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Book Reviews

Review: The Wine Trials 2011 - A Guide to Inexpensive Wines

The Wine Trials 2011 is two very different books in one. There are many topics raised in the first 60 pages or so of the book that will be interesting to discuss at length. I’ll do that in future articles. Most of this book review will focus on the final 184 pages which are dedicated to recommending wines priced at less than $15. However, it is essential to discuss the initial section of the book a little bit now, because it introduces the thinking behind their wine review methodology.

The first section, “The Blind Tasting Manifesto,” is written by Robin Goldstein. He is a writer and “scholar in behavioral economics” with some formal training in both cooking and the evaluation of wine. He identifies a number of problems with the way wines are evaluated and recommended by prominent wine magazines and in competitions. It is his view that such reviewers are biased (not necessarily intentionally) against low-priced wines, that the reviews don’t correspond well to the tastes of the average consumer and that a great many reviewers aren’t even consistent when reviewing the same wine blind on different occasions. The opening chapters of the book also criticize the 100-points scoring system and the way in which many reviewers describe wines. The author reaches these conclusions after doing extensive research in human behavior and by conductive exhaustive blind tastings with both general consumers and experts in wine.

The most important tenet of the book is that wine evaluators should taste wines blind (i.e. tasting and evaluate wines without knowing in advance what the wine is). Goldstein also suggests that the blind tasting policies of some magazines, especially Wine Spectator, are not truly blind. At that publication, reviewers don’t know the specific identity of the wines they are tasting, which are presented in flights of like wines, but do know the varietal and region. The reviewers know regions well and can, in some cases, deduce price point and even producer fairly easily. I wholly agree with Goldstein on the importance of blind tasting in general. I know from my own review of research in behavioral economics, my observations of other tasters, and my own tasting experiences that it is impossible to be unbiased without tasting completely blind. That said, I do think that non-blind evaluations are defensible under certain circumstances.

“The Blind Tasting Manifesto” is interesting and easy to read. It identifies many issues and effectively illustrates their importance with references to academic research and/or results from blind tastings. However, the author is clearly trying to sell not just a point of view but a series of books. He is arguing that his methods for rating wines are better than that of many popular critics and implying that you should be reading his book, not their magazines or newsletters. Therefore, I think it’s important for the reader to peer through some of Mr. Goldstein’s enthusiasm and carefully examine his assertions as well.

It is also important to understand that there can be a difference between something which is “good” and something that “tastes good.” Many producers of inexpensive wines know — as do McDonalds and Coca Cola — that American consumers tend to find foods and beverages with a bit of sweetness to be very enjoyable. But, while putting a sweetened bun on a burger may make it more fun for some people to eat, that does not mean the burger is “better” than one made without sugar. The judges at the Westminster Dog Show evaluate the dogs according to how they measure up to certain, pre-set criteria, not by how cuddly the dogs are. Likewise, it is the job of wine critics to rate wines based on how well they are made, not merely how yummy they are.

Fortunately, while the initial blind tasting experiment held in 2008 (and documented in the article “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” (by Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg, Anna Dreber, Alesix Herschkovitz and Jacob Katz, published in Journal of Wine Economics, Vol. 3, No 1, Spring 2008) could have led to nothing more than a yummy-off, that is not the approach in this book. The organizers started with a pool of more than 500 wines under $15 recommended by various people working in the wine industry. Only wines produced in volumes of 10,000 cases per year or greater were considered, ensuring that consumers can find the wines fairly easily. Then, those wines were tasted blind by the book’s editors and tasting panel. The panel consists of fourteen people all of whom work in the food and beverage industry or who are food or beverage critics. No wines from the two previous editions of the book were grandfathered in. And the writers say that all 175 of the recommended wines were preferred to more expensive wines.

That all sounds reasonable, but I still have a few concerns. There is no detailed discussion of the criteria by which the wines were judged. We are simply told that “the carefully chosen pool of wines will bring you some of the best pleasure-to-dollar ratios on the market.” The reviewers seem to be basing their opinions on what they find pleasurable, but we aren’t told anything about the reviewers’ tastes and have no ability to determine which wines they’ve liked in the past or how consistently they rate identical wines from one tasting to the next. Nor are we told which expensive wines the recommended bottles were tasted against, whether they were from the same regions, or how those wines have been rated by other publications. To me, that makes the claim that the recommended wines taste better than more expensive ones meaningless.

I do not mean to imply that the actual wine recommendations are either invalid or incorrect. But I do believe that a book which spends so much time criticizing other reviewers’ methodology ought to be more transparent about it’s own. “The Blind Tasting Manifesto is nearly 60 pages long. The description of the review process for The Wine Trials 2011 is barely 1 page.

