Tyler Colman at Wine Searcher has a great post up today breaking down the cost of producing wine and comparing expensive wine with the cheap stuff. And it is clear that there is a correlation between the cost of production and price.
The most stunning figure is this:
According to the 2013 annual crush report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a ton of grapes from the most bountiful district in the Central Valley averaged $340 while a ton of grapes from Napa averaged $3684 (a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa averaged $5474).
Part of that differential reflects the cost of land in Napa and its reputation as a premier grape-growing region. But clearly differences in climate and soil matter. To claim there is no correlation between price and quality would suggest there is no difference between Napa grapes and Central Valley grapes and that just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
At any rate, there is lots of fascinating detail in this article. Anyone who buys wine should read it.
Recently, the usually reliable Andrew Jeffords began a blog post on wine tasting with a bit of oft-repeated nonsense:
Winegrowing is not artistic composition: a true work of art (poem, novel, symphony) is entirely created by the single fashioning mind. Without that mind, the work would not exist. What M. Guigal and Mr Gago do is craft: skillfully growing and then transforming an agricultural crop.
Someone else could do the job, with less skill.
I think many people assume this about a work of art—that it springs entirely from the creative genius of the artist and reflects only that individual’s personal viewpoint. According to this view, because the best winemakers don’t overly manipulate their wines but must allow the grapes and the distinctive characteristics of the grapes’ geographical origins to dictate the final product, winemakers are not artists. They don’t have the freedom that artists have to make what they want.
But this conception of artistic activity is a peculiarly modern, Western view of artistic production. Many artistic traditions think of art quite differently. On this alternative view, artists are given something to work with—some material, tools, and a history of problems and solutions that represent the tradition they are working in. Creating art is a matter of appreciating and figuring out how to display an object’s distinctive characteristics. The artist must be sensitive and responsive to the potential that exists in the object. Rather than imposing her point of view on the object she is in conversation with it, and her activity is a matter of making sure inessential or irrelevant elements are excluded
This principle that the potential of the object guides the artist’s vision underlies much environmental art. It is the guiding thought behind Japanese aesthetics as well. But even in traditional Western views artists understand themselves to be responsive to their materials. Michelangelo famously described his art as being responsive to the potential in his material:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it”
And even novelists speak this way when describing their art. They don’t put words in their character’s mouths or invent actions out of thin air. Instead they allow the characters to dictate the course of events by listening to their characters’ voices and allowing them to direct their creative activity. Art is not the product of a “single, fashioning mind” but a result of a “dialogue” between artist, materials, and the past.
The winemaking process is similar, especially when the winemaker is concerned to preserve the sense of place in a wine. Their talent lies, in part, in being responsive to their grapes and what they are capable of. Of course, this does not mean the winemaker is passive; she must still make countless judgments about how to bring out the potential of the grapes she has available. This is why the very same grapes in the hands of different winemakers will produce vastly different wines. Winemakers like artists are not controlling nature; they give expression to the nature of their object, a creative act that depends on the something outside their control.
It is thus only a narrow and timeworn cliché about artistic genius that makes some people skeptical about the artistry of winemaking.
There are lots of hard problems that require our thoughtful attention—poverty, climate change, quantum entanglement, or how to make a living, just for starters. But food and wine? Worthy of thought?
On the surface it looks like there are only three questions worth considering when it comes to food and wine: Do you have enough? Is it nutritious? And does it taste good? If you have the wherewithal to read this you probably have enough food. Questions of nutrition can be answered by consulting your doctor or favorite nutritionist. And surely it doesn’t take thought to figure out what tastes good.
But when we look at food a bit more deeply we find some important issues lurking beneath the surface. Some of the aforementioned “hard problems” have a lot to do with food. Our food distribution networks are anything but fair leaving many people without enough to eat; and our food production and consumption patterns are environmentally unsustainable in part because of their impact on climate change, as well as the disruption of water supplies caused by global warming. How we farm, what we eat, and how we cook have important social, political, and ethical ramifications—ramifications so important that we cannot think of these issues as purely private matters any longer.
But without minimizing the importance of these issues, I want to suggest that questions about what tastes good and why should occupy much more of our thoughtful attention than it does.
