An Artisan Code of Ethics

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artisanal coffeeAt Aesthetics for Birds, Matt Strohl posted an interesting analysis of artisanship ethics using coffee as his example. It applies to wine as well.

At issue is the question “Is the customer always right?” Should high-end coffee shops with specialty roasts make milk available for people who want it? Should they sell bags of ground coffee if their customers want it?

His answer is no, a perspective he derives from the “The Ethics of Being an Artisan” a code written by John Piquet, the owner of Caffé D’Bolla in Salt Lake City.

The relevant fact behind the code is that coffee, as soon as it is ground, quickly loses its aromatics and within minutes becomes a shadow of its former self. That fact supports a set of obligations that Strohl summarizes as follows:

  • A seller that presents itself as artisanal/high-end incurs ethical
    obligations that other sellers don’t.
  • Artisanal sellers have an obligation to sell products in the best condition
    possible, even when their customers request otherwise.
  • When customers request products in sub-optimal condition, it is the
    obligation of the seller to educate the customer about standards of
    quality and disabuse them of whatever misconceptions they have.
  • If they still want a product in a sub-optimal condition, they didn’t want
    an artisanal product in the first place and they are at the wrong store.

It is in the nature of artisanship and the promise conveyed by that label that generates the obligation.

The key is that the barista is trusted to play the role of educator in a way that no one would ever expect of a barista at an airport Starbucks.

Furthermore, Strohl points out that very high quality coffee beans are rare and difficult to produce. They should not be wasted. The barista and roaster owe it to the farmer not to ruin his beans.

In the end it all comes down to the limits of subjectivity, which is a hard truth to sell in our culture.

When we proclaim that “the customer is always right,” we imagine ourselves as reliable optimizing agents who just need enough choices to live our best lives. We treat our existing subjective preferences as reliable guides to living well. But of course we all know very well that most of our subjective preferences were formed through a combination of random chance and corporate manipulation and that it takes openness and work to bring them into alignment with what would actually be best for us. Someone who balks at light roast coffee at first but is open to being educated may later turn into a passionate Third Wave coffee enthusiast and be better off for it. This sort of personal growth is encouraged by businesses like D’Bolla and stunted by places that just aim to pander to the customer’s existing preferences.

This strikes me as exactly right. If subjective preferences are arbitrary and held unreflectively they are not worthy of special respect.

What would it mean for artisan wineries to adopt a similar code?

To start with, wineries can hold back their product until it’s ready to drink. The best producers routinely do this but some wineries need product to sell and push it onto the market before its time.

Wineries sell a product that can be adulterated by the consumer. Although most customers won’t pour their expensive Pinot Noir into a glass of Coke, they will open the bottle before it’s properly aged. They may store it under sub-optimal conditions. They might serve it with foods that destroy the wine’s nuances. They may not allow the wine time to breathe. They might consume it while too drunk or too distracted to appreciate it.

According to this code of ethics, artisan wineries have an obligation to their product and their customers to educate them regarding how their product should be consumed. Many wineries do a good job with this but many treat their wine as so many widgets to be hustled out the door. When a winery takes care to optimize their release dates and educate their customers that is a good indication that their wines are of high quality whether you like them or not.

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Peameal Bacon: “Meh” to Toronto’s Signature Dish

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pea bacon sandwichOne of my pastimes when traveling is tracking down foods unique to the area in which I’m staying—foods that I’m unlikely to find anywhere else. Hawaii has its poi, Nebraska its runzas, the upper Midwest its pasties, and Wisconsin has booyah.

You’ve never heard of, let alone tasted, these local delicacies? In this age of global cuisine and instant communication, there is a reason why they haven’t escaped the confines of local food traditions—they’re not very good. You would find them appealing only if you grew up with them—the taste of home always tastes good. I realize I just made myself a boatload of enemies but truth be told these dishes weren’t worth the effort to track them down.

carousel bakeryBut nevertheless I persist. We were in Toronto last week, a great food town which I’ll post more on later. Toronto’s signature dish is the peameal bacon sandwich and so that was #1 on the list of dishes I had to have. The version at Carousel Bakery, housed inside a bustling downtown market, even had Anthony Bourdain’s imprimatur, and it appears in the book 1001 Foods You Must Eat Before You Die. I was sure this one would beat the odds and would be worth an Uber fare to track it down.

