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Drinking Out Loud

The Prejudiced Palate

Is everyone increasingly biased about wine today?

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 16, 2011

It all began with a lunch I had with a winegrower. Suffice it to say that this fellow was not Californian. He was an affable guy, intelligent and makes pretty good wines. The conversation came around to Pinot Noir. "I don't like California Pinot Noir," he declared.

I was a little taken aback when I heard that. To dismiss all California Pinot Noirs in one swoop is a bit much. Let's be blunt: it's a prejudice. And it's hardly the first time I've heard this particular prejudice. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Oregon winegrowers or supporters of Oregon Pinot Noirs be equally dismissive, declaring—with no little vehemence—that California Pinot Noirs simply aren't the "real thing."

Happily, I was able to make my winegrower acquaintance drink his words, as it were, after spotting a 2008 Peay Vineyards "Scallop Shelf" Pinot Noir on the wine list. We ordered it and he discovered in a single sip that it was everything he was sure California Pinot Noir couldn't be: delicate, fragrant, even ethereal. Terms like "Chambolle-Musigny" and "Volnay" filled the air.

Now, there are plenty of California Pinot Noirs that are not to my personal taste—too alcoholic, too extracted, too oaky, too voluptuously excessive. I'm sure that you could draw up your own list just as easily.

Fine wine has always had divisions. For example, there has long been a tension between those who find a greater merit in Bordeaux over Burgundy and vice-versa. Nothing new there. It's been going on for centuries.

But in today's brave new wine world we're supposed to be over that, right? Apparently not. The existence today of the prejudiced palate is astonishing. We were supposed to get past all the old-fashioned snobbery once wine became more "normal," remember?

Despite numerous iterations of the famed 1976 Paris Tasting—nearly all with results replicating the original—a surprising number of folks cannot wrap their brains (never mind their palates) around the incontrovertible fact that California can create a helluva Cabernet Sauvignon.

But the prejudiced palate doesn't stop there. How many times have you heard someone say that he or she doesn't like Italian wines? Any Italian wine. "I don't like Italian wines," they begin. "They're too acidic, too tannic, too weird. I don't get them."

The list goes on. For example, how often have you heard German wines dismissed as "too sweet"? Or Cabernet Franc dismissed as excessively "green" or "vegetal?" What's even more amazing is how often one hears wine professionals say such things.

Then there's the even more bizarre turn where peoples' palates are derided. Would you care to hand me a buck for every time you've heard someone say that a taster has a "California palate?" I didn't think so.

"Today's new prejudice has taken on a different coloration, one more common to rabid sports fans. People now root for or against one or another wine region or grape variety."

Is there an "East Coast palate"? I've heard plenty of California winegrowers submit that there is—and that their wines are subject to a Eurocentric prejudice because of such "East Coast palates." Do they exist? You tell me—especially if you're from the East Coast.

Now, a lot of this is just off-the-cuff shorthand. But make no mistake, the prejudiced palate exists. Indeed, it's thriving in a way—and to a degree—never before seen.

In the old days—which is to say, 20 or 30 years ago—only European wines were good. Everything else was "domestic." Was there ever a more dismissive term? Happily, we never hear that term anymore, which is one measure of how far we've come. Thank heaven (and the late Robert Mondavi) for that.

But today's new prejudice has taken on a different coloration, one more common to rabid sports fans. People now root for or against one or another wine region or grape variety.

Is this such a terrible thing? Probably not, but it can have an inhibiting effect. Too many worthy grape varieties are still seen as "lesser," such as Gamay Noir, Muscat, Lambrusco, Baco Noir, Zweigelt and a whole list of other varieties that get little or no respect, never mind a proper price. And that, in turn, makes producers less willing to pursue such wines or celebrate them.

Here, the prejudiced palate makes itself felt. Pinot Noir lovers, for example, too often look down upon Gamay Noir, as do many Pinot Noir producers. The best Pinot Noir zones in North America could create superb Gamay. But there's a prejudice against it. Ditto for Pinot Blanc vs. Chardonnay. Sure, the market plays a powerful role. But prejudice informs it.

