Demystifying Wine: The Five Wine Pillars

Demystifying wine is essential today as it has always been… perhaps much more important today than at any other time in the past.  The world of variety, region and style is as complicated and misunderstood as it has always been and instead of wine becoming less demystified it is still in the complex and mystified strata.

Many regions and even wine countries have been misunderstood or mystified and those regions deserve to placed on tables to be tasted. 

I attended a conference where Eric Asimov NY Times wine critic talked about the need to consider ‘mystifying’ wine once more. He was a superb speaker and was completely engaging–he talked about the nuances of childhood travel where he his brother would debate if landing at an airport counted as a new state visited or did you have to actually touch terra firma.  I was amused as have thought the same thing. 

While I don’t agree summarily with mystifying wine. I don’t take offense at what I think his aims were – while I didn’t get to speak with him I did interpret his word as being a need to re-appreciate wine via its alluring qualities. I appreciate loving wine for its enduring and even difficult-to-put-into-words sentiment; which I think get’s us to appreciation.

What I do want to advocate for wine is a continuous journey to demystification. There are the essential qualities and characteristics: style, state, variety, vintage, region, nose, palate, and price. As an example, an overly extracted red wine is speaking of that wine or even regional style but the immensely extracted red wine is not a superior wine–it is a wine that expresses regional or even winemaker preferences.

I do believe strongly in a need to demystify and support appreciation and there is room to make for optimum experiences for wine appreciator/consumer.

The pandemic certainly shown that wine is oh so mystified.  Here is a good example of a mystification on wine: sparkling wine sales during the pandemic plummeted. 

According to the International Wine and Spirit Record sparkling wine sales were down:

  • Champagne down 18%
  • Prosecco down 7%
  • Cava down 14%.

On a normal year the British consumed 26.9 mm bottles of Champagne with a population of 66.5 million people.  The US consuming 25.6 million bottles with a population of 328 million people (and 2020 numbers are 20.8 mm bottles). The story of decreased sparkling wine consumption showed that sparkling wine is still treated as a celebratory wine in the US. While British consumption of Champagne too was down in 2020–there is a more normalised behaviour of Champagne consumption in any given year. It is not just a celebratory wine but a wine to be enjoyed more frequently.

I’ll start with some specific top levels areas of wine demystification: Five Wine Pillars:

Wine Pillar #1 You don’t have to pay a lot for good wine

The question or belief that you have pay a significant sum of money for a good wine is still with us today. I have spoken quite a bit in my videos and have stated that there is no correlation that wine quality gets better for every monetary unit spent.

Wine unlike many consumer products has a very finite lot. Compare with beer and spirits where in general the base material (ingredient) does not have to come from one place or that each year the production is limited by what is grown on estate or contract. Yes, there has been a few producers of spirits who use the word “estate” but in general it is not a root or common word for spirits or even beer production.

There are many confounded reasons why there is confusion. Some wine critics live by the “if it costs a lot; then a high point score is warranted”. I rarely see a wine reviewer give according to the wine itself i.e. lower priced point wines rarely, rarely get a high point score (say in the 93-96 point score range; let alone any higher point score). There is some shame with warranting a high point score to a reasonably priced wine of some wine critics. I do believe that wine is exceptional and when I review wine I do it as blindly as possible:

A) Not knowing wine scores from other wine reviewers

B) Not knowing price point

It can be hard to review blindly and it is not always possible because it is plastered on all of the material you might get when you open up your wine samples–i.e. tech sheets can sometimes supply wine scores. I am not concerned with what someone else might rate a wine. Nothing against another wine review but it is in my “I don’t need to know” as I need to rate without any influence from anyone else.

Brands do manage their prices and raise prices accordingly–this is not the vast majority–there is a pricing in prestige with increasing points scores and accolades (not all producers will price that in but some will). There are some very spectacularly successful producer who sell through their offerings with great ease but that is rare. Perhaps they were first to market a variety or have some special feature that has piqued customer curiosity and reception.

Yes, wine brands are all trying manage their offering and their appeal and many if not most work quite hard to do so. Accolades, praises and points do raise consumer interests in wine and especially when they are shopping for wine.

