this jolly pretense.

  1. It’s not a shot. Spend a minimum of two minutes with each glass of wine. To kill time, swirl the wine in the glass compulsively – there are really good reasons for doing this, number one of which is that it makes you look like you know what you’re doing.
  2. Get creative. If you read notes from a professional tasting you will be dumbfounded to find that a critic detected notes of things like “crushed pebbles,” “guava,” “forest mushrooms,” and “stone fruit.” How many glasses had they drunk? Consider for a moment that the sensitivity of your palate could possibly be equal to your ability to B.S. Stick your nose in the glass and smell the wine – yes, it smells like wine, but get creative. Take a big sniff. What’s that? Do you detect a whiff of… sunshine? Sea breeze? Dew covered blueberries? Yes, you do.
  3. Hold the stem, not the bowl, of the glass. It looks prissy, but you are preventing your hand from warming the wine. Prissy is good. In fact, stick your pinky out as you sip.
  4. There’s no accounting for taste. Wine should be described, not judged. If you hate it, never say so. Rather describe it as having aromas of “barnyard and freshly mulched earth” with flavors of “lead pencil and pasture clover” and a texture of “brushed tree bark and a finish like a nail in a coffin.” If you love it, describe it like the most romantic kiss of your life. “Intoxicating aromas of lilac and strawberry, rich and luscious with ripe, juicy fruit, plush and silky, with a finish that lingers in your mouth like steam on the windows of a car after you’ve made love in the backseat.” Go ahead. Get carried away.
  5. Pretend whatever wine you taste is the cure for cancer. Act as if you are holding a precious elixir, extracted over centuries, crafted by the life-blood of a thousand generations, delivered to you in sacred ceremony, solely for you to have a fuller, happier, and possibly longer life. You might, after all, be right.

“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.

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