Whether you feel that Goldstein’s powers are being used for good or evil, you can’t say that he harbors a fear of shaking things up. Goldstein became a polarizing figure in the wine world in 2008, when he ruffled the feathers of Wine Spectator by creating a fictitious restaurant whose wine list included some of their lowest-scoring Italian wines in the past two decades, and subsequently won their restaurant Award of Excellence. The aftermath caused one of the most heated debates of the year in the wine world.
Goldstein also coauthored The Wine Trials, the first edition of which is the bestselling wine guide (for inexpensive wines, anyway) in the world. The premise of the Wine Trials was simple: compare everyday wines to more expensive equivalents in blind tastings, and see which ones the average person preferred. As it turns out, most wine consumers – to a statistically significant degree – enjoy the less expensive options; more feathers ruffled!
Goldstein has a new website, BlindTaste.com, and the 2010 edition of the Wine Trials has recently been released. I tore through my review copy of The Wine Trials, and I found the first 50 pages (which describe the approach and science behind the book, and hint at its future implications on the wine industry) to be some of the most profound reading on wine appreciation that I have ever come across. The Wine Trials doesn’t just poke at wine’s sacred cows – it skewers them, grills them, and serves them up with an inexpensive Spanish red (Lan Rioja Crianza in this case, which took the Wine of the Year honors in the 2010 Wine Trials). A similar take on beer, The Beer Trials, is set to be released this Spring.
Robin kindly agreed to answer a few questions for our readers. I’ll warn you that you should be prepared for a quick and opinionated mind – and you might want to pad the walls of your wine world, because that world is about to get turned squarely onto its ear…
1) Summarize for our readers what you think The Wine Trials is all about. What do want readers of The Wine Trials to come away with?
This is a book that encourages you to learn your own palate better through blind tasting, to take wine magazines’ 100-point ratings with a (large) grain of salt, and not to assume that you’re going to like an expensive wine more than a cheap wine if you cover up the labels.
Probably the most immediately useful part of the book is the guide to 150 of the best wines under $15 that are widely available around America, with a photo of each bottle and simple, unpretentious wine descriptions. So I hope the book will quickly pay for itself by narrowing your inexpensive wine selections in the wine store or supermarket. But I hope that readers will also take the time to consider the arguments that I set forth in the first half of the book, which discusses the theory behind blind tasting and the scientific research that’s increasingly demonstrating the staggering power of expectation and bias on our most fundamental taste experiences.
2) What led you to create The Wine Trials? You seem to be passionate about blind tasting as a means for consumers to find their own, individual palates and wine preferences…
First of all, it was a book I wanted to use myself. I had grown tired of the increasing opacity of the way inexpensive wines were being branded – who knows what to make of a shelf full of wines branded with labels full of animals or cartoons of scantily clad women?? And I thought wine drinkers needed a guide like this. I also thought the under-$15 market – the wines most people really drink – was being underserved by wine magazines, which tend to be overly focused on expensive wines.
As for blind tasting, that’s been a passion of mine for years before The Wine Trials existed. In fact, it goes back to my college days, when I studied philosophy and neuroscience and wrote a senior thesis that was related to the perception of sensory experience. My college roommates and I even used to blind taste at our bar, trying to figure out whether people preferred Grey Goose or Smirnoff…but more recently, I’m interested in the impact that the marketing of conspicuous consumption has on the economy.
3) In The Wine Trials 2010, you make an extended reference to your experiment with the Wine Spectator Restaurant Excellence Award, which caused quite a stir, especially on-line. What did you learn from that experience? Did the results and feedback from that experience change your views or perspective on wine ratings and wine magazines? Did it impact how you approached the 2010 Wine Trials?
I think the experiment demonstrates that the Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence are a hoax on the readers: the award is represented as the result of a rigorous judgment by the magazine’s wine experts, yet they’re really just a form of advertising. My experiment showed that you can get the award even if your restaurant doesn’t exist and your “reserve wine list” is full of wines deemed undrinkable by Wine Spectator itself.
