Extreme Wines of the Year

Rebecca Gibb, my editor at Wine-Searcher.com, asked a few of us to nominate our “wines of the year” for 2013 and I was happy to add my voice to the chorus. My selection — the 2012 first vintage of Eroica Gold Riesling from the Columbia Valley, Washington — was complicated.

As you know, I don’t review individual wines or assign scores so, while sensory factors clearly matter, I decided to base my final choice on a wine’s potential to shape or shift the market, or at least a particular segment of it, as well as the obvious taste, aroma and texture aspects. (You can read all the Wine-Searcher selection here.)

A New Gold Standard?

That’s where Eroica Gold stands out for me. It is different from most of the other American Rieslings that are produced in sufficient volume to enjoy wide distribution and so represents a potential step forward in this rising marketplace.

Eroica Gold is made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. About a third of the grapes were Botrytis infected. Sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced and the orange marmalade aromas and luscious texture are memorable. This is Riesling for adults, that’s for sure, and my hope is that this joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen will open up a new market segment for Rieslings of this style.

Eroica Gold surprised me and working on the Wine-Searcher project got me thinking about other surprising or Extreme Wines (to engage in a bit of shameless self promotion for my new book of the same name). Herewith a quick accounting of some of the other wines that got my attention, focusing on Australia, which we visited back in September.

Head for the [Adelaide} Hills

The Adelaide Hills get less attention than some other Australian regions, but it provided three wines that made me stop and think. Two of them were made by Larry Jacobs at his Hahndorf Hills Winery. A medical doctor by training, Jacobs immigrated to Australia from South Africa where he founded Mulderbosch. He seems to think outside the box when it comes to wine — how else can you explain the Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch (or Lemberger) that we tasted?

You might think that it was a simple typographic error (easy for auto-correct to mix up Austria and Australia), but it was obviously a carefully calculated move. The 2012 Gruner was in fact named the best wine of its type from outside Austria! Quite a distinction.

I love Rieslings and Pinot Noir and the Adelaide Hills boasts many fine examples of these wines (we especially enjoyed the wines of Ashton Hills). But it was an Adelaide Hills Shiraz that we tasted at Charles Melton in Barossa that made me stop and think. “Voice of Angels” it is called and it comes from a vineyard at Mt Pleasant.

A very cool site and a very distinctive wine made, I was told, by co-fermenting the Shiraz grapes with a bit of Riesling from the same vineyard.  Did I really hear that? Shiraz and Viognier, yes. Shiraz and Riesling? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but in any case this was a wine to remember!

Big in Barossa

P1060519Sue and I were fortunate to be able to taste three of Australia’s most iconic Shiraz wines: Torbreck, Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. They were all memorable, but in different ways.

Our favorite Torbreck wine was a cool climate Eden Valley Shiraz called The Gask — just stunning — but I was stunned again by a sight not a taste when we toured the winery. There, hidden away, was a bin containing giant 18- and 27-liter bottles of The Laird (which sells for about $900 for 750 ml).

The idea of a 27 liter bottle of this wine — called a “Primat” according to one source and equivalent to 3 standard cases — floored me.  I think I was told that the glass bottle alone cost about $2000 and that once filled it might be worth as much as $40,000 to a collector. Quite a trophy! I’ve inserted Sue’s photo of the whale-sized bottles below.

Grange and Hill of Grace are particularly interesting to me because they are in some ways the ying and yang of top flight Australian Shiraz. Hill of Grace is a single vineyard wine and Grange is a multi-vineyard, multi-district blend. Year after year Hill of Grace comes from the same vines in the same valley (not a hill — the vineyard’s named for the church across the road) while Grange mixes things up a bit each vintage in the search for a particular style. Two different approaches to extreme wine-making.

Taste the Terroir

Listening to Stephen and Prue Henschke talk about their wine made me understand that while the Hill of Grace is a single vineyard in the way that we define these things, it is in fact a very complicated and varied site. The old vines there seem to be able to draw out the variations and the complex and distinctive blend results.

