Will Consumers Pay More for Bad Wine?

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bad wineI was skimming through the Silicon Valley Bank’s 2016 report on the state of the wine business today and two points caught my eye. The first is that wine consumption in the U.S. had shown a steady and substantial rise from 1994-2011. And then from 2012-2014 the growth in consumption flat lines. Of course, the growth in the popularity of mixology and craft beer might have something to do with that. But why, now that the recession is mostly behind us, are consumers not buying more wine?

But the other point is one of the key take-away points from the report: Producers are focused on what is called premiumisation, encouraging consumers to trade up from their cheap wine in the $8-$12 range to more expensive bottles approaching $20. It seems to be working.  The over $10 segment of the market is showing the most growth despite the flat line in growth of overall consumption.

Do you suppose that in order to encourage consumers to buy better wine, the big players in this market (and it’s the big guys we’re talking about here) are making better wine? Or are they charging higher prices for the same stuff they used to charge $8 for? My guess is the latter since that would explain the absence of overall growth. If so, consumers might be dissatisfied with the cheap stuff but not finding satisfaction when they pay more.

Time will tell, but as consumers become more sophisticated about wine they may be telling wineries to stuff it if higher prices don’t provide higher quality.

Budget Wine: Artisan Vintner’s Guild Artisan Pinot Noir California 2013

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artisan pinotArtisan Vintner’s Guild appears to be a new project employing the resources of Larson Family Vineyards in Sonoma. Aside from a Facebook page there is not much information about them. But they do make inexpensive Pinot Noir under this label so I can’t resist checking them out.

The nose shows simple black cherry with a nice mushroom undercurrent and floral highlights. But there is a faint chemical note that can be distracting. The light to medium weight palate features a velvet texture to support emerging hints of coffee that darken the fruit but it but lacks density and turns watery on the finish. Without much definition and structure but thankfully avoids the candy flavors that mar most inexpensive Pinot Noir. In this price range it’s a good buy.

Score: 86

Price: $8

Alc: 13.9

The downtempo band Juzhin captures the softly palatable, carefree essence of this wine.

Artificial Wine

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synthetic wineThis is bizarre but inevitable I suppose given the popularity of reductionism is science.

Reductionism is the view that all complex phenomena can be explained by analyzing them into their component parts. Thus, wine is nothing but a particular organization of chemicals.

AVA Winery in San Francisco claims that they can recreate any wine simply by analyzing its chemical constituents and combining the appropriate chemicals. According to their website if you combine the right acids, amino acids, sugar,  volatile organics, and ethanol you can create any wine you want. No messy grapes, expensive barrels, or time consuming fermentation. Just chemicals.

The owner’s holy grail is to recreate the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris. However, they are currently taking orders for a replica 1992 Dom Perignon Champagne which they will sell you for $50. (The current market price of the real thing is $227) The wine has not yet been made so no one knows how successful this will be.

I think it cannot quite be true that they are making an exact replica of a 1992 Dom Perignon since they could not reverse engineer a wine that no longer exists. The current bottles of 1992 Dom have undergone years of bottle aging that have significantly changed their chemical structure. The best they can do is replicate what it tastes like today.

But I have some reservations that such a thing is possible. I doubt that today we know enough to determine which of the 1000 compounds in wine contributes to its flavor. Taste tests by independent somms have been thumbs down. In fact, their methods are no different from those used by the food industry to create the snack “foods” at your supermarket, none of which tastes like real food.

But there may be reasons to doubt such a thing is even theoretically possible. Some complex systems may have properties that are quite different from the properties of its component parts. They only emerge as the result of the interaction of the components. The crucial question is whether these so called “emergent properties” are fully predictable based on features of the component parts. If not, artificial “wine” will be at best an approximation. But if the features of complex systems are predictable and can therefore be engineered, artificial wine may be in your future.

Don’t Be Throwing Writers Under the Bus

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White laptop with coffee cup on old wooden table.Winemaker Clark Smith in discussing the connection between winemaking and music in his fine book Postmodern Winemaking makes the following claim:

Nothing is more exquisite than to be deeply known by another through an offering, be it a Syrah or a symphony, that touches us beyond mere words.

Where does that leave us writers? If only experiences that are “beyond mere words” have ultimate aesthetic or communicative value, then the great literary accomplishments of human beings pale in comparison to great music or wine. Shakespeare? Nietzsche? Keats? Tolstoy? All pikers when it comes to “exquisiteness”.

I get that words often fail to fully capture the richness of experience. But so do music and wine. No single mode of expression gets it all into the picture. Yet the attempt at articulation, the attempt to render experience in words, is what separates humans from beasts and makes experience broadly intelligible.

One of the most important differences between wine and orange juice is that no one talks about orange juice. It’s wine talk that makes one person’s experience of wine accessible to another. It is wine talk or music talk that puts wine and music in circulation, that anchors them in a community. Without the attempt at articulation, aesthetic experience is just a series of fleeting moments with no more significance than itches or burps.

I know all the jabbering gets irritating, but that’s because it’s indispensible.

Wine Review: Gabriele Rausse Rosso Virginia NV

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gabriele rausseSometimes I buy a wine because it’s interesting; sometimes because it tastes good. This one is interesting. The nose has explosive spice notes—cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, which usually come from oak. But this wine is unoaked. There is some crazy extraction technique going on here that gives it that favor profile. Curious.

And it’s a blend of Bordeaux varietals, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot that almost always see some oak treatment. There is a reason for that. Time in oak barrels that slowly introduce oxygen into the wine helps to soften and integrate flavors and give the wine texture.

That is where this wine fails. The fruit upfront is fresh and juicy but green notes emerge midpalate which also features a sharp, hard texture introducing a course, disjointed finish. The components needed more time to learn to live together. This tastes like a shotgun marriage. But of course shotgun marriages are interesting, the stuff of legends, even when they don’t taste good.

This is either an experiment or some juice quickly brought to the tasting room to fill demand for wine. The price indicates the latter. Their line up was otherwise competent but this one caught my eye because it was different and when I spot difference I can’t help myself.

At any rate, I learned that you can get spice notes without oak and that naked Bordeaux varietals are like naked people—they better be beautiful.

Score: 84

Price: $16

Alc: Table Wine

Like a pretty face with a mean streak. A Strange Brew indeed:

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