George Taber, Of Bargain Wines And Culture

Ξ November 22nd, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

“I’m not too particularly interested in how deep the color is and how pronounced the bouquet is and how high is the total acid and how low is the sugar. To me, is it something I enjoy drinking and want more? If so, then it is good. And if it is not, I don’t think it’s good, regardless.” Ernest Gallo (pg 15)
 
In his latest exploration of the wine world, A Toast To Bargain Wines, distinguished author George M. Taber has turned his attention to a key aspect of what is indisputably our golden age of wine. Never before have so many wines of such high quality been available to the consumer. And never have the prices been as competitive. Mr. Taber has taken up the theme with characteristic optimism and a relaxed narrative style. Sub-titled How innovators, iconclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks, he recounts well-known episodes in recent wine history, such as Tim Hanni’s research into the quixotic nature of taste, and Robert Hodgson’s work on the inconsistency of the judging at wine competitions. And he gives ample space to innovative movers and shakers of the internet, the new gatekeepers, he calls them. Gary Vaynerchuk, Robin Goldstein, and Jeff Siegel are among his examples. Each individual named and episode recounted participates or has participated, sometimes indirectly, in the promotion of the increasingly popular mantra: “Trust your own palate.” Mr. Taber’s aim with A Toast To Bargain Wines is to add his voice to the chorus.
 
But as the Ernest Gallo quote above suggests, there is more here than meets the eye. Indeed, many pages are given over to Fred Franzia of Bronco, E & J Gallo, and John Casella of Yellow Tail fame, all of whom Mr. Taber also identifies in heroic terms, whether as iconoclast or revolutionary. But is it not a strange world when the people piloting companies producing wine on an industrial scale can be called revolutionary? Not if your primary message is the celebration of a world awash in readily available, inexpensive wine. Whether they are bargains is another matter entirely. For only very marginal consideration is given to the environmental credentials of any producer. Sustainable, organic, bio-dynamic, virtually nothing is said about the viticultural practices of any winery listed. And since fully half of the book is taken up with Mr. Taber’s very informative Best Buy Guide, if you are particularly interested in buying eco-friendly wines, this book will be of no help.
 
THE ICONOCLASTS
 
Following the now routine strategies of the ‘trust your own palate’ school, Mr. Taber begins by taking on the traditional foundations of wine expertise. From the introduction to The Iconoclasts,
 
“A small cadre of wine people are challenging old ways of thinking and doing things. They are not united by anything except radical ideas and defiance of conventional wisdom about how people taste, whether experts and judges are reliable, the kind of packaging to use, and who should be recommending wines. In the process, these iconoclasts are changing the way millions of people think and drink.” (pg 27)
 
The first pillar in Mr. Taber’s sights is the notion that people taste a wine in the same manner; that given a randomly selected group, everyone will share an identical experience of that wine. Mr. Taber cites MW Tim Hanni’s pioneering work on the physiology of taste to demonstrate that variation in the perception of flavors is quite common. Palates differ. Clearly, of what value can a wine expert possibly be, why ought a consumer follow a their recommendations, if the expert’s palate is but one of a series of disparate variations, a moment on a continuum of endless sensitivities? Even with respect to gustatory disputes between critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, for example,
 
“Hanni says that such battles only reflect the[ir] different tasting profiles…. One is not wrong, and the other is not right. They’re simply different, in exactly the same way that some people like the music of Brahms and others prefer Copeland.” (pg 38)
 
Now, inasmuch as Mr. Hanni’s research appears to based in the physiology of taste perception, the temptation is to believe, as Mr. Hanni, we are told, once did and may still, that “[w]hen it comes to tasting, people are stuck with what nature gives them, just as they are with the color of their eyes.” (pg 34) Wiggle room in this conceptual straightjacket is found in Mr. Hanni’s important notion of sensitivity. For sensitivity is not destiny. Sensitivity is a preference for Brahms or Copeland, whereas one’s nature is the ability to hear. So with respect to Mr. Hanni’s research, Mr. Taber seems to suggest that the consumer has a palate specifically theirs, the only one they should trust. Chalk one up for the liberation of the consumer from the tyranny of the expert. So it would seem.
 
