So, as I’m sure happens to many of my readers, anytime someone sees a news article about wine, I’m asked, “Is it true?” Typically, this is pretty easy to answer. The recent video from Vox, however, is so packed with claims, that it takes more than just a Facebook reply to answer. So, I figured, if I’m going to answer it, I may as well write a blog about it. I’m pretty slammed with clients needs right now, so it will be a bit before I put together a more heavy-hitting post, anyway. The video is about three and a half minutes. You can watch it here.
The Tasting: The Vox staffers, apparently, were often able to pick out the most expensive wine, but rated it lowest and rated the other two wines as equal. This tasting means nothing. The staffers clearly show a prejudice and bias, based on their comments. They also have a vested interest. I won’t take that apart, except to note that, without a contrarian opinion, there is no article, right? In addition, the sample size is insignificant and they don’t reveal what two of the three wines are. Their tasting means nothing.
I will say, however, that my own research makes clear two things. First off, any data analysis I have done has shown that wine quality, as measured by experts’ scores, does not correlate to price at all in the >$20 range. I can’t share most of that research as it was done for clients, but I did write a blog post that touches on this concept, here.
Second, when you buy a bottle of Napa wine, you’re paying for a label. Just as Louis Vuitton purses cost more than other, similar quality purses, so too with Napa. You can get similar quality, less-expensive Cab from Alexander Valley and even less-expensive, similar stuff from Lake County. And even Steve Heimoff, one of the country’s top tasters, will readily state that they can be very hard to differentiate, even for him. You could research the differences for hours on his blog: www.steveheimoff.com.
Interestingly enough, the expensive wine featured in the Vox video, Honig’s Napa Cab, is not pure Napa Cabernet. I have it on good knowledge that it contains around 15% non-Napa grapes and I don’t think any of my regular readers would consider that to be a revelation. If those non-Napa grapes were bottled under their own appellation designations, they would probably fetch about $20 per bottle.
The Meta-Study: The video then refers to an important meta-analysis of studies. The meta-analysis indicates, basically, that for most people, price does not correlate to enjoyment. I haven’t analyzed the study, but I agree with that opinion. But not as a blanket statement. I have a few caveats.
First off, as the study shows, there are still many people who do perceive differences in wine quality more readily than others. For those of us in the premium wine business, we care about them much more than any other customers. They buy wine. Lots of it. The expensive stuff. So, we make that stuff really good for them. Why? Because they can appreciate the difference better than your average Joe.
Second, Vox does not distinguish between price tiers. I have had very few wines under $6 that I find palatable. I am much more ready to accept a $14 bottle in place of a $45 bottle than to accept a $4 bottle in place of an $8 bottle. There’s just a cost floor to making stuff taste better than horrible.
Third, any of us in the wine industry will tell any consumers that your company and mood (and also food) are much greater influences on how you perceive your wine than anything else. Studies show that people fall for each other, in a romantic sense, when they are exposed to each other for the first time on a rickety bridge suspended high in the air. Those things have seemingly nothing to do with each other, but all the mind perceives is heightened arousal. It does not distinguish between types of arousal.
Similarly, your mind does not distinguish between the sources of your enjoyment while drinking a bottle of wine. That’s one reason people actually buy pricey wine: to frame the evening as something special. It’s also a reason people love to drink wines that are associated with a highly positive experience: something they got on a special trip; something they bought from a tasting room staffer with whom they had great chemistry; wine made by someone they know. They hope that by sharing that experience with company or reliving that experience, it will lift the mood. It’s a self-reinforcing circle. It’s the same reason we feel particularly open to barbecuing with friends during football or one a sunny, three-day weekend. The point is that wine is only special when it is special to us for a reason. For some of us, that is more about the actual quality of the wine. For most of us, it is not. And that’s ok.
Sideways: Yes, that movie did move the markets and yes, that was a stupid, stupid thing. Click here to read my article about how much that cost Merlot farmers. And let me just say: He didn’t hate Merlot. He actually very much likes Merlot, judging by the French wine he drinks. It was a symbolic rejection of opening himself up to love again. And it was a good movie, but it wasn’t really about wine.
