Monday, January 7, 2013

Does "All wine mostly taste the same"?

Last week, the 12-week-old website First We Feast stirred up Internet attention with a provocative post titled "20 Things Everyone Thinks About The Food World (But Nobody Will Say)."

Point #10 is "All wine mostly tastes the same." Here it is:

You might think I'm going to spend this post putting down this point, seeing as I write every week about wines that (should) taste as dramatically different as Madeira and Zinfandel. It is one of the five points out of 20* that I think is wrong.

* (For such strong positions, this is a good percentage. How many opinion columnists do you agree with 75% of the time?)

But it's not all that far wrong. Here's why:

Philip Howard of Michigan State University released this chart late last month on his website. I'm not bothered by it at all. For one thing, I count 32 different companies named, and that includes some like Palm Bay which import wines from small independent producers.

Then, look at that huge gray area for "Other Firms." Sure, Gallo and the Wine Group are powerful, but the combined power of small wineries is more impressive than we might fear. I'd like to see a similar chart for beer: you'd have two huuuuge blocks encompassing every beer in your local supermarket and that "other firms" square would be tiny.

But, that said, what if you do buy wine in the supermarket? I like looking at supermarket selections and asking myself the question, what if I was forced to buy and drink a bottle of wine here? Which bottle would I choose?

Usually it's hard. The supermarket will have 150 choices, and if I'm lucky I'll see two or three that I wouldn't mind spending the evening with. The problem isn't that the others taste foul; it's that -- well, I expect the First We Feast editors will be correct.

Mass-market Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel: they'll taste fruity and a little sweet and have little tannin. Mass-market white wines will have a little more diversity: some will be buttery and oaky and sweet, and some will be not-oaky, not-buttery and less sweet. I might cut my losses with a white wine that tastes like wine and call it a shopping night.

All those single-vineyard German Rieslings and lean Loire reds and luscious Franciacorta Satens are going to a tiny percentage of us who are willing to shop somewhere other than the supermarket for wine. Sure, wine that doesn't taste like Red is out there. But how many people care? Eric Asimov told me recently that he doesn't understand why many people who cast a discerning eye on food don't do the same with wine. I can't explain it either, but it's true.

My only quibble with the First We Feast writers is the first word. If they wrote "Most Wine Mostly Tastes The Same," I'd have to agree.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Taylor said...

What are the other four points that you disagree with?

Adam said...

The implication you are offering by linking the market share chart and the headline is that big companies make undifferentiated wines - and I think that is a misleading disservice to wine consumers. The major companies each have portfolios of distinctive wines from vastly different regions/climates/terroirs, winemaking styles and price points. One of the reasons the big players get big is because they can supply their customers - on and off-premise - with full ranges. Sure, the big commercial blends are not intended for connoisseurs. But you should acknowledge that Gallo, Constellation, and TWE, etc. are much more than their popular-priced brands.

W. Blake Gray said...

Taylor: Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 18.

I see where they're coming from on 6, but just because people don't care about their own health doesn't mean society as a whole shouldn't care. On 18, they're just not getting good Mexican food, or maybe I'm not getting good Tex-Mex. 2, just disagree; I like Pete Wells. 3 is just crazy.

The flaw with the post is that they open really strongly with No. 1, a provocative point that I think is completely right. But then they weaken it by kvetching about the Times and go right into the crazy silliness of point 3. They shouldn't have front-loaded the weakest ones.

DAPZ said...

Great article, could not agree more with your line of thought when it comes to their views on wine.

About # 6, I don't think they were referring to health as a choice. It is easy for the "well-off yuppie" (i hate such labels) to choose what to eat and to support its local farmer. But the reality is that the majority of the population is still poisoning themselves with toxics and hormones every day. Locavorism, in my opinion, does provide a sense of "supporting a cause" for many. Yet it does nothing to deal with the country's food system and with the choices that the majority has. From this point of view, I think their argument holds water.

Unknown said...

I think the comment made by the website is correct, but for different reasons. It's not that most wines are mass produced and therefore undistinguishable, but that most drinkers are casual drinkers and don't see the difference. I have no problem with that at all.

I make wine and am about to bottle 7 different Pinot Noirs from California next week. To me they are all different and express the sites. But I know that if I pour these wines to 95% of wine drinkers they couldn't tell me if it was Pinot, Cabernet, Syrah, or Zin. I bet 10% would guess they are Chardonnay.

Not everyone is into wine like most readers of this blog are. And wine is no different than anything else. Most people can't distinguish grades of meat, better quality audio components, or great motor oil. It just doesn't matter to them.

I think this statement is true not because of the wines, but because of the audience of the website.