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In Pursuit of Sanity

There are well over 100,000 wines commercially produced every year.  Why is it then that certain demographics of our industry feel compelled at times to proclaim their wines, their way of making wine, or their way of critiquing/scoring wine as the only real, correct, or worst of all “true” way.  Why? Bruce Schoenfeld’s recent piece in the NY Times, “The Wrath of Grapes,” points to exactly that. The article portrays sommelier-winemaker Raj Parr and other members of the group “In Pursuit of Balance” squarely against uber critic Robert Parker.

I’ve known Raj for over 20 years and have enormous respect for him and what he’s accomplished in his career. That said, the mantra of IPOB seems to be the definition of the term “balance” which Parr and other members define as wines made from specific sites with minimal intervention (defined as…) with alcohol levels at under 14% and higher levels of natural acidity.  Although Parr is careful not to criticize Parker directly in Schoenfeld’s piece it’s clear that the IPOB philosophy is diametrically opposed to Parker’s track record of awarding high scores to big blockbuster wines.

The by-line of Schoenfeld’s column reads “A band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like—and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process.” Let’s be clear about something from the outset; no one is redefining anything. Making sub-14% alcohol wines from specific sites is anything but revolutionary. Sub-14% wines have been made in California for as long as a wine industry has existed and some from the world’s greatest sites. Monte Bello, anyone?

I would be the first to agree that alcohol levels have generally risen over the last 20+ years. But there are any number of reasons why beyond what I’ll call “climate ambiguity” and the reward of high scores. Is it possible that the change in plant material post-phylloxera in terms of root stocks and clones has altered levels of phenolic ripeness over the last two-plus decades? Or the fact that strains of yeast capable of fermenting wines dry above 16% are now widely used? Just curious. But no surprise that Parker is not happy with IPOB’s philosophy or criticism not to mention that of the so-called “natural” winemaking camp. He is quoted in Schoenfeld’s piece as saying:

“The jihadist movements of non­-sulphured wines, green, underripe wines, low alcohol, insipid stuff promoted by the anti-­pleasure police & neo-­anti-­alcohol proponents has run its course as another extreme and useless movement few care about.”

And further:

“No serious person pays any attention to Raj Parr and his zealots,” he wrote, “as it is so obvious they are only trying to sell their own wines.”

Note to Parker: if you use the word “jihad” in reference to another individual or faction within your industry you’ve probably gone completely off the rails.

Our Very Own Unicorn

That brings me to the 100 point scale which has been around now for almost 40 years. It’s so pervasive that we don’t give it much thought. But frankly—and this is completely my opinion–it’s a quaint hallucination, a fiction.  The very idea that one can assign a number to a given wine that has meaning presupposes a precision and objectivity that has never and will never exist.  Unfortunately there are now several generations of wine drinkers who would probably be challenged to think about a wine without a base ten number attached to it. Is the 100 point system useful? One could argue that the system is widely used by wineries, wholesalers, and retailers. In short, entities that sell wine. I would also admit it seems to be useful for those in the wine investing game as their entire system relies on scores. But is the system useful for average consumers? I would argue that it’s not. What does 88 vs. 91 points mean to someone looking for a bottle to enjoy with dinner on Safeway’s wall of Chardonnay? That the latter wine is better? Better according to whom? According to what?
Context: the Missing Link

In Schoenfeld’s piece the term “balance” seems to be a major issue. Here the major question is, “balance according to whom?”  What criteria are used to determine balance? For the record, my definition of the term is the following (cue drum roll, please):

Harmony among all the components in a given wine.”

Note that the word “alcohol” is not mentioned in any way, shape, or form. That’s because a list comprised of some of the world’s outstanding—even profound—wines is populated by bottlings with an excess of 14% alcohol. Amarone? Barolo? Chateauneuf? Etna Rosso? Santorini Assyrtiko? I won’t go on because the list is a very long one indeed.

After reading the article I’m left with two camps having polemically opposed philosophies: on one side the sub-14% wines from specific sites made with minimal winemaking (?) vs. the richest, ripest wines that get the highest scores. There’s a huge missing piece to all this, something I’ve written about several times previously but really never see anywhere else. What’s missing?  CONTEXT. Context as in all the variables in every tasting experience without exception. Specifically the how, what, when, and where a wine is tasted. To point, in any tasting/drinking experience there are three sets of variables: the wine, the taster, and the environment.