The issue here is not an obligation to love everything or be fatuously uncritical. Rather, the issue is a new kind of "diss-thinking" that has replaced the old snobbery with a raw Clockwork Orange derision.

We're seeing this with stunningly sweeping dismissals of Australian wines, for example. Care to hand me another buck for every time you've heard someone dismiss Australian reds as big, brutish, over-extracted, over-oaky and overblown? Sure, such wines exist. Too many, even. But there's more to Australian wine—a lot more—than this prejudice admits.

Increasingly, we're seeing the effects of prejudice—call it a malign ignorance, if you prefer—shape what's being grown, what's being offered and what's being praised. Or not. It's seeping into today's wine discourse. Don't you think? Or am I imagining something that's just other people's idea of "good fun?"

Premier Group
Ann C. Dutton —  August 16, 2011 12:03pm ET
There is an "East Coast" palate, although less now than years ago,in as much as many on the East Coast began their wine experience drinking European wines, therefore what tastes European is more familiar. As
California wines have become more familiar and have evolved in so many directions, this has changed.
Thank you for your comments.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  August 16, 2011 12:42pm ET
My theory is that, as region after regions gets its act together and makes better and better wines, the world has become so complex that human nature would rather compartmentalize each category rather than explore nuances. Easier to say "Gamay is a lesser grape and therefore a lesser wine," rather than trying a few and finding what it really has to offer. Same with Australia, New Zealand, and yes, California Pinot Noir.
James J Sherma
hershey, PA —  August 16, 2011 1:22pm ET
Recently I have had a personal epiphany that has many parallels with this essay. I keep a cellar of anywhere from 50-100 bottles in it at a time and as I was looking for something to pull one night I realized that I had a load of very good wines with good ratings that I didn't really have any passion or love for. They were all informed purchases but I ended up with too many wines of interest but not enough wines that I really liked. After that I have "biased" my purchases to west coast Pinot's (Both Cali and Oregon); Nebbiolo's from the Piedmont; Manzanilla's, Fino's and dry rose's for thirst quenching; and lastly west coast sparklers for the wife. I'll still mix it up here and there but generally it's more a case of buying based on a limited amount of resources (time, money and liver) as opposed to biasing against other perfectly fine grapes and regions.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  August 16, 2011 1:47pm ET
As a New Yorker who transplanted to California I am aware of the biases of Easterners toward California wines and the prejudice against them. I hate to generalize, but all of us have our prejudices and unless we're intellectually honest enough to open our minds to wines from different regions or different varietals, we will be stuck in our rut of prejudice. There are quite a few varietals that I have tried a couple of times that I found to be disagreeable and swore them off. It wasn't until I tried one that was recommended to me by someone whose taste I respected that I found one that I liked. The same goes with most roses. I find most of them to be insipid, but every once and awhile I'll find one that is enjoyable, but it takes a lot of coaxing for me to try it.

