Wine Review: Mas Doix “Les Crestes” Priorat 2016

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mas doix les crestesI am a card-carrying member of the “wine faults can be interesting” club. I’m not put off by a bit of volatile acidity or brett. But there are limits. And this wine crosses the line with volatile acidity.

The nose  on this Garnacha-dominated wine is promising. Black cherry and licorice aromas are pleasant enough. And a forceful balsamic note is a nice complement to the raw wood aroma that otherwise would be too  prominent.

But in the mouth, hard, sour acidity takes over and dominates from front to back. Juicy fruit and powdery tannins suggest there is a good wine here but they sing back up while the relentless, vinegar-like acid struts about the stage attracting all the attention. The acidity is so hard and unyielding that it doesn’t play well with the other components of the wine. Needless to say the finish is a dance of strangers.

I wouldn’t say the wine is undrinkable, especially with food, but it’s not worth the price. Could this be a bad bottle? Of course. But where there is one, there are likely many others. (The cork was in good shape with no sign of leakage so this is likely a production problem, not a storage problem)

Technical Notes: 70% Garnacha, 20% Cariñena and 10% Syrah, aged in second use French barrels for 8 months.

Score: 80

Price: $28

Alc: 14.5%

Authenticity, Food Rules, and the People Who Break Them

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rulesCooking is an art mired in tradition. Each nation has its food rules encrusted with the patina of age. Each region within each nation has its way of doing things that seem natural and “right,” and violations are met with moral indignation and contempt.

In most of Italy, grated cheese is never added to seafood, oil and vinegar is the only proper salad dressing,  and coffee is never consumed during a meal. In France, salad is always eaten after the main dish, never before, and ketchup is not a condiment for pommes frites.  Even in the “anything goes” United States, beans are part of a chili recipe only in certain regions of the country; and one does not eat Carolina Barbeque in Texas.

But of what value is authenticity? Does it matter if these rules are followed or broken?

Italian chef Sara Jenkins points out that such “food rules” conceal more than they reveal.

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

“Food rules” ignore the fact that all food traditions have been influenced by outsiders. All are a hybrid hash of influences thrown together by the movement of populations. Whatever “authenticity” means it cannot mean pure or unadulterated.

Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredient, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.

So should we just throw out the food rules?  I think not. Food rules set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is violating the very identity of the tradition—its’ ability to be affected. That is, after all, what sensibility is. What makes traditions great—and this is certainly true of Italian food traditions—is their capacity to absorb new influences.

Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation–they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad. Jenkins wonders about whether innovations can be authentic:

I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It’s certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

If there is something about Italian cuisine that is enhanced by soy sauce, then soy sauce will become authentically Italian. If I should hazard a guess it will gain entry as an addition to fig puree or the secret ingredient in a meat ragu. Or perhaps if Chef Jenkins is bold she will offer it as a variation on Florentine Steak.

Is E-Commerce the Answer for the Wine Industry?

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drinking wine at the wineryAmidst a lot of happy talk about how the wine industry is developing e-commerce solutions to the problem of how to sell wine in a pandemic, Kate Dingwell’s article in Forbes raises an important question:

The rise of e-commerce also poses the question—how do wineries replace the experience of sitting down for a glass in a vineyard and hearing the story behind the wines from the grower himself? While pandemic has seen the advent of virtual happy hours, few, if none at all, have been able to replicate the immersive experience of visiting a vineyard and connecting a consumer and a wine on an intimate level.

The short answer is you can’t.

The fine wine market is built around the personal connection people make when they visit a winery, talk to the winemaker, join the wine club, and make the winery a frequent stop on their weekend getaways or vacations. I doubt that there is a technological replacement for this experience.

I suppose one could be sanguine about wine tourism returning once we get a handle on Covid19. But if wine consumers get really comfortable with the ease and affordability of e-commerce, there is some danger that wine tourism will not return to its former robust state.

That will probably have a negative effect on brand loyalty.