Without more information about the tasters and their criteria, I think it may also be difficult to draw conclusions about how well you might like one wine in the list based on your experience with another. I know some people who blindly buy wines recommended by James Laube or Robert Parker because there is a consistency to those gentlemen’s reviews and their tastes mirror those of these buyers. I know other people who refuse to buy wines recommended by Laube and Parker because experience has shown these consumers that their own preferences and those of the critics are strongly opposed. Either way, individual critics, if consistent, can provide a clear guide. A panel of undefined palates cannot.

On the other hand, I do like the way The Wine Trials 2011 presents the wines. Each wine gets a page to itself. Key facts are listed: name, country and region, style, grapes used, vintage, price, a recommended food pairing and the producer’s url. About 150 words are then dedicated to saying something interesting and/or amusing about the wine. Below that, there are descriptions of roughly fifteen words each for the nose and palate. (In their egalitarian style, the authors refer to the palate as “mouth.”) Finally, there is a subjective description of the packaging, usually a bottle but there are a few box wines recommended.

I found the descriptions generally helpful in setting my expectations for the wines but without much depth. The authors have purposely used only common food flavors as descriptors and purposely avoided using terms such as “pencil lead” in an effort to make the reviews accessible to a wide audience. Flavor, tannins and acidity are the only palate characteristics mentioned consistently. There is no mention of finish, weight or intensity. Tannins are said to be present and, in some cases, “healthy,” but their strength and texture aren’t described more concretely. This approach will probably serve most consumers well. Those looking for more detail may well be disappointed though. Similarly, while I agree that talking about a wine’s packaging is valid, I regret that that description is usually longer than those for either the nose or palate.

With 175 wines recommended, I’m not able to do a bottle-by-bottle evaluation of their choices. I can say that there are no wines on their list which I have tasted and found to be poor. There are a number of wines that I have tasted but not formally recommended at NorCal Wine. However, that is because I set the bar here a bit high. The wines in question were perfectly enjoyable but fell a slightly below my threshold for publication which is roughly equivalent to 86 points on a 100-points scale. On a more positive note, the book does identify wines from some producers which I find to consistently offer wines that I can recommend here and which are great bargains. Among those producers are Bogle, Yalumba (Australia), Nobilo (New Zealand), and J. Lohr. There are also wines from producers best known for high-end wines that do a really good job at low price points too. These include Guigal (France), Hugel (France), Dr. Loosen (Germany) and Robert Mondavi Winery.

The Wine Trials 2011 is a thought-provoking read and a good guide for finding enjoyable wines in the supermarket, Trader Joe’s or beverage warehouses like BevMo. And if you routinely read reviews in wine magazines but haven’t thought much about how those ratings are determined, this book will be an eye-opener. But, if you have read previous versions of the book, or are very familiar with the arguments made in the article “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better,” then the vast majority of this book’s interest to you will be as a database of good, affordable wines. That’s no small benefit though — there are plenty of inexpensive wines that are lousy and help in avoiding them should be welcome. Finally, if you do buy the book and use it to find wines, remember that there are a lot of good wines out there at affordable prices that weren’t considered for inclusion here simply because they aren’t produced in sufficient volume. If you have local wineries, give them a try.

The Wine Trials 2011
Rating: Recommended
Price: $14.95
Read: Now through Christmas 2011
Publisher: Fearless Critic Media
Authors: Robin Goldstein, Alexis Hershkowitsch and Tyce Walters
Pages: 272
Packaging: 4” x 8” paperback

This book was received as a review sample.

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. Banner photo by Lin Kristensen

Review: "101 Wines" by Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk’s WineLibraryTV is the world’s leading video wine blog. His informative and entertaining tastings on video attract as many as 80,000 viewers daily, not to mention the people who download his podcasts via Apple iTunes. (I watch them on my Apple iPhone 3G while on the treadmill. I don’t like getting on the treadmill, but Gary’s videos really make the time fly by. Three or four of his podcasts, which typically run between 15 and 22 minutes, give me enough time to get in a good workout including warm up and cool down. Plus, I get to broaden my wine horizons and frequently get a good laugh or two. Since, he’s recorded almost 600 of the podcasts now, I should be in decent shape by the time I’ve seen them all... If you haven’t checked them out, you really should.

