Wine's Three Biggest Lies

Why good wine lovers tell bad lies
Feb 7, 2012

1. If You Like It, It Is Good. This is, without question, the biggest lie of them all. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard wine lovers—fellow writers, merchants, consumers—serve up this whopper.

Why do they do it? The answer is actually simple: They think it will make wine more accessible to more people. They think they're doing everyone a favor by "democratizing" wine. Wine is too elitist, you see. It's important—nay, essential—that wine be taken down a peg or two in order to make it accessible to all.

There's also a hidden, and not entirely conscious, element to this biggest of all lies: It takes you off the hook as a taster. Think about it for a minute. If you believe that what you like is therefore "good," you are not then obligated to actually learn about the category of wine that you're tasting, where you seek to grasp the particularities that allow you to be an insightful, informed taster rather than simply a set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down sort.

If you're tasting, for example, a bunch of Barolos, the "If I like it, it is good" approach liberates you from any obligation to distinguish between the characteristics of, say, the zones of La Morra and those of Castiglione Falletto or Serralunga d'Alba.

All the babies are thrown in the same bathwater and the only criterion is—you guessed it—which one you like. Believe me, if you like the soft, round lushness characteristic of La Morra you're going to mark down the more austere, harder-edged Barolos of the Castiglione Falletto zone.

Imagine if this approach had been applied to Burgundy when the Burgundians arrived at their highly discriminating quality rankings of grand cru and premier cru. One of the most admirable features about Burgundy's grands and premiers crus is that within their respective categories there is no further delineation, and none needed. All grands crus are of equal rank, never mind the dramatic taste differences between, say, Chambertin and Corton. Each received its exalted status because of the dramatic originality of its respective site, rather than whether one or another taster “liked” one or another wine more. The criterion was "goodness" rather than mere taste preference.

Here's the bottom line: If you like it, great. You like it. Good for you. Drink up. All of us, myself included, reach for what we like. But recognizing what is "good" is another matter altogether. (I've said many times that a true connoisseur is someone capable of saying "This is great wine. But I can't stand it.") What one likes has little to do with what is good, except that we often happen to like what is also good. But not always. Just think of junk food.

2. Vintages Don't Matter Anymore. A vintage is simply the year of the grape harvest. I mention this seemingly obvious point because "vintage" has taken on other meanings, notably that of particularly good quality. Readers of a certain age may recall the old self-congratulatory California wine slogan "Every year is a vintage year."

All this business about vintages—great, good and poor—originally came from Europe. As is well known, many of the best wine districts of France and Germany have climates that barely provide minimum ripening requirements for their chosen grape varieties. The result was a razor's edge situation that rewarded growers with remarkable quality in good vintages (read: good weather). The trade-off was that you created something decidedly lesser if the weather during the growing season failed to oblige, being too cool or too rainy or even too hot.

Have such vintage—that is, weather—variations disappeared? Not at all. So what's changed? Technology. Winemakers today have at their disposal astute scientific educations allied to an impressive array of winemaking equipment and technology that simply didn't exist prior to the 1960s. Greater profits have allowed growers the luxury of eliminating excess clusters before harvest (what’s called "green harvesting") as well as excising less-ripe clusters during harvesttime sorting.

So yes, dramatic swings in quality based solely on vintage have indeed diminished, even if growing-season weather variations have not. But there are limits. Just ask the Burgundians about, say, the aggravated 2004 vintage, which suffered from rot and—of all things—the flavor impact of a ladybug infestation at harvest!

Because of this modern ability to better handle less-than-perfect weather conditions, a new wine lie has emerged: Vintages don't matter anymore. This is, in a word, nonsense. And, like the aforementioned "If you like it, it is good" lie, this business about how vintages don't matter anymore is a bit patronizing. It's meant to make wine more attractive by eliminating yet another pesky complication.

The reality is that vintages do matter. They may not matter quite as much as they used to, thanks to technology and—this is the other big difference—the modern abundance of wines coming from more reliably benign winegrowing areas such as Argentina, Chile, California and much of Australia. This is a real change, no doubt about it.

That acknowledged, the idea that vintages don't matter anymore is a bedtime story designed to put you to sleep. Vintages matter mightily in France, Germany, northern and central Italy, New Zealand, and the cooler parts of Australia. And if you think that vintages don't matter in California, allow me to suggest that you ask any California winegrower about the 2010 vintage, which was euphemistically described by the trade association Wine Institute as "challenging," or the 2011 vintage, which a Wine Spectator report characterized as "simply nasty for many California winegrowers."

But, hey, vintages don't matter anymore, right?

3. Price Tells You About Quality. Like the one about vintages, this is another "Let's make wine easier for everybody" lie. I've said it before and I don't mind saying it again: Nobody knows anything about wine. But everybody is an expert about money. We all know—or think we do—that something that costs more must be better than something cheaper. This is the marketing premise of just about every mass-marketed luxury product today, including—brace yourself—wine.

Now, once upon a time, there actually was a pretty good correlation between price and wine quality. This was when fine wine came from just a handful of privileged locales such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Rheingau and Mosel. All are cool-climate zones with significant vintage variations (as explained above), which typically was reflected in the final asking price. A great Bordeaux vintage always commanded a higher price than a poor one. Price was a true (and accurate) signifier.

Higher prices for all of these wines, vintages aside, were "accurate" because for centuries these few zones really were the crème de la crème. The gap between what they offered and what pretty much every other wine zone offered was unmistakable, like the difference between an aristocrat and a peasant.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Do you really think that Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Rheingau and Mosel—magnificent as they are—are today the sole sources of the world's wine goodness? If you do, then you're a wine-tasting Rip Van Winkle.

Recently, a 100-strong contingent of Bordeaux wine producers put on tastings of their 2009 vintage wines in several major U.S. cities. Working through the array, I was struck by just how, well, universal, these otherwise fine red wines now seem. Time was when Bordeaux was the sole source of singularly fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. No more.

Today, even the best red Bordeaux now take their (qualitative) place among hundreds, even thousands, of other Cabernets and Bordeaux-style red wine blends from dozens of countries. Really, you'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart, which has been proved again and again in blind tastings performed the world over.

What was once uniquely fine and exclusive to Bordeaux has now become commodified. Bordeaux's best estates are no longer selling a unique quality. Instead, like high-end handbag manufacturers, what moves their market is a perceived exclusivity.

The key point is this: Because of the abundance of fine wine emerging from seemingly everywhere, the once-plausible correlation between price and quality has become untethered. Is this absolute across the entire price spectrum? I don't think so. At the low price end, there still is a connection between modest price and equally modest quality (although even there, not always).

But I'll say this: Once beyond a retail price of $30, all bets are off. At that price and higher (often much, much higher) price tells you nothing about quality, only about supply, demand and, of course, clever marketing. Some of today's absolutely finest wines cost a relative pittance. Anybody who tells you different is, well ... a marketer.

Opinion

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