A recent study was published by the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture called “Wine Expertise Predicts Taste Phenotype,” but credit goes to HealthDay for catching an interesting extrapolation of the data and posting it to Yahoo News here. They aren’t making the case that consumers don’t care about ratings, because, as we all know, they do… in some cases religiously. They do contend though that consumers shouldn’t care about ratings for one simple reason: their palates are not as highly trained and/or evolved as the wine critics’ are.
The study used a probe compound that would be easily detected as very bitter by people with sensitive palates while those with average palates would only detect slight bitterness, if anything at all. Out of 330 people tested at wine tasting events, only 111 participants detected the compound. All participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire to declare if they were an expert or not. They concluded that experts were much more likely to detect the compound and as such, expert recommendations may be based on tastes that are too subtle for the average person to notice.
They are careful to note that while the difference between an expert and the average consumer may have something to do with experience and education, previous research has shown that biological factors may explain the very sensitive taste of experts. In that case, if you are an average consumer, don’t hold out hope for becoming an expert taster. John Hayes, assistant professor of food science and director of the sensory evaluation center at Penn State says “If an expert’s ability to taste is different then the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”
I agree… sort of. In a perfect world, we should not care what reviewers say. I do agree that everybody actually does have different palates… it is the WHY that it up for debate. I like to hold onto the contention that the biggest factors in “palate awareness” are experience, education and training, not physiology. This view allows me to believe that there is room for anyone and everyone in the land of wine appreciation. It might be exposed as inaccurate someday, but for now, there is no fun in thinking that someone’s enjoyment of wine could be limited by their biology.
I do not personally pay attention to ratings and reviews when it comes to choosing what to spend my own money on. However, I understand that I have a lot more experience and knowledge at my fingertips to help with my judgment then some folks do. For some, ratings and reviews can be a comfortable place to get started and I would rather someone have a comfortable starting place then feel lost in a metaphorical (and literal) ocean of vino. In short time, most people will learn to take what a review says about a wine with a grain of salt, if not ignore it altogether anyway. Just remember, at the end of the day, the only persons palate that matters is YOURS. If you like a wine that scored low, stand proud. If you don’t like a wine that was reviewed well, don’t be afraid to speak your mind… you’re not “wrong.” There is no wrong or right when it comes to personal taste.
So, where do you start when you are deciding what to buy? Easy. The one thing a wine reviewer can’t ever say to you specifically is… “Yes, you will like this wine.” Why? Because they don’t know a damn thing about your individual palate. Go talk to a wine professional at a reputable wine retailer. Be ready to articulate what you like and just as importantly, what you don’t like… and then trust when they say you’ll like something… repeat after me: “ignore the score.” A wine reviewer cannot and will not ever take the time to learn about your likes and dislikes and personally recommend wines just for you…. some who you can actually converse with… CAN. The more time you spend developing trust with a retailer and the more feedback you can give… the more rewarding your drinking experiences will be. With just a morsel of info from you, they will be able to recommend wines that your palate will be able to understand, appreciate and enjoy. Just imagine what they can do for you when they have a deeper understanding of your preferences?
Do I think that things will change and move away from a marketplace controlled by the critics? Yes. Do I think that is a good thing? Yes. Do I think it will be anytime soon? Surprisingly, yes again. It is going to be a very exciting time to be in the wine industry but my thoughts on that and my other reasons for being anti-critic are best left for a different post. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How much weight do you give to reviews and ratings? Why? Do you trust the “experts” over your own instincts, or the recommendations of people you know personally?
In Part 1, I briefly discussed the history, significance and basic tenets of Biodynamics. Before I get into too many details, I should take a moment and talk about certification. Many producers employ only some, not all, of the practices of Biodynamics. Demeter International and Biodivin are the two most recognized certification organizations. Many (if not most) wineries that use biodynamic practices choose to not get certified. Many refrain from certification on principal, holding that getting certified can potentially be viewed as “selling out” or attempting to jump on the “green” marketing hype train. Certainly, someone’s motives for getting certified can be debated but I typically stand with those who farm biodynamically on principal alone, not seeking additional marketing avenues through certification. They humbly go about their ways, doing what they feel is right, not looking for recognition.
