Tag Archives: wine criticism

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What’s wrong with California expensive wine?

California expensive wineNothing, actually. But what happens when one of the world’s top wine writers picks only a handful of California labels as her best expensive wines in the world for 2015? If you’re a California expensive wine devotee, it’s time to panic, and many did on Twitter and elsewhere. If you have a little more perspective, Elin McCoy’s choices speak to how much great wine is made in the world, and how even those who buy pricey wine sometimes don’t understand the need to try something different.

McCoy’s list of the 50 best wines for $50 or less in 2015 had just seven wines from California. Excluding the six Champagnes on the list, that meant 7 of 44 — just 16 percent of the best expensive wine in the world — came from California. Is it any wonder so many howled so loudly? It’s one thing when I criticize California for making such ordinary, grocery-store cheap wine. But expensive wine? That’s the Napa and Sonoma reason for being, and if those regions don’t dominate lists like this, their supporters figure something must be wrong.

But as McCoy said when I asked her about it, “Those seven wines were more than from any other place but France, so I guess I don’t feel I neglected California too much.” And, she added, the list doesn’t have any wines from Chile, Argentina, and Washington state, which also make great wine.

Hence perspective, something too many American wine drinkers lack. Because it’s not enough to have 17 percent — it must be 50 or 60 percent or even more. Because, dammit, expensive California wine is the best wine in the world. Everyone knows that. And if you don’t, you don’t know anything about wine (and no, I’m not going to link to the blog posts that say that — no need to start the new year with a flame war).

Which is that lack of perspective. I’ve written many times that California makes the best wine in the world, cheap or expensive, but only when it wants to. The rest of the time, it’s content to make wine other people think it should make, be it a focus group or the Winestream Media. And if anyone complains, we get the speech in the previous paragraph.

Or, as one noted wine competition judge told me when we discussed this, “California wines have gotten boring, for the most part. Same ole, same ole, year in, year out. … I can appreciate the box they have built for themselves. Why mess with success? But no one wants to discuss it because we are all so close to those people and that industry, but the reason I love Old World wines so much is that they are interesting, with unexpected, often delightful, surprises. And every year, they are different.”

And difference brings perspective.

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Is wine the last bastion of the snob?

wine snob

“Trust me. I’m not dead.”

Periodically, one of my colleagues will lament that the U.S. isn’t more of a wine drinking country, and wonder what can be done to change that. I mention this not because I have the answer — I’m usually shouted down when I offer one — but because it ties into two recent items. First, the annual list of “Blue Chip” wine brands chosen by the company that publishes the Wine Spectator and that ranks wine by sales growth and profit margin. Second, an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, bemoaning what he calls the death of the film snob and how the movies are poorer for it.

Scott argues that the Internet and post-modern democracy have transformed film criticism, and that “the world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody ?s taste can be better than anyone else ?s.” Who needs critics when we can decide what to watch based on the wisdom of the crowd, and even feel more confident about our choice?

Which, of course, is not how we do things in wine. Scott writes that: ” ‘Snob’ is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership,” so I must assume he has never read wine criticism or discussed wine with the too many people who are too proudly snotty about what they drink. What else is brose but an attempt to turn $10 pink wine that anyone can drink — that anyone should drink — into something that only the most entitled among us can appreciate?

I’m not sure, after writing about cheap wine all these years, that the laments about the U.S. and wine aren’t about wine as much as they’re about the wine that the wine snobs think we should drink. After all, we’ve made tremendous strides as a wine drinking country, with per capita consumption higher than it has been since the 1970s and wine sales up even through the recession. But is that progress enough? Or do we have to progress as a wine drinking nation in the direction the snobs think best?

What if American wine drinking rates were the same as France’s, where the typical adult drinks a bottle a week, four times what we drink here? Because, to get to that point, more of us would have buy the wines on the Blue Chip list, like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, and Cavit. Would that make the wine snob happy? I doubt it. They’d argue that it wouldn’t be enough that most of us were drinking wine with dinner, but that we weren’t drinking the right wine.

