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November 13, 2011

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Evan,
Are you suggesting that "Dark chocolate! Milk chocolate! Cocoa powder! A cherry on top!" are flavors derived from oak aging?

Evan,
You state, "Most oak tastes the same". In my experience this is completly false. I find just the opposite to be true.

David - It's a fair criticism, regarding oak. Yes, oak can be a variety of flavors and aromas. A variety of chocolates, vanilla bean, toasted vanilla, brown sugar, charry notes, etc. It's not always the same. My language was clunky.

But oak flavors are not what you'll get from raising meticulous fruit.

The constant descriptions of chocolate in red wine evokes oak, yes, most of the time. Had a long discussion with a group of writers in Italy about this. A winemaker approached and said, "I am SICK of my fellow Italians making chocolate wine! American critics love oak, so it's oak oak oak!"

Do I think all red wines should rest in stainless steel? No, I don't. I'm not an absolutist. I'm on board with the attributes that oak aging can provide, primarily in terms of texture. I'm just making the point that I can't figure out why more wine producers don't want their untouchable attribute to shine clearly. Fruit, baby, fruit!

Evan,
Every year during harvest and primary fermentation- most of which happen in stainless steel tanks - I marvel at the aromas of chocolate, cocoa and roasted coffee bean that are present long before the wines are moved to barrel. Like them or not these aromas are embedded in our fruit - that is to say they are the fruit. When artfully handled in the barrel cellar, they provide complexity and nuance to the finished wines.

David - I appreciate the perspective, and I'm always trying to keep an open mind. This is the first I've heard of roasted coffee bean coming from fruit, not wood. What flavors / aromatics do you find the wood imparts on your wines?

By the way, my comments show why this entire discussion is difficult to have for a writer: I'm somewhat hypocritical when I say that I like the texture that oak imparts. If I want the texture, why is that different than wanting the flavors or aromatics? It's a fair question, and I think I would say that the texture only enhances what the fruit is bringing essentially on its own.

Evan,
A very interesting topic. I am struck by the assumption that larger producers always equate to "over cropped, mediocre at best fruit." We have grown to become a "large producer" (I realize that this is a very relative term) in the Finger Lakes. Our grape growing methods have been developed over many generations and we have used this experience to establish best quality practices throughout our vineyards. Our size allows us access to state of the art equipment and highly trained employees. Being estate bottled our philosophy has always been to grow the best fruit possible and let our fruit express itself in the resulting wines. I consider our size to be a strength in accomplishing these goals, not a hindrance.

John - You touched on the key difference: scale. Perhaps NYCR is not the perfect forum for this post, because scale of production here is something entirely different. Bonne's original takedown of mass-produced wines went after the $3 brands, the super-mass-produced stuff, the wines made from grapes cropped at, say, 12 tons an acre. That is a universe apart from the work that Wagner Vineyards does, for example, even though Wagner is described as a large producer in NY state.

Evan - a nice provocative post. What about the difference in the type of oak treatment used? That $9 87-pointer your friend enjoyed may not have actually seen the inside of a barrel - but rather chips, staves, etc. designed to impart some oak flavors. These shortcuts are not typically disclosed on a label, but when used clumsily they can skew a wine's flavors. Real barrels stand a better chance of having the oak and fruit integrate more seamlessly. Just a theory, anyway.

Dave McIntyre

Dave - I think you're absolutely right. Oak chips is a common treatment; I should also say that I've seen oak chips employed rather effectively at times, as far as that goes. A new French barrique is not the same as oak chips, staves, etc. As I said, my post is not a perfect one, and yet I keep coming back to: Let the fruit be the story.

Another point: Plenty of the wines I most enjoy see a good amount of new oak. Heart & Hands '07 Barrel Reserve Pinot, a NYCR wine of the year, saw - IIRC - perhaps 2/3 new. Yes, wine can integrate flavors. I want to stress again, I'm by no means an absolutist. Just offering food for thought.

Enjoyed the post, Evan. I agree that fruit is most important, but I don't agree that oak is the biggest reason why we can't distinguish between the $9 and $50+ bottles of red wine. I agree with your friend that to most people (including me), this difference isn't obvious. Over time we develop a palate for certain types of wines, and when you find something in that window, you are willing to pay more for it. I think that's why people are surprised (and possibly disappointed) when that wine is sometimes the less expensive one.

Wine is a commodity. A liquid. A beverage.

I have an aunt once who said to me, "I love merlot, it's great with 7up". My horror was evident and the thought that someone would see wine like this was abhorrent to my budding wine passion.

Turns out today I know there are large parts of Spain that enjoy this drink every summer, albeit with Tempranillo, or similar. Here people drink something that is liquid, tastes good and make the conversation flow. What it is or how it's made is less releveant.