Both Grange and Hill of Grace were memorable, but I must admit to a preference for Hill of Grace. Maybe it is because I tasted more different vintages of this wine or perhaps it is because it comes from Eden Valley, a cool climate area.  Or maybe its the site and the power of those old vines. Can Australia produce terroir wines? No doubt about it!

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If I may permitted one more extreme wine for this column, I think it must be the Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coal River Valley in Tasmania that we tasted with winemaker Peter Althaus on a drizzly foggy day. Tasmania is one Australian region that doesn’t have to worry about having a cool climate (at least for now). Althaus scoured the world for a chilly and distinctive site for his vineyard and moved here from Switzerland once he found it. Each of his wines breaks a barrier of some sort — the Pinot Noir perhaps most of all — and the Cabernet is quite an achievement. Another extreme and memorable experience! Can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store!

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Thanks to Kym and Bron Anderson for our tour of the Adelaide Hills. Thanks to Savour Australia for giving us the chance to taste so many vintages of so many extreme wines. Thanks to Dr Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle for introducing us to Eroica Gold at Riesling Rendezvous. Thanks to Scott McDonald for the tasting and tour at Torbreck. Special thanks to Stephen and Prue Henschke for their hospitality in Adelaide.

Wine Reviews: A Modest Proposal

Decanter, the self proclaimed “world’s best wine magazine,” is “relaunching” its Buying Guide section in an attempt to make wine ratings more transparent and therefore  useful to its global audience. You can read all about the new tasting panel protocols here.

Three Heads Better Than One

Instead of listing a single rating score for each wine, for example, Decanter will now provide the individual scores of three critics. I wasn’t sure if this would make much of a difference, but having read through the new issue, I am a fan. Let me take the big review of Rias Baixas Albarino as an example.

Having read the press release, I was expecting to see four numerical scores for each wine (one for each of the reviews plus the average). What I found was a good deal more, however. Each of the three tasters (regional experts Ferran Centelles, John Radford and Jane Evans in this case) also provided individual  tasting notes for the eight top wines plus summary assessments of the group of wines. (The wines were apparently spectacularly good — 8 top scores out of 74 wines and 25 designated as good value.)

Each of the tasters also provided notes for their “top three” recommended wines and John Radford wrote a brief essay to sum things up. Result: There is a lot of information here and a sense of a wine conversation rather than a monolithic judgment. Great new format.

Global Wine Drinkers Want to Know

For as long as I have been reading Decanter the wine ratings have had three components: a brief but useful tasting note, a numerical rating on a 20 point scale and finally an overall assessment of zero to five stars. Of these three the tasting notes are the most useful for serious study while the star system works well for me as a potential buyer. I’m not sure I can taste the difference between 15.5 and 16.0, but knowing what’s Good, Better and Best (my casual interpretation of three, four and five stars) is something I can use.

But Decanter’s scoring system has changed. Here’s a quote from the press release.

Perhaps the most significant new feature is the adoption of the 100-point score, to run alongside Decanter’s 20-point score, while the old five-star system has been dropped.

Introducing the 100-point system is essential as Decanter is now a global magazine with more than half its readership outside the UK,  [editor Guy Woodward] says in this month’s editorial. Readers can now ‘use whichever [scoring system] they are more familiar with’.

Fair enough — although “essential” is pretty strong —  but I’m going to miss the simplicity of the old five star system and I’m not really sure that I need to have the 20 point British scale translated into a 100 point American equivalent. Converting Decanter scores into Wine Spectator-type figures and back again isn’t exactly rocket science (see the conversation table below). But I don’t see any harm in it, especially if, as the Decanter story suggests, the point is to help “global” readers who may be unfamiliar with the 20 point system to make sense of the ratings.

