Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

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5 responses

  1. Mike, yous aid part of Terry Theise’s arguemnt was “If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.” Which marketplace? You may or may not buy Chris Anderson’s famous “Long tail” theory, that today Amazon may sell a lot of the top 10 best sellers, but overall they sell even more books appealing to specialized interests, so there’s an expansion of taste and availability. However, My visits to reality (which isn’t just the name of a small town in Saskatchewan) suggest Theise’s view of the market is obsolete and doesn’t describe what the world is like now. With the recession, book sales dropped except for romance sales that went up 7 per cent. Fantomas, the 1913 thriller film , is being released on DVD September 21 by Kino. Most people who rent videos rent recent ones and I know lots of people who don’t watch black and white ones, let alone silent films. But there’s a big enough market for Kino to release the film on DVD. Music by Midnight Syndicate has loyal fans. There will continue to be a market for all sorts of specialists, including in wine. Had any Falernian lately? It can be good.

  2. As far as Germany is concerned, globalization has only a limited impact on the German wine industry.

    The German wine industry consists of many small wine producers, totaling about 70.000. If you exclude the about 40.000 operators of less than 0.5 hectare who should probably be classified as hobby winemakers, you are down to 30.000 wine makers. Then, it gets a bit complicated. Many smaller winemakers do not pursue wine making as a full-time occupation, but rather as a supplement to other agriculture or to hospitality. It is not uncommon that a small family-owned tavern or restaurant has its own wine. If we move up to a minimum of 5 hectares, we get down to about 6.000 wineries, accounting for about 60 percent of Germany’s total vineyard surface, and it is in this category that the full-time winemakers are primarily found.

    Maybe 300 of them export. One the one hand you have the cheap stuff, with many of the brands unheard of in Germany. On the other hand you have the quality and premium wines from Doennhoff, who you mentioned, and others. Practically all premium wines that you can find on the shelves in the US are from one of the 200 VDP producers. But the VDP producers account for just 3% of German wine production. And the VDP producers sell on average 90% of their production to local consumers.

    Except for the noble sweet wines and the light and sweet Mittel-Mosel Kabinett wines, which are to a large extent produced for export, the feed-back from the global market to the German wine producers is very limited. as far as quality and premium wines are concerned.

  3. I agree that the issue with taste is individuality, and everyone likes different things at different times. No one eats the same foods or drinks the same wines all of the time.

    Now suppose that in addition to subjective ratings by wine tasters, which are accurate to within plus or minus 2 at the very best, there were several objective measurements of the chemistry that influences flavor. The IRS scale used on Rieslings is good (dry to sweet) start. Suppose there were similar other objective scales, high to low acid, high to low tanin, and ???

    Now these kinds of scales obviously can’t define exactly how something tastes, but, they can help the individual consumer develop the confidence to pick up a particular bottle from an unknown artisan vintner as opposed for stopping in at the local McWine for a glass of “Red”. The typical consumer typically wants something they feel is a good value which is why chain stores are in demand. Consistent quality and value, even if it is the lowest common denominator.

    Standardizing on a specific set of objective scales on wines can help create the consumer confidence of McWine with a variety similar to artisan breads or cheeses.

    Anyhow, nice article.

  4. Hey Mike,

    I completely agree with your conclusions. People have a tendency to paint the world in black and white to illustrate their point of view yet the world is almost never one or the other. Wine is a work of passion as much as it is a commercial product and this means that regardless of the demand, unique wines will always be available for those who take the time to find them.

    Good points.

  5. A first article I have launched for Jannie Whitt for Intimate Café
    I certainly disagree with the fact that “taste” is personal” I strongly believe, that we have more in common than you want think, and tha the theory of “taste” a very logic one. The elemnets described are from Mr Peter Klosse in Holland who has a PHD in Taste from the university of Maastricht in Holland. I use his theory a lot to explain people more simple what “taste” can be for them throughout my activities with Wine Safari
    Hope to hear from Sincere greetings Mike Rijken

    Hello Wine Lovers

    The drink of wine is certainly an element that can contribute to a better understanding of the product itself and its enjoyment with food and other persons.

