Monday, July 14, 2008

What The Hell Is Vintage Prejudice?

    Why doesn't anyone appreciate gray anymore?  Few things in life are black and white, but most people still love to bundle up everything into tidy little, easy to understand groups.  Good or Evil; Sad or Happy; Conservative or Liberal; Good Vintage or Bad Vintage.  The world is not black and white, and the many grays and even colors of situations are what make life so dynamic and curious.

    For the good vintage/bad vintage scenario, most critics and wine professionals continue to perpetuate prejudice or favoritism so that they can quickly categorize wines into quality categories without even opening bottles.  Those wine professionals and consumers who continue to value critics opinions more than their own, are most susceptible of falling into the trap of absolute generalizations.  "This is a great vintage for Tuscany.  It's a 95 point vintage!"  Wow, that makes it easy.  Just like Consumer Reports reviewing a hair dryer.  "I'll only buy Tuscan wines from this vintage."  Says Joe Retailer.  "Don't even bring me something from that other vintage."  Seth and I have sold to this character in our previous life working for importer/distributors, and there are far, far more of them than the rare alternative.

    Joe Retailer, and his buddy Jane Restauranteur, love to prop up their selections with reviews from respected critics and their absolute points, and when those reviews aren't available for a specific wine, it can quickly be substituted with a review of the vintage instead.  Joe and Jane are not confident in their ability to make selections based on their own senses.  Instead they use points and sell to their customers (who most often don't even need more convincing), using other peoples opinions instead of their own.  (Most consumers really want the opinion of the person making the recommendation, not the anonymous critic whose points they're referencing.)  But once the consumer has been taught to value these points, the opinion of the salesperson no longer matters.  But that's a story for another post.  Back to the subject of vintages...

    In our previous retail and restaurant lives Salamanzar and I were not confident enough in our own opinions and sometimes fell into that same inexperience rut.  We sometimes used the "crutch" of critics points and sold to customers while using terms like "good vintage".  For us though, during these formative years, our integrity nagged at us.  It felt like our communcation during those moments was tainted.  When we finally sat beneath the Pippala tree and came up with Wine Authorities, our enlightenment brought us to some firm conclusions including:
    #28a -  Our customers would not trust us anymore than Joe and Jane if we hid behind the opinions of anonymous critics instead of standing behind our wine selection based entirely on our OWN opinions.  (This would establish a relationship with our customers based on trust and mutual respect and inspire repeat business.)
    Therefore, we would greet each wine we tasted without having preconceived opinions, especially based on vintages.  There's a sage quote in the wine business, even if it contains one of those generalizing phrases: "A great winegrower can make a great wine even in a bad vintage."  Good, but what is a good wine, and what is a bad wine to the person who first said this.  Is a good wine one which is powerful and ripe?  Does it have to age well?  Is it a dark red wine, or a thick white wine?  Is that what makes them good?  How about the bad wine?  Is a light wine bad?  Is a simple wine bad?  Is a wine meant to be consumed in its youth bad?

    For us, it mainly came down to pleasure and honesty.  Does the wine give us joy?  Did it do it without manipulation, tampering or additives?  Like a classic virtuoso musician who can make you feel the passion beneath the music, or the blues musician who can make you feel the grit and pain behind it, we were making our selections by asking questions like "How much soul does this wine have?" and "Would I want to drink an entire bottle of this?"  Those questions led to us turning down many wines that our peers were flocking to and fighting over.  Big, fat, powerful wines built like Humvees on Atkins diets.  The more those wines tasted like some caricatured, homogenous Pamela Anderson ideal that gets 100 points, the more we were looking for ones that were distinct and interesting, delicious and quirky.  Wines we could fall in love with, instead of lust for then be exhausted of by the end of the first glass.

    Here's a generalization for ya:  In general the "good vintages" are hot and dry and make powerful wines with elevated alcohol contents and thick textures.  The "bad vintages" are lighter and less fruity, less lush but more distinct, sometimes to a fault, sometimes to great elegance.  Our favorites have become the vintages in between, where the balance of a typical vintage gives the wine a chance to show it's character and soul (if it has one).  For mass production wines, a typical vintage means the wine will taste "fine" or "okay".  For wines made by artisans, a typical vintage is like a perfect canvas on which a masterpiece can be uncovered.

      We've gotten so comfortable tasting wines from all types of vintages and selecting them on their own merits that the vintage has become merely a way to identify one wine from its predecessor and successor, not its defining characteristic.  Somebody asked me today for a vintage chart at the store, and for a moment I was confused.  My first thought was "Why would you need one of those?  We've tasted all of the wines in here, and they're all delicious in their own way.  We're not hiding anything from you."  But reality quickly kicked in.  "This isn't someone who gets what we're doing yet, a new customer.  They need some advice, and they're coming to us after becoming accustomed to a vintage prejudiced environment that [Joe and Jane] perpetuated."  It was an opportunity to teach, an opportunity to break someone free from tidy groupings, and an opportunity to develop trust and hopefully a relationship with a new customer.  They bought a Bordeaux from 2002, a supposedly bad vintage, and I clearly explained that to them.  I extolled the doubtful couple on its virtues and charms.  They'll drink it soon and pay close attention to it.  Probably more than they would if it was from a more lauded vintage.  I'm confident that they will come back and let me know how much they enjoyed it, they almost always do.  Having a paradigm shift like this often endears them to us, and it's one of the most rewarding parts of doing what we do; building regular customers and being more than just Joe Retailer.  - Grand Poobah Wine Swami


Paul said...

Gee, just think -- a glass of Pamela Anderson... The mind boggles. If Riegel made a specially-shaped glass for her, what would it look like? BTW, is that whole shtick of a different glass for every kind of wine legitimate? How 'bout a post on wine glasses?

Salamanzar & Grand Poobah Wine Swami said...

I think commenting on a Pamela Anderson glass might raise the eyebrows of our core customer group, women. I'll hold my tongue for now.

We may have a post on different glasses in the future, though. The insanity of rampant consumerism can bring all kinds of crazy stuff to the market, and people will still buy. - Grand Poobah.

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