Can Good Wine Become a Populist Beverage?

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decanting wineThe conversation W. Blake Gray had with Bonny Doon’s head winemaker Randall Grahm was depressing:

“Nobody knows anything about what sells wine,” Grahm says. “I don’t know. I feel like a dinosaur. Everybody older in the wine business feels like a dinosaur.”

Grahm recently sold Bonny Doon to a wine marketing company after revamping the wine lineup to sell more high production, less expensive wines. He remains as winemaker while he develops his new, experimental vineyard, Popelouchum.  As Gray writes:

Randall Grahm is a genius wine marketer.

All of us in wine media thought so. He could drum up publicity with amusing stunts and follow up with brilliant quotes, not to mention interesting wines. And he was rewarded by magazine covers and as much press coverage as any winemaker in the US. But it turns out that maybe Grahm was a genius at marketing to wine media, and not so much to the general public. His sale earlier this month of a downsized Bonny Doon has made me question myself. It’s not my job to sell wine, but if Bonny Doon, with all the publicity it got, couldn’t sell wine, maybe wine media doesn’t matter.

I’ve had a similar conversation with Randall as well other stellar winemakers who have energy and a knack for publicity. The story is the same. Selling good wine is really hard as well as mysterious. And Gray is right. Wine media is for the most part directed at other people in the wine business. Maybe scores move wine but articles, features, and profiles probably not so much.

The problem is that while the market for wine is huge, the market for interesting, pricey wines is comparatively tiny. Most of the public is content with $10 wine from the supermarket with maybe an occasional splurge on a special occasion. Only wine geeks will spend $50 for Mourvèdre from Santa Cruz. Most wine consumers don’t know it exists and don’t care.

There are of course a lot of wine geeks out there. Wine attracts dedicated wine lovers and their numbers have been growing over the past 40 years. But it looks like that growth is slowing, even as the number of wineries in the U.S. and elsewhere is exploding. When you look at wine sales statistics, the disparity is stunning. There are over 10,000 wineries in the U.S. Yet about 50 brands get 90% of those sales mostly at big box stores and supermarkets.

The rest of the 9000+ wineries are forced to hunt down wine geeks and persuade them, not just to try their wines, but to drink them again and again. The problem is wine geeks like to try something new much of the time. They have little brand loyalty because it’s variation that lights up their world and of course most are just as interested in imported wine as in domestic.

Unless the wine business finds a way to boost demand for the good stuff, selling it is going to be a dicey proposition. And so there are constantly conversations about how to make wine more appealing and accessible. In my view that battle probably can’t be won.

Wine is inherently difficult. Its charms are subtle and difficult to discern. It takes practice and cash. And gaining a working knowledge of wines’ variations takes time and dedication. Money and time are in short supply, and for the vast majority of potential consumers, wine just isn’t worth it. Sure you can jazz up the label, and tell stories about how much you love your vineyard and care for the earth. But that won’t cancel out the basic deficits—time, money, and good taste.

We would all like to live in a world where fine wine is everyone’s beverage of choice. I don’t think that is this world.

Tasting Vitality: The Basic Features of Wine in Motion

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wine in motionI’m working on developing a tasting model that elevates a wine’s rhythm and motion on the palate, giving them equal billing with aromas. The justification for developing such a model is that a wine’s perceived movement on the palate is not only one determinant of wine quality but is central to a wine’s personality. Distinctive wines have a distinctive manner in which their tactile qualities unfold. Yet, our way of describing these features is not nearly as well developed as our description of flavor and aroma notes.

In an earlier post I explained how a wine’s structure is central to how it unfolds. In this post I begin to describe the basic form and sequence of that unfolding.

