A Disturbing Trend in the Wine World

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piedmontTwo recent reports  suggest fundamental changes in the wine world in the not-too-distant future.

First up, Antonio Cevola reports on the “Burgundization of Barolo”:

Today, Gaja’s wines are approaching the DRC club. Only the wealthiest 1% of the 1%ers can savor these wines in their Lalique “100-point” or Zalto crystal wine chalices. Even a visit to Gaja today (see Gaja winery visit letter here) will set back the average Joe a €300 ‘donation’ (to one of several of the Gaja family selected charities). For such a donation (bank wire transfer, one month in advance and reconfirmed by email) one is granted a visit at Gaja that will “include a cellar tour and a wine tasting with wines selected by the Gaja family, which in total will last approximately two hours.”

Meanwhile, according to Levi Dalton (as reported by Cevola):

There are serious foreign groups – American, European, Asian, ex Italy – of course, looking to make investments in Italy, including the biggest luxury brand and mass market wines groups that you can think of. You name five of them, you’re going to get three right away, that are looking, right now, to buy vineyards in Piedmont. And that will change forever the economics of vineyard land in Piedmont. The local winemaking family can still afford to buy even top tier vineyards in Piedmont. You might have to get a loan, or securitize versus other assets that you have, but it’s still possible. But In five years, it won’t be possible. It’ll become like Burgundy where all the vineyards are slowly going to be owned by investors.

So Burgundy is now out of reach for even the most dedicated wine lovers; Barolo is headed in the same direction and I imagine Barbaresco will follow.

Next up, Decanter reports that grape growers are running out of space in Marlborough New Zealand, where 75% of New Zealand’s wines are produced.

Demand for vineyard space is being fuelled by rising exports of New Zealand wine, which hit NZ$1.3bn annually last year and could rise to $1.5bn in 2015 buoyed by a record 2014 harvest, according to trade body New Zealand Winegrowers (NZWG).
‘In five to 10 years, Marlborough will be fully planted,’ said Philip Gregan, chief executive of NZWG. ‘It’s something we are going to have to live with,’ he told Decanter.com at a tasting in London.
‘We think it will be sooner than that,’ said Simon Kelly, head of European sales for Yealands, which announced before Christmas that was seeking outside funding to buy more land.

That will inevitably result in much higher prices and less supply.

I think both of these stories point to the importance of emerging wine regions. Burgundy, Barolo, and relative newcomer New Zealand are established regions with a reputation for quality. But wine regions that in the past were on the margins of the fine wine world such as Portugal (at least for dry, still wine) and South Africa are upping their game; and wine grapes are now being planted in parts of the world from China, to India, to the UK, where they had previously been a rare novelty.

We can’t expect all these emerging regions to produce wines of quality to compete with the best from Barolo and Burgundy. But it is to be hoped there are hidden gems in these new regions, as they learn to match their vineyards with the proper varieties, that will supply accessible quality in the future.

It may be time for wine lovers with ordinary incomes to pursue their passion in unusual locales.

A Eulogy: The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Yamhill 1990 RIP

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eyrieOn Saturday, January 24, 2015 at approximately 6:00 P.M. the very last bottle of this fine Pinot Noir was poured. I claim to know this because the winery asserts it was their last bottle. Perhaps in some dusty cellar there rests another copy but that would be mere speculation. We must face facts, something remarkable has left the world.

It is not often one attends the death of a wine, especially such a glorious finale. When poets write of a “good death” they surely had this in mind.

Leafy at first, with mushroom essence, gradually like a trickling tide, leather and meat emerge woven with hints of brown sugar, only to give way to lovely floral notes as it sits in the glass. Graceful yet almost weightless on the palate, dried fruits wrapped in still vibrant acidity usher in a generous mineral-inflected finish that provokes and then fades like a memory. There is so much quiet energy restrained yet riveting, it went gentle into that good night but with all its integrity on full display.

Perhaps I cannot write a proper eulogy: I was not present at its birth, never witnessed the awkward stage before finding its voice; I  missed the full flowering of youthful energy and the gathering of patinated  wisdom. But no matter. I strongly suspect its best moments were its last. Aristotle thought that one could only assess the goodness of a life when it nears its end—only then is the fullness of its goal revealed, the end point at which all things aim. Surely this moment was the telos of Pinot Noir.

