Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection

By Craig Camp
Friday, October 10, 2003

SURVEY AFTER survey says that people's number one fear is public speaking; number two is ordering the wrong wine in a restaurant.

See those guys behind your back chuckling over that pinot noir you're having with your salmon while you chuckle about the Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay they're drinking with theirs?

When ordering wine in restaurants, what most people want is not to be wrong. The situation is always the same: One guy at the table is considered the wine expert. He usually isn't, but as he once pronounced merlot correctly during an office coffee klatch he has been anointed the company wine expert. From that moment on every time there's a business dinner the 46-pound wine list is deposited in his lap. Everyone at the table stares at him waiting for the pronouncement. The sommelier leans expectantly forward. Damn, that Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon sure looks good. (Better safe than sorry.)

It's very profitable to be the safe choice. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been made by wineries that have succeeded in becoming safe to order. Mondavi, Opus, Jordan, Santa Margherita, Louis Latour, Sonoma Cutrer, and many others make a tidy living by making wines that taste consistently pleasant -- also known as just good enough. In return for their lofty goal of pleasantness, they are rewarded by grateful consumers who happily pay ultra-premium prices for the privilege of ordering a wine that will not offend. These wines do have the added benefit of keeping the conversation on the business at hand -- nobody will be talking about the wine.

These wineries keep their star status by producing a few cases here and there of a super-cuvee chosen from a few barrels of the thousands of barrels of wine in the winery. These modern recipe wines then capture a high score somewhere and the PR machine goes into high gear. (They learned this method from the Chicago Cubs who know that a few playoff victories will keep the fans packing Wrigley Field for another hundred years. Silver Oak and the Cubs have a lot in common.)

The same fear does not exist in Europe. In Italy if they want to have fish after a first course that called for a robust red there is no problem. Either they continue drinking the red or change back to a white depending on their whim or if the first bottle is empty. No one is watching you.

In the United States wine has become either an icon or a lighter cocktail than beer instead of a mealtime beverage. This is confirmed by the fact that most American wine drinkers do not regularly drink wine with their meals at home during the week and perish the thought of even a single glass at lunch. Wine has become a public image that suggests status and education, and the bottles you order confirm or destroy your status as an intellectual and a financial success.

With the intensity of the newly converted we are sure that there must be an absolute right and wrong. This zeal has created the cult of scores. Wine religion fanatics will go to outrageous lengths to obtain a wine scored 98 points while ignoring a wine scored 93 points at half the price. The focus on only the elite and most dramatic of wines tells people with normal well-adjusted minds that there must be an absolute truth when it comes to wine quality. Being that absolute truth can be hard to find it seems much safer to stay with the famous and expensive bottles that all will recognize.

There is a law of inverse relationships when it comes to food-and-wine matches and wine scores. It seems the higher a wine's score, the worse it is with food. Wines that score in the 90+ point range have become incredibly similar regardless of their place of birth. The recipe for high-scoring wines is well-known by enologists and throughout the world they are creating technically perfect specimens that reach towards exactly the same image of 100 point perfection instead of lower-scoring individual personality. It is easy today to line up expensive cabernet sauvignon- or chardonnay-based wines from Australia, California, France, Spain, and Italy and to not be able to guess which came from where. It's as though they want there to be one wine in the world that everybody is trying to make. What fun would that be?

If you want to make wines like this, let me save you several years of study at UC Davis followed by several apprenticeships: the recipe for top scoring wines is simple and easy to do with enough money and sun . . .

1. High alcohol -- for big flavors, sweetness, mouth feel and texture.

2. New French oak -- heavy doses of high-toast French oak to boost bouquet and add sweetness on the palate.

3. Massively high solid extract for even more body, often attained by technical means in the winery.

4. Big color -- also often reached by technical means in the winery.

While this recipe is great for making wines that stand out to a taster faced with a line-up of 100 wines to judge, it also makes wines that just don't taste that great with foods other than barbecue and wild boar -- wild boar barbecue?

All of this hype and precise rating is a bit intimidating for the person who just wants a nice bottle of wine with dinner, and that means yet another bottle of Jordan Cabernet gets its cork pulled.

The king of wine reviewers is Robert Parker, whose recommendations are awaited breathlessly by subscribers who then fight it out, going from retailer to retailer to get a wine that scored two points more than another.

But if people are so obsessed by his opinions then why don't they listen to him?

In the Wine Advocate, Robert Parker writes about his scores, "80 to 89 (points) is equivalent to a B in school and such a wine, particularly in the 85 to 89 point range is very, very good; many of the wines that fall into this range often are great values as well. I have many of these wines in my personal collection."

Me too, in fact now that I think about it, most of the wines I like to drink on a regular basis fall into this slot. Don't get me wrong, I get impressed by flashy show wines just like everybody else, but I spend my own money on wines whose scores from the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator average in the high eighties. For me this is the sweet-spot for wines of regional character. I also think a wine that sells for 20 bucks retail ought to be pretty damn good. Who said the starting point for great wine should be $50? Twenty dollars for 750 milliliters of wine is hardly a drop in the wine bucket.

Ask yourself a serious question: what is the difference between a 92 point wine selling for $75 and an 89 point wine selling for $20. Statistically the answer is zero or insignificant -- so the only answer would seem to be $55. However, it can be so much more than money. The differences also include varietal and vineyard character -- things that many a ninety point wine has given up to reach join that exclusive club.

It seems there is a lost world of producers making excellent wines mislaid between the famous safe names and the hot 95+ point wine of the moment. One camp of consumers loves the rock-solid vintage-to-vintage continuity and safe boredom of neutral wines like Santa Margherita while the other camp likes flamethrowers like Turley. Between, there is a universe of outstanding wines, loaded with individual personality, that sell for a fraction of the price you pay for famous mediocrity and today's fashion statement.

Today for lunch I made risotto con rucola and gorgonzola piccante. For fun we tried a white and a red to see which best complimented the dish, which clearly went both ways. Each was delicious with the risotto and both are equally unknown. The red, 2000 Ronchi Barbaresco, may never see 95 points, but was bright and delicious and sells for around $34 (a bargain!). The white, 2000 Il Feduccio Yare from Abruzzo, was deep, complex and sells for $30. Both are wines that will give you hours of enjoyment at the table and you will feel good about the $30 or so they set you back. The world is full of such wines once you get beyond the brand names and the brand name scores.

Now, how many points should I give them?