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Navigating a river of wine

Tasting wine
Tasting winePhoto by Dan Kitwood

Our local wine columnist recently reviewed seven wines. Of these, I could find exactly one of the specific wines he reviewed and one other of a different vintage for sale anywhere in our state. Wine Spectator’s reviews showed similar results – plenty of wines, limited local availability. It is a common problem. There are tens of thousands of wine review sites on the Internet, along with a variety of publications dedicated all or in part to reviewing or critiquing wine. In most cases, though, local consumers have to be satisfied with the written description, because it’s as close as they will get to those wines.

Eric Asimov, wine columnist for the New York Times, addressed the subject of wine critique in a recent column entitled “A Wine Critic’s Realm Isn’t a Democracy.” Asimov’s discussion revolved around the role of wine critics and the impact of their work on consumers. The article discusses the pros and cons of both the critique and the promotional approach adopted by various critics, but his key point (in my opinion) is the statement “A critic’s job is not to validate the choices of consumers. If anything, it’s to make them question their assumptions.” In other words, a good wine critic will challenge readers to step outside their boundaries.

One of the most influential wine critics is (or was) Robert Parker. Beginning in the 1970’s then emerging as a force in the wine world in the 80’s, his influence drove many winemakers into styles that satisfied his palate as to what wines should be because his palate drove the market. That practice came to be known as “Parkerization.” Various theories as to why Parker became such a force emerged, but I believe that at the time that he began writing, the market needed him. US wine production and consumption had been seriously damaged by prohibition; decades later it was still heavily influenced by the wartime experiences of soldiers who developed a liking for Liebfraumilch and other sweet wines. There was an emerging desire to experience more of the variety of wines available in the world, but there was limited supply of wines mostly due to restrictive distribution laws, but moreover, a lack of knowledge as to what one might drink. Parker filled a need by telling people what they should drink, and influencing winemakers as to what they should make.

Today, the consumer market is inundated by inexpensive wines that seek to achieve a homogenized profile so that every bottle purchased year after year delivers the same experience. Yellowtail, the Australian Shiraz and Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio are two huge brands that have developed a wine following because of this strategy. Many consumers are OK with this, and that is fine – to a point. Those who want to grow outside of the supermarket standards often depend on wine reviews as a sort of guide in their exploration, but when the wines are nowhere to be found, the choice is often to fall back to what is familiar – and the mass market.

The wine critics’ job, then, should be not so much to focus on specific wines, but rather on characteristics of style – to promote the foundation of various wines so that consumers can find the representation of the style, rather than a specific wine. The price points in almost any category are so broad that even experimenting with an inexpensive bottle of an unknown grape (Monastrell, anyone?) can at least introduce curious drinkers to the varietal.

I participate in wine classes through a local wine shop, and our syllabus takes this approach – to deliver the experience of a style to our students, rather than promoting a specific brand or grape. Year after year, the results of our approach bear fruit by challenging people to step outside their comfort zone and try something new. How about you? How about setting aside $20.00 per week, and committing to buying a wine made from a grape, or made in a region, that you never heard of. Some of them will be good, some bad, most mediocre, but the overall experience will broaden your horizons as a wine drinker - are you up for the challenge?