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Drinking Out Loud

Wine's Three Biggest Lies

Why good wine lovers tell bad lies

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 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.

Philip A Chauche
Germantown, MD —  February 7, 2012 12:25pm ET
Bravo!

Wonderful column, Matt. You should always drink what you like, but you shouldn't think you're drinking better than you are.
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  February 7, 2012 1:03pm ET
I couldn't agree with your assertions more. First, liking something rarely makes it good. I like fast food on occasion, but would have a difficult time arguing that my burger and fries are "good food." Tasty perhaps, but hardly of exceptional quality. I also agree that vintages matter. While annual quality levels have certainly risen, each vintage imparts a specific imprint. Simply taste through 2003-2006 in Burgundy or 2000-2007 in Bordeaux. While many vintages within those ranges may have received praise, they all portray very distinct characteristics.

Your comments about price and quality are interesting. I agree with them to a degree. Like anything, overhead costs affect quality of production. Good Barrels, fruit, and human talent all cost money. That supports your argument that great wines have a $30 minimum threshold. Often enough, though, high overhead costs, and resulting high prices, do indicate quality. Let's remember, the Yankees have won more World Series than any other team. Why? They spend money. The same is often true for wineries. Many top wineries splurge for the newest technology, the best consultants and vineyard managers, and the best winemakers. Often enough, costs invested in the winemaking process result in superior wines. Is it a proportionate cost:quality increase? Certainly not always. And, many times marketing is the cause of inflated prices as you suggest. But, in reality, cost can be indicative of quality. Just make sure you look under the hood before opening your wallet.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 7, 2012 2:08pm ET
Generally, better wines do cost more. The joy is in finding the (many) exceptions.
Mike Coble
New York, NY —  February 7, 2012 3:31pm ET
"If You Like It, It Is Good" is a lie? Although I get your point, it's ironic to me because IMO over the past few years that seems to be a significant driver in ratings from The Wine Spectator. Time was that I didn't question the ratings, but now I look at who did the review for The Wine Spectator and discount accordingly. What I've learned from trial and error is that certain wines evolve and provide very different experiences as they evolve whereas others don't change much until they are gone. So for my money the biggest lie is that a wine has a consistent rating at all!

As an example, I recently finished up the last of my 2002 Peby Faugeres. It was amazing, but it had a lot of ups and downs. For instance, the WS barrel tasting gave it a rating of 85-88 saying it was "Light and fruity, with clean mineral character..." The March 2005 review upped the rating to 91 with a comment "Much better than from barrel. Very well done." However, I thought it shut down completely after it was 4-5 years old, but as of last summer when I finished the last bottle from the cellar I thought it reached the classic range with powerful blackberry, cedar, fine integrated tannins and excellent structure. So within 10 years, this wine went from "Light and fruity" to "Full bodied, with silky tannins" to completely closed down and finally to sublime. Too bad I don't have any more to taste in another 5 years...
John Norkus Jr
Houston —  February 7, 2012 4:13pm ET
I enjoyed Matt's column and I would like to mention two more elements relating to the price is quality assertion.

Previous success allows more profit. Newcomers usually must make do with less profit regardless of quality.

Another relevant item I have encountered, especially in a few recent vintages, is that in a great but also plentiful vintage (say 2005 in Bordeaux or 2007 in Tuscany) it is much easier to find a good quality wine at a surprisingly modest price.
David Rapoport
CA —  February 7, 2012 5:17pm ET
Bigger lies
1) "[X Characteristic] comes from the terroir."
Authoritative claims like this are about is useful as "[insert anything] comes from god". So much is claimed in the name of terroir with nothing firm to substantiate it.

2) The age-ability/greatness equivalent.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 7, 2012 5:27pm ET
The key to using vintage information is abandoning the old good/bad duality model. Good for what? Bad for what? In a region like California, where every sort of varietal is planted, a cool vintage might be more advantageous for cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir. Like finesse in your wine? A "challenging" vintage here might be more like a traditional vintage in one of those cooler-climate zones that you discussed above. Like 'em big? Go more with the hotter year.

Great winemakers make great wine on a pretty regular basis, that's why we call them "great". I had a friend in DC that had a passion for "off vintage" red Burgundies from good producers. We had many a fabulous bottle at his table over the years with rarely a poor showing or a famous vintage being served.

The great truth of wine is that there is no substitute for knowledge! Without deep inquiry, buying great wine is largely a matter of luck. "Woe to he who reads but one book!"

