Saturday, June 27, 2009

Social media is a-flutter

Who would have thought that Michael Jackson’s sudden death would have been the catalyst for me to finally broach the subject of social media and the wine world?

I’ve been brought into the social media conversation by two incidents: a posting on a Web site for writers on which I am a member (link below), and a posting by my compatriot in philosophical thought, Arthur, of wine sooth (link below).

As I commented on Arthur’s blog, as a salesman I learned that the weakest argument to sell a product is to knock the competition, so my intent is not to knock so-called social media or so-called mainstream media; I merely want to make a few points.

I refer to each type of media as ‘so-called’ because I’m not sure what either moniker really means.

On the writer’s forum, someone posted with glee how Twitter became the first media outlet to flutter around the report on Michael Jackson’s death, and how seemingly important that makes social media. Another poster reminded people that the original 'tweet' probably was written after its writer learned of the death through the mainstream media. Still another pointed out that Twitter was the source of other flutterings concerning the deaths of Harrison Ford and Jeff Goldblum, neither of whom had in fact died.

Arthur’s blog entry took a swipe at the mainstream media but from a different perspective. He wondered if CNN knew sooner than it let on about Jackson’s death, preferring instead to keep up the tension with stories about a coma so that the mainstream media could hold the attention of viewers. He ended his blog entry with a reference to something if not nefarious at least stinky.

What exactly is what we call social media, and does it have its own stink?

When a company wants to practice with an idea or get feedback on a product it may hire a PR firm to organize a focus group. The focus group is made up of sample consumers or potential consumers of the idea or product, and they are often paid a small fee for participating.

The group gets together for a face-to-face with either the PR firm reps or the product company reps, or both, who put forth a series of situations and questions and get feedback from the participants.

A focus group is like a survey but in the flesh rather than on paper. The key is that those involved know that they are engaged in a focus group and that they may be helping the company with its image, message, product direction, whatever.

Social media is often used commercially to create a focus group. In itself, that isn’t a problem. But it is a problem with me if the social networking people aren’t aware that they are being used as an unpaid focus group for commercial purposes. I fear that more of this activity may be going on under the guise of social media than meets the screen.

As a wine writer, not a week goes by these days when I either haven’t been directed to read at least one article about the benefit to wineries inherent in the social media revolution or received a few press releases or solicitations from social media consultants selling their wine consumer tracking capabilities online. If I were a cynic, I might be suspicious concerning who starts a social networking conversation about particular wines, and that would make me equally circumspect on a social network site.

Is this where the new information age is taking us?

When television came on the scene some sixty years ago vaudevillians like Milton Berle shared space with newspeople like Edward R. Murrow. Berle’s intent was always to entertain through non-intellectual comedy; Murrow’s was to inform through intelligent investigation. In the latter’s case, he believed that television represented the future information age (sound familiar?).

Today, it’s hard to see how Murrow’s vision holds up, but not so hard to see Berle’s. In fact, myriad television channels do justice to Berle’s non-intellectualism and, aside from a few history-lite channels, information is mainly passed along as snark on late night television. So much for the promise of television and the first information age!

I am afraid that social networking may be just another huckster’s phrase for commercializing our every thought. I’m afraid that, while there may be real benefits lurking inside my computer, they will be dwarfed by the commercial opportunities that lurk in cyber space—do we still use that phrase?

Like everything else in life, from waking in the morning, to crossing the street, to selecting a wine based on someone else’s rating, there’s always pluses and minuses connected to the activity.

The pluses of social media are evident: quick turn around time for gathering information, bringing the world closer, ease of access to potential customers, and more. It’s also a step up from the single-issue forum wine sites that instead of social networking often seem like sociopath networking.

The minuses of social media may not be so evident.

Mainly, I want to know for what purpose I am asked to socialize, and I also want to find out who is behind the curtain. The biggest minus I can imagine is that instead of merely social networking, those of us who engage in social media may be actively but unknowingly helping to develop a commercial form of computer-generated social engineering.