The aesthetics of taste are important because I don’t think one can live well in our world without taking an interest in the aesthetics of everyday life; and because food and wine are among the most accessible and satisfying everyday experiences, we should care about them much more than we do.
Why is the aesthetics of everyday life so important? This famous quote from the film Fight Club provides the experiential background:
Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so
we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be
millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.And we’re very, very pissed off.” (Taken from Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club.)
Most Americans live lives that are highly regulated and standardized, governed by norms of efficiency and profit that crowd out any other value; and these norms increasingly colonize our home life as well thanks to intrusive media technologies. We tend to work long hours at boring, repetitive jobs, that demand our full attention–in order to make someone else rich. That is, if your job is not outsourced to a machine.
Everyone needs a way to resist these demands, a place where beauty, pleasure and attention to things that have intrinsic value occupy our attention. Finding extraordinary meaning in simple things like a meal or a bottle of wine is the most accessible path to a good life in this damaged world. This is not a new thought—ancient sages from the Buddha to Epicurus had similar notions. But it is more relevant now than ever in human history,
Of course the character in Fight Club creates a place where men get together and punch each other to feel better about their limited lives. I guess that is “aesthetics” of a sort—a sensory experience no doubt. But we can probably do better by seeking a form of beauty not tainted by violence.
Yet such a commitment means we must refuse to accept what is false and inauthentic, that we recognize and block the strategies of our corporate masters when they manipulate our desires. When we outsource our practical reasoning to marketers our desires are not our own. The only antidote to such outsourcing is critical thought and a mind sufficiently open to fully appreciate what is before us, as food and drink almost always is.
As Epicurus said “Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”
Brett is an “off-aroma” caused by the Brettanomyces yeast. It sometimes gives wine a “barnyard” or leathery character which for me contributes to the earthy impression which I highly prize. But it more often produces chemical notes and “band-aid” aromas which are just disgusting. Handled with care it is not a flaw in my estimation.
But because wine often has earthy aromas independent of infection with this yeast, I’m often not sure whether it is “brett” that I am smelling or just the inherent quality of the wine.
According to this recent study, wine professionals differ significantly in their ability to detect “brett”. Winemakers, winegrowers, wine merchants, and wine brokers, all who regularly participated in formal tastings, were tested for their ability to detect the compounds associated with “brett”.
As reported by the Academic Wino:
- Wine expert profession had a significant influence on the ability of individuals to detect Brett character in wine, as well as off-odors in general.
- There was closer agreement among winemakers in regards to the detection of off-odors compared to all other professions studied.
- Variations in detection abilities among the individual participants were very large – specifically, the difference in ethylphenol concentrations identified was 2.5×103 between the most sensitive and the least sensitive perceivers.
- Participants who were winemakers as well as those with academic tasting degrees were found to be significantly better at identifying Brett character in wines compared with other wine experts without academic degrees or in other professions.
- There were no effects of age on Brett detection ability in the participants in this study.
This is not surprising. After all it is the job of the winemaker to detect flaws in a wine and eliminate them at each stage of the winemaking process. So through their training and their experience they’ve acquired a sensitivity to even low levels of these compounds. The rest of us only occasionally experience “brett” because it is often eliminated from the finished product, or we attribute the aromas to the inherent features of the wine and never make the connection.
Another example of how expert opinion can vary based on differences in training and experience.
Wine writer Jamie Goode raises a key question about wine criticism—should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their judgment?
He thinks style preferences inevitably color a critic’s judgment:
Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.
Why? Because of balance.
Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.
He grants that what he calls ”spoofulated wines”—overly-ripe, high alcohol, heavily oaked wines—taste out of balance to him and thus are inherently deserving of low scores; and such differences in preferences explain widely divergent scores among critics.
Thus he concludes “It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into.”
Truth be told, I don’t think a wine critic’s job is to be objective. It is to discover what is beautiful, different, or remarkable, to make readers think about their own preferences, and lead them to discover something they might not otherwise have noticed. To do that, one needs an aesthetic perspective, a distinct point of view, not objectivity.
But it is important that critics avoid certain kinds of biases regarding price, reputation, marketing, or personal connections, and if a critic’s preferences are too idiosyncratic her reviews might not be generally useful so it is an interesting question whether objectivity, when appropriate, can be achieved.
