Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review

When I operated my winery tasting room one of my wines provided me with a valuable lesson about pricing.

The wine was named Proprietor’s Blend. Essentially, it was concocted from the leftover lots of Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Seyval, and Vignoles that I produced as single variety wines.

This was the late 1980s and so wine prices were quite different than today—I sold Riesling for $10 a bottle and Gewurztraminer for $12. The price of the Proprietor’s Blend was $5.

After a number of weeks, I noticed that many tasters who said that they liked the Proprietor’s Blend didn’t buy it. They bought other wines, everyone of which cost more per bottle than the blend. As I wondered over this situation, thinking maybe I should put the wine on sale, get rid of it and never produce it again, my wife made a suggestion.

She had been watching the tasting room people too. Her sense was that they didn’t buy the wine because it was too cheap. Instead of running a sale, my wife said that I should raise the price of the wine to $8.

I did what she suggested. The wine sold out every year thereafter, even when the price rose to $9.

This is why I agree almost completely with the thesis behind the Fearless Critic Media (FCM) concept that fuels that organization's book The Wine Trials 2011.

This is not FCM’s first book—last year the organization published The Wine Trials 2010, an event that saw me dining with Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, the two major forces behind FCM. I wasn’t dining with them exclusively, that would be against their agenda. I was just one member of a group of invites in the wine industry to taste some of the wines that had come out on top in their first Wine Trials blind tasting—wines that they claim prove that most people prefer wines at lower prices than the wines that generally receive high critic ratings.

I agree with most of the reasoning that FCM uses to support the claim. I fully support the quality of many of the 175 wines under $15 that made the top preference list in the latest “Trials.”

The fact that FCM uses Champagne to prove that price does not automatically signal either better quality or equal acceptance is critical; next to Bordeaux futures, Champagne is the most ludicrous end of the wine market. The big names that FCM exposes don’t even produce Champagne in the true method. How could they? Moet alone produces about 25% of the whole region’s wines; the company can’t engage in the painstaking, labor-intensive step-by-step method that used to be the excuse for high prices.

There’s no doubt in my mind, and never has been, that the general wine consuming public has bought into a variety of hucksterisms, not the least of which is that the ratings of critics have meaning. As FCM points out by citing many studies, consumers are receiving messages that lead them to buy wines that they probably don’t even prefer. That’s because marketers know all about aspiration.

FCM rails against the rating and award system as if it was designed to sell wine. It wasn’t—not at first.

Awarding wines once was akin to the big and beautiful pig contest at the county fair. The awards that were handed out to wineries at agricultural fairs were to recognize their achievement, not to recommend their wines to us. It wasn’t until the 100-point rating system gained traction in the 1980s when the focus of awards and ratings was turned away from the winemakers and toward us.

Mr. Robert Parker named his newsletter The Wine Advocate because he viewed himself as a Ralph Nader-like crusader to protect the consumer from bad wine. It was a self-anointment as the arbiter of taste, and those who followed him followed his system both of self-anointment and of rating wines.

The result these many years later is that ratings not only inflate the value of wine, they inflate the value of the critics. Even the best wine palates have a tendency toward inconsistency. If critics were to taste wines blind, and as FCM points out, most do not, many would have a hard time picking out a duplicate sample of one wine among a flight of six wines tasted; most of us would have a hard time doing it and that means that critics would be just like most of us; to protect themselves, they don't taste wines blind.

On the subject of blind tasting, I register one small disagreement with FCM.

The FCM claim that a blind tasting is the only way to remove bias and to discover your real wine preferences is spot on, but there’s blind and then there’s blind. In my opinion, bottles should never be in the same room as the tasting; wrapped in brown bags or not, the astute could find ways to gain clues from the bottles. A truly blind tasting includes glasses filled with wine in another room and then delivered to the tasters to make their evaluations. The only information available is the color of the wine (even that could be masked with black glasses, but that would be overkill). The wines should be selected so that they don't jar the tasters palates; in other words, similar wines within each flight.

This is a small disagreement, but I do have a bigger concern with The Wine Trials.

FCM waxes well regarding its thesis, sometimes so well that it betrays a bias against a certain style of wine referred to as New World or international. Not that I disagree with the assessment—I am not a fan of bombastic wines that some critics believe to be Nirvana—but isn’t that a preference matter?