Imagine for a moment that you work for a winery and you’ve just sent a sample of your wine to be tasted and reviewed by an august publication. Here’s a short list of some of the possibilities derived from these three variables that could be involved in the process:

Your Wine

Is it a good bottle of your wine? Does the bottle have a good cork? A lousy cork? Is there TCA in the bottle? Are there other flaws in the wine? Did your bottle arrive in good condition? Did it freeze or experience extreme heat or too much motion during shipping? Is your bottle actually as advertised or is it a separate cuvée/lot of the same wine sent to the reviewer to provide a better impression? Hmmmm. That’s never happened before. Will your wine be tasted at the appropriate temperature? Too cold? Too warm? How long has your bottle been opened before being tasted? Last week? When was your wine poured? This morning? Yesterday?

The Taster

Is the taster who will taste and review your wine fresh, well rested, and ready to go? Or did he/she stay up half the night watching the complete episodes of Sea Hunt on VHS? Does the taster have a cold? Allergies? Fever? Did the taster just burn the roof of their mouth on pizza at lunch as in right before they’re going to taste your wine? Are they depressed? Happy? Angry? Did they just break up with their girlfriend/boyfriend? Do they have a new girlfriend/boyfriend? Just changed their medication? Did they just brush their teeth before tasting? Have a double macchiato before tasting? Most importantly, is the taster a seasoned professional with lots of experience over a broad range of wines? Or is he/she just a novice pinch-hitting for the usual starter? Does the taster have an alarming compulsion for your wine/grape/style/appellation? This could definitely work in your favor. Or does the taster have a professed hatred for the grape/appellation/style of wine that happens to be the same as your wine? Hmmm. Not so bueno.

The Environment

Is good glassware being used for the tasting? Is the glassware clean and polished? Or is it skanky like a dirty aquarium because of a faulty dishwasher or polishing cloth? Is the tasting space too warm? Too cold? Poor lighting? Extraneous odors? Dogs? Perfumes? Colognes? Blaring AD/DC on the speakers? How many wines will be tasted in the session? A few? Over 100? How many wines will be in the flight when your bottle is tasted? What order will the wines be poured? Will your wine be tasted after dessert wines? Before? How will your wine be positioned in the flight? At the beginning where it will tend to show best? Or towards the end where it could be overshadowed by more powerful, oaky, and tannic wines?

After reading the list above your mind might be spinning a bit. That’s no surprise. But why is context important? What does it mean and how can it be useful? First, you now have the awareness that context exists and that is a powerful tool in and of itself. You also know just how pervasive it is now and how it shapes every wine experience. Second: you can now use context as a filter when reading any written review about wine—and that includes mine. You also know by default that there’s a caveat to any wine review/critique/opinion and that caveat is the context of how and when the given wine was tasted. I would especially recommend using the context filter when reading publications that use numeric scores for wine–which leads us to today’s lesson: 

Wine is NOT Precise

The longer I’m in the wine business there’s really only one rule or law that seems to be immutable: wine is not precise. That as much as we professionals try to make wine easily understandable and predictable it’s anything but. And like it or not, the wine world is too enormous, too varied, too ever-changing for a single wine or style of wine to be the ONLY true wine. Further, if you find yourself proclaiming that your wines or wines similar to yours are the only true, correct, or otherwise real you need a serious reality check at the very least.

It Takes All Types…

I will close with one last thought. One of my Mom’s favorite sayings was, “It takes all types to fill up the freeways.” And of course, she was right. In regards to the wine industry that means there’s room for all kinds of wine in the huge universe known as the consumer market and that includes the likes of commercial wines such as White Zinfandel, jug wines, box wines, and more. That’s right, White Zinfandel.

In the end it’s great to be part of an industry that we all care passionately about to the extent of an IPOB vs. Parker cage match. Nothing could be more entertaining. But if one of our goals as professionals is to get more people to share in the wine experience—the same wine experience that we love and treasure—it hardly makes sense to denigrate the work or the wines of someone else. Disagreement is one thing but condemnation is another—and definitely NOT useful.

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