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Stop Picking on Robert Parker (the Subjectivity of Wine Tasting)

Vinted on July 1, 2008 under commentary, wine tasting

You can all stop picking on Robert Parker now.

The oft-followed and just as oft-maligned wine critic extraordinaire is doing you a favor.

A favor if you, like him, have a wine palate that tends towards the bombastic, that is.

A great post on the science of wine tasting over at Catavino.net (and how that science can be manipulated) got me thinking about the subjectivity of wine critiquing in general, and more specifically on the philosophical question: Can wine tasting can ever be totally objective?

So for this topic, you can view this article as the yin to Catavino.net’s yang. The conclusion of all of my philosophical pondering? All y’all need to cut Robert Parker some slack!

To bolster my exclamatory claim, let’s turn to the (not too difficult) task of finding someone smarter than me to explain it…

According to Tim Crane’s essay in Questions of Taste: The Philospohy of Wine:

“A wine cannot be appreciated for its intrinsic value unless it is drunk; the value of the wine is intimately related to the kinds of experience to which it gives rise.”

In other words: the trouble with appreciation is that you need to taste wine to appreciate it (well, I suppose for some of us it’s not really too much trouble). And because tasting itself is such a subjective act, it suggests that wine tasting is also at least somewhat subjective.

Does our tasting subjectivity preclude us from coming to some general consensus of how a wine tastes, or its relative quality? Probably not. Throughout history, what was generally considered “good” wine has changed substanitally. In another essay from Questions of Taste, Barry C. Smith puts it like this:

“Saying that the experience of tasting is a personal one need not prevent us from saying that it acquaints us with how a particular wine tastes, or from supposing that other people can be acquainted with that taste too.”

Man, I am really digging smart philosophers right now! What does all of this have to do with wine critics like Parker? It suggests 2 things:

  1. Critics don’t have to be thinking “universally” about wine because
  2. Our collective palates will decide what is and isn’t a “quality” wine.

There are studies that back this up. Vinography.com recently reported on two such efforts that compare wine reviews by major wine critics (including Parker, of course) – with different taste preferences. These critics have been in very close agreement on which Bordeaux wines have been the best, and they’ve been agreeing for decades. So there’s gotta be something to the “collective” wine palate as well as to our individual, subjective ones.

Back to Questions of Taste – also from Smith’s essay:

“Having the ability to asses and describe wines in one thing; having certain personal tastes is another. That we, and the wine critics, have personal tastes does not imply that all taste is subjective... Wine critics understand that they cannot overrule an individual’s personal tastes… The moral is that we must find the right critic to advise us, the one whose personal tastes or preferences are more nearly aligned with ours.


So – we’re all Right, and we’re All right. Dig it.

Now give Parker a break. He’s just trying to help out the people who like the fruit bombs. Including himself.

Cheers!

(images: palmspringslife.com, tuscany-cooking-class.com, winechocolate.org)

The Price is Right? What Influences Wine Prices

Vinted on June 24, 2008 under commentary, wine buying

How much is that bottle of wine in the window?

Not that you’d want to buy wine that’s been sitting in a window for any extended period of time, since it’s probably baked from the exposure to all of that light and temperature variation.

Anyway, I’m off to Chicago for a non-wine-related business trip. While this jaunt has nothing to do with vino, that hasn’t prevented people from asking me wine-related questions! One of those recent questions got me thinking:

“Some wines seem so expensive… are they really worth it?”

The fine folks asking me that question are just looking for some good old-fashioned knowledgeable advice. But what they don’t realize is that it’s really a trick question.

My reply is usually something along the lines of

“How much did you pay for your house? Was it worth it?”

I’m not trying to be a smart-ass (that comes naturally), I’m just trying to get them thinking differently about a wine’s price tag. Is the price right? And if it’s “right”, for whom is it right? You? Me? Everybody?

There is a very, very simple reason why expensive wines are expensive, and it has very little to do with whether or not that wine is “worth” the price vs. a comparison with a similar wine at a lower price…


Does quality impact the price? Sure, but just like a fine dining experience vs. a trip to In-N-Out Burger, there is a relative level of quality involved, which is in no way a determinant of whether or not you’ll actually like that expensive wine. But that’s not the fundamental reason.

