Thursday, May 19, 2011
Why people don't complain about flawed wines
We were served an obviously flawed wine, yet nobody said a thing to the presenters. We took tasting notes, discussed the wine, heard a presentation on its terroir, etc. It was a fascinating study in human behavior and explained to me why so few flawed wines are sent back in restaurants.
Here's what happened. Tormaresca hosted a blind tasting of 7 Aglianico-based wines from around Italy, only two from its company. The stated purpose was to increase awareness of the Aglianico grape, and we got interesting lectures from Tormaresca director generale Francesco Domini and Master Sommelier/author Evan Goldstein.
I was, I believe, the only journalist there along with about 50 Bay Area sommeliers. We each had 7 glasses in front of us. The idea was to try to identify, blind, which of four regions in Italy they were from. This was hopeless for me (I ain't Evan Goldstein) so I didn't even try, but I did what everyone else did and took tasting notes while we waited for the reveal.
Wine No. 7 immediately seemed off; my first note was "something weird here." It smelled like dried plums crushed into the dirt of a weedy backyard on a hot day. I said, just for my table mates, "Is there something wrong with No. 7?"
One sommelier at our table was a bigshot to some of the others, and was a loud personality. She said, "No, that's just the style." I shrugged and moved on; I like to smell all the wines before tasting any of them, so tasting No. 7 was the last thing I would do.
Not everyone shares my system; wine No. 7 became the topic of muttering to my right. I asked my neighbor, "Did you put it in your mouth?" She said, "It's not as bad as it smells." I plodded along.
When I tasted it, it was obvious that it was oxidized. It was better than it smelled, for sure, but it tasted more like a cheap Madeira-style wine. Somebody else said that aloud, "Madeira"! And we all love the real Madeira -- though if that's what this was, I would've scored it maybe 60 points, as it had no body or richness. I asked again, to my table, if it was flawed. Again Ms. Personality assured us all that that was the style.
Domini, the Tormaresca guy, then revealed the wines. I confess I wasn't familiar with Tormaresca -- they're owned by the Antinori family, and distributed by Chateau Ste. Michelle -- but I am now; against a very representative lineup, their two wines were my two favorites. (Tasting notes below).
We got to No. 7 last, and Domini told us about how it was made to be entry level, which made the strange oxidized style even more unusual. Usually, weird-on-purpose wines cost more than entry-level, which is kind of funny when you think about it. But anyway, that caused me to raise my hand and interrupt to ask, "Why do they choose to oxidize it?"
Domini looked at me like the silly American I am and said, "They don't do this. It is late harvest. That's what you're tasting, some of the fruit is late harvested." At another table I heard someone agree, "Yes, it's a little sweet." A woman near me said she used to represent the wine for its previous importer, and she assured me that it wasn't intentionally oxidized.
I persisted, because I really have no shame. At this point, I was disagreeing with:
* The 7 sommeliers at my table, including at least one big shot
* The Aglianico expert who was lecturing us
* Evan Goldstein, who has one of the best palates of anyone I know (he had poured the wines and checked for TCA)
* The sommelier at the next table who chimed in to agree about the late harvest
* The former importer of the wine
Of course as soon as I put the glass under the nose of the former importer, she realized it was a bad bottle; the actual wine was a fruit-forward, easy drinking, pleasant quaff. And immediately the 15 sommeliers who got pours from that bottle chimed in that they knew it was bad all along.
The point of this episode is not to say that I have a great palate; Evan can out-taste me any day of the week. Moreover, I'm fairly insensitive to TCA as Certified Wine Professionals go, and often miss mildly corked wines that others immediately catch.
No, the point here is that EVERYONE who smelled or tasted the wine immediately knew it was weird, and not just a little; it was a wine we were all murmuring about. AND we were all wine professionals. But only me, the shameless guy who isn't afraid to ask the same stupid question twice in a row, did anything about it.
I know that a big factor at our table in keeping quiet was the immediate confident assertion by Ms. Personality that the wine was as it was supposed to be. But what the dynamic was at the other table, I don't know.
Now imagine how diners in a restaurant, or at home, act when they get a bottle that tastes weird. All it takes is one person, especially one dominant personality, to say, "It's supposed to be like this," and people will end up drinking an entire corked or oxidized or bacterially infected wine.
There are two lessons from this:
1) Sommeliers, you should smell EVERY bottle you serve. The tastevin thing is a little tacky, but anybody familiar with this wine (remember, we didn't know what it was) would have instantly known something was wrong.
2) Wine lovers, if you think the wine is weird, don't let anyone at your table stop you from asking the sommelier for a second opinion. And even more important, don't stop yourself, which is what the 15 sommeliers who knew this wine was weird did. You know it's wrong. Say it.
Fortunately the Tormaresca wines were unflawed, and they were excellent. I'm only going to review my three favorites because I really should have written a whole post about Aglianico. But ultimately people and our foibles are more interesting than grapes -- even a grape that was brought to Italy by the Greeks from Mesopotamia more than 800 years before the birth of Christ.
Rating: 94 points
The great name (bocca di lupo means "mouth of the wolf") comes from the name of the estate, 820 feet above sea level, where the late-ripening Aglianico grapes are at risk every year of not being harvested before snow falls. Aged 14 months in Hungarian oak, this 100% Aglianico wine smells New World, with dark cherry and oaky notes, and initially tastes like it's going to be New World, but its light-medium body, juicy acidity and very long finish are purely Italiano. A great cross between New World darker fruit and oak notes and old world balance and integrity. 13.5% alcohol.
Tomaresca "Trentangeli" Castel del Monte 2008 ($25ish? Not in stores yet)
Rating: 91 points
We weren't in Italy, and many people in the room (who fessed up to having New World palates) remarked on how they preferred this new wine, a blend of 65% Aglianico, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah that spent 10 months in French and Hungarian oak. It was my second favorite wine, but it's one of the quirks of the wine world that the pure Aglianico wine was more complex, and a seemingly complex wine was more simple. It has juicy dark cherry fruit and a long finish, and the fact that it has decent acidity would have had me guessing about what it was, if I didn't know; I might have said Super Tuscan. In any case it was a success; not traditional, but if you like the New World style, buy this one. 14% alcohol.
Di Majo Norante "Contado" Aglianico del Molise 2007 ($15)
A Leonardo LoCascio selection, imported by Winebow
A great value, this is a fine introduction to Aglianico at a daily-drinking price. The aroma is a little funky, but interesting; some smelled flowers whereas I smelled more of the flowerpot. The dried cherry fruit, chewy mouthfeel and thirst-quenching finish kept growing on me and I wish we had brought it into lunch, where I'm sure it would shine with most meat dishes. 13.5% alcohol.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 7:56 AM