Wine history lesson 2: Maynard Amerine on quality, price, and value

maynard amerineLegendary UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine told us 45 years ago that price was no guarantee of quality or value

One of the most intriguing things about U.S. wine history is how it repeats itself. Time after time, smart people warn the wine business about what will happen if it doesn’t pay attention to its customers. And, time after time, the wine business ignores the warnings – much to its detriment.

Today’s wine history lesson comes from legendary University of California-Davis professor Maynard A. Amerine, with wisdom from his 1976 book (written with UC-Davis math colleague Edward B. Roessler), “WINES: Their Sensory Evaluation.” It was perhaps the most important wine book of its time.

What made it so important? I asked Randy Caparoso, a long-time wine critic and restaurateur, who wrote about Amerine on the Lodi wine appellation blog. What struck me about his Amerine post was that the UC-Davis professor echoed the analysis of pioneering wine writers Leon Adams and Frank Schoonmaker, who earned their own blog post about a year ago.

“I think people like Amerine, Adams and Schoonmaker could clearly see the writing on the wall,” says Caparoso. “That’s because, even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they personally knew many a well-heeled wine collector or connoisseur. Same for me during my career as a wine professional, which started in ’78. These kinds of people were already driving up prices with their mania for ‘great’ wines. This was the essence of Amerine’s quote, ‘Drink wine, not labels.’ … But what was true 50, 60 years ago was bound to get even worse in the 21st century, and it has.”

In other words, Amerine – like Adams and Schoonmaker – predicted the mess we find ourselves in: Too much ordinary wine, too much overpriced wine, and a wine industry that doesn’t understand that it has lost its audience because it has focused on either ordinary or overpriced wine.

Enjoying wine –without the fuss

Hence, three of Amerine’s eight guidelines for enjoying wine:

• You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine. It’s “nonsense… The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.”

• Small wineries are not better just because they are small. “Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery.”

• Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines. “Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get. … But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection.”

Photo courtesy of the UC-Davis Library, using a Creative Commons license

5 thoughts on “Wine history lesson 2: Maynard Amerine on quality, price, and value

  • By Mike Dunne - Reply

    A few years ago I flipped through some of Maynard Amerine’s wine-label collection at Shields Library of UC Davis. He had collected more than 5,000, a disproportionate number from France rather than California. Many were pasted on pages with his very abbreviated appraisal of the wine. He graded them by letter rather than points. If he really liked a wine, it got an “A” or a “B,” and not many met that standard. And his tasting notes were models of brevity, often just “passe” if he didn’t particularly care for a wine. Here are a couple of links to his collection:

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Passe? I like. How much better would the world be with tasting notes that are models of brevity?

  • By Frederick Reno - Reply

    I want to second your comment. Most wine reviews are way too…..long. They should be tight and concise. Enough said.

  • By Monocasta - Reply

    Nice article and totally agre “Expensive wines are not necessarily better than cheap wines.”, why? Because strongly believe that low price vs quality of the wine on the bottle is proportional . Ok, we perhaps would prefer other wine, perhaps even more expensive, perhaps other single grape variety wine or blend , but the price we are paying is adjusted for the quality of the produce on the bottle. WInemakers , at least in Portugal, common have the entry level price, average price and highest price in most of the cases, when they arrive at 12 to 15 references. Example : , you will find from 7 to 15 euros a bottle . Believe that in Portugal is average position of prices, perhaps the lowest prices in USA. So , this takes on the price of wines, quality depending of the markets and the origin of the wine. All the best.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Thanks for this.. That’s been the blog’s mantra since 2007, when it started. Would that the wine business understood.

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