4) Who do you think would win in a boxing match: you, or James Suckling?
Although I did once dominate King Hippo in Punch-Out, I’d bet on Suckling, because my upper body strength these days is quite poor. On the other hand, maybe Suckling would take it easy on me because he wouldn’t want the blood spewing from my face to sully his Ferragamo trunks…
5) Do you think that receiving a free review copy of The Wine Trials is enough compensation for the grief I endured in the Wine Spectator forums trying to get their editors to comment on your restaurant awards experiment? I mean, I think you at least owe me at least one beer as well for that…
How about a copy of The Beer Trials? It’s coming out this spring, co-authored with Seamus Campbell, and I’m very excited about it. The book will review 250 of the world’s most popular beers. And it travels better than a beer.
[Editor’s note: It’s a deal.]
Tom Matthews responded to the initial exposé on the WS website with a personal attack, accusing me of “malicious duplicity.” I think, however, that WS readers would have been more interested in hearing an apology for the magazine’s misrepresentation of an advertising scheme as an awards program, an explanation of how the process worked such that this had been allowed to happen, or at least a promise to change the standards or the awards process. WS’s refusal to do so, I think, has further devalued the award in the eyes of the public.
6) Some of the conclusions that could be drawn from the tasting science / experiments cited in The Wine Trials 2010 have potentially profound implications for the wine review world as it’s currently structured. Notably, you state that Wine Magazines ratings can inflate wine prices, while wine magazine reviewers are more apt to give higher ratings to wines with higher prices (and that in some cases those price categories can be inferred by their reviewers even though the tastings are blind).
It’s a short leap from there to conclude that wine magazine reviews are potentially part of a self-feeding cycle causing higher & higher wine prices, while the wines that they are viewing have less and less appeal to the average wine consumer. What do you think that wine mags need to do in order to address the disparity between them and the average consumer – to break the cycle?
One, stop accepting advertisements from wine producers whose wines are being rated. This is an unacceptable conflict of interest, and recent research (which I discussed on Blind Taste, my blog — http://blindtaste.com/2009/12/10/new-study-suggests-that-wine-spectator-advertisers-get-higher-ratings/ ) has shown a correlation between advertisements and ratings. I write in the blog: “We should be skeptical of criticism whose publication is financially supported by the producers of the products being criticized. Wine critics should not accept advertisements from wineries. Period.” You’d think this would be an obvious point, but apparently it’s not.
Two, start tasting blind – and I don’t mean tasting blind in the way that WS and some other mags claim to do, which means knowing the appellation and vintage (and therefore the price range), just not the producer. I mean tasting blind without any knowledge of the price of the wine or reputation of the region or grape. The critics at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, one of the few wine publications that doesn’t accept ads, are guilty of often tasting completely non-blind, at the winery itself. However great these critics are, they aren’t immune from bias. They’re human beings, and the research that I cite in The Wine Trials indicates that all human beings are vulnerable to the placebo effect. In fact, wine critics, with all the information about wine floating through their brains, might even be more vulnerable than most.
Three, get rid of the 100-point rating scale. It implies a level of resolution that the human palate simply doesn’t have. And worse still, the way the scale is almost universally used – even when it’s based on blind tasting – it rewards a specific big, complex (and expensive) style and penalizes a wine for being simple, light, and refreshing. Something like a dry ros?é from Provence, a Vinho Verde from Portugal, or a young table wine that makes great sangria almost never breaks 90 points. The clear message is that light, refreshing wines can be decent, but a wine must be big and heavy to be truly great. I don’t agree with that message. Would a food critic be taken seriously if he used a 100-point scale in which every single restaurant in the high 90s was a steakhouse, and a fish restaurant couldn’t score above 88? Of course not. Yet that’s the exact equivalent of what the wine magazines are doing. In a particular situation: you’re at the seaside in summer, let’s say, and you’re eating a lunch of grilled shellfish – and there is nothing else in the world that you would rather be drinking than a clean, dry rosé. What did that rosé do wrong such that it deserves to be in the bottom half of the magazine ratings?
