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Want the Real Skinny on a Wine?

I recently heard a heartwarming tale of a father who made up a thrilling story of bravery and heroism for his son every night for years, each night adding a little bit to the same premise, extending the narrative for days upon weeks upon years until eventually the boy outgrew the charm and ‘The Story’ faded from daily tradition into family lore, waiting to become legend.

Unfortunately, this post has nothing to do with a fanciful story of optimism built chapter by chapter, sounding like a Mitch Albom plot outline—unless stream of consciousness can carry an ISBN number.

No, instead, I want to juxtapose the warm fuzzies against the story of wine criticism, which operates in a bizarro alternate universe to our do-gooding Dad story.

Every day, someone, somewhere, is committing thought, energy and tap-taps on the keyboard in examining the state of wine criticism, both historically and in its current form, sometimes extending the narrative, sometimes not.  Amateurs versus professionals, blind versus non-blind, points versus non-points, all of it is open season.  What is certain in this verbal jousting on the simple act of examining a wine is that little is left to the imagination; it’s a coarse nude shot when a little cheesecake would do just fine.

Frankly, the examination of wine criticism induces somnambulistic slumber akin to reading the healthcare bill.

My recommendation as an alternative to the onanistic pursuit of wine evaluation and those that proffer opinion on viability of said criticism?  Drink and analyze wine only in the company of friends and food and read criticism only from those who analyze wine in the company of friends and food.

You want good stories as a result?  You’ll get good stories.  And, some laughs, too, absent a natural conversation starter.

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I recently joined David Honig, Publisher of Palate Press, and Louis Calli, a retail wine buyer, for a Napa tasting.

The line-up was a nice representative sample of Napa Cabernets across price points, and they were, indeed, all samples sent by the wineries.

What truly was interesting about the tasting is the running commentary that is at least as equally interesting as the wine analysis—particularly when many of the wines don’t have an evident story, more on that in a second, though.

We tasted through:

2006 Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.2 / SRP: $27

2006 V. Sattui Preston Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet ABV: 14.6% / SRP: $45

2005 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.8% / SRP: $75

2006 Wallis Family Estate “Diamond Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.6% / SRP: $85

2005 Hunter III Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $50

2006 Bennett Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $55

2006 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $59

For me, all of the wines were nice, each representing something positive, as if that’s not faint praise.  The V. Sattui was very approachable; the Hunter III was interesting and compelling with something funky going on with the nose that reminded me of bilge water, in a good way.  The Bennett Lane was a superstar.  Cornerstone is an exemplary wine, and the one that Louis deemed “worth $100,” which is ironic given that it doesn’t cost $100 anymore.  The Louis Martini was dark and complex, a hint of candied sweetness and a touch of heat marring an otherwise dandy wine.

The wines were generally fantastic.

But, more fantastic was the conversation, which stands in for legitimate criticism and evidentiary marketing from the winery that indicates any type of story or hook.

Absent a story, I learned:

• Sometime in the last 10 to 15 years MSG variants were legalized for spraying in vineyards.  Come to find out that there is/was a semi-controversial product on the market called AuxiGrow that is about 1/3 L-glutamic acid, the “G” in MSG (thanks also to Thomas Pellechia for helping me with some independent insight on this).  Perhaps, a reason that California wines have taken a turn for the savory over the same period.

• Maple and brown sugar Life cereal is a good product for Cali Cabernet palate training.

• Fruit Loops are a good product for Central Coast Viognier palate training

Wine Notes is a good iPhone wine app.

Here’s the thing about the wine tasting amongst friends and food.  All of the running commentary and analysis of the wine would be made more interesting if there was a back-story to the wine, which was otherwise absent in all of the marketing materials that accompanied the wines.

In the business bestseller “Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, they examine the reasons that some ideas “stick” in our consciousness and others miss.  The book itself is a can’t miss and outlines six steps to making an idea “sticky”:

• Simple
• Unexpected
• Concrete
• Credible
• Emotional
• Story

None of the wines demonstrated a story that indicated anything approximating a “sticky idea.”  And, irony of ironies:  My takeaways from the tasting were about simple thoughts conveyed cleanly – “sticky” ideas:  cereal palate training, MSG and wine and on and on.

The state of wine criticism, from all corners of seers and naysayers is in a state of disarray.  With discernible quality hitting the $15 mark, imports bringing to bear economies that can’t be equaled from domestic wines and wine criticism coming from every corner, the story is all wineries have.  Ultimately, the question of, “why should I care” isn’t a question about a rating or a score, but rather, about the hook that makes me interested – a story that builds on itself chapter by chapter.



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Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (15) |


Comments

On 04/08, 1WineDude wrote:

My brothah!  FANTASTIC write-up on the idea of tasting in context.

You RAWK!

On 04/08, Arthur wrote:

One does not drink a story.

On 04/08, Jeff wrote:

Arthur,

Why should a consumer give a shit about an overpriced California wine with a 91?  There are hundreds and hundreds of those.

Jeff

On 04/08, Arthur wrote:

And there are thousands of wines with some stupid, trite story. Just as I say that you can’t drink a story, I agree that points have no taste.
The point I’m making is that wines are sold and priced on the basis of things that have nothing to do with the wine - the name or habits of the owner’s dog, how much a guy who fell into wine criticism liked the few sips he had off the top of the bottle, etc…
Wine is a consumer good. Communication about it should convey the essence/character of the stuff in the bottle, not the some BS back story or a single person’s preferences.

On 04/08, @nectarwine wrote:

Man, you used some words I had to look up here.

