Monday, July 28, 2008

What a welcome!


After standing back some, I ventured into a few bulletin board conversations and was immediately reminded why I chose to stand back.

It isn’t that debating issues about wine is no fun—to the contrary, it can be great fun. It’s just that debating via the keyboard and electronic impulses is a weak form of communication at best. It’s so easy to be misunderstood, and after that happens, control of your own words seems to morph into a game of who should own those words, you or those who disagree with you?

There will come a day when I will back away completely—I hope, I hope. But until then, I fear that I will find myself hopelessly drawn into debates about wine production processes and wine criticism, debates that cover much of the same ground and don’t seem to change my or anyone else’s mind.

What is it about wine that makes so many of us so passionate as to hurl at one another whenever a belief or an opinion lands counter to ours?

In my often non-humble opinion, the phenomenon is as complicated as a California fruit bomb with alcohol that rivals jet fuel (now is the time for someone to accuse me of slamming his or her beloved California Cabernet).

On one level, we wine nuts express camaraderie (me, I’m a nut, not a geek). But how easily that friendship can fall apart— if you don’t believe me, just attack the wines of your wine buddy’s favorite producer.

On another level, we wine nuts give lip service to the idea that people have different tastes. But how easily that can devolve into a conversation of hurling epithets as soon as one of us claims to have, well, different taste.

On still another level, we wine nuts agree that we all have opinions. What we don’t seem to agree on is that the opinions of others have any merit. On this subject, I get into trouble regularly, especially when I attack the opinions of wine critics who hold no credentials, have no training, and make rather bizarre claims. I value opinions, but only when they have been formed through knowledge, not just through will and force of personality, or luck at having been given a pulpit.

One of my latest brush-ups had to do with the issue about which I feel strongly: that to be a credible critic, one needs to at least have done a little legwork in the subject, and since wine is a subject with technical, creative, and practical applications, a critic’s duty is to learn what they are.

All too often, I read diatribes from certain critics that display a blatant lack of knowledge alongside a volume of opinions. Not to make a pun, but these wine critics leave me with a bad taste.

Truth be told, and this is where I get into the most trouble with my attitude, I don’t give much credence to the profession of critic. Mainly, a critic tells us what he or she likes or dislikes. Mainly, I don’t really care what someone else likes or dislikes, unless that someone can point me to a reason beyond his or her bias or prejudice. At least then, I can explore and decide whether the critic speaks truth or blather.

I know this is blasphemy in certain quarters of the wine world, but I cannot imagine the value in “calibrating” my palate to someone else’s. My fun with wine includes me doing the exploration, not me finding out what someone else explored and then running down to the nearest wine shop to gobble up the latest achiever.

But then, I never was a follower, so maybe it’s not the critics; maybe it is I who is the problem. Maybe I should just teach people who want to learn what little I know, drink the wines I like, and just shut up.

To do that last one, I believe I might have to throw this computer out the window!

Below is the thread that got me thinking. Notice in the moderator's post just before my final one that I am accused of having "chuztpah," unmitigated gall for living my opinions, and I am also accused of being prejudice and lacking creativity. Within the accusations are these hidden gems: subjectivity equals un-biased; objectivity equals prejudice; and, by extension, faulty logic equals creativity.

Talk about "chutzpah!"

Critic's Ethics

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Certifiably government thinking

Recently, a blogger, Lyle Fass, brought my attention to an article by Food and Wine writer, Lettie Teague.

The article Teague wrote was rather confusing, and I don’t fully understand what point she was trying to make, but in one way or another, it concerned the concept of organic winemaking. I was left with the impression that she considers the idea of organic winemaking or so-called “green” winemaking just another marketing scam.

I generally agree that words like “organic, green, biodynamic, etc.” all have the potential for scamming. I’m also sure that marketers use the words if not to scam at least to bamboozle us. To put it bluntly: organic was long ago sullied, and green is beginning to get on my nerves.

How many of you know what exactly is meant by the concept of green winegrowing?

I’d bet that your answer is not the same as mine or as someone close to you. Marketing has already messed that concept up to a fine jumble of confusion—is it “green” to use wooden or cardboard boxes, trucks or trains for transportation, glass or cans for packaging, tractors or donkeys, and how green is it to cut trees down to make barrels or worse, to make wood chips?

Sure, I want the environment to suffer less, but I want that to be a joint effort among industry, government, and us. And to me, a major part of why we pay taxes is for protection against threats to our existence. I can’t think of greater threats than being attacked or fading away because of global meltdown.

I’m convinced that we are threatening our own existence with outmoded Industrial Revolutionary thinking and practices, and that means fossil fuels and petrochemicals.