Follow the Money: A Modest Proposal

It’s good to step back and rethink things like this every so often, but maybe Decanter’s relaunch didn’t go far enough, so in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, I’d like to offer a “Modest Proposal” for future reform.

Here’s my idea. Instead of asking critics to score the wines on a quality scale, let’s ask them how much they are worth! How much should someone be willing to pay for this wine?

Wine reviews generally tell us a wine’s price and a score, but what we really want to know is if it’s worth it. That’s the question that a lot of shoppers want answered and the question they are often trying to figure out when they read critic reviews. From a practical standpoint, don’t you think it would be more useful to translate scores into bucks rather than messing around with 20 points versus 100?

Yes, yes, I know there are lots of problems. A wine that tastes good enough to sell for $20 to you might only taste like it’s worth $12 to me. But that’s nothing new — differences in taste and the problem of what economists might call “interpersonal utility comparisons” are part and parcel of all wine rating systems.

The Mitt Problem … Solved

Income distribution is a more difficult question, however. Mitt Romney has mega-bucks, so me might be willing to pay a lot more for a given bottle of wine than I would. That would mess up the ratings if he were a wine critic. But, hey, Mitt doesn’t drink wine, so … problem solved!

There would be lots of benefits to this new system. Easy to use — just compare the price score ($15) with the market price and you know if the wine is “worth it” or not.  Under a set of ridiculously improbable theoretical assumptions that I won’t explain here because it would put you to sleep, the gap between price and critic-assigned value would be equivalent to the welfare economics concept of “consumer surplus” and so the scores would allow consumers to more efficiently maximize utility and achieve a Pareto Optimal resource allocation.

And while this doesn’t really work in theory, it is how many people behave in practice. How many times have you heard someone brag that their $10 wine tastes like it should cost $20? And although this is a silly thing to say, I believe many people really enjoy the benefit they think they have gained from that value-price gap. So the new system wouldn’t change that way of thinking — just improve it. We’d be drawing upon expert opinion for judgment rather than our own amateur assessments.

A Crazy Idea

Yes, I know this is crazy, but that’s the point. Jonathan Swift’s original 1729 modest proposal — that the rich  should eat the children of starving Irish peasants  — was also crazy, but the point was very sane. The cost of food (due to the high rents that landlords collected, according to the author) was already killing children in Swift’s day. As he said, the landlords had already “eaten” the parents through outrageous prices — might just as well go after the children next.

My wine rating reform is crazy, too. You can’t use money to rate wine. Wine doesn’t taste like dollars — it tastes like wine! But, that’s my point. It doesn’t taste like dollars, but it doesn’t taste much like points, either, however useful consumers and producers might find the ratings to be. Hey, don’t get upset. It’s just a modest proposal!

Here’s the Decanter conversation table. Cheers.

Wine Science: Better Drinking Through Chemistry

I’m always excited to read the final papers written by students in my class on “The Idea of Wine.” The students come from all corners of the university and bring with them a diverse range of skills, interests, and experiences both with wine and with academics and life generally.

Reading these papers is never tiring or boring, but that’s probably obvious. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment about London, a person who is tired of wine is tired of life. As in the past, I’ve picked a handful of papers from the fall semester to feature here. This time I want to focus on two themes: wine science and wine politics.

Better Living Through [Wine] Chemistry

Alex (a Math and Chemistry major) wrote an excellent survey of  “Improvements in Wine Making Through Chemistry” that argued  that “In every part of the [winemaking] process there are questions that can only be addressed using modern chemical models and knowledge.” He supported this point with several examples of detailed chemical analysis. I suspect Alex was “provoked” to write this excellent paper by the combination of the anti-scientific sentiment of the film Mondovino, which the class watched, and the very pro-science attitude of Biology PhD and Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s book Wine Myths and Realities, which we read.