For all things that aspire to firmness of character to its last moments, this wine was an inspiration. The song has ended but the memory lives on.

We will give Lord Byron the last word:

Oh snatch’d away in beauty’s bloom!

On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;

But on thy turf shall roses rear

Their leaves the earliest of the year

And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom

Budget Wine: Jellybean Cabernet Sauvignon Pays D’Oc 2011

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jellybeanThe French get their wine reputation from the storied vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but they make their money in southern France where they can make confected, generic wines for a mass market with the best of them. This was vinted and bottled in France for the U.S company Jellybean and aimed at wine drinkers just getting their training wheels.

Black cherry cordial on the nose , very ripe fruit, but with a hint of earth that suggests it speaks with a French accent. Cherries encased with chocolate on the palate, with faint wood notes in the background, full-bodied and round with a glycerin texture, a short but drying finish and a mineral seam giving it a little punch in the finale. No doubt this is ripe,  innocuously smooth,  too sweet,  and designed to be a crowd pleaser. I didn’t want to like it, I really didn’t, but it deserves credit for hitting its target, even though its target is not me.

Drink while listening to some frothy French Pop like Banda Magda’s Amour, t’es là?

Style: Smooth, sweet, easy-drinking

Score: 85

Price: $9

Alc: 14%

Do Crowdsourced Reviews Favor Ignorance?

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igoranceI ‘ve been writing about the validity of various sorts of wine and food criticism all week, so I might as well continue, since I thought of one more regrettable consequence of crowdsourced reviews.

By “crowsourced reviews” I mean reviews that are the result of the contributions of many people where each contributor adds a small portion to the final outcome. Yelp reviews are an example. It is characteristic of such reviews that no proof of competence or credentials are required to contribute; the wisdom is in the crowd, not in the individuals that make it up. The collective judgment is supposed to be wiser than that the judgment of the individuals.

Although the proponents of crowdsourcing claim that it eliminates the subjectivity involved in more traditional single-person reviews, crowdsourcing has its own biases to contend with. Some biases are well-known and have been widely discussed. There must be some skill or knowledge in the crowd, otherwise the crowd’s judgment can be wildly off-base.  The crowd must be diverse as well. If too many of the same category of person are in the crowd, the results will be skewed toward whatever peculiar characteristic that group possesses. And each participant in the crowd must make an independent judgment. When individual participants base their opinions on the opinions of others in the crowd rather than their own judgment, a bandwagon effect is created, a tendency toward conformity which prevents an accurate account of what the crowd really thinks.

Yelp reviews are subject to all these biases.

But it seems to me there is another bias that is less widely discussed. In the literature on cognitive biases it is called the Dunning-Kruger effect: unskilled individuals typically suffer from delusions about their own superiority. They rate their own ability more highly than is accurate. Or to put the point differently, the unskilled don’t have the tools to recognize their own incompetence. By contrast, skilled people tend to underestimate their ability even when their understanding is good.

How does this influence the wisdom of crowds? I suspect that people who lack knowledge and understanding are more likely to have the confidence to offer their opinion while people with some knowledge may withhold judgment and not participate because they underestimate their ability to contribute. Thus levels of participation are skewed toward those with less skill and understanding.

One factor in favor of individual reviewers is that the individual must take responsibility for what he or she writes. One’s judgment is exposed for all the world to see and that scrutiny makes one a bit more self-critical.  I know that when writing my wine reviews I’m always questioning whether I’m being fair and have considered all the relevant factors, and I have an abiding fear of missing some detail that is distorting my judgment.

Members of crowds bear no such scrutiny. Their judgment is buried in the aggregate results and there are no consequences for being wrong. That is likely to encourage the false confidence uncovered by Dunning and Kruger.

One more reason to lament the decline of individually-sourced reviews.

Crowdsourcing and the Decline of the Critic

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bridge for saleAs social media (especially crowdsourced review sites such as Yelp, Cellartracker or various apps on the market) replaces traditional media in the assessment of wine and food, it’s important to keep in mind what is lost when we replace expertise with the “wisdom” of crowds.