It's too easy for us to make generalizations about a particular wine, whether it be a California or Oregon pinot noir, or even one from the Central Valley or the Sonoma Coast. To paraphrase what my mother used to say, try it, maybe you'll like it.
Jonathan Lawrence
somewhere in the world —  August 16, 2011 2:32pm ET
An open mind permits the development of an educated palate; can a palate per se be prejudiced? I think not. I don't see the point of loving wine if I don't get to explore everything out there.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  August 16, 2011 3:27pm ET
I prefer bigger new world wines, so I can fairly say "As a rule, I do not like French / Italian wines enough to go to a wine shop and buy I bottle unless I have tried it first". For me, this is less of a bias and more where I am willing to spend my money knowing what I prefer. I guess the danger of this is developing a rut, thus I take advantage of tastings, wine by the glass programs and Trader Joes whenever possible
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO, US —  August 16, 2011 4:43pm ET
I think Harvey Steiman hit it on the head above, but I'll put it in stronger terms: it's intellectual laziness. Sure, it's easier to try to classify the world of wine with sweeping strokes of, "Italians are too acidic and rustic, Aussies are too hot and blowsy,..." etc., but it's also more and more inaccurate and useless... and lazy. The phenomenon Matt points out about rooting for one wine/region over another occurs when said 'classifiers' tie their egos to their opinions. In the end, the loser is the winemaker who follows his/her muse against a generalization about his/her region but gets unfairly judged because of these prejudices.
Stacy Hughes
Regina, SK —  August 16, 2011 5:12pm ET
I have a wide cellar of wines about 20 varietals from all over the world and the one thing I realized early is to never close your mind to any one type of wine. I learned this buy drinking wines blind and then trying to figure out what they were and from where. I did this at family gatherings too, so know one knew what we were drinking until after. I soon found out as did others that we all did prefer wines from certain area's but we also found out we liked wines we never thought we would. This is the problem today, people rely to much on what they read for their wine selections instead of buying and experimenting on their own, and finding out what their own tastebuds desire. Yes it does help with your decision making on what you may buy, but there is nothing like experimenting yourself. Remember though that marketing is all about selling, so the more good reviews and the more appetizing you can make your wine sound, the more you will sell, its more about the glitz than the contents for many. (If so and so drinks it, it must be good.) (Just as in golf, when Tiger was the man you could put his name on anything and sell a ton of it.)
I will try anything at least once. There have been to many good surprises over the decades for me, so ignore what all the pro's say, use some of their information for what its worth and go for it, you will surprise yourself on what you may like. Cheers!
John S Edwards
Milwaukee, WI, USA —  August 16, 2011 5:17pm ET
I have to admit that I do have a bias/preference towards old world wines but have the good fortune to try a wide range of wines. For me the most fun is to find a very enjoyable wine from a place I would least expect. In fact, this past winter a group of us went to a Bordeaux tasting in Chicago on a Monday. That week we tried the 2008 Ring Bolt, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River of Australia and I thought I was back at the Bordeaux tasting. Great fruit but with a noticeable mineral quality and acidity in balance with the fruit. A real blind tasting ringer if there ever was one. My first recommendation to the 'I hate those jammy Aussie wines' clients. A true eye opener for myself and the clients. I will never understand the idea of approaching wine with your bias/preference blinders on.
Heitor Almeida
NY —  August 16, 2011 9:11pm ET
great post Matt. But you forgot one of the most common types of wine prejudice: the "I don't like white wine" crowd. How many times have we all heard that?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 17, 2011 2:28am ET

