A couple of articles caught my eye recently and I wanted to take this opportunity to add my two cents.
It’s great to be able to keep a finger on the pulse of the wine industry, either through various wine blogs or social media, and is a constant reminder that there’s more to it than pricey auctions and flamboyantly-worded reviews. Especially in today’s climate, there are a lot of changes happening that can open up new possibilities to the interested wine enthusiast.
In this edition, I will be sharing my views on the current battle of styles between sommeliers and critics, as well as addressing the idea of robot tasters replacing humans.
A Matter of Style
The first article, entitled ‘Wine’s Nastiest Feud‘, describes the ideological conflict between influential critics (Robert Parker Jr is given as the main example) and sommeliers, especially those of the current generation.
What the sides disagree about is this: Should wine, broadly speaking, be ripe, luscious and powerful, or should it be lean, racy and restrained? Parker’s tastes lean toward the former. At the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference earlier this year, he stated: “You need some power, some richness, some intensity. Otherwise, the wine will fall apart, because there is nothing there. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You can’t expect soft, shallow wine to get any better.”
Sommeliers and particularly, in my experience, younger-generation sommeliers at ambitious restaurants, favor a very different style of wine: taut and tight; low in alcohol, high in acid; and, they will argue, innately better with food.
My first reaction is: Why can’t we have both?
As a wine drinker, having more options to choose from can only be a good thing, as long as you know what to look for and avoid information overload.
Choices add variety. I may enjoy a ripe and rich Cabernet Sauvignon today, but after a while it may seem a bit cloying, and I will be reaching for a glass of Riesling to freshen my palate.
While I have noticed similar sentiments among the people I know, I don’t see this as a major mainstream debate – you will not be seeing mobs of sommeliers and critics taking to the streets with wine glasses and corkscrews any time soon. This is more of a argument between small but influential and outspoken groups that may or may not have their own agendas.
Let’s look at the sommeliers and restaurant owners first. Most people aren’t aware of this, but venues often don’t have a 100% say in what wines are listed. They buy their stock from suppliers, who often impose certain conditions on their clients.
For example, let’s say a sommelier really wants to put Wine A on their list. They call up their supplier and make an order. They inform the somm that they can deliver, but only if he also purchases 5 cases of Wine B. Wine B may be a perfectly good wine, or it may not meet the somm’s standards. However, the fact remains that in order to stock up on the Wine A he had his sights on, he must also make room for Wine B that he did not want stock before.
The conditions suppliers impose are rarely so limiting, but are no less complicated. They may, for example, offer a 20% discount on Wine A if they buy a further 2 cases of Wine B, introducing a puzzling calculation: The discount means a better profit margin from selling Wine A, but are they able to sell Wine B effectively enough to justify the decision?
I have met some somms and restaurant owners who prefer to deal with smaller producers because of these complications. To venues, these independent producers are less of a hassle, more affordable, and can be offered to their patrons as something unique. And there is nothing wrong with that, as these small, independent producers can come out with outstanding wines. But you should disabuse yourself of the notion that their decision process is purely romantic – more likely there are less wholesome business considerations they will never mention.
What is the critic’s agenda? I don’t subscribe to their publications, so I couldn’t say with completely objective certainty, but I do know that there are some “luxury” magazines out there, and by constantly touting the merits of these “bold and rich” wines prices would be driven up.
Rich and ripe styles may actually become easier to cultivate when taking climate change into consideration. As more regions become warmer, most varietals will ripen more quickly, building up sugars and retaining less acid.
You can see where this is going. Raising prices while being able to increase supply at the same time is any business’s dream. Even if the critic has no stake in the actual production of such styles of wine, there is income from advertising revenue – a luxury magazine is just a shopping catalogue aimed at high net-worth individuals, who will be the only losers in this equation by being made ignorant of the leaner styles due to restrictive marketing telling them “this is what you should want”.
Imagine you are on the market for a new car, and the car dealer tells you that Ferrari’s are the only cars worth considering. With enough exposure to advertising and rhetoric, you’ll begin to believe it and buy a Ferrari, when something more economical would have suited your purposes just fine without breaking the bank.
I don’t want to make any accusations – I just want you to be very aware of what incentives people are driven by, and to do your own research. And as ever, understanding your own tastes and preferences is the best way to ensure you aren’t taken for a ride.
Robots vs Humans
The second article, entitled ‘Robots to replace wine critics?‘, was actually less exciting than the title would suggest. It focuses on one facet of the wine experience, tannin, and explains how a sensor can judge it more objectively than a human being.
What I found more revealing, however, was people’s reactions to this news:
I don't think this can happen fast enough: Robots to replace wine critics? via/The Drinks Business http://t.co/GZfAj9gWE5
— Lee Schneider (@docuguy) September 26, 2014
— Max Allen (@maxallenwine) September 25, 2014
— Brand Amp (@NicolaBrandAmp) September 24, 2014
While the comments are light-hearted, the general feeling is that a robot revolution over human critics would be a good thing. While I am as questioning of the critic’s role as anyone else, I don’t believe the answer is to outsource the actual sensory experience to a machine.
Being able to taste rationally and objectively is not complicated. It’s a skill that anyone can learn, given the right guidelines. And no one, human or robot, can dictate what you should enjoy drinking.
In some ways I find this article to be a metaphor of our times. Instead of going out to the shops, we are buying more online from sites like Amazon and Ebay. Instead of meeting people in real life, we have Tinder and OkCupid. Now this encroachment of technology is becoming noticeable in the world of wine.
We should have a bit more faith in our own abilities, and not be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. I realise this is the creed of pretty much every self-help guru that exists out there, but when you boil all down you’ll find there’s some truth to it.
The key is to decide where your personal responsibility ends and your reliance on better informed parties begins. If you’re feeling sick, of course you should see a doctor, but if you skin your knee falling off a skateboard, disinfect the wound, slap on a bandage and be more careful next time. Instead of eating out every night and grumbling about the quality of the food, learn to cook at home.
Read more: Empty Your Cup