Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lameness and Locked Out

Wine consumers who either haven’t been awake or don’t follow Robert Parker should count themselves lucky. The rest of us probably know all about the latest problem that the famous wine critic has had thrust upon him, thanks to a couple of critics whose words appear in Parker’s Wine Advocate.

For over a month now, these wine critics have been connected to a story of potential impropriety that has circulated throughout the Internet. I don’t call the critics involved employees because much has been made by their boss of their independent contract status—not a good excuse if they engaged in impropriety, but one that is used by the boss anyway to illustrate why his code of ethics and standards may not fully apply to them.

Until now, finding it rather gossipy and sometimes filled with vindictiveness, I didn’t care to say much at all about this issue. Then, I read a couple of posts on the wine forum site that is operated by one of the critics.

The issue was first raised in a blog named Dr. Vino, and it concerned one critic. Then, it was brought directly to the Parker-centric wine forum that is controlled, and I don’t use that word loosely in this case, by a fellow named Mark Squires. It was there that his name was brought into the mess that Robert Parker has on his hands.

In any case, from a posting on the Squires site, to postings on other wine forum sites the problem rolled. Finally, with all too common vitriol, Mr. Parker shot out not against the potential impropriety of his independent contractor/s but against wine bloggers instead. His was interesting pot-shots, as he accused wine bloggers of being nothing short of know-nothings with a keyboard, and worse. It’s a particularly fitting comment, as Mr. Parker admitted only yesterday that he started out as a wine critic with a pen, a wine passion, and a Jones for Ralph Nader-like crusades. He said nothing about training his palate to evaluate wine.

Anyway, the story had legs and then it developed extra limbs when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a story about the issue. In that story, I believe the journalist claimed that he tried to get Mr. Parker’s side of the story but the man would not speak to him. That’s also interesting, as in one of his earlier railings, Mr. Parker accused journalists of printing stories about him that they are told by others rather than asking him questions directly. Unfortunately, when the attempt was made to ask him directly, Mr. Parker responded to the WSJ in what has become an all too usual way for him to respond to—God forbid—criticism: he attacked.

As an aside, responses like that make me wonder about the training people receive before gaining a lofty law degree (before becoming a wine critic, Mr. Parker was a lawyer).

Speaking of law, I have a feeling that the reference to independent contractors is meant to legally separate the boss from the underlings—if they are not employees then there are no employee withholding taxes, and possibly no liability for what they do or say. But there may also be a moral component to the reference. The boss cannot control what these people do with themselves on or off assignment so he seemingly isn’t able to apply the same ethical standards concerning how his critics should act. As I’ve already said, that excuse is lame and I think Mr. Parker now realizes its lameness—he has issued a new set of guidelines for the independent contractors.

More important, however, at least to me, is how some things that have little or no direct bearing on the issue, still manage to illuminate. Like the following:

In one of his rebuttal responses to the throngs screaming for an answer, Mr. Parker stated—and not for the first time—that the ratings of a wine critic are merely the expression of subjective tastes. True enough, but sharing the same space with that insight was the claim that none of his minions show any bias.

Even a lawyer should know that subjective tastes are inherently biased—which is exactly why I have a less than god-like regard for wine criticism.

To bolster his point of subjectivity, and as example, Mr. Parker mentioned how he will ‘never’ appreciate certain characteristics connected to certain wines. Fine. I hope he doesn’t attempt to pass judgment on those kinds of wine. But whenever he issues such statements, and he has done so quite often online, they have in them an air of self-assuredness and righteousness that makes me cringe. The arrogance behind such comments is sure to attract a missile, and rightly so.

I didn’t reach my ripe age without having learned at least something about this world. One thing I know: money and favors buy influence, even when the person being influenced has good intentions. That is neither a criticism nor a subjective observation. It’s a fact, man; it’s a fact.

The best way for a businessperson to guard against establishing bias through influence is to maintain a code of ethics and standards and to ensure that everyone connected with the organization lives by the code. Making excuses for those who do not live by the code or for not imposing the code on them is—quite simply—to have no code at all. Attacking those who call you out on the failing reflects a thin skin, and it's lame. Am I repeating myself?

Check this thread, but it's now locked

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


On April 29, 2009, the Carolina Newswire Online posted the following: “…the Haw River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) will officially become the third federally granted appellation in North Carolina...”

The story seems to say that an ‘appellation’ and an ‘AVA’ are the same thing. They are—and they aren’t. In fact, a designated appellation does not necessarily have to be a designated AVA, but a designated AVA is always a designated appellation.

The real question is: how does an appellation or an AVA designation benefit the wine consumer?