I'm a score whore, so I've got highly-rated wines from many regions in my cellar. However, after being underwhelmed by the last 10 bottles of well-aged Italian wines (Barolii, Brunelli, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet, various whites) of impeccable provenance I decided recently to stop purchasing Italian wines. I used to drink more for education and now I drink more for pleasure. The last Italian wines to give me any meaningful pleasure were the 2004 Tignanello and 2003 Poliziano VNdM. I guess I'm just tired of smelling that same old funk in most of their reds while struggling to find pleasure past the tannins. Italian whites rarely do anything more for me other than to serve to wash down a hearty meal (save for an exceptional Fiano di Avellino). I know, 10 bottles is hardly a proxy for an entire country's wines, but I've probably had about 50 reds/whites total. At first I thought I just didn't understand them and chalked it up to my untrained palate. But with 1200+ tasting notes under my belt I've definitely found where my palate is currently at, and it's not in Italy (or freaking Spain). I get all the pleasure I need out of California wines primarily, and I don't have to worry about how abused my bottles have been during a month-long shipping trek through multiple ports of call.
Mary Jane Phillips
Farmington Hills, MI —  August 17, 2011 9:40am ET
As to Heitor Almeida's comment on those who "don't like white wine", here is an interesting scenario. I have belonged to a wine appreciation class at a prestegious culinary school for many years. In one of our sessions, our instructor challenged the group. He dimmed the lights and poured several blind wines into black wine goblets, all at cellar temperature. Additionaly there was no interaction with others during the tasting. There were many "red wine only" folks that identified some white wines as red, and proclaimed their choice as proof of their dislike for whites. The same held true for some of the reds that were identified as whites. Needless to say, it proved to be humbling for some and fun for all.
Yuki Saito
San Francisco, CA, USA —  August 17, 2011 5:04pm ET
Timely and amuzing (in a good way) article. As a New Yorker turned San Franciscan, I only see two kinds of palette. Fine (well informed and well tried) and Dull (lazy!).
Michael Krogh
Eden Prairie, MN USA —  August 17, 2011 7:49pm ET
If I ever run across Matt in a restaurant I'll walk right up to him and tell him I don't like first growth Bordeaux or DRC. Maybe he'll buy me a bottle to prove me wrong!
It's beyond laziness to dismiss something in such a manner. I find it's generally done to elevate one's own tastes above those of others. I have found varietals and regions difficult to "get." Gewurtz is the first that comes to mind. Others were immediately great to my palate (Barolo and Port, for example.) But I try to make sure I understand what is on offer before deciding I don't like it. And to be fair, not liking something is just fine, as long as one understands the difference between their personal taste and a varietal or region's merit.
Antonio Pinon
Atlanta,GA. U.S.A. —  August 17, 2011 7:56pm ET
Douglas Levin
Tempe, AZ —  August 18, 2011 1:34am ET
Prejudice? Bah! Preference perhaps. There is SO much wine on the market, that the only way to select wine matching your palate, is to find regions that tend to produce varietals with your preferred taste profile. No doubt, sometimes you can be surprised by producers bucking the trend for their region/AVA. Although, in general... I will pour less wine down the drain if I stay with the regions/AVA's that I have found through past experience, more or less, produce wines in my comfort zone. I wish I could afford to buy everything, but since I can't, if I already know I don't like bright red fruit-juicy new world pinots, why would I waste my time tasting more Carneros pinots instead of Russian River?
Nick Racco
Medina, Ohio —  August 18, 2011 8:28am ET
Well thought out questions being raised I can only respond by saying that I have been tasting wines from all over the world for the last 35 years and from what I can rely on is Nothing !!!! each wine has its own merit and each wine is a singular experience as my tastes have changed so have my favorite wines I really think it comes down to the moment you can only rely on the instant in time when you are tasting let's face it we could be drinking a bottle of swill but if we are with the right company in a setting beyond our mortal belief then that bottle will live in our memory banks as being the La Tache of our Lives
Clinton W Mitchell
Naperville, IL —  August 18, 2011 9:20am ET
Such generalizations are rooted in ignorance and arrogance.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA, USA —  August 18, 2011 12:51pm ET
As always, a thought provoking topic, Matt. Bias of this sort is not confined to the inexperienced, label-drinkers, homers, the unadventurous or the lazy. Georg Riedel, whose stemware I use and love, is not shy in stating his distaste for California Pinot Noir. A year or so ago he was conducting one of his very revealing glass comparisons here, where the event organizer made the mistake of providing a Cali Pinot instead of an Oregon to compare in one of his PN style glasses. He asked: why did you have to go all the way to California when Oregon is a lot closer. He then declared something along the lines: “Don’t ever use a wine like this again. It is unacceptable. Ladies and gentlemen please dump your wine. We will not taste this wine". About 60 people dutifully dumped the wine.

As for me, variety is the essence of life. There is no bias here (except perhaps against Retsina). In the cellar there are wines from 12 different countries, roughly 40 grapes and around 90 different regions or AVA’s. Fun is not drinking the same thing over and over. It is trying new things and broadening one’s horizon. As the old adage goes, “keep an open mind and maybe something will fall in”.
David Blakeley
New Jersey —  August 18, 2011 1:28pm ET
Always a fascinating and comment-provoking topic. Having moved to the East Coast as a teenager (from California actually),and now being in my 40s, I apparently find myself in the minority as I "prefer" West Coast wines overall - Oregon AND Sonoma Pinot, Cali Cabs, etc.. Having said that I stock and drink a fair number of Italians and Aussies as well. A number of people hit it right though in that it is often a balancing act between what you "know" you like and the herculean task of tasting through the selections being made available the world over. Good luck all!
James Haug
Sebsatopol, California —  August 18, 2011 2:28pm ET
Dear Matt,