I think Jamie is right at least about the relationship between balance, style, and the role of personal preference. Balance is a function of the relative prominence of the various components of a wine—fruit, acidity, tannin, oak flavors—and the extent to which they seem integrated and unified. Decisions about how to adjust this balance account for at least some stylistic differences among winemakers as well as differences among consumers and their preferences.
Because balance is an inherently relational concept, an assessment of how a number of independent variables in a particular case are related, there can be no objective measure of it. In other words, the balance point of each wine will depend on its unique characteristics and thus there can be no general rule, scale, or metric that determines balance.
But balance isn’t all there is to wine quality. Complexity, intensity, length of finish, how much flavor there is on the finish as opposed to merely tactile sensations, and liveliness on the palate are also elements of wine quality. Unlike balance these are more one-dimensional, and at least roughly measurable because they are primarily about magnitude and thus can be represented on a scale. I would hesitate to say these are purely objective properties—differences in physiology and background will produce disagreement about them among experienced critics. But the fact that a single magnitude is being assessed reduces the scope of disagreement and increases the possibility that, through training, diverse tasters can calibrate their judgments to each other.
I might not prefer “spoofulated” wines, but I can nevertheless judge their complexity, concentration, length of finish etc. assuming my bias doesn’t prevent me from attending to these features.
But this raises another more far-reaching issue. The judgments of wine critics may be initially subject to all sorts of biases. But can an attentive, self-aware critic overcome these biases? If a critic recognizes that they prefer certain wine styles to others, and is able to analyze the way such biases influence her judgments, can she overcome the bias?
I’m not sure what the answer to that question is.
There has been a good deal of research on cognitive biases. The work of Daniel Kahneman especially has demonstrated that our thinking is subject to all sorts of unconscious biases that seriously distort our thinking.
For instance, take what Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy”—our tendency to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, and hence foolishly to take on risky projects. Yet, clearly, if we know about this bias and discipline ourselves to stick with the hard evidence and have the appropriate skepticism with regard to unsubstantiated predictions, we can overcome this bias.
Are taste biases similar?
With regard to criteria such as overall hedonic quality, on the basis of which point scores are awarded, it is hard to see how biases can be avoided. If your judgment is simply a matter of identifying how much pleasure you get from a wine, then personal preference inevitably enters the picture. You can’t pretend to enjoy what you don’t enjoy or gauge how much you would enjoy a wine if only you had enjoyed it. But there is more to wine criticism than measuring overall hedonic quality.
It is common for art, film, and music critics to give positive reviews to works they didn’t particularly enjoy—perhaps the theme makes them uncomfortable, the film or score was too long, the meaning opaque. But the work might nevertheless be complex, moving, interesting, and have integrity. Pleasure is not the only criterion for judging anything and thus personal preference need not govern all our aesthetic judgments.
I see no reason why wine criticism should be different.
The pop and sizzle of wine’s ideological battles reminds us that wine is not just a beverage. A few weeks ago Robert Parker took a swipe at what he calls the anti-flavor elite—sommeliers who promote obscure varietals and less extracted wines—and the firestorm of outrage still smolders where the singed meet to lick their emotional wounds. More recently In Pursuit of Balance—a group dedicated to promoting “terroir-driven wines—held their seminar on what proper Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should taste like, and were ridiculed by the inimitable Hosemaster of Wine as “likeminded people who understood that Balance in wine is truthfully defined as the interplay of fruit, marketing, self-promotion and faux philosophy.” As you can imagine, his comment threads lit up with praise from the fallen whose pursuit of imbalance had left them stumbling about in an oaky, alcohol-induced stupor.
Tom Wark has been notably silent of late in his crusade against “natural wine” marketing, but the guru of “natural wines Alice Feiring posted the above breakdown of wine ideologies, entitled the Semotic Square of Wine Lovers, a marketing device commissioned by Bosco Viticulori to, I suppose, help wine producers and distributors identify their target market.
Feiring proudly wears the “radical” label and I suppose this chart captures something about the voices competing for attention in the wine world. But it leaves out one significant group of wine lovers–knowledgeable consumers who are just looking for great quality to price ratio. Most of my friends who drink wine can’t afford to be wine snobs, have trouble finding “natural wines, and find the appellation system unreliable. So they go to tastings and experiment with whatever seems interesting for a good price and thus may fall into any category on any particular day. I suspect this let-a-million-flowers-bloom-as-long-as-I-can-afford-it crowd is a significant portion of the wine market.
