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Of what value are wine reviews?

A scandal and an unrelated Wine Spectator article prompt me to raise a question about what role wine reviews play in the marketplace. The scandal involves a prominent Canadian wine writer named Natalie MacLean who is accused by an online Canadian wine site of using wine reviews written by others without providing adequate attribution. She is further accused of demanding wineries subscribe to her newsletter before she will review their wine. Many wine bloggers, some of them rather noteworthy, have become extremely exercised about these matters. The WS piece, written by Matt Kramer, is an extraordinarily perceptive, and articulate opinion that flavor descriptors are of minimal consequence compared to characteristics such as complexity, texture, and balance.

I happen to agree with Matt Kramer, although probably for reasons different than his own. More importantly, I think the low regard in which he and I both hold flavor descriptors logically leads to a general disregard for wine reviews, and in particular for massive database aggregations of wine reviews. To me that’s the nub of the MacLean affair. Seeking to offer sortable databases containing tens of thousands of wine reviews is a priori a bad idea. The logistical difficulties alone lead to very questionable results. Garbage in; garbage out. Legal and ethical questions become almost superfluous. If most consumers shared my skepticism about wine reviews in any quantity over batches of about fifteen, the marketplace itself would sort out issues such as ‘pay for play,’ aggregation of copyrighted material, free samples, junkets for writers, etc. Lawyers would have no role to play (other than drinking wines just like the rest of us).

Perhaps unlike Matt Kramer, my problem with flavor descriptors in wine reviews is I think they are way too subjective and individualistic to be of much practical utility. If adroitly done, they can effectively convey a feeling, a mood about the wine. I think that is useful. It becomes harder and harder as one tries to compose unique moods for each wine when fifty to a hundred of them are included in a single sitting. Every human being has a different body chemistry, different taste experience, and different vocabulary. Expecting one person to accurately convey taste and smell impressions which another person would actually experience, using similes (“smells like Damson plums and Belgian chocolate”), is a very big stretch. Written notes with flavor descriptors are useful to help an individual recall their own organoleptic experience, but trying to get a consensus among a group of untrained tasters is really difficult.

This point is buttressed by experiments done at Stanford University by a linguist named Adrienne Lehrer. She would bring in two volunteers, and put an opaque screen between them. On one side would be five glasses of wine labeled A through E. The other subject would get the same five wines labeled 1 through 5. One subject would be asked to pick a wine, taste it, and describe it out loud. How frequently could the other subject pick out which wine was being described? Barely better than 20% of the time, i.e. about the same frequency as random chance. Now, rigorous training of both subjects can improve results quite a bit (as Ann Noble has shown at UC Davis), but how often are wine reviews read by someone who has received rigorous training (irrespective of whether the writer has)?

So when I’m at some big walk-around tasting, and the person pouring tells me I’m going to notice “cinnamon, mango, and just a hint of hibiscus,” I may subconsciously follow their lead. [I took 15 units of directed study on hypnosis in college. I firmly believe in suggestibility, and I’ve been scientifically measured as fairly high on the Suggestibility Scale.] Usually though, I take offense. “I’ll tell you what I notice, thank ya’ very much.”

The value of wine reviews is to narrow the field for consumers, and to prompt consumer interest in trying certain wines. That’s a good thing. I’m not inclined to bad-mouth the whole concept. I just want to imply that wine reviews need to be viewed with about the same degree of credibility one assigns to the political opinions of one’s in-laws. Don’t argue about them (degustibus non disputatum), but feel free to ignore large portions. And the more reviews written at one sitting, the less attention they deserve. Taste 12 to 20 wines (blind); write up 5 or 6. That’s my recommendation to achieve maximum value.

I’ve never met Natalie MacLean. I have read one of her books and several articles she’s written. I think she’s a damn good writer ~ a lot more talented and entertaining than some of the personalities now screaming for her scalp in Canada. Construction of something as dry and boring as a comprehensive wine review database is a serious misallocation of her abilities. There can be little argument, however, about the fervor of her self-promotion. And I suppose that, along with her success, has created a really severe level of vitriol. Vitriol and self-righteousness.