So what is peameal bacon? It’s unsmoked pork loin, cured in a brine of salt and sugar, trimmed of fat, and rolled in cornmeal to create a thin crust. Then it’s fried on the griddle, slapped on a soft bun and served with a variety of condiments. Carousel’s version had three generous slabs on each sandwich. It’s meaty and very tender but fans of what’s called bacon in the U.S. will find it bland. It lacks the crave-able smoky, fatty, salty, caramelized intensity of it’s cousin taken from the belly. It’s just very “porky”. The version at Carousel also had very little cornmeal on it. A crunchy crust would have vastly improved the sandwich. (Peameal bacon by the way is not Canadian bacon, which is smoked and not really Canadian at all. The name “peameal” comes from the ground yellow peas that were ground into a meal and used as a coating on the meat to preserve it in the 19th Century.)

So this goes on my list of regional foods that aren’t quite worthy of their hype although I must say it beats poi, runzas, pasties or booyah by a considerable distance. I might order it again but wouldn’t spend $25 on an Uber ride to find it.

Left Foot Charley Missing Spire Riesling Michigan 2018

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left foot charleyDry Riesling is all the rage in Northern Michigan’s Traverse City, the beating heart of this burgeoning wine region. But Riesling earned its reputation as a noble grape in Germany where sweeter styles were the marker of quality. In the competition for dry white supremacy, Riesling has many competitors. But it is hands down the queen of sweeter styles which is arguably what Riesling does best.

This wine caught my attention as an example of a classic Mosel-style. A blend of grapes from four vineyards, it’s labeled “medium sweet” with 39 g/l of residual sugar. This is not a dessert wine and will pair well with most savory dishes.

The nose is a lovely blend of tangerine and lime, with a green apple background, capped by crushed rock minerality, very precise and focused. Creamy but lightweight in the mouth, the citrus-inflected sweetness as it opens gives way to scintillating acidity finishing dry and crisp. Exquisitely balanced, it’s a study of Riesling’s chameleon nature, gradually shedding its fruity greeting becoming delicate, slender, yet bracing as it lingers on the palate.

Stylish but full of whim and caprice like Portugal the Man Feel it Still

Story: Left Foot Charley begin when Brian Ulbrich and his wife were persuaded to rescue a vineyard of Riesling that had fallen into disrepair. In exchange he was allowed to harvest a small lot of Riesling from which to make his own wine. Over the years Brian has continued to support small vineyards throughout Northern Michigan sourcing his grapes from 18 vineyards owned by small farmers, making the wine in Traverse City’s only urban winery.

Score: 91

Price: $18 (purchase here)

Alc: 9.6%

Why There is a Crisis in Science

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scientist in a labThis is a bit of a detour from the wine and food topics on which I usually write. But it is an important issue that concerns the credibility of science. The credibility of science and expertise in general are now coming under constant attack. Yet no advanced technological society can survive for long without a science that is both accurate and is believed to be accurate by the public that depends on it. Attacks on science threaten the very foundation of modern societies. Yet the skepticism about science is not coming only from opportunistic politicians or whack-job nut cases. There is good reason to be skeptical of our scientific institutions and how they function because of the replication crisis that is beginning to effect all scientific disciplines.

The “replication crisis” refers to the fact that an increasingly large number of studies is the sciences and the social sciences can’t be replicated. When independent researchers try to repeat a study they come up with vastly different results that contradict the results of the original study. As Aubrey Clayton notes in a very useful article in Nautilus:

An analysis of preclinical cancer studies found that only 11 percent of results replicated; of 21 experiments in social science published in the journals Science and Nature, only 13 (62 percent) survived replication; in economics, a study of 18 frequently cited results found 11 (61 percent) that replicated; and an estimate for preclinical pharmacology trials is that only 50 percent of the positive results are reproducible, a situation that, given the immense size of the pharma industry, has been estimated to cost labs something like $28 billion per year in the U.S. alone.