Gratuitous shots at oak chips or extended aging or other so-called interventions are neither graceful nor necessary. Present the science, present the results of your experiments, and let others make up their own minds, which is what FCM claims that it wants consumers to do.

Also, except a vague reference to wine that is “created by nature,” the book offers no scientific proof that there’s anything qualitatively wrong with “interventions” of the sort that are excoriated.  Since its discovery, wine has not  been created by nature but by humans. To follow FCM’s seemingly intended logic would mean that wine should be allowed to ferment in a hole in the ground and it should be stored in the earth as well plus, it should receive pounds of additives like salt and sugar to try to preserve it but it should be consumed right away anyway, because most early non-interventionist wine turned to vinegar quickly. But, admittedly, this is a nit pick.

Finally, even though the title The Wine Trials at first led me to think of a Mr. Koch and the wines he bought at auction that turned out to be fraudulent, I really do agree with the thesis behind FCM.

In fact, I rate the book 98 out of 100.

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
October 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One Romance (30)

“Wake up,” Nick told himself, “you are going to meet the queen.”

Even back then, in the late 80s, everyone in the Finger Lakes wine business knew who the queen was. Too bad it took so long for the rest of the world to catch up; if it had found out sooner, Nick might have been able to hold out a little longer and make a great success of his little winery.

Of course, on that first morning of his first juice run for his first Riesling, Nick was still full of hope and optimism. There was no other description for what he felt. He had serpentined the alcohol rules and regulations, he had been schooled in the conservative ways of banking that proved only the stingy stay wealthy, he had been awakened to the cruelty of large wineries and the cruelty of the weather, he had been subjected to the interrogations of clueless tourists, he had been tried by financial deprivation, and he had been made to change plans through no fault of his own. This morning he was going to meet the reason for it all.

The grapes came in at approximate total acidity of .9 %, pH at 3.1-3.2, and sugar between 21-22 Brix (generally the % by volume). The juice he picked up was the most tasty of all the juices thus far—the only one that had less of a grape juice quality to it and more of the profile of what the wine might be like: austere, yet giving; aromatic, yet subtle; full, yet delicate; and filled with the promise of a future.

Waiting in the winery was a batch of Steinberger yeast (DGI 228). Known for its ability to ferment under cool conditions, slowly, to draw out the aromatics and fruit, as well as for its ability to tolerate at least 13% alcohol, sulfur dioxide, plus low pH. He used the yeast on Gewurztraminer for similar reasons, but the yeast seems to have been developed specifically for all that Riesling has to offer.

Nick picked up the juice without incident: no lost tank, no state policeman on the road to look unfavorably at his low tire pressure, no spills, no mistaken ripening stats, no dead pump in the winery, no problems with the yeast, no problems with getting fermentation started, a perfectly cool yet clear autumn weather pattern so that he didn’t have to cool the fermentation by watering the tank, and a perfectly quiet few weekdays in the tasting room, giving him time to do the necessary fermentation work on the Riesling and racking work on other wines in the cellar.

Riesling was the promise and now that promise was in Nick’s hands to mold, certainly not to mess up.

When Theresa called that night she could hear in his “hello” that something good happened that day, and she became so excited that she could feel the promise, too, even though she was beginning to wonder whether or not Nick had what he needed to get this winery off the ground. She believed in him—no problem there—but she also saw how much of an uphill trek he had before him. She wanted to be there to help, but financially could not drop the commute and the income that it provided, the income that Nick quickly made to evaporate into the promise of a future.

The future was Riesling, for the region and for Nick. For now, the future was slowly bubbling away, almost foamless, which is another benefit of DGI 228.

His ideal was to craft a finished Riesling between 11-12% alcohol, a 3.2-3.3 pH and .75-.80 total acidity, and no more than .75 residual sugar. He could then decide if it needed some of that Gewurztraminer to give it a push or if it could stand on its own. He rambled on about all the stats while Theresa listened, happy to hear in his voice, well, happiness for a change.

NOTE: there may be longer lag time between posts of Nick’s story. I have a project on which a great deal of time must be spent. Hope all four of my readers will bear with me.

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
October 2010. All rights reserved.