Tom Wark recently made some important points about traditional criticism that are worth repeating:

Critics have existed ever since Aristotle laid down the law on literary forms and people looking to understand the nature of quality in all its forms have looked to educated, well spoken, experienced critics to help them understand the nature of quality. A retreat from the experienced and educated critic in favor of the mob is no advancement.

And this goes for wine and wine critics. No one has to explain to me the value of crowd sourced reviews, nor their power. But wine is not a power adapter, nor is it a 50 inch HD TV. It’s savored for its meaning and parts and origin. A crowd can take a stab at those things, but it can’t say anything definitive about them. No one argues with a crowd sourced review. They do argue with the views and ideas of an individual, particularly the individual critic and this is how you can tell they are relevant.

The important point here is that traditional critics (at least the good ones) when they assess a wine or restaurant are not merely thinking about what is in the glass or on the plate. They also have to think about the criteria they use in the assessment. They are, as Tom says, trying to “understand the nature of quality”. Which features of the wine or dish should be emphasized and why? What should it be compared to? Why are these considerations more important than other potential factors? Are there unique features of a wine or dish that make conventional criteria irrelevant? Does the wine or dish have a meaning or significance that goes beyond its flavor profile?

In other words, a good critic thinks not just about the object being criticized but the standards she is using in the assessment. That debate about standards should be part of a complete review.

With social media that employs crowdsourcing this dimension of criticism is lost. (Individual blogs are an exception; the format permits a more thorough treatment) On Yelp or Cellartracker you find only summary judgments with a few rushed comments; and surely no tendency toward thoughtful reflection on standards or criteria.

Crowdsourced reviews tell us nothing except what’s popular. The alleged connection between popularity and quality is simply assumed.

But why should we ever assume that what is popular is of high quality. After all, the best art and music in our traditions were seldom what was most popular. Has the modern crowd suddenly acquired “expertise” because we have better access to what they think?

If you believe that, contact me—I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

More Nonsense from the Press About Wine Tasting

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newspaperJoe Pinsker in the Atlantic shows he not only knows nothing about wine; he is also logically challenged.

Pinsker argues that because most people, even experts, cannot reliably tell which region a wine comes from without looking at the label there is no real difference between cheap wine and expensive wine.

First, some facts about wine. Most wines, the vast majority, do not have flavor characteristics that clearly show the region in which the grapes were grown. Although soil, climate, and other geographical factors do influence the flavor of wine, the distinct flavor signature of a particular region can be overwhelmed by what happens in the winery. Most wines are in fact blends from different regions or sub-regions and many different vineyards this wiping out any distinct characteristics imparted by a particular plot of land. Only with small-production wines in which the winemaker has taken great care to preserve the distinct flavors of a relatively small geographical area will it be possible to identify the region via blind tasting. There are such wines and they are expensive. What you pay for is distinctiveness. You won’t find them in a supermarket.

But this has nothing to do with wine quality. Some blended wines using grapes from diverse locations can be very good wines. Some wines from small vineyards may not be so good.

The logical mistake is that the fact that wine experts are not very good at determining region from a blind tasting has nothing to do with whether they can determine quality differences—these are distinct judgments that focus on different aspects of the wine. Difficulties in blind tasting tell us little about the validity of assessments of quality.

What Pinsker seems to be concerned with is the price the consumer pays for wines that come from regions with a reputation—such as Napa. No doubt there is such a “reputation premium” and some wines from Napa are over-priced. But again this tells us nothing about whether there are real quality differentials between wines. You can make good wines from Napa grapes and bad wines as well. Just as you can make good wines using Jersey grapes and bad wines as well.

The real story here is that wine grapes are resilient, can grow well in many different regions, and so, increasingly, we will see quality wines made in many parts of the world, including New Jersey, that in the past were not known as wine regions.

But again that tells us nothing about whether wine quality is real and worth paying for or not.

What never ceases to amaze me is why reporters are so confused by this issue of wine expertise.