Closed nutrient systems (composting), self-regulation (hands-free maintenance based on naturally occurring predator-prey relationships within a diverse habitat of plants, animals and organisms) and the minimal use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. are all standard fare in the world of alternative farming. Biodynamics takes one of it’s two biggest deviations from conventional and alternative farming techniques with the use of “preparations” in the vineyard, as well as on the compost heap. Some of the preps include: chamomile, dandelion, stinging nettle, yarrow, valerian, horsetail, quartz, manure and oh yeah, some really fun stuff: deer bladders, cattle intestines, domesticated animal skulls, cow stomachs… you know, the usual. The preparations are used as sprays or buried in the soil. They all serve unique purposes but ultimately work to regulate and stimulate the life process of a farm or vineyard.
The other major deviation for Biodynamics is the integration of cosmic forces. It is contended that all living things have an intimate connection to their environment, including the movement of the sun, the seasons and the lunar cycles. By understanding these universal energies, we can enhance the harmonious environment and promote the natural drive and rhythms of nature within a vineyard or farm. The penultimate goal of a biodynamic practitioner is that through these practices, an awareness and intuition can be established that connects them with the unique spirit of a place. Got all that? Good.
I know that is not a lot of information, I don’t have a lot of space here. There are several sources out there with more info then you could ever want and I will be happy to refer them to you. I warn you though, from this point forward, expect your future reading to be highly technical, although very interesting.
So… does it work? Is the wine better? Some folks say yes, others say no. Most say “I have no idea.” Many vintners swear it makes a big difference in the health of the vineyard, which of course reflects in the final product. Is it better then other compost-based farming methods? We might not ever know. This is due in part to the very nature of biodynamics… the cosmic simply cannot be quantified. How does one say anything definitive about the cosmic? The bottom line though is that it’s environmentally reasonable. I don’t see how that can be a bad thing. That being said, there is no way in hell I could tell the difference between a wine made from biodynamic grapes compared to other faming methods in a blind test. However, knowing the level of passion and integrity that goes into a biodynamically farmed bottle of wine, for me, only adds to the pleasure gleaned from consuming it. As soon as you can, visit a biodynamic vineyard and prepare to be amazed. Seek out biodynamically produced wines and drink them post haste!
If you have an opinion one way or the other in regards to biodynamic farming, please let me know in the comments section. Questions are welcomed as well. Also, please join me next week for Part 3 as I wrap up this whole mess with my interview of one of the worlds great wine makers, who just happens to have an intimate understanding of Biodynamic farming. Cheers!
You are really going to have to follow me down the rabbit hole for this one. Right now, your reaction to biodynamics is probably something along the lines of… “You mean, that crazy vineyard witch doctor voodoo shaman stuff?” Yes, that stuff. In Part 1, I hope to give you a basic education on biodynamics in general, including a brief history, why it is significant and it’s basic tenets, just to see if I catch your interest. If I do, you can follow me further down the rabbit hole to Part 2, where I will cover some of the more technical aspects as well as the cosmic influences and briefly discuss the controversy surrounding certification. Part 3 will be my interview of an internationally renowned winemaking guru with experience working with biodynamic vineyards. Yes, you have to wait and read Part 3 to find out who it is. Hopefully somewhere along the way, I can address the million-dollar question… does it work? Although every one needs to answer that question for themselves, I will certainly offer my opinion.
Biodynamic farming is part of a much larger worldview, an all-encompassing philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, social activist, architect and all around wacky guy. He is most noted for developing Anthroposophy, a spiritual movement that encompasses the Waldorf/Steiner method of education, Biodynamic agriculture, social finance principles, the performing arts, architecture, medicine and much more in an effort to bridge the gap between science and mysticism. He wrote more then I want to mention (for fear of revealing my own inefficiency as an author) but he thankfully wrote an autobiography that detailed his life, even admitting the times people called him crazy, including Hitler. Go figure. The book is called “The story of my life.” It won’t change yours (or will it?), but it is entertaining.