What about production and distribution costs? Sure, they affect the price too. If a winery picks and sorts their grapes by hand, that’s going to be a lot more expensive to do than doing it all by machine. In those cases, the winery is certainly going to pass on the additional cost to you, and in return you’d expect that the wine is going to taste better than one where the machines missed a few snakes and lizards during the sorting process… But that’s not the fundamental reason, either.

And as for the critics? Unfortunately, there is no denying the impact of critis like Robert Parker, who has followers lining up behind him so blindly that they will buy wine simply on the score that he gives it, not taking into account their own dis/likes. So the herd mentality has an impact as well, since a good Parker rating can easily send a wine’s price over $30 / bottle. But it’s not the fundamental reason.

Look at it this way: If your house is in a great area and built by a respected builder, then likely people would be willing to pay more for your house than another house nearby that doesn’t have those things going for it.

Similarly, the reason that a Harlan Estates red can cost up to $900 USD / bottle is really because of one thing: People will pay that much for it.

A little bit of supply & demand, for sure, but fundamentally the market has decided that $900 is a fair price. Just like the market decides, over time, what your pad is worth. Somewhere, people are consistently paying that much to get in on the cache factor of owning some Harlan.

God bless ‘em. If you’re one of those people, let me know how that bottle tastes. But please, don’t tell me if you think it was “worth” the $900 (or not)!

Cheers!

(images: amcati.com, klwines.com)

This World is Full of Crashing (Wine) Bores

Vinted on June 18, 2008 under commentary


Arthur Przebinda (of redwinebuzz.com) has an opinion piece published today in the L.A. TimesBlowback section. It’s well worth a few minutes of your busy time to read.

In his well-written rebuttal of Joel Stein’s amusing but ultimately misguided take on “wine snobbery”, Arthur contends that the language of serious oenophiles is not meant to be pedantic, and is actually no different in principal than that of a dedicated sports fan (or a passionate follower of any field):

“…the knowledge informed wine enthusiasts possess is no less meaningful, less interesting nor more ‘snobbish’ or difficult than the performance statistics in the head of a sports fan or the technical information rattled off by car aficionados.”

In other words, it’s just geek talk. And geek talk does not necessarily a snob make…

By the way, I don’t use the term geek pejoratively – in fact, I prefer to use the term “wine geek” to describe my own passion for wine (as do most of my wine industry buddies).

I love the company of wine geeks, just as I love the company of people who know way, way too much about the wood combinations of MTD basses. Because talking about wine, for me, is the apex of fun.

While I would rather leap off a 4 story building with my arms and legs bound and an anvil tied to my head than discuss fantasy baseball, you might love discussing fantasy baseball with your pals. I certainly wouldn’t ridicule you for doing it – and I’d expect you to show the same respect to us wine geeks.

I think where Arthur has this right, and where Stein is way off the mark, is that wine talk itself does not equate to snobbishness. As the famous Micahel Broadbent put it in Winetasting:

“If there is such a thing as a wine snob, he or she will have all the atributes of any other sort of snob: affectation and pretentiousness covering up the lack of everything that makes a person worthy of serious attention.”

Kind of like when Stein starts off an article with “When wine drinkers tell me they taste notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals, usually all I can detect is a whole lot of jackass.”

Far worse than a snob in any case is a bore. The seriously smart Mr. Broadbent was onto this in a big way – also from Winetasting:

“A great expert can be a bore, particularly if speaking out of context, being repetitive, pedantic, opinionated… or merely intoing in a tedious, grinding, long-winded way. The wine bore is the person who speaks about wine when no one is inclined to listen, or to the exclusion of all else.”

Sounds right on the money to me, as it can easily be applied to any field of geek interest. Like wine, or fantasy baseball.

As Brit-pop music icon Morrissey sang, This World is Full of Crashing Bores. Wine bores. Fantasy Baseball bores.

And L.A. Times reporting bores.

Cheers!

(images: ewinetasting.com, viva-hater @ flickr.com, informationleafblower.com)

¿Cuál es la gran cosa con España? (Iberian Wines and You)

Vinted on May 28, 2008 under commentary

What’s up with Spain, anyway?