Two papers dealt with health issues. Julie (Biochemistry) wrote on “Resveratrol: Potential Health Benefits of Red Wine” while Abby (Exercise Science)  analyzed “Moderate Intake and the Risk of CVS: Resveratrol, NO pathways and SIRT1.” Both papers took the conventional wisdom of the French “Red Wine Paradox” and examined it in detail through the lens of scientific papers and studies. I learned so much from these papers and I can’t thank Julie and Abby enough for writing them.

Frankenwine and Tropical Terroir

Fletcher wrote “Happy Halloween, Enjoy Your Glowing Wine,” an analysis of what I call the “Frankenwine” issue – the application of genetic engineering to wine. As a Business major, Fletcher was naturally interested in consumer attitudes towards GMO products and the marketing implications, but I was impressed with his more technical survey of the application of GMO technology to grapes (to deal with climate change?) and yeasts (such as the ML01 strain, which has been in use since 2003).

Mike (International Political Economy) wrote about “New Lattitdes” viticulture in “Towards a Tropical Terroir: Winemaking Lessons from Thailand.” Although the Thai wine industry is a work in progress, Mike argued that the technical lessons learned in tropical viticulture might eventually be applied to other parts of the world as climate change progresses. His paper combined science with economics and also politics in his analysis of how the AOC system might make it more difficult for Old World producers to benefit from the technical findings of Thai and Brazilian researchers. Very interesting!

Crossing Over, Breaking In

Two students wrote especially interesting papers that probed wine politics issues.  Immigration policy is a hot button political issue this  year – it seems to come up in every Presidential candidate debate. Katherine (Spanish and Art History) wrote about “Grapes of Wrath: Immigration Policy and the U.S. Wine Industry,” looking at immigration flows both in terms of U.S. agriculture generally and the wine grape industry in particular. She suggests that the wine industry would be particularly impacted by changing immigration policy

Patrick (an International Relations major) wrote “The U.S. Racialized Wine Industry: Can Latinos Break Through?”  We know that Latino migrants provide skilled labor in the vineyards – have they been successful in breaking into the cellar, becoming winemakers and winery owners? The answer is yes, but not very often. Patrick examined the structural barriers that seem to stand in the way and speculated about the future .

Thanks to all my “Idea of Wine” students for their great work, both during the semester and on the final papers. A note to students who have signed up for the Spring 2012 class: the Fall students have set the bar pretty high!

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My policy with student papers is that they belong to the students not me, so I do not post them on-line. If you’d like to get a copy, send me an email and I’ll try to put you in touch with the particular students, who may or may not choose to share their work.

Wine Judges and their Discontents

“Do you trust me?” asks the hero in my favorite scene from the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The Princess hesitates (“What?)  as if trusting anyone is a radical idea. “Yes” she finally says and holds out her hand.

Who do you trust?

I think of this scene every time I read wine reviews or wine competition results. “Do you trust me?” is the obvious question when it comes to the scores and medals that wine critics and judges award. If we do trust we are more likely to reach out our hands to make a purchase. But trust does not always come easily with a product as ironically opaque as wine.

So do we trust wine critic Aladdins and should we trust them? I raised this question a few weeks ago in my report on “The Mother of All Wine Competitions,” which is the Decanter World Wine Awards and, after surveying the issues I promised an update from the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano, Italy. This is the promised report.

The session on wine judging (see details below) was very interesting in terms of the research presented, not very encouraging from a trust standpoint. Previous studies that showed that wine judges at major competitions are not very consistent in their assessments were confirmed and attempts to improve their performance have not been very successful so far, according to expert analyst Robert Hodgson. The same wine can get very different ratings from the same experienced judge. It’s hard to “trust” a gold medal despite all the effort that goes into the judging process.

The Trouble with Economists

“If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three opinions.” according to Winston Churchill. Hard to trust any of them when they disagree so much.

Wine critics suffer the same problem as economists, according to research by Dom and Arnie Cicchetti, who compared ratings of the 2004 Bordeaux vintage by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker and found a considerable lack of consensus. Two famous critics produced different opinions much of the time. Hard to know what to think or who to trust. Other presentations did little to increase the audience’s confidence in wine evaluators and their judgments.

