Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why people don't complain about flawed wines

Yesterday I sat at a table full of wine professionals: 7 sommeliers and me. The adjoining table had 8 sommeliers.

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.

Tormaresca "Bocca di Lupo" Castel del Monte 2006 ($30)
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)
Rating: 89
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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting 'experiment' if you could set it up (but you didn't have to!) I've been in similar situations and I feel like no one wants to be that person to speak up in fear that they are wrong or their palette is off. There's no shame in making sure you are served good wine.

Anonymous said...

I always speak up and believe everyone should. I had a winemaker pouring at a tasting who did not check the wine. After telling him it was flawed, he pulled all of the wine after checking the open bottle and a second bottle. It was a flaw that I didn't recognize by name. He was appreciative but what about all of those people who tasted the wine who may not have known much about wine? They may have simply said "this isn't good wine" because no one who knew better would speak up.

Another time, I was at a tasting of a well known California winery with the winemaker present. There were three tables. When my wife and I tasted at a table at which the winemaker was not pouring, the first wine was obviously corked, albeit at very low levels. We looked at each other and said "it's corked." The wine shop employeewho was pouring said "thank you!" He thought it was corked but the winemaker and others in the shop when the wine was first opened all disagreed. I chalked it up to different abilities to pick up TCA but it was striking to me that the winemaker could not detect it. And the poor employee, who was confident about his opinion but shouted down, finally had some validation that he wasn't an idiot.

1winedude said...

I never keep quiet when I think a wine is genuinely flawed, no matter who's in attendance. But then, I'm kind of a cad...

NR Carlson said...

I admit I'd usually make a mild, local fuss about the wine, and if I found no support, I'd probably just let it go and make a mental note to never bother with that wine again. As a winemaker, it feels unseemly to be anything but polite about other folk's wines - but obviously you did everyone a service by being a bit pushy in this situation, it would have been a disservice to all if the wine was left to stand as a correct example.

Beau said...

I sometimes refrain from commenting out of mistrust for my own palate. Call it a lack of confidence.
Last week I was at a portfolio tasting in LA and I tasted through various Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello as well as lesser known Italian wines. A lot, but not all of the Brunellos tasted flawed to me, with high levels of volatile acidity...At least that's what I thought. My lack of confidence in my palate caused me to instead assume that perhaps that is how the 2006 vintage turned out in Brunello. I also found similar issues in some but not all Barolos, again causing me to question my palate.
Good article WBG, shows that sommeliers can be just as prone to groupthink and bullshit as the rest of us :-)

W. Blake Gray said...

Beau: The last group of wines I got at the Concours Mondial this year were all really funky -- barnyardy past the point of pleasurable. They were light-bodied and slightly brown colored and we guessed they were bad Burgundies. Turns out it was a flight of Barolos. Intellectually I believe I enjoy Barolo, but I wouldn't have wanted to drink any one of those wines. Of course, wines submitted to competitions aren't curated at all the way a wine ordered at a good restaurant or bought at a good wine shop would be. But it does make me wonder about just buying a Barolo purely at random that nobody else had tried first.

Beau said...

There was one table in particular, pouring only Tuscan wine, that had the most "offensive" set of wines to me..All their wines, from Rosso di Toscano to Brunello tasted of some flaw, like a mix between overripe, slightly rotting fruit and nail polish remover. I wracked my brain thinking of whether I've tasted Brunellos with this before and cannot think of an instance. Similarly I found the aforementioned flaw/taint in some Barolos as well and I know for a fact that I have had and enjoyed Barolos (Barolii?) before that were devoid of that bad flavor set. It was frustrating to say the least, and if I spoke Italian I'd have questioned the winemakers on it.
I admire you for pushing the issue, I think Heimoff wrote something similar regarding pinot noirs a few months ago, where the table loved them but he found a flaw and only after pushing the issue did others admit the wine had problems.

King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

This has happened to me a whole bunch of times, so I can confirm that it's not just you.