In the last twenty wines, I reviewed I have noted the following:

Esporão Quinta dos Murças Minas 2019 – SRP $24 my rating 94 Points other rating was Wine Enthusiast with 91 Points

Esporão Vinho Bico Amarela 2020 – SRP $12 my rating 93 Points other rating was Wine & Spirits 90 Points

Observation: I have found that I give the warranted point score regardless of price. If a wine warrants a specific point score then I issue it–I am price and by that extension brand agnostic. I don’t think this is how the wine reviewer community does this in awarding points. Wine scoring, unfortunately, is predictable. So in one regard, I can see how many consumers might be confused about price score and wine and even pricing. There is a greater need for blind scoring as possible to offer consumers the most reliable scoring.

Bottomline: a great wine does not have to cost a fortune


Wine Pillar #2 Region

Demystifying wine includes region. If someone thinks of an old world wine country is expensive it is not the correct way to view a region. If a wine region is compared or depends on another region for marketing their wines that is a not a realistic or even warranted view of wine.

Why?

Simply wine stylization can be co-opted in order to sell a regions wines. It is unfair to compare one region to the next for many reasons. Can or should Old World wines taste like New World wines and vice versa? I remember hearing a California winemaker talk about his style of his Italian varieties had to have an American stylization. He said he macerated in the vinfication process longer than he might normally do with his Sangiovese. He said if I used an Italian wine making approach “I would not sell my wines.”

If there were a Judgment of Paris held today, I am not sure the results would be, at least, on a percentage level of “winners” would be the same. In fact, given what occurred, judges Patricia Gallagher and Steven Spurrier scores were not tabulated were a bit of high drama. I would trust what happened in ’76 would not be repeated but it would need to be not just a American v. French competition. A new competition or judgement would need to include Washington State, Oregon, Australia, Chile at minimum and other wine countries as well. The results would be mixed or more accurately distributed and not just a two way competition.

I think of Bordeaux as a region that some people think that it is an expensive region. I have never thought of as I have tasted and reviewed from this region for years. Bordeaux’s total wine production is 95% is affordable and within reach and 5% of Bordeaux wines are expensive wines. So the 5% doesn’t represent the overwhelming majority. Many wines are so approachable and inexpensive that even for a person buying a wine most likely will buy a delightful wine and the investment is not too prohibitively expensive. There are a considerable number of reviews to help hone in consumers coupled with wine merchants helping consumers to find wine they wants to buy.

Diversity in choice is something we have today that even in a short two generations ago didn’t quite exist in the US and elsewhere; a large universe of wine regions available to buy. The wine world is still relatively new–not meaning that there are newly established wine regions but more availability in the US today.

I remember just a few short years ago I was in Montreal and I got a lovely Syrah from Wahluke Slope which, of course, would be available in the US but only years later. On my return to San Francisco, I went to several wine merchants and I knew the answer right away–there was not a single bottle of Washington’s Wahluke Slope anywhere in the Bay Area–it simply was not part of any wine retailer assortment or on any restaurant wine list. Yes, while the Bay Area backyard of Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz Mountains and Livermore Valley but it did not preclude imported wines being readily available.

Keep an open mind on wine countries is to develop a sense of place. Pinot Noir doesn’t taste the same even in say California – Anderson Valley to Carneros to Sta Rita Hills and further afield Willamette Valley is not Burgundy, and so fourth.

Take your favourite variety say Sauvignon Blanc or Syrah and try wines from near and the far flung wine regions in the world. Old World and New World: South Africa, New Zealand, Uruguay, Chile, Loire Valley, Alto Adige/Südtirol, Paso Robles, Rhône Valley, etc. to get a taste of terroir. At minimum it is a fun journey.

