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Judging the Judges: Study Shows Wine Judges Aren’t That Reliable (or does it…?)

Vinted on January 27, 2009 binned in commentary, learning wine, wine tasting


The Journal of Wine Economics has just published a study authored by Robert T. Hodgson titled An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition. The reported findings should make the fodder for about 10,000 wine blog articles over the next few weeks.

The study tracked the ability of wine competition judges to replicate the scores that they gave to wines (during blind tasting competition) at the California State Fair. The study found that (emphasis is mine):

…judges were perfectly consistent… about 18 percent of the time. However, this usually occurred for wines that were rejected. That is, when the judges were very consistent, it was often for wines that they did not like

Let the blood-letting commence!

I fear that the media will take hold of this and start to sound the death knell for the ability of so-called experts to taste and rate wines (again), or use it to shake up an already arguably unfavorable view that wine appreciation and competition is the height of snobbery.

Neither are true, and this study does little to bolster either point. Why? Because wine tasting is, at its heart, heart a subjective exercise.

The study is clear on its intentions, which was not to shake up the world of wine competition, but to “provide a measure of a wine judge’s ability to consistently evaluate replicate samples of an identical wine. With such a measure in hand, it should be possible to evaluate the quality of future wine competitions using consistency as well as concordance with the goal to continually improve reliability and to track improvements associated with procedural changes…”

To understand why this study doesn’t ring so true with me, I need to give you a little detail on the mechanics of the study:

When possible, triplicate samples of all four wines were served in the second flight of the day randomly interspersed among the 30 wines. A typical day’s work involves four to six flights, about 150 wines… The judges first mark the wine’s score independently, and their scores are recorded by the panel’s secretary. Afterward the judges discuss the wine. Based on the discussion, some judges modify their initial score; others do not. For this study, only the first, independent score is used to analyze an individual judge’s consistency in scoring wines.

In summary: the judges weren’t consistent when faced with tasting hundreds of wines in a day, and there revised scores (based on panel discussion – which can have a huge impact on how you would evaluate a wine) weren’t used.

If the study proves anything, I think shows that trying to judge hundreds of wines in a day is a first-class non-stop ticket to palate fatigue, even for experienced wine judges.

Now that I think about it, blind tasting is so notoriously difficult that I give the judges in this study credit for being consistent almost 20% of the time. That would be a respectable hitting percentage in baseball (not sure… I don’t follow baseball actually)…

While the media may latch onto this one, the study hinted that there is some modicum of possible salvation for the madness surrounding wine competitions in general – not by way of wine judges, but by way of the ultimate judges of wine: the Consumer.

…a recent article in Wine Business Monthly (Thach, 2008) conducted as a joint
effort by 10 global universities with specialties in wine business and marketing found that consumers are not particularly motivated by medals when purchasing wine in retail stores. If consumer confidence is to be improved, managers of wine competitions would be well advised to validate their recommendations with quantitative standards.

Interesting conclusion. And a hopeful one.

Cheers!
(images: legaljuice.com, wine-economics.org)

Why Huge Wine Lists Suck

Vinted on January 26, 2009 binned in best of, commentary, learning wine

With the recent review I penned for WCDish.com, I’ve had restaurant wine lists on the brain lately.

Which means that this post will likely be ill-timed, given the dearth of restaurant-goers in an economy that is wading knee-deep in layoff announcements. Oh well – timing was never one of my strong suits.

Anyway, as a semi-educated wine geek, I fully appreciate that I might approach a restaurant wine list in a slightly different way than the average diner, in that I might have a deeper knowledge of what the foreign word mean, or what the wine is supposed to taste like from region XYZ.

Which is not to say that I think I’m smarter than the average restaurant-goer; quite the contrary, as I can tell you that 90% of them will be able to calculate an appropriate tip faster than I can (I like words – math… not so much). It just means that I’m probably geekier about wine than the average restaurant-goer.

But… at the restaurant table, while I may have more trouble with tip calculation due to my mathematically-challenged brain, my wine list perusal goal is no different than the average restaurant goer’s: find a good bottle of wine at a decent price that will go well with dinner.
Which is why I think that huge-ass restaurant wine lists suck.

