Monday, June 25, 2007

Do You Want To Be a Supertaster?

After reading Mike Steinberger’s third article on the physiology of the oenophile. No I’m pretty sure I don’t.

Some gems from the article:-
1) By far the biggest consumers of wine criticism are male Caucasians, who according to Bartoshuk are also disproportionately represented among nontasters—35 percent of white males fall into this category. So it could be that, from a purely demographic standpoint, the ideal wine critic would be a low-sensitivity taster. (Hanni suspects that some of the more prominent wine critics are indeed low-sensitivity tasters, given their fondness for heavily extracted, high alcohol wines.)

No prizes for guessing who that is directed at!

2) If biology were determinative, I, as a PROP nontaster, would probably enjoy those sweet, soupy, high-alcohol Australian Shirazes and might not think so kindly of light, acidic red Burgundies. In fact, I generally can't stomach the former and adore the latter. Something happened in my life that dictated these preferences, and it clearly wasn't the genes I was born with.

Some might call that wine snobbery, or even bias. But then both wine styles are unlikely to appeal to supertasters.

3) Sure, there is near-universal accord about what attributes a top wine should have—appealing aromatics, ripe fruit, good structure, a sense of harmony in the mouth and a long finish. But given how enormously varied individual palates seem to be, one wouldn't think that there would be much consensus regarding individual wines. However, the critics tend to agree about wines a lot more than they disagree.

If critics are more likely to be non-tasters that would help reach consensus! More likely critics look for the same objective qualities in wine.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Darrell Corti Gives Himself an Out

Mike Dunne, Food Editor for the Sacramento Bee, has written on the terrible things being said in cyberspace about Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. However it’s the last part of the article that is the most telling.

For the most part, once table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol are off his shelves, they won't be replaced.

But he isn't necessarily bolting the cellar door to all table wines over 14.5 percent alcohol, even aside from traditional exceptions. He acknowledges that a table wine with more than 14.5 percent alcohol can be balanced and graceful.

"If I'm served one and I like it, I might buy it, but I won't go looking for one. I'm always open to anything," Corti says.

Isn't he being a bit contradictory? "Life is a contradiction," Corti says. "I made the rule, I can break it."

Darrell Corti seems to like having things both ways. His stance truly does have the appearance of a storm in a very, very small cup. And if he keeps contradicting himself, it will blow itself out very quickly. Could all this contradiction be explained by the voting in the poll on Dave Chambers blog that has revealed that greater than 50% of respondents don’t pay much attention to alcohol levels when they buy wine?

Mr Corti’s store claims to "specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines", so here is a suggestion for Mr Corti. Why not begin a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines you sell match with the foods you sell? The fate of high alcohol wines in that context would be a more useful contribution to this topic than making rules so that they can be broken.

The Physiology of a Wine Taster

At Shiraz I have posted a number of times on the difficulties that are inherent in wine tasting and on the concept of palate calibration. The physiology of taste and smell are fascinating areas of study and every wine drinker should have at least a rudimentary understanding of some of the evolving concepts.

Mike Steinberger, a contributor to Slate, has begun a set of three article on the physiology of the oenophile. First, he examines the question: Do you taste what I taste? Then he will be tested to see whether he's a "supertaster." And finally, he'll look at whether being a supertaster helps in the evaluation of wine. Those interested in the basic concepts behind taste and smell should find these articles of interest.

The first article "Do You Taste What I Taste?" makes some important points that are often overlooked (unknown?) among wine drinkers. For example

Those of us who review wines do so in the belief that our evaluations, while obviously subjective, are of some value to consumers. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that taste perceptions may be even more individualistic and idiosyncratic than previously imagined—and if our noses and tongues all operate on such different wavelengths, then who's to say what's good or bad?