Alder Yarrow (Vinography) is about the only contributor to the comment thread cited above counseling restraint. And he has taken his share of drive-by abuse for doing so. One could be excused, after reading the comment thread, of assuming very few wine bloggers today accept wine samples, or trips, or meals from producers. Oh please! I went on a junket to Chile and Argentina six years ago put on by an American importer. There were about twenty of us, ostensibly all wine writers of some consequence. At one point I proposed to the group en masse that we purchase 15 bottles of wine at a retail store to do a little comparison tasting back at our Mendoza hotel outside the universe of producers the importer was taking us to see. Cost per person would have been about $25 to have a look at several of the best wines produced in Argentina. ZERO (none!) of these wine writers were interested. Maybe it’s my personality.

I think the place Natalie MacLean went wrong was embarking on a promotional path to offer a mobile app which would deliver wine reviews on 150,000 wines that users could access in stores and restaurants. That’s not a worthwhile product. It’s a software engineer’s wet dream. Consumers shouldn’t want it, and Natalie shouldn’t have agreed to try producing it.

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Bottle Shock: The Movie

I’ve had several people ask me at parties recently what I think of the movie Bottle Shock, which came out in 2008. It didn’t play widely in theaters. Only did $4.5 million in gross receipts, which is about 4% of what Sideways did (and only about a quarter of what it even cost to make Sideways). Most of these party questioners are just making small talk once they learn I have a connection to the wine industry. In all likelihood they brought Bottle Shock home on DVD, just as I did.

It’s an interesting comparison though. Sideways was not about the wine industry; it merely used a consumer’s interest in California wine as a setting to tell an interpersonal story. A rather depressing story, if you ask me. The color and attractiveness of the Paul Giamatti character in Sideways was his passion for quality Pinot Noir. But that feature was not central to the story. He could have as easily been addicted to gambling, or sailboat racing, or motorcycles and socialist politics for that matter.

Bottle Shock is a completely different animal. It’s the Rocky cliché (underdog fights hard against adversity; triumphs in the end) applied, quite broadly and inaccurately, to the California wine industry of the 1970’s. As a piece of writing it’s all schmaltz, albeit here hiding behind an excruciatingly thin veneer of historic truth. I liked it. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the ocean of scientific and factual material which has been thoroughly fictionalized by Bottle Shock. I may take some personal satisfaction in pointing out these discrepancies, but so what? Truth is messy. It slows down and dilutes the story line. Other than the claim by Bottle Shock to be “based” on the 1976 Spurrier Tasting in Paris, why do we need that connection? As a documentary, Bottle Shock is ludicrous. Why they even try to make the claim is clearly the ignorant delusion of some marketing wonk amongst the investor corps.

The thing that makes Bottle Shock worthwhile is the scenery, the musical score, the lush cinematography, the outfits on the foxy babes appended to the script with only the slightest pretense of justification. It’s Hollywood baby! It’s the same genius that made melodramas set in late 1800’s western cowboy towns a stable of American entertainment for generations. I know. I grew up on that stuff. And here is the same formula applied to a largely imaginary, but very romantic, view of the wine industry. It’s even replete with sentimental passages about the land infusing the blood of the vintners and living on in each bottle of wine. Hokum? Sure, but so are most notions of American Exceptionalism, religious salvation, and military honor. I’m not inclined to tilt at any of these windmills! They’re all so deeply ingrained in me that good stories on those subjects frequently elicit a teary-eyed emotional response. That’s art, almost by definition.