Tyler over at Dr. Vino recently posted an article about a Tampa restaurant (Bern’s) that might be of interest to those who will be traveling to Tampa to watch the STEELERS trounce the Cardinals in Superbowl XLIII. Bern’s boasts 6,800 selections and more than 500,000 bottles. I don’t even want to see that wine list.

For me, dozens of pages detailing hundreds of choices of wine amounts to two things:

  1. A brief curiosity as I look up something geeky say softly, to no one in particular, “Wow. They have a bottle of 1925 Chateau Légendaire Maison Pompeux that costs more than my car…” (this might have appeal to boring wine snobs, but if that’s your clientelle then I am probably not coming back to your restaurant anytme soon)…
  2. …that quickly becomes a big distraction. If I am at a dinner with a group of like-minded wine geeks, then by all means bring on the wine cellar curiosities. Chances are that I’m not, however, and a huge wine list distracts from the dinner conversation and enjoyment that I should be having while I try to reason with the weighty tome of vino choices.

And the wine geeks out there will appreciate that it’s always you that has to pick the wine – and the larger the wine list, the faster it will get tossed your way by the other dinner guests.

Here’s an example:

A few years ago Mrs. Dudette and I took a trip to Vegas (baby, Vegas) and caught up with some old college friends of mine. We decided to grab dinner at Aureole, the restaurant with over 800 bottles of wine, which are stored in a glass tower and retrieved by babes on hoists.

The wine list is a tablet PC with a touch screen, with which you can browse and search the wine offerings. Sounds like a time saver, but it turned into exactly the same type of curiosity / distraction. While trying to settle on one of the 800+ bottles, I spent too much time looking at the bottles of 1925 Chateau Légendaire Maison Pompeux* that cost more than my car, and not enough time enjoying the conversation with my friends.

And after all, what’s better – oohing and ahhing over a list of stuff you can’t afford to drink, or drinking something good and sharing it with friends?

In my book, there’s no contest.

Kind of like there’s no contest in the upcoming Superbowl…

Go STEELERS!
(images: picasa/chung, m-kerho.net)

* – Not a real producer. At least, not that I’m aware of, anyway…

Earth, Wine And Fire… and Wine Lists

Vinted on January 16, 2009 binned in learning wine, wine appreciation

Shall we explore the world of restaurant wine lists, while interpolating the badassness of Earth Wind & Fire in the process?

What the hell, why not?

First, we can establish the baddassness of EWF right away - that’s easy: They funked, singing harmonies in octaves that would require most people to otherwise suck helium to achieve, all the while dancing in reflective costumes with capes. If that’s not badass, then I don’t kow what badass is.

What brings EWF to mind (in other words, what the f–k does this have to do with wine)?

I recently did a restuarant wine pairing review of a new wine list concept at nearby Teikoku for West Chester PA foodie website WC Dish. According to the Teikoku website (bolded items highlighted by me):

For millennia, many eastern cultures have embraced the notion that five fundamental elements govern all aspects of life and environment. Though these elements appear in many forms, the most common are Earth, Water, Fire, Wind & Sky. At Teikoku we believe that wine can be represented by these elements as well. Keep in mind that our wines are not arranged according to conventional methods. We have selected a more transcendent form of organization. Perhaps our philosophy will offer you a unique perspective on your dining experience.

I found the wine choices to be quite well done, and in some cases even inspired, with very good by-the-glass selections reflecting quite a bit of the diversity in today’s wine market (Spanish Rose, Torrontes, Carmenere, etc.).

But it’s the Elemental wine concept that obviously stands out as unique. I’ve seen many, many styles of restaurant wine lists, from the stuffy and mundane “By Region” to wine flights inspired by a wine’s palate weight, proces or even just fun, semi-random themes. But this is a different take entirely.

Teikoku’s list certainly brings the Earth Wind & Fire funkiness. The trouble is, I’m not sure it actually helps anyone navigate the wine list any better than a more traditional method.

Some of us might feel a need to be more “grounded” on a particular day and gravitate towards the Earth (get it?) theme wines… but I can imagine many others looking at the Earth heading and wondering if the wine is going to taste like a mouthful of dirt.

