Shaquille O’Neal. Ann Coulter. Jackson Pollack. James Carville. Mark Cuban. Igor Stravinsky. Noam Chomsky. Andy Warhol. Andre the Giant. In life, the biggest and loudest among us get the most attention – while finesse and nuance, toiling in relative obscurity, float in the choppy wake of incendiary, splashy, larger-than-life personalities.
Wine is no different. In a world where extract and alcohol are hallmarks of so-called “cult” wines, and where ripe fruit and palate weight are required to garner the scores necessary for market success, little attention is paid to those wines that favor understated elegance over hyperbolic heft.
In a way, this is no one’s fault. Wine critics want to be consistent when they grade wines so that their voices will be trusted and they’ll make a good living. Wine drinkers want to buy wines that win medals and get high scores. That’s understandable – we all want to get as much quality with our limited resources as possible, and it seems reasonable that high marks from an expert at a blind tasting competition is a good proxy for quality. And winemakers want their wines to sell well, which brings them the dual benefit of economic gain and psychological satisfaction.
So it should seem perfectly natural that critics give wines with certain qualities high marks and wines with other qualities low marks; consumers buy wines that get big scores and don’t buy wines that don’t; and vintners make wines that have qualities likely to attract high ratings. All of this nurtures a feedback cycle whereby the quantity of wine being produced, and the allocation of wine industry attention and resources, skews ever more in favor of the kind of wines that get big scores.
And what kind of wines are those? (You see where I’m going here.) BIG wines. BOLD wines. Wines that slap you silly with their muscular body and dark, ripe flavors. Wines that don’t negotiate with terrorists. Wines that put the “laughter” in “manslaughter.” Chuck Norris wines. Or, to use the wine industry term of art, fruit bombs. After all, to be rated highly, a wine must first get noticed. And there’s no surer way to get mega-critic Robert Parker’s attention than to explode on a his palate like a grenade of sweet tannin.
Critics don’t like to talk about it, but palate fatigue plays a huge role in the systemic bias toward big, bold wines. These professionals are paid to taste sometimes hundreds of wines in a given day and to relay their opinions on the quality of each. No matter how inoculated you claim your palate is to the taste-deadening effect of sustained exposure to alcohol, tannins, and acids (and some critics make pretty remarkable claims in this regard), your experience of wine number 44 will be affected by tasting wines 1 through 43. Anyone who’s ever been at a multi-table wine tasting, attended a wine expo, or visited a series of wineries in close succession knows what I’m talking about. Even if you’re spitting the entire time, by the end of the afternoon only the loudest, most powerful wines jump out at you, while those that are quiet and unassuming seem tepid and tasteless.
Palate fatigue aside, there’s the problem of comparison. A light, bright wine can hardly be judged fairly next to a heavy, brooding wine. Big wines often overpower the flavors of delicate wines. That doesn’t mean the delicate wine is of lower quality or less pleasurable to drink. Indeed, to the contrary: the lighter wine may more precisely reflect the place in which its grapes were grown; it may more effectively complement (rather than overwhelm) a variety of foods; and it may offer charmingly nuanced flavors and textures that can only come to the fore when not buried in a ball of figgy fruit and alcohol. But these subtleties are likely to be lost when a restrained wine is tasted next to a bombastic one. No wonder that in Pinot Noir tastings conducted by major publications like Wine Spectator, high-octane wines like Kosta Browne perform so well – they simply overpower their delicate competitors with a deep core of heavy sweet fruit, thick spice, and high alcohol (never mind that these characteristics are quite un-Pinot-like). Trying to taste the subtle complexity of a Rully Premier Cru next to a Kosta Browne is like trying to savor a soufflé after a fistful of salt and vinegar potato chips.
To truly take the measure of a wine, to understand it on its own terms, requires not a sip, not even a glass, but a sustained experience in which one tastes the wine over time, with different foods, and in different moods. Of course this is impractical for professional critics whose jobs require the efficient comparison of thousands of wines. But it’s standard procedure for people like you and me who buy wine to drink over several nights or to pair with dinner.
All of which begs the question: when selecting a wine, why give any weight to a critic’s score if the purpose for which you are buying the wine is so different from the method by which the score was generated? Add to the mix that high ratings are disproportionately bestowed upon big, bold wines, and ignoring critic scores – or at least taking them with a large, pungent grain of salt – becomes even more attractive.
Big wines’ dominance in the ratings sweepstakes entails at least three casualties. First, it results in wannabes. Some wineries who don’t have the old vines, low yields, and expensive barrels to produce wines of great depth and extract try to imitate them by manipulating their juice with techniques like extra malo, chaptalization, and oak chip aging. The result is over-priced, over-rated, generic wine devoid of personality or terroir distinction.
Second, while fruit bombs bask in the limelight, restrained, delicate, terroir-driven wines get squeezed to the sidelines. As a result, wineries are less inclined to make these less-profitable wines, thereby foreclosing opportunities to express unique terroir in unique ways. And third, the consumer loses out. As wines grow more generic, we get fewer opportunities to taste the vast diversity that the world of wine should offer. If a winery over-oaks and over-ferments juice from a vineyard that it owns exclusively, wine enthusiasts are deprived of ever experiencing the distinctive flavors that vineyard’s terroir might provide.
So what’s a terroir-starved consumer to do? No one of us can single-handedly alter market behavior, but we can each do our part, little-by-little, to create greater demand for a wider variety of wine. A few suggestions:
1. Ignore scores. I know this is hard to do. But try. I never consider a Wine Spectator or Robert Parker rating in deciding whether to acquire a wine. The bald score simply doesn’t tell me anything I need to know. Instead, I consider the wine’s description and the advice of people I trust. Doing so ensures you get the kind of wine that you like, not the kind of wine that happened to grab the attention of some critic during a marathon tasting session.
2. Drink wines from obscure European regions. Drink Saumur-Champigny. Drink Fleurie and Cassis and Chinon. Drink Jura and Jurancon; Graves and Gascogne; Savenierres and Savigny-Les-Beaunes. I’m a tireless advocate for some of the lesser known regions of France in large part because many vintners in those areas have ignored the lure of the fruit bomb and continue to make wines of great restraint and elegance, wines that taste like they’re from a particular place. Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Slovenia, and Hungary likewise offer intriguing, terroir-driven wines from regions few of us have ever heard of.
3. Avoid wines with high alcohol. Every wine bottle posts its alcohol content on the label, so look before you buy. As a rule of thumb, I avoid anything over 14%. High alcohol levels mask nuance in wine and often give off a thick, hot sensation that I find quite unpleasant. Drinking wine should not feel like drinking scotch.
4. Patronize shops that (1) ignore scores, (2) carry wines from obscure European regions, and (3) avoid wines with high alcohol. A wine consumer’s most valuable commodity is a wine merchant she trusts to give her good counsel. Few shops ignore scores entirely (some do, and I love them for it!). But those that resist giving ratings undue attention know that most scores are mostly meaningless and that the surest way to a wine drinker’s heart (and wallet) is to make a good recommendation tailored to his interests and tastes.
If enough of us take these guidelines to heart, we may yet turn the tide and help David defeat Goliath (or, if you like, turn back the clock and help Rocco Mediate defeat Tiger Woods). Even if we don’t, we’ll have a lot of fun trying.