BREAKING THE CYCLE
 
But does having a palate of delimited sensitivity mean that the consumer should never question their preferences? Because this we are free to do. Sensitivity, we are told, is in fact mutable. In his discussion of Mr. Hanni’s Taste Sensitivity Assessment test developed to determine one’s place on the taste sensitivity continuum, Mr. Taber writes,
 
“Over time, you might change your entire sensitivity category because of the changes in wine fashion, aesthetics, learning, and experiences.” (pg 45)
 
This is very good news, indeed. After all, McDonald’s makes its fortune by providing a dependable, identical product everywhere on the globe. So it is comforting to know that we, as our mothers told us, can learn to like spinach. More seriously, in a later section of A Toast To Bargain Wines titled Wine Revolutionaries, an extended meditation principally on the rich history of the Franzia and Gallo families, we read,
 
“The Italian families expanded and prospered despite the slow growth in American wine consumption. They made what people in those days wanted: mainly sweet and high-alcohol products. The Franzias sold sweet port and sherry as well as Sauturnes and Rhine-style wines. The Gallos had Carlo Rossi jug wine, André sparkling wines, and high-alcohol fortified wines such as Ripple and Thunderbird.” (pg 97)
 
Leaving aside the social scourge high-alcohol fortified wines have been in America, Mr. Taber would have us believe people in those days wanted Thunderbird, presumably just as today they want Château Latour or 2 Buck Chuck. From “high-alcohol products” to today’s high-quality wines is a very complex historical trajectory, certainly with respect to the development in sophistication of America’s wine culture generally understood. But to the question of how such a dramatic cultural sea change would have ever been possible had the consumer done nothing but trust their palates, the answer is simple: It would not have happened. Consumers were not alone then, they are not alone now. More to the point, it has taken the combined talent of generations of winemakers to bring us to the golden age we now enjoy. Which is to say that because a wine is inexpensive does not mean the moniker ‘revolutionary’ belongs to the industrial producers alone.
 
So we know that sensitivity is mutable. We know that America has enjoyed a radical recasting of its wine culture. We know that Ernest Gallo paradoxically shares the same vision of the liberated consumer as Mr. Vaynerchuk. We know we should trust our palates. But what is missing in Mr. Taber’s scenario is any reflection on how to encourage the consumer to explore the larger wine culture itself, to understand how they came to their sensitivities, to their palates in the first place. Just as we eat fried chicken and not whale, beef but not spider monkey, chew Juicy Fruit gum and not coca leaves, there are specific cultural histories at play, both familial and societal, that condition and inform the very creation of our tastes and preferences long before we ever take our first sip of wine.
 
“Most Americans need help from gatekeepers [...] because few people have grown up in a culture like that in Europe, where wine is simply part of daily life and not a mysterious elixir. Americans have an international reputation for being pushy, loud, know-it-alls. That is not true, though, when it comes to wine. When the subject comes up, many are unsure what they should like or buy.” (pg 72)
 
Here again, in light of the above, trusting one’s own palate, far from being a badge of honor, should rather be seen as an apologia to a kind of social ineptitude, of cultural jingoism, and retrograde narcissism. Yet time and again Mr. Taber suggests this faux heroism is the consumer’s greatest strength.
 
“The final decision about a wine is yours, and yours alone. A person’s taste is as unique as his fingerprint. “ ) (pg 87)
 
I beg to differ. Such a sentiment, apart from being demonstrably in error, celebrates and encourages gustatory isolation and indifference. I would rather argue that a person’s taste is always in a state of movement, of flux. To truly believe in a golden age of wine is instead to encourage people to drink as widely as is affordable, to constantly challenge and stretch the limits of their sensitivities. My advice? Do not trust your palate. Routinely betray it with tasting experiences at odds with your comfort. Just a thought…
 
A Toast To Bargain Wines will provide the newcomer to wine a bit of encouragement and courage, some good stories and (a stated) 400 wine recommendations. A fine chapter on China rounds out the effort. Overall, it is an easy going, friendly, informative read.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

Portugal, New Bedford, Mass. The Ties That Bind

Ξ November 9th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Interviews, New Bedford, PORTUGAL |

