Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Wine Trials 2010 and Me

I had to laugh when Alexis Herschkowitsch emailed me with an offer to send me a book to look over in the hope, I assume, that I'd review it here. I mean, bloggers like Michael Ruhlman gets books sent to them all the time by publishers and authors that hope he will write about them. But I don't consider myself to be someone like Ruhlman who is read and linked-to enough that my opinion about a book is going to have much affect.. However, I took her up on the offer for no other reason than that I figured if she thought enough of my work at AHA to take the plunge, then I should return the compliment by letting you all know what I think of her and co-author Robin Goldstein's book about good yet cheap wine.

Actually, The Wine Trials 2010, The World's bestselling guide to inexpensive wine, is only superficially about good wines that cost less than 15 dollars. The book is essentially a polemic against the idea that if a producer can convince the consumer that a product is superior, then it is not only right to charge more for it, but the consumer should be honored to pay more for it even though it functions no better than something that costs much less. That said, they could just as easily have chosen to pick from any product category to find examples of overpriced products that work no better than cheaper more generic brands.

When I was an undergrad I performed a chemistry lab where I was given 5 blind samples of chlorine bleach and told to determine the amount of sodium hypochlorite in each. When they all tested at between 5-5.25% the professor revealed their identities and the price per gallon of each. Even though they all had essentially the same amount of active ingredient, some of the brand name version were more than 50% more expensive than "cheaper" brands and generics.

Our glorious hyper-materialistic consumer culture is full of such examples of products whose intrinsic value is enhanced by a BS veil of efficacy, exclusivity, hipness created by brand engineers and marketers to sucker the credulous. And here in The Wine Trials Goldstein and Herschkowitsch more than convincingly make the case that many of the wines (e.g. Dom Perignon, $150/750ml) that we believe are worth paying many times the price of putatively plebeian plonk (e.g. Domaine Ste Michelle Brut, $12/750ml) don't do well in blind tastings against their cheaper cousins. They also suggest that people who overpay for wine that could be equaled in quality by much cheaper stuff are also buying entry into the kind of life and social class they want to inhabit. In other words, if one buys and drinks $1000 bottles of Chateau d' Yquem one joins ranks of the Donald Trumps and the Jay Zs and enters the class of people who can afford to blow a grand on a bottle of wine.

Really their pillorying of the notion that just because a product is wrapped in an aura of quality and exclusivity it is actually worth more money than something of equal quality that is wrapped in a newspaper plucked a resonant chord on my inner lute of truth and justice.

I've been on the hunt for things, services, concepts that do what I want them to do on the cheap since I was a kid and realized that I could find really cool stuff by ferreting through the garbage that my neighbors put out on trash day. (Actually, it's kind of part of my life's work.) So yeah, I loved this book.


Tags said...

Next thing you know, you'll be reading Consumer Reports.

Bob del Grosso said...

Now Tags, be nice.

Carrie said...

You have an inner lute? I'm a viola, personally.

If something is really worth the money I have no problem with expensive food or bottles of wine. I do order a $25 bag of coffee occassionally, because I trust the vendor and know it's worth it. The hubs and I do splurge on an expensive dinner out once or twice a year because we know the local restaurant kicks ass and it's worth it.

I live out in the country in a doublewide trailer - I teach violin to the children of chicken and hog farmers. Spending $1000 on a bottle of wine - it just doesn't happen in my world. That's my entire paycheck for a month. Seriously, one bottle of wine? How good could it possible be??

I guess the point the book is making is that it's not about the wine, it's about the status symbol. Congrats dude - your status is that you're a dumbass who wastes money on overpriced wine. heh.

I should get this book for my dad. He likes his red wine refrigerated, and when I tell him you're not supposed to drink it that way he refers me to his "Wine for Dummies" book that tells you to drink it however the heck you want it and tell everybody else to shut up. My dad is pretty awesome. :)

Cindy said...

Excellent, Bob, just really nails it. I should get this book for my brother, who collects wine, if you can imagine such a thing in our family. Loved the lute comment.

tyronebcookin said...

Thanks Bob! I reposted it on facebook so my friends can drink good wine without being left out...or feeling they are socially inadept.

It just confirms what I already well as for other things besides wine.

Over the years I have tasted the expensive and inexpensive (mostly the difference was whether I was buying it, or someone else paid for it: functions, events, parties...) and my own favorites have come back to bottles that retail $20 or less, even when spending others money.

*Although I guess one could crack a joke about me haveing 'cheap' taste buds, or being cheap.

Tags said...