When we taste a wine, we experience it as moving through stages on the palate. The initial impression is of fruitiness and weight, although wines from cooler regions may exhibit earth and herbal flavors that are nearly as dominant as the perceptions of “fruitiness”. We then begin to sense the tactile impressions caused by acidity which often lightens the perceived weight of the wine and adds some tartness to the fruit and a sharp bite to the mouthfeel. Meanwhile we begin to sense the dryness and graininess of the tannins. [This is true of white wines as well but to a lesser degree] The point at which we perceive fruit and associated flavors, acidity, and tannins beginning to influence each other marks the midpalate, which can be broken into further segments if necessary–the front of the midpalate or back of the midpalate—in order to describe the wine’s movement. At midpalate, the wine seems to be expanding, gaining both a physical sensation of depth and breadth and a sense of increasing sharpness. (The sharpness may be muted in wines that lack acidity) After swallowing, the fruitiness and perceptions of weight gradually recede, the perception of dryness from the tannins and sharpness from the acidity become more prominent and then fade.

These transformations on the palate are for the most part universal and should seem quite familiar. All properly made red and white wines exhibit some version of this basic pattern. (Sparkling wine and fortified wines have additional features which I am ignoring for now)

Aside from specific aromas and flavors, what distinguishes one wine from another? Wines differ regarding how prominent or recessive these structural components are, how that relative prominence shifts as we taste the wine, how quickly these changes occur, and what the range of these changes are. (By “range” I mean the how widely divergent from a set point the effect is. For instance, does the sharpness from the acidity show continuity as the wine unfolds or does it increase or decrease?)

While these changes are occurring, each component is influencing the other components, changing their character and relative prominence. For instance, as we perceive more prominent acidity, that will affect the quality and relative prominence of the fruit compared to other components. As the wine evolves in the mouth these components expand and contract, jostling for our attention, their relative degrees of prominence fluctuating with differing degrees of duration and acceleration. One important question to answer is whether these changes influence wine quality and how do they do so.

At this point, I need to introduce some of the technical vocabulary that will help us understand this dimension of wine tasting. We can summarize the above by pointing to general features of any process—the perceived movement of the structural components of wine exhibit velocity, acceleration, duration, and force. For wine tasting, in particular, we must add the frequency, amplitude, and continuity of variations as a central feature of movement on the palate. By “frequency” I mean how often they occur. By “amplitude”, I mean how large the effect is. By “continuity” I mean how persistent the effect is between stages. These general features of processes influence the perceived changes the wine undergoes. We experience a wine as expanding or contracting. We sense changes in the relative intensity of the various structural components. Wines seem to change their shape, from round to angular for instance, as the tasting experience unfolds. Wines exhibit tension, release, direction, resolution and finesse because of these general features of processes.

Thus, as analytic tasters we might ask the following sorts of questions: As the acidity becomes more prominent at midpalate, what happens to the fruit and how is it interacting with the aromas and flavors? What is that activity doing to our attentional focus? What is gaining in intensity and what is diminishing as the perceived acidity increases or the tannins emerge? What is happening to the velocity of these changes? How do these affect our overall impression of the wine?

In the next post in this series, I will discuss how to measure and express these dimensions of a wine.

Wine Review: La Fortuna Rosso Di Montalcino DOC 2016

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la fortunaSimplicity has charm when the few elements are in balance, like the beauty of a silent, spare morning. This Sangiovese from Tuscany’s most celebrated wine region has such charming simplicity.

The aromatics are evocative. Black cherry amidst an herb garden—a bit of mulch, a few twigs, and bay leaf, nicely unified but without distinct, focused aromas. A background wood note is not yet integrated but doesn’t distract.

The palate is poised, its earth-toned body sits patiently between lush and lean as it rapidly thins out at the back of the midpalate. A fruit layer persists through the mid-length finish but more like a memory than a dream. Forceful tannins and incisive acidity provide a rough edge; the wine would fit well in tender, calloused hands,  head encircled by a straw hat.

A lovely Rosso for the price.

Intimate, familiar and agreeable, perhaps a bit desolate but hopeful with a mid-tempo, deliberate rhythm like Bruce “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”.

