. Vite Vinifera De Vino's Blog: And We Are Back

Friday, March 26, 2010

And We Are Back

After a long silence, I have decided to come back to my blog. I'm not sure yet how often I will post, but for those of you that are interested I will write more regularly.

There were many reasons behind my silence; one in particular was the sore state of the wine industry. It somehow made me lose hope, and thereby the will to write. The past year was difficult for many reasons... 2009 was the year of scandals, fights, accusations and a lots of turmoil in our world. There were many voices focusing on wines that were considered "great deals," and the fight for quality was definitely lost against the economic meltdown. On top of that, we had the Brunello scandal, which was not much of a scandal in my eyes. All of a sudden, purveyors became concerned that some of the wines bearing the name "Brunello di Montalcino" contained grapes other than Sangiovese (the DOCG law prohibits this). The notion that many Brunellos are composed this way was, to me, a well known fact, and it made me laugh to see the major Montalcino players in the "defendant" role. Even the "Consorzio" hierarchy, the ones who presumably preserve the Brunello quality, were accused of wrongdoing. The same sore of scandal occurred in Chianti and in the North of Italy where few wineries decided to bottle of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco that were tainted with muriatic acid (the same chemical as hydrochloric acid - yum!), and similar problems plagued some of the highly prized Bordeaux wines. It was fun to see the excuses behind the scandals; most of Montalcino blamed American wine critics. Evidently, in order to please the "American" palate, the winemakers had to put unauthorized grapes into their Brunello... so they were forced to break the law to sell their products. How absurd - especially if one thinks that critics are there to protect quality, when they often, in fact, force producers to lower it.

Where is the truth? As always, I see it to be in the middle. Italians love shortcuts, the so-called "easy way." So, instead of trying to let the critics understand and explain what "Good Brunello" should be, they figured it would be easier (and cheaper!) to just tailor the wines to the critics' taste. Great job! Congratulations!!! The real misfortune is that, in spite of all the scandal, not much has changed. Critics still think that wine can be categorized with points and wineries still try to get higher scores in every way possible, even with clandestine methods, to sell more.

Things aren't much different than they were a year ago... but I think it's time to express myself again. I will try, starting now, to approach the subject from a different angle. I will try to let go of the "Which Is The Best Wine?" philosophy, and focus more on When And Why Is A Wine Good?" Hopefully, this will leave my readers with options, rather than a hard and fast suggestion based on some circumstantial idea of expertise. I don't believe in the best wine, but in the right wine at the right time. So, instead of prizing a theoretical "best," I will give you options that you can use at your own "right time."

Tasting many wines for work and drinking as many for pleasure, I often wonder why the point system is so successful. I mean, really. Does anyone really believe that the millions of differences that exist in as many wines can be explained and categorized with a 100-point chart? I've had wines that, on a given night, were perfect. Then, on another arbitrary night, the same wine was not as exceptional. That could have happened for several reasons: maybe my state of mind was different. I might have been upset, tired, taking medication or eating something different that didn't pair as well. Most likely, the weather conditions were also different; warmer, colder, drier or wetter. All of those factors change the perception of what a person is tasting.

That said, it might be more useful if the point-based wine reviews also disclosed the conditions in which the wine was tasted. That way, enthusiasts will know that a particular wine was a 99-pointer when it was tasted after great news, or the taster was very happy, or had great sex the night before, or... whatever. Then, perhaps the same wine was an 85-pointer after the taster was audited by the IRS, or had a fight with his wife and slept on the couch, or was taking aspirin for a migraine. Obviously, I'm exaggerating the situation to give you a better idea, but if you consider the difference a 90 or a 95 score makes for sales, it's clear how important it can be to know the state of mind and the environmental settings when the wine is tasted. It is true that a professional taster is able to adjust and take in consideration things like palate fatigue or other interfering factors... but trust me, it is very difficult to be that objective, even for a professional.

Scoring wines in a more realistic sense, however, is essentially pointless. Why? Because we all have different palates. I, for instance, like more challenging and austere wines. It's rare for me to like - or even see the value in - many 95+ Parker point wines... not because I have a better or worst palate than he does, but because I have a DIFFERENT palate. With Robert Parker, you deal with a well-defined style; many wineries around the world have been "Parkerized," meaning that they produce bigger, more concentrated, fruit-forward wines, because that's what Parker likes. So, when you buy a wine with a 95+ Parker score, you know that is going to be a big juicy wine. Easy. With a lot of wine publication, however, it's not that simple. You don't deal with just one palate or style, so the scores are all over the map, which makes deciding on a wine even harder for the final consumer. The scores just confuse the situation. And that's not even considering the fact that these publications also need to generate revenue of their own, leaving any active consumer with lingering suspicions regarding the origin of a wine's score. It is a vicious circle that can lead to uniform wines - if all producers start to make their wines for the critics, we will lose diversity for the sake of just a few palates. This is already happening in many places, like Chile and Spain... and the noble region of Montalcino.

So let's find a new way to talk about wines together. Let's look at these beautiful juices with a perspective that is less mathematical and more empirical. Let's focus more on the right fit than on an abstract search for a non-existent "best." Wine is a complex matter, and I think that trying to simplify it is not the best we can do to transfer our passion to fellow enthusiasts. I think that the best thing we can do as wine professionals is to teach the people how to think with their own heads (and palates) instead of relying on someone else's numerical accounts. Let's get to it.
... Buona Bevuta a Tutti


Mark Scudiery said...

Glad to see you are back. This is a great post and right on the money. Talking about and purchasing wines based on numbers really prevents one from developing their own palate and seeking out and enjoying wines they really like. I too prefer the more austere wines. These wines, for my palate, exhibit a purity of fruit and place that is missing from many of the highly rated, new world style of wines that many critics seem to love.


Federico said...

Bentornato Gabrio,

continua a scrivere, che ti seguiamo...



De Vino said...

Thanks Marc and Fede. Soon the next one.