And for that matter, Portugal?

I mean… que pasa, dude??!?

Few wine regions are currently as exciting and vibrant as Spain and Portugal. Not too long ago, they were producing wines of specious quality, suffering from a similar Old World wine funk that once engulfed the (now impressive) wine regions like Chianti of Italy.

But now? Now the Iberian peninsula is kicking out quality wines all over the price-point spectrum. I’ve had killer Vinho Verde and Cava that have made me do a triple-head-take cartoon-style to verify that they really were that cheap. And don’t get me started on the screamin’ Priorats, aged Madeiras, and vintage Ports that I’ve tasted. Yowza!

Case in point – just so you don’t have to take only the Dude’s word for it:

“Spain continues to overperform… the number of truly fine Spanish wines continues to increase, with at least as much excitement at the lower end of the quality scale as at the higher end… Portuguese winemakers have now woken up to the tremendous potential that their country offers, making it a hotbed of innovation.” – Tom Stevenson, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia

BUT… with all of that Iberian awesomeness… why the heck do I find it so hard to consistently recommend good Iberian wines at a decent price point?

I posed that question to the wine blogging world’s resident Iberian wine experts, Gabriella and Ryan Opaz of Catavino.net, when I took part in their 2+1 Iberian wine survey. I’ve reprinted their answer here, as I think it sheds some very interesting light on the marketing situation facing Iberian winemakers and wine distributors today (thanks, guys!). Enjoy…

Mi pregunta: Why are good Iberian wines so damn hard to find in the States? Spain & Portugal are poised to take the wine world by storm in terms of value for money, but most people’s experience with them comes down to seeing a $45 Priorat in their local wine shop and passing it on by, or picking up a $10 Rioja that is plonk and never touching Spanish wine again. Ironically, most of their wines offer incredible quality for the price, except the ones we get here. What’s up with *that*?

Joe, we wish the answer was easier to give. Truth is, there are a lot of Iberian wines available, although we believe the rush to exploit them has been slowed down by the strength of the Euro. Up until this year, everyone wanted a new Iberian wine for their portfolio and were willing to spend a lot of money to obtain them. Today, however, that same money doesn’t go as far. Coupled with this, people are afraid to see Iberian wine as more than “good value”. Many of our best value wines are spreading across the States and selling well, but in the end, it’s time to spend a bit more in order to diversify the availability.

Many of our best value wines are spreading across the States and selling well, but in the end, it’s time to spend a bit more in order to diversify the availability.

Then, there is the country specific problem, i.e. nationalism. Spain will never have the ability to market itself as a brand, no matter how much Wines of Spain tries and fails. There are too many distinct cultures and political divisions throughout Spain for this to work. Thus, Spain will always end up having fragmented marketing campaigns that will never fully co-operate to achieve good, unified branding.

Portugal, on the other hand, is set to overtake Spain, because at least they can have a “brand Portugal”, but sadly, a lot of their brand equity is tied up in the Port houses, and it’s not easy to convince them that they should help the smaller appellations. Additionally, Portugal has a confusing system of Appellations, where you have the highest “quality wine” category (DOC) falling below the wines of the “lower” regional wine category (VR). We don’t think it hurts the retail sector, per se, but it does hurt the in country’s organization and how it presents itself. The final factor that that weakens “brand Portugal”, is the overwhelming presence of the Vinho Verde, Douro and Alentejo regions. Until the smaller regions gain a little spotlight, these main three big guys will always overshadow the smaller ones.

Spain will always end up having fragmented marketing campaigns that will never fully co-operate to achieve good, unified branding.

Think of it this way. French wine is considered good, with wines of quality coming from Bordeaux, CDP, Burgundy, etc. Here, Rioja wine is great, which happens to be from Spain. Port wine is historic, but that is from the English (seriously people have told me this). Vinho Verde is fresh and vibrant. Cava is the “other sparkling wine”. Clearly, we’re fragmented. Portugal and Spain both need to be known for great wine. As you say, people see the $45 Priorat, and only associate it with the region, but never the country.

You can read the entire article over at Catavino.net.

For more on Spanish wines, you can check out The New Spain by John Radford.

Cheers!

(images: catavino.net, about.com, wine.pt)

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