Because tastes differ, wine enthusiasts are often advised to use good old trial and error methodology to find a critic with a similar palate — and then trust that critic’s recommendations. This conventional wisdom inspired Ömer Gökçekus and Dennis Nottebaum to compare ratings by major critics with “the peoples’ palate” as represented by CellarTracker ratings. CellarTracker lists almost 2 million individual wine reviews submitted by over 150,000 members.

Point / Counter-Point

Stephen Tanzer’s ratings correlate best to the CellarTracker crowd for the sample of 120 Bordeaux 2005 wines in the research database. But, as Ömer  suggested in his presentation, it is important to remember that the data can contain a lot of noise. Clearly the CellarTracker critics are well informed — they know what Parker, Tanzer, Robinson and the rest have written about these wines and their ratings may reflect positive and negative reactions to what the big names have to say.

The researchers detected a certain “in your face, Robert Parker” attitude, for example. In cases where Parker gave a disappointing score, CellarTracker users were likely to rate it just a bit higher while giving high-scoring Parker wines lower relative ratings. CellarTracker users apparently value their independence and, at least in some cases, use their wine scores to assert it. This is an interesting effect if it holds generally, but it also introduces certain perverse biases into the data stream.

Bottom line: The research presented in Bolzano suggests that there are limits to how much we do trust and how much we should trust wine critics and judges. The power of critics to shape the world of wine may be overstated or, as Andrew Jefford notes in the current issue of Decanter, simply over-generalized. “Opinion-formers are highly significant — for a tiny segment of the wine-drinking population.” he writes. “They remain irrelevant for most drinkers.”

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AAWE Conference Session #1B: Wine Judging / Chair: Mike Veseth, University of Puget Sound

  • Robert T. Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery), How to improve wine judge consistency using the ABS matrix
  • Dom Cicchetti (Yale U), Arnie Cicchetti (San Anselmo), As Wine Experts Disagree, Consumers’ Taste Buds Flourish: The 2004 Bordeaux Vintage
  • Ömer Gökçekus (Seton Hall U), Dennis Nottebaum (U of Münster), The buyer’s dilemma – Whose rating should a wine drinker pay attention to?
  • Jing Cao (Southern Methodist U), Lynne Stokes Southern Methodist U), What We Can Do to Improve Wine Tasting Results?
  • Giovanni Caggiano (U of Padova) Matteo Galizzi (London School of Economics, U of Brescia), Leone Leonida (Queen Mary U of London), Who is the Expert? On the Determinants Of Quality Awards to Italian Wines

The Paradox of [Wine] Choice

I always look forward to the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays because that’s when the pace seems to slow down a bit and I can settle in to read The Economist‘s special double issue.

Of particular interest this year is the essay on page 123 called “Tyranny of Choice: You Choose.” The main point is simple, but the implications are quite broad, with particular relevance for today’s wine markets.

Good — Up to a Point

The simple point? Choice is good, but only to a certain degree. Too much choice is, well, too much and can sometimes stop decision-making dead in its tracks. I say that this is a simple point because we have all suffered from the problem of too many options overloading our preference systems. Or am I the only one who sometimes has trouble ordering coffee at Starbucks or a sandwich at Subway?

Government is a good example of this Paradox of Choice. One party rule is notoriously problematic.  Multiple parties provide useful competition. But at some point more political choice is really less –particularly less in terms of stability.  Fragile, shifting multi-party coalitions mean short governmental half-lives with no one looking after the whole since everyone’s focused on their own tiny slice of the electoral pie.

What makes The Economist article interesting is that it ties together so many elements of this dilemma, from literature to academic research and from potato chips to human reproduction.

Rollerblading Monstromart

Super-abundant choice is a fact of modern life. The Economist suggests that you …

Wheel a trolley down the aisle of any modern Western hypermarket, and the choice of all sorts is dazzling. The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. Carrefour’s hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.

