Ξ February 24th, 2011 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Interviews, Wine & Politics |
Robin Goldstein is a very bright fellow. But The Wine Trials, 2011, his most recent book (written with Alexis Herschkowitsch) provides only a glimpse, the merest insight into what is on the man’s mind. In my book review of the 2010 edition, I spent far more time exploring the first 45 pages where Mr. Goldstein’s puts in motion a complex suite of ideas fundamentally different from the balance of the book. In fact, The Wine Trials, 2011 occupies two distinct worlds, rather as the tourist is divided from a Sartre at whom he gazes outside Les Deux Magots. But this is not a problem. Instead it doubles the reader’s money. The Wine Trials, 2011 is both a book for the cafe and Mr. Goldstein’s prolegomena for a new research program about the ambiguous motivations informing what we will drink there and why. So rather than perform a modest rewrite of my 2010 review linked above, I felt it would be far more interesting to talk with Mr. Goldstein himself. I was not to be disappointed. And neither will the reader. We shall be hearing a great deal from this gentleman in the coming years.
Admin Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. I hear the last issue, 2010, of the Wine Trials was quite the success.
Robin Goldstein Yes. We’ve been very happy with the sales and with the success of the book. The 2010 edition outsold the first edition which came out in 2008. We’re thrilled. It means that more and more people understood the value of a new edition every year. There are new wines every year so each new vintage needs to be reviewed. I hope the book has been serving as a helpful, fun guide for people in their search for wine.
Well, I have certainly had fun with it. Now, after receiving the 2010 edition and writing my favorable review, I went on Facebook, naturally, to see whether you were there and ‘friend you up’, as is said. At that time I was surprised to see that there was not a single friend we had in common! And the vast majority of my FB friends are connected to the wine business in some capacity. I was taken aback. Have you since been ‘friended up’ by folks in the wine business? Or do most consider you a heretic?
RG I don’t think that most people in the wine world consider me a heretic. I guess I am to some extent an outsider to the wine world. I’ve never been intimately involved with insider wine media. I’ve kind of done my own thing… I think I’m friends with Asimov. We’ve met before….
Robin takes a moment to check his FB page.
We have two mutual friends: Eric Asimov and David Downie.
Oh! Well, that’s a start! Eric is a smart fellow and David Downie is an absolutely delightful guy.
RG I’m always happy to meet more people. (laughs) I’m not a career wine media insider. I’ve done a number of different types of projects. I’ve come at it from what some people might consider an eccentric standpoint.
In the 2011 edition I noticed a shift in your take on what might be called the culture war within the wine industry: globalization versus diversity. In the introduction to the 2011 edition you begin by praising a new diversity you perceive in wines now available.
RG Yes, and I think it’s real. In the years since we published the first edition of The Wine Trials in 2008 there are a lot more good and inexpensive wines in the market that are widely distributed in the United States than there were a few years ago, by far. I think that’s partly a response by the market to people pushing for lower prices and lower mark-ups on wine. And people are coming to see the value, that in many cases expensive wine is not worth the money. That is not to say that there are not expensive wines that I personally think are not worth the money, but I think when people are feeling economic pressure in this downturn – and also as the wine drinking population continues to grow and get more sophisticated – I think you have more pressure on importers and distributors to offer great wine at low prices; that translates into importing wine from lesser known regions and places where the value is great, because you’re not paying a premium for a brand name appellation.
It is a kind of Golden Age. We can go to small wine shops and find an astonishing variety of lesser known names. Many have never been scored, at least not as far as my casual research can determine. And the price point, $15 and up, is agreeable.
