Blogging Will Be Light for the Next Two Weeks

papers to gradeGrading essays is a lot like scoring wines—the most relevant question is always “what is it trying to say?”

I mention this similarity only because it’s that time of the year when I have heaps of barely comprehensible prose to decipher, thankfully leavened by the occasional gem. It’s not unlike evaluating budget wines.

At any rate, I must devote full attention to professorial duties until semester’s end and no doubt the wine rituals will suffer.

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Wine Review: Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore NV

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rustico proseccoThis is what Prosecco should be like. A frothy mousse with surprisingly small, lively bubbles, the fruit is luscious, pear and apple, with white flower notes, lovely crushed rock aromas, and an intriguing funky note in the background. On the palate it is more gentle than most sparkling wine, round and vibrant, but not too edgy and like most Prosecco, the finish pulls up short. There is a hint of sweetness upfront but it’s quickly swallowed by bracing minerality and crisp acidity. Prosecco is the insouciant child of sparkling wine all bright and glittering but always carefree and unserious. The Rustico pulls that off with great elan.

Valdobbiadene is the classic region for Prosecco. And Nino Franco is one of the oldest wineries there founded in 1919.

Fluffy yet celebratory, a perfect pairing for Cosmo Sheldrake’s Come Along

Score: 91

Price: $18

Alc: 11%

The Myth of the Myth of Minerality

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rocks in the vineyardVicki Denig writes a balanced article on minerality despite an ambiguous headline and a misleading introduction. Entitled “Nailing the Myth of Minerality”, she introduces the post by asserting “Minerality is perhaps the wine industry’s most overused, underwhelming, and misunderstood descriptors of them all.”

What’s wrong with this? For starters, “minerality” isn’t a myth; it’s a metaphor. And it’s neither overused nor underwhelming. She gets the “misunderstood” right but it’s misunderstood in part because of headlines like this. Happily she interviews enough somms and winemakers who routinely use the term and find it useful, so in the end the post leaves the impression that minerality is “a thing” as she calls it.

“Minerality” is a general term we use to describe wines that exude aromas such as flint, crushed rock, wet stone, or sea breeze or that have textures of chalk, hard stone, gravel or a kind of electrical snap on the finish. Since it is clear from tasting notes that many, many wines have these features, and they are highly prized among some wine critics and winemakers,  I don’t see what is “overused” or “underwhelming” about the descriptor.

The whole controversy really comes from some scientists talking out of school. Scientists have definitively shown that minerals in the soil do not transfer to the vines or fruit, and many (although not all) scientists use that fact to berate wine writers who use the term to describe wine. But although the fact that soil characteristics are not transferred to the wine is an important and interesting scientific claim, it is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether the term “minerality” is a useful or accurate descriptor.

We are not literally tasting rocks in the wine anymore than we are literally tasting cherry, peach, or barnyard soil in the wine. Most wine descriptors are metaphorical. Wine literally tastes like grapes; there are no cherries, peaches, or soil in your wine. These are all metaphors. But that fact has little to do with whether these descriptors are useful or accurate.

No doubt there isn’t a precisely established definition of “minerality”—it’s a metaphor(Sorry for screaming) While still “living”, a metaphor will not have a precise definition. That is why metaphors are useful—they flexibly and creatively pick out properties for which there is no literal description.

Denig quotes geologist Brenna Quigley who, to her credit, actually does seem to understand the usefulness of the term.

The science is quite clear that the vine is not literally picking up minerals from the soil and transferring them into the wine,” she explains, adding that this does not mean that experiences that tasters may have and describe as minerality do not exist.

This is exactly right.

This “controversy” would go away if a few more scientists had paid attention during English class. We should listen to scientists when they talk about science. When it comes to language we should listen to people who write and talk for a living.

(I suspect, by the way that Denig’s headline, is deliberately ambiguous. Is it the association of minerality with mythology that is being nailed or the allegedly inappropriate use of the term “minerality”? It is a clever headline. Apparently, Ms. Denig paid attention in English class.)

Budget Wine Review: Diseño “Old Vine” Malbec Mendoza 2017

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deseno malbecIf I were painting a portrait of a quintessential inexpensive crowd pleaser, this would be it. Tasty, polished, charming—your local spa should hire it as a greeter.

Blueberry shares the spotlight with an unusually robust floral dimension against a subtle earth background—simple but pleasant.

The palate features very round berry flavors cossetted by milk chocolate. Despite being a bit thin, a silky, polished mouthfeel and evolution give the wine a blithe, understated  elegance wrapping up with a short, tame finish that doesn’t detract from the wine’s impact.

Ignore the “old vines” claim on the label. It legally means nothing. High production wines are seldom harvested from genuinely old vines.

