Wine Tasting in the Age of Corona

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croweded tastiing roomAs the U.S. begins to implement social distancing in order to reduce transmission of the coronavirus to manageable levels, there are two things we should not be doing right now:

(1) Mingling in crowded public spaces; and

(2) Listening to Republicans who are trying to make you sick.

This is a real crisis and the basic mathematics of exponential  growth tells us so.

Given that tasting rooms at some wineries on Saturday afternoon are basically just a crowded, elbow-to-elbow  barroom, now is probably not a good time to go wine tasting. Just stay home.

However, at some point in that dimly seen horizon called “the future”, people will emerge from behind their battlements seeking social contact. Even then, barring a medical breakthrough, this virus will still be with us. I suspect some degree of social distancing will be necessary for quite some time.

What does that mean for visits to wineries?  Many wineries will develop innovative ways of adapting in order to sell their wines. Here are several good suggestions from Rob McMillan for how wineries can start thinking about adapting to the situation.

But what about the consumer visiting the winery? How should we adapt? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Take advantage of private tastings. They are more expensive but your health is priceless.

But If you’re going to a public tasting room:

2. Choose one that isn’t crowded. If you arrive at your chosen destination and it’s too crowded go to the next one. Plan ahead with several destinations in mind.

3. Bring your own glassware, pen and notepad.

4. Sit outside. Most wineries have outdoor seating and they will probably make it even more accommodating as a way of encouraging people to visit.

5. Do not touch the menu or flight map. Again, wineries may find ways of supplying informational material that does not require handling.

6. Wipe down your seating area with hand-sanitizing wipes. Wineries should make these available.

If we become accustomed to following good social distancing practices visiting a winery should not be especially dangerous once the period of peak transmission passes.

More Evidence that Tasting Expertise is Real

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wine judgingThe best evidence that tasting expertise is real and that some dimensions of wine tasting are objective is the fact that, each year, many people past the rigorous Master of Wine and Master Sommelier exams. If wine tasting is not a genuine skill what explains their ability to pass the exam?

But it also helps to have real world experiments like this one conducted by Christian Wolf, the organizer of the European wine competition Mundus Vini.

Twice a year, MUNDUS VINI brings more than 280 international judges together to taste in groups of six or seven. For the summer edition in 2019, Wolf created eight special groups: there was a table of women; a table of men; a table of Germans; a table with older jurors; a group of younger jurors; people drawn from the wine trade; a table of sommeliers; and a table of wine writers.

Each group was presented with a flight of wines that was also given to another table, while individual wines were doubled and given to different juries.

Regardless of age, gender or nationality, the wines received the same scores.

Wolf was testing the hypothesis that there are cultural, gender, or age differences in how professionals judge wine. Apparently that hypothesis is not warranted.

Wolf attributes the consistency of these results to the method of scoring he uses for his competitions. Called the OIV judging system, it requires judges to focus on one wine at a time, rather than as part of a line up. The score is determined by summing subscores on a variety of specific attributes.

Truth be told, not all competitions show this level of consistency. Wolf might well be right that the discipline of assigning scores for various dimensions of a wine is the key to consistency among tasters.

Wolf intends to replicate this test with a much larger sample size.

Wine Review: Rubicon Estate “Cask” Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2006

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cask14 years after vintage date, this bouquet is glorious–fig, dried cherry, mocha and tobacco nicely highlighted by dusty top notes and a hint of caramel. Resonant, inviting and complex.

Alas, it is a false promise, the palate two or three years past its peak. The opening fruit is dried out without much depth and no layers. The back of the midpalate becomes more generous with a hint of herbaceousness before the leather and cedar kicks in. But we love Cabernet Sauvignon for its bass notes which have unfortunately forsaken us, leaving behind a stony, angular bath rescued only  by a persistent, sinuous toasty note that carries through the finish where the tannins are more talcum-like than textured.