Putting everything else aside and just focusing on the agricultural aspect of biodynamics, Steiner got the proverbial “ball” rolling with a seminar he taught in Germany as a response to local musings that modern chemical fertilizers were hurting, not helping, their crops and land. He introduced a comprehensive, all-natural philosophy for farming that covered all the bases: pest management, composting, soil fertility, greenhouses, sustainability, synergy with the surrounding environment, animal welfare, etc. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s practices are already used extensively worldwide and it is growing in significance daily. The movement is a major “hot-topic” in the wine community right now, as evidenced by large international studies, buzz in the blogosphere, many magazine articles and more. Just how extensive is it? Let me mention some Burgundy Domaines you may have heard of: Romanee-Conti, Dujac, Vogue, Leflaive, Leroy, Mugnier, Tremblay… anything ringing a bell? There are literally hundreds of producers all around the world using biodynamics (certified or not): Araujo, Chapoutier, Gaja, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, Littorai, Quivira, Zind Humbrect, Mordoree, Alois Lageder, Nikolaihof, Pingus, Casa Lapostolle… and the list goes on and on.
So… what is it? The basic tenets of Biodynamic farming begin with the recognition that the Earth as a whole is a single, yet multi-dimensional ecosystem that is bio-diverse, self-regulating and sustainable. Farmers following the biodynamic principles attempt to recreate that on a smaller scale within their own farm. This is for the benefit of their communities and the planet as a whole. The second major tenet is that there are cosmic forces in nature not yet fully understood by science and that the health of a farm (and consequently, the quality of the products being grown), the farm’s environment, and really, the whole planet and all its inhabitants, can be enhanced by working with and utilizing those forces.
By now, you are most likely thinking one of two things… 1) This seems weird, I’m outta here. Or 2) This seems weird, tell me more. In either case, you’re right, it’s weird. It gets weirder, trust me, but, that’s it for now. If you have questions or comments, please post them below. This is a controversial and confusing, yet significant topic. Part 2 will be live next week, where I will cover some of the technical details of biodynamics and how they tie into the cosmic forces.
Welcome to the first edition of my “Manly Wine Consumption” series. This series will be catered to men to help them combine their love of wine with whatever manly activity they happen to be participating in. I will also help with some suggestions for appropriate wines for the occasion. Ladies, pay attention too for a look inside the mind of a man. First up: Fight Night.
If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t… that’s me at the left), you probably don’t have many friends that share your love for fine wine and watching guys beat the snot out of each other. MMA is the undisputed king of combat sports as well as the fastest growing sport in the world. A typical Saturday night for a MMA fan usually consists of driving to a bar, watching the fights, getting plastered, getting in a bar fight and then getting left passed out in their front yard by your “friends”… I mean, their friends. That has never happened to me.
Due to completely unrelated circumstances, I try to no longer watch the fights at bars and have started watching the fights at a buddy’s house, where a handful of guys will share the expenses. Everyone always drinks beer. It’s always Bud Light, the official beer sponsor of the UFC. Unless you are a Brock Lesnar fan, in which case, you drink Coor’s Light. If it devolves into tequila shots, don’t worry, the official spirit sponsor of the UFC is Tequila Cazadores.
There are three ways to approach justifying your bottle of vino to the other guys. First, it’s fight night. Threaten to kick their ass if they say a word about it. The second method is to reason with them about wine being classy, respectable and civilized. This will often shame them into feeling like the sub-cretins they are and often, they will ask for a taste. Deny them.
The third? Bring a wine that they can’t bag on you for. This is where selecting the right wine comes into play. Your thinking must be multi-faceted. My recommended wines for fight night aren’t too intellectually stimulating (you’ll be too distracted by the fights to over-analyze anyway) and go well with most party food fare. They also need to be worthy of respect from your buddies as well as not break the bank. The Pay-Per-Views are $55 bucks now because UFC President Dana White needs another Ferrari.
Anything with a manly sounding name and/or manly looking label is a good way to go. Some examples would be “Sinister Hand,” “The Ball Buster,” or “Boom Boom.” If you have a few extra bucks to spend, check out the wines from Four Vines. With names like “Loco,” and “Anarchy,” and bottle designs to match… your bound to score a couple knockouts with the guys.
If none of those work, try my favorite alternative… negotiate with your wife or girlfriend to watch the fights, just the two of you. Nothing is more romantic then yoked up sweaty guys in speedos making each other bleed all over the place… and drinking an aged Rioja alongside a herb roasted lamb chop.
