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And All The Fuss About Wine Reviews…

September 24, 2013 10 comments

wine ratingsFew days ago I read an article by Joe Roberts, talking about wine reviews. The article, called “Does The Wisdom Of The Crowd Provide Better Wine Reviews Than The Experts?“, and the subsequent comments were evolving around the role of the “crowd-sourcing” in the wine reviews from the sites such as Cellar Tracker versus traditional wine critics and wine experts, the value of wine ratings and all the other critical analysis of wine. Instead of commenting in the thread, I decided to express my thoughts in the form of this post.

Warning – this might be long. You might want to arm yourself at least with one glass of wine. Or more…

It is very interesting to observe “are the wine reviews and wine critics relevant” discussions to periodically flare up all over the blogosphere and all of the digital media. Some of those discussions and opinions are quite antagonistic, from “death of Wine Advocate predicted” to “the number of wine bloggers will decrease dramatically” to “blind tasting puts wine experts to shame again”. Some of them are supported by some facts and findings which authors deem indisputable. And some are written just purely for the entertainment or quick publicity purposes.

For all of us obsessed with wine, the subject of wine ratings and wine reviews is near and dear to the heart. The world seems to rotate around those 98s, A and B, 4 stars and all other metrics. Meanwhile, majority of the wine consumers couldn’t care less. Based on the number of studies, people buy wine based on the label, advice of the store associate and the price. By the way, the price factor is funniest of all (should be a subject of a separate post) – when we buy for ourselves, we always want to find $10 wine which will taste like a $100; when we need to bring a present, we ask for the advice to find the best wine at the top of our budget, and then spend a few extra bucks just not to look cheap. In any case, very few consumers concern themselves with the ratings which are abundantly displayed in many stores (interestingly enough, there are quite a few stores nowadays which are doing away with all those rating displays). Yes, the people who buy more expensive wines are interested to know what the experts think about the wine they are about to shell $50, $