What follows is a bit of a departure for Reign of Terroir. Normally a space for a quiet conversation about some aspect of wine science, (agri)culture, wine history, or an international winegrowing region, today here is heard the constant throb of the diesel engines of a fishing vessel. I’ve recently returned from New Bedford, on the coast of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my documentary Mother Vine enjoyed an East Coast premier at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The event was graciously hosted by Travessia Urban Winery. But the interview to follow has nothing to do with this.
Upon arriving in the coastal city, I went out to explore the local environs. The docks bristling with the masts of dozens of commercial ships was the first place I visited. Darkness was closing in, but subsequent visits, some quite late at night, I was always to find some activity on-going. Whether on the immediate shore or onboard a vessel, work could be witnessed. On one such occasion I took the picture you see above. And, a few ships removed, I tentatively arranged to speak with a captain who identified himself as Joe. The following morning, Joe did not appear. Neither was that his real name, I was to learn. Fishermen here are naturally suspicious for reasons you will learn below. Instead of Joe, I found Tony L. Santos, the owner and captain of the very vessel pictured above. And with his help, I was able to learn in a mere 20 minutes the framing circumstances of a fisherman’s life in New Bedford and beyond.
 
Ken Payton Good morning. A beautiful fishing boat you have. Could you please tell me your full name and tell me a little about yourself?
 
Tony Santos My name is Tony Santos. I am second generation. My family is from Figueira da Foz, on the mainland, near the coast. Right by the ocean.
 
I’ve met a number of people here already, mostly Azorians, and a few Cape Verdeans. This is an area well populated with Portuguese-Americans. So who might I meet in the community? Are the folks from all over Portugal?
 
TS Pretty much from all over the main continent, as fishermen themselves, draggers, for fish. Now, if you go into scallopers, you’ll meet mostly people from the Azores.
 
Why is that?
 
TS On scallopers, it’s mainly labor work; whereas on draggers for fish, you’ve got to have a little more skill, to mend nets and whatnot.
 
Why did your parents come to America?
 
TS To look for a better life. All my descendants, they are all fishermen.
 
Is this true of the Azorians here as well?
 
TS Not the Azorians, no. They come from more diverse backgrounds. Now if you go way, way back, into the 1800s and 1900s, then you get a lot of Azorian fishermen, especially for whale, from the time when New Bedford was a great whale port. Some of those families are still here, the second generation.
 
So would it be fair to say that New Bedford is the central hub of the Portuguese-American fishing community?
 
TS It would be fair to say of New Bedford and Fall River. Now, if you go into Fall River, you get a lot more Azorians. But they don’t work as fishermen. They work in factories and whatnot.
 
So how was New Bedford your family’s destination? How did they hear about it when living in Portugal?
 
TS OK. I was 8 years old when emigrated here. I was born in Portugal, of course. My father, being a fisherman, he was going into those Dories still fishing off the coast of Labrador. One day he decided to jump ship in Canada. It was so bad in Portugal, he figured he couldn’t support his family. So he was looking for a better life. He jumped ship in Canada, at Saint John’s.
 
He then worked the shore. He diversified. He did all kinds of work, different jobs. He worked in the tobacco fields as a laborer, a cement laborer… this was in Nova Scotia. He was there for three years, figuring he’d hand himself over to Immigration after that period of time, thinking that they would tell him he could now become a citizen, or at least be legalized in Canada. But the law had been changed to five years. (laughs) So when he handed himself in, they deported him back to Portugal! And he went to jail for one year.
 
And after he got out…
 
TS After the year in jail, he got a contract with the same people who had helped him out in Canada. So he went, and took all of his family. So we lived in Canada for six years before he jumped the border again into the United States, still looking for a better life. He landed here in New Bedford, looking for work as a fisherman. That was his background. He worked here for a year illegally. And then he went back to Canada to pick us up after he had gotten another contract, this time in the States. So here we are.
 
This puts an interesting spin on debates on-going here in the States around illegal immigrants. Look what your father was able to build! A life for his family…
 
TS That’s right. He did. He worked pretty hard. Now he is in a home for the elderly. He’s 80 years old, but it’s if he’s not even there: He’s got Alzheimer’s. So…
 
Only 80? My mother has it as well. Is there longevity in the Azorian and Portuguese mainland communities? After emigration, do they tend to live to a ripe old age? Does the work as a fisherman treat them well or does it wear them out?
 
TS I would say that it wears them down quite a bit, especially being a fisherman; it wears you down. I don’t think you live as long as a regular person working the shore. It is a tough, nerve-wracking profession.
 