One cost of this embarrassment of riches is confusion or, put another way, higher transactions costs. Making a choice means comparing the qualities and value of different options, which is difficult enough when there are only two brands of breakfast cereal, but mighty time-consuming and complicated when there are 200.

The Economist explores several dimensions of this problem, citing a Nobel Prize winning economist (Daniel McFadden), an Italian novelist (Italo Calvino) and cartoon character Marge Simpson!

Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists, argues Renata Salecl in her book “Choice”. … In one episode of “The Simpsons”, Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. “How is it”, muses Ms Salecl, “that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect leads not to more satisfaction but rather to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems.

Greater choice first delights us, then overwhelms us, then it can sometimes drive us crazy. There must be a “best” among all the rest. Which is it? And how will I know? The quest for the best can sometimes destroy the pleasure of the very good by introducing an unwanted but unshakable sense of doubt.

The Age of Anxiety

Which brings us to wine. It does seem like the problems of exaggerated choice apply especially to wine. Of those 48,000 items on the upscale supermarket shelves, chances are that 1500 or more are bottles of wine. Wine is the largest choice space in the modern grocery store, ten times richer in terms of the number of options than the #2 area (breakfast cereals) and much more complex.

Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.

I find it interesting that some of  the hottest products in the wine market seem to simplify wine just a bit and perhaps unintentionally  address this anxiety. Gallo’s inexpensive Barefoot brand wines have very done well in the last few years; most people view this as a price thing — the result of trading down. But Barefoot also offers consumers a more casual idea of wine that would appeal to anyone who wants to get out of “perfection” rat race and just enjoy wine without over-thinking it. (And every Barefoot bottle features a “Gold Medal” from a wine competition, giving buyers the security of a sense of quality.)

The hottest wine sectors today are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec; is it a coincidence that these wines are easy to understand, with many good producers at various price points? The problem of choice still exists for buyers of these wines, of course, but perhaps more of the pleasure of choosing survives.

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Several people have asked about the series on BRIC wines.  Fear not — it will resume in a few days with a report on Russia,

Anatomy of Wine Fraud

The crime was elegant in its simplicity: create a fake 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild – the 100-point wine that recently sold at auction for a record price of more than £14,000 (for a case)  according to the July 2010 issue of  Decanter.

The perpetrator used an empty bottle of the famous wine (although it would not have been that hard to fake bottle, label, etc.) and invited several wine enthusiast friends (a.k.a. the dupes) to a social  tasting where they would have an opportunity to unintentionally authenticate the DIY Mouton. (Some of the dupes unexpectedly brought along bottles of other 100-point wines from their personal cellars to share with the group. Impressive generosity! I’m sorry I called them dupes.)

The accomplice, a winemaker known for his blending skill, created the bogus vintage from an assortment of his own Washington State (!) wines from the 1990s. Some but not all of the experts took the bait — none of them suspected a fake. Wine of the night, one confidently proclaimed, even after the fraud was revealed.

The Sting

The purpose of the fraud was not, as you might expect, to make money. As reported by Lettie Teague (the perp) in the October 2008 Food & Wine article “Wine Scams: A Counterfeiter Confesses,” the idea was to see if it was possible to fool wine experts who had tasted wines like this (and even this particular wine) many times and could, presumably, easily detect a bogus wine immediately. She actually got the authentic empty Mouton bottle the hard way — by buying a full one for $1200. Not much room for illicit profit there.

Her accomplice was Chris Camarda, maker of the highly regarded Andrew Will wines. I guess it wasn’t fraud so much as a sting operation and the trap wasn’t set for Lettie’s wine expert friends (who presumably have forgiven her by now) but rather for the whole wine industry. Beware of wine fraud!