The story: 2016 is a promising vintage in Montalcino. For some reason this relatively small, family-run winery skipped the Brunello and put their premium grapes in their Rosso.  100% Sangiovese from 25–35 year old vines, aged 6 months in large Slovenian barrels, 6 months in used French barriques and 3 months in the bottle before release.

Score: 89

Price: $21 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 14%

Do Winemakers Deserve Kudos?

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winemakerOliver Styles, as usual, raises an interesting question in his latest article for Wine Searcher: Do we over-emphasize the impact a winemaker has on the finished wine?

My immediate response to the question was “well, it depends on the wine and the winemaker”—a point he readily acknowledges.

As he points out, sometimes accidents contribute to great wines. Some winemakers are working within long-established traditions, have exceptional vineyards to work with, or do work framed by a celebrated “house-style” established long before they were on the scene. Some winemakers operate under more commercial pressure than others; business models help to determine whcih wine gets made.

The general point to draw from this is that wine is made by a community, not an individual. Viticulturalists, farmers and vineyard workers, cellar hands, owners, marketing staffs, accountants,  tasting panels that enforce standards, peer pressure, critics, and the consuming pubic through their feedback, as well as the winemaker, all play a role in the finished product. So do the climate, weather, and soils not to mention the vines themselves.

How should we apportion credit given this long list of inputs? As I noted, that is a good question.

One question I think is utterly irrelevant is the one he keeps coming back to:

How do we know what wines one winemaker would make if completely free of responsibilities to the board, responsibilities to the market, the pressures of their peers (this latter is a factor, especially in natural wine circles)? In other words, we can’t be sure that the winemaker we praise wouldn’t have made a completely different wine to the one we like if left completely to her or his own devices.

The answer is we can’t know. We call these “counterfactuals” in the philosophy business and their epistemology is obscure. When a baseball team wins the World Series we don’t wonder whether the manager could have won with a different team. The answer is probably not but that doesn’t detract from the manager’s accomplishment. Would Monet have painted the series entitled  “Waterlilies” if he lacked a garden in Giverny to inspire him? Probably not. So what? We are evaluating an accomplishment under the conditions that explain its genesis, not some alternative accomplishment under different conditions.

He asks: “imagine our top Bordeaux winemakers were transposed into Languedoc-Roussillon without any of their current reputation, would we be using words like “kudos” or “bravo” when talking about them and their Cabardes or their Costieres de Nimes?”

No because skillfully making an average wine, while praiseworthy for the skill involved, isn’t producing a noteworthy finished product.

My point is the way we praise winemakers is somewhat problematic: are we praising the person themselves and their abilities; are we praising the employee of a company for doing her or his job; are we praising their ability to please us?

Wine is an aesthetic object (at least many wines are) and as such it’s primarily the aesthetic quality of the object we are interested in. Whatever praise is due the winemaker flows from that quality.

Of course, we could just bracket the finished product and evaluate the abilities of the winemaker, the way they do their job, or their knack for assessing the market. There is nothing wrong with these evaluations for certain purposes but in doing so we are losing touch with the aesthetic accomplishment.

He closes with another peculiar question:

That doesn’t mean I don’t think winemakers should get any credit, I’m just struck by the possibility of someone out there getting “kudos” for making a wine they themselves don’t like. It must be akin to an actor realizing for the first time they are being typecast.

This contains a genuine puzzle. We praise people for their accomplishments even when there is luck involved. Works of art often have aesthetic affects that were not intended by the artist. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. But Oliver is raising a different kind of case. How do we evaluate a case in which the winemaker makes a wine she intended to make, the wine is of high quality, but it’s in a style she doesn’t prefer?

It isn’t obvious to me that the winemaker’s preferences should matter. Presumably, the finished product reflects her skill and aesthetic judgement—she made the right moves to produce the wine. Why would we withhold praise because she would prefer to make a different wine?

Are Wine Marketers Contributing to Climate Change?