There is also the quest that I suggest – in many wine regions is variety that is specific to region and thus is a great way to discover region and variety–some thought starting ideas:

Austria – White: Grüner Veltliner, Red: Blaufränkisch

Croatia – White: Debit, Red: Plavac Mali

Romania – White: Fetească albă, Red: Fetească neagră,

Greece – White: Assyrtiko, Red: Agiorgitiko

ItalyAlto Adige/Südtirol – Lagrein; Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Refosco, Schioppettino, Riobolla Giala, Tazzelenghe; Franciacorta – Sparkling Wines; Piemonte: Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto di Dogliani, Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Alta Langa – Sparkling Wines; Valle d’Aosta – White – Petit Arvine, Red – Petit Rouge; Cinque Terre DOC; Emilia-Romagna Lambrusco di Sorbara; Toscana: Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Chianti Colli; Umbria Sagrantino; Lazio – Bellone variety; Marche – Verdicchio, Pecorino; Abruzzo – Montepulciano, Pecorino varieties, and Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo; Campania – Aglianico, Fiano, Greco, Falanghina varieties; Basilicata – Aglianico, Primitivo; Puglia – Primitivo, Negroamaro, Uva di Troia, Verdeca, Bombino Nero; Calabria Cirò – Gaglioppo and Greco varieties. Sicilia – Etna DOC – Nerello Mascallese and Caricante; Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG – Nero d’Avola; Catarratto, Grillo and Perricone; Sardegna Cannonau di Sardegna DOC and Vermentino di Sardegna DOC.

France – Jura, Savoie Sud Oest, Val de Loire, and many more regions.

Spain – Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Somontano, Empordà, Terra Alta, Alicante, Ribeira Sacra, Txacolí de Bizcaia, Txacolí de Getaria, Txacolí de Álava, Cava, Jumilla, Bullas, Bierzo, Toro et al.

And I specifically didn’t call out well known regions but, of course, have their offerings of lesser known producers and even varieties. My Intention is to highlight many regions not all and hence I did not include every single region.

And many more wine countries to consider getting wines from: Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Georgia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Lebanon, Cypress, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Canada, Peru, Argentina, and Chile and others. And many US states: New Mexico, Washington State, Oregon, Virginia, Texas, New York, Colorado, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and other states.

Wine Pillar #3. Brand Over Dependence

There are brands that have been in the spotlight for longer than 20 minutes of fame and are on a nonstop repeat mode. I have several friends that will only drink Pinot Gris/Grigio from only ONE producer. No matter how much intervention via suggestion and pouring better examples of this variety they don’t want to consider buying on occasion another producers Pinot Gris/Grigio. I do think ‘tasting is believing’ and I thought I could provide a wide array of possibilities. The brand dominance has emblazoned that only this producers Pinot Grigio is the boiler plate of what each wine drinker ‘thinks’ Pinot Grigio should taste like. The price is easily 40-60% higher than other brands Pinot Grigio. Being a former off-premise wine marketing manager is that well known brands have ultra thin and unsustainable margins and this equally applies to on-premise establishments.

Mystification is alive and well today–go to a club warehouse and see what wines are being sold by the palet. This is a signal that consumers believe that only one brand can fulfill their needs. Consumers are reaching for wines that under deliver in value and palate experience. Cracking this wine code is not only what I do it is also what consorzi, conseil and trade associations have been doing as well. Consumer wine events unfortunately have little power to sway wine purchases to change or consider other brands (but I do believe that ‘tasting is belivieng’ will win the day someday).

Wine Pillar #4. Not just Scores; How does it Pour

Scores and I have already touched on are automatic sales points. I have sat in the consumer seat and have had rigid and uncomfortable tastings in Sonoma and Napa in particular and the selling points are “allocations” and point scores. Allocations are not my “on” button and in fact I do find it a turn off. The need to try to reach my emotional connection that a wine is exclusive and available to me and a few others is a weak sales strategy. I do understand that this is how some people feel about wine and the allocation perspectives keeps some people hooked. There are thousands and thousands of brands producing stellar wines and you do not have to join or be part of an allocation to acquire.

In the off-premise world a point score of 88 points and above is considered the minimum threshold to post a wine point score. While I do advocate that one not only buy on point scores alone I also am skeptical of those reviewers who give a higher than bell curve average of points scores and often issue 98, 99 or 100 point scores routinely. Those that give this give it to a predictable set of producers. I have reviewed the thousands of my point scores and I have given and what feel are within bell curve pattern–I am comfortable that my average score is not some number like 97 points because that would render my ratings useless. My scores have always been about discipline and again price and brand agnostic.