This is not good. Clayton’s article is important because he explains why there is a replication crisis—it has to do with a long simmering debate in statistical analysis. I’m no expert in statistics but I will try to give a clear summary of what this debate is about—the fate of civilization may depend on it. Clayton uses several examples; I will focus on one of them.

Suppose an otherwise healthy woman in her forties notices a suspicious lump in her breast and goes in for a mammogram. The report comes back that the lump is malignant. She wants to know the chance of the diagnosis being wrong. Her doctor answers that, as diagnostic tools go, these scans are very accurate. Such a scan would find nearly 100 percent of true cancers and would only misidentify a benign lump as cancer about 5 percent of the time. Therefore, the probability of this being a false positive is very low, about 1 in 20.

This is an approach to statistics that uses significance testing to determine the validity of a study.

Suppose we scan 1 million similar women, and we tell everyone who tests positive that they have cancer. Then, among those who actually have cancer, we will be correct every single time. And among those who don’t have it, we will be only be incorrect 5 percent of the time. So, overall our procedure will be incorrect less than 5 percent of the time.

The claim about validity is based on how often a patient would test positive if the condition were absent. In other words the likelihood that there is no correlation between the lump and malignancy is less than 5%, meaning the result is statistically significant.

But as Clayton notes there is a problem here. The study doesn’t take into account the background rate of cancer among women with a suspicious lump.

For the breast cancer example, the doctor would need to consider the overall incidence rate of cancer among similar women with similar symptoms, not including the result of the mammogram. Maybe a physician would say from experience that about 99 percent of the time a similar patient finds a lump it turns out to be benign. So the low prior chance of a malignant tumor would balance the low chance of getting a false positive scan result. Here we would weigh the numbers:

(0.05) * (0.99)              vs. (1) * (0.01)

We’d find there was about an 83 percent chance the patient doesn’t have cancer.

According to this analysis the woman in the example was likely misdiagnosed. The replication crisis is happening because many studies are finding a relationship between phenomena that does not exist. Thus, researches fail to duplicate it.

The problem according Clayton is that we should be including in our calculations, the prior probability of a theory before making an observation to test the theory. This is called Bayesian probability theory—it has been around for decades but has not been widely accepted.

Why hasn’t it been widely accepted?

The main reason scientists have historically been resistant to using Bayesian inference instead is that they are afraid of being accused of subjectivity. The prior probabilities required for Bayes’ rule feel like an unseemly breach of scientific ethics. Where do these priors come from? How can we allow personal judgment to pollute our scientific inferences, instead of letting the data speak for itself?

For Baysians, we have to assign a probability before making the observations and then we allow the observations to influence the initial probability estimate. But that initial assignment is only going to be an educated guess—like the physician’s judgment above based on her experience that most lumps are benign. Might such an all encompassing fear of subjectivity be irrational?

This may have a happy ending. As Clayton notes:

Medical students are now routinely taught the diagnostic importance of base incidence rates. Bayes’ theorem helps them properly contextualize test results and avoid unnecessarily alarming patients who test positive for something rare.

Thankfully, science when done honestly is a self-correcting practice, and now that the replication crisis is well known scientists are responding by taking a harder look at statistical relationships that seem implausible. But an awful lot of bad science has already entered the mainstream giving aide and comfort to charlatans, quacks, and opportunistic politicians who would love to ignore inconvenient facts. I hope the self-correction is not too late.

Should Wines Be Judged Without Context?

