Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Critics vs. Public: Who likes it sweet?

In every field, critics and the public have different tastes. You won't find many positive reviews of the highest-grossing films of the year, and in fact I was jeered once by critics at the Tokyo International Film Festival for my outrageous statement that "Titanic" wasn't a bad movie.

It's true in art: LeRoy Nieman retrospectives don't run at the Met, nor do collections of dogs playing poker. It's true in music: if it weren't for critics, would anyone listen to atonal classical compositions, free jazz or Elvis Costello?

And of course it's true in wine. This was brought home for me last weekend at Critics Challenge, a fine wine competition in San Diego, where the sweetness of many red wines was noticeably high.

I sat for part of the competition across from a serious wine expert who I enjoyed discussing the wines with. I, like many critics in the non-Parker class, do not like perceivable sweetness in red wines that are supposedly dry. But for my co-judge, these wines looked like a series of body blows; the judge's head would whip to the side, there'd be an exclamation, sometimes a grunt, often a "No, no, no!" I felt a little badly that I wasn't suffering as much.

The wines submitted to Critics Challenge are not a random cross-section. About 55% are from the US, and they come from all over the country: I gave medals to a Chambourcin from Missouri and a Seyval from New York that I know of. Imports ran the gamut from the Champagne that won the overall sweepstakes to a Turkish pink that so confounded my neighbors that they asked our table for a "moral and ethical consultation." (My input: Medal it!)

What brought all these wines to San Diego was the hope that a judge would like them and give them a medal and some tasting notes that could be used to help sell them, and that by definition affected what was there.

That doesn't mean we didn't get some big sellers. We were all shocked when Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel, a $9 supermarket wine, was the only Zinfandel to get a Platinum medal, meaning at least one judge thought it should be considered for the best red wine of the entire competition. And producers of some wines like the Mumm NV Rosé Champagne that won the whole shebang might be looking less for a sales boost than simple validation (Mumm: You got it. You too, Joel P.).

But ironically for a contest judged exclusively by wine critics, we didn't get many wines from the critical darlings: the members of the "In Search of Balance" Pinot Noir group, for example. Most culty Napa Cabernet producers stayed home. If a producer already had a plus-90 rating from Parker or Spectator, they probably decided they didn't need to spend the entry fee.

All of that said, the sweetness of supposedly non-sweet wines was the most striking feature this year. I tweeted about the similarity of my flight of $10 to $20 Syrahs to Kool-Ade; I don't know how many Syrahs in the world in that price range taste like Kool-Ade, but I do know I had about 12 of 16 that did. We all know Cabernet Sauvignons are getting sweet, so that was no shocker, but the sweetness of many Pinot Noirs, even expensive ones, came as a surprise.

But the more my colleague protested, the more I wondered about the cause. The one thing all these wines have in common is their producers want to sell them to Americans. It's possible that they're drift-netting for critical praise because the wines are not selling. But still, it seemed apparent that the prevailing thinking among this group of red-wine producers is, if you want to sell it, make it sweet.

Is this what the public wants?

And if so, what is our role -- my role -- as a critic? Am I to protest vehemently, insulting the sweet wines and praising only the dry ones? Or am I to go with the flow and retrain myself to prefer the rich taste of blueberry juice to the savory flavors and complexity I have come to love?

That too was a type of training, as like many Americans I grew up thinking Coca-Cola was a fine beverage with dinner. I don't know when I made the switch to the rather ascetic set of beverages I now consider acceptable with meals: wine, sake, water, unsweetened hot or iced tea, and occasionally spirits-based drinks (but not frozen strawberry margaritas). Sure, I might have a lassi with Indian food, or fresh coconut water with Burmese, but I'm not going to have Dr. Pepper with dinner, and that takes me out of the U.S mainstream. So why should people who have Diet Pepsi five days a week with dinner and wine once bother with anything I write?

Maybe they shouldn't; maybe we have nothing in common. But I believe critics exist primarily to point out to people worthy works of art or craft that do not currently have mainstream approval. The opposite role -- pointing out that The Hangover II isn't so funny, Lady Gaga isn't so talented or Taco Bell isn't so tasty -- has less value, because in the Internet era anything widely experienced will have a variety of opinions that a savvy consumer can sift through. But if I can find a really interesting Australian Verdelho at a good price, that is a service to certain members of the public.

Yet what worries me after the Critics Challenge is just how many members of the public we wine critics of the non-Parker class are currently serving. Wineries wouldn't make so many sweet red wines if they didn't think they could sell them. Perhaps they're overreaching, and the wines won't sell, and in the near future we'll see the sugar dialed back.