There is an easy gracefulness as it evolves in the mouth, but it’s aloof with a firm countenance of severity behind the poised, refined surface, its spirit wavering dim.

Beck’s wistful, melancholic Lost Cause with its sinuous background electronica proved to be a solicitous companion.

Notes: This Coppola-produced wine from his Inglenook estate is called “cask” because the wine is aged for 19 months in 500 liter American puncheons rather then barrique, a reference to the renowned mid-20th Century Inglenook wines made by John Daniel. It’s from a vintage on the cool side especially late in the season, allowing for long hang times without excessive brix. Coppola brought back the Inglenook name in 2011.

Score: 90

Price: Recent vintages average $78.

Alc: 14.7%

Storage conditions: Very good

Opened: 3/8/2020

The Titanic Sails at Dawn

desolation rowI’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a pricey Napa Cab  from my cellar (that is a bit disappointing) and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be.

Normally on Sunday my wife and I would be hanging out with our son. But he was exposed to a sick person in court last week (probably not Corona but who knows) so we  decided to be on the safe side and forgo the visit.

Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, this runs through my mind:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Are Wine Reviews about Entertainment?

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entertainerOliver Styles is largely right about the purpose of wine reviews. He argues that people don’t read wine reviews to guide their buying decisions.

I suspect this is true. Sure, some wine drinkers might note the score of a wine and choose it over lesser scoring wines. But I don’t know many people who painstakingly sort through and read reviews in order to identify the wines they want to buy, if only because most of the wines they read about wouldn’t be available in their local market anyway. Why then do people read reviews? Styles references his own case:

Mostly, though, it was just to read about wine. I need no-one to help me enjoy drinking it but I do like reading about it, and the reviews form part of that. And this is the thing about wine ratings and about wine writing. For all our talk of scores and sleepers of the vintage and Quality-Price-Ratios, I strongly suspect that what people read about wine for is to be entertained, not to get a bunch of recommendations because they have no idea what they’re going to put in their next mixed case order from The Wine Society, or Kermit Lynch.

Many reviews are of wines that are unavailable. If you read about a fantastic wine of which 2000 cases were produced, good luck getting ahold of a bottle. Reviews are often part of a shipment of wines that have already been allocated or purchased so they couldn’t be giving buying advice. I suspect many people read reviews because they are curious about what other people say about a wine they’re drinking.

Wine writing is really about creating a discourse about wine. Wine writers establish tasting norms, identify trends, stick it to conventional wisdom when its needs prodding, or let people know what is new and exciting in the wine world. The most important thing a wine critic can do is find something new and interesting to say about a wine that readers might have been unaware of without reading the review.

I suppose all of this falls under the category of entertainment.

We read them because we’re in a post-Nader world and I suspect critics take their role both too seriously as a critic and not seriously enough as a performer.

I couldn’t agree more.

Tasting Vitality IV: Basic Elements of Wine Structure

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Iwine-in-glass’ve been focused recently on creating a tasting model that puts greater emphasis on a wine’s perceived motion on the palate as an important element in wine quality. (See this post for an explanation and links to earlier posts in this series.)

The features of a wine’s movement on the palate that I have emphasized thus far are abstract although necessary to provide a foundation to what follows. They include velocity, acceleration, duration, and force—general features of all movement and processes.

It is now time to focus on the perceived qualities of the wine produced by these general features of processes. I’m going to begin by discussing mouthfeel because the way the wine feels in the mouth—primarily tactile sensations—gives us access to the wine’s structural elements—Sweetness, fruit power, tannins, acidity, and alcohol. Such access is not wholly a matter of tactile sensations. Acidity sometimes tastes sour, alcohol can leave an impression of sweetness, tannins can taste bitter. Nevertheless, it’s through mouthfeel that we get the most information about a wine’s structure.

If we are to understand the perceived changes a wine undergoes on the palate, we first need an account of what is changing. Thus, I begin with a static description of wine structure and balance. These dimensions will be expressed as continua because all of these features admit of degrees. Each wine will occupy a position on each continuum.