My feeling about the matter can change, but for that to happen social media will have to prove itself to be something much more than a commercial tool. The word ‘friend’ has a much more powerful meaning to me than merely someone with whom to network. Besides, even the seeming non-commercial social networking sites may be used by commercial interests to gather information.


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
June 2009. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is wine judging a pleasure?

I’m sure that after years of wondering, you will be pleased to know that wine critics and wine judges are human.

How do I know, and why do I bring it up?

I’ve spent far too much time tracking the meltdown on the Squires/eBob wine forum (lurking, really as I have not a word to add to what has been said there over, and over).

That situation proves beyond a doubt that wine critics face all the pitfalls of being human, and they succumb to a few of them, too: power, self absorption, tone deafness, and of course, arrogance. In addition, they make mistakes just like the rest of us…

Wine judges probably aren’t much different, but since most who serve in that far from lofty position do it gratis (that’s without pay), the major flaw where we are concerned may be self-absorption.

Now I ask you, who isn’t self absorbed when seeking pleasure?

There’s the rub.

When judging wine, should we be seeking pleasure?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me digress.

I just finished judging three separate competitions over the past three months. In each of the competitions, the panel I was on faced wines that never should have been sent to compete—some never should have been bottled.
It makes me wonder what those wineries think they are doing. Or do they think most wine judges don’t know what we are doing?
Hmm. Never thought of it that way.

In most competitions, judges are instructed to evaluate the wine in front of us—not what it can be someday but what it is on that day. This becomes a problem with wines that were bottled recently and then sent to the competition. Many of these wines simply don’t show well, but they may be perfectly wonderful products.
This situation also makes me wonder what wineries are thinking. Why do they enter wines that were bottled only a few days before the competition?

To my question about pleasure: I don’t think that as a wine judge my job is to seek pleasure. But that might have to do with my background.

It’s pretty well known in the wine business that many of us who made or still make wine have a habit of first seeking what’s at fault when we evaluate wine before seeking what is not.

Other wine judges who have no technical training but have undergone sensory training often seek what is not at fault before seeking what is.

A third group of judges, those on the retail or restaurant level probably have a habit of seeking in a wine what about it will sell or pair with a meal.

Finally, wine writers might be the ones who rabidly seek what it is about the wine that gives them pleasure; after all, this is part of their job.

Put all these judges together to evaluate wine and you get a balanced consensus—at least that’s the theory behind most wine competitions these days.

The panels at competitions comprise people from the various types of judges that I describe above. It’s not as often as one might think, but it is often enough that the individual panels of judges have a wide swing in scores to warrant an intense discussion and horse-trading before arriving at a consensus score for some wines.

(In my experience, the majority of scores among the judges are not so far off that a consensus can’t be reached without lengthy discussion.)

The astute wine judge will learn a few things during consensus-building debates. But there’s always a judge or two who simply resists—cannot allow that his or her impression may be too personal, too bent on subjective pleasure, to let the wine have its just reward.

Some judges don’t like certain styles or types of wine and have a hard time accepting that because a wine is not the type that they like, that doesn’t mean it is to be summarily dismissed—it can still be a well-produced wine that is worthy of accolade. Admittedly, this is the most difficult of all wine judging decisions, but it is a decision that can be made fairly, provided the judge stops looking for pleasure.

All of this verbal perambulation about judging wine leads me to offer one piece of not-so-new advice:

Don’t believe everything you read about awards and ratings. The concept of wine evaluation has its own built-in flaws.

Of course, you can take my advice with a grain of salt, as I am in the group that seeks the flaws first. But living by that rule has allowed me to enjoy a lot more wine than I would have been able to enjoy had I been chasing what others consider the cream of the crop.

Did I just make a blog entry that shoots myself in the foot? Will I ever be invited back as a wine judge?

Stay tuned.