Along with a better environment, I want both my food and my wine to have as little exposure to petrochemicals as is humanly possible. But I know that there is no easy fix—our culture is heavily invested in the chemistry of petroleum. No company illustrated that fact better than Dupont with its decades-old commercial message, “Better living through chemistry.”

The other day, while digging into my latest issue of Wines and Vines Magazine, I was slapped awake by my own incredulity. The article was about federal and local government requirements for certification for so-called organic grape growing.

The way things work, individuals who use petrochemical sprays on their vines must take classes and be certified, mainly because everyone recognizes the danger in using the chemicals. But nothing on a wine label is required to indicate whether or not there are potential dangers to the consumer.

Yet, when a wine is produced from grapes that were not grown in the “better living through chemistry" mold, giving us grapes that are pesticide and fungicide free, the wine producer must be certified by the authorities before the company is allowed to tell the consumer about its organic practices.

In other words, we aren’t warned when there might be danger in our wines, but we are warned when there probably isn’t any danger.

How about the following addition to the GOVERNMENT WARNING label:

The grapes for this wine were produced without petrochemicals, but don’t worry, these guys applied for and got certified for the privilege of doing things the natural way.
Rest assured that we’ll charge them a fee each time they do it right.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Biased notions

Something can be said for the fun of that parlor game when you single out the wine know-it-all and get that person to taste a wine—blind—to try to guess what it is.

It’s fun to serve a wine that is close to a certain other wine that you know this person will have tasted before and so is likely to be fooled this time around.

It’s even more fun when you throw in a $5 cheapie and this knowledgeable fool proclaims it Pavie or Cheval Blanc or something else of high esteem.

The above may be fun, but it has nothing to do with blind tasting wine, and I was particularly amused (and somewhat surprised) to discover that there are people out there who consume a lot of wine and spend a lot of money every year on it, but they don’t know the value of a truly blind evaluation and comparison.

Recently, I got into a discussion about the attributes of Finger Lakes Riesling. It was the same old discussion of how Finger Lakes Rieslings don’t hold up against German or Alsatian counterparts, a belief that I am convinced is of questionable merit.

The reason I think that consumers who make the claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings, though good, are not world class, is because I have numerous times sat in on blind evaluation comparisons. Finger Lakes Rieslings easily held their own.

The kind of evaluation I’m talking about is when the tasters know only that the wines are Riesling and that each flight of wines is within a certain stylistic parameter and vintage. We know nothing about their location, winemaker, producer, and price. That’s a blind tasting.
A double blind evaluation means that the taster knows nothing about the wines, not even the grape variety. That method is best used for training purposes, to hone one’s sensory abilities.

The task in a blind tasting is to evaluate each wine on its merits, to see if it lives up to varietal character and to stylistic parameters.

A blind tasting is not when a bunch of geeks bring bottles of their favorite wines and then someone puts them into a brown bag and the tasters don’t know which wine is in which bag. Just knowing that your wine is in the bunch will either expose or shatter your bias. It’s human nature to look in every glass of wine served for the one you brought. It will confuse the hell out of you. You may find it, or you may think you ha found it. (Not to mention that bottle shapes can give a lot of information.)

A blind tasting is not when the people selecting the order, opening, and pouring the wine also serve it to the tasters. To remove all bias, even the servers shouldn’t know what they are pouring. That way, they can’t give something away with unconscious body language.

In a well run blind tasting, the wines are poured in a back room or kitchen. The glasses are numbered to correspond with numbers that have been assigned to the tasting sheets. The pourers give the glasses to the servers and they take them to the tasting panels to serve.

Tasters are free to taste in whatever order they want, but they must be sure to correspond the correct glass numbers with the tasting sheet numbers.

The evaluation can be done with scores, verbals, or both. But everyone should conform to a pre-established set of scoring rules.

I and two other fellows proposed to the unbelieving that if they claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings do not belong in world class status with their beloved European products, then they should be willing to compare the wines in a completely blind tasting setting.

One geek said I was a chicken, apparently meaning that I was using the blind tasting as a way to back out of proving my point, which is that Finger Lakes Rieslings are likely to surprise those geeks.

His childish chiding, however, illuminates to me that he hasn’t a clue what the purpose of a blind evaluation is. More important, he seems to think that he has super-human talent, that he can remove all bias by simply willing himself to do so. I’m worldly enough to smell the bullshit in that concept.

I’ve seen too many so-called unbiased wine tastings in my day. The main purpose is to prove an already expressed opinion and to have fun while doing it. That’s a parlor game.

The truly blind tasting method is closer to science, and we all know that science is supposed to search for answers—not validate preconceived notions. Well, maybe all but the biased wine geeks know that.

I'm unsure if the blind evaluation will take place, but I know that I am willing to take the risk. I believe that tasters would find many Finger Lakes Rieslings to be world class wines, especially since they won't know that they are tasting Finger Lakes Rieslings.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.