One day wine critics may look this glum
But it's also possible that me and my colleague and all of us who don't want Syrah to taste like blueberry juice are moving too far out of the mainstream to matter; we're like advocates of atonal music, and our world is shrinking like polar bears' habitat.

There's a tremendous commercial incentive to drink the Kool-Ade. Very few wine critics like "dry" red wines with noticeable residual sugar, but those guys are among the most famous and successful, and like much of the general public, they could care less what my colleagues at Critics Challenge think. Fortunately we and our ally editors control most non-Spectator publications; unfortunately, that may be why said publications aren't as influential. 

Later this week I'll write about some specific wines I discovered at Critics Challenge, including that Australian Verdelho. But for today, I'm just sitting here with a metaphorical glass of Kool-Ade, considering how sweet -- or dry -- the future might be.


Anonymous said...

I think there may be a correlation between price point and consumer preference. Entry level wine consumers are usually starting at a lower price point and wine with 6 to 8 g/L residual sugar may ease them into a beverage they are not accustomed to. Once the palate becomes more refined and an appreciation for the subtlety of wines develops, the RS becomes a barrier to all a wine has to offer and is less tolerable.

Kevin Harvey said...

While wine show judges may award less confected styles better scores, the major wine publications do not. Because of their misperception of consumer preference (ie the average person likes sweet better), for the last 15 years, the wine industry's most influential critics have reserved their highest scores exclusively for wines with confected fruit profiles.
The decline of Aussie Shiraz and the stalling of super-ripe CA wines prove that this perception of consumer preference is just not accurate for more frequent wine drinkers.

I Vini said...

@Anonymous ... the "wine-with-training-wheels" theory, eh?

Anonymous said...

@ I Vini...I like that. I think you just dreamt up a new wine label for newbies!

Anonymous said...

Ditto Kevin.
Here's hoping both critics (of all types) and consumers reward wines that truly do strive for balance. I dare say that there might be a lot fewer readers looking at serious wine criticism than is hoped for by all of us concerned. And that the majority of wines are placed on shelves for reasons that have little to do with their taste. Sad but that's the way I see it.
Alan Baker, Winemaker - Cartograph

SUAMW said...

@Anonymous (#1):
"Once the palate becomes more refined and an appreciation for the subtlety of wines develops" - many people just do not make this developmental step. They are perfectly happy with their alcopop and will never change their preferences.

SUAMW said...

@ Kevin Harvey:
So.... where does Apothic (pathetic) Red fit into your proposed lay of the land?

SUAMW said...

@Anonymous (#2 - Alan Baker)

"balance" - would suggest that wines have RS, but it's balanced by some other structural component. Do you mean "balance" or "dryness"?

SUAMW said...

To some of Blake's questions:

Some varieties need RS to be at their best: Moscato, Riesling (if balanced by acidity). Other varieties are at their finest when completely dry (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet). Of course there will be exceptions, but as with many such situations, only a tiny dab of RS will do.

We should just get comfortable that wine consumers come from all strata and group in various levels of sophistication and preference.

Some will always prefer raisiny cough syrup or a sugary Rombauer. There will be little to convince these folks to aspire to more lofty tastes. This is the way they want the liquids poured into their mouths to taste and they don't care to hear anything about it. That's their preference.

Others will appreciate wines of more sophisticated structure and composition, balance, finesse, etc.

Greg said...

I think that balance is a red herring in the discussion of (slightly) sweet red wines vs. dry red wines. When I talk to my parents about the wine they drink (mostly Chianti from Trader Joes) they NEVER discuss anything like balance or finesse or the nebulous ideas that we all like to wax poetic about. They talk about 1) whether they like it (no reasons given, or 2) if it is too bitter and/or (usually used incorrectly). Consumer preference to wines with a little bit of RS makes sense - we like sweet things! but they are also not the people reading wine criticism. They buy either what they see or what is in the circular delivered to their snail mail box.

W. Blake Gray said...

SUAMW: You demonstrate my conundrum with your emphatic statement that certain reds are "at their finest when completely dry." Finest for who?

zanon said...

I think part of this is that, in a tasting, dry wines don't taste that good.

oak and sugar pair badly with meals, but make for a nicer (more "dr pepper" like drink).

I remember the first time I drank a dry, tannic red wine with lamb chops. It was a revelation. The tasting room culture in the US takes wines out of context with food, and therefore push sugar.

SUAMW said...


Finest. Period. I did not say "most preferred by__".

"Finest" means the most complex and faithful expression of all the grape is capable expressing in terms of aromas, flavors and textures. That is completely independent of individual preference.