NYStateFair results

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
June 2009. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Aging Riesling

The aging potential of Riesling is a discussion that seems to come up over and over on the Internet, even though German Riesling producers proved a long, long time ago that Riesling is not only a noble grape variety, the wine has as much staying power and elegance as many of the best red wine grapes.

Newbie wine critic/bloggers must be forgiven for not knowing the aging potential of Riesling; many of them simply haven’t been around the wine world long enough. But it is heartening to know that bloggers are asking the question. On one New York-centric blog (see link below) the question wasn’t only asked, it was explored over the past few weeks, with bloggers attending Finger Lakes wineries and other venues for a taste of older Rieslings that were cordially drawn from the winery libraries.

My good fortune found me along with a blogger visiting with Fred Frank at Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars (VWC) on Keuka Lake—just a grape’s throw from my home.

Fred lined up ten Rieslings representing a 24-year period. It was quite an experience.

We started with the unreleased 2008 Dry Riesling, as a benchmark new wine that could help us follow wines as they age. Because of its youth, the wine is still austere yet it is beautifully balanced between acidity and fruit, it’s clean and fresh, and its middle structure is held together with a mineral streak common to Keuka Rieslings.

We followed with the 2007 Dry Riesling. Let me stop here and say something both particular and general about Riesling.

Most avid Riesling consumers know of the wine’s capacity to take on a definite petroleum-like aroma as it ages. An Australian, Jonathon Luestner, is working and studying at VWC this year. He finds that Keuka Lake Rieslings don’t seem to take on as powerful a petroleum aroma as their Australian counterparts. When asked why he thinks that is so, Luestner shrugged and replied rhetorically. “Different phenolic structure?”

In any case, the VWC 2007 Dry Riesling gave a hint of petroleum in the aroma. But more pronounced was the smell of lemons. The taste was incredibly full and creamy and underneath it all lay that mineral-like streak connected to Keuka Rieslings. Still, the wine is young.

Things started to get interesting with the 2005 Dry Riesling. It was similar in many ways to the 2007 version, especially its lemony quality and creamy-mineral structure. But I detected no hint of petroleum in the aroma, perhaps giving strength to our Australian friend’s comment.

The bone dry 2001 Reserve Riesling showed a definite change in style, and that was attributed to it having been produced by a different winemaker than the ones producing the more recent VWC wines—in the past few years, the winery has shifted from a one-person winemaking responsibility to a consensus style that assigns one winemaker to oversee an assigned grouping of wines or styles and then a team discusses each wine before it is finished.

With a hint of petroleum aroma, the 2001 Riesling was lean with forward acidity, and a finish with a bite or grip. This wine still needs aging to calm down.

The 1991 Dry Riesling was without doubt the most interesting in the bunch. It wasn’t dominated by petroleum, but it was aromatic, in a butterscotch way. In fact, in the taste its lush, thick body came in layers of butterscotch, minerality, and fruitiness. The winemaker for the 2001 did not produce this wine.

The 1988 Dry Riesling was aromatically subdued, and its structure was more single dimensional, but at 21 years old, the wine was still very much alive. The 1987 Dry showed signs of fading in the slightly oxidized aroma, but its taste was lush and full, with a short finish. Unfortunately, the 1985 Dry was done in by a slightly shriveled cork that allowed leakage, which allowed oxygen to nearly kill the wine; these three vintages were produced by yet another winemaker.

The 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling is a lovely wine, with an herbal lemon balm aroma and a creamy, lush structure. The 1995 Semi-Dry, produced by the same winemaker who gave us the 1991 Dry, had an almost caramel aroma untypical of Riesling, but its creamy structure and trace of mineral in its spine was ever so enjoyable.

It was too bad about the leakage and oxidation of the 1985 Riesling. I’m old enough to remember that vintage—it was my first in the Finger Lakes—and I know it was a good year. Still, tasting these wines proves once more that Riesling can age well when the wine is made well, and that truth holds for the Finger Lakes region just as it holds for Germany.


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
June 2009. All rights reserved.