Wine Fraud: A Global Phenomenon

Old news? Hardly! My inbox has been stuffed to overflowing recently with reports of wine fraud. We seem to be Shocked! Shocked! But I wonder why? One source estimates that five percent of wines traded in the secondary market are fakes and we know that ordinary table wines aren’t always what they appear to be either. Wine fraud isn’t difficult, even at the high end. Indeed, it is remarkably simple.  No wonder there is so much of it!   And that’s the point of this post. Here are examples from the last few weeks.

  • The U.S. has just removed  restrictions on Brunello imports, finally satisfied that wine fraud issues there have been resolved.
  • The fallout continues from the French case involving large quantities of  bogus Pinot Noir sold to Gallo as the real thing.
  • Jancis Robinson’s website recently ran a multi-part report on wine fraud in China, including examples of hopelessly inept but apparently successful wine fakes. My favorite was a bottle of “Bordeaux Port” labeled “dry red wine.”
  • Newly minted Master of Wine Rys Pender’s recent Master of Wine dissertation “Counterfeit wine — its impact on the business of wine takes stock of the damage so far.
  • Slate readers were treated to Mike Steinberger’s big article on wine fraud, including the continuing saga of “the billionaire’s vinegar.”
  • And then there is the “Cellared in Canada” controversy, which doesn’t seem to have gone away — a sort of “soft-core” version of wine fraud produced by rules that permit consumers to willingly mislead themselves.

Wine fraud seems to be everywhere. What are we to make of it?

New Wine in Old Bottles

Can you spot the fake?

Well, the first thing is to realize that this is nothing new. Wine fraud is as old as wine itself, or nearly so. Pliny the Elder complained about the amount of fake wine on the market. The Roman equivalent of Petrus was everywhere, even in the humblest tavern, he said. Who can you trust?

The familiar phrase “new wine in old bottles” is, of course, a description of wine fraud. Indeed, the contemporary European idea of wine is rooted in fraud – the AOC system was provoked in part by the prevalence of fake or adulterated wines.

Then as now, fraud is easily accomplished. Why are people like Lettie Teagues’s wine expert friends so easily fooled? It is partly a matter of interests (Upton Sinclair observed that it is impossible to get people to understand something if their paychecks require them to not understand it), partly  human nature (we all like to be experts and hate to lose face) and partly a matter of Mother Nature — wine is a living, changing thing, everyone’s palate is a bit different, and even with high tech science (carbon dating?) it’s quite difficult to really know what’s in your glass and effectively impossible to know what might be inside an unopened bottle.

And some people want to be fooled in the sense that they want that seemingly impossible trophy (or unforgettable bargain) forgetting the rule that if something is too good to be true … it is probably false. As Walter Bagehot said, “At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money from these people – the blind capital, as we call it, of the country – is particularly craving; it seeks for some one to devour it …”. And someone generally does, whether through credit fraud, wine fraud or something else.

Money, Greed and Wine

So what is to be done? The truth, I suspect, is that we must acknowledge that wine fraud is an unavoidable part of the wine world (just as financial crises are an apparently inevitable characteristic of financial markets).  When faced with fraud in other circumstances, the first thing economists do is suggest greater transparency, but there are obvious problems with this in the case of wine. The Gallo example shows us that it is possible to create impressively realistic fake documentation while the Chinese case suggests that wine is sufficiently complex that even transparently false wines with error-filled labels will fool someone.

It would be hard to make wine more transparent in any case because some of the people with the most at stake would probably be the first to resist it. Suggestions that wine labels should include normal consumer information like you find on boxes of breakfast cereal inevitably produce a harsh reaction. Wine is above such detailed accounting (and accountability), apparently. It is as if revealing what is actually in the bottle would somehow let the genie out of it. Consumers aren’t just buying wine, they are buying mystique and lack of transparency is part of the deal. And so, I suspect, is fraud.

