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Infinite Substitution Means That Without A Unique Wine Brand Message, You’re Screwed

Vinted on May 30, 2012 under commentary, wine buying

My friend Rémy Charest has been reporting on events from the London Wine Fair over at PalatePress.com, and one of his recent reports really struck a chord with me.

What stood out for me was the concept of “infinite substitution” introduced to Rémy during one of the conversations that he had at the Fair. To the tape (emphasis mine):

Dan Jago, category director at Tesco, the supermarket chain that is also the largest retailer of wine in the United Kingdom, pointed out that in the wine world, a major difficulty is what he called “infinite substitution”. “There is always another product that will do the trick, in any shop. And if you do anything new, there are 45 others that will jump in and do the same thing”, he summed up, pointing out how most customers in supermarkets or large wine stores pick bottles rapidly, to get a price point and taste profile.

This stood out for me because Jago effectively summed up the vast majority of wine brands available right now in the U.S. For a sense of the volume we’re talking about here, Rémy mentioned a conversation he had with another friend of mine (damn, this wine world really is small!), Nomacorc’s Jeff Slater, who told him “there are something like 700 different wines in an average US supermarket.”

It sums up the vast majority of the 1200 or so bottles of wine samples that have overtaken my basement, and if they’re any indication of the U.S. wine market at large (and I’d certainly argue that they are), then the average wine consumer has learned something very important about how to shop for wine, something retailers have picked up on and have already factored into their stocking approach:

Most wine brands, within certain flavor profiles, taste the same and are priced the same; and so they are effectively interchangeable. And that is bad news for a lot of wine brands….

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Are Petrol Notes In Aged Riesling A Fault? (Thoughts On A Clare Valley Master-class)

Vinted on May 22, 2012 under commentary, on the road

“I’m going to be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.”

We’re not talking about Sex Panther here, people – but we are talking about something that is quite pungent… in a good way…

Riesling. Specifically, a factor that many consider to mark some of the best aged Riesling wines on the planet: an aroma reminiscent of petrol, or vinyl, or rubber. It’s a marker that I’ve encountered in many a fine aged Riesling, including one that has come from arguably the best vintage of the 20th century from arguably world’s best producer of the stuff.

During my recent jaunt to Australia, the group of East Coast Sommeliers with whom I was traveling was treated to an in-vineyard pruning lesson followed by an in-office Clare Valley Riesling Masterclass, headed by Taylor Wines’ Chief Winemaker Adam Eggins. [ Editor’s note: if you enjoy the wines of Taylors  (known as Wakefield in the U.S.), then you should silently hope that none of the grapes for future vintages hail from the vines that we mauled that day ]. Like most good Aussies, Eggins is quick-witted, opinionated, and not afraid to hide those opinions even when actually he’s trying to hide them. But even Eggins didn’t quite reveal his hand when he shared with us a French report on the Riesling/petrol phenomenon (shared below, emphasis mine):

With time, Riesling wines tend to acquire a petrol note (goût petrol in French) which is sometimes described with associations to kerosene, lubricant or rubber. While an integral part of the aroma profile of mature Riesling and sought after by many experienced drinkers, it may be off-putting to those unaccustomed to it, and those who primarily seek young and fruity aromas in their wine. …the German Wine Institute has gone so far as to omit the mentioning of “petrol” as a possible aroma on their German-language Wine Aroma Wheel, which is supposed to be specially adapted to German wines, and despite the fact that professor Ann C. Noble had included petrol in her original version of the wheel.”

Another way of saying that, is that Riesling’s petrol aroma is a fault.

But is it, really?

The answer, I think, is an emphatic NO

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Why Rating Wine Is Bad Science

Vinted on May 16, 2012 under best of, commentary

[ Editor's note: this article is not an easy one to follow, because the topic is not an easy one to get your head around; intrepid readers will want to stick with it, though, because I think the conclusions are fodder for some amazing discussion on their implications on wine criticism. ]

The world of wine critique is fraught with logical contradictions.

Case in point: take this excerpt from a recent interview with critic James Suckling on Liv-Ex.com on the topic of evaluating wines while they are still in the barrel, as is often done during En Primeur in Bordeaux (emphasis mine):

The key thing to remember is that the nose isn’t important at all. I learnt that from Daniel Lawton, one of the great negociants of Bordeaux. The important thing is the texture – the quality of the tannins and how they relate to the acidity and alcohol – and then the finish. Wines with long seamless finishes are really the great wines. It’s not all about power. It takes a long time before you can taste En Primeur properly. There’s a hierarchy in Bordeaux that helps as you can kind of figure out what should taste good. But to really understand how wines evolve you need a good 10 years of tasting.”

The logic issue here is that we know scientifically that the vast majority of our sensory experience in tasting wine comes aromatically and retro-nasally. So one (but not the only!) interpretation of the above quote is that En Primeur ratings are meaningless, or at least limited in value to consumers, because the aromas – and therefore the majority of the wine’s sensory experience – cannot be fully evaluated. The contradiction being that the wine world largely treats those ratings as not having any such limited usage.

Issues like that one crop up all over the place in the wine world, if you’re willing to look hard enough. And so it should be of little surprise to many of you when I tell you that the act of rating wines falls squarely into what is commonly called “bad science” in the scientific world…

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Uber-Critic Robert Parker Drops The Gloves In Sommelier Journal Interview

Vinted on May 2, 2012 under best of, commentary, wine publications

Though certainly at what many would consider well-deserved retirement age (he turns 65 this year), Robert Parker – still the single most influential critic of any kind in the world – is not retiring any time soon.

If you’ve read the interview with Parker by sommelier David D. Denton in the April 15, 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal, you already know that Parker has called the rumor of his retirement “totally not true.”

You’d also know that he has critical words for overzealous followers of fresh produce in the restaurant world (“I don’t need the entire history of the vegetable from the time it was planted to the time it was harvested”), fervently believes that former Wine Advocate contributor Jay Miller and MW Pancho Campo are innocent of any pay-to-play wrong-doing (“this guy Jim Budd seems to have something against him, and I don’t know what goes on there” – he’s apparently lawyered-up and hired an investigative service called Kroll to find out), and that he considers himself the first wine blogger (an interesting comparison that I think was first explored here on the virtual pages of 1WineDude.com during my interview with Parker).

And if you’d read that SJ interview, then you’d also know that Parker reserves his most vitriolic words for author Alice Feiring and her position at the forefront of the crusade to bring natural wines into the public consciousness (links and emphasis mine):

“We don’t promote this, but Beaux Frères [ the Oregon wine producer of which Parker is a co-owner ] is biodynamically farmed, the wines aren’t fined or filtered, and I’d say that for most of the vintages we’ve done to date, we didn’t need to put SO2 on the label because the levels were so low. So when we talk about all these catchphrases like ‘natural wine,’ I can tell you that people like Alice Feiring are charlatans – I think they are no better than the snake-oil salesman of yesterday. They are selling a gimmick. Most wines are natural.”

Think the critic doth protest too much? If you asked me that question, the answer would be “probably, but I’m more concerned with how the rest of us are going to look now”…

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