The tasting model then follows a logical progression. After the basic structural components of wine and their range of expression are described and the concept of balance clarified, we move onto the basic mouthfeel characteristics resulting from the interplay of these structural components. The focus here will be on various dimensions of what we call a wine’s “body”. For experienced wine tasters this will be familiar and unsurprising.

Finally, we put the structure of wine in motion describing how the mouthfeel of a wine unfolds in time and detailing the various kinds of expressions of which wine is capable when we look at its movement on the palate. This latter section will be conceptually innovative.

This discussion of wine in motion will include reference to vitality forms, a topic I covered in two Three Quarks Daily columns last year. (Vitality forms and music; and vitality forms and wine) Each continuum that describes the range of a wine’s motion will be associated with vitality forms that express a position on that continuum. Vitality forms, as understood in psychology, are the psychological experience of how something moves, from which we gain a sense of something being alive. They are the “flow pattern” of experience. Vitality forms are implicated in emotions, and patterns of vitality forms are in part constitutive of the expression of personality traits.

Because wine is experienced as moving across the palate, wine also exhibits vitality forms and each distinctive wine will have a distinctive flow pattern. Thus, the flow pattern of wine across the palate exhibits similarities to other things that move. The problem is how to describe this flow pattern in a way that captures the individuality of a wine. The richest vocabulary we have for expressing the individuality of distinctive flow patterns is the realm of emotion, mood, and personality. Thus, I argue that the best way of capturing the individuality of wines is by utilizing metaphors based on the domain of mood, emotion, and personality. I will conclude this section of the motion of wine by explaining how wines can be viewed as expressing emotion and possessing personality.

Much of that will be laid out in future posts. In this post which is already too long, I stick to the basic elements of structure.

Basic Components of Structure

The texture and mouthfeel of a wine depend on its structure which consists of five basic components—sweetness, fruit power, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Analytic wine tasting separates out these components and assesses their contribution to the overall structure of the wine. These are expressed as continua.

Fruit power:

Intense ….meagre

Persistent ….fading

Fruit power includes the perception of aromatic/flavor intensity as well as the persistence, force and dominance of fruit in the structure of the wine accessed via its mouthfeel.

Acidity:

Dull…..bright…..green

The influence of acidity can be assessed only after considering the wine’s movement on the palate. But as an initial assessment, the amount and quality of acidity can be judged via this continuum. “Green” refers to acidity from fruit picked prior to developing sufficient ripeness and will taste hard and harsh. Wines with low acidity will not only appear dull but will also lack vibrancy and will taste dull.

Perceived Sweetness:

Bone dry….dry….off dry….medium sweet….sweet

This dimension is about how the wine is perceived, not how much measurable sugar there is in the wine. Perceived sweetness is often influenced by acidity. High acid wines will taste less sweet than a low acid wine with the same amount of residual sugar. Sweetness can also be confused with fruit power. Dry wines with great fruit power often leave an impression of sweetness.

Tannins/astringency

Quantity: light….tannic

Grain size: Powdery….fine grain… medium grain…coarse

Quality: Soft….drying….chewy…..grippy

Alcohol:

Imperceptible …..hot

Alcohol does not have a linear relationship with qualitative properties. In dry wines, higher alcohol can contribute to perceptions of increased sweetness, weight, roundness, softness and viscosity. But low alcohol wines with residual sugar might also taste heavy and viscous. The perception of alcohol will depend on its relative prominence compared to other components of the wine’s structure. Alcohol has a multitude of functions that can’t be captured on a continuum. However because alcohol produces a tactile sensation akin to burning, high alcohol or unbalanced wines tend to taste “hot”. Since this will mask other flavors and aromas and detract from the enjoyment of a wine, this is considered a fault. Thus, in tasting notes alcohol gets a mention only when the wine is unbalanced. Much of the influence of alcohol will be covered as a component of other features of the wine such as body.