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Ray Ondrejech
San Luis Obispo, CA —  February 7, 2012 5:55pm ET
Regarding pricing, I seem to recall an article in the hard-copy version W.S. some time back that discussed the pricing dilemma Burgundy producers were facing given the state of the global economy. Roughly something like $1500 or $2100 a bottle for top notch Burgundy. The article closed with something along the lines of, "Ironically, it still only costs about $20 to make a bottle..." And my Economics instructor taught me that gasoline was the best example of supply and demand on the planet...
Wendy L Kam-wheeler
Hilo, HI —  February 7, 2012 6:11pm ET
Regarding "If you like it, its good" ... I believe this is directed more toward inexperienced drinkers and not tasters. As accesible as the world of wine has become, it is still intimidating to many people. What that statement does is validate their own palate and experience and it takes the seriousness out of it.
However, this is a bit different for "trade" people and afficionados. When we "taste" wine, we swirl, sniff, sip, savor ... evaluate. We determine WHAT is good or bad, WHY it is good or bad ... that is what we do. Then, after all that, we drink.
What is good to Mr. Doe may not be good to me and what is good to me may not be good to you. But who am I tell anyone that what they are drinking is not good? (unless its actually off). Especially if they are truly enjoying it.
There are wines for every budget, palate, and occasion. As long as we are all enjoying what we are drinking, what could be bad?
Paul Perivolaris
London, Canada —  February 7, 2012 8:38pm ET
RE 'If you like it, it's good' -- Bad/good are relative terms and only when combined with price are they useable for most people. I had an experience the other night where my parents (not wine people at all) said "oh, this is good"...I asked how much it cost...they said they didn't know. My answer was if it was less than $10 it was fine...if it was more than that it would become much worse as it went up! It was quite mediocre in all ways but still easy enough to drink and enjoy but that was it. Its fine to like something but with out enough experience in tasting different products being a judge of good/bad is just not valid. That's why I count on WS to a great degree and especially why I like how the Top 100 are decided!
Louis Shenk
Louisiana —  February 7, 2012 10:55pm ET
For the educated palate, I believe in general If you like it, it is good. But all palates are not created equal, and many have "blind spots" - don' t like Riesling, or find malbec uninteresting. We have to recognize where our taste "prejudices" are and recognize them as such and not as criteria for judging varietal classes - unlike the dismissal of merlot and glorification of pinot noir in Sideways.

I assume the educated palate is one reason the WS reviewers tend to specialize in California or French or Italian wines - that way their experience and depth of tasting knowledge can aid in determining which wines are good and which wines are great.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  February 8, 2012 11:23am ET
I really enjoyed this piece.
Bruce Nichols
Naples, —  February 8, 2012 12:56pm ET
The list of "lies" as you call them grows exponentially it seems, like when...
- a too large segment of California pinot producers describe their wines as "Burgundian" in style with their blowsy, overblown, syrah infused wannabes.
- consumers, critics, industry people sniff, swirl and sip and proclaim a valley floor wine to have deep "minerality" - you could dig down 500 feet and still not find a stone.
- as long as a wine is balanced, high alcohol doesn't matter. Tell that to the Highway Patrol who has just handcuffed you for DUI after just two glasses of 15.5 alcohol chardonnay!
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  February 8, 2012 1:26pm ET
Bruce, since when does soil have to have tons of stone to have high minerality? Much of the valley's soil has a very high content of volcanic ash...i.e. previously molten stone. There's more to minerality than kicking a square foot chunk of limestone off the top-soil.
Kelly Barry
Seattle, WA, USA —  February 8, 2012 4:32pm ET
I am a sommelier who is in the "If you like it, it is good" camp, HOWEVER, it seems as though you are parsing this statement to an extreme - it doesn't mean the industry as a whole deems it a "good" wine if you like it, it is merely a reflection of individual taste. I am able to rate the overall "quality" of comparative wines while still maintaining a personal preference for style. I make the statement to encourage people in their own personal preferences, while also encouraging them to broaden their experience. It's no different than preferences for food, fashion, film, what have you. Besides, stylistic preferences for wine or anything else are often situation-dependent - there are different occasions for different wines. The way I most typically state it is "If it is working for you, roll with it." And that's no lie.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  February 8, 2012 9:39pm ET
I would prefer to say "If you like it, good for you".
As to to the rest I quite agree with you, Matt.
John Case
Seattle —  February 9, 2012 4:22am ET
Lots of interesting thoughts here Matt, but don't you think it's a bit inconsistent to on the one hand say people should learn the obscure differences in Barolo styles and at the same time say to people "you'd be hard-pressed to tell apart" all these Bordeaux?