In my unwavering quest to taste vintage after vintage of the best wines from around the world, Joseph Phelps Insignia simply could not go ignored any longer. The Insignia lobbyists have a strong case. From 1990 to 2007, the average score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is 94.5 pts. The 2002 vintage was ‘Wine of the Year’ by Wine Spectator Magazine. It has been in their Top 10 three times, a cellar selection 5 times…the list of acclaims goes on and on. This is amazingly commendable considering just how much of this bottling they produce.
I have tasted various sporadic vintages, mostly post-2001 but was recently given the opportunity to attend a tasting held at Bellavino Wine bar & Restaurant of a 10 year vertical starting with the 1997 and ending with 2006. All I had to do was contribute a bottle so I signed myself up to bring a 2004. At my very core, I am a skeptic. I am also an old world wine drinker. So, to say I came into the event biased is not entirely necessary but for the sake of transparency, I admit to it here and now.
The evening began with an unexpected foray deep into the past… a magnum of 1993 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet. Although the juice was not dead, unfortunately, the wine was very tired. The fruit was minimal and the structure undefined. I usually drink complex, subtle, aged wines and this fell short of that. A disappointment, especially given the large format. There is always a chance it was an off bottle but I found no flaws. If you have this wine… drink now.
After that, the 1997 through the 2001 Insignias were served together. The 1997 showed the best with the 2001 a close second. The wines were, in my humble opinion, in their twilight years although the color beguiled me, as the wines did not appear overly aged. The obvious theme of the vintages was clearly a well-balanced wine. The acidity is still providing some element of structure and the tannins are moderate and velvety. At this age, it’s all bright red fruit initially, followed by an open core of darker fruit that is quite soft. Minerality, earthiness and herbaceous notes were all present but you had to dig for them as they were a little dried out. The wines were decanted, which was probably not necessary. Their pedigree was still visible though and you can tell they started their lives as dark, pure wines of elegance integrated with power, true to their reputation but again, other than the 97 and the 01, drink up.
The second flight (the 2002 through the 2006) fared much better, with all vintages showing well. The ones that endeared themselves to me most were the 2002 and the 2004. These wines had the strength, balanced with finesse, that Insignia is known for. These are not overly complex or subtle wines but what they lack in tact, they make up for in clarity. Pure, dark fruit is the backbone of these wines when young and when ready to drink. These were decanted as well, and I suspect these bottles benefited from it. Once again, the reputation of Insignia is upheld but this time, within its maturity.
All in all, a great tasting and a great experience. My impression as I look back at it is that, while Insignia is no doubt a legendary wine, it is intelligently being made in an easily approachable style. This is, of course, speculation but it would not surprise me if it were intentional, as very few people hold their wines more then a few years. If consumed within 3–5 years for average vintages and 5–8 years for exceptional vintages, you will be rewarded. The wines are meant for new world drinkers looking for a touch more elegance and class then other wines in the same price range and category and it accomplishes that with ease. It is a solid buy but don’t be shy about popping those bottles.
Following up on my last post about where the passion comes from, this post seemed like the natural next step. This will be a hard pill for some of you to swallow (myself included) but I want to make the case that people should stop taking wine so seriously. I know that sounds ironic coming from me, as I am known far and wide for my wine snobbishness. Just ask my wife. But at the end of the day, all pretentiousness set aside, the bottom line is that wine should be fun.
There are plenty of reasons people take wine too seriously (it’s hard not to be serious about something you’re passionate about), but the reasons aren’t as important as the consequences. The biggest issue I see is that if you are taking it too seriously, it’s harder for everyone else to enjoy. This is especially true when newbies and experts mingle. I cringe at how many wine novices have lost interest after negative experiences with snobs. A secondary consequence to others not having fun is that you don’t get invited to parties, and people won’t come to yours.
Now, “fun” means many different things to different people. In my case, being serious is fun. Maybe I’m a masochist. In some cases, what’s fun for one person could be perceived by others as being from the shallow end of the gene pool. Try asking for the proper glassware at a restaurant and see if your companions don’t roll their eyes, cringe, cover their faces or in extreme cases, hide under the table. God help you if you question the wine for VA or reduction. Restaurants and somms fear and despise you.