Balance:

Unbalanced….balanced….integrated/harmonious

“Balance” refers to the relative prominence of the various structural elements.

Balance is an essential but controversial concept. Most wine experts agree that balance is crucial to wine quality and what counts as balance depends on the varietal and style of a wine. For instance, a balanced Cabernet Sauvignon will have firmer tannins than a balanced Pinot Noir. The penetrating, astringent attack of acidity in a Chablis would be out of place in a Gewurztraminer. But there are several definitions of balance. Karen McNeil, author of The Wine Bible, defines a balanced wine as “A wine that incorporates all of its main components – tannins, acid and alcohol – in a manner where no single component stands out.” This is perhaps the most common definition although most would include fruit power/sugar in the list of components that must be in balance. “Balance” in this sense is a minimal standard. Many quite ordinary wines will seem balanced in that no structural component will stand out as excessive or lacking.

The great wine scientist and educator Emile Peynaud, in his classic, The Taste of Wine adds a crucial dimension to balance. “A wine is said to be harmonious when its elements form a pleasing and well proportioned whole. In a good wine, everything should be harmonious; quality is always linked to a subtle play of balances between tastes and smells.” Peynaud’s suggestion is that it is not sufficient that the structural components achieve equilibrium. Rather they must enhance each other. Acidity makes the fruit taste vibrant. Tannins and alcohol give the wine depth and prevent the acidity from tasting sour, and fruit power acts as the focal point seeming to reign in the other components. I will return to this concept of balance and harmony below when a wine’s rhythm will come into play.

In the next post in this series I will look at how the interplay of these structural components produces a wine’s mouthfeel.

Wine Review: Bodego Díaz Bayo Roble Ribera Del Duero 2017

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diaz bayoThis is a curve ball from the high plains north of Madrid. The first impression is a provocative whiff of herbaceousness—tarragon, with red plum and a hint of coffee peeking around the edge. An unusual aroma profile for Ribera Del Duero,  this is designated “roble” which means it was aged in wood for a period less than would earn it a quality ranking.

The upfront flavor intensity is promising but the hollow midpalate is a let down before a gravel and acid explosion launches the medium length finish of dried herbs and hints of charred wood. This is a rustic wine with swollen but sour acidity, and medium grain tannins that bark but don’t bite. A good value but don’t expect subtlety or elegance.

Lots of animated energy in this wine, gritty, ardent but blunt and impetuous, the kind your mama warned you about. Locked in rhythm with Steve Earle’s The Devil’s Right Hand

Technical notes: 100% Tempranillo from 30 yr. old, high elevation vineyards on clay, marl, and limestone. Aged for 6 months in used French oak and 6 months in the bottle.

Score: 88

Price: $17 (purchase here)

Alc: 14%

A Motto That Makes Me Run Away

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run awayI recently came across a winery whose motto is “if you like it, it’s good”. That motto is a really good reason not to visit this winery. The wine is unlikely to be worth exploring.

“If you like it, it is good” assumes there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed beyond what you already like. It assumes that  you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in wine drinkers.

People in wine education, of course, know this is misleading—that is why they put in the work to gain expertise. But they pretend otherwise because customers want their palates validated and are perceived to be intimidated if wine becomes too serious. Granted, not every situation is a “teaching” situation and sommeliers/merchants must be sensitive to what the customer is looking for. But to dismiss the possibility of educating a palate is irresponsible.

Of course, we can appreciate a wine for all sorts of reasons that are only modestly related to its quality—when relaxing after work for instance. Enjoying what is in front of you regardless of merit may be all that matters in some contexts. But it is to be hoped that a winery is striving for some sort of excellence; that some of their wines meet a less subjective standard in which discovery, learning, and insight can be gained from drinking their wines.

Some Expensive Wines are Worth Their Price

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chateau rayasRobert Joseph has a fascinating article in Meininger’s about the relationship between quality and price entitled Is expensive wine worth the money?

