Are You Wine Trainable, Or Wine Intelligent?

Vinted on July 23, 2013 binned in wine appreciation, zen wine

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) if it will eventually translate into an extra bit of attention from my wife.

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?

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Didier


    Fun read Joe!! Love weimaraners.. At one point I had 10 of them ;)

    • 1WineDude


      Didier – WOW! That must have been… crazy! I imagine wine would help from time to time with that… ;-)

  • Michael


    Humm. Okay, so why attach a number or a letter to the review at all? What exactly does the B+ mean? Better than all the other Pinots to which you gave a B? Better than all the other Sonoma Coast Pinots to which you gave a B, but, (as you have suggested) not any basis to compare to any Italian Pinot whether or not they also got a B+? Just an indication that the wine is (1) not flawed and (2) a pretty good drink?
    And, if I may continue for a moment, what did it mean when you gave out a bunch of A and A+ to DRC — Best Pinot ever? Best DRC effort ever? Perfect wine (by what descriptors)? Perfect Pinot from Burgundy? From that specific vineyard?

    • 1WineDude


      Michael – you're hitting the issue with ALL reviews of any partially-subjective experience. The answer is that the rating/grade/whatever can clue you in only on where one person thinks that partially-subjective thing sits on a continuum of best-to-worst in the world. That's it. As to why I use them, it's specifically because I polled and readers wanted them. But that comes with the frequent caveats that I throw out there with respect to all wine reviews (one of which you just read – and thanks for that! :).

      • Michael


        Okay, I hear you. So point taken that the Sonoma Pinot and the Italian Pinot are not going to taste the same, even at the same score, but if one got a B and the other a B+, notwithstanding that you would be comparing math class to English class, you though the B+ wine was objectively better. Right?
        When you say "best-to-worst in the world," is that across all wines (or maybe a broad class — dry red, dry white) or within a variety? I started a post along these lines in response to your video on grade inflation (but did not send it). I find the whole objective-subjective nature of the scores to be challenging, particularly on this last point. since I sense that on the one hand reviewers look for wine that is varietally "correct," but on the other have concluded that some grapes (and some locations) cannot produce 100 point wines.
        (And, b.t.w., I pretty much read all of your posts!)

        • 1WineDude


          Michael – well, you're awesome, then! :)

          It's funny, when you explain it in the way that you do (which is excellent), the entire category of reviews just seems to break down. And I think that is great, because those types of reviews should break down, they ought to be undermined, because they aren't useful unless the reader is already in tune with his/her own tastes and those of the reviewer as well.

          For me, it's trying to summarize both the grape, intended style, region, how good it is/isn't, and how well it's made, and a comparison of sorts to all other wines I've ever tasted. On the surface, it's sisyphean and almost laughable, isn't it? But that's the intention.

  • Michael


    Kudos for your honesty! (One of the reasons I'm a fan.)
    I agree with you entirely and do wish people got the limitations of scores (and scorers). I, frankly, don't think it is wrong for a critic to talk about what they like (lean, acidic, extracted, fruity, more vegetable, bretty (but in the good sense) etc.) and let people know that, to a significant extent, is what they are grading toward. (Gary Vee used to do this all the time, and was quite honest about his own tastes shifting over time.) Wines that Parker (to take and obvious example) rates highly fit his understanding of what (that) wine ought to be which (thank god) is not the same as yours.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Michael. I guess in some ways, I’m trying to get people to where you are when it comes to wine, confident in their likes and dislikes, without fearing whether or not their choices are somehow right or wrong.

  • Jon Bjork


    Nice job, Joe!

    And in this discussion we're ignoring how much the wine is changing over time, presumably changing what the rating would be as well.

    Honestly, the best "rating" is seeing what emotion a taste of wine brings to a person's face (if they don't have on a poker face, like many video-based tasters). When I pour a wine for a person in a tasting setting, I can pretty much know immediately if they like it or not. That's one reason it was fun watching Gary V, because he was so animated and unedited. Even Wine Spectator admits to an "X factor" that signifies that almost inexpressible (and unrate-able) quality in a wine that is exciting and amazing.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jon – hadn't heard about the X-factor for WS (but I pretty much pay zero attention to WS). As for how the wine changes… don't get me started… I'm routinely surprised (both positively and negatively) about how a wine I've rated with some age on it changed my view of it… cheers!

  • Les Taylor


    I have a dog named Samson, German Shepard/Ridgeback mix. Apparently he has the same taste in wine that I have. When ever any gets spilled, he laps it all up.

    When I shop for wine, I use the descriptions way more than the ratings. My wine desires change with the heat of the day or my state of mind. Be it jammy, smokey, crisp, citrus, berries, color (I seem to be attracted to a more purple). Sometimes it is just knowing that the Malbec that I had last week is still on my mind and I need more. A nice B or better does help me confirm that I won't be dumping $$ down the drain and opening something else.

    • 1WineDude


      Les – thanks. Bruno seems totally uninterested in the vino at the moment :-)

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