Wysocki handed me a plastic tube holding a clear liquid and asked me to take a whiff; I couldn't smell a thing. The liquid contained andostenone, a mammalian pheromone found in boar saliva. In a random sampling of 100 people, around half will detect nothing, 15 or so will smell an inoffensive musky-floral-woody aroma, and the rest will be thoroughly repulsed by a liquid that, to them, reeks of stale urine or particularly nasty body odor.


It was less encouraging to discover how easily the nose can be led astray by the eyes. For his next stupid human trick, Wysocki produced two jars, one labeled "Food," the other "Body." I was told to sniff each. I actually was one of the few people not fooled by the experiment: I said both jars smelled like vomit. In fact, both jars contained the same chemical compound, butyric acid, which can be perceived as vomit but also as perspiration or Parmesan cheese. Wysocki told me he often conducts this test at seminars and that, on average, 60 percent of the people in the room will claim they enjoy the aroma in the "Food" jar, with most saying it's redolent of Parmesan cheese; but when he asks if anyone found the "Body" jar pleasant, no hands go up—the participants invariably claim that it smells of puke or body odor.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #9

If a big, fruity Pinot Noir from Carneros is adversely affected by aeration I wonder what happens to a Burgundy. I’m not going to open anything special just a Premier Cru (also denoted as 1er Cru) from Mercurey in the Côte Chalonnaise. There are something like 30 vineyards that are designated Premier Cru in Mercurey. I would have preferred for it to have been a Faiveley, but we can’t have everything.

Wine #9 2005 Mercurey 1er Cru, Clos des Montaigus, Domaine Patrick Size, Burgundy, France: ($13.99USD, 375ml), 13% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degree F. After 3 hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Subtle but attractive notes of cherry and anise. Medium weight with very soft (velvety) entry and nice flavor carry. Finishes with a touch of astringency and slightly sour acidity.

Glass B: Very closed, almost nothing. Faint cherry, grapey notes over a trace of anise. Did open with time. Nicely balanced with nice acidity and a soft and supple presence on the palate, finishing with firm tannins.

Glass C: As for glass A with an additional herbal note. On the palate, very much like glass A with nice juicy acidity and softer astringency than glass B.

My opinion: B is from the decanter, A and C are from the bottle.
Reality: A and B are from the decanter, C is from the bottle.

Conclusion: This wine was tasted on June 6th, and I’ve been reluctant to post the assessment for several reasons. First, my success with 2003 Robert Stemmler Carneros Pinot Noir made me confident, perhaps too confident, that I was correct in identifying which glass held the decanted Burgundy. Unrewarded expectations can be a real insult to the ego! Second, and more importantly, this wine did not taste like a Pinot Noir; there was no varietal definition at all. It is not a wine that I would recommend. But then this decanting experiment is not about my ego (well not yet!) and its not about identifying wines that I would recommend. The purpose is to see if aeration influences the flavor profile and taste of wine. So here is another wine that is not affected by a good dose of exposure to air.

There is one concern. Is there a problem with glass B? To reduce the number of variables I’ve kept the same labels on the three glasses and so its possible that a problem with the glasses might be affecting the outcome of these comparisons. For 4 of the 9 wines tested glass B has revealed less aroma and bouquet than either glasses A and C. Not enough of a difference to say that glass B has some sort of fault. I’ll keep the order the same until a dozen wines have been examined, and then I’ll do reshuffle because I do have six of these glasses.

Score: Wines tested 9, Decanters 0, Non-decanters 2.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Voting on Alcohol in Wine

I get lots of email that I just ignore, but the title of a missive from Dave Chambers of the caught my attention today. “Michael, are you drinking less high-alcohol wine?” No, Dave I’m not Darrell Corti, I drink a lot of wine that is over 14.5% alcohol.

