BEWARE OF DOGS!
Just before a Saturday tasting at The Wine Country during our pre-Covid days, I asked one of our expert staff tasters to evaluate the lineup of our Spanish wines in the lineup.
“They’re all good, except for one dog,” and he pointed out the wine he didn’t like at all.
I sampled the wine and couldn’t find anything really objectionable with it. It wasn’t the purest of wines, but it had a soul, and it was true to its type and region. I chalked up the exchange as a difference of opinion.
Yet I was curious to see what our customers thought of the “dog.” As they were leaving our tasting, I asked each attendee what their favorite wines were. Three or four people told me their favorite wine of the tasting was the same wine our colleague described as a “dog.”
So much for expert tasters.
This illustrates what we’ve known all along: taste is personal.
Consumers and wine professionals need to constantly be reminded there isn’t one standard that fits all. It’s the most obvious—among many—arguments against the 100-point scoring faux-system having any influence over your buying decisions.
We’ve been through the reasons many times before. The taste and texture of a wine constantly changes. A tasting in a clinical setting doesn’t prepare one for real life usage, like how a wine’s character changes with different foods and sauces. Or how a wine’s aroma and flavor changes with exposure to air or time in the bottle. A wine changes, but a score rarely does. It’s only one person’s opinion. You know all this. We wine pros know all this.
So why do other retailers keep perpetuating this practice by using “points” to sell their wine when they know it is terminally flawed to do so? The answer is obvious. They are counting on their customers’ insecurity and gullibility to sell them wines they have a 50/50 chance of liking once they get them home and open them up.
There is a better way to discover wines you will love, but it takes a little more work on everyone's part and putting trust in your wine merchant, which has to earn it.
The first step on anyone's journey to the next level of wine appreciation is awareness. I know a lady who doesn’t care which wine you put into her glass. She isn’t interested in where it came from, what variety it is, what to eat with it or even what color it is. She doesn’t smell the wine, she just downs it. She wasn’t aware of the wine she was pounding down, just that it was dark and in her glass.
I would hope most wine drinkers pause a little bit to learn a bit about the wine they’re putting into their mouths other than to consume it as a kind of a flavored booze. Where does it come from? Is it a historic place with a flavor tradition? Is it a cold-climate wine with brighter acidity than a warm-climate wine? Is it from a well-known vintner who makes wine in huge amounts or is it an artisan craftsperson who makes small amounts from selected lots? Will it likely be tangy and lively, or round and plush? Is it traditional in style or modern?
The truth is, very few consumers of wine even stop to smell a wine before drinking it, even though the perfume of a wine can add immensely to our pleasure, while also telling us a lot about it. The aroma of a wine is essential in getting the most out of the taste of a wine.
A clinical examination of wine may reveal technical flaws a winemaker might want to avoid if he is making mass-produced wines for broad consumption (which is why our colleague called the Spanish wine a “dog”). But many wines from traditional growing areas need those “flaws” to give them the character that defines their region. You can’t imagine their wines without their particular eccentricities.
Then there is the role of expectations in determining if a wine is right. There is a definite divide in this matter between younger and older wine people, and all of it depends on what I call their personal wine stamp. The first wines to make a positive impression on you are the wines that stamp their typicity on your consciousness. If that means Cabernet Sauvignons at 12.5% alcohol that aim to be Bordeaux-like, this will be the template a seasoned taster uses to evaluate the quality of the wines to follow. If one’s wine stamp is a full-bodied, full-throttle Cabernet with a plush texture and massive fruit and oak flavors, this will be the standard to which all other Cabs must follow. It becomes a stylistic North Star.
Modern winemakers are often not the best critics of wine. Many of them never leave the lab or their winery and have little real world experience. They often see wine exclusively through their component parts. Trained to avoid any bacterial influences, they often respond negatively to wines that are characterful, and positively to wines that are sterile but pure. Very few modern winemakers even have food in mind when they’re crafting their wines.
It’s too bad we can’t turn back the clock and expose newer generations to the wine experiences of the past, but the here and now is the world we live in. What we can do is experience as many different wines as we are able, in many different settings, and approach everything new with a sense of wonder and openness. Try to cajole experienced wine collectors into sharing an older bottle to experience the tastes and complexities of aged wine. Try to imagine how they tasted in their youth—probably very different from most wines made today. Ideally, a wine lover should travel abroad to sample Europe’s regional wines with their regional food counterparts to gain a new and expansive understanding and appreciation of wine.
Back at home, put two stems at each place setting (maybe pour two wines of a single type, or even a red and a white) to compare and contrast the effect food has on different wines and the effect each wine has on your food. In short, have as many wine experiences in as many settings as you can. You see, opinions and preferences can and do change dramatically with experience.
One of my personal and professional goals is to have each of our customers get the maximum pleasure out of every wine that leaves our store. That can only happen if our customers are willing to “listen” to each wine instead of downing it in one gulp. Your ideal wine may be your companion’s “dog” and vice versa. But both of you may be surprised to discover that in the right setting, with the right foods, you may not be so different in your evaluation of the same wine you once argued about.