The irony, of course, is that all those everyday wine drinkers in France, as well as Spain and Italy, are drinking the local equivalent of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, and Cavit — or something even cheaper or more poorly made or both. The next time you’re in a European grocery store, check out the amazing numbers of wine brands that cost just a couple of euros. Hard to believe if you’re raised on wine in the U.S., where no one is supposed to drink that stuff.

The other irony? That there is a difference between snobbishness and criticism, and I’m surprised Scott didn’t make that point more strongly. A snob rejects anything he or she confiders inferior, even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. The best critics, and Scott is certainly one, detail the whys and wherefores, allowing us to make up our own minds. Good or bad isn’t even the point, which is why wine scores are so useless and why something as stupid as “Animal House” can be so much fun to watch. Rather, did that wine or that film or that restaurant do what it set out to do, and did it do so honestly and with respect for both the form and the consumer?

Otherwise, we might as well buy what the Wine Spectator tells us to buy, make fun of people who don’t drink “good” wine, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else.

“Preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers”

The joke in the wine blogging business is that the easiest and best way to goose your numbers is to write about wine blogging. And it works, actually, which says something about wine blogging that many of us probably don ?t want to know.

That ?s mainly why I stopped writing about wine writing. The people I want to come to the blog don ?t care. They want to know about cheap wine, and anything else is a reason not to come back. If you ?re any good, you write for your audience ? not to please yourself.

That ?s why I was so intrigued by Richard Thomas ? piece in the July issue of North Bay Biz, and not just because he said very nice things about me. That Thomas, an icon of Sonoma Country agriculture and wine, wrote the following means something:

I ?m not sure how many of you read the multitude of wine blogs, Twitter feeds and so forth regarding wine. Some make a few good points, but in general, it sounds like they ?re preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers.

In other words, sloppy and boring criticism. That ?s because too many of us reinforce the conventional wisdom, and we don ?t ask the most important question a critic should ask: Why? Why is the business this way? Why does this wine taste this way? Why does this wine cost this much, and this wine this much? Why does this matter to our readers?

This style of criticism exists almost nowhere else, not in film and literature,  certainly, and not even in cars or electronics. Can you imagine a wine-style review in The New York Times Book Review: ?87. Offers a hint of savory adjectives balanced by unctuous characters and a zesty finish. ?

The Italian Wine Guy (who wrote knowingly about this in May) wonders if we are becoming as irrelevant as Pilates. The Hosemaster of Wine, never one to mince words, went even further last fall: ?What amazes me is how wonderful and entertaining and fascinating wine itself is, whereas wine writing is, with few exceptions, dreary, pedantic, insipid and repetitive. ?

The best critics are conduits, placing their subject in perspective and facilitating discussion, understanding that they are not the final arbiter but one voice among many. In this, they should be an intelligent, well-versed, and thoughtful voice that their readers can trust. The point is not whether someone reading the blog disagrees with me; the point is whether I have helped them understand enough about so that they are able to disagree with me.

Winebits 189: Wine and bikes, millennials and wine, wine criticism

? Safe and secure: Because there is no way I can describe this in words:

? Wine with friends: Yes, millennials are unique because some of them like to drink wine with friends. This is the one of the findings in a study from California researchers looking at how millennial wine consumption is different from the rest of us. And, as the author, noted, it really isn’t (though she desperately tries to find some difference). The age group born after 1982 or so drinks the most wine at special occasions and eating at a formal restaurant. The study will no doubt make my pal Tom Johnson at Louisville Juice fire off yet another of his eye-rolling millennial missives. And I’d have to agree with him.

? What do critics want? To like the wine they drink, of course. This is quite well expressed by the Israeli writer Daniel Rogov, who is known as that country’s Wine Curmudgeon (something we have had a giggle about). “A great many may not realize it,” he writes, “but writing a negative review pains the critic. The simple truth is that that bad or mediocre wines have a deep emotional impact for the critic, who lives for the day when he can be entirely positive.” This, I think, is the difference between honest criticism and what passes for criticism these days, and especially on the Internet. The goal is to write truly (to paraphrase Hemingway). Too, many, though, prefer snarky, since they think it makes them look clever.