E-commerce sites give you lots of choices and its to their advantage to throw those alternatives in your face with their recommendation engines. “If you like that wine, you will like this wine even more.”

Amazon is at the end of this road and that means every time you make an inquiry or a purchase you will be faced with 50 distractions directing you away from what you were looking for. E-commerce is not about brand loyalty; it actively destroys it.

I guess we can only hope that the attractions of sipping a lovely wine overlooking the vineyard on a crisp autumn day will be so compelling it will overwhelm the benefits of convenience.

But the evidence for that hopeful note is mighty thin.

“Fruit Bombs” are Misnamed

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fruit bombIt is common to associate ripeness with warm climates. But there is more nuance to this relationship between heat and ripeness than is commonly assumed. One thing I’ve noticed, when I periodically delve into old world wines, is that while warm regions seem to require alcohol at 14% or above to get their grapes ripe, cooler regions, and some winemakers in California who pick early, get ripe flavors with much less alcohol. (By ripe flavors, I don’t mean raisin notes. I mean rich, clear, focused fruit flavors.)

I suspect this has to do with the fact that vines start to shut down as the temperatures approach 90 degrees. After that point, the vines produce more sugar but not more flavor. Thus, a lot of that heat in warm climate regions is “wasted” when it comes to flavor. It just produces more sugar and potential alcohol.

There is also evidence that alcohol depresses floral and fruit aromas in wine while increasing wood and spice notes.

So why do we call riper, higher alcohol wines fruit bombs and why do consumers seem to gravitate toward them? I suspect there are at least three factors:

(1)  Higher alcohol reduces the perception of sourness.

(2) Consumers like some sweetness in their wine which ripeness makes possible. Alcohol also directly contributes to sensations of sweetness at least for some people. This enhanced sweetness is interpreted as fruity by the brain unless the taster is skilled at distinguishing sugar from fruitiness.

(3) Alcohol and residual sugar contributes to a lush, full mouthfeel.

None of this is really about fruit or flavor. It’s about sugar or perceptions of sweetness and texture—sugar bombs not fruit bombs.

Wine Review: Scholium Project 1 MN Bechtold Ranch 2017

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scholium bechtoldFormer college professor Abe Schooner, winemaker and proprietor of Scholium Project, has this natural winemaking thing wired. He’s been doing it since 2000. This is a gorgeous, elegant 100% Cinsault sourced from Lodi’s Bechtold Ranch Vineyards.

Intriguing, pretty aromas of focused cherry cola, rose, and freshly turned earth, a feral truffle note resounds like a minor chord that ends the harmony.

Shy and demure at opening, layering develops quickly with mineral on top of soft, mouth-coating, supple fruit. Exquisite, fine grained tannins begin their influence at midpalate giving the wine volume and texture despite its light weight. The minerality is eager and quick, ferried by well-tamed acidity, the fruit serene, contentedly awaiting the rhythmic flair of the tannins which drive the well paced finish, the persistent fruit receding to a spectral,, haunting presence.

Elegant and poised, in perfect balance, this is a literate wine, cultured, sophisticated, spirited but cool and aloof. A fitting match for the feral sophistication of Steely Dan’s Josie.

Technical Notes: Extended, floating cap fermentation with a minimum of punchdowns and no pumpovers. Press and free run juice is aged separately for two years in neutral oak.

Score: 93

Price: $25

Alc: 12.81%

Shameless Self-Promotion

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Coming Soon:

cover 1

Jacket Copy:

Wine is more than a beverage. Like great works of art, the most interesting wines have originality, dynamism, emotional resonance, and personality. Discover how wine can be so expressive in this remarkable philosophical romp through the aesthetics of wine production and wine appreciation.

Previous work on the philosophy of wine has shown wine to be an important source of aesthetic experiences. “Beauty and the Yeast” takes this argument in surprising new directions. It analyzes wine as an expressive, living organism that challenges our assumptions about creativity, beauty, good taste, and objectivity, and explains why the changing landscape of wine requires that we rethink the role of established wine traditions. The book offers unique philosophical insights into the nature of wine appreciation, wine language, and wine criticism, and explores a novel approach to wine tasting that reveals our emotional attachment to wine.