Sideways had a major impact on the wine industry, especially for Pinot Noir. Decanter magazine reports Pinot Noir sales rose 16% in the first three months after Sideways came out in 2004. The magazine went on to say the sale of Riedel’s expensive Burgundy stemware rose 46% in the year after Sideways was released. But Sideways did $110 million box office gross. Sideways got a 97% favorable rating from 218 commentators on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Bottle Shock was originally released at the Sundance Film Festival, but never got much traction in the marketplace. It got a 48% favorable rating from 210 commentators on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m guessing it didn’t help when Steven Spurrier, perhaps the primary player in the actual events depicted by Bottle Shock, said of the movie, “There’s not a word of truth in the script, in my opinion.” Of course, at the time, he was involved in a competitive movie project.

With that note, shall we try just a few selected, catty remarks on factual distortions to be found in Bottle Shock?

  1. Most easily excused, of course, were short-shorts versions of overalls worn by Rachael Taylor’s character to perform vineyard and winery work, especially hosing down anything. Rachael is a healthy, lithe, young woman. That the costume department had clearly spent more time observing runway models in Milan than vineyard workers in Tuscany is of no consequence.
  2. Confusing the Barrett Family’s vehicles in Calistoga for Steinbeck’s Joad Family vehicles during the Great Depression… ? Well, it is a story about overcoming obstacles.
  3. Filming in September, when all the vines are fully leafed out and have ripe fruit on them, even though the Spurrier Tasting in Paris, which is the time period of the story, occurred in May (it was done in preparation for the U.S. Bi-centennial, which would have been 4 July 1976)… ? Completely understandable.
  4. Maybe a little more controversial would be filming so many of the landscape shots in Sonoma County, while giving all the credit for wine quality to Napa Valley. As my friends in Sonoma never let me forget, “Sonoma makes wine. Napa makes auto parts.”
  5. ‘Temporary’ brown color for a young Chardonnay in the bottle… ?  I’m sorry, that’s just lack of imagination on the part of writer / director Randall Miller. Spend a couple hundred dollars on a wine consultant for Christ sake! Chardonnay subjected to skin soak, without the benefit of SO2, will turn brownish (pulp particles oxidizing, just as a cut apple does) for a week or two after fermentation. But those brown particles drop out. Chardonnay is not going to brown in the bottle while remaining tastey, then magically correct itself a few days later. I’m surprised UC Davis didn’t sue them for that little bobble.
  6. The biggest injustice was, however, not creating a character to play the part of Mike Grgich, Chateau Montelena’s actual winemaker during the period portrayed. Credit aside, Grgich is and was a magnificently complex individual. Croatian by birth, he eschewed many scientific instruments to make the wine (’73 Chardonnay) which is the centerpiece of the film. Instead of a pH meter, he relied on his own finely tuned palate. And he had a roguish personality: I’ve never heard so many sexual double-entendres strung together than when Mike Grgich described one of his own wines.

But why quibble? It’s said enjoying fiction requires the “willing ability to suspend disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). As a reader, I’m usually not very good at that. In the case of Bottle Shock, for a little less than two hours, it was no problem for me at all.

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Vin de Constance

Historic dessert wine from Constantia in South Africa. Brilliant!

Wine Description

Muscat highlights in a nose balanced between floral and ripe white peach. Yellow green color with no browning whatsoever. Dense flavors with refreshing acid finish. Perfect for a lemon custard cake. Tasted in Fine Wines of the Southern Hemisphere class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Southern Hemisphere class will next be offered as a Weekender in August 2011.