Under U.S. Trade and Tobacco Bureau (TTB) regulations an appellation of origin is either:

A country

A U.S. county or state, or the foreign equivalent

For U.S. wine, a listing of up to 3 states or 3 counties (multi- appellation)

A U.S. or foreign government recognized delimited grape-growing area (an AVA, under U.S. regulations)

Also under TTB rules, a wine labeled with a vintage date must state an appellation on the label.

More important, wine labeled as ‘Estate Bottled’ must come from grapes grown, fermented, produced and bottled under one licensed producer and within a recognized AVA.

So, what exactly is an AVA?

TTB regulations define a viticultural area for American wine as
“A delimited grape-growing region distinguishable by geographical
features.” These features include the area’s topography and climate.

According to the regulations, AVA designations “allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographical origin.”

The TTB also says that, “Establishment of a viticultural area is neither an approval nor an endorsement by TTB of the wine produced in that area.”

Therein lies my problem with the AVA designation: Other than where they come from, the AVA tells us nothing about the wines in the bottles. It isn’t about wine; it’s about marketing. You can see that clearly by following a recent fuss over applications for AVA status in certain areas on the West Coast (link below).

As far as TTB is concerned, if grapes grow somewhere and the place has a climate, it’s possible for that place to be designated an AVA. The designation is often the result of a convergence of perseverance on the part of the applicant meeting public apathy.

Back in the days when delimiting wine regions was a young concept in Europe, it was brought about because wine producers needed to establish and maintain their separate identities for a certain quality level (fraud was rampant) and both producers and governments knew the value to the economy of protecting their wine industries.

Those reasons for regulations to delimit areas hold true today.

In the U.S., we have the economic benefit covered, but does TTB really concern itself with ‘quality’ and ‘identity?’

I don’t think so.

Using the present Italian system as a guide, the important delimited representations used to identify a wine’s pedigree are: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which is like an AVA to the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), which is the wider appellation. But the similarity between us and them ends right there.

Like its European counterparts, Italian DOC status demands a certain level of production and quality standards; DOCG status demands even tighter, more stringent standards. These standards cover the types of grapes that go into producing wines within a DOCG, their production methods, and in some cases, their aging parameters. A DOC wine might have been produced from the same grape varieties allowed for that area as for a DOCG wine, but the latter will be forced to follow production rules from which the former are exempted. And the wines are subject to inspection and validation by a local governing body.

In the U.S., after topography and climate, no grape growing, production, aging or other standards apply to a TTB designation either for an appellation or for AVA status. There are no officially-established standards or parameters for wine quality and therefore no officially-established panels of tasters to review the wines. Wine producers can grow whichever grapes they want to grow, a fact that might just negate the TTB focus on climate, and producers can do whatever they want to their wines, a fact that can obliterate the so-called 'given quality' or 'characteristics' of AVA wine.

After reading through the regualtions and after tasting American wines for many years, I still haven't found an answer to the question: how does an appellation or an AVA designation benefit the wine consumer?

Appellation explanation

AVA explanation

Recent AVA flap

Italian DOC/G

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Algorithm rules the blogging world

Well, we’ve made it. Wine bloggers now have our own horse race statistics, so we must be important to the universe.

Like all other horse races, there are winners and there are losers. The horse (and the jockey) determines who wins by being the first to step over the finish line. The horses that follow are assigned the number in which they arrive. Can’t be much simpler or more objective than that.

Bloggers are rated based on the traffic to their sites, which says something about the number of readers but says absolutely nothing about the blogger’s PR, connections, skill, or influence.

Note: you can look at a horse and tell its gender. Not always so with a blogger’s name.

To be serious for a minute—it’s hard to be serious about any rating system—I wasn’t shocked to learn of a Web site devoted to presenting us with an updated top 100 wine blog listing. But I flipped over the top when I discovered that there are more than 500 wine blogs on the Internet. 500!

I know there are thousands of wines to talk about on any given day, but really, how much wine information do we need? Or better still, how much duplication of effort is built into that 500-plus wine blog number? And how will I ever get to the top of that heap?

When I started Vinofictions my aim was to make a stab at dispelling the many myths connected to wine. I quickly learned that such a thing as trying to dethrone hype and mythology can create a following of enemies as well as readers.

I’ve never met some of my Internet enemies. In fact, I’ve never actively cultivated enemies so I am sure I could get along with a few of them had we the chance to sip a glass of wine together.

A few unseen enemies send me direct email, others sneak around the Internet looking to catch me say something stupid (which I’m sure is an easy task) and then they “out” me on some other wine forum, still others simply disregard what I write because they don’t think that I matter.

That last group probably has it right. How the hell could I matter? Vinofictions didn’t make the top 100 blogs! In fact, Vinofictions hasn’t won anything, not even Tom Wark’s annual blog competition, although some poor soul nominated me two years ago.