7) What role (if any) do you see wine blogs playing now? Do they represent a chance to close the potentially widening gap between wine mags and the wine consumer?
Yes. I think the emergence of wine blogs are one of the best thing that’s happened to the wine world in the past decade. They are a much-needed force against the abuse of power by the mainstream wine media elite. When I revealed my Wine Spectator exposé, I got an incredible outpouring of support from wine bloggers that, like me, were tired of the way this sort of abuse proliferated and happy to see that somebody had exposed it. It was a great counterbalancing force against the censorship that happened on Wine Spectator’s own website, which was worthy of the Chinese government. I posted a long, polite response to Matthews’ personal attack on their site, responding to his points one by one, and the WS censors deleted it immediately. Bloggers don’t tend to have that attitude; I’ve almost never seen a blogger delete a negative but thoughtful comment. Blogs are meant to encourage debate and disagreement. That’s not to say that every wine blog is good, but the good ones are more interesting to read, I think, than almost any of the mainstream magazines. I’ve started my own blog, blindtaste.com (which now contains the entirety of the WS exposé), although I don’t post as often as I’d like. I’m awed by how prolific some wine bloggers are; that’s the toughest part of it, coming up with something interesting to say almost every day.
8) You failed to mention the influence of the music of Canadian rock icons RUSH in your acknowledgements? Was that conscious, or just an oversight?
No, it was conscious; I actually tried to avoid listening to the music of RUSH during the wine review process. This was for good reason: as I’ve argued in The Wine Trials, external factors can bias our taste experiences. Had I been listening to RUSH, I would have been in such a good mood the whole time that I would have liked all the wines, and thus lost my ability to be critical.
[Editor’s note: this sounds like a cop-out to me, but hey, he knows a lot more about the science than I do, so…]
9) In The Wine Trials, you state that it’s a misconception that bargain-priced wine brands don’t undergo vintage variation, citing the fact that more recent vintages from 2009 winners didn’t make the cut. I’d argue that bargain wine brands still suffer from less vintage variation than most of their more expensive counterparts, since many of them are more expensive because they’re sourced from smaller lots where weather would play an increasingly important role. Would you say that we’re both right, or do The Wine Trials results support a different conclusion for those smaller-production, expensive wines?
I think it would be inappropriate to make a categorical statement comparing the variability of inexpensive wine vs. expensive wine (however you define those categories). First of all, some expensive wines are so manipulated with aggressive oak, micro-oxygenation, and over-concentration that they tend to be similar from one year to the next. But more importantly, the important thing to keep in mind is that variation from one year’s release to the next doesn’t happen only in the vineyard. Inexpensive wine brands often vary the style of winemaking from one year to the next–one striking example in The Wine Trials 2011 was the less oaky style of many inexpensive California Chardonnays as compared to their releases from a year or two before. Compare this to classic higher-priced regions like Burgundy where they’re not making many stylistic changes in the vinification from one year to the next.
Keep in mind that many expensive wines come from AOC or DOC regions where there are very strict standards governing blending, vinification, aging, etc. This is a pressure against variability. You’d almost never see a particular producer’s white Burgundy go from oaky to not oaky from one vintage to the next, yet you see it with Fetzer. On the other hand, Burgundy is one of the regions where variations in the climatic conditions change the wine most from one vintage to the next. So what changes more from one year to the next? Fetzer Chardonnay or a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru? The answer’s not clear. In short, I think you have to address the question one wine at a time. But I maintain the claim that it is a complete misconception that inexpensive wine doesn’t vary much from year to year.
10) What’s next for The Wine Trials? Any changes planned for The Wine Trials 2011?
With every new edition, aside from tasting all new wine releases, the other editors and I want to include an ever-broader selection of wines – but to do so without lowering our standards, which means tasting more and more wines each year. We’ve been lucky that the book has sold well enough that we’re able to update it annually, which I think is absolutely crucial.
And then, of course, The Beer Trials is on the way, which will take a different approach than The Wine Trials, but one that I hope will be equally useful to readers.
(images: blindtaste.com, amazon.com)