Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Two-Buck Luck?

In the circles in which I travel, news broke out that shook the beliefs of many to their foundations. Not news about how Jesus actually became a management consultant and died at the ripe old age of 117; not news about how the sun actually revolves around the earth, not news about UV radiation being healthy. No, more stark than that.

No, starker.

These are the news, in a nutshell: Charles Shaw Chardonnay (a.k.a. “Two Buck Chuck” in the patois of the street…although it mysteriously retails for three bucks, perhaps people are being sensitive about Mr. Shaw’s possible orientation?) won The Very Super Duper Ultra Prestigious Wine Competition, defeating wines from 873 countries, including some which cost more per bottle than three space shuttles and a lease return NASA camper van combined. ABC News posted footage of this amazing David & Goliath feat all over the Internet. Of course, they also had to get some sort of expert to clarify it for all the benighted people who don’t scan assiduously. Somehow, the expert failed to agree with the panel of judges that awarded Charles Shaw the coveted Plutonium Triple Crown of All Time Best Wine, Ever! and she said the wine was so atrocious that it was almost as bad as the wine that cost 60 times as much.

Here comes the caveat. I am not picking on any wine because it costs three bucks. I am an ardent believer in wines that give you value for money. In fact, many (most?) of the seriously food-friendly wines will weigh in at less that $20 a bottle, often less than $10-$15. The problem is that even if a wine is “spectacular for the money” there is only so much room for spectacularness in $3. So what gives?

The crucial bit left out – until now – is the answer to “Yeah…so what’s this all mean?”

I’ll tell you what it means. It means that those who place a great deal of store in what judges say are also placing a HUGE deal of store in a couple of semi-hidden, mostly nebulous variables. You read things about Wine X that says “Winner of the Platinum Medallion at the Palookaville WineFest!” and you are inwardly very impressed. You rehearse, perhaps, saying same in a casual, offhanded way to dinner guests…especially if it’s only one guest upon whom you have designs of the basest sort. You are assuming, of course, the judges at the 2007 Palookaville WineFest are all competent, intelligent, and experts/professionals in the field, at the top of their form on the day of the event. You assume the panel is substantially the same as last year’s panel.

You further assume there have been no glitches with scorecards, computing, counting, or sorting. Beyond this, you also assume that all the bottles sampled were both accurately representative of the wine and stored and served in such a way as to keep it so.

Some events are more transparent in this regard than others. The judges are announced with plenty of time, they are known quantities who themselves have credibility and expertise. Some events don’t bother or do a poor job of it. Your job is not to rely on any one award in your decision. I don’t state these things to slight these event or to impugn the judges thereat, jointly or severally. Just to say this: Don’t assume that what a group of people (about whom you likely know little to nothing) decided about a wine is an immutable fact.

The fact the 2007 Palookaville WineFest chose the Chateau Sauvage Pipi du Chevre as their number one wine doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to weigh that against other opinions including, most importantly, your own. This entails cultivating a relationship with your wine retailer, by the way. Yes, I know they all dress in invariably unflattering “aloha” shirts and those knockoff Panama hats. You’re not there to take sartorial advice, but rather, avail yourself of their expertise. If he (or she, I don’t discriminate) gets a handle for what your tastes are, what sorts of food you enjoy, your general budget then you are in a far more advantageous position for getting wines which will please you than using any other means of oenophilic discernment yet devised.

Above and beyond this, you may look at specific wine reviewers as a secondary source of guidance. While these reviewers – myself included – all may suffer from manifold flaws, including an appalling subjectivity, they bring a consistency to the table that is useful. Don’t fixate on a wine that got 98 points from Mr. Wine Q. Reviewer, rather focus on the reviewer first. Why? Because if you find a reviewer whose tastes parallel your own, then you can use those reviews to whittle down the near-oceanic quantities of wine available into a smaller quantity from which to choose…bringing us back to Aloha Tom and his wine shop and his invaluable advice. If most of the stuff that Mr. Wine Q. Reviewer suggests tastes to you as if it had been fermented through a weasel, then snapping up one he rated at 98 only means you will have paid exorbitantly for the opportunity to drink something your tastebuds will compare unfavorably to the renal output of most burrowing mammals.

Finally. There really is no substitute for training your palate. When you taste a wine, try to “look” for things. I remember vividly the first time I tasted a wine that had a clear, unambiguous “blackberry note.” I skipped and hopped merrily until my wife threatened to have me carted off. Once you have a palate that can taste specific aspects of a wine, you’ll notice you have less and less need for wines with awards.

After all, maybe some judges think certain wines taste best when spat out.



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