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wine judgingI’m puzzled by Oliver Styles’ recent article at Wine Searcher. His target is the widely held assumption that context is critical in judging a wine. He argues rightfully that the kind of blind tasting performed by critics is not really blind. They don’t know the producer since that would risk a biased judgment, but critics almost always know the varietal from which the wine is made and the region in which the grapes were grown prior to evaluating the wine.  The reason is that the accuracy of an evaluation depends on context.

A wine from the Croatian coast should not be judged in the same way, or in the same field, as a white Bordeaux from Pessac. One wouldn’t judge a Riesling as one would judge a Chardonnay – it would be heinous to judge a Napa Cabernet next to a Santenay. And how do you rate an oxidative-style Jura white if you don’t know that a wine from Jura’s what you have in your glass?

Styles goes on to argue that this may be misguided. His reasoning is that while a critic is judging, for instance, a 2016 Pinot Noir from Santenay against other 2016 Pinot Noirs from Santenay, the average wine consumer walking into a wine shop is deciding between many varietals from many regions. For a consumer trying to choose between Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, knowing which 2016 Santenay shows best isn’t helpful.

Note the assumption here that there is some way of comparing wines from Burgundy, Chianti, and Rioja according to common criteria. Styles seems to think there are such common criteria.

And I think this is a bit of a shame, because the basic pillars of what makes a good wine – balance, intensity, complexity and length – come, as you can see, in total abstraction. It’s not price, balance, intensity, royal warrant, complexity, bottle weight, regional sunlight hours, length; factors of quality are abstract.

I don’t think this is right. Balance, intensity, complexity and length are common criteria used to judge all wines. But they are not abstract. What counts as balance, what counts as intensity, etc. depend on the varietal and region. A premium Napa Cab will usually have more intensity than a Volnay. That doesn’t make it a better wine. Wines from Volnay have their own form of intensity based more on clarity than sheer power. All wines should be in balance but Pinot Noir will usually have more prominent acidity than Malbec. That doesn’t mean the Malbec is out of balance. The grape has a different balance point.

Styles points out:

Critics of a no-context approach will say that we need information about the region in order to understand the wine’s peculiarities. To which I’d ask why a professional wine critic can’t appreciate a wine fully without knowing those peculiarities before tasting it. Is our job that redundant?

But again, what counts as peculiar will depend on context. A pronounced herbal note in Rioja might be peculiar but quite expected in cool climate Pinot Noir, notes of fig jam ordinary in a Napa Cabernet but peculiar in Austrian Blaufrankisch.

I can’t think of a tasting procedure more likely to encourage homogeneity than one that refuses to consider context when judging wines. I get that novice consumers face an array of criterionless choices in the wine shop. But in the end there is no substitute for knowing a bit about what you like and where to find it.

Visiting Juneau

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IMG_3544No, as far as I know, they don’t make wine in Juneau. But the food is good, the culture is interesting, and the natural resources breathtaking. My excuse for going was the International Food Blogger’s Conference, which highlighted Juneau’s burgeoning food scene. But you don’t need an excuse to go; it has a singular charm worth experiencing.

IMG_3560Juneau is an old mining and fishing village accessible only by boat or plane. It’s firmly attached to the mainland but the steep mountains and treacherous weather make road building inordinately difficult and expensive. Nevertheless, somehow, it became Alaska’s capitol. The gold mines shut down years ago but the protected harbor was ideal for cruise ships exploring the stunning Alaska coastline. Today it’s fishing, government, and tourism that keep this city of around 30,000 permanent residents afloat. Everything not grown or manufactured on a narrow strip of flat land between the mountains and the water must be flown or shipped in, which means everything is expensive here.

IMG_3355The cruise ships, 3 or 4 towering, floating hotels, arrive each morning and the area around the harbor gradually fills with people throughout the day. Jewelry and Native American curio shops line the streets with aggressive sales people who hound you as you stroll about. I found nothing of interest here and one restaurant I sampled, called Wicked Fish, was wicked dreadful—think Red Lobster at twice the price.

juneau 2The one exception in the immediate vicinity of the cruise ships was Tracy’s Crab Shack. Justly famous—an episode of Top Chef’s “Quick Fire” was filmed here—they serve delicious, melt in your mouth, fresh King Crab. Don’t miss it. You won’t find better.