I remember a Vilmart wine at a trade tasting in SF, for example, having a cheesy aroma and I couldn't get one person to say that this wasn't atypical, much less off.

Anonymous said...

I am a WSET diploma student in it for my own masochistic pleasure (in our tasting group are some top sommeliers and wine importers), at a blind tasting (all tastings are blind) for Bordeaux wines, one of six wines was corked, some thought it was a very good wine with great complexity, I thought it was corked and as is the system called it faulted and moved on, then we all agreed it was corked and several were indignant that such a good wine would be corked. On the reveal it was Mouton Cadet, thrown in as the mile post for a simple mass market wine.

Laura said...

And this kind of rejection you received from the professionals in your group is what makes people decide to drink crafted beers instead of wine by the glass. Less hassle and you don't have to worry about being embarrased....

Michele Roth said...

just bought a bottle of russian river pinot noir from a local wine shop - the owner is a great guy, knows i am an aficionado with better than average knowledge due to years in the restaurant biz - don't pretend to be a sommelier, but... got the wine home, from the second the foil was off i knew it was bad - the cork , despite being soaked, broke , the first whiff in the bottle was funky, not improved by being poured into a glass - got in the car and drove right back - no questions asked, and he opened my replacement bottle on premise to make sure it was ok! now THAT is customer service! if you are in virginia, go see sergio mendes at the ashburn wine shop...luckily i live right across the street, so the return was quick and easy LOL ps they are on facebook! <3

Anonymous said...

Interesting post - someone famous (perhaps a President of the US who shall remain nameless because I don't want to open that can of worms) said: "One man with courage is a majority..." So seems like you, Mr. Gray, were the man with courage... Perhaps it's more because people are told to be polite and not complain and the feeling is that saying the wine is bad is a complaint and commission of a social faux pas? But it shouldn't be - yet I have seen it time and again... I make a small amount of wine and was at a restaurant in Napa once - a customer recognized me and asked me to tell her and her husband if "this wine is bad?" and she whispered it and looked around the room as though she was planning a bank robbery and didn't want anyone to overhear... I tried the wine and it was obviously corked; they told the sommelier and he argued that it was fine and "just the style" but insisited "if you don't like it, we can give you something else..." Sadly and unfortunately, they turned to me and I had to break down and tell the sommelier that I was a wine maker and the wine was obviously corked. He huffed and puffed, took the wine away, but did not argue - which is similar to your original question, why won't people admit a wine is bad, even the sommelier (at a well known Napa restaurant)? And is this circular - perhaps people have said things in the past and been shot down by the sommelier or someone like Ms. Personality? Thanks for the post!

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: I have had exactly that experience in restaurants at least twice. As I wrote, I'm not the most sensitive person to TCA, but if it reaches a certain level, I'll notice it. Once at an expensive restaurant in San Francisco I tried to send back a corked wine and the sommelier (not the head somm) came over to argue with me. Eventually she said what your Napa sommelier said, "But I'll give you something else if that will make you happy." I took another wine, but it didn't make me happy -- having to argue put me on the defensive, and changed the experience of dining there.

The other time wasn't actually more pleasant: again, a not-head-somm was arguing with me, and he called over the head somm for backup. The head somm took one whiff, said, "This is corked," and walked away. I felt vindicated, but I also spent the rest of my meal wondering if the not-head-somm was going to be fired. I hope he learned a lesson in service without having to find another job.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I feel vindicated - in addition to the Napa town incident, this has also happened to me in Yountville at a fairly well-known restaurant - very similar to your experience - generally though, when they begin to argue, and I finally tell them I am a winemaker and very likely can smell cork taint from a mile away, they give up dejected. But it does detract from the entire experience. And sadly, because my wife really enjoys the Napa restaurant, we returned there - both the waiter and sommelier recognized us as the culprits who had pointed out that my customer's wine was corked and we received horrible service! I'm just wondering though, why? What is in it for them to argue and lose a customer? Is the wine so expensive that they would prefer to lose a customer? Frankly, I never argue with my customers - if they tell me a wine is corked, I say "OK, would you like another bottle or a refund?" and there it ends - perhaps some of the restaurants could learn from this example? Wait - I don't think they will - since they seem to be the corporate version of Ms. Personality...

