Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is this Budometer for you?

A couple of months ago researchers at the University of California, at Davis, in conjunction with a Master of Wine (and maybe promoter) announced the “Budometer,” a device that built on findings that there are three classifications of tasters in this universe: tolerant, sensitive, and hypersensitive.

Contrary to the way they appear, the hypersensitive is not the one who is supposed to be great at picking out the many nuances in wine.

In fact, according to the press release, hypersensitive tasters are more likely not to drink wine; they have an “aversion to bitterness, and favor delicacy over intensity.”

I guess you've got to give some slack to California wine researchers—maybe the many 95-point, high alcohol, bombastic wines on the Left Coast makes them unaware that there is such a thing as delicacy in wine. But let me not quibble—not right now, anyway.

The press release went on to talk about how this new discovery of our collective taste buds will revolutionize the way wine competitions are held. The theory is that if the judges can be tested in advance using a simple drop of blue paint on their tongues they can be classified in groups so that the wines will have a “fair shot” in competitions.

In other words, judges will evaluate only wines they are likely to appreciate.

Since when should wines have a fair shot in competitions? Is this some sort of offshoot of the new parenting concept: that all children are stars and that the idea behind a game of baseball has nothing to do with the better team winning but more to do with just playing the game?

That’s a great concept, except that the idea of the game, which is a competition, is to win. If you don’t play you can’t lose. But if you do play, you ought to be good enough to have a shot at winning, and that's as fair as your shot gets.

Besides, a wine competition is not supposed to please the judges; their job is to evaluate each wine on its technical merits. To accomplish that, judges should be trained not painted blue.

No matter. Based on my sampling of the Budometer, the thing will likely prove itself for what it is: a gimmick.

According to the online Budometer test that I took, I am supposedly a hypersensitive taster, which means that I prefer sweet wines over dry, dislike bitterness, and favor delicacy over intensity—getting one out of three right does not make for a stellar performance. Even the one that the test got right is up for grabs: yeah, I like delicacy, but I can also cotton to intensity, provided the wine has balance, which leads to another issue.

I don’t think the description of tasters in this system says anything about balance or nuance or anything interesting at all, really. But judge for yourself. Go to the link below to read the story. There, you'll find a link so that you can take the ridiculous test.

On the heels of the Budometer comes a news report that people given electro shock proved to have a heightened sense of smell.

Can you imagine what the next gimmick will be?

All I can say is that if wine judges are going to have to agree to have their tongues painted blue and then submit to electric shock before the competition begins, I’m going to start turning down wine judge invitations…



Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Those who read Tom Wark’s blog, Fermentations, already know about the annual American Wine Blog Awards, or whatever he calls it. Seems a rather straightforward thing: a few rules for bloggers, a few nominations called for, a few votes for those nominated, a few winners—and a lot of losers.

You are of course reading the blog of one of the losers. I managed one nomination—from Jack, at Fork and Bottle. I have a suspicion he did it out of pity, since I wasn’t faring too well in the nomination camp, nothing like the outfit that had all its friends and employees submit not only nominations, but glowing reports on the outfit’s stellar station in the universe (I do think Tom should have zapped that nonsense from the nominating process, but, hey, that’s only my opinion, and if I go on, it will seem like sour grapes.)

Not winning is one thing, but learning from the loss is quite another. For instance, if it wasn’t for the award loss, I would never have found out that wine blogging is an industry. I found out because of a discussion that took place online—see below.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that I place all my reference links at the bottom of the page. I do that because I am one of those nuts who hates the links inside the text; it creates the desire to click on it, and that creates the condition of either losing my place in the text that I was reading or being taken so far away from it that I don’t go back to it. It's reading-interruptus to me.

It’s these kinds of opinions that probably lost me the nomination, let alone the award!

To be serious (did you know that I wasn’t being serious?), the wine forum world seems to have again had an implosion. Small as it is—the implosion, not the Internet world—the happening kind of supports my position in my last blog entry, when I said that in wine geekdom, it’s often about the geek rather than about the wine.

On the Parker/Squires/Leve site a long-standing member has been banned—again. This time, he was banned for responding to the ramblings of the moderator. I’ll probably get banned for saying this, but Squires really ought to bow out from being a forum moderator—he’s too divisive for the job and he’s too ready to pounce on diverging opinions, not to mention that he seems touchy about criticism, which isn’t unusual.

It seems that critics are quite thin-skinned about being criticized. I believe it has something to do with the fact that they believe that they are the answer, so how is it possible for them to be criticized?