Nice article. Thank you. We hear alot of these kinds of comments in our tasting room, wine shop and art gallery at The Wine Emporium. One thing we like to do is remind poeple that taste is learned, so what one likes is like playing a favorite record over and over again. With the aid of the Wine aroma wheel, we ask people to describe what flavors they taste and smell, what emotions, and what memories the wines evoke in them. A favorite book of ours is "What the Nose Knows", by Avery Gilbert. It discusses the science of taste and smell. We recommend it highly to anyone who would like to gain a deeper appreciation of this fascinating topic and the wines of the world.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  August 18, 2011 2:51pm ET
Categorical thinking is the easy road taken by the lazy. Pretending to know something you don't is a disease of the mind. What a person believes, no matter how strongly, is still just something they think. Believing one's opinion trumps the views of all others is the great poison of this age.

I like all well made wine. Sue me.

David Clark for The Wine Connection
Dejan Bajic
Belgrade, Serbia, Europe —  August 18, 2011 3:38pm ET
And who cares about all of them who heard somewhere that Australian wines are too strong or German Riesling is too sweet and now they beileve in that like in Bible. Just let them. That will make much easier for all of us others to find a great wine from anywhere in the world for the price that suits them
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  August 18, 2011 6:40pm ET
Matt, I think saying, "wines from X country are lame" is short-hand for, "my experience with wines from X country has been predominantly disappointing/underwhelming and/or poor values."

Sometimes it's just easier to say it this way.

Is the market affected by enough people putting it this way? Absolutely.

Is this a bad thing? Not if it encourages good producers to innovate in ways of accurately saying what they offer and capturing the public's interest.

A driving factor for why (non-premium) bordeaux and burgundies are having to offer bigger and bigger margins to distributors is because their wines represent outliers that do not coincide with consumers' tastes.

I would love to see a burgundy classification system that identifies wines that are not/not described as "light-medium bodied, with cherries, earth and mushroom notes, with telling minerality."

Thomas Burnakis
Jacksonville, FL USA —  August 20, 2011 10:54am ET
I started liking only Chardonnay, the buttery the better. Then I found California Syrah, the bigger the better. During my wine journey epiphanies I have uttered such sophomoric phrases as “I don’t like Bordeaux, too tannic”, “Italian wines and I do not get along, tastes like a pencil lead dipped in cherry juice”, “Gewürztraminer is even harder to like than it is to say”, “Burgundy, too bitter” (in re: US Pinot), etc. Thankfully I have been proven wrong every time and now enjoy an eclectic (and some would say schizophrenic) taste in wine. My only caveat now is that I tend to like wines with letters in their names. I am not sure who said it, whether wine pundit or prophet, but I truly believe that “the wine will always have the last word”.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  August 20, 2011 10:03pm ET
Let's not forget the Miles Raymond "Sideways" character whose derision of Merlot and pompous Pinot appreciation helped throw the California wine industry on its ear.

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
Ian Tarrant
Ontario, Canada —  August 21, 2011 1:57pm ET
Matt - Bang on as always.

The wine 'consultant' at our local liquor monopoly commented to me recently that my tastes are all over the place and I'm her only customer that seems to like to try everything.

I responded that trying different wines, different countries, etc. is what makes this hobby so damn interesting - Who knew Chardonnay could be so different from different places on earth, who knew that Cali Pinot would introduce a whole new world to people and subsequenty would help introduce Burgundy to many more??

I met another wine 'lover' who told me that the only wine he drinks is Caymus Cab...I couldn't understand this at all and wondered if he really loved wine at all..


Ian Tarrant
Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  August 22, 2011 6:13pm ET
Matt, the wine market is hyper-competitive these days. Sounds like a case of Pinot-envy.

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