RG And it’s less of a risk. I also think that as the diversity has grown among people who are aficionados of inexpensive wine, among people who search for them and who drink a lot of wine, they are coming to see, all things being equal, that even if you don’t know the wine or the region well, then trying such a wine will likely have a positive correlation to value. For starters, you know that there are many appellations out there that are overpriced because they are trading on their brand recognition. Of course, there is always a certain segment of the population that is always looking for stuff they’ve heard of. But if I walked into a wine store not recognizing or having tasted any of the bottles they carried, and I had to pick one at random that I felt would have the best chance of being of value for the money, I would probably choose a bottle from a region I had never heard of or was least known to me.
That’s how I shop, even now! Those bottles are the great surprises, the revelations. I go into shops and ask for the strangest bottle they have. It’s a kind of blind tasting in its own way.
RG Definitely. Where are you based?
I’m in Santa Cruz, California. We don’t have quite the range, certainly of European wines, you folks enjoy back East.
RG It’s funny. California is obviously the wine heartland of America, but partly because of that there may be less pressure and incentive for stores to carry wines from other regions or from all over the world. There are pros and cons. On the flip side California wines are marked up on the East Coast, so they’re often less compelling as a value proposition than they are in California.
The same may be said of wines from the East Coast. I rarely see your region’s wines here.
RG It’s too bad. There are some good wines being made on the East Coast now. There’s great stuff from Long Island and interesting wines from the Finger Lakes, and elsewhere, but I think that their production levels are not up to a scale such that makes that much sense to focus on their export business. And the price points, because to their small scale, are still kind of high for many of those wines. So it’s really cool that we’re making good wines. And maybe it’s ok that those wineries won’t become more industrial and exceed the scale that makes sense for them.
Do you yourself visit vineyards? Do you wander around in wineries?
RG I do from time to time. I’ve actually been splitting my time between Berkeley, California and the East Coast lately. I’ve been in the Bay Area quite a bit in the last few months. I’m doing some research out here in the UC Econ Department. The time I visit vineyards most is when I have friends visiting from out of town. I take them to taste wine. It’s not really my favorite pastime, visiting wineries; but I certainly enjoy visiting friends in the wine business, you know, wine producers. I enjoy visiting and hanging out with them, hearing in a more intimate way what they’re up to. In California it’s been a really tough Summer for these folks. It’s been both interesting and sobering to hear what they’ve gone through with the weather.
And the economy. When your friends visit do they mostly want to go to Napa?
RG They say “Take me where ever you want to take me”. (laughs) I tend to gravitate more towards Sonoma County. I like it that the wineries are smaller and offer a more intimate experience for tourists and visitors. And the wineries are more farm-oriented. There’s a really great winery called Bucklin Vineyards. Do you know them?
Oh, yes! Will Bucklin, I interviewed him a little over a year ago. A very cool dude. He has one of our rare field blends, a vineyard of with multiple varieties.
RG I take friends to visit his place. It’s incredible, his place. He has plotted every single plant on the entire property, in the entire vineyard. It is a very complex environment. And he dry farms. He’s very committed to sustainable, traditional farming methods, but he is not at all advertising that fact. He loves to talk about it and to think about it, but he’s not trying to sell his wine as ‘organic’ because he’s just doing what he thinks is right. He’s a zealot in the best possible way. He represents what the wine industry should be.
The Culture of Wine
How do you approach the culture of wine? You’ve touched on Will Bucklin’s farming. Do you have an ethical position with respect to wine production generally?
RG It’s important to minimize the impact of you activities upon ecosystems. But wine is by its definition an art, an unnatural process. We’re planting, almost exclusively, grapes where they weren’t naturally springing up. There is human intervention at the core of the enterprise. We have to be comfortable with that. It’s important not to simply say we’re just letting Nature run its course. If you’re claiming to truly letting Nature run its course, you wouldn’t planting grapes. So there is a balance to be struck.