There, unfortunately, is not a one site that lists all point scores for all wines and it would be nice to see that. Yes, some online wine retailers list some but key word is “some” not all. I do think point scores will be what help a person decide on say a 94 and 95 Point Champagne (as an example) and the decision has been made. I am more aware that consumers are increasing looking at wine in terms of several key areas: sustainable, biodynamic and vegan friendliness.

I do think the next frontier for consumers is the front and back labels with more data points about the wine in the bottle.

Wine Pillar #5. Staying Away from Trends

I remember my wine marketing days where the topic was “what is the latest trend in wine.”  

“Ughhhh” to quote a Peanuts character and I said to myself  “not that topic again.”  I did explain that only following trends is not good for business–time and again I used data to help drive the point that margins and profitability were hurt when only following trends and not having a singular point of view and retailing authorship.  

Trends and fades in the wine world are simply exhausting and do not tell the full story of wine.  A wine retailers invests in stock keeping units (SKUs) at the expense of margin to sell “a whole bunch” but what they sold often doesn’t help the store in terms of profit instead it takes other non-trend wines to pay to keep the lights in that store.

I am not sure why wines need to be trended–it is never good for both consumer and retailer. Why is it bad? Grape varieties have been uprooted to say in Napa Valley to plant Cabernet and remove a vineyard with mixed black grapes, Grenache, Zinfandel or other varieties. I am not saying that Cabernet is a trend but i do think we wine appreciators do look back and wish a region like Napa Valley had kept some of what was originally there. Yes, you can find Napa Valley Grenache or Zin but it is rare and getting rarer year over year.

I have lost track of how many trends we have seen: Malbec, Moscato, low sugar, low alcohol. I do think he wine pendulum should do less swinging and be more centered and perhaps we could stop using the word pendulum.

Wine demystification and wine appreciation is needed now. And I do think the greater community of wine writers do aim for that. I do think there is a lot of reporting and reviewing and in doing so has not changed the dialogue or perhaps gathered the interest of readers. Yes, there are some popular wine writers but the many people who imbibe in wine have not started down the journey of wine demystification.

I do think wine demystification can begin on the wine label itself and more data points is a good thing not a bad thing. I do think demystification is a journey and a long haul but it is a long haul worth doing.

Santé,


James

© 2021 James Melendez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved – for my original content, drawings, art work, graphs, photographs, logo, brand name, rating, rating, taxonomy, graphic and award, my original art work and all designs of James the Wine Guy.  James the Wine Guy is also on Facebook, Twitter and most major social medias.

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About James Melendez

II love wine and business. I am obsessed with the subject, the art, the history, the sciences, organization management, and making things less complex I have been a former national wine marketing manager for a large off-premise food and wine retailer (280+ retail locations in 30 US States); the love for wine taught me the good practice of using the best methodologies to right side a business which unto itself is complex. Further complexity is wine. Wine simple to enjoy and yet profoundly complex because of many factors: Many grape varieties States of wine: sparkling, still and fortified wines Vintage Blends Regions/AVAs/DOCs etc. Many producer styles Many producers Limited supply Limited and often restricted distribution My experience is still a lot of intimidation with respect to wine. Wine means many things to many people; status, fear, success, ‘you’ve arrived’, enjoyment, good times, tradition and even ceremony. I have consulted with wine producers and association. I have spoken on Wine and Social Media, Wine and Video and The Business of Wine in conferences in the United States and Europe. Beer and spirits do have the same dynamics–there are many producers but compared to wine there is no other consumer product like it. I have been writing about since November 2006 on my site and I have over 2,890 wine videos on my YouTube channel talking about general wine subject matter as well as specific educational topics on wine and reviews. I have been a wine judge and have traveled to many wine countries in the new and old world. Wine has taken me to great places. Life is tough for most of us and it is nice to celebrate life with those near and even far. What wine is really about is sitting around a table with family and friends raising your wine glass and saying—to life! I love to write about travel, food, technology and business–please subscribe! Salute, *** A plethora of wine reviews from wines regions around the world. Read more of my wine reviews:jamesthewineguy.wordpress.com © 2020, 2018, 2017, 2010 James P. Melendez – All Rights Reserved.
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