Honestly, #1 sounds like advice to some wine aficianados and not to the average wine drinker, who doesn't have time, energy, or money to sufficiently dive into some of the things you are saying. Are we trying to protect some ideal of "good" too much?

If a drinker finds something they like at a price they like, it is "good" to them and they should celebrate that and keep drinking it. Why should they care if the wine industry says they are wrong?
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  February 10, 2012 2:24pm ET
Matt – Great post. I want to touch on your comments about Vintages. I agree for the most part, but I believe a good test would be for you and a few others to do a blind tasting of Napa Valley Cabernets from the 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 vintages, and Left Bank Bordeaux vintages from 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2000 and report on your findings. Let us know which wines taste good right now. You can pick the wines, but off the top of my head it would be interesting to see what you think of the BV GDL and Gruaud Larose or Lascombes from these vintages.

My point is that I think when talking about wines from Bordeaux the vintage score is important to look at in order to figure out when to drink the wines. Drinking a 2000 Bordeaux right now is foolish. As for Napa Valley Cabernets, they tend to no longer make them in a manner in which they will age gracefully so it is best to drink them within the first 12 years. Sure there are exceptions, but those are few and far between.

I have to say that right now (keep in mind I don’t have a sophisticated palate) the 1998, 1999 and 2000 BV GDL tastes better than the 97. In regards to Bordeaux wines, I have had more good bottles from the 1997 vintage than I can count.

In your blog post you talk about the 2010 and 2011 vintages from California, and that is why I referenced the 1998 and 2000 vintages above. The 1998 and 2000 vintages in California were initially trashed as well, and I have had a lot of really good wines from those vintages.

When can we do a taste test?

Josh Moser
Founder VinoServant
Breaking Down Restaurant Wine Lists | The Right Bottle at the Right Price
Christopher Riley
Phoenix, AZ —  February 10, 2012 6:58pm ET
You're obviosly correct regarding vintage and price. Those are facts.

However, I say if you like it is good. Your differing opinion here is the exact elitist attitude which makes wine intimdating for new consumers. Our pallets all began somewhere and have evolved over time. I think the more wine you taste the better your understanding is of what you like. Thus, the more samples your exposed to, the finer tuned your preferences become. To say that because you like it it's not necessarily good is extremely close minded. Afterall our tastes are subjective and our pallets are as different as our fingerprints, this is science. In closing, I would ask you to take your nose off of the ceiling for a moment and try to be a little more inclusive. By telling somebody their opinion isn't correct just doesnt make sense. I would urge you to look up the word opinion in any dictionary. I like Porterhouse and my wife prefers filet, which one of us do you think is wrong?
Michael Beall
New York —  February 12, 2012 9:58am ET
Wow! There is probably no need to get into a discussion of semantics here, although, I still do believe words should have commonly understood meanings. (i.e. The 402 "friends" my wife has on Facebook are probably not good "friends.")

The "truth" about good wines, good vintages, and the relationship of price to quality probably should not be "lied" about. It is generally agreed that lying is bad. So, it is a good thing we have experts capable of discerning and relating to us the truth. And, if they occassonally get one wrong, I prefer to assume positive intent and a mistake rather than deception.

I have my eye on what looks to be a nice bottle of wine at a New York retailer. It is the 2005 Petrus (Imperial)for $65,000. I am no expert, but I bet this is a "good" bottle of wine. I hope I like it.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 22, 2012 2:51am ET
Wine is most certainly too elitist, and your first argument sounds as if directly from the mouth of a bitter traditionalist who can't bear to see the popularization of the modern style(s). You're one millimeter away from having said "No one appreciates great wine any more." Sure they do, they buy it. No one needs any justfication to call a wine "good"; in case you've forgotten, it is the binary way that most average folk show their appreciation for something they like. And yes, on some level, therefore, it is good. It is they who keep the wine industry afloat, so why not leave 'em alone and let 'em enjoy what they bought? Better yet, how about wine criticism aimed at helping the person who's realizing that there's more to life than Yellowtail, but has a hard time finding "the next level"?

I have to say, this quote is the most inane thing I've ever read: "This is great wine (sic) but I can't stand it." The poor, misguided soul who utters that sentence speaks absolutely the biggest lie of all!!! Wine must be enjoyable, or it's no longer wine, but a science experiment! It's certainly not "great". How warped this business of wine critique has become! Learning and learning, memorizing flavor profiles, appellations & house histories, pursuing wines of the most storied and noblest provenances, only to actually taste them with a sour face and forced respect. Yes, sir, may I have another? Ridiculous!

Lastly, I think rants like Dennis Miller's & Lewis Black's can be fun to read because they incorporate a sense of humor. You should try that.

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