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terroirMaster of Wine and all-around intellectual John Atkinson has a thoughtful and forceful challenge to the wine industry’s contribution to climate change. His premises are unassailable; his conclusion, debatable.

After pointing out that the planet is retaliating for our profligate ways through climate disruptions, he lays part of the blame at the feet of marketing:

The technological advance from horse-drawn plough to tractor follows an established logic of incremental improvement, but it’s harder to find a precedent coming out of the past for products that, when launched, so precisely conjugate desire with satisfaction in the way, say, the iPhone 5 did for iPhone 4 users. Marketing’s aesthetic and affective lessening of the barriers to repeat purchase (the law of diminishing returns) gives brand owners an alternative strategy for profit and proliferation; one that avoids costly R&D.

Bottled water, gin,  and the latest I-phone iteration are good examples of “pimped up versions of past inventory”, encouraging the over-production that now threatens life on earth. Then he asks the big question:

At a time when we have client presidents and prime ministers, can marketers handle a brief that reins back on occasionality and the incessant multiplication of products and lines? Can they recoil from stimulating and directing our emotions, or is the human psyche destined to darken into a collective death-drive?

My short answer would be “no”, they can’t handle that brief anymore than capitalism can figure out how to profit while reigning in growth.

Then he turns to the wine world where he argues that marketing and consumerism have us in that death spiral. He argues that the marketing of wine scores and maximum peak experiences encourages winner-take-all markets that benefit Petrus but not Puglia. Wine marketing has shown little ability to improve the prospects of lesser-known regions.

But he saves his big rhetorical guns for the virtue-signaling that now accompanies the marketing of  “organic”, biodynamic” and “terroir”.

Terroir is a useful concept to have available when we’re sensitizing ourselves to the fine differences within and between regions; but its more ardent proponents have now added climatic resilience to its burgeoning powers. This move strikes me as either wishful thinking or Canuteism. Most vineyards are already struggling with their new burden of heat, and I just can’t see how ploughing between rows or spraying with horn silica is any better than the sticking plasters of mulching and shorter maceration. [Nota Bene: King Canute was an 11th Century Danish warrior king who conquered much of Northern Europe and Scandinavia.]

It’s hard to argue with the premises here. It’s nice to be nice to your little plot of land (and benefits to farm workers, wildlife, and downstream/downwind farms by avoiding chemicals are nothing to sneeze at). But buying or cultivating “wines of terroir” will do nothing for climate change. It is just a way to sell more (hopefully) good wine. It’s that overproduction problem again.

But I find his conclusion less than persuasive.

Rather than argue the toss about countries and industries, the responsibility for behavioural change is switching more and more towards us. The argument that the wine industry is better than the fashion industry is really no argument at all. We need to face the fact that our industry is too big, too sprawling and too wasteful, even if everything is shipped round the globe in bladders and containers.

There is a logic problem here. If lovingly cultivating your vineyard and promoting your wines will not halt climate change, neither will cutting back on wine purchases or plane flights. The problem of climate change is a collective action problem. Our individual actions make no difference unless everyone else is doing the same. Thus far, the only mechanism we have for solving collective action problems is government. That is its purpose. There is of course nothing wrong with being on the side of the angels. If virtue is where you plant your flag, do so proudly. But it won’t solve the problem.

Now, granted, changing social norms can be powerful. But individuals don’t spontaneously decide to start cooperating; that usually requires some coercion. Since the threat of eternal damnation has gone bust, I don’t see a mechanism for manufacturing moral seriousness and so far the threat of extinction hasn’t worked. The only way out of this mess is a massive, green infrastructure build out and the technologies of carbon capture. That will require government and lots of it.

If we cannot get rid of clowns like Trump and Bojo we will not solve this problem. And we will need all the wine we can get.