Every time you go out, you’re put in harm’s way…
 
TS I can explain for myself? I am going through the same process. I started fishing back in ‘77 when I got out of the service for the United States, where I spent four years. I started fishing. I was going to stay in the service, but one of my cousins showed me his paycheck after a week’s work. That changed my mind! (laughs) It was then I wanted also to start a family. And I had always said I was not going to be like the rest of my family, being fishermen. I never wanted to be a fisherman. And still today, after 30 years, I still don’t want to be a fisherman. (laughs) But I am doing it.
 
Because of the paycheck…
 
TS No. It’s too late in life to start anything else. Right now I’m an owner of a fishing vessel, the T. Luis, a dragger, like I said. The vessel is named after me. ‘T’ for Tony, Luis, for my middle name. We are due to go out next week, but the way government cut our quota down, so it is not feasible to fish all year long. So I sold my quota to somebody else. And I’m tied up for six months, collecting unemployment. For the rest of the six months, I work down South, in Virginia and North Carolina.
 
And what will you do down there?
 
TS We fluke. It is a type of flounder. But we call them flukes, summer flounder, that’s what it’s called.
 
And you take the T. Luis down there?
 
TS Yes, we take this boat down there.
 
I saw all of your rigging and nets onboard. Are they used the same way for flounder?
 
TS The nets drag on the bottom, really close to the bottom; that’s where the flounder sit. It is a bottom-hugging fish. So the nets sweep it up.
 
There is a big market for flounder on the East Coast?
 
TS All over. It is exported to Japan, the Middle East… all over.
 
Could you tell me a little about your mother, if you don’t mind?
 
TS My mother, she’s also retired. She’s 81. When she came here, she worked in the fish factories while my father was fishing on draggers.
 
They married in Portugal, of course…
 
TS Yes, they met and married in Portugal. Actually they are cousins, they are first generation cousins. My grandparents are brothers. (laughs)
 
Did they marry because of how small was the village?
 
TS The village is small, where we came from. My father worked really close with my grandfather fishing over there. So because he was such a hard worked, my grandfather figured this was the kind of guy for my mother today!
 
And do you have children?
 
TS I have two girls and a boy.
 
Have any of your children shown an interest in fishing, in joining you on the vessel?
 
TS Negative! Nooo. I wouldn’t want them to anyway.
 
You’ve worked very hard so they could have a better life.
 
TS That’s right. I’ve tried as hard as I could.
 
Are they professionals?
 
TS They are. One is a teacher. One is a psychologist. And my son dropped out of college after two years…
 
And you didn’t like that on little bit…
 
TS I didn’t like it because I ended up paying for two years for nothing. And now he is taking care of deficient kids.
 
Do you ever go back to Portugal?
 
TS I go back to Portugal on occasion, maybe every five years. I try to go there, yes. I go back to Figueira da Foz. But since I was such a little kid when I left, I really don’t know much about Portugal. So when I go there, I try to go to different spots, to see the cultures. I still feel attached. I still feel attached, yes.
 
And in your house do you have mementos from the old country, from your parents?
 
TS My parents own a house back in Portugal. That’s where we stay when we visit. I think if you work hard enough, you build something up, you know? That was his plan. He wanted to retire and live in Portugal in the house that he built. Unfortunately, because of illness, my mother couldn’t take care of him, so he had to come back here to the States.
 
Do you have dual citizenship?
 
TS Yes, Portuguese and American. Two passports! (laughs)
 
It must be very expensive to keep up a boat like this…
 
TS Yes, it is. We pay $35,000 just for insurance. We pretty much break even at the end of the season.
 
But it’s been a rich, rewarding life…
 
TS … tiring, I’m fed up… not so much with fishing but with federal regulations. When you leave port, you’re always on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because you don’t know it you’re going to something wrong and somebody’s going to catch you. Although you try to do the best you can to be within the law, there’s always a little here that you break, and you get nailed for it.
 
They are always watching.
 
TS The Coast Guard, the Federal agents on shore, yes. Always watching.
 
Well, let’s see… The weather is nice today!
 
TS The weather is nice today, but come wintertime, you get two days of nice weather and the third is awful. You leave port under clear skies, sail for a day, then you get hammered and have to stop; because I don’t risk my crew or my boat. So we stop. And wait for better weather before we put out the nets.
 
Since I usually write about wine, let me ask, do you drink Portuguese wine?
 
TS I don’t drink at all. If you really look at the Portuguese people, they are known for drinkin’. They like their wine. But I don’t. (laughs) For some reason…
 
Wonderful, Mr. Santos. Thank you for your time.
 
TS You are very welcome.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

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