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Drinking Out Loud

Wine Delusions That Live Forever

Some things simply never change in wine

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 17, 2013

At McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Victoria Talwar, a specialist in how lying develops in children, performed an experiment by telling young children two stories.

One was the classic tale of The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf' ("One day there really was a wolf but when the boy shouted, they didn't believe him …"). The other was the fable about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie.")

The experiment revealed that, far from discouraging lying, the tale of The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf' actually encouraged kids to lie more than usual.

The wine world, for its part, is filled with various versions of "crying wolf." You would think that, as in the fable, people would stop paying attention after enough repetitions. Not a bit of it. Instead, wine producers everywhere have discovered that "crying wolf,” in one fashion or another, actually pays off. For example:

Vintage of the Century. This is my favorite and, since we're smack in the middle of the latest vintage (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) it seems a good moment to mention this remarkably frequent "wolf cry."

My first brush with a "vintage of the century" was Burgundy's 1976 vintage. My wife and I were bicycling in Europe that summer for three months, including in Burgundy, so I know just how hot it was.

Now, Burgundy had just endured a six-year series of vintages that ranged from pleasant to indifferent to flat-out poor. The last truly great year had been 1969. So it was understandable that when the blast-furnace heat of the 1976 vintage appeared, far from cringing, they were celebrating. It was heralded as a "vintage of the century."

Upon closer investigation, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Too many wines were excessively tannic, with stewed-tasting fruit and flabby acidity.

Since then, we've regularly been informed, always with a boy-who-cried-wolf breathlessness, of yet another vintage of the century. Indeed, the more prices ratchet up, the more often this has been invoked.

Vintages of the century now appear with a frequency that Halley's comet can only envy. The descriptor is invoked at every plausible opportunity where wines command high prices: Napa Valley, Piedmont, Brunello di Montalcino, Burgundy and, the indisputable serial abuser, Bordeaux.

We all know why, of course: Because it works. Really, you just can't cry wolf too many times. Ask any 5-year-old.

What Critics Think Really Matters. A news flash appeared last month from Australia's Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC), which is an Australian government agency.

It seems that there's a lot of anxiety Down Under about Chardonnay. Wine producers everywhere are a thin-skinned lot, and Aussie winegrowers, for all of their laconic, quipping flippancy, are no different in this department.

Australian wine critics, you see, have been dissing Chardonnay. "So what," you say? "American wine critics have been doing the same thing seemingly since the Civil War, and sales are bigger than ever. Get a grip, mates."

Well, like I said, they're sensitive Down Under. So this government agency commissions a bunch of researchers to establish just how pernicious this Chardonnay disrespect is to Australia's wine economy.

In the turgid prose typical of these kinds of reports, the researchers declare: "Through a multi-disciplinary approach using qualitative and quantitative methodologies, we were able to determine that there is currently a negative perception conveyed in the media, and that some consumers ‘parrot’ that negativism when in social settings as a way of demonstrating their knowledge of Chardonnay."

Oh, those media types. They are not with the program. People are sheep. Everybody knows that.

The researchers go on to write that "The Australian media seems to have accepted that consumers have a negative perception of Chardonnay and this colours reports on the topic."

"In an environment where consistent negative messages are associated with Chardonnay, consumers will report those views back when asked, at least in a group setting. Some pockets of the Australian wine industry have accepted the negative Chardonnay messages and even been involved in perpetuating them."

Then comes the interesting part: The researchers discovered that Australians are only negative about Chardonnay when they're asked about Chardonnay when in a group. Individually, privately, they actually love the stuff.

The bottom line? "The main conclusion of this work is that there is NOT [their emphasis] a negative perception of Australian Chardonnay domestically."

In other words, everything actually is hunky-dory with Australian wine drinkers and Chardonnay. It's selling just fine, thank you. And despite what those pesky critics keep saying, Australian wine drinkers are happy slurping down Chardonnay, and have no intention of stopping any time soon.

What this tells us is simple: Except in the case of a relative handful of ultrahigh-priced wines, where critics' opinions do matter—indeed, there's no way that most of them can get such prices without critics' wind in their sails (or sales)—what wine pundits think of a wine is of utterly no interest to, nor has any effect upon, the average wine buyer. The truth is that the great majority of wines everywhere in the world sell because of price, the power of distribution and, very often, local pride or boosterism.

So what about the vaunted power of critics? For wine producers, really it's mostly just the “Does this dress make me look fat?” syndrome.

As a school teacher of mine used to say (citing Ecclesiastes 1:2), "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas"—"vanity of vanities, all is vanity." It's no different in the wine world, you can be sure.

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  September 17, 2013 10:01pm ET
Nice piece but you have barely scratched the surface of wine delusions. I suggest you write a Part II and perhaps even a Part III. Pricing, ageing and blind tasting are just three topics that come to mind.....
George Gonzalez
San juan usa —  September 17, 2013 10:05pm ET
Matt 2014 is the vintage of the centary, I got it from a very very reliable source. Nice read thanks..
Steve Gerard
Colorado USA —  September 19, 2013 7:15am ET
Right on the mark. We've already had 4 "Vintages of the Century" in Bordeaux, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, with 86 years to go!
Gary Cohn
California —  September 19, 2013 6:23pm ET
I could not agree with you more about the vintage of the century, especially in Bordeaux. But what is really interesting about the two delusions that you mentioned is that the wine critics are often supporting the vintners who are screaming "vintage of the Century". Bordeaux is the poster child for this. Now I agree that 2009 and 2010 are great vintages, but are they really better than 2005 and 2000? If no, then none of these years are "century" vintages, instead just a string of very good years. Without the critics echoing the people in Bordeaux we would not have had four "vintages of the century" in a decade. So as to your second point; do the critics matter? In the case of Bordeaux hype, absolutely!
Thomas Herer
Milwaukee, WI —  September 19, 2013 6:50pm ET
In the email wine offers that I regularly get, if the wine for sale has been produced in at least two consecutive vintages, it is, without fail: iconic. Henceforth, I will substitute "iconic" for "wolf!".
Thomas Herer
Milwaukee, WI —  September 19, 2013 7:01pm ET
Not quite with you Gary -- the critics do provide the vintners with support, but it's qualitative. They're trying to assess the wine objectively, not sell it. The qualitative research supports the claim the all four of these "VotC"s are damn good, and that's completely fair, because they are. But in my opinion, the wolf! cries and the hyperbole -- save for the especially exuberant critic -- are from the sell side.
Stephen Symchych
Boston —  September 25, 2013 4:39pm ET
Except that at least one wine writer has earned his reputation by being the most quotable source of words with respect to a very great vintage. Easy to see how one might want to earn his stripes by catching the next comet as it flashes by.
Jeffrey J Sattler
Phoeniz, Arizona USA —  December 17, 2013 12:12pm ET
It is up to the consumer to separate the "signal from the noise"...as Nate Silver would say.

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