Many wine writers express a kind of world-weariness regarding these debates about what wine should taste like. Stephen Elliot writing for the Coinoisseur’s Guide to California Wine writes:
… I cannot but question the so very predictable agendas of the true-believing parties involved. Moreover, I have become increasingly dismayed at the “with us or against us” ethos of the same, and I wonder just who any of this is meant to serve. I am betting that the principals are delighting in the publicity. It sells books and subscriptions, but more than a few of us in the business are getting fed up…We have for some time heard from our readers that they are becoming bored with the whole shtick. There have been several steady and exceptionally angry internet voices whose pique for Parker borders on neurosis, and more than a few who, like myself, are tired of being made to feel the need to chose sides, have been equally disapproving of both….Please, dear people, by all means drink what you like, but we will all be better off when we reach the point that the success of one winemaking style is not dependent upon on another’s failing. Your wine of choice will not taste any better because you look down your nose at what someone else might like.
I don’t quite understand this complaint. Wine producers and their marketers will always seek to encourage people to drink the style of wine they produce. If customers are buying your wine then they are not buying someone else’s—there are winners and losers in any market and so success might entail someone else’s failure. Furthermore, to judge something as admirable or worthy because it has certain characteristics is to implicitly contrast it with something that lacks those characteristics. To prefer everything equally is to have no preference at all. So if you find yourself consistently preferring one style of wine over another what is wrong with expressing that preference, especially if you are a taste maker in the business of persuading others to share your point of view?
To those who insist we should just taste the wine and forget the ideology, I think this attitude misses the point of ideologies. The 19th Century literary critic Walter Pater wrote:
The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end….Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.
We develop ideological frameworks because they help us pay attention to what we, out of habit, might fail to notice. Rajat Parr’s constant advice to seek balance or Robert Parker’s diatribes in support of big flavors are attempts to get us to break old habits and look at wine from a different point of view (or in Parker’s case to return to our forgotten roots). Whether one agrees or disagrees with this, I fail to see what is morally objectionable about such advocacy.
We know from all the empirical evidence that beliefs and context influence what we taste. Theories about what wine should taste like are attempts to reframe our drinking habits; they make wine more interesting not less. If they become wearisome it is not because ideas are irrelevant but because they wear out their welcome after awhile and we need new ideas—we need more ideology not less.
Well, what if your neighborhood market increased their prices 200% over ten years. They might come in for a little criticism. An average release price for 1st growth Bordeaux wines in 2000 was $424. By 2010 the average release price was around $1000 per bottle and will be substantially more when they are ready to drink. Bordeaux has priced themselves out of the market of wine lovers and are now chasing the nouveau riche in Asia, who are looking for status symbols. So some Bordeaux bashing is well deserved.
But Bordeaux also comes in for criticism because of its unique ranking system. In 1855, in preparation for a world exposition, wine merchants ranked “left bank” Bordeaux properties according to the price of their wines and the vineyards’ reputation. First growths were the most expensive and celebrated, 5th growths were the least so, although worthy of being in the game. (The “right bank” was excluded and they now have their own classification system) If you weren’t on the list, marketing your wines was a challenge. It is remarkable that the ranking, with only minor modifications, is still in use. Despite the fact that vineyards have changed ownership, generations of winemakers have come and gone, tastes have changed dramatically, and so has the weather, the Bordelais still use this ranking system to determine price and quality.
Is this classification still relevant? The Wine Elite and the San Diego Wine Society fearlessly came to the rescue last Saturday, setting out to answer this question with a blind tasting. We tasted five Bordeaux wines each from a different growth. Limitations of budget and availability prevented us from tasting wines of the same vintage so there are limitations to this “test”. The five Bordeaux were as follows:
1st Cru Château Margaux 2004
2nd Cru Château Durfort Vivens 2010 (Margaux)
3rd Cru Château Langoa Barton 2003 (St. Julian)
4th Cru Château Brainaire Ducrux 2006 (Pauillac)
5th Cru Château Haut-Bages-Libéral 1995 (Pauillac)
Are these classifications even a rough guide to wine quality? Well, clearly the Chateau Margaux is worthy of its status. Although 2004 was an average vintage, this beautiful wine has the classic Margaux elegance with lovely floral notes to offset the rich blueberry flavors and dry, silky minerality. But the 2nd Growth from Durfort Vivens was a bit of a puzzle. Plenty of intensity and lots of earth notes but rough around the edges—the acidity and tannins were not integrated. This wine needs 5 more years in the cellar but it has the stuffing to age well.