Written to appeal to thoughtful wine lovers with no background in philosophy. After reading, you will never taste wine the same way again.

Thanks to all of you who made suggestions about the cover. I chose this one because it is eye-catching, unique, and captures the book’s theme—wine’s vitality, its similarity to a living organism, explains wine’s aesthetic appeal.

Also, coming soon—a redesign of the blog.

This week marks the 9th anniversary of Edible Arts. Time for a new look.

There are Two Wine Industries. We Need to Stop Conflating Their Interests.

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airline wineI’m sure Robert Joseph is correct when he argues, in Wine Business International, that emerging wine regions will sell more wine by planting International varieties rather than indigenous grapes.

Did you hear about how Hilton, Sheraton and Hyatt will no longer offer international breakfast options in their Tokyo hotels, and how they will restrict their morning menus to typical Japanese fare such as steamed rice, miso soup, fermented soya beans, pickles and dried seaweed? No?

That’s hardly surprising because it’s fake news. I made it up.

Those hotels, like their Japanese-owned competitors, the Imperial and Grand Nikko, would never dream of doing anything like that – they know many guests expect to start their day with toast, cereal, muesli or fried egg and bacon.

To survive economically, big hotel groups need to give their customers what they like, rather than what they think they ought to like.

That’s the same rationale behind Turkish Airlines pouring Turkish Chardonnay and Syrah on their flights, rather than indigenous Turkish grape varieties. They need to keep huge numbers of passengers happy.

In answer to the question does the world need another Starbucks, more thoughts from Kim Kardashian, or more plantings of Chardonnay, Robert happily looks at the sales numbers and says why of course.

But that ignores the interests of the rest of the industry.  I can’t find a reliable assessment of how many wineries there are in the world. But there are almost 10,000 bonded wineries in the U.S. and the U.S. is only the fourth largest producer, well behind France, Italy, and Spain. Suffice it to say there are probably several hundred thousand commercial wineries around the globe. The vast majority of them are not selling wines to hotels, airlines, or grocery chains.

If everyone is making Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Syrah, 90% of these wineries have no reason to exist. The vast majority of the wineries in the world don’t have to keep the hordes happy. They need to build local markets and give wine enthusiasts a reason to seek out their wines. To do that they need to offer wines that are distinctive, and that means indigenous varietals must be part of the mix.

The idea that the wine world could flourish with a few mega producers selling generic juice to business travelers is absurd.

Yes, there is a market for industrial wine, and there is no reason why emerging regions shouldn’t participate. But there is a whole other wine industry out there that defines the culture of wine. What works for industrial wine doesn’t work for them.

Blind Tasting Cannot Block all Biases

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blind tastingBlind tasting is considered to be the gold standard of wine evaluation. And the reason for its status is that it allegedly blocks the biases that come from any preconceptions we might have about a wine. There is no question that our prior beliefs about what we taste can influence and distort our perceptions. If we know and admire the producer or know the wine we are tasting is costly we might view the wine in a more positive light. The influence of confirmation bias and other mistakes in reasoning are well documented.

It stands to reason that if we can block these potential biases through blind tasting our evaluations are more likely to be accurate. They prevent us from honestly assessing what our perceptions tell us. But that is only true if in fact blind can succeed at blocking prior beliefs. And that does not seem to be the case. Blind tasting blocks some ways of acquiring prior beliefs about a wine. But as philosopher Jonathan Cohen argues:

What distinguishes blind from sighted tasting is that the former prohibits the taster from employing specific sources of information about the perceptual object (say, from the shape of the bottle, the words on the label, testimony about the methods of production). But this leaves it open that the blind taster might come to hold the very same beliefs about the perceptual object by other means — specifically, as a result of perception and perceptually informed inference — and that those beliefs might subsequently affect her perceptual experience.