Wine Review: Cantina Del Bovale “Sinnos” Isola Dei Nuraghi IGT 2011

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cantina del bovaleThis red blend hails from Sardinia. Isola Dei Nuraghi is an appellation that covers all of Sardinia and surrounding islands and is used primarily for wines that do not fit the DOC or DOCG regulations.

A wine of real pathos at a tipping point. Although the nose shows muddled strawberry with faint hints of licorice and white pepper, the signature fragrance of a passing season, autumn leaves, is dominant with background hints of old books.

On the medium bodied palate, the opening of dried fruit lacks intensity, but it becomes juicy and mouthwatering midpalate showing more vivacity when the acid kicks in. Peppery tannins add a spicy rusticity on the finish which shows good length enlivened by a halo of spring water freshness.

This is still enjoyable but it’s losing it grip on life. Tinged with melancholy, fatalistic but still fervent it paired best with the wistful yet firm Sister Lost Soul by Alejandro Escovedo.

Technical Notes: This is a blend of Bovale 40%, Cannonau 30% and Monica 30%. “Cannonau” is the Sardinian name for Grenache. Bovale Grande is called “Carignan” in France and “Mazuelo” in Spain. Monica is a blending grape grown primarily in Sardinia. The island is warmer than the south of France where Grenache/Carignan blends are plentiful but cooler than Spain’s Cariñena where a similar blend flourishes. The grapes for this wine are grown on the west coast near Terralba; the wine is aged in stainless steel tanks.

Score: 88

Price: $23 (Purchase here)

Alc: 13.5%

The Meaning of Wine Scores

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bottles on a shelfWine statistics guru David Morrison wades into the issue of wine scores. Despite their alleged usefulness as a marketing tool, he finds them fundamentally misleading because they falsely imply the score serves some precise mathematical purpose.

My point here is that if quality scores are adjectives then they should not be treated as numbers, because the only purpose of numbers is their mathematical properties, not their linguistic ones….
For my purpose here, the pertinent issue is the idea that the the numbers express more than merely rank order. We expect that a score of 90 is better than a score of 89 — their rank order should mean something. But we do not know how much better a 90 wine is than an 89, nor do we know what criteria were used to decide on this difference. So, the quantitative difference has no explicit meaning.

I agree with David that scores are often interpreted as having some mathematical meaning as well as the precision that mathematics enables. I also agree that wine scores could not possibly have a mathematical meaning or express precision since there are no precise criteria for assigning scores.

But I disagree that the score is useless.

For me a wine score is a measure of something. When tasting under optimum conditions, how much aesthetic enjoyment did I get from this wine compared to other wines I’ve tasted under similar conditions? A wine score is a measure of aesthetic response. By “aesthetic response” I don’t mean only sensory pleasure. A wine could be difficult but interesting or distinctive. Such a wine to me is enjoyable up to a point so I would consider that in assigning a score. But the score is referring to something fundamentally subjective—my mental state when tasting the wine relative to past experience. Does such a score reflect only my personal preferences? Not necessarily. When I assess a wine I consider what drinkers who prefer this style would think about it. I assess whether it has the characteristics we expect from a wine of this type? Aesthetic response is not reducible to mere preference.

Thus I disagree with David’s view that a rank order is not sufficiently informative to make wine scoring worthwhile. A wine that receives 90 points is marginally more enjoyable than one that scores 89. It is significantly better than a wine scored at 85. “Marginally” and “significantly” are not mathematically precise terms but their meaning is well understood. The fact that numerical rankings are intuitively clear is a point in their favor. It seems to me they are easily understood which makes them a good marketing tool.

If this is the meaning of a wine score, why would anyone be interested? If a knowledgeable, experienced, honest critic enjoys a wine enough to score it more highly than comparable wines, that is worth knowing. There is of course no guarantee that the reader will enjoy it as well. People differ in their preferences. But that information is still worth knowing because it means the wine is appealing to at least one sophisticated taster. That in itself is a good reason to try the wine.

I don’t know the degree to which the well-known wine critics at major publications would agree with this view. But I don’t know what else a wine score could mean.