Then, over on Therapy, something happened, and I swear I cannot figure out what it was, to cause one of our own bloggers and wine people, Lyle, to pack his bags ( link below).

I don’t know what’s going on: two implosions and someone so eloquent as I can’t win an award. Could they be related???

Nah, it was just the full moon.

While you ponder that lofty possibility, think about this:

In my world, Chardonnay should be crisp, clean (sans a lot of that oak thing). The wine should show one of the singular traits of that grape: a malt-apple quality (if you’ve ever tasted the grape off the vine, you’d know what I mean). Those melon-like Chardonnays are to me what a pizza topped with pineapple is—yuck!

Last night, I found a Chardonnay that made me smile with pleasure. Cuvee Delaye, 2006 Saint-Veran (Les Pierres Grises). It’s exactly how I like my Chardonnay and it was great with a sage chicken breast breaded cutlet.

The wine cost me an unbelievable $13 after discount. I think its listed price is closer to $17. The wine is imported by Michael Skurnick Wines, NY, a company that often comes up with winners.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2008. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The first time I went sailing as a crew member for a friend who owned a schooner, I did everything that I was told to do—everything that I understood, that is. By the end of the day, before I passed out from overwork, I had dubbed sailing talk as “jiberish.”

Every hobby has its own language, acronyms, initials, and probably a secret code or two. But I swear, after reading the language of online wine geeks I wonder if many of them have any fun at all drinking wine. The language that ranges from the pompous to the unintelligible speaks to obsession. But to joy? I don't know.

It seems as if many geeks are in the game for a pleasure other than the sheer joy of a solid, subtle, “perfect with my food” wine. They want to be blown away, not only by the wine and its unreasonable price, but also by reaching a level that eludes mere mortals—indeed, that mere mortals may never understand.

A geek dissects, analyzes, splits hairs, argues, confuses opinion with fact, jumps on others who disagree, demands some sort of special treatment—especially in restaurants—and all around seems to revel in obvious self importance. It’s no wonder that us regular folks find something elitist about wine geekdom; as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Good luck to anyone with a subjective opinion about a wine. There’s always a geek to disagree and challenge. But challenge what? The only kind of person who challenges subjectivity is someone too cocksure for me to want to get to know well.

A gathering of wine geeks, with its talk of tannins and integrated oak, of calibrating palates, of intensity and power seems always to come with an edge. The conviviality may at times even seem contrived, as if you are being set up to say something others lie in wait to challenge.

Sitting around a table with a bunch of geeks greedily tasting and spouting off often reminds me of my Brooklyn neighborhood, when the mobsters shot high stakes dice on the street corner.

The mobsters knew the game inside out; they spoke insider’s language, too (a hundred says he fours or eights, it’s a snake, I’ll cover him, etc.). These guys hung out together, robbed together, and some of them even killed together. They were a dysfunctional family. When they gambled with great intensity, it was like a contest of the fittest, a challenge to the top dogs.

The crap game produced a great degree of noise but, win or lose, you’d have been hard-pressed to identify as joy what the players expressed—obsession, maybe; desperation, to be sure.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Who's conning whom?

There’s a particular type of lawyer who probably views him or herself as a good debater, when in fact, what the lawyer is good at is browbeating, especially when the lawyer hasn’t a good argument to make either for the cause or against the opposition. This is where I would place the comment made by a wine bulletin board moderator when he called blind tasting wine evaluations a “con job.”

To be more precise, he called it the “biggest con job in wine evaluation.” He claims that evaluating wine blind produces “aberrant results,” which of course is the exact reason that blind evaluation is important: it humbles those who think they know and it catapults those who think they don’t. In other words, blind wine evaluation levels the playing field.

Does anyone know a lawyer who likes a level playing field?

There are two types of blind wine analysis. Single blind means that the tasters know one or more of the wine’s classification (grape variety, region, vintage, etc.) but they never get to know the producer until after their analysis; double blind means the tasters are supposed to know nothing about the wine.

The “con job,” in these blind evaluations is that trained tasters should be able to tell a few basic things about the wine, plus its technical faults or attributes. More important, tasters should be free to evaluate the wine on its merits, without the benefit of having information essential to determining something like age-ability, which was the subject of the bulletin board discussion that prompted the con job quote.

I’ve put the link below for you to read the discussion, so I’m not going to go over it here, except to say that when you do set out to read it, be warned that there is a British poster who can’t seem to say anything in ten words when there’s a whole dictionary from which to choose. I have no idea what his point is, since he lost me in his rhetoric.

