CHARLATAN CRITICS, GULLIBLE CONSUMERS 

The wine blogosphere was collectively agog in May over the release of a new book, The Wine Trials, purporting to prove that wine consumers are easily duped by hype. Five hundred volunteers sampled and rated 540 wines for author Robert Goldstein, and among the results was this shocker: A Washington state sparkler costing around $10 outscored the perennially prestigious Dom Perignon retailing in the exalted neighborhood of $150. Assuming that the wine in question was from Chateau Ste. Michelle (it doesn’t really matter if it was or not.), a recent Omniboire tasting panel found it to be “a people-pleaser that’s not too serious for amateurs, not too simple for connoisseurs … it would do well at a party.” I strongly suspect we would have preferred the DP, but at $150 it wasn’t in play. It’s not that we preferred the cheap stuff, but rather we all found redeeming qualities in a wine not marketed on its snob appeal.

In fact, as reported by Eric Asimov in a recent New York Times article, there would be every reason for tasters of any level of sophistication to prefer the high-priced product — assuming we knew it was pricey. A study performed at the California Institute of Technology is cited to prove the point. As a part of the study, wine drinkers were given one unidentified wine twice, but given two different prices. No surprise: They preferred the one said to be more expensive. (The same study has been duplicated with placebo medications: Test subjects tended to find that the pill alleged to cost more was more effective.) Wine drinkers shouldn’t be singled out as being especially gullible, in other words.

And yet they are. The corollary to this, of course, is that the evil powers responsible for leading newbie wineaux down the garden path are duplicitous (or at the very least imperious) critics and marketers brandishing winespeak and playing to feelings of insecurity.

Maybe.

But, according to Asimov, “The answer rests … both in the insecure and uncomfortable attitudes that Americans hold toward wine and in the difficulty of bringing some sort of objective and universal criteria to the fleeting and obscure realms of aroma, taste and texture.” Quite a mouthful in itself. Yet it’s a question the Omniboire panel, a changing team made up of both industry professionals and total amateurs, does battle with every month. So I decided to take a look at several past panels to see what wines ended up on top. Remember that all these wines are tasted blind: We don’t know prices, can’t see labels. Would the most expensive — or conversely, if we are to believe the The Wine Trials, the cheapest — wines invariably prevail? And what kind of language would we use to describe them? Here goes.

Why not begin with bubblies — Non-Champagne Sparklers to be precise? The winner was a Cava from Spain, the Cordoniu Original Brut, deemed to have appealing “citrus and mineral qualities.” And, yes, at $8, it was the cheapest of the lot. In a somewhat more esoteric category, New Zealand Pinot Noir, the opposite was true: The winning wine, the Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir Marlborough, was called “Classy and correct `with` great balance … it made the others taste like water.” The retail price was $35, and all others declined in quality in strict accord with declining price — a very rare occurrence. So far, no trend here.

To further muddy the waters, in a panel on Alternative Whites (no chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, in other words), the winning Becker Vineyards Viognier — “piney nose, nice complexity” — was priced in the middle of the pack at $16, with the most expensive wine finishing last. Among Argentine malbecs tasted for another panel, the top-ranked $18 Famiglia Bianchi 2005 San Rafael Mendoza (“layered blackberry and other dark fruits, spicy finish”) came in just ahead of a $30 contender, with all others ranked in descending order of price.

You’re beginning to get the picture: There is no sinister, price-driven conspiracy. When wines are tasted blind, at least, both amateur and expert tend to agree — not that there aren’t differences of opinion revealed in the text of each article.

So what of winespeak? Omniboire tries to avoid it, but invariably a little creeps in. In a category that might be deemed to be esoteric from the get-go — in large part due to the complexity of labeling — riesling should be a prime candidate for gobbledegeek. Yet the winning wine in this Omniboire category, a $25 2004 Franz Kunstler Riesling Kabinett Hochheimer Reichestal-Rheingau (yikes!) was described as having “apricot and pineapple `qualities` with lime on the finish,” plain and simple (A $39 wine finished last on this panel.)

But maybe even more revealing were these comments extracted from the article: “This wine is ‘a ballerina, a gymnast’; ‘It’s a lovely wine and a heck of a deal’; ‘I thought it was killer.’”

Not all panels are so poetic/pragmatic, but here’s the point: If a written description piques your curiosity and the price is right, then try the wine. One sure way to develop a palate is to test yours against Omniboire’s — or any other critical source of your choosing. You may not always agree, but it could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Without the deceit that many relationships entail.


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