While some may say this is not what "Wine is about" I say BS. Wine is a conversation lubricant. If you become obsessed with it, then terrior, minerals and all the other fluff we "geeks" love, great! But if not, then stick with the adage, "If it tastes good, it is".

You don't need education to love it or to know if you like oak or not. It's a liquid with flavor.

Coming to your point. There is no difference between expensive or cheap wines to most people. Even with educaiton, they don't care. That is not why they drink it. Wine is a fashion and highly subjective. Only a 1 or 2 hundred years ago wine was considered undrinkable if it wasn't sweet. Today we for the most part demand dry(I cry when I say this!).

Oak is/was in fashion, it won't be at some point, as it relates to the public. As a geek obessesed with new flavors, I'll enjoy the transition, and at some point people will be complaining about not enough oak(hope I live to see this).

Ok, that enough rambling. As usual, great post.

I'm coming around to another point of view, based on Todd and Ryan's comments.

My friend who emailed was saying that, to him, it's easier to see the difference between a cheap car and a high-end car then it is to see the difference in a cheap wine and an expensive wine. Same with a McDonald's burger and a high-end burger. He posits that wine is different than most things we assess for quality. The differences are more subtle.

Maybe he is right, to a degree. I imagine Tyler Colman would say that wine requires some level of education to understand and appreciate - if you want to drill down into it. If you don't, there's no need to purchase expensive wine.

Here's another point along those lines. If you owned a great car, and a friend who owns a jalopy comes over, you're more than happy to take him for a spin. He'll love it. He'll appreciate it instantly. But if you have a great cellar, and a friend drinks plonk, you're less likely to crack one of your best bottles just for him - on the basis that he's less likely to appreciate it, and the wine might be "wasted". That speaks to the subtlety we're talking about.

Interesting discussion. We've discovered that we can definitely taste a difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle, and between a $20 bottle and a $30 bottle, but when it gets up to a $100 bottle and above we're stumped. It'll be interesting at Christmas when my father in law opens that '99 Paul Hobbs cab (which I hear is currently selling for $1000 or so) to see whether we can tell any difference from the $40 Shinn cab that will also be on the table.

Speaking of oak, I agree with David Page about different oak tasting different. We went to a class at Union Square Wines a couple of years ago where a Bordeaux house did 12 barrel tastings of their wine with the only differences being the type of oak and the amount of toasting; amazing the differences between French and Russian oak.

Ryan makes an interesting point about oak in wines and fashion. The reality is that new oak is currently regarded by the vinoscenti as out of style. You don't hear many winemakers advocating 100% new oak. This has radically changed in 10 years. I remember a few winemakers in the late '90s bragging about their 200%(!) new oak wines.

Times have really changed. Even though great wines like Petrus are made with 100% new oak, oaking wines has become too easy. Oak chips coupled with micro-oxygenation can very easily mimic oak barrel aging and will fool even the most talented tasters. When things get too easy, comodified and over-played they tend to go out of style. Heavily oaked wines are now more associated with cheap commercial plonk than with Petrus.

A similar thing happened to sweet wines in the 1970's when sweetness in wine because associated with cheap German wines like Blue Nun. Many people like sweetness in table wines but won't admit it. I wonder how long it will take for oak to become fashionable again?

Evan,

Let us bring the conversation back to marketing where it belongs as this has really very little to do with wine. Here are some examples for perspective:

- An Armani pair of jeans sells for a few hundred dollars and an Old Navy, same size, is under twenty. When they come out of the washing machine most people can't tell which is which unless they look at the label.
- A 10th floor condo is a lot less expensive than the one on the 21st floor even though the layout is the same.
- A half liter of bottled water sells any where from under a dollar to several dollars depending on the packaging and labeling, yet it is H2O.

In retailing there are staples, commodities and fashion. Whenever fashion gets involved there is no point trying to argue whether its price is justified or not. The differences in the examples cited above have to do with fashion, i.e. that the higher price is only justified by its utility to the buyer.

Now if your friend likes the $9 bottle of wine that is what he should buy and drink. That a similar wine can sell for 10 times the price of course makes no sense to him. But to the fellow that believes otherwise and who wants to pay the higher price the quality difference may be either real or in the eye of the beholder.

Go to Google and research fashion pricing in retail and you will be amazed at how it will illuminate the questions you raise. Nothing to do with wine quality.
Everything to do with marketing and branding.

Cheers,

Charles

Charles, With all due respect (because you make excellent wines), your examples are not so good. As much as I would like to think otherwise, most people would know the difference between Armani and Old Navy jeans without looking at the label. A 21st floor condo is qualitatively different from a 10th floor condo - it has a better view. Bottled water comes from a variety of different sources and they taste different. The error is in thinking that all of the above are commodities that are simply marketed differently. Wine is no different. It's not a commodity. I don't think you as a winemaker believe this either. It's not like frozen orange juice or wheat or pork bellies. You and Ryan should really reread the Jon Bonne article that Evan refers to.