Wine Education

Even with the attention lavished on South Africa by the World Cup soccer matches, few people realize how accomplished the South African wine producers are. Founded at a time when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, the wine industry at the Cape of Good Hope flourished while Californios were still fermenting in cowhide bags. Sweet wines from Constantia were the toast of the Russian court during the late 1800’s, where they competed quite favorably with France’s Ch. d’Yquem and with the best Rieslings of Germany. Burgundy? At the time it was considered a backwater. Its wines couldn’t command one-twentieth the price of Vin de Constance, the luxurious dessert wine from South Africa’s premier winery, Groot Constantia, which had been founded on the estate of the Capes’ first Dutch governor, Simon Van der Stel.
     After Van der Stel’s death in the early 1800’s, Groot Constantia was split into three parcels and sold. Hendrik Cloete bought the homestead piece, and with his offspring raised the quality and recognition of Vin de Constance to worldwide acclaim. Cloete called his winery Klein Constantia. In Afrikaans groot means ‘great,’ while klein means ‘small.’ Phylloxera dealt a crushing blow to the South African wine industry, and by the end of the 1800’s Klein Constantia was in the hands of Abraham de Villiers and his American heiress wife Clara. They created an elegant party venue out of the estate, and even sent their nephew to U.C. Berkeley to study viticulture, but they did not resurrect the extraordinary reputation of Vin de Constance. That was left to the Jooste family, which purchased the property in 1980. Their U.C. Davis-experienced winemaker, Ross Gower, began the wine’s resurgence with his first release in 1986. Today son Lowell Jooste is in charge of the property, and Adam Mason has taken over as winemaker. Vin de Constance is reaching new heights every year.

Regional Description

As a wine producing district Constantia has three distinct characteristics, two of them related: (1) It is basically a suburb of Capetown, with correspondingly fine exposure to the marketplace (both domestic and international); (2) it is a very up-market piece of real estate, with sumptuous houses and beautiful landscaping; and (3) it is perhaps South Africa’s coolest (using the temperature sense of the word) growing region, no small factor when the tip of the continent is at 33º of latitude. Constantia is on the eastern side of a ridge running 20 miles south from Capetown along the peninsula which comprises the Cape of Good Hope. Constantia looks out to the east across False Bay (where the English landed to begin the Boer War). Technically I suppose Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa) is the terminous of the Indian Ocean, but one could certainly argue (after swimming in it) that False Bay is the westernmost vestige of the warm Indian Ocean. The cold Bengula Current runs up the western side of the Good Hope peninsula, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic side is not only colder, it carries much less moisture (cf: the Kalahari desert in Namibia further north). Constantia stands astride this divide, protected by its western ridge tops.

Food and Wine Pairing

Klein Constantia makes Vin de Constance from Muscat de Frontignan grapes (cf: Liqueur Muscat from Australia). They are picked very ripe, but not excessively dehydrated. Then they are matured over a four-year period in changing combinations of stainless steel and 120-gallon oak puncheons. The wine has more the 15% residual sugar, but also has very high acid for balance. In the 2005 vintage the pH is 3.45 with 8.75 g/l of total acid. Alcohol is less than Sauternes at a little over 12%, but considerably more than botrytized German Rieslings.
     On a one-dimensional scale of dessert wines, Vin de Constance falls somewhere between Canadian Icewine and Sauternes. It is not as honeyed, nor as volatile, as Sauternes. Which means milk chocolate and nut tarts are probably not going to be preferred matches. At the other extreme, fruit aromatics are a feature of Vin de Constance, but they are far from the only arrow in its quiver. Moreover the aromatics have a distinctly floral component. In the mouth the wine is an extraordinary balance of Vin Santo-like, dried fruit concentration, and refreshingly acidic length. A simple fruit dish, such as peaches with crème fraiche, would not do justice to this complexity.
     I believe the right answer is a custard cake. Decorate each plate with jasmine flowers. Buy or make a pound cake. Slice it horizontally into three levels. On top of level one put a layer of Meyer lemon custard. If you don’t want to make it yourself, you can buy a packaged product from the Jello Company, and tart it up with a real Meyer lemon or two. Include some zest from the lemon. On top of layer two put a layer of light caramel custard. Again, if you don’t want to make your own, use crème fraiche with some brown sugar stirred in. Layer three of the pound cake goes on top. I’d be delighted to eat the dessert this way, but purists will probably want to frost the cake. Once more, packaged frosting will suffice. Vanilla or butter crème would be my choice, but apply it sparingly. You don’t want any wine to have to fight its way through legions of butter and sugar. This dessert should be 75% cake, no less. And serve it in small portions. Things always work out better if the wine is slightly sweeter than the dessert.