Wine Competitions: Wine competitions come in all shapes and sizes and there are as many wine competitions as there are Geraldo Rivera mustache hairs. Many wineries like to play the competition lottery to fool consumers into thinking their wines are good. Competitions do not taste all wines. Most have pretty low bars for their wine judges. All of them make money off the competition. I don’t think many high-end wineries care too much about the California State Fair, which is mentioned. In my neck of the woods, Sonoma County, I think the most respect goes to the Harvest Fair and the Chronicle competition. Also, it’s really hard to keep your palate working during serial tasting. In short, awards from most, maybe all competitions mean little. But I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about wine from the functioning of those competitions. If Vox thinks that studies about wine competitions show that wine quality is illusory, they are wrong. All it shows is that, as a whole, wine competitions are a poor barometer of wine quality. Some, however, may live up to the hype.
Critics: Yes, different critics have different tastes. That’s why we refer to preferences as a matter of taste and not a matter of fact. That’s why you should drink wines you like and not wines someone else likes. And I don’t think that anyone in the business is surprised that Robert Parker likes a big, bold Bordeaux, while Jancis Robinson finds it to be an affront. People who follow Parker do so because he is so into massive reds. Those who follow Robinson do so because they are more into finesse wines.
Are critics biased? Yes. Critics who don’t taste blind are biased. They’re biased by price. They’re biased by preconceived notions of different origins. Not least of all, they’re biased by which wine companies are paying for advertising in their magazines.
I make a single-vineyard, zero manipulation, unfiltered, unfined, spontaneously-fermented Russian River Pinot Noir that retails for reasonable prices (Hooper 206). Here is the back label text of our current release, with the bolding added in for this article to highlight my thoughts on wine critics:
“I have a recurring nightmare. In it, my wine is being marketed by suit-wearing cubicle rats, distributed by corporate road warriors, rated on a point scale by the wine world equivalent of wet t-shirt contest judges and then sold to an audience of gullible, ignorant sheep-people. But then I wake up to reality. Our wine doesn’t need any distribution contracts, ‘ad spend,’ or the inextricably-linked approval of the wine media and you don’t either. So drink something real. We let this pinot be what it wants to be – no additions, no manipulations and a 100% spontaneous fermentation. It has decided to be sublime. Enjoy.”
Despite my anti-critic fundamentalism, I will say that some people will benefit from following a critic’s notes. If your palate lines up with hers, then go for it.
Price Effects Perception: First off, yes, of course it does. Most people will judge a wine to be better, if it’s pricier. Most people will judge a <fill in anything here> better, if it costs more. In the case of wine, I’m more likely to judge an expensive bottle more harshly, since I have higher expectations. I don’t get Vox’s point here. Hasn’t this whole video focused on the idea that wine perceptions are subjective? Then why do they state that a study compared one wine to one that was “objectively worse” due to the addition of tartaric acid? Taste is always subjective. Tartaric acid, furthermore, does not make anything objectively worse. It is often added to wine and often improves flavor.
This is an entertaining video. It is not a well-informed video. It is informative, but of the “a little information can do a lot of harm” type of informative. I know, in today’s internet world, you aren’t allowed to have videos longer than this and they should pepper you with information, instead of actually delving into the information. Kind of like the upcoming presidential debates.
If the point of this video is to make people think that they should buy the cheapest wine they can, then it did nothing relevant to prove its point. If it has another point, I am unable to divine it. Is expensive wine for suckers? Depends on who the buyer is, why they are buying wine, what wine they are buying and what they consider to be expensive.
You do not need to spend a lot of money to drink wine you enjoy. You should drink what you like and not what other people like. It’s a sign of our society’s money-worship and brand-obsession that anyone needs to be reminded of this. Vox rails against this with wine, yet has a business model that is fully funded by the advertisements of giant corporations that try to spread these vapid values. I am no fan of this type of cog-in-the-machine consumerism. But, if you drive an F-250 and don’t haul spaceships; wear luxury-brand clothes and don’t work as a runway model or own an Apple-brand or Rolex watch and don’t work for Apple or Rolex; then wine is the last place I would recommend trimming your budget.
Listened to While Writing This:
Supernatural, album by Goldfrapp