While I agree that you do not drink a story, we’re not talking about drinking a soda or slamming a shot of whiskey. Wine, by its very nature is conversational and relational. The point is the story makes the wine more sticky in memory and potential repeat sales (I think that’s a point trying to be made here, not putting words in Jeff’s mouth).

Great article!

Josh

On 04/08, Jeff wrote:

Arthur,

I’m not talking about the trope that is currently being used.  I made the reference to “Made to Stick” in relation to something substantive and meaningful.

Josh—you can always count on me for $2 words.

Jeff

On 04/08, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I have one foot in and one foot out of the “story” concept.

For instance, Jeff. Louis Martini’s Cabernet Sauvignon has a story on the label about the Martini legacy of passing along winemaking talent. But the wine that I was sent as a sample was “Vinted and Bottled By…,”

It was a reasonably nice wine, but was it made by a Martini or was it assembled at the Martini facility?

Maybe you didn’t get a story from them because there isn’t a story.

Here’s what I believe. A potent wine writer doesn’t need the story to come to him/her. just a hint of something; then, the writer goes out and locates the story.

Or even better: the writer is always searching and learning so that when writing about any wine, a story can be attached.

Any story that the winery or its PR agents tell has to be vetted anyway by someone with the chops to call himself/herself a writer or journalist.

On 04/08, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Oh, I forgot to tell you. I checked to see if a certain trade mag editor would like to do a story on the MSG angle. No interest.

On 04/08, Arthur wrote:

Thomas,

“Or even better: the writer is always searching and learning so that when
writing about any wine, a story can be attached.”

I have a problem with that. It really sounds like the writer in that scenario is performing a PR function for the producer….

On 04/08, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Arthur, huh?

The writer is always searching and learning so that he or she has personally gained the information and knowledge necessary to tell a good and accurate story.

How does that seem like PR?

It’s PR hacking to repeat (write) what you are told without doing the research yourself.

On 04/09, Craig Camp wrote:

Many thanks for the kind words about our wine. I am very happy with the 2006 and think it is showing well early. Really almost drinkable already, which is one of the advantages of the 2006 vintage.

On 04/09, Charlie Olken wrote:

One of the weird and wacky things about the article and the commentary that follows is that it all overlooks the character of the wine. While I agree that wines sell on points, sell on stories, taste better in context, ultimately what we all care about is how it tastes. One does not need to tell the Martini story every time one tastes a bottle of wine from that Gallo-owned winery. The story has been told and told and told.

But,take away the description of the wine and wine does not exist except as an opiate for the masses. Jeff, I would argue that you learned a whole lot of stories that you are ignoring. Maybe they aren’t epics, but those stories, those bits of learning let you identify “an exemplary wine” among a roster of Napa Valley Cabs.

That is a massive story in itself. Ignore that and you have ignored the reason why wine is more than just another beverage. Ignore the story of an exemplary wine, and you are left with Two Buck Chuck and a wasted day tasting fancy Napa Valley Cabs.

On 04/09, Jeff wrote:

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for commenting.  I notice that you hit comments on Heimoff’s blog on the same day, but I’m on a 72 hour schedule.  Can you please rectify this visitation frequency?  grin 

We’re getting into the weeds on this conversation, but my point is that within the realm of wine criticsm, wines are naturally deduced to a score and a tasting note because there isn’t an evident backstory.  Now, I’ve met Craig Camp at Cornerstone before, but to say that they have a ‘story’ that sticks with me isn’t accurate.  The wine experience, to me, is enhanced if there is a credible story associated with the wine.  Absent that, you get running commentary about MSG and Life cereal.

Admittedly, this post is a little prosaic by my standards and frankly I’m surprised that the feedback hasn’t been more, “What the eff are you talking about” but net-net, I’m a big advocate of a story angle as a part of the winery lore—and I’m not talking about the warmed over trope that is currently being served up by wineries.

If nothing else, I wish every producer read “made to stick” because it changes the way you think.  it truly does.  And, in doing so, it would change the way you view wine criticism and the act of reviewing a wine and winery.

Thanks, as always, for commenting Charlie.  Always a pleasure to have you swing by.

Jeff

On 04/09, Charlie Olken wrote:

Jeff, I appreciate that you are taking journalistic liberties here for the sake of argument, but, if all that you got out of the Cornerstone wine was a version of MSG and Life Cereal, then I would simply suggest that you are missing the “story”.

Wine is not, in my opinion, only about long, involved stories. I love Heitz Marthas’ Vineyard 1974 even though I have almost no love for the story. What do I care about the 300-year history of the Lur-Saluces family at Ch. D’Yquem? It is the wine that I care about. The story is only of interest if the wine is of interest.

I suspect you know all this and are just trying to make a point that drinking one individual bottle can be enhanced with a story—a point upon which we have absolute agreement. Unfortunately, a good story does not make up for Brett or VA or the simple absence of character. Or to put it another way. Who cares about the heroic story behind a pissant wine?

On 04/09, Jeff wrote:

Charlie,

http://tinyurl.com/y5c3q8x

The above link is a nice book summary for ‘made to stick’

I recommend reading the whole book for the anecdotes, but absent that the summary can stand in.

As an Indiana native and lifelong resident, the three best sports movies of all time (in my opinion) are:

Breaking Away
Hoosiers
Rudy

All three take place in my fair state and all tell the compelling tale of a pissant.

Yes, I’m certainly mixing metaphors, but a story / narrative (a good one, at least) is bigger and more important than any one wine.  A story, well-told renders wine criticism obsolete.

At least, that’s the way I see it.


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