Effortless “niceness” I think captures the personality. Niceness can be overrated as a moral category but in a $10 wine I’ll take it. Pair with Your Love is King by Sade

Score: 86

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5 %

Wine Scores are Not the Problem

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wine evaluation 3Polemics against wine scores are a perennial crowd pleaser sort of like your favorite supermarket Chardonnay that gets nods of approval from any crowd you serve it to. But I’m still waiting to find an argument that is persuasive largely because wine scores tend to be an all purpose whipping boy for some problem or deficiency that is only tangentially related to the actual practice of scoring.  The recent article by Ian Cauble in The Robb Report is no exception but it’s worth going through the argument to see where it misses the mark.

The argument is as follows:

(1) An elegant, classically proportioned Cabernet gets a middling score from an influential critic.

(2) The middling score reflected the fact that the critic prefers riper, more powerful wines.

(3) The middling score will cause the classic wine to be overlooked by consumers because the critic has clout.

(4) Winemakers chase scores by making over-ripe wines that critics like thus misleading consumers about what they should be drinking.

(5) Therefore, classically proportioned wines are endangered by the practice of scoring wine.

Therefore we should stop scoring wines.

What is wrong with this argument? Well, first of all, an argument that essentially asserts that “we should stop scoring wines because a wine I like received a low score” is a bit like saying “if I can’t win I’ll take my ball and go home”. But let’s look beyond the narcissism for the sake of the argument.

The more general problem is that there is nothing inherent in the practice of giving scores that demands that ripeness  be valued over elegance. The problem (if it is a problem) is the critic’s taste in wine not the fact he/she gave it a score. If critics prefer more elegant wines (as for instance Jancis Robinson does) then they can give the more elegant wines a higher score.

Secondly, it’s worth mentioning that lots of people like ripe, powerful wines. It is a very popular wine style. The argument assumes that consumers like these wines only because critics tell them they should. But where is the evidence for this? It is not only less informed, casual consumers that like them. After all serious connoisseurs are among the customers of Napa cult wines. We might lament the taste preferences of the general public (I do) but that is not the fault of the score.

Thirdly, in the absence of a score, the critic would have had to rely solely on a verbal description to communicate his/her assessment. Would this low scoring wine have received a better assessment if it were entirely verbal. Not if the critic is honest and accurate. Why does “thin, tart and lacks expression” put the wine in a better light than the number? The score does obviate the need for a consumer to read and interpret a complex verbal description. Perhaps there is an implicit claim here that consumers would be better informed if they had to read the tasting note rather than rely on a score. That is undoubtedly true but I still don’t see how that would put the elegant Cabernet in a better light. Furthermore, I doubt that in the absence of a score, consumers would be more inclined to read and interpret the tasting note. As a professor I can tell you, reading and interpreting are neither enjoyable nor easy for most people.

Although it isn’t explicitly stated, perhaps the argument assumes that riper, more powerful wines tend to stand out in a tasting flight more readily than less powerful, more elegant wines. I hear this claim quite often. Its truth is hard to assess but it isn’t obviously true. If most wines in a flight were ripe and powerful, the spare elegant wine might stand out.  Furthermore, assuming professional critics care about their accuracy, I would think they would consciously guard against this bias by giving elegant wines more attention and consideration.

Nothing in this argument clearly points to the practice of scoring wines as the problem. One might argue the problem is the herd mentality of powerful critics beholden to a wine style that is beginning to lose its luster. Or perhaps the problem is winemakers who lack integrity and try to make a popular wine rather than the wine they want to make. Eliminating scores won’t solve either problem.

Wine scores are not going away. Both consumers and people in the trade find them to be useful. Of course they don’t begin to capture the virtues of a wine. But no one claims they do. Even Robert Parker insists that people should read the tasting note if they want to understand the quality of a wine. The score is just a convenient reference point for contextualizing the quality level of a wine.

The real problem is that wine scores are widely misunderstood. They are not measures of intrinsic quality. They are not the sum total of precisely calculated categories of quality. The only thing they could possibly measure is a subjective preference on the part of the critic at the time the wine was tasted compared to other wines in the critic’s experience. That is important information but it isn’t the word of God.

Wine Review: Spoken Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon #42 Columbia Valley 2016

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spoken barrelPeriodically, I like to dip into the nether world of low-end-of-premium supermarket wine; it is after all where most people go when they want a slightly more impressive bottle at a reasonable price. Sometimes you can get lucky finding value in the $16-$22 range but I find  this is often the price range where wineries like to push their luck hoping good marketing from a highly regarded region will net them a few dollars above the intrinsic value of the wine. That is the case here with this Constellation brand. Billed as bold and complex, it is in fact neither. This is generic juice, tolerable but for the $20 I spent I want more.

The nose of black cherry, hints of dark plum, dust and mocha hide a faint chemical note. The concentrated palate shows cloying chocolate at first with a soft, smooth foundation then giving way to a midpalate seam of flat, dried out fruit that lacks vitality. The powdery tannins disintegrate into a kind of fog so the short finish leaves almost no impression.

A timid irresolute wine, browbeaten and unnerved commiserating about lost love with The Cure’s Pictures of You

#42 by the way refers to Washington as the 42nd state in the union.