The specious claim that blind evaluation is an overall con job is joined by the claim that after evaluating a wine on its merits, knowing the producer establishes a more accurate assessment of the wine’s aging potential. I agree. Knowing the producer makes it easy to assess the wine’s aging potential, but what does that have to do with evaluating the wine?

Once you know the producer, must you be a professional to guess how long the wine might live? Talk about promoting a con job!

In my view, a blind evaluation takes the chance that the taster will be wrong; trained tasters have a better shot at being right much of the time but, contrary to what some may think of themselves, because humans are infallible, they won’t always be right, and since taste is affected by all sorts of external things, they won’t be consistent either.

Making claims about a wine when the taster knows all there is to know about it, including the producer, may make the taster seem more accurate and it may even make the taster seem more knowledgeable, but what is its purpose?

The problem with all but one of the posters in that particular discussion is that they don’t seem to understand the role of a wine critic. If there is a con job, it would be in critics claiming that their evaluations focus on the wine--they focus on their subjective opinion of the wine; a little help from knowing the label doesn't hurt!

Then again, why believe me? I could be Svengali disguised as an uninterested blogger evaluating wine critics with objectivity...

Blind or no-blind

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2008. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wine in the Amazon

In an article published online by the Financial Times, Jonathan Birchall reported briefly that, “the world’s largest online retailer, is to start selling wine in the US, entering a business fraught with regulatory complexities and littered with the wreckage of previous failures.”

My initial reaction was not, shall we say, positive. Not that I have anything against Amazon—its Web site does a decent job of selling my latest book. I immediately felt sorry for local retailers and also for the novice consumer. Let me explain.

First the retailers: while Amazon does a good job selling books, and other consumer items, the large online retailer has also helped remove local book stores from the landscape. Now that may or may not be good for America, but I am certain it isn’t good for the families of bookstore owners, as sure as closing down a wine retail shop isn’t going to be good for those families.

Yet, neither I nor anyone else can deny that online shopping is upon us and it is likely to take over the way we do business.

I may remain the last holdout, as I have a genetic need to see, touch, feel, and talk to a real person when I buy something, and that leads me to my second concern: the novice consumer.

I always remember that look on a certain young person’s face, when returning to buy another bottle of that spectacular wine that earlier in the week I had to persuade him to try. It motivated me to run the retail wine shop.

In our Manhattan wine shop, my partner and I made a premeditated effort to assure that our staff talk to every person who came into the shop, to find out level of wine knowledge and taste preference. With that information, we embarked on making recommendations, and we always tried to make recommendations for products and brands that the customer had never heard of and had no information about. (We eschewed wines that received ratings from critics.)

That way, customers were exposed to more than good advertising or jaded critic ratings. Customers were exposed to wines that had the potential of meeting their expectations, because we got to know their palates.

We also ran a weekly wine tasting not only to introduce new products but to also talk with customers about what they like or dislike about the products—that way, we got to know more about their preferences.

I simply cannot figure out how Amazon or any online wine sales effort is going to do that.

It seems to me, the consumers who benefit most from online wine sales are those who have been consuming wine for years and know what they like, plus those who go out and taste wine and decide what they like and see if it is online. (I suppose those who don't care much but just want the cheapest wine they can find benefit too.)

What about novices? How is online buying going to help develop their palates?

I suppose novices can go to tastings and then see if Amazon sells the wines that they like, but something tells me that talk and personal connection creates more interested novices than cyber signals.

I also wonder about the mundane stuff like:

Will Amazon warehouse wines the way it warehouses books? I don’t like that possibility.

Will Amazon’s operation finally break down the three-tier system? I love that possibility.

Then again, will buying wine from Amazon mean that the company will service only states where shipping direct to consumers is allowed? That would be sad and it would maintain a disgusting and, in my view, unconstitutional situation.

Will Amazon make an effort to select wine not from what’s available in large volume, but from what’s out there in all its many styles and prices? That would be great.

Can Amazon devise an online wine tasting program? If so, that would be even greater.

Finally, the article claims that, “Amazon is looking to recruit a senior wine buyer, whom it says will be responsible for ‘the acquisition of a massive new product selection’ for its site.”

I hope whomever does the interviewing knows something about the wine world so that the so-called senior wine buyer actually is a wine person and not just another critic.

I hereby apply for the Amazon job, provided the company lets me do it from home. I wonder if anyone from Amazon reads wine blogs!


Copyright Thomas Pellechia, March 2008

All rights reserved.