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.
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