Is it fun to be geeked out? Yeah, it is. But one must be sensitive to his (or her) environment, as most situations are not appropriate for this particular form of questionable behavior. A good rule of thumb: when in Rome, do as the Romans do, unless specifically requested to do otherwise. In other words, take a chill pill man. As a cork-dork who is constantly forced to disguise myself as a casual wine drinker in the majority of social situations (which is soul-crushing, by the way), I can assure you that you’ll learn.
As a seasoned wine drinker, I feel it is my responsibility to share my passion, my knowledge (when asked) and my soon-to-be-patented 3–step system for making wine fun: 1) drink more 2) drink more often and 3) …well, I haven’t gotten that far yet, but you can bet it involves drinking.
Now, we have identified the problem. How about a solution? Get it out of your system. Congregate with the other connoisseurs in your life and have “happy time” together where everyone can do everything you can’t normally… use the perfect glass, decant, swirl, slurp, discuss the merits of biodynamics, debate whether brett is a flaw or not, etc. Another great way to congregate with your fellow winos is through online forums and communities. There are groups on facebook, meetup, as well as dedicated forums/communities like cellartracker, winebeserkers. Go hang out at your local fine wine retailer, join the club at school, etc. These days, there are enough ways to get your fix and prevent yourself from driving differently minded individuals to sobriety.
So to summarize, while being an insufferable highbrow is lots of fun… knock it off, unless the intention of the gathering is to see who can get their nose the highest in the air. Go ahead, try it, open a cheap Paso red and drink it out of a red party cup. Who knows, you might just have some fun.
I am truly passionate about very few things this life has to offer. But well-crafted wine is one of them. So is obscure Swedish death metal but for now, let’s stick to the wine. Recently, several people, fellow wine lovers and skeptics alike, have asked why I’m so passionate about something that, at its core, is a beverage. People rarely, if ever, get as passionate about Mountain Dew, Milk, or Gatorade as I do about wine. (For those that do, get help.) Wine is magical, or at least seems to be. A great bottle stirs the soul, stimulates the mind, moves your emotions and touches the heart. It is difficult to quantify this aspect of it but I will give it a try, with some help from a few glasses of brain lube called “Pommard.”
At some point, wine drinkers move from simply drinking wine as a beverage to becoming passionate about fine wine. For some, it is a single pivotal experience. For others, it is an organic progression over time. The fire that fuels the passion after its discovery is the obsessive search for the next mind-blowing wine experience. You will ALWAYS be WRONG when you think that there couldn’t possibly be another bottle or experience as incredible as the one in front of you at that moment. What could be more fun or exciting?
Yes, it tastes good, goes well with food, and intoxicates, but it is so much more then that. If one takes a moment and considers what a specific bottle represents, it can be a very fulfilling, if not overwhelming, experience. The endless hours of labor by vineyard and winery workers, the hours of sunshine, the inches of rain, split-second decisions by vineyard managers, winemakers and cellar rats, the nitrogen content of the soil, the ripeness of the grapes during harvest, the yeast selection, punch-downs, racking, filtering…. the variables are infinite. Yet they all come together, to make those 750 milliliters of fluid that are so special. It would take several lifetimes of intense travel, research and drinking to begin to grasp the full scope of the monumental task of producing a particular wine. When we consume wine, we are just one small part of something much larger then ourselves. Ain’t that cool?
The vast majority of high-quality wine is consumed underappreciated. This is sad because in each and every bottle is an incredible story. Wine is not simple. It is art and science, with a little luck thrown in. Making it is not easy; people die in the process. In every bottle is history, geography, biography, chemistry, biology, geology, oceanography, astronomy, sociology, botany, technology, anthropology….. love, hate, anger, anxiety, triumph, joy, defeat, sorrow….. blood, sweat, tears, wars, romance, life, death…. and that is before the bottle is even open. It should be mentioned here though, that even though every bottle has a story, not all of them are worth your time, energy or money. However, for those wines that make you say “Whoa,” once the cork is out (or the screwtop removed), the story continues… your story. The circumstance and environment in which a bottle is opened and consumed is the final chapter. Make it a good one.
So, where does the passion for great wine come from? It comes from the next thrill around the corner, being a part of something bigger then yourself, authoring the final chapter of an epic story and from one last place… sharing all that with those around you. At least, that’s where it comes from for me…. where does it come from for you?