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MALBEC

Intense color. Middleweight. Tar + plums w/ cocoa + flowers around each corner. Hope popularity doesn’t screw it up.

Malbec Description

     Malbec is au currant. It is selling briskly during a recession when most wines are retrenching. It goes great with a big hunka’ red meat, and confers a gaucho image which understandably appeals to salarymen everywhere. Dr. Roger Corder, a British pharmacology researcher, even says Argentine Malbecs are particularly rich in the polyphenols which help protect against artery disease. Good news when you’re having a big hunka’ red meat. And really good Malbec can be had for less than $25. Sign me up!

Malbec Wine Education

     The success of Argentine Malbec on the U.S. market over the last four years is the envy of wine producing regions all over the world. Wines of Argentina says they sold 628,000 cases of Malbec in America in 2005, and 3.15 million cases in 2009. Particularly jealous is the district of Cahors in southwest France, which specializes in Malbec (traditionally called Cot there), and from whence the Argentine vines are reputed to have come.
     Of course commercial success on our shores usually has more to do with pricing and adroit marketing than it has to do with what is in the bottle. I’d never bet against the physical attractiveness of any Argentine winery’s PR staff. And, until last month, exchange rates did give the Argentine wines an enormous price advantage over their European counterparts.
     By way of incentive, Argentina has 50,000 acres of Malbec planted, which is more than California has planted to Zinfandel. France has less than 15,000 acres, and even that has been steadily declining since 1970. Malbec vines are quite sensitive to mildew. Hence the variety seems logically more applicable to arid climates such as Mendoza (in the rain shadow of the Andes), than it would be in the frequent summer rains of southwest France.
     Nevertheless a battle of sorts has been joined, and vintners in both California and Washington State are paying attention. There are only 1,500 acres of Malbec in California. Which explains why in 2008 Malbec grapes sold for $4,550 a ton in Napa Valley ~ almost the same price as Cabernet Sauvignon, and nearly twice as much money per ton as Merlot. In Sonoma Malbec grapes were 15% more expensive than Cab Sauv. And in the Sierra Foothills Malbec is nearly 50% more expensive than any other grape. Supply and demand. You think Wall Street is a casino? Try farming.

Malbec recommendations

     Read this post in its entirety on the Stanford Wine Blog, including specific wine reviews and suggestions.

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CA Grenache

Great fruit clearly announces CA, and the wine is magic when paired with crispy, roasted version of CA’s State Bird.

Wine Education

     There isn’t a huge amount of Grenache planted in California: about 7,000 acres in 2008 (down from nearly 11,000 acres in 1998), and 85% of those acres reside in the Central Valley (predominantly Fresno and Madera Counties). Hence the image, which artistic CA Grenache will eventually have to overcome, of sickly sweet swill labeled Grenache Rosé which was sold in bowling-ball-shaped jugs much prized by ‘60s-era hippies for making terrariums. Still, the enduring legacy of the Rhône Rangers in California has begat some new, green buds on the gnarly, weathered Grenache grapevine.
     Napa has less than 35 acres of bearing Grenache vines. Which may help explain why in 2009 those grapes sold for $3,520 per ton on average. That’s 50% more per ton than Napa Merlot in 2009. It would also predict a $35 per bottle retail price tag on those wines. In Sonoma County, which had 160 acres of Grenache in 2009, the average price per ton was $2,660, about 20% more than the average price per ton of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wine Background

     Grenache (technically Grenache Noir) is really quite a fascinating grape variety. Sardinia, where it is called Cannonau, and Spain argue like cats and dogs over where it originated, and thus which direction it migrated during the 400+ years (from about 1300 to around 1700) that Sardinia was part of the Aragon kingdom. Either way, the sturdy Grenache vine has competed for several hundred years to be the most widely planted premium red grape in the world.

Matching Food to Grenache

     To read this post in its entirety, including specific wine recommendations, bargain examples, and suggested food – wine pairings, please visit the Stanford University Wine Blog.

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