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A Rebuttal: Drink what you like. And celebrate wine's diversity.

It's rare enough that the mass media writes about wine that I was pleased to see an opinion piece on wine in this Sunday's New York Times, called "Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine".  In the piece, author Bianca Bosker begins with a visit to Treasury Wine Estates. One of the world's largest wine companies, Treasury is best known for owning flagship brands like Penfold's, Stag's Leap, Lindeman's, Beringer, and Chateau St. Jean, but those are just a few of the wines they make. Between all their brands, according to their Web site, they sold over 30 million cases of wine in 2015. Ms. Bosker is impressed enough by their wine creation process (which she describes as "created from the consumer backwards") that it encourages her to rethink the place of wines that are, like those she saw, more engineered in a lab than grown in a vineyard.  If you haven't read it, go do it now. OK, welcome back.  

Stock photo - wines in lab
Copyright: freeprod / 123RF Stock Photo

I don't at all disagree with the idea that people should drink what tastes good to them. I think it's great that the wines that are being made for the masses are better than they were a generation ago. I do hear, again and again, that the chance of finding a truly flawed wine is the lowest it has ever been. That's all good. It's a noble goal to make people feel better about drinking the wines they like, and to dispel the intimidation factor from wine. But while this is just an excerpt from what will surely be a more nuanced book, I fear that her central conclusion is wrong, and wrong in a way that will discourage, rather than encourage, the creation of a new generation of wine lovers. 

Let's address the cringe-inducing op-ed title first. I hate that wine knowledge is -- so often -- conflated with snobbery by the general media. The sommeliers I know are eager to share that knowledge, genuinely enthusiastic about wine, accepting that people have different tastes, and explicit that their goal should be to unite their customers with wines they'll love. That said, from my experience with publishers, I'm guessing it was the Times's editors who chose that title and not the author, so I'll leave that there. The second half of the title ("Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine") seems like something that no one should object to.

And yet... the challenge is, of course, who gets to define delicious, and what that means for the wines that result. I love finding great wines that are steals for their quality, often from overlooked grapes or lesser known regions.1 The process of experimentation and discovery with these sorts of wines tends to lead people to understanding: these less heralded wines are often quite different from one another, and people may well learn that they love the freshness of Gamay but hate the herbal character of Cabernet Franc. Or vice versa. So, as consumers experiment, the diversity of what they taste also helps them better define what they like.

But rather than use modern techniques to create homages to the best simple village wines that a novice drinker might have enjoyed a generation ago, it seems from the author's descriptions that what she found were caricatures of expensive wines. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The production techniques that many elite wineries use for their highest-end wines are expensive: think very low production, to produce intensity; late harvests, to produce luscious flavors; aggressive sorting, to ensure that only the highest quality grapes begin fermentation; and new oak barrels, to provide sweet spices. These together result in wines that tend toward being rich and dense, with sweet fruit, low acid, and soft tannins. That's clearly a flavor profile with its adherents, even if it's not particularly mine.

It doesn't seem like it particularly is the author's taste, either. She describes the wines as "rich, syrupy and heavy", which sounds like a nice thing to pour over your pancakes, but maybe not to accompany your rib eye. Or maybe it does, to you. But even if so, all this reliability comes at a cost.

The rub is that, in a crowded marketplace, these focus-group-engineered wines necessarily displace wines of more interest and more diversity. The process by which focus-group wines are made means that they taste much the same, whatever their varietal makeup or their appellation of origin. Maybe this is OK, if these sorts of wines act as a gateway, getting people on a path that leads (eventually) to wines of more character and diversity. The author (and the Treasury spokesperson she interviews) asserts that. But I'm not sure. While any one of these wines may have a greater chance of appealing to any individual consumer, it seems to me that their sameness -- and the fact that these wines are the (often overwhelming) majority of what's on the shelves in supermarkets -- limits their ability, as a group, to connect with a range of potential wine lovers with different tastes.2

Wine can be a challenging thing. Many consumers who love wine are still intimidated by the arcane (and often foreign) names of places and grapes, the mysteries of fermentation and aging, and the often high prices that come alongside some famous names. But what is the solution to this? Is it to celebrate the elimination of wine's complexities, where wine all follows a specific taste formula designed to please the maximum number of novice drinkers? That seems a shame. Think of food. Is there a place for a Big Mac in American dining? Sure. But does it matter that food can be more than that, or that there are social implications of settling for what's mass-produced for focus groups? Also yes.

And should people aspire to drink better than "root beer with a splash of Hershey’s syrup and vodka," as the author described the wines she tasted in the lab? I don't think that's too much to ask, and I reject the idea that a sommelier (or winemaker) who is trying to lead people along a path to something more meaningful (even if it's more challenging) is somehow doing their customers a disservice.

Footnotes:

  1. So does every wine writer I read, from Robert Parker to Eric Asimov, who like very different sorts of wines. We try to make wines that fit into this basic criteria with our Patelin de Tablas line.
  2. It also seems to me a shame that you also lose what makes wine unique among beverages: that it is a window into the grape(s) that it came from, the place in which it's grown, and the people who made it. But maybe that's just me being romantic.

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