On the Semantics of Minerality

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mineralityIf you have been wondering about the state of research into minerality in wine, Alex Maltman in Decanter has you covered. He summarizes all the latest theories about minerality and supporting scientific evidence for them and ends up concluding—well, we still don’t know what it is or where it comes from

But as I read through the article it became clear to me that one reason the science is inconclusive is because there is no agreement on what we mean by “minerality” and the disagreement seems to largely stem from cultural differences.

Another illustration of the communication problem is the different word associations reported by research groups at Lincoln University in New Zealand and at California’s UC Davis. While both teams noted positive correlations between minerality and words like citrus, fresh, zingy, flinty, and smoky, the Lincoln researchers differed from those at Davis in finding no correspondence with acidity or reductive notes.

One study showed that minerality represented different things to Swiss and French wine consumers, and that the Swiss group used a markedly broader vocabulary.

When Professor Maltman turns to the question of where minerality comes from, it seems the science is hampered by that lack of agreement on what the term “minerality” refers to:

A later investigation, from UC Davis, reported that professional tasters found minerality in wines with greater malic and tartaric acidity and, to a lesser extent, free and total sulphur dioxide. However, a New Zealand study, while supporting a role for sulphur dioxide, found no correlation between acidity and perceived minerality, nor with reductive notes.

Here is what stood out to me. The New Zealand study found no correlation between acidity or reductive notes as the cause of minerality. But notice in the first quote, the New Zealand team found no correlation between minerality and word associations indicating acidity and reductive notes. In other words, for New Zealanders, high acid or sulfur compounds were not viewed as the cause of minerality because they don’t refer to high acid or sulfurous wines as “minerally”.

The basic problem is that there are cultural differences in the words used to describe wines. Thus, cross-cultural analyses of causal connections between compounds in the wine and our perceptions will be influenced by how we talk about those perceptions.

This is not unusual. Obviously in our language use we are deeply influenced by the people we interact with and there are often significant cultural differences between language groups even if they nominally speak the same language. There is little reason to think New Zealanders and Americans or the French and the Swiss would share all linguistic references despite the overlap in their official languages.

People have different names for things. That doesn’t necessarily mean we disagree about the underlying non-linguistic phenomenon.

What there does seem to be agreement on is that “minerality” doesn’t come directly from soil or rocks. Despite the tendency to talk as if there are such connections the science seems conclusive.

For Serious Wine Lovers Happy Talk about Tariffs is Thin Gruel

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stop wine tariffsThe news about the Trump “administration’s” 100% tariff hikes on EU wine is grim indeed and the impact on importers and retailers has been widely reported. After several paragraphs justly lamenting the devastating affects of these tariffs, Wine Searcher’s Kathleen Willcox rightly points out that some people will benefit from these tariffs.

The American wine industry has never done much business in Europe because the EU taxes American wine more highly than American’s tax European wine.

“The wine industry in the EU gets substantial government support,” says Rob McMillan, EVP and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division. “Imported wines have grown from 12 percent of US sales in the early 2000s to close to 35 percent today.”

McMillan says that the US’s “relatively open market” has forced people to examine unjust trade policies more closely.

So some American exporters might benefit in the long run if the EU ends up backing down.

And on U.S shelves, U.S wines will be relative bargains compared to EU wines once the tariffs take hold so U.S. wineries might benefit.

Non-EU countries who export to the U.S. such as Chile, Argentina, and Australia are probably salivating at the prospect of increased market share.

Every policy has winners and losers—some producers will come out ahead.

But, notice, none of the beneficiaries are consumers. We get fewer choices, higher prices, and draconian restrictions on our access to some of the best wines in the world. Nothing will kill the wine industry more quickly than less variation and more homogeneity.

Casual wine consumers probably won’t care. Swill is swill regardless of origin. But for wine lovers its hard to see any upside even when looking through rosé-colored glasses.