The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People

Why do they keep making the same mistakes?
Mar 5, 2013

Recently, I was in a conversation with a Burgundy wine producer whose wines I admire very much. I teased him about how reluctant Burgundians are to acknowledge somewhere on a wine label that a Bourgogne rouge is Pinot Noir (and possibly Gamay) and that a Bourgogne blanc is Chardonnay.

"Would it kill you to add this information somewhere on the label?" I asked.

"Actually, it would," he replied, in all seriousness. "It would be the death of French wine civilization."

For once in my life I was speechless. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, where communication is paramount, and you've got the equivalent of an aboriginal wine tribe still sending smoke signals.

What is it about wine that makes so many otherwise intelligent, interesting and ambitious people cling to habits and patterns that simply no longer work? To paraphrase from the best-selling business book, here are "The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Wine People."

Habit 1: Insist that your customers learn your jargon. Now, here's an ineffective habit. You want someone to buy your product? Of course you do. So why, then, would you label the item in a manner that is utterly incomprehensible? French producers are masters of this. Even the French themselves can't understand what's on offer, as it's not just a matter of the literal language itself.

Take the Bourgogne rouge and blanc example cited above. Only recently have some producers, somewhere on their front or back label, begun to inform us of what a "Bourgogne" actually is. So that's progress.

But not so fast. Two new designations approved in 2012 are hardly clarion examples of label clarity. First, you’ve got “Côteaux Bourguignons.” And what is that, you ask? Good question. It replaces the delightfully oxymoronic Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. Boy, that cleared things up, didn't it?

The other new designation is “Bourgogne Côte d'Or.” It's designed to augment mere "Bourgogne" with something that confines the geographical source to only the Côte d'Or and only to wines made exclusively from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. But that information is presented somewhere on the label, right? Silly you.

Habit 2: Bottle your wines using closures that degrade your product. It's a pity that wine buyers can't sue wine producers for selling us defective products. Because that, apparently, is what it's going to take to get the wine business to stop using closures—meaning corks—that render a certain percentage of the wines literally defective.

Granted, the percentage of such wines seems to be declining. My colleague James Laube recently reported that "3.7 percent of the 3,269 cork-sealed wines from California that we tasted in the Wine Spectator office in 2012 were thought to be tainted by a bad cork."

He further noted, that while that percentage is the lowest he’s seen among California wines since Wine Spectator began tracking such info more than a decade ago (down from 3.8 percent in 2011 and a high of 9.5 percent in 2007), suggesting cork quality has improved, it also indicates that “there is still a problem.”

Bad habit, wouldn't you say?

Habit 3: Make sure that no one learns anything substantive from your back label. Most newcomers to wine love back labels. We're all trying to learn about the stuff, remember? And we're not ashamed to admit that. (Europeans, in my experience, disdain back labels, which they perceive as unnecessary and patronizing, never mind how little they might actually know about wine themselves.)

Too many U.S. wine back labels are piffle, offering insights along the lines of "white wine with fish, red wine with meat." Why bother? Back labels give producers an opportunity to inform, create an image, build a relationship.

One of the best I've seen recently came from—hallelujah!—Burgundy. Nicolas Potel offers the most detailed information I've ever seen, on the labels of his domaine-bottled wines called Domaine de Bellene. Everything you could possibly want to know is noted: vine age, rootstocks, picking dates, filtering and fining information, yields and much more. And if you don't want to get that granular on your label, at least give us a QR code to get down to it on your website.

Habit 4: Keep insisting "They won't understand." I can't tell you the number of times I've heard a winery owner, a winemaker or a vineyard manager tell me that they don't mention this or that because "they won't understand."

It's amazing how many of us have managed to get a handle on such complexities as winemaking techniques, grapegrowing methods, clones and so forth. Granted, we may not understand one or another of these things as well or completely as we might. But we do manage to grasp the essentials and often quite a bit more than that.

"They won't understand" is really code for "I don't want them to know." Want proof? Just ask about alcohol levels, reverse osmosis, vacuum concentrators or enzymes.

Habit 5: Never buy anything with a score lower than 90 points. Wine consumers of the world, you know you're doing this, so 'fess up. Really, it's ridiculous. You can fuss about the rightness or wrongness of scoring wines, but the fetishistic fussiness of the 90-point barrier has become absurd. Effectively, it creates a 10-point scale, which doesn't leave a lot of leeway, does it?

My own experience is that the best deals (and often the best wines for my palate) are those that get 86 to 88 points. There's nothing magical about 90 points. If you're one of those "90 points or nothing" sorts, let me give it to you straight: You're missing out on some great wines and some amazing values.

Habit 6: Never trust a sommelier. Big mistake, this. Times have really changed and I don't mind saying that I, too, once distrusted sommeliers. That was years ago and it was because I felt that too many so-called sommeliers knew a helluva lot less than their customers. No more.

Today's somms are increasingly a highly professional group who, equally increasingly, are devoid of the old hauteur and stuffiness that once stigmatized this occupation. Now your sommelier is really your best friend in terms of today's wonderful but often complicated wine lists.

Your job as a client is simple: Offer them your trust, be clear about price, and please try something other than your old Chardonnay/Cabernet standbys. Their job is to make you happy you trusted them—and my experience is that now, more than ever before, you will be.

Habit 7: Assume that if it ain't famous, it's no good. This is bigger than you might imagine. Arguably the most pernicious, self-defeating perspective in wine today is assuming that if a wine or a winery is obscure, then how good can it be? (Of course, there are some for whom a reverse-snobbery obtains: They believe that only obscure wineries are any good.)

With all the contestants clamoring for fame and fortune, the chances of a wine becoming famous today are actually quite slim. There are simply too many wines from too many places for that to happen. This is why the sommelier is your new best friend. This is why 88 points should be your new marker. And not least, it's why it's essential for all of us (present company emphatically included) to climb out of our respective wine ruts.

The number of wines out there that "ain't famous" yet are truly remarkable is, well … remarkable.


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