But… you’ve got to give props to Teikoku for what they’re trying to do. Unless you think they’re trending towards the gimmicky side.
What do you think? Are they bringing the funk with this kind of wine list? Or are they just wearing the silver jumpsuits and capes?

Which got me thinking, Are other restaurants doing this? Will we see a more progressive trend towards different wine list presentations? And if we do, will these help the consumer? Or just confuse them even more?
Let me know YOUR thoughts!
Let’s Groove, baby!
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Cheers!
(images: 1WineDude.com, associatedentertainment.com)

The Summer of Wine’s Discontent (or "What Wine Can Learn From Beer")

Vinted on September 22, 2008 binned in best of, commentary, learning wine

The wine world probably won’t miss the Summer of `08.

That’s because the Summer of `08 seems like wine’s Season of Discontent.

Personally, I’ve never been so happy to see the Autumn (even taking into account that the Fall is my favorite time of year… colorful leaves… dark beers… heavier wines… and football… sweet, sweet football…).

Anyway, it was last week, with Autumn and football in full swing, when I realized that the wine biz has a lot to learn from its “little” cousin, beer. You know, the one that wine likes to look down on and winsomely tolerate from time to time at family reunions, all the while not seeming to realize that its cousin lives in a bigger house, makes more money, and has more friends. Yes, that cousin. Wine – I’m talking to YOU.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting fellow blogger The Beer Wench, touring nearby beer stalwart Victory Brewing Company with her. Dude loves beer (in fact, I used to brew it), and he is tight with Victory: it’s my favorite beer location, Mrs. Dudette and I are friends with Victory’s events coordinator, and Dude’s band is playing Victory’s outdoor Fall Fest celebration this year. So we were able to score a private tour of the beer-making magic for The Beer Wench.

About halfway through said tour (when I was rolling hops in my fingers, forever imprinting it’s aromatic fingerprint into my brain), I realized something very important (to me, anyway): I’ve yet to meet anyone involved in beer – whether it be media, distribution, crafting, or enjoying – who was snobbish to the point of being exclusionary. Nobody. Zippo. Nada. It just doesn’t happen. All seem to be welcome in the land of beer. Sure, they have their favorites, and the occasional “low on taste high on commercial budget” examples that they love to hate (Bud Light, anyone?). But you’re never, ever turned away at the door of fine beer. Never.

The mantra of the beer lovers?

Everyone else is also a potential beer lover – they just don’t know it yet!

I wish that I could say the same held true for the world of fine wine…


The sad truth is that there is snobbery in the wine world, and some parts of the industry might actually bank on that snobbery to make their take-home pay.

Too many budding wine aficionados are scared off by “experts” or turned away by the snobbish who view fine wine as some sort of elitist entitlement, to whom holding wine at arm’s length from newbies is some sort of perverse badge of wine honor. By actively deterring new potential wine lovers, the only thing that the ‘elite’ are doing for fine wine is driving its future of appreciation into the dirt. I’m NOT talking about the Robert Parkers of the world. I’m talking about those who think they’re Robert Parkers, but lack the experience, renown, know-how, clout, and funding, yet somehow feel as though wine ‘belongs’ to them.

This has nothing to do with print wine media. It has to do with individuals (no matter if they’re in the wine industry or not) who are perpetuating a myth that you need to earn your place to love wine. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Wine loves you already. it wants you to be its friend. Wine doesn’t like the snobs, either!

In my view, it would help the wine world if most of those in it took a long, hard look at the world of beer and instead of turning their noses at it, embrace its sense of helpfulness and down to earth charm.

Hey! Wine world! You need to help yourself to a glass of “Get Over Yourself” Ale. Vintage: Now. Region: You.

In general (not just for wine), people are looking more and more to social networking and customized recommendations. Some wine distributors, wine mags, wineries, and a whole lotta bloggers “get” this, and are doing their best to help those consumers, newbies, and enthusiastic learners. And they’re probably enjoying a cold brewski while they’re doing it (and if not, they should, because whether hey realize it or not, they’re taking a cue from the beer industry).

Arguably, there are now more helpful resources to help the wine neophyte than there have at any other time in history. The tide is changing. And it’s coming for the wine world, whether it’s ready or not.

Cheers!
(images: old-photos.blogspot.com, 1WineDude.com)

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