As the tremendously successful operator of the Wine Library wine shop and one of the hardest working guys you’ll ever meet, Gary has tasted a stunning number of wines and famously developed his palate by sniffing and tasting pretty much every substance under the sun, as evidenced by Vaynerchuk’s appearances on the Conan O’Brien show among others. Gary’s detailed but irreverent tastings of wines from all over the world are a great way to get tips on expanding your own palate or finding tasty, if sometimes obscure, new wines to try.

While browsing the wine shelf at my local mega-chain bookstore, I was pleased to see that Gary has a book out and immediately snapped it up. Gary Vaynerchuk’s “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight and Bring Thunder to Your World” is medium garnet in color with a paper-white rim. It’s too early to tell, but I suspect it has legs.

Read more: Review: "101 Wines" by Gary Vaynerchuk

Review: New California Wine by Jon Bonné

You can enjoy wine in an informational vacuum. Soak in its aromas. Delight in the texture and flavors. But you can’t fully understand a wine without context.

Jon Bonne 1200With his soon-to-be-published book, Jon Bonné fashions a rich tapestry of context for California wine. He weaves history, science and his own extensive visits with producers into essays that are tremendously informative yet energetic and absorbing. It all begins with a brilliantly selected epigraph which speaks directly to the type of California winemaker Bonné is featuring.

I mention the epigraph not so much because its words are particularly revealing, but because of who said it and when. Wine production, here and elsewhere, is in a constant state of evolution. Even if you keep winemaking techniques the same from year to year the wines will change. Vines get older, sometimes sicker and eventually need to be replaced with young ones. We talk about climate change with urgency now because our awareness is high, but California’s growing season had grown already longer and warmer by the 1980’s than it had been in the 1950’s, allowing later harvests and riper fruit.

Of course winemaking techniques have not stayed the same either. They altered due to scientific advancements, influences from overseas producers, better understanding of our own lands, the growing strength of university-based wine programs, changing tastes, economic circumstances and dozens of other factors. Yet, somehow, old is new again and there’s a strong shift away from manufactured wine and also from wines that sacrifice nuance for palate impact. Bonné suggests today’s most interesting and site-expressive California wines are being made by small, passionate (obsessive?) producers who are creating new sites, resurrecting old ones and practicing transparent, vineyard-centric winemaking that eschews chemicals, transformative techniques and aggressive oak—people like those Arpad Haraszthy described in 1891.

New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste does more than chronicle the evolution to revolution though. And, unlike many books, it doesn’t focus solely on elite wineries nor dwell on personalities, family squabbles, a small handful of controversial topics or wineries with photogenic facades. It paints a complete picture—up and down the state, from true coast to the Central Valley’s heart—of the scope of California wine, why it came to be that way and how a swelling wave of neo-traditionalists are taking it to heights that many, including Bonné himself, may have once thought impossible.

The book and its author have a clear point of view, but the writing isn’t polemical. On the contrary, the case is built quietly but progressively through the words and endeavors of the producers themselves. For that matter, the object of the book isn’t so much to convince as to inform.

This winemaking movement is happening and growing, whether he or I or you like it or not. Reading the book will give you a clear understanding of who these winemakers are, what they are—and are not—doing, why they make these choices and how it affects the character of the wine. You’ll come away with hundreds of examples of wines to try so that you can taste the difference for yourself. Then you can be the judge.

I’ve been focused on California wine for quite some time now, have read and tasted widely, and spent a good deal of time at wineries and with winemakers. Yet there are many pages in New California Wine which taught me something new in every single paragraph. I’m pleased that, by design, the book reads well from front to back but is organized such that it can be also easily used for topical reference afterward.

There are three main sections to the book. Searching for the New California sets the stage. It takes us through the history, examines issues related to viticulture, dispels some stereotypes and introduces us to many of the new winemakers. The New Terroir: A California Road Trip dives into the most significant growing regions, from Napa to Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast to Lodi. We learn what’s unique about each area, who the main players are, what challenges they face and the styles of wine made. For each region there's a short sidebar, Three Bottle Tour, suggesting three wines that can serve as Cliff's Notes to the region for your palate. Wines of the New California highlights exemplary producers by varietal. Each of these sections consist of flowing narrative that builds on the previous sections. This is not a typical compendium. At the end of the book is a small collection of useful maps showing the wine regions and producer locations.

Jon Bonné is a transplant to California. Originally from the East Coast, he came here in 2006, by way of Seattle, full of perspectives based on a rich knowledge of wine from around the world and with a suitcase of concerns about those from California. But, in a short time, he’s thoroughly grasped the state, this new movement and become one of its most influential chroniclers. I can’t think of a better way to close out this year’s California Wine Month than to pre-order New California Wine which will be released on November 5.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.