Score: 85

Price: $17-$20

Alc: 13.5%

The Onion is Providing Advice to Wine Regions

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holy field vineyard

Holy Field Vineyards in Kansas

The Onion is very funny; but also ignorant.

In a blog post entitled “Shitty Region of the Country Figures It Might as Well Give Producing Wine a Shot” they write with a Lawrence, KS byline:

Reasoning that they don’t really have anything else going for them in the increasingly automated post-industrial era of large-scale staple farming, the shittier regions of the country decided this week that they might as well give producing wine a shot. “At this point, maybe we should just see if we could get some grapes to grow here, spend the rainy-day money on a couple tanks of sulfites, and see how we do with fermenting wine,” said the residents of eastern Kansas, as well as those of central Ohio, northern Michigan, western Pennsylvania, and most of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Texas, noting that all that open land would look pleasant covered in vines, if you were on some type of tour where people could drink different whites and maybe see some horses or something.

Apparently unbeknownst to the wits at The Onion, they already make some pretty good wine  in Eastern Kansas, Northern Michigan, and Texas. [I haven’t tasted Central Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Nebraska or Wyoming yet.] They should have chosen different examples.

They also report:

The plan reportedly stalled when other residents of the shitty regions reminded them that even bad wine takes years to make and that, pound for pound, methamphetamines are still a far more lucrative investment.

That’s worth a smirk, although meth addiction is no laughing matter. But should a company that moved its headquarters from New York to Chicago (as the Onion did a few years ago) be poking fun at flyover country?

Budget Wine Review: Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah California 2016

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bogle petite sirahBogle is one of the more reliable large production wineries producing good value with only the occasional disappointment. They really hit the quality mark with this one. This is a gentle giant, big, concentrated and structured but smooth on the midpalate with a lingering, filigreed finish that doesn’t grip.

Blackberry and robust smoked meat aromas hit you in the face, against a background of high toast oak. Pronounced hazelnut with subtle coconut hints provide personality.

The deep, full bodied palate shows rich dark chocolate and considerable polish but it gradually acquires a soul as the very firm tannins kick in. It’s not really a dynamic wine but it sustains a fresh, fruity aspect throughout its length. This is an extraordinary value if you’re looking for heft that doesn’t savage the mouth.

Sprawling, indulgent yet affectionate, like a big puppy, and captured perfectly by the bombast and warmth of Robert Plant’s Shine It All Around

Technical Notes: Aged in American oak barrels for 12 months, grapes are from Clarksburg and Lodi

Score: 90

Price: Widely available for under $12

Alc: 14%

The Pleasures of the Table and Living a Good Life

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food and friendsEpicurus, the Roman philosopher who lent his name to the pursuit of the pleasures of food, was not merely a philosopher who also loved food. He thought food was the key to the good life.

“The beginning and root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this”. (Epicurus, Fragments)

That is a rather striking sentence coming from a philosopher—we tend to be a less than hedonistic tribe. Epicurus seems to have thought that everything worth valuing in human life, especially wisdom, is ultimately traceable to food. This view is unique in the annals of philosophy, and is not widely held among ordinary folk either, aside from the tribe affectionately known as “foodies”.

In one sense, of course, the connection between food and a good life is obvious. Without nutrition we could not survive to pursue other goods. But Epicurus did not focus on nutrition only. It was the pleasure of food (and modest amounts of wine) and its role in social exchange that seems to have prompted his encomia to the delights of the table. Unfortunately, the only surviving writings we have are fragments so his reasoning cannot be reliably elaborated.

So what is uniquely virtuous about a life centered around food. No doubt the pleasures of the table are satisfying and they grease the wheels of social commerce. But the same could be said of lots of other human activities—sports, music, art, religion, sex and romance, etc. What is so distinctive about food and wine?

Of all the pleasures we pursue, food is the one that is constant in its satisfaction since we must eat several times during a day. These satisfactions are temporary—we get hungry soon after being satiated. But that impermanence is a good thing, since the pangs of hunger are a reason to once again seek pleasure. There are very few other activities in life in which the imperative to seek satisfaction and thus to experience pleasure is so constant. (Sex may be in second place—but not three times a day!)

Thus, food is a unique and singularly anchoring sort of pleasure. Because the attractions of food are so persistent (not to mention the difficulties in securing and preparing it), they shape our lives in a variety of ways and have implications for all aspects of life, especially social life. Eating is a center around which our social lives revolve, and feeding ourselves and others well (and for many people drinking well) is an essential part of socializing well. The pangs of hunger are not only a reason to seek pleasure; they are a reason to seek friendship.

The pleasure of food and wine is not an afterthought—a bonus over and above the nutrition that food supplies. It is both a symbol of love and friendship and the substance of them as well. Ignoring the pleasures of the table is a kind of disrespect—a deliberate disregard for the offer of friendship. The practice of feeding others well is a kind of excellence that reverberates throughout the rest of life.

This is the wisdom to which Epicurus alludes and foodies embody. It is as plausible a conception of the good as any other.