The 3rd and 4th growths were similar with black current and leather aromas and a soft, supple palate. But the Langoa Barton had more weight and presence than the Brainaire which seemed flat and a little dull and neither had the power of the (still young) Durfort Vivens.
The surprise was the 5th Cru Haut-Bages. Despite its age, it has plenty of fruit left mixed with mushroom and pencil lead, and a refined palate with soft, round tannins. This wine displays all the virtues of even a moderately priced, well-aged Bordeaux.
So what conclusions can we draw? It is difficult to compare wines of such sharply varying vintages and this is too small a sample to count as more than a single data point. But with one exception, I thought the ranking of these Chateaux conforms to their quality level. (There was of course a good deal of disagreement on that point among the participants.) The one exception? I suspect the Haut-Bages deserves better than its 5th Crus rank. Yes it is hide bound, officious, subject to corruption and surely inhibits creativity, but this ranking system is not without its virtues. It preserves the focus on terroir which the French value highly and, if you know the system, gives consumers a good idea of what is in the glass.
I came away from this tasting with the thought that Bordeaux will be back. It is widely reported that, with the wine market now a global market brimming with quality wine from all over the world, wine lovers have moved away from the staid, over-priced Bordeaux. They do have to get their pricing in line with global markets. But this tasting brought home to me the fact that Bordeaux wines exhibit a distinct style that is not duplicated anywhere else in the world. There is nothing like a well-aged Bordeaux.
To break up all this “dirt and acid”, 5 other wines were included within our blind tasting. But there was never any doubt when we were tasting one of the Bordeaux. I suspect wine lovers after traveling far and wide will still want to sample that dirt and acid from time to time.
The other 5 wines were:
Le Pont 2010 Bandol
Pierre Amadieu 2011 Vacqueyras
Nada Fiorenzo Barbaresco 1998
La Conreria Priorat 2009
Windsor Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Estate Reserve Sonoma
David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:
A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…
“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …
Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.
The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.
But there is something missing in this explanation.
It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.
But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.
Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?
Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.
Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.
Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.
Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.
It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.
We know soil influences the taste of wine. Expert tasters can identify the region a wine comes from by identifying taste components, and wine sourced from vineyards with the same weather often has a significantly different flavor profile. But scientists are not sure how soil influences the wine, and the scientific consensus has changed over time.
Will Lyons has a quick summary of the evolution of the science of terroir:
…in the late 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was that the vine’s roots acted as a sort of vacuum pump, sucking up nutrients from the ground, thus giving the wine its distinctive mineral character. In the recent update of his book “Wine Science,” biologist Jamie Goode highlights the process of cation exchange, whereby roots trade hydrogen ions with cations attached to negatively charged soil particles.
But recent studies have focused more on the importance of vines’ water retention, saying that constant access to water—but not too much or too little—is the key to producing good wine.
More recently, scientists have shifted their attention to soil microbes. This report from last November summarizes research from a UC Davis team:
They found that the structure of the microbial communities varied widely across different grape growing regions. The data also indicated that there were significant regional patterns of both fungal and bacterial communities represented in Chardonnay must samples. However, the Cabernet Sauvignon samples exhibited strong regional patterns for fungal communities but only weak patterns for bacterial communities.
Further tests showed that the bacterial and fungal patterns followed a geographical axis running north-south and roughly parallel to the California coastline, suggesting that microbial patterns are influenced by environmental factors.
Taken together, these and other results from the study reveal patterns of regional distributions of the microbial communities across large geographical scales, the study co-authors reported.
One group of microbes was associated with chardonnay musts from the Napa Valley, another from Central Valley and a third from Sonoma. We can’t infer a cause from a correlation but the correlation is striking enough to be interesting.
Maybe it’s not the crisp, flinty taste of limestone we detect in that Chardonnay but the influence of some “creepy crawlys” with long Latin names. Tasting notes of the future might extol the buoyant, infectious flavors of Clostridium Achromobacter