To experience the real Juneau you have to head further into town although still within walking distance of the port. Coffee shops, breweries, distilleries, and quality shops abound. But the real attraction for me of course was the food scene. With an abundance of fresh seafood harvested right out their front door and a steady stream of tourists seeking an alternative to cruise ship fare, Juneau has been able to attract and support talented chefs with a knack for creative dishes.

James Beard Rising Star semifinalist Beau Schooler’s plate of Alaskan Salmon Chorizo, with brussels sprouts and chili lime accompanied by Alaska Spot Prawn Escabeche with rhubarb and ginger was the highlight of the conference reception. His restaurant, Boca al Lupo, serving Italian-inspired cuisine with seasonal, nightly seafood specials was the best restaurant meal we had during our visit.

For something quite different try V’s Cellar Door—a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant serving casual dishes like fusion nachos with Korean cabbage slaw and Bulgogi steak. For regional specialty items The Salmon Shoppe is a must visit—where else in the world will you find Reindeer sausage or Kelp Salsa?

For an overview of the food scene, I highly recommend the tours by Juneau Food Tours.

IMG_3402But don’t spend all your time eating. The eagles, bears, whales, and sea lions will be disappointed if they don’t have the opportunity to entertain you. The whale watching is usually successful. The whales follow regular feeding routes and the naturalists on board know where to find juneau-bearthem. Eagles in some places are as common as sparrows—that is only a bit of exaggeration. And I found that encountering a bear when you’re out walking is not out of the question.

Viewing a real, live glacier is also an experience worth having. The Mendenhall glacier is easily accessible via bus, tour company or rental car. You can actually reach the glacier via a long hike. But the shorter trails near the visitor’s center get you close to it.  But don’t wait too long. It is receding.

The people in Juneau can be a hoot. They are very much aware of their isolation and independence and wear it like a badge. This is a unique city. There is no place like it in the U.S.IMG_3481

Wine Review: Verterra Dry Riesling Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan 2018

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verterra rieslingWines of distinction offer more than a pretty face—they have depth and something indefinable about them. It’s easy to see why this Reisling is a perennial award winner.

Precise peach aromas with a halo of lime and hints of honey leave a charming first impression but a faint undercurrent of something uncanny haunts the wine. And the more you sniff the more that nebulous aroma clarifies as petroleum, reticent now but sure to emerge as the wine ages. To the Riesling virgin this might sound weird but that quirk is what gives Riesling its distinctiveness and depth.

Despite being a dry wine there is a hint of alluring sweetness up front which disappears as under-ripe pear emerges and turns to grapefruit at midpalate. Round, soft and delicate at first, the wine explodes out of the midpalate, retrenching and then slowly swelling with mineral-water freshness, a rhythm both deft and dynamic. It finishes dry and textured with grapefruit pith at terminus.

Delicate, but kinetic and haunted by a visceral offbeat chorale, it brings to mind Bjork’s Heirloom.

Awarded the best white wine in Michigan in both 2017 and 2018, this winery began planting their vineyards in 2006 and currently farm over 40 acres of estate grown fruit. The Leelanau Peninsula AVA juts into Northern Lake Michigan and takes advantage of a prodigious lake effect keeping the vines cool in summer and warm enough in winter to avoid winter kill.

Score: 92

Price: $18

Alc: 12%

Breaking the Wine Rules

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breaking rulesThere is an unwritten rule about blogging; if you want your post to be read take someone to the woodshed, be critical, or ream ‘em a new one. That will attract attention.

But I’m going to break the rules here and just agree wholeheartedly with Jamie Goode’s post about rule following. After pointing out that people accustomed to following grammatical rules that make no practical sense—rules against split infinitives, proper use of data as a plural noun, etc.—have a hard time accepting their routine violation, he claims the same could be said of wine:

The same seems to be true with wine. When people have been through wine exams, or train as winemakers, they have a fixed notion of what wine should be. This is seen most clearly when it comes to discussions on natural wines, and their supposed faultiness.

