Wine unplugged

The Wine Trials

This post is part of a collection of related links here, The Skeptical Wine Lover.

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IT should go without saying but… When you’re at the dinner table tonight, you and your companions are all alone with the wine in your glasses.
Reputation, history, packaging, advertising, back label blurb, descriptions, reviews, ratings and even language itself all vanish – boof! – leaving just you and your company with the sight, smell and taste of the wine nestling in the bottom of your glass.

It’s pretty wonderful. Like music, enjoying food and drink is an entirely sensual escapade. However, we’re forever interpreting, judging, and imposing language on what we experience. And that’s okay too. As humans it’s what we’re wired to do.

But ideally, we should all be assessing the quality of any wine based entirely on its colour, aroma and taste. And so too should any wine columnist or blogger. With certain limitations, I attempt to do this, thereafter factoring in other key criteria, most notably price and availability, when deciding to recommend wines.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Recommend? What’s that about? Isn’t that just a second-hand experience? Well like many another, half of my weekly column in the Irish Examiner is essentially me nudging your elbow saying, “here, try these wines, I think you might like them.” I’m not shy, and not reluctant to recommend wines I think offer both an interesting experience and good value. And (especially when taken cumulatively) I believe such commendations may be of value to the reader. Wouldn’t do it otherwise.

However, I believe many readers presume those recommendations are what I’m at, that I view them as the most useful end of the column. I don’t. To me, the lump of narrative accompanying the recommendations is actually where it’s at. It’s where I do my bit to debunk wine myths, encourage readers to delve into the experience, plead with them to make use of open, public wine tastings. Because it’s not about me, nor about wineries or retailers or anything else. It’s all about you on a Saturday night and the bundle of sensations nestling in the bottom of your wine glass. Sometimes I say this overtly and sometimes I hint at it: Among the phrases I most frequently use are “suck it and see” and “trust your tastebuds”.

So it was with delight that I plunged last week into one of the delightful, radical books about wine I’ve had the pleasure to read, namely The Wine Trials 2011 (Workman Publishing, NY, 2011) You can buy it online (at Amazon for Kindle) or order it at good bookshops including Waterstones and Eason.

The book is the latest edition of a project that grew out of “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” an academic paper published in May, 2008 by Robin Goldstein which in turn was based on a battery of blind taste-tests. In essence, some 500 volunteers assessed wines they tasted blind. And not only was a disparity between price and quality, in general they preferred cheaper wine to more expensive wine.  This, some further double-blind tastings, and a host of references to peer-reviewed academic research make up the business end of the book. Part II of the book is its list, complete with tasting notes, of the ‘winners’ selected by the blind tastings at the inexpensive end of the market.

I was delighted to see many wines there I’d recommended – some of them modest numbers priced well below €10 here in Ireland which I’d suggest offer far more than their price point would suggest. But the most significant deja-vu I experienced was reading Goldstein plead with readers to invest more of their attention in Part I. Suck it and see.

Importantly, the book is rigorous and disciplined. While Goldstein and his contributors do engage in some pretty interesting editorialising, the authors provide clear evidence for every significant claim they make, and delineate carefully between those evidence-based findings, and broader notions they put forward or use to illustrate the science.

I’m coming late to all this. I’m not alone. Despite its direct and immediate application anywhere in the world, The Wine Trials has had scant attention on this side of the Atlantic. The whole economy, let alone the wine market, of the US differs significantly from Ireland’s, But the most interesting and most important aspects of the book are entirely transferable.

I was alerted to the book by Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ wine guy whose columns and blogs are always worth a browse.
Over the last three years or so, Eric has been having a dialogue in print with the authors of The Wine Trials, and his critique may add a further dimension to your understanding of what the book is all about. But, while Asimov is as fair and respectful an interlocutor as one would expect, I’d recommend you don’t read one without the other. Goldstein continues the conversation in this latest edition of The Wine Trials. For an unparalelled insight into us, and how we view our food and drink, I recommend you buy it and read it.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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