So, "finest" is an absolute and not a relive concept.

Making sweet wines out of grapes that show their fullest potential when vinified fully dry (with a very few exceptions) limits the range of potential aromas, flavors and textures (never mind that sweetness in those wines not infrequently comes at the cost of acidity AND it masks or overshadows other flavors).

Thus, off-dry, or high RS wines made of grapes typically made into dry table wines robs those wines of the opportunity to develop their full potential.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Unfortunately, I am not privy to the same pair of Rhys-colored glasses as my good friend, Kevin, and thus sometimes see the world from a viewpoint which doesn't necessarily benefit my own winery. For instance, I don't believe that wine publications with whom I sometimes differ have adjusted their scores simply because of their perception of consumer preference. Nor do I believe that those with whom I agree more frequently are more spot on than the others. Rather, I think each is judging based on their preferences and ability. --

Nor am I able to perceive the simple cause-and-effect of two categories of wines slowing and that being solely because of consumer preference. Were I, I guess I would say that the sales/eceonomic failure of Muscadet would indicate that consumers don't like dry, lower-alcohol white wines. Or that the rapid decline in per capita consumption of French wines amongst the French would indicate that the French want higher alcohol, sweeter tasting wines.

Silly me, I thought there might be other issues involved...such as a global recession, etc.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Erika Szymanski said...

Hmmm... methinks I feel the pendulum of fashion pausing ever so slightly as it reaches the "rich and fruity" apex of its trajectory. Wine seems to be equally as subject to fashion as food or clothing. We've endured fat-eschewing '90s "spa cuisine" and are now enduring the fat-embracing, bacon-laden comfort cuisine era. Skirt hems have gone up and down for a century and will continue to do so, I don't doubt. The problem with envisioning a renewed vogue for austere, structured wine is that -- as you tidily discussed, Blake -- (American) folk have a predisposition for enjoying sweet beverages that isn't tempered by dietary concerns, for example, as food trends are.
Still, in the face of mid-Western meatloaf (many of the examples I've had recently hit me simultaneously with meat and sweet), I can only hope that this is a fad that will pass soon.

W. Blake Gray said...

Erika: Sweet meatloaf? Ewwww. I'd rather consume sweet Cabernet.

Yeah, it's hard to imagine people who make sweet meatloaf, or sweet salad dressing, suddenly going gaga over lean, minerally, completely dry wines. If they ever buy a wine somebody like me recommends, they must taste it, grimace, and wonder who abused me as a child.

scott said...

I suppose I’m late to the party on this one, but I couldn’t agree more. Generally speaking American made white and red wines at all price points have become excessively fruit forward and sweet. Although I have no analytical proof that this broad category of wine has RS, I don’t see how it could be any other way. I do know that one winemaking trick to make wine taste fruitier is to leave RS, but if you bottle wine with RS one runs the risk of secondary fermentation in the bottle. There are at least two ways to prevent this secondary fermentation – sterile filtration or dosing with Velcorin.

But I have an interesting observation, i.e., not a statistical study. We make a bone dry riesling. And when I say bone dry I mean at or below the laboratory detection limit. This riesling is not fruit forward or sweet. Its flavors are in the realm of lime, grapefruit, mandarin orange essence, mineral, and green olive. When tasting with the general public they initially almost categorically tell me that they don’t like riesling, but after tasting our bone dry riesling they almost all categorically love it.

I have to say I’m very surprised that people that I’ve met seem almost off-put by riesling as a variety. I’ve had a number of restaurateurs/sommeliers tell me that riesling is a tough sell. Maybe that’s because unless you are in the know rieslings are all over the chart regarding sweetness, but that doesn’t jibe very well with the topic of this particular post either. I’m puzzled.

Robert Whitley said...

Let me play devil's advocate. We know the alcohol by volume (ABV) levels have risen. That's because of riper fruit. Riper fruit tastes sweeter, even if the RS (residual sugar) levels are the same. And the higher ABV contributes to the impression of sweetness. Consideing that so many, especially younger wine drinkers, consume wine as a cocktail at a wine bar or restaurant, I can certainly see why wines that taste sweeter, even if they aren't, would be appealing.

Robert Whitley said...

The other point I would make concerns the critics themselves. How relevant a critic is comes down to the size of the critic's audience. Miss the mark too often, or fail to recognize legitimate styles that may or may not go astray of personal preferences, and you can be sure the audience will shrink. And eventually the crtic with the ever-shrinking audience will become irrelevant, impotent when it comes to swaying public opinion. That's the risk all of us take whenever we tap out a recommendation on the keyboard and sign it for all the world to see.