Expensive wine, better wine and wine writing

Buried at the bottom of post on a Wired science blog, which recaps research on the expensive wine/better wine issue, is this:

If the only story we can tell about wine is its price, then our pleasure will always be linked to cost, even though this link doesn ?t exist in most taste tests. A much better (and more cost-effective) idea is to find some other narrative, to focus on aspects of wine that don ?t require a big expense account. Knowledge is free.

Which is a damning indictment of wine criticism — and by science writer and Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer, no less. He writes that it's accepted scientific fact, based on robust research, that expensive wine isn't better wine just because it costs more.

Then Lehrer asks the question that no one in the wine business wants to ask, let alone answer: If there is no correlation between wine price and quality, why does wine writing insist there is? Why doesn't wine criticism deal with what Lehrer calls the subjectivity of taste: "We ?ve somehow turned the most romantic of drinks into a commodity worthy of Consumer Reports."

Regular visitors here know how the Wine Curmudgeon feels about that. What's interesting about Lehrer's post is the perspective he brings, which is to understand that there is more than "wine" going on when we drink wine, and he touches on neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. What happens, he writes, is that "if we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap."

All of which, of course, is something that those of us who write about wine rarely take into account. Even I'm guilty of this sometimes. Championing cheap wine just because it's cheap is its own form of snobbery, and just as insidious as any other form of snobbery. What's better, says Lehrer (and what I hope I do more often than not), is criticism based on education. "We should realize that we can make our wines much more delicious, if only we take the time to learn about them," he writes.

Which seems so obvious, and yet is so rarely done.

High alcohol: The controversy continues

What kind of a stir would a food magazine cause if it said it was going to list the ingredients in its recipes? None at all.

But the wine business is not the food business. Only in wine would a controversy ensue when the San Francisco Chronicle and Decanter magazine, two of the leading members of the Winestream Media, announced each would start listing alcohol levels for the wines it reviewed. Said the Chronicle's Jon Bonne: ".. [W]e resisted printing them regularly because the act of bringing alcohol into the discussion of a wine is inherently political."

Which says a lot about how screwed up the wine business is. Bonne is right — unfortunately, reporting alcohol levels in an alcoholic beverage has become political, because much of the wine establishment has made high alcohol its cause. Winemakers have pushed alcohol levels to 15, 16 and even 17 percent, even in white wine, and have been rewarded with glowing reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. Those of us who object, like the Wine Curmudgeon, are called philistines and told we don't understand the issue.

Most wine drinkers want to know alcohol levels. As one commenter noted in the Chronicle story, "If I wanted to get sh*tfaced, I could do it for a lot less than $50 a bottle." But that's of little concern to the people who make and write about these wines. They know best, and they're going to tell us what to think. More, after the jump.

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CellarTracker and the rise of social media

CellarTrackerWhen Eric LeVine came up with the idea for CellarTracker, the on-line wine inventory system, he thought it would appeal to wine geeks like himself and to people who needed to manage sizeable wine cellars. He never envisioned that he would be helping to make a revolution in the wine business

Because that’s what CellarTracker has done. The number of people who visit the site far outnumbers the number of people who use the site to track their wine collections. CellarTracker has about 40,000 registered users, but 90 percent of the site’s visitors are not registered — and it gets a couple of hundred thousand unique visitors a month. Which means people aren’t going to CellarTracker to mark off a wine after they drink it; they’re going to CellarTracker to read wine reviews written by amateurs.

Which is mind boggling, given the way the wine world works. Wine knowledge is handed from the top down, and we’re supposed to drink what our betters — Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator, and the like — tell us to drink. But that’s not what’s happening with CellarTracker. We’re looking for advice from people just like us.

“These are real people, spending real money for a real bottle of wine,” LeVine says. “There’s a much broader audience out there than I thought, and that was my first really big surprise.”

More, after the jump:
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