Wine Review: Artesa Chardonnay Carneros 2011

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artesa chardArtesa is one of my favorite Napa area wineries. Their Carneros location is gorgeous—you can see San Pablo Bay on a clear day—and their reserve and limited release wines are always worth tasting.  The larger production Signature series is usually consistent and well done. It was an Artesa Pinot Noir that piqued my interest in wine. So I had my usual high expectations when opening this bottle. I was a little disappointed in this 2011 Chardonnay.

intriguing smoke, grilled pineapple and apple sauce aromas of medium intensity waft from the glass.  An enticing nose with enough complexity to hold your interest.  The full-bodied palate is creamy with a little butter, balanced with robust acidity leading to a medium length finish, lightly graced with hazelnuts. Unfortunately the finish turns sour and is disjoint, diminishing the experience. All’s well that ends well; it it doesn’t end well, well….

This one’s a little bittersweet like Ani DiFranco’s Allergic to Water

Score: 88

Price: $18

Alc: 13.8%

Half of the wine was aged in French Oak, 30% new.

Budget Wine: Erik Turner’s Punk Rock Red California NV

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punk rock redWine marketing. Ya gotta love it.  So the label on this wine says “…merlot is known to be angry, rebellious, stripped down, yet aggressively modern. These high energy slamming grapes capture your attention and imagination, smashed berries with hints of anarchy, leather and spice in every seductive, radical sip.”

Huh? Merlot? That soft, mainstream, innocuous, approachable grape that everyone wanted until overcropping, overproduction (and the film Sideways) took it down a few notches.

I get it. This is Erik Turner’s wine; Erik Turner of the hair-metal band Warrant from the late 80’s. So the rebel stance has to be put out there. But really, this is a nice, cute Merlot, with a little pop and sizzle to it—anarchy and rebellion not so much.

Bright black cherry, good intensity on the nose with some candied fruit and quite spicy, like Cinnamon Hots candies.  The palate is full bodied with a glycerin mouth feel, a hint of sweetness and very little acidity although it has some tang on the finish, with a slow build on the medium-grain tannins. The length is surprising, it sneaks up on you. All in all a bit confected but rich and smooth with just enough structure to remind you it’s wine.

Speaking of confections, I paired it with some 72% chocolate and it was quite good—it is unusual for a red wine to pair well with chocolate.

Made for Mr. Turner by South Coast Winery in Temecula with 60% Wild Horse Peak and 40% Temecula grapes.

It’s only appropriate to sip this along with the Warrant ballad “Heaven”.

Score: 84

Price: $10 (ave.)

Alc: 13%

The Anti-Pleasure, Modern Puritans are Gaining Strength

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soylent green dayIt is amazing to me that we just can’t leave our Puritan heritage behind.

For most of the 20th Century, food was about convenience or nutrition; flavor seldom got a mention. Today, the techies are trying to undermine whatever progress we’ve made in learning to appreciate food.

Soylent, the nutritional sludge/food replacement powder created by LA-based software engineer Rob Rhinehart in 2013, has raised an additional and unprecedented $20 million in funding. Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz is behind the bulk of the cash. In a blog post Soylent writes of the raise, “This is a huge leap forward for our company and we are humbled the the trust our investors and all of you have put in Soylent as we continue to grow.”

Soylent is a curious product. Created initially because Rhinehart wanted a “simpler, more efficient food source that could provide maximum nutrition for minimal effort,” it’s now been billed as the future of food. Its relatively low cost does not yet offset its unpalatable taste, however. The company has said it is looking into flavoring its powders.

When I think about what I’m craving today, flavored powder immediately comes to mind. Why is anyone giving this guy money?

But, not to be outdone, this “experience designer and researcher” wants us to eat without eating:

Project Nourished is an attempt to trick people into thinking they’re eating food they like when in fact they are eating multicolored translucent slabs of gelatinous…stuff. Essentially, it’s a fully interactive trickery experience: you wear a virtual reality headset, like (but not necessarily specifically) the Oculus Rift, you hear the sounds of crunching into, I don’t know, a pie (does a pie crunch?), you smell the pie, and you eat what looks like a pie-shaped Jello mold that theoretically tastes like pie, without the calories.

Can I get my steak-flavored pectin with Bordelaise-flavored water?

Virtual eating, the ultimate triumph of the simulacra. Fear of pleasure becomes fear of reality itself. I thought post-modernism was over.

Nationalism and Food: Do Americans Have a Food Identity?

