Tag Archives: George Taber

Winebits 274: Tasting rooms, grape harvest, George Taber

? How tasting rooms work: Ever wonder why wineries have tasting rooms? Or if they make a lot of money? Or why a wine in the tasting room is often more expensive than in a store? Rob McMillan at the SVB blog goes a long way towards answering those questions, and asks one of his own: Do too many wineries use the tasting room to make money at the expense of the tasting room ?s ability to market the winery? This is the sort of analysis the wine business needs more of, and something that consumers need to know, too. It ?s one more advantage to know how the business works when it comes to buying wine.

? Breaking records: Remember that California grape shortage? Long gone, and probably not to be seen for a while. The official numbers are in, and the 2012 harvest set records. The crush totaled 4.4 million tons, up 13 percent from 2011 and 1 percent more than the previous high in 2005. Also significant: Red grapes accounted for more than half of that total, part of what may be a long-term trend toward red wine among consumers. Prices were also up quite a bit, in the double digits for many varieties, as producers were making up losses from the less bountiful 2010 and 2011 harvests.

? He was there: I ?ve never asked George Taber about the 1976 Judgment of Paris, probably the most important moment in the history of modern California wine. George, who worked for Time, was the only journalist present, and saw California wines best French wines in a blind tasting. You ?d think, as nosy as I am, I would have annoyed him about it over and over. Now I don ?t have to, thanks to this interview, which covers the event thoroughly: ?The story about the Paris tasting in Time magazine was only four paragraphs long. It was a secondary story in the Modern Living section, the filler. Nobody in the world except me will remember what was the first and more important story: It was about a new theme park in Atlanta ?. ?

The Judgment of Paris on canvas

judgement of parisOr, did George Taber really dress like that? Actually, I kind of like his Huggy Bear look (the original, and not the remake). Not enough men wearing hats anymore.

The painting, done in the style of Da Vinci ?s “Last Supper,” was commissioned by Peter Michael of the self-named Napa cult winery. Decanter, which published the painting, reports that the work depicts the moment when everyone at the tasting discovered that the California wines had ranked higher than the French ? ?a circumstance unthinkable in the mid-1970s. ? There ?s that British talent for understatement, no?

That ?s Taber, the only journalist at the 1976 event, at the far right. I asked him what he thought of the likeness, and he said it was closer to reality than his character had been in ?Bottle Shock, ? the movie made about the Judgment. There, apparently, he looked liked a chubby Columbo (played by Louis Giambalvo). Which, of course, George does not look like.

Want a bigger, easier to see version of the painting? Click on the picture, and then click on the painting at the Decanter page.

The backlash against cheap wine

cheap wine backlashThese should be the best days for cheap wine. The recession has focused the wine industry on wine that costs less than $10, and producers around the globe have been racing to put out as much inexpensive wine as possible. When a sparkling wine house like J does a $15 pinot gris, the world has definitely changed.

But a lot of people are not happy about this. The industry, despite its embrace of cheap wine, doesn’t really seem to have much affection for it. They’ll take the cash, much as they have always done with white zinfandel, but they really don’t want to be associated with it. Follow the business, and you’ll see news reports and interviews over and over about what really matters to them: When are consumers going to start buying wine that costs more than $15 again?

The wine media, even in the cyber-ether, has not been happy with the emphasis on cheap wine, either. Over the last several weeks, there have been a variety of posts and discussions about cheap wine’s popularity and that it’s not necessarily a good thing. The gist? That those of us who advocate cheap wine are missing the point, and that we care only about price and not about quality. Which is not necessarily the case.

The apparent catalysts for the cyber-bickering were the publication of George Taber’s new book, “Bargain Wines” and Brian Palmer’s rant on Slate that most wine was overpriced. Taber argues that cheap wine is better than ever, while Palmer takes that approach one step further: “There are plenty of reasons to go back to our 1990s habits, and to start using 15 bucks to buy four or five bottles instead of just one.”

The controversy, which included the eminent Jon Bonne in the San Francisco Chronicle, was nicely summed up by Evan Dawson at New York Cork Report, who noted that consumer perceptions of cheap wine are not necessarily the same as those of people who drink wine for a living. Which is exactly the point that almost everyone else missed.

The United States is not a wine drinking country. We are a soft drink country, and most of us don’t know anything about wine. What most of us do know is that wine is confusing and expensive and reserved for really special people who can talk funny about it. And anyone who loves wine who denies this is kidding themselves. I got a release the other day from a new wine club that said it would demystify and de-snobify wine — and then used the same foolish winespeak to describe how wonderful its wines were.

Given this, is it any wonder that most Americans buy wine strictly by price? Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer and top-flight cookbook author, put this into perspective for me during an interview several years ago. Most people, he said, look at wine as an alcohol intake system. They drink wine because it makes them feel good. They really don’t care about the wine stuff. I see this every time I do a public event, and ask the audience if a $100 wine is 10 times better than a $10 wine. The audience, almost every time, offers a unanimous no. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong; it’s their perception that counts.

Which is the real problem, and one that the wine business — and those of us who write about wine — don’t address. We don’t do enough to make wine accessible. We don’t do enough to educate consumers. We want to be famous, and this goes for wine writers as well as winemakers. The dirty little secret of my business is that too many of us want to be Robert Parker, and that’s not going to happen by writing about Yellow Tail or Barefoot or by teaching consumers how to tell the difference between a $6 wine and a $10 wine.

My pal Dave McIntyre got to the heart of the matter with his post on the subject: People should not advocate for cheap wine, but for cheap wine that delivers value and quality. And an East Coast blogger, Pia Mara Finkell, wrote that the next great wine trend will not be about cheap, but about value, what she called finding diamonds in the rough.

Which, of course, is what I have always done here. That’s why the $10 Hall of Fame exists. That’s why I write 52 wines of the week every year, highlighting just those kinds of wine. The debate should not be about cheap wine, but about quality. Are there well-made cheap wines? Of course, just as there are well-made expensive wines. And are there poorly-made cheap wines? Indeed, just as there are poorly-made expensive wines. It’s no crime to make consumers aware of that.

In fact, our job should be to educate consumers about what constitutes quality, and how to tell the difference. And every time we give a point score and use words like licorice and toast, we’re doing just the opposite — and consumers reach for the wine that delivers the most alcohol for the buck.

Sadly, though, that may be a distinction that too many in the wine world don’t — or don’t want to — understand.

Judgment of Paris author: Cheap wine matters

George Taber chronicled the most important wine event in modern times, when California wines beat French wines in a blind tasting. Now he has turned his authorial sights on cheap wine — and he likes it.

"For years friends and passing strangers have been asking me to recommend 'a good bottle of wine for under $10 (sometimes $5),' " says Taber. "I could usually come up with something, but that experience got me to thinking that there must be a lot of people out there with that same question."

The result is his forthcoming book: "A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks". It won't be out until November, but I thought it worth mentioning for a couple of reasons — not the least of which is that you can pre-order it. More, after the jump.

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