What could be nicer than positing that an already diligent consumer champion is endeavoring to become even more assiduous? (at least in this context)

Scotty said...

How timely. I am doing a cooking class in March that will have some bubbly, and was just explaining to the Owner why I chose Chateau Ste Michelle so she could explain it to a potential attendee. I just followed up with the quote from you blog

Keith said...

I'm an enthusiastic amateur, and have been exposed to all sorts of curios, oddities, brands, producers, and bottles.

Last night we had a €13 bottle of French white, and a €90 bottle of French red. Both of them were worth the money, and both did different things.

The white was an instant crowd pleaser, fresh, fruity, lightly acidic, perfect for company, for sitting round with a group of friends catching up on who's with who, and whop did what when on a summers day.

The 90 euro wine was something to be enjoyed quietly, and required a heck of a lot of thought to get the most out of. In ten years it'll be a different beast because the vineyard that made it understand the balance necessary to make a wine that can stand twenty years in a bottle and become a different more perfect thing year by year.

It's not about brand. Or price. It's about quality, a product of care, knowledge, dedication and love. And sometimes, for particularly spectacular examples, that costs.

For a good Recioto di Soave, the grapes are thinned to a minimal yield per hectare, giveing fewer, but juicier and sweeter grapes.

They are hand picked, in a complex equation of height, and time, and heat, and laid out to dry in the sun, then gravity juiced, losing even more potential profit, before the wine is made.

Sometimes the illusion of quality is expensive.

But the real thing earns it's cost, and repays a genuine dividend for the money that intelligent passion honestly earns in it's production.

Cathelou said...

I think I love this book too.

FWIW I've heard that it's not so crazy to chill red wine because in a true cellar it's quite cool--so a little refrigeration doesn't hurt.

paul said...

I've taught a wine tasting course for culinary students a couple times in the past year where we taste roughly 50 wines over the course of a term and have some general observations to make. First, a high price is no indicator of high quality in wine, though high quality is probably more subjective than most would like to admit, depending on taste. I've been burned more than a couple times by purchasing wine that retails for $50 or more and then putting it through a tasting in which students and myself find it underwhelming. This is mostly with red and white Burgundy, which is otherwise speaking perhaps my favorite region in the world. It can be really depressing and if anything demonstrates inconsistency in these wines, or that you have to spend in excess of said amount in order to taste complexity. That being said, I find it extremely rare to taste great complexity in a bottle of wine that retails for $10 or $15. It just doesn't really happen. When a winemaker produces a wine with complexity or originality, they sell it for much more. That doesn't mean the $10 isn't enjoyable to drink. It's often more enjoyable since the $50 bottle, like the $100 restuarant meal, often doesn't live up to expectations. If anyone wants a recommendation for a $50 bottle that exceeds expectations, probably my favorite wine in the whole world, try the Barbaresco from Cantina del Pino, "Ovello". If you splurge on one nice red per year this wine should be it. One sip just sends wave after wave of complex flavor across your palate. If most $50 bottles are a ripoff, this one is a value. Sorry for the long comment, perhaps I should have filed this under "essay" or "comments for windbags" :)

Cameron Siguenza said...

Good review Bob, looks like an interesting book.

nhallfreelance said...

Now I'm left wondering if the book, itself, is an example of the branding effect on the perception of quality/legitimacy. I'm willing to bet good money that you can find equally compelling evidence of this effect (complete with wine comparisons) for free online. Just a thought.

Natalie Sztern said...

It's like buying Art..don't buy what you think has value, buy what you like.

It's all in and about the Marketing.

I don't know anything about wine, but I know what I like and I never go for the expensive bottles BEcause I don't know anything about wine.

I can't imagine drinking a bottle of wine that costs $1000 no matter how rich one is...of course I am also not a Trump and I doubt that level of wealth would ever consider a cheap bottle of everything is relative I guess.

Jason said...

In response to Paul...

Do you taste your wines without knowing the price, grape, or vineyard? Is it possible that your completely subjective description of expensive wine as "complex" is corellated with the price? Placebo is a powerful thing, Paul...

Now i will gladly admit, I too am affected by placebo, even a Wine Trials reader and supporter. Whereas a classic oenophile such as yourself may subconsciously say "this wine is expensive, therefore it's good!" I may subconsciously say "This wine is inexpensive, but it's in a popular book, therefore it must be good!"

My point: the only way we can remove ourselves from these seemingly innocuous emotional reponses is to prevent us from having them in the first place, ergo, tasting them completely blind...

I plan on having a true blind tasting in the future with my friends. I'll let you all know how it goes...

-Jason M
Greater Hartford Area, CT