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fast food nationEver since the 18th Century French essayist Brillat-Savarin proclaimed “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”, food writers have been fascinated by the idea that food preferences are fundamental to one’s identity, that food preferences tell us something important about who we are. Most recently, in her book Word of Mouth, Priscilla Ferguson devotes her opening chapter to the role of food in forging a national identity: “Nationalism works through produce and dishes, through the talk that ties us to place, and beyond, to nation.”

But I’m wondering if, in the modern world, food preferences can play this role as an anchor of national identity.

Of course, in Brillat-Savarin’s 18th Century world there was a straightforward sense in which what you ate was an indicator of who you are. Although there was substantial trade among nations, most food was so perishable that people ate what was grown or raised in their local regions, and thus what they ate reflected their geographical origins. If there was something unique about the products or dishes arising from that region, then one’s food preferences inevitably indicated one’s origins, especially if that food was unavailable elsewhere. But today in our global food and information market where foods and recipes from all over the world are widely available, food preferences need not be so dependent on geography.

But the question of identity is freighted with more baggage than a mere indicator of geographical origins. Much depends on what we mean by “identity”. In one sense “identity” refers to a social category. People who belong to a category are labeled as such in virtue of some distinguishing characteristics they share. Thus, someone born or raised in Texas is a “Texan” in virtue of that fact. This person raised in Texas might also eat smoked brisket, a staple of Texan cuisine. But that fact doesn’t make her a Texan, since many Texans don’t eat smoked brisket and many non-Texans do. What one eats doesn’t necessarily tell us into which social category one fits.

But the notion of identity has another meaning. An identity might refer to a stable, relatively unchanging, distinguishing characteristic that one takes special pride in. Or that distinguishing characteristic might be so central to a person’s life that without it she would suffer a sense of disorientation or confusion about who she is. So our hypothetical Texan might have grown up eating smoked brisket and takes pride in that fact or feels so attached to the activity of eating brisket that an inability to do so when she moves to Minnesota is suffered as a great loss. It is this second sense of identity that I think people intend when they claim “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

No doubt such food-related identities can be important. After all, immigrants often go to great lengths to preserve the foodways of their countries of origin, because it gives them a sense of attachment that is deeply meaningful. But this sort of identity is entirely optional. Many people take no special pride in what they eat nor do they take what they eat as some indicator of their distinctiveness as persons or commitment to a nation. Yet they suffer no loss of their sense of belonging. So in this second sense of identity, Brillat-Savarin’s remark seems false as well.

I think there are cases in which food does anchor something like a national identity. France comes to mind because the French take their food seriously, and France has had a centralized government for centuries that actively fostered a sense of cultural identity through their foods and wines. There may be other nations or regions where cultural and political institutions consciously intensify a sense of belonging via food—the regions of Italy come to mind.

But I’m skeptical that this is generally true of the U.S. Whatever our traditional assumptions about belonging to a single nation are, it is hard to see these as focused on food. I suppose one could, as Ferguson does, see Thanksgiving as a national food fest that signifies belonging to the nation. After all, something like 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, which is a rather impressive number given our large immigrant population. But this once-a-year-spectacular event hardly constitutes an identity, since it happens only once per year. A national identity based on food would require traditions more grounded in the relatively constant rhythms of everyday life that knit the various aspects of life into a whole. When we look at the popular forms of food practices and preferences that circulate in the media and in the everyday life of Americans, they are all over the map, so diverse and divergent that it is difficult to pick out a pattern that we could point to as distinctly American and that symbolizes belonging to the nation. (Ferguson’s claim that eating competitions or a fascination with large quantities qualify as such a focal point is absurd.)

In the not-too-distant past, we might have pointed to anti-gourmandism, a utilitarian approach to food, and nutritionism as defining characteristics of American food practices, but thankfully, the food revolution in the U.S has laid waste to those dreadful traditions.

I am not claiming that food cannot or is never invoked as a source of identity. We do eat with our imaginations and the imaginations of some people clearly run in that direction. People often use food as a convenient marker of identity, but it is too unstable and fraught with exceptions to succeed in that role. As a general source of communal belonging, in the U.S., it is hard to see particular food preferences as supplying that glue that bonds individuals to their community.

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