Saturday, January 18, 2014

Well-made, bad wines

There are a few new wines out, you'll be glad to know -- in fact a whole series of them, all boasting a uniform, eye-catching label announcing half their proceeds go to charity -- wines which I think I can describe as well-made, but bad. So sorry.

This revelation dawned on me as I sipped first one, then the next, then a third. The white was only sweet, fairly fragrant, and fresh. The reds, a cabernet and a merlot, were very much alike. Both had a clear, red jelly-like color that seemed strange for their variety, and both had the tinny, sweet smell of a traditional kosher Concord, plus a flat, half-sweet, off taste reminiscent of cheap, gummy milk chocolate. Awhirl with all this, I wasn't quite bright enough to realize what vital characteristic was missing from each of them until the nice salesman, we'll call him A, explained that both were kept low in tannins so as to seem friendly and soft to the new drinker. I thought, ah so. He's right, I don't feel any puckering or assertiveness or "structure" here. (We pause to remind ourselves that tannin is a touch sensation, not a flavor.)

A different nice salesman, we'll call him B, who was showing A around the retail neighborhood, further explained privately that he believes this is the direction "the entire industry is going." Winemakers want to reach out and capture that huge chunk of the market which does not particularly like wine yet, but wants to try some, not least because it also wants the touted health benefits gurgling in a glassful of some much milder-tasting liquid than a straight-up cabernet or merlot tends to be. As anecdotal evidence, he said he has noticed lately, for the first time in his career, that sales of white zinfandels are down. We jointly surmise this is because consumers who love the sweet workhorse tipple have other choices these days which are just as soft, friendly, and un-tannic. Like this one.

All this is said without a sneer, truly, because truly we should stop and acknowledge what skill it must take to craft wines which do a new, complex job well. They have one chance to attract the shopper. The shopper is going to make his decision, while at sea in the wine aisle of a grocery store, or having wandered away from the liquor store's beer or spirits sections, based on the look of a label, a price, and a brief glance at any descriptors either on the bottle or on what's called "POS" (Point of Sale, i.e., little advertising tags and explanatory blurbs and reviews) taped to the shelves nearby. And when he gets the bottle home and opens it, again it has one chance to impress him -- to persuade him that he might like wine, or at least like this one.

Let's assume that he's accustomed to the alcoholic strength of hard liquor, the fruity sweetness of cocktails (especially slushy summertime ones, now) and the bitterness and fizz of beer. How can the new wine please his palate?

Winemakers and other entrepreneurial types must have had to think this out, and form focus groups and run surveys and do all sorts of sensible businesslike things, before committing major resources to a new line no less than six varietals strong. While offering all possible respect to nice salesman A and his spiel, I frankly don't believe the story that the brain behind these samples started out as a retail stock kid who just happened to get the notion that if it's good to donate a wine's proceeds to some charity, then it's better to donate many wines' proceeds to many charities. There are other worthy causes available all year, the kid reckoned while busy at work one day,  besides breast cancer in October ....

Um, no. Sombody, the brain or a whole trust of them, had a look at the market first, devised some very specific winemaking recipes -- non-threatening, no acids, no tannins please, but not so sweet that even inexperienced adults will disdainfully think "Hawaiian Punch" on their first sip -- and then added the six charitable causes, one to each varietal, to close the hoped-for sale. Good old American zinfandel to support the troops, and chardonnay for the ladies (breast cancer, again) are both especially right pairings.

The trouble is -- so sorry -- that these wines don't taste very good. Certainly they don't taste like the beverages that their titular grapes will otherwise make when handled in the usual way, even allowing for differences of opinion on lofty things like terroir or too much oak, or the usual winery POS about "passion, integrity, and respect for the land." Once our samples introduce the beginning drinker to the idea that wine doesn't have to be harsh, they will have served their purpose. Will the new drinker then move on to what we really should call the real thing? -- to what professionals call the "varietally correct"? That means cabernets with tannin, or chardonnays with acidity; thin-bodied, horsy Chiantis, or Riojas that are not fruit-bomb, Marine-worthy zinfandels but, as Karen MacNeil puts it, "delicate and almost fragile." Or will he find those tastes disappointing, and will he, in turn, go back to this particular maker wanting him to expand his portfolio from six products to eight, or maybe fifteen?

And what business is it of mine? None at all. To our nice new friends, mix and blend and focus-group away, I say. I hope you all earn oodles of money and support as many good causes as you like. Did you all see my little joke in the sidebar, about wanting $300 to pay the taxes on Tara? A nice scuppernong would do.

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