    However, I think people need some basic advice to bring it to a maximum level.
    Most people will say that “taste” is personal and therefore differs from person to person.
    With the following lines I hope to give you some insight that we have more in common than you would think.

    Taste is first of all “emotion” .

    – It plays certainly a role if you are in physical good shape or not
    – Are you tiered or not. It is proven that you taste better in the morning than in the afternoon.
    – But also the “moment” of the day, because even if you taste better in the morning , I rather
    go for a cup a coffee and an orange-juice , than a glass of wine with breakfast. (Unless it is
    Champagne, ha, ha).
    – Are you happy or sad
    – Environment and situation: “ That glass of Rosé wine in Provence tasted beautiful, but that
    same rosé on a rainy day in your hometown doesn’t seem to be the same”.

    You would not imagine how we let our “taste” influence by the opinion that we have about a product. In fact we could say: Taste= opinion x product.

    Taste is certainly under influence of a learning process:
    – In our youth we maybe did not like spinach and Brussel-sprouts, but getting adults we eat it and we might even like it very much.
    – The expectation that we have about a product/
    A bottle of wine given to you in a simple brown bag, or delicately enrobed with “gold and –silver rapping” makes that the wine is getting more special for you , so you chance expectations.
    – Label information
    I can show you two bottles of wine: One says “Table Wine” and the other is the famous wine from southern Rhone called “Chateauneuf du Pape”; Both wines haven proven to keep for 25 years, still on first hand I would have more confidence in the second bottle.
    – Product information
    I once gave people four slices of tomato
    One with a French flag, Spanish, Moroccan and Italian “ Question: Which is the best?
    8 out of 10 people will say the Italian, because our mind is so focussed on the Italian cuisine linked with tomato that that was a pretty easy result. I took the flags away and declared it was the same tomato from a greenhouse out of Holland. People were surprised as expected.
    – Arousal
    It is very important, because the moment you see a product which you like, you have envy for , you taste it different than if you something in your plate you dislike.

    If we like to describe “taste” in fact we wish to make people understand what happens inside our mouth.
    If that is the case: Than is texture very important. We must train ourselves on that, and be conscious that the inside of our mouth is as sensitive as your fingertips, if not even more.
    Example: If you take an apple and you mix it in your blender until it is completely liquid, it taste like apple but doesn’t feel like. The moment I cut the apple in very thin slices, once again we have an opinion on this apple. And the moment you take the whole apple and take a good bite from it , once again we have an opinion about this apple because its “texture” is different.

    The preparation of the same product in different ways/

    Meat or fish being steamed or boiled stay from the outside and inside very soft. The moment I put them on the grill or frying pan, it makes a crust on the outside , while the inside of the meat stays soft. So it chances your taste.
    We notify that everything that carries a crust or being “crackling” gives us a dry feeling in the mouth.
    Was it not a favourable game during anniversary parties to give the children two cookies which you had to chew up very quickly, and you were asked to whistle or to produce a sound by your lips? You couldn’t achieve that , because the cookie makes your mouth completely “dry”
    So everything that carries a crust gives this feeling, from bread, to toast, to puffed pastry, to grilled meat or fish.

    Be aware of the fact that your mouth needs some time to adapt itself on the new situation, the moment you drink or eat something.
    – The fist “zip” of white wine seems to be very “dry” in the beginning , but after one glass we realise that the wine is not as “dry” as we thought. Your mouth has now got “used “ to the taste.
    – It is well known that the “soups and sauces” tasted” by the chefs daily, are a bit more saltier in the evening than within the morning, because as you taste them constantly, you (want) ( to) add every time a bit more.

    Mike Rijken Wine Safari Wine Education from out of the Rhone Valley, south of France.

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