As for telling the difference between wines, it is very difficult for beginners when the wines are tasted separately. Evan, I'm assuming that your friend tasted them separately (or that the expensive one was way overpriced plonk).

If you had your friend blind compare a Ridge Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (approx. $50) with a Gallo Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon (approx 10), and asked him which was the more expensive wine, I doubt that he would get it wrong. If you down graded the Gallo Sonoma to Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon, and he got it wrong I would climb the Eiffel Tower naked.

Much of the apparent lack of preference for expensive wine over cheap wine with novice wine drinkers simply has to do with the lack of time and proximity with the expensive stuff. If novice wine drinkers choose to spend more time drinking wine, they will eventually move to the better stuff. And, like with anything else in life, they will hit a limit based on their disposable income.

In this sense, it's exactly like hamburgers and cars. But we have much more experience with these things much earlier in our lives and and we develop finer degrees of appreciation for them compared to wine.

I do agree with Charles that fine wine is a fashion and attempts to justify or explain its pricing are largely futile efforts. The difference is that we all have a different opinion as to the price distinction where this lies.

Interesting discussion, my viewpoint is a novice to wine may not appreciate the nuances of a more expensive bottle but would prefer the jammy flavors of a cheaper California Cabernet. The novice then usually would proclaim that they really don't like the expensive wine and that it is inferior to the cheaper one. I see this a lot with restaurants. I personally like going to a restaurant that has more interesting food and they generally have smaller portions and are more expensive. When I take friends that normally eat at Applebees they usually say that they don't like it because the portions are too small. Not saying price determines quality because I've had bottles for around $10 like the Bogle Petite Sirah that I like better than $100 bottles of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon. Steve, I understand most of what you said about there being quality differences between apartments and jeans but try doing a blind taste test of water, I'd challenge anyone to be able to accurately pick out bottled water in a blind taste test, I think it is impossible.

Hand a high school sophomore two novels, one by Virginia Woolf and one by Nicholas Sparks, and ask who is the better writer. The vast majority would answer "Nicholas Sparks" without hesitation. Even bright high school sophomores, and even those with significant language ability, cannot grasp the greatness of Woolf. Her novels are great because of subtleties that the novice reader would miss. Young readers would complain that little happens in Woolf, as they prefer melodramatic, "big" plot events that scream for attention, rather than nuance that engages the mind and senses. Woolf's novels are great because she is so stylistically different from others, which a novice reader's more limited experience prevents them from recognizing. And her novels are great because of the pure passion for language behind every sentence, but a young reader whose own zeal is just budding cannot share it. They cannot discriminate between the canned sentences of a hack and literary masterstrokes.
My fellow English teachers and I cannot help but feel saddened at such a lack of discrimination, and it occasions wringing of hands from time to time. But ultimately, we realize that not everyone will adore the same authors that we do. Really, we're just glad that the students read anything at all. And we hope that someday, we can show those students that the world of literature extends beyond Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and Nicholas Sparks. Every once in a while, we even succeed.

Ryan, if this were Facebook and I could "like" this comment, I would.

Thanks for the great comparison.

No kidding, Lenn. Ryan is consistently an outstanding commenter, and the parallels he draws here are quite astute.

You seem to be enamored with fruit as opposed to the oak. I'm not enamored to either. I like complexity in the wines. Some fruit is good, but not too much as it throws the wine off. Might as well be drinking a mixed drink if that is what you like. Some oak in the approriate dry red or white is good also. But for a wine to be interesting at all it has to have some complexity of flavor beyond the fruit and oak flavor. Grapes produce or should a lot of chemical compounds and a lot of them not fruit oriented. The more compounds produced usually the higher quality of grapes or even grape variety. Even so called vegetal flavor compounds are good if not in excess and in balance with the rest of the flavors of the wine. I like to drink traditional style wines that have a complexity of flavor of which I don't see an abundance of these days, most wines are simplistic, even the over priced plummy jammy (also out of balance alcohol) red wines that seem to get high reviews. Most likely due to burned out palates of wine reviewers.

Keith - I think you miss the point I'm making. I'm not looking for fruity wines. I'm looking for the high-quality fruit to be permitted to shine, unobstructed. The best fruit doesn't always produce heavily fruity wines. A tremendous Muscadet has a stony core. Riesling, of course. Nebbiolo is hardly a jammy wine when the wine is front-and-center. I'm simply saying that the grapes, the fruit itself, the raw material, is the chief advantage that a premium grower has over a bulk grower. To dumb it down unnecessarily is a shame.

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