adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A response to Vinography

I wrote this piece in response to Alder, who is the homme behind Vinography.

Alder wrote an article in which he argued that technological modification of wines helps winemakers stay on their vineyards, and benefits the wine industry in France (especially Bordeaux). While I am not an authority on wine economics, I think his overall argument is marred by a fundamental difference of opinion when it comes to quality and purity. Whether I think the application of modern winemaking techniques helps winemakers is an issue that I don't know enough to address, and consequently leave the matter to others.

Without further ado...

It seems odd for Alder to assert that wine quality is necessarily reflected in higher sales. Is supermarket plonk wine good because it sells so well? It's not true of any other food product: Kraft cheese slices versus Hook's 12 year cheddar, cheese whiz versus a veritable brie. So why does he think it's true of wine? Greater sales may result because a product is of higher quality, but that is certainly not true a priori.

I've tended to agree with Karen MacNeil when she writes, "One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it. Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking wine, period."

I agree that wine makers, like all kinds of farmers, need support to be able to stay on the land. While I agree that wine makers should be allowed to make wines that people like more, that doesn't necessarily make them better wines. The wines may or may not be better, but there is no logical relationship between like-ability and quality.

As for technology in wine making, I think the anti-technology camp is similar to the aversion that many serious beer drinkers and home brewers have to flavorings and adjuncts. If I were brewing a coffee stout for example, I would want to use grains that have been roasted to an appropriate extent to generate the correct Maillard flavors. This practice is better than throwing some coffee beans into the brew kettle and adding the flavor that way (although many good caffeinated beers are made that way). Indeed, I think one of the real pleasures of many beers is the fact that their flavors come from very simple sources: barley, hops, yeast, and water (e.g. the banana flavor of a hefeweizen from the yeast and fermentation conditions). In a blind taste test, I might not be able to tell the difference. But if I knew how they were both made, it's pretty clear to me which one I'd choose.

And it's the same with wine.

A wine that has been "manipulated" in one way or another may not be evident upon taste. But I think many of us would agree that we'd rather drink the wine that hasn't been oaked to mask certain flavors, chaptalized to cover-up a yield that's too large, etc. These techniques have their uses, but they can be used for good just as much as for evil.

To take this to the absurd extreme, imagine if flavor companies became interested in manufacturing the molecules that make up wine flavor. These chemicals could then be mixed with water and ethanol, and voila! Wine! Consistent replication of the finest Bordeaux and Barolo vintages with no chance of off-flavors, spoilage, or corking! Even if the products couldn't be differentiated from the original wines by a mass spectrometer, I wouldn't drink them.

Ever.

1 comment:

Alder Yarrow said...

Nicholas,

Thanks for the comments. Perhaps you misunderstand me slightly. I am not making the assertion that the quality of the wine and it sales numbers are directly proportional or dependent. We all know that the largest selling wines in the world are NOT the highest quality. The two factors do not directly correlate.

However, there IS a relationship between quality and success in the marketplace, in that a wine has to meet a certain threshold of quality for people to want to drink it. As much as I might personally dislike drinking wines like Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail, I also recognize how they are much higher quality wines than most of their predecessors in those price categories for the past two decades, and while their success has much to do with branding and marketing and product pricing, they never would have gotten anywhere if they weren't wines that people thought were better than the alternatives.

There are three different "betters" at play in this situation, each measured against different standards:

1. The winemaker who wants to use technology to make a wine that he thinks is better. What is better to him? He knows it when he tastes it. He defines better in relative terms to what he was capable of creating before the use of any new technology or technique. How many winemakers out there in the world do you think there are that continue to make wine that they think is WORSE than they used to make?

2. The consumer votes with their palate and their pocketbook. Taking price out of the equation, consumers always buy the product that is "better" for them. Better means some combination of tasting better and the emotional part of purchasing a brand or product.

3. The wine critic holds the wine up against the complete history of great wine and places the wine in the context of all great wines to determine whether that wine is "better" than some other. For a wine to get better means that it has advanced closer to the accepted standards for what is good, and farther away from the faults that we associate with bad.

Of course, as Karen MacNeil rightly points out, it is only this third assessment by the critic that offers any certainty whether a wine is "good" (that is, after all why we have critics in this world) but that doesn't invalidate the first two assessments. And it is the height of arrogance to believe that somehow the opinion of the critic objectively matters more than the first two.

That opinion might matter more to people who care about critics, but for the average struggling winemaker and the average consumer they could give a flying you know what about [insert your choice of critic here]. They're just trying to A) make a product that they are proud of and helps them support their family and B) enjoy their life, respectively.

Let me make this analogy for you.

The movie 300 just came out. Almost every major critic of stature pointed out some of its redeeming features from a technical standpoint, but panned it nonetheless. Compared to Citizen Kane or Ben Hur or whatever the gold standards are for cinema it was a lousy movie. Yet the director feels that it is a crowning achievement of his career thus far, and the public kept it at the #1 box office grosser for two weekends in a row, I believe.

Can you imagine some critic suggesting that the director not be able to make the movie that he wanted to make because by (the critic thinks) limiting his use of special effects the director might have concentrated more on the plot and dialogue and made an "objectively" better film as a result?

What utter rubbish! Lots of people listened to the critics and didn't go see that movie, and for them, the critic may have saved them from seeing a film they wouldn't like. But plenty of other people loved the movie. No one has the authority to say that either is more right than the other.

Will the movie win Best Picture next year? Of course not. It wasn't trying to.

Back to Bordeaux, is this poor producer going to be able to use chemical analysis or reverse osmosis to make the next Petrus. Of course not. He's not trying to. Is he going to be able to potentially make a wine that he likes better and that his customers like better? He might. I call that a "better" wine in any sense that really matters.

Now, as for your beer technology analogy, I totally understand what you're saying. Pretty much everyone who thinks about their relationship to wine as more than just a preference for red or white can agree that given the choice we don't want to drink "synthetic wines" or wines that have been "doctored" with chemical flavors. The problem is that most people have strange and illogical senses of what "manipulation" is and there is a HUGE gray area in the middle which is what this whole discussion is about.

To extend your analogy, we're not talking about beer made with roasted grains vs. beer flavored with coffee beans or coffee syrup. We're talking about something more along the lines of beer made from grains roasted using an old cast iron pan over an open flame vs. beer made from grains that have beeb in a laser roasting chamber that allows the roaster to make sure every kernel is roasted to exactly the same level of toast. In my opinion to call the second beer more "manipulated" and any less "natural" than the first is a complete joke.