My oversized dog, Brunello – so named because he’s big (well over 115 lbs) and Italian (a Cane Corso) – is one of the most trainable dogs I’ve ever owned. Since his primary mission in life is to gain the approval of Mrs. Dudette, and to spend as many milliseconds with her as physically possible, he will gladly subject himself to just about anything (including wearing embarrassingly gaudy seasonal holiday related head gear).
He’s also dumber than a bag of hammers.
Bruno is sweet, fairly gentle, and learns quickly; don’t get me wrong here, we love the big lug. But as far as being able to exercise independent, intelligent, problem-solving thought, I know furniture that might be able to give him a run for the money.
Contrast that with our previous dog, a fleet-footed (and equally as sweet) weimaraner named Samson. Sam always knew what he wanted, whether it was sneaking from his floor bed into into our cozy (and, presumably, warmer) bed while we were asleep, or “liberating” some of his expensive pet food from one of its metal can prisons on his own (I once came home to an empty pet food can that Sam had opened up like a rose petal, having devoured all of the contents inside without once cutting himself on the remaining bent metal). And he was adept at trying to get it. Want to go outside and join the family while they’re working in the yard? NO problem… I’ll just use my paws to wiggle the door handle and… hey everybody! here I am!!! Let’s run out into the street!!!
Sam, possessing a large volume of independent thought and spirit, always made training a bit of a chore. “Why the f*ck should I do that?” seemed to be his primary reaction to training sessions; “can you just give me the treats already since that seems to be what all this about anyway?” But he could assemble input from his surroundings into the ability to get himself into trouble by going after something that he wanted but knew he wasn’t supposed to have. Now, that isn’t being trainable, but it sure as hell is being intelligent.
Okay, so now those of you who’ve asked for more blog posts about my dog are happy. But what’s this got to do with vino? More than you’d think, actually; you see, the wine biz would happily like you to act a lot more like Bruno than like Sam. And I’m here to tell you why that makes you the wine biz’s figurative “bitch”…
Here’s the thing: the wine business is ratings-happy. Nearly every wine critic will tell you how important ratings (particularly their own) are, that they move markets, that they’re what consumers want. The trouble is, ratings are not necessarily what consumers want (retailers and distributors and importers are a different matter). Consumers increasingly want quick help to verify their purchases of wines that they’ve never seen before, and a rating or score on a wine can help to do just that.
Nothing wrong with that, but the devil is in the details; or in this case, in the usage scenario. Nearly the entire marketing engine of the wine biz likes to tout ratings as fungible – interchangeable elements, a 95 is an A is a five-star, etc. – when they’re not actually interchangeable measures. This marketing approach is so effective that we have seen wine collectors actually comparing different wines from different producers on the basis of scores alone.
Here’s where the dog analogy comes into play: if you’re willing to equate, say, a “B+” northern Italian Pinot Noir with one from the Sonoma Coast that also got a “B+,” and are planning to make a buying decision between the two based on that comparison alone, then I’m hear to tell you that you’ve been trained, Jack. In that instance, ignoring the context of such wildly divergent regions in favor of the shorthand of a numerical or grade comparison makes you as dumb (when it comes to enjoying wine, anyway) as my current pooch. It’s like comparing grades between different exams from a calculus class and creative writing and declaring them equal. If you’re doing that, then go get your leash, puppy – maybe someone will talk you for a walk.
If instead you’re looking at what those critics said or wrote about the wines, and are using the ratings as a relative measure on their own – to apply to a wine on its own merits – with an eye towards determining that vino’s potential quality/price ratio (and you’re doing that with ratings from a person that you follow because they seem to have a similar approach to tasting wine that you do)… well, then, that’s using the information intelligently.
All of this might sound incredibly, almost laughably simple to many of you, but spend five minutes in any setting where wine is sold or marketed and I promise you that you will see otherwise perfectly capable, smart, tax-paying contributors to society relinquishing all common sense and instead acting dumber than my oversized pooch. All it takes to break that spell, to cast of that marketing leash, is a few seconds of stopping and considering an alternative way of approaching wine (and then, of course, the more difficult part – sticking with that approach through the marketing blitzes that will try to divert you back onto, as Lao Tzu would call it, the “side path.”).
The door is wide open, we only need walk through it to find a better way.
What are you going to do today to help someone stop being wine trainable, and starting being wine intelligent?