W. Blake Gray said...

Having worked for Michael Bauer, I know what he would say: You should contact the restaurant manager. I rarely take that step myself because it seems like the nuclear option: the wait staff will apologize through gritted teeth, and I'll wonder on every dish if they spit in it. But in the case of the Napa restaurant, if you're going to go there in the future, it's probably worth doing, since it sounds like the servers already are giving you a bad time.

A really good sommelier will take back a bottle a customer doesn't like without complaint, even if it isn't corked, as long as it's under, say, $150 (we're talking Yountville especially; lower limits in other places). If it's not corked, and he's sure it's not corked, he'll sell it by the glass -- not so hard to do, as he can tell customers, "We've got something special open tonight."

If you think about it, service is more important than food. I'll go back again and again to mediocre neighborhood places that are nice to me, where I feel comfortable. But an uppity place with superb food and pinched manners is a once-in-a-while treat/ordeal.

King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

Your must hardcore reader drove all the way to the Treehouse restaurant at Castle Alnwick in Northumberland to drink a Tormaresca tonight.

Yeah, triple bonus pts for initiative.

Erika Szymanski said...

At the risk of sounding generational, do you think this phenomenon is generational? I taste and drink with a goodly group of 20-something undergrad and grad student types and, no doubt about it, they're one outspoken bunch. Their (or should I say our) version of outspoken sometimes leans precariously towards excessively forward, but I wouldn't call it rude. The attidude is more of a no fear style of each opinion for itself. Then again, maybe the no fear attitude comes more from acclimation to an educational environment that encourages opinions. Which hypothesis leads me to ask: in your CWE classes, are students encouraged to express individual opinions or, conversely, to bow their heads and cow-tow to the judgement of their leader?

W. Blake Gray said...

Erika: Adult group psychology is subject to differences in culture and generation. That said, most major psychology experiments are conducted with undergrads as the test group, so it's hard to believe that groupthink only begins to occur when people hit 30 -- or that academics are immune to it.

The key difference between me and the sommeliers was profession. While I often describe myself these days as writer/blogger/unemployed bum or whatever, here I described myself as a journalist because I think that's why I raised, and raised again, the question. I was trained and rewarded (albeit not very richly) to do exactly that sort of thing.

Academics are probably the same, but any history of science contains plenty of examples of entrenched professors refusing to accept new research that contradicts what they believed -- just as a history of our debacle in Iraq really needs to focus on how many journalists swallowed what was obviously a false rationale.

That said, it comes down to individuals, academic or journalistic or otherwise. I don't know where my palate would have ranked among the 16 people who were given that wine -- but I know I ranked No. 1 in not being afraid to embarrass myself (as longtime readers of this blog know well). Whether or not that's a good quality is debatable.

Anonymous said...

I think it all comes down to inexperience or lack of confidence of the tasters. One should always speak up, just be polite about it. Wine is made from fruit and 99.9 percent of the time when it smells like a flooded basement or stewed fruit there's a problem with the cork or the winemaking. A real wine culture accepts these questions openly and uses them to grow everyones knowledge.

Matt Thomson said...

Good post. The percentage of bottles that a person will pick as being tca tainted varies with the individual. There are a number of studies (eg AWRI) that have shown this. People tend to get defensive about it if they can't detect it, but it has no reflection on their abilities as a taster apart from the tca detection. Armed with this, nobody can tell you that a bottle isn't corked....unless they are certified has having the lowest detection threshold in the World! If you open multiple bottles it is usually much easier to pick the corked ones; you have a reference.

In this case it was oxidised. There are plenty of those around as the wine ages. If they vary, then once again it is because of the flawed cork!