Who is Darrell Corti? He’s a retailer who has decided that he will no longer sell wines with alcohol above 14.5%. That’s table wine, not dessert wine. Oh, and not Italian Amarone either. Why? Because Amarones are made to be 16.5%. At least that’s Darrell’s excuse, and he’s sticking to it. Any other exceptions Darrell? Only if one of his best customers asks for a Carlisle Zinfandel, wines that are certainly not below 14.5%. Then his company will contact Mike Officer of Carlisle and try to buy the wine. Fortunately for Darrell Mike reminded Corti Bros that they can’t buy his Zinfandels because they are all above 14.5%.

Unfortunately Corti has no real control over what happens.
1) He can't control what alcohol is actually in the wine by what's on the label. The labeling of alcohol content allows 1% variation, over or under, on wines above 14% of alcohol content by volume, and a 1.5% variation, over or under, on wines below 14% alcohol by volume. So a 14.5% wine could be a 15.5% wine, and a 13.9% wine could be a 15.4%er. So just how is Darrell Corti going to determine what is above 14.5%? By what is on the label or in the bottle?
2) He can't control what critics will say about wines. For example Parker loves the Molly Dooker wines of Sarah and Sparky Marquis. These are not alcohol shy wines (the label says 16.5%, but Sparky admits its something like 17.2%) but their wines sold out in 21 days in the USA last year.
3) He can’t control what wine drinkers will buy, except in his own shop.
4) He’s inconsistent. His excuse for selling Amarone over 16.5% is that they are made to be like that. Well, news flash, big fruity, full flavored wines have high alcohol, even without being dried out. And, unless I’m mistaken, much of the wine buying public seems to like wines with plenty of flavor.

Darrell Corti's decision is really only likely to affect those who buy wine from Corti Bros. And as they list less than 30 wines on their web site I doubt that internet sales are a large part of their business. So for the majority of the wine world, I predict, this will be a storm in a tea cup. Changing the wine buying publics' acceptance of high alcohol wines requires more than retailers saying they won't sell them.

Want to express your opinion on what I think is a really silly retailing decision? Head off to Dave Chambers blog, and VOTE! No prizes for guessing that I voted for the last choice.

Friday, June 15, 2007

W. Blake Gray, A Chronicle Staff Writer in Need of an Education in Wine Scoring

It happens all too frequently, and I’m only too happy to point it out. Yet another journalist has written on the 100 point scoring system and given all the credit for its creation to Robert Parker, Jr. In his article titled “Are ratings pointless? The highs -- and lows -- of the 100-point scale.” W. Blake Gray, a Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, states “The 100-point rating scale, created by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. in the mid-1970s, was a great innovation that has done a world of good for wine lovers.”

I’m sure that Parker does wish he had created the 100 point scoring system. But, as has been noted on this blog before, all Parker did was develop his own version of a 100 point scoring system. The use of 100 points to score wines had been in use for a quarter of a century before Robert Parker, Jr. came on the scene.

When will we see an article by someone who actually knows what they are talking about?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sparky Marquis, the Steve Irwin of Australian Wine

In early May the Wine Press Club of NSW (Australia) gathered a panel of five speakers for a range of presentations and a forum discussion on marketing wine. The forum was moderated by Darren Jahn, President, Wine Press Club of NSW, and the speakers included: Phil Sexton (Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander Wines), Mark Kehoe (Grays Online Auctions), Bert Werden (WineStar), Sam Willard (Cellarforce) and Sparky Marquis (Molly Dooker Wines).

The edited transcript can be downloaded. The whole document is worth reading. But, with a little imagination, the stream of consciousness from Sparky Marquis is as close to wine comedy as I’ve read.

On Marquis Philips – we started Marquis Philips which went from, in its first year 2001 was 8,000 cases and by the time we sold the company in 2004 we were 120,000 so we went from 8,000 to 120,000 cases in three years. We, mind you I think we only got paid six bucks for that company. Anyway, that’s how business goes.