One thing that I don’t like is the over-emphasis on certification, such as certified organic standards. It is enough for me to hear from the winemakers I know and trust on these matters because they know so much more about farming than I do. So one thing I hear from them, over and over, is that the certified organic standard has been co-opted by companies that maybe don’t meet the standards except on paper; they aren’t necessarily committed to the principles behind them. They use it, organic, as a kind of branding or marketing technique more than a real commitment to the environment. So I think it is important to look past the certified organic label or the sustainable label and look at what they are actually doing. Talk to them and see whether you think they’ve got the right idea. But I don’t have any hard and fast rules. It always is case by case.
Yes. In California there are multiple certification programs: fish friendly, carbon neutral, and so on. There are all kinds. But to your point, Tim Thornhill of Parducci recently said to me that he wants to be measured. He welcomes any and all certification. His thinking is that once he has the certifications then he can improve upon them, move the certification baseline further, demonstrate more robust approaches. So some see certification as a way to nudge the wine industry as a whole toward better farming practices.
RG I don’t mean to suggest that because a wine is certified organic that it’s a negative signal. I mean only to suggest we shouldn’t assume that certification also means it is truly sustainable and coming from the right spirit. But I think Parducci is a great example. I am very much opposed to the viewpoint that a winery has to be tiny to be worthy of great praise and respect. There’s an over-emphasis, in some corners, on the size of the production; a sort of knee-jerk reaction against wineries that produce above a certain level. That’s just as biased as the other perspective. The wines we put in the Wine Trials, many are producing on quite a large scale. And while that prevents them from doing certain things that only a smaller winery could do, such as Bucklin’s dry farming, we also get great benefits from wineries able to produce on a larger scale. If someone makes good wine that makes somebody happy, then bigger wineries make even more people happy; and if they are able to be responsible in their methods given their scale, then that’s great.
Did a winery’s status vis-a-vis carbon neutral, solar use or waste water reuse and recycling programs, whether industrial, biodynamic or organic, did any of that figure into a wine’s inclusion or exclusion into the Wine Trials?
RG We choose the Wine Trials’ wines based on a nomination process. It is based on recommendations from people in the wine industry from all over the place. We don’t exclude wines solely on the basis of some set of rules on carbon footprints, or anything like that. We mention it in a positive way when a winery is doing cool things with regard to sustainability or carbon neutrality or responsibility in other ways. So when a winery is not doing those kinds of things, it speaks by omission. We just don’t mention their practices.
I think there are a lot of resources out there that can tell you what wineries are most environmentally responsible. We’re not trying to be another one of those resources. We’re just tasting and reviewing wines that are widely available and talking about why they are worthy of recommendation. I do think it could be interesting in the future to give out some special award for wineries that have the best practices. But we can’t do everything. You have to define pretty clearly what your goals are, and become modest about them. (laughs)
I love many wines that cost much more than $15, but I decided to do a wine book for wines that were under $15 because I thought that was an under-represented area in the wine guide world. I felt it was where we could make the biggest contribution, to give people something that was needed. I’m trying to reach a national audience with this book. We’re trying to be relevant to the maximum number of readers.
Food and Wine
There are food recommendations for each wine. Do you cook?
RG I went to cooking school, the Culinary Institute. Yes, I like to cook, but I’ve never done it professionally. But I also edit the Fearless Critic restaurant series which are guides to eating in select cities around the country. We have a guide to Seattle which just came out. We have a guide to San Antonio coming out; Austin, Houston, Portland, and Washington D.C., some other cities.
Why so many in Texas?
RG I lived in Austin for couple of years starting in 2005. I like the Texas market for restaurant guides; again, I thought it was a need we could fill where there wasn’t as much good stuff out there as I think people needed. It’s an interesting food state. There is this interface of South Western cuisine and a German barbeque tradition, and then Mexican, of course. There is a huge Hispanic and Latino community there. Just recently I was at the opening of the new Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio, an amazing, amazing project. They’ve restored the old Pearl Brewery from the 1800s. They’ve turned it into a culinary wonderland: a full cooking school program with special scholarships for Hispanic and Latino people who kind of dominate restaurant kitchens all over the country, but who are too seldom placed into executive positions. So the Culinary Institute is trying to rectify that situation. But they are also helping to preserve the culinary traditions of Mexico and Latin America.