What Cohen has in mind is this:

Suppose I dislike Merlot and suppose, unbeknownst to me, the wine I am blind tasting is, in fact, a Merlot. If I am adept at blind tasting, I will correctly judge the wine is a Merlot and my prejudice against Merlot will still then shape my judgment about its quality. In this case, a prior belief is still negatively affecting my judgement about wine quality. Yet I am forming my distorted judgment based on evidence that blind tasting allows—my inference that it is a Merlot. The reasons for wanting to block a bias from influencing my judgment when tasting with no blinders are also reasons for wanting to block bias when tasting blind. So blind tasting fails to prevent my biases from informing my judgment.

Cohen also describes another case in which blind tasting fails.

It has been well established that our perceptual responses to a stimulus are influenced by contrasts with other stimuli we experience at the same time. In the context of wine tasting, how we perceive a wine is influenced by other wines we taste it with. Blind tasting has no ability to block this kind of distorting influence in which our impression of a wine is influenced by something other than that wine.

The only way to block the influence of perceptual contrast is to taste something neutral, such as water, between sampling each wine to be blind tasted. This, of course, is easily accomplished but I doubt that blind tasters are always careful enough to cleanse their palate after each wine.

Thus, blind tasting is not a comprehensive solution to worries about biases.

Wine Review: Paul Achs Edelgrund Blaufränkisch Burgenland 2016

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paul aschOne of Austria’s signature red grapes, this Blaufränkisch hails from the  Neusiedlersee district of Burgenland. “Edelgrund” is the name of the vineyard.

This wine is marked by fresh, assertive acidity melding with a linear, angular mineral seam that anchors the wine from beginning to end. Juicy but thin with tart, citrus notes, the spare fruit gradually recedes as the ample powdery tannins become increasingly prominent, launching a invigorating, turbulent battle on the finish won by the forces of peace. Aromas of black cherry and wild herbs laced with barnyard and crushed rock complete the image of a reckless moment tamed by cooler heads.

On the lighter side of medium bodied, the urgent, penetrating top notes give this wine a flash of ferocity until the shapely tannins wrestle it to the ground. Serve with a goulash but make the music jangly and urgent like U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love)

Technical Notes: Aged for 12 months in a combination of used Burgundian pièce and large French and Austrian oak casks.

Score: 90

Price: $27

Alc: 12.5%

“I Like it” Doesn’t Capture the Meaning of Beauty

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vega siciliaIn aesthetics it is crucial that we distinguish liking something from finding it beautiful. I might judge an ordinary Chianti to be a good wine because I like it. But a beautiful wine—Screaming Eagle, Vega Sicilia, Chateau Margaux—is not beautiful merely because I like it more than the ordinary Chianti. The idea of “liking” or “finding it pleasing” doesn’t capture the aesthetic value of great wines or extraordinary works of art.

The problem is to say what that difference amounts to. One common way of marking this distinction is to claim that beautiful wines or works of art are beautiful because we judge them to be valuable in themselves. The beautiful objects have value not just because we like them; we like them because they have intrinsic value. We value them for their own sake.

But this way of describing the nature of beauty doesn’t quite work. It suggests that the object has value over and above any experience of it. To the contrary, one would think that a beautiful object has value because it causes our experience of beauty. The value resides in our relationship with the object and its impact on us. Thus, the object cannot be valuable in itself.

It’s for our sake that we enjoy beauty. The experience of beauty is pleasurable and part of the reason we value beauty is because of the pleasure it brings.

I think the best way of thinking about this is that certain kinds of pleasure involve more than simply “liking something”. In addition to finding them enjoyable, beautiful objects demand something of us. They embody a standard that we have to strive to fully perceive or understand.

Ice cream is pleasurable but it doesn’t demand something of us. Great wines or works of art by contrast merit our attention—we feel we have to be true to them and we can fail in this endeavor. It’s that sense of merit just beyond our reach, the sense that we are being guided by the object, that makes something beautiful.

We take pleasure in being so guided but it has little to do with “liking”.