He goes on to insist that in a finished wine, minor flaws, a bit of VA, brett, or oxidation can be a virtue.

We are all different and we are all free to own our own preferences. But we should be cautious before we dismiss or criticize wines that fall outside of our normal parameters for what is ‘correct’, recognizing that we humans have a tendency to become staunch defenders of rules that we have learned.

I couldn’t agree more. If the culture of wine is going to grow and if wine is to reach its aesthetic potential there have to rule breakers and people who are willing to expand the boundaries of what counts as “normal”. As Jamie writes “beauty is not the absence of flaws”. I’ve been making a similar case about beauty (here, here and here.)

But here is where the analogy with grammatical rules breaks down. People violate arbitrary, impractical grammatical rules because it’s tedious and time consuming to follow them when they yield no gain in communicative clarity. Wine rules are not broken because they are tedious but because striving for singularity and distinctiveness demands it.

Why are Wineries Still Using Heavy Bottles?

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Tweighing a wine bottleablas Creek’s Jason Haas recounts his winery’s experience moving to a lighter bottle 10 years ago.

So, in ten years we have saved roughly 1,370,000 pounds of glass weight, or 685 tons.

That extra weight came with costs at every stage. We had to pay more to have it manufactured, shipped to us, and then either trucked away for wholesale sales or sent via UPS or FedEx to our direct customers. We needed larger wine racks to fit the wines in our library, which means we could store fewer bottles per square foot of space. Our trucking company can fit three more pallets of our flagship wines (22 pallets vs. 19) in the new package before reaching their legal weight limit, which means that for the roughly 40% of this wine that we sell via wholesale, we’ve had to run roughly one fewer full truck of cases of wine each year up to the Vineyard Brands warehouse in American Canyon, CA. And those are just the hard costs. The invisible environmental cost savings are massive as well, with less weight having to be driven or flown around in every stage between manufacture and consumption.

So the winery saves significant costs and the environment benefits from the reduced carbon footprint as well. And his customers have been overwhelmingly supportive since they pay less for transportation and storage as well. Yet, I’m constantly coming across wines with massively heavy bottles that seem to serve no purpose.

Jason then poses the obvious question.

So, given that lighter bottles cost less and people seem to like them more, why are there still wineries using the heavy bottles? That’s complicated.

What’s complicated about it? The only reason he can come up with after reviewing Twitter threads on the topic is that some customers associate a heavier bottle with a more serious wine. That isn’t complicated; it’s stupid. It is one of those irrational associations that when you think about it obviously makes little sense. Why would a heavy bottle indicate quality? As Jason points out some of the finest wines in the world use a modestly sized bottle.

But he is no doubt right. It’s hard enough to sell wine without also having to overcome irrational, unconscious resistance from consumers who are probably not aware that they are making such a foolish inference.

But to be honest, when I see a wine in a beastly bottle I question the judgment of the winery especially if they brag about the sustainability of their operation. I’m more inclined to think they are operating out of habit rather than deliberation.

This is really an education issue. Wineries should reduce bottle weights and be proactive in pointing out to consumers that wine quality has nothing to do with bottle weight. Make that part of your sustainability pitch.

It’s surprising that more wineries haven’t taken up the cause championed by Tablas Creek.

Wine as the Art of Life

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chardonnay grapesFor wine enthusiasts, artisanal wine is about continuous variation and the singularities that emerge from those variations. Wine enthusiasts devote most of their attention to tracking variation and assessing it. Differences between regions, varietals, vineyards, winemaking styles, weather and climate variation, soil variation, and bottle variation are of primary aesthetic interest. Life, vitality, is also fundamentally about variation. This shared connection between life and wine is the key to understanding wine’s expressiveness. The art of winemaking is basically the art of expressing vitality. I make the case in my column at Three Quarks Daily.