Last week, I posted an expanded version of ‘Creepy Is the New Critter,’ at Hooded Utilitarian, a comics and culture blog. I got some great comments, and of course, one that made me peevish.
“Interesting from a marketing strategy perspective, but the author can’t see his own bias. There are no significant differences between wines. Blind tastings show that experts can’t tell expensive wines from cheap ones. If you want variety and complexity, drink microbrew beers.”
Well. Alright then. This idea is not new. Nor is it newsworthy, unless you have a taste for tired dichotomies– “snobby wines gets their comeuppance.” Now its just wine versus beer, rather than wine versus wine. In our increasingly media dominated culture, expensive wine is often associated with an aristocracy just waiting to be toppled. The underdog is a valuable American character, yet this story gets messy when extended to the marketplace, where better almost always means cheaper. You find this story in the Judgement of Paris, where maligned American wines bested their French counterparts in a Parisian blind tasting in 1976. It comes up frequently in small journalistic taste-tests, complete with ready-made headlines: “Consumers Can’t Taste The Difference.”
As fun as it is, the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ narrative trades on ignorance and sensationalism, like all good headlines. As reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Pepsi bested Coca Cola because of its sweeter first impression, but people often prefer the less sweet Coke when drinking an entire can. Similarly, influential critic Robert Parker tastes all wines blind, only taking a few sniffs and sips of each before making his judgements. This doesn’t address what the wine tastes like after a whole glass, or a whole bottle. It also doesn’t account for the fact that taste is subjective, influenced by a myriad of external factors, and resists summation with a point score. Blind tastings introduce their own confounds, especially when conducted in distracting shopping malls and editor’s offices.
Finally, there are historical factors that play into America’s insensitivity to ‘wine value.’ ‘Cheap’ versus ‘expensive’ is not an especially insightful axis, especially as the quality gap between ‘cheap’ wines and ‘expensive’ wines has closed drastically in the last thirty years. Greater numbers of better trained winemakers and winegrowers are using improved techniques and technology, and there’s more information about what grape varieties grow best where. Also, large industrial wineries can make tons of wine very cheaply, and this wine tends to be of good quality, even if it can be homogenized and rather uninteresting. Part of what makes a wine expensive is that it is made in limited quantities, and reflects very specific characteristics about the land its grown on, and the people who made it. I’m not sure blind tasters would be able to pick out which oatmeal stout was more expensive, to return back to beer. A lager and a porter are as different as a Pinot Grigio is from a Barolo.
Its quite possible that taste-testers could pick up other differences in wine, like ‘red’ versus ‘white.’ Or ‘sweet’ versus ‘dry.’ Although, The University of California Davis reputedly did show in its color tests that red and whites, served at the same temperature, can be hard to differentiate. This doesn’t reduce all wine qualities to nil, however. Red wines often have tannins, that grippy, gritty texture you get in your mouth, which can impart tea and leathery flavors. White wines don’t. Without getting into the Platonic ‘red-wine-ness’ and ‘white-wine-ness’ Molly Laas testifies to in her piece here at HuffPo, there are differences which can be picked up, as long as you don’t overthink them.
Yet who doesn’t overthink wine? Experts and novices alike get tripped up by the pomp and circumstance, the bizarre rules, the superstitions and encyclopedic knowledge of trained sommeliers. Wine makes people nervous, and many would be satisfied to see it reduced to an elitist scam. That doesn’t mean it is one.