He participated in a blind tasting and ranking of 24 wines all highly rated by France’s respected wine critics, Bettane & Desseauve and La Révue de Vin de France. 9 of the 24 wines in the lineup were from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the highest regarded appellation in the Southern Rhône. The other wines were from lesser known regions in the south especially Languedoc-Roussillon. Although there were a few bargains in the lineup from CdP, most of them were quite expensive. The non-CdP wines more modestly priced.

So, what did we learn? Well, I was gratified to discover, when the identities were revealed, that my favourite, to which I gave 99 points, was also the overall winner: Château Rayas 2005 Châteauneuf, with an average score of 95.6.

This is not a surprise given the reputation of Château Rayas, and at 700 Euros it better be good. But the rest of the results did not really fall in line.

Four of the top 10 wines were from Languedoc-Roussillon rather than the Rhône, and half of the most successful eight wines in the tasting were also among the eight cheapest, ranging from €19 (Domaine d’Aupilhac les Coclières, Montpeyroux 2017) to €37 (Tardieu Laurent Gigondas, Vieilles Vignes 2017), which were ranked fourth and third respectively.

Joseph concludes that consumers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are being irrational  and emotional when they pay hundreds of euros for a bottle.

That would certainly be true for someone who could not afford to splurge on wine. But let’s suppose price is no object or a secondary concern.

Origins matter to people because we feel emotional connections to them. Art lovers will pay millions for a genuine Picasso; only a few hundred dollars for an identical knock-off. Why? Because one was worked on by Picasso; the other wasn’t. Works of art are achievements; knock-offs less so. We build shrines at famous locations, e.g. in Williamsburg, VA or Mount Vernon, PA because that is the location of important events. Transport Williamsburg to the middle of Nebraska and I doubt it would be much of an attraction since the early settlers never occupied that ground. For well-heeled wine lovers who enjoy that style of wine, the storied vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are hallowed ground and wines from those vineyards are worthy of respect. Is that irrational? It isn’t obvious to me that it is.

Of course, one reason wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape are expensive is because the region and certain producers such as Chateau Rayas have a great and long-standing reputation. Much of what you’re paying for is that reputation. If you walk into a wine shop looking for a special bottle, eager to try something new, do you take a chance on Languedoc-Roussillon or do you go with the wine with the reputation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, again assuming price isn’t the dominant consideration. It isn’t obvious that it’s irrational to trust the reputation.

I do think in the contemporary wine world the calculation has changed a bit. One thing we are discovering is that really good wine can be made outside the classic, noteworthy regions. They have been making wine in Languedoc-Roussillon for centuries but it was noted for its bulk wine. Until about 20 years ago, no one bothered to make the investment in the region that would enable quality wine to be produced. The wine world is rapidly expanding with newly emerging regions dedicated to making great wine. If you think only the traditionally-respected regions can produce good wine you’re ignoring evidence. That is irrational. We shouldn’t expect  Châteauneuf-du-Pape  to always win out over Languedoc-Roussillon in blind tastings because quality has escaped the confines of tradition. But neither should we expect price to track intrinsic quality when reputational effects play such a large role.

Finally, there is one other factor to consider. Knowledgeable wine lovers will drink wines from a favorite producer or vineyard because there is something distinctive about the flavor profile that can only be found in wines from that source. On some absolute scale of wine quality (if there is one) the wine may not be quite as impressive as its competitors, but if it is distinctive, and the consumer enjoys that distinctiveness, why is it irrational to pay for it? Distinctiveness is among the most important values in the wine world and you will always have to pay for it because by definition it is rare.

So I’m skeptical of the claim that people who pay top dollar for wines they can afford are being bamboozled or dazzled by price. Obviously some are; many people are irrational. And I agree with Robert that “having a story” by itself is of limited value.

But when something is rare and distinctive it is worth having if you can afford it.