I haven’t read all 500-plus wine blogs—and don’t intend to. Yet, the ones that I have read shake out into three distinct categories: well written; funny; largely self-promotional.

Within the three above categories are many subcategories; these are some of them.

The blogger with a point;
the blogger without a point;
the blogger with knowledge;
the blogger with little knowledge;
the blogger who gets paid to write the blog;
the blogger that is in it for love, and probably for insanity;
the blogger who has a day job that may or may not be connected to wine;
the blogger whose day job is wine writing, and blogging is an extension of that job;
the blogger who just loves wine and wants to talk about it with us;
the blogger who loves wine and wants to educate us;
the blogger who can’t stop talking, even when nothing of importance is coming out;
the blogger who needs no introduction;
the blogger who couldn’t get arrested, let alone an introduction;
the blogger with connections;
the blogger without connections;
the blogger who accepts free wine, and maybe blogs just for that reason;
the blogger who accepts free wine because there’s no pay behind the job of blogging;
the blogger who accepts free wine with all the good intentions of a wine critic;
the blogger who prays for free wine but doesn’t get any;
the blogger who accepts no free wine;
the blogger who accepts gifts of any kind, including junkets;
the blogger who dreams of receiving gifts and junkets;
the blogger who is a self-appointed wine critic;
the blogger with wine training;
the blogger who claims to have a ‘good palate’ but wasn’t trained;
the blogger who regularly misspells the word ‘palate’ and also misuses the word ‘varietal;’
the blogger with enemies;
the blogger with friends;
the blogger who engenders indifference;
the blogger who doesn’t appear on everyone’s blog roll;
the many, many more blogger subcategories that I cannot come up with right now.

Now I ask you: with all the subcategories of bloggers, what is a rating firm to do?

Algorithms—that’s the answer.

Why use cognizant thought to evaluate the critics when algorithm does it for you? After all, isn’t that what the information age is all about?

Maybe we can devise an algorithm to evaluate wine. Then, we won’t need no stinkin’ bloggers.

Vinofictions is not on this list

You might find references to Vinofictions here, if you're lucky

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


If you are ever in Idaho, or if you have the good fortune to find Idaho wine in your state, which won’t be easy, I recommend that you look for names like Koenig Vineyards, Davis Creek Cellars, Sawtooth Winery, and 3 Horse Ranch. These wineries truly showed some wonderful wines, from Malbec to Viognier to Pinot Gris, in the wine competition that I judged in Boise last month.

A few of the wineries use the same consulting winemaker, but right now, I don’t know which use him. I believe, however, that he is part of the Koenig Vineyards operation.

I had a few problems with some of the medals awarded because the wines that won them seemed to me (and to another judge) to have obvious technical flaws. Oh well, I’ll save that discussion for a later blog entry.

In all, the trip out West was an eye-opener, especially while walking the vineyards and comparing them to home.

“It’s only May, you know.”

That comment came to me this morning from a Finger Lakes grape grower, Walter Volz, after I mentioned the difference between the development of his vines this month as compared to the development of Idaho and Sonoma vines last month.

April in Idaho saw vine shoots that were quite long; in Sonoma, the vines already had clusters on them making ready to flower. In the Finger Lakes, the May vines have just about started to pop their buds.

In his comment about May, Walter was referencing the fact that we can still suffer a nasty frost in the Finger Lakes. In fact, it’s almost a given that at least one night this month, Walter will have to light up some bales of hay so that the overnight smoke that wafts over his tender shoots will keep them warm enough to survive the frost.

It is amazing how hard people work to grow grapes and to produce wine in marginal regions with long winters and short growing seasons. When you get to know their labor, or become a part of it, it’s not difficult to understand why some of us wine writers choose not to become wine critics. It’s all so easy to condemn a product that doesn’t meet with your aesthetics, much easier than trying to create that product.

I’ve complained about magazines and critics that only print ratings for wines that meet the upper criteria of their aesthetic demands. But on reflection, I’ve come to understand that this may be a good thing, especially if the critic’s aesthetics include massively extracted wines with enough alcohol and power to run an economy.

You can’t get that kind of wine from a cool and marginal region, and so the region will either be trashed or ignored by the critic--best that it is ignored.

The ineffable must drive nuts wine critics engaged in pounding out adjectives and numbers on their keyboard.

What you can get from cool regions are lean and racy wines often with subtle and elegant finesse. They are hardly the proper aesthetic qualities for masculine adjectives.

Me, I revel in the indescribable. A few of the Idaho wines met that criteria, and it happens almost every time I taste a Finger Lakes Riesling, especially from a vintage that started the season with both a flowering and a frost in May.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2009. All rights reserved.