In both my career in the wine business and in my at-home wine consumption I’ve probably spent more time seeking what I consider value wines than I’ve spent seeking whatever it is we call the other wines: excess, premium, top-notch, status, I don’t know.
I suppose when wine is a hobby the named wines of the world, the status products, the ones that a hobbyist “must have” are important. But hobbies like that can be quite expensive. Even those of us in the wine business have to think twice about the cost of wine, especially wine priced first in euros and then converted to dollars.
My wife says that she’ll know when I’m about to die; it will be two seconds after I refuse a glass of wine and a meal. Being that intent on consuming wine means that wine is not my hobby, which accounts for the relative paucity of the “great named” wines that have gone down my gullet when compared to the volume of daily quaffers, value wines, and general nice stuff that I’ve consumed—with dinner.
Years ago, learning wine meant reading about it—not about its ratings, but about wine, from writers who took us on a journey of exploration rather than on a ride through their palates. What some of us learned is that, like most anything else, there’s a hierarchy to wine. That lesson never meant to me that something on one end of the spectrum is worth more than something on the other end of the spectrum, not unless I’ve tasted it and it touched me. It meant that some wines are regarded one way and other wines are regarded another way—end of story.
As I began to learn the nature of the establishment and maintenance of the wine hierarchy I began to have questions about it, but I digress.
The first time I tasted a top hierarchy wine, Chateau Petrus, the wine touched me. It seemed worth what people paid for it—other people, of course, as I couldn’t afford it.
Likewise, the first time I tasted a lesser Bordeaux, a 1982 Chateau Coufran, it touched me, too. It was a wine that I could afford more regularly, and that about the wine touched me all the more; It was a value wine, since it expressed 1982 well and it did so without me having to take out a mortgage to try it. But that Coufran may not be a value wine to others today, because it costs well over the $14 or so that I paid for it two decades ago.
I just finished taking a look at a book called The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. He’s the fellow who recently made a splash concerning wine list awards that Wine Spectator gives out.
Despite its title, The Wine Trials is not about people caught perpetrating frauds. The book is about experiments that Goldstein, et al, performed which he claims prove that high-priced wines are rated and prized not because of their quality but because of their status.
I won’t go into the evidence Goldstein presents to prove his case, I’ll just say that it isn’t a revelation to me—I’ve witnessed the phenomenon many times, but I’ve finally learned to shut up about it when it happens in my presence.
Most wine hobbyists don’t know what a blind tasting is—many don’t accept its value—but that is the only way for Goldstein to have proven his point, and that is why I value the results.
Still, people generally aren’t interested in being told that critics successfully manipulate them, never mind that their own brains are likely manipulating them, so even after doing the research, Goldstein’s findings will produce detractors, and many of them are likely to be wine hobbyists.
Non-hobbyists probably like the idea that lower priced wines can please people as much or more than the status giants. The idea has value, and it makes them value wines.
September 2008. All rights reserved.