On drinking Mollydooker wines, while pouring it over a fellow forum member’s head - This is 2006 vintage. We bottled this on Friday right? (Sorry ‘bout that Sam). Right. OK. I just poured it all over his forehead. Sorry about that mate. What we tell people is if you’re going to drink our wine straight away, pour a little bit out, don’t pour it all over the table because you’ve wasted some then and you’re going to have to lick that up later on, right? Pour a little bit out, stick your finger in the top. Always treat our wines gently. (Shakes the bottle madly) Never rough ‘em up. Never worry about, I mean you have to very careful when you treat our wines. Pull your finger, see that? Did you see that? This here, the froth on the top, is nitrogen. If you think about – I’m trying to be careful of Sam’s notes and phone here right at the moment. Hold that Sam.

On selling Mollydooker wines - We released our website in the US the other day called ‘Buy Molly Dooker’ because the number one response after we sold out in 21 days last year was ‘Where the heck can I buy Molly Dooker’. So we bought the website called ‘Buy Molly Dooker’. We put an e-commerce business on it, exactly the same as Bert was talking about - it cost us 300 bucks. It cost us more for the SSL certificate whatever that is – just so we could put https, not just http on our website. I don’t understand what means right? And we sold $1 million worth of wine. Not pre-order. Paid for in our bank account in fourteen days. We expect to sell $5 million over the next couple of days of wine from our direct website in the US but we expect to sell $15 million through our retail friends, our restaurants, the guys that we are going to back 100% to support.

On wine show medals versus critics points - I don’t know. It’s hard to say. For us, you know, we have always been about putting our wines out there and having them judged by whoever is prepared to judge them. What we found in the wine shows is that the direction of the wine shows tends to be with, OK let’s go with finesse or lift or whatever, rather than just something you enjoy, and but in so saying, we tasted with Campbell Mattinson the other day and we showed him – I mean like, I mean you think about it, like the Molly Dooker that we’ve got up there is, I think we say 16.5 on the label but it’s something like 17.2% alcohol. And you don’t know that for the first four glasses but on the fifth glass you certainly do. And you know, I think that the wine, the show judging has gone a little bit into ‘What should we judge to be the great wines’ as opposed to ‘What do I enjoy drinking?’ and for me, everything’s been about what I enjoy drinking. Not what would I taste but what would I drink the whole bottle of …or at least give it a fair shot a drinking the whole bottle of, and then drink the rest the next morning for breakfast because I start drinking at eight o’clock every morning so it’s alright for me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #8

For the next wine let’s go back to South Australia, to McLaren Vale and d’Arenberg’s The Dead Arm Shiraz. I’ve been able to source half bottles from 2002, one of the stellar vintages in recent years. The Dead Arm is partially barrel fermented before further maturation in American and French oak for around 20-22 months. It’s a blockbuster Shiraz style that has only been in bottle for a little over three years. Surely it needs some air, or does it?

Wine #8 2002 d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($30.99USD, 375ml), 14.5% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degree F. After 2 hours and 15 minutes the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: A potpourri of stewed fruits over very ripe blueberry, toffee, coffee and olives. Full bodied, with big, firm tannins. Not a lot of flavor carry but well structured.

Glass B: As for glass A, not quite as open but more of a toasted aroma. Very much like glass A on the palate, but with more evident acidity.

Glass C: Quite like glass B in not being as open as glass A and again there is the presence of a toasted aroma. Palate as for glass B.

My opinion: A is from the bottle and B and C are from the decanter.
Reality: A is from the bottle and B and C are from the decanter.

Conclusion: While I’ve tasted better wines from the 2002 vintage, The Dead Arm is still really a baby and needs its rest; at least another 5 years. But if you do open a bottle what it doesn’t need is to sit in a decanter waiting for you to drink it. But then perhaps you prefer toasted, smoky notes that detract from more attractive fruit aromas? Do you think that d'Arenberg know something when they say of The Dead Arm Serve after decanting as an older wine.

Score: Wines tested 8, Decanters 0, Non-decanters 2.