While I applaud efforts to punish offenders, I think we must admit that the combination of economic interests, human nature and Mother Nature will make it impossible to eliminate wine fraud. Trophy wine fakes will get all attention, no doubt, but I think that the possibility of fraud in ordinary table wine is the bigger concern — another indication of my strong Wagnerian leanings.

Chapter 4: Crisis

“At intervals, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money from these people – the blind capital, as we call it, of the country – is particularly craving; it seeks for some one to devour it, and there is a ‘plethora’; it finds some one, and these is ‘speculation’; it is devoured, and there is ‘panic’.”

Can’t Buy Me Love

The discussion continues over on the American Association of Wine Economists’ blog about whether winemakers’ money (in the form of advertising) can buy love (in the form of higher scores from wine critics).

The discussion is provoked by an article recently published in the Journal of Wine Economics that tried to find out by analyzing Wine Spectator ratings of advertised versus unadvertised wines compared to the scores given by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, which does not accept advertising.

A Natural Experiment?

Economists are drawn to Freakonomics-style “natural experiments” like this one but there are several reasons why it would be difficult to prove systematic advertiser bias at Wine Spectator if it existed (and I don’t think it does).

First, you would need to have a set of ratings that would give you a “true” value for each wine that could be compared with the critic scores to reveal bias. However research published in the Journal of Wine Economics actually suggests that wine ratings are highly variable — different experts can give the same wine much different ratings and, indeed, the same wine judge can give the same wine different scores, too, in blind tastings.

I don’t think, based on this research, that  it is possible to assemble a set of objective, unbiased scores to serve as a “control” data set. Without that control, it is hard to prove anything, even with sophisticated statistical tools.

The Mondovino effect

Second, it is kind of ironic that Wine Advocate was used in this study as the control. Although WA doesn’t accept advertising and is presumably immune from advertiser influence, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unbiased. Indeed, the scuttlebutt in the wine world (see Mondovino for example) is that Robert Parker has a very definite (you might say biased) idea of what wine should be and that his ratings very much reflect his particular palate.

Let me say that I am not how sure how true this is and, because I am not an expert wine taster, I am not the right person to judge it. I will say that I have tasted some very un-Parker wines (in terms of the style stereotype) that received high WA scores, so I am a somewhat of a Parker bias skeptic.

If, however, we accept for the sake of argument the conventional wisdom that certain types of wines are more likely to get high Parker scores than others, then it seems like WA ratings are a problematic control for this experiment. You would be comparing possibly-biased apples with oranges that could be biased in a different way.

The problem gets worse when you consider the accusation that is often heard that some winemakers tailor their wines to Parker’s palate in an attempt to get good ratings.  Some of these makers of “Parker wines” are probably more likely than others to advertise in WS and other publications.  It’s a messy situation, don’t you think? Hard to filter out an objective control with all the alleged “noise” in the data and even more difficult to track down potential bias.

Market Discipline

Finally, I’d like to suggest one more irony. The premise of the original study is that wine critics will cheat on their clients (the subscribers) when the benefits in terms of advertising revenue is high enough (so long as they can keep their bias secret).

I understand that subscribers don’t want to play if they think the game is fixed, but it seems to me that the same holds true for advertisers. Who would want to buy ads in a magazine if it looked like doing so was equivalent to paying “protection” to the mob? It seems to me that I’d run the other way. Wine critic publications both need to be unbiased and to appear unbiased in order to prevent the advertising equivalent of  “capital flight.”

And so the final irony is this. Because Wine Advocate does not accept advertising, it is not subject to this sort of “market discipline.” Robert Parker could in theory be as biased in his ratings as he wants and it would never cost him a single advertising dollar.

Does Parker exploit this freedom to promote particular interests? No, I don’t think so, but he could. Simply being ad-free is no guarantee of virtue (or objectivity) any more than selling ads is an indicator of vice.

Critics (and not just wine critics) live in a messy world of complex incentives and disincentives. We, the consumers of critic opinions, need to understand the situation and make our own subjective judgments.

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