Food, wine, and beer have always been joint interests of mine since I’ve started doing this. None of these are new interests!
When you first began drinking did you go the normal college kid route?
RG I began drinking at probably thirteen or fourteen. It was at home; my parents were always of the correct opinion that it’s better to introduce your kids to the pleasures of wine. They felt it was something to be enjoyed with the family at the dinner table and not something to be guiltily guzzled at a frat party. I think there is a very poisonous culture in the United States of a binge and purge mentality. I think it may go back to Prohibition. It results in too many kids who don’t grow up around wine and beer; and subsequently don’t see them as things to be enjoyed and appreciated, but as substances of abuse.
I quite agree. It is also true of wine culture generally. In the advertisement world especially, the dumbing down of wine has been corrosive; it has been nearly completely severed from cultural reflection. And this is one of the reasons I very much enjoy your book. Mixed in with this easy-going conversation, there is also heady thought, certainly in the first part of the book. The placebo effect and a constellation of related concepts really gets one to thinking about wine in a wider world, both practical and theoretical.
RG I’m glad you enjoyed that. It’s my favorite part of the book. It may not be the most useful, but it may be the most interesting. It is certainly what gets me going. I think I make the point in the book along the lines of what you said about the dumbing down of wine. I make the point that the absurd drinking age of twenty-one shares a lot of the blame for certain problems we have in the wine industry. People may not make the direct connection between the drinking age and the style of Parkerization; but the truth is that there is a direct connection. People grow up drinking sugary sodas instead of appreciating wine; and then they get to an age at which the plasticity of their brains is less than it was at an earlier age. When you don’t start drinking until you’re twenty-one, your preferences, for sweetness coming from soft drinks, are often already formed. And then you want wine to taste like soft drinks.
What is it you’re working on in the Economics Department of UC Berkeley? Is it food and wine related?
RG Actually it is very related, and for future editions of The Wine Trials as well as for academic papers and new books. I’m studying questions related to taste perception, perceptual bias, and placebo effects, like some of the stuff you mentioned in The Wine Trials. I’m running experiments and am trying to develop my research in this area. My effort is to make a contribution to the scientific literature in the field of sensory perception and economics. The experiments involve trying to measure how people respond to price signals; I’m asking how the knowledge of price changes people’s experience of wine and of beer. I’m also learning from folks in the Economics Department here how to fit the results into a larger theoretical model.
Perhaps you might expand on this?
RG In Economics there are a lot of traditional assumptions economists make about consumer preferences and consumer behavior. For example, one of the basic assumptions is that consumers have fixed preferences that aren’t related to their immediate environment or to arbitrary factors. The assumption continues that they pay exactly for what something is worth according to a rational framework of values that they’ve set up in their minds. And both Neuroscience and Psychology have for many years shown us that that is virtually unrelated to the way people really make decisions. So, from my perspective perhaps we don’t construct preferences in our minds. We don’t construct rigid evaluations of anything in our minds. We don’t even necessarily understand the value of money, or how much we’re paying for things. The way people work is much more fluid and reference-dependent. This is very interesting new work that’s been done in the last few years by Matthew Rabin and others at UC Berkeley. They are exploring consumer behavior that accounts for how the brain really works, which is that everything is relative to reference points that are constantly changing.
In college I studied the Philosophy of Mind and Neuroscience. My current studies brings a lot of that back! (laughs) It has all come full circle. I believe Neuroscience has so much to teach other disciplines. It’s not that Neuroscience explains everything; there are other explanatory levels that are also independently important. But those kinds of explanations need to be constrained by taking Neuroscience into account, and understanding what the brain is and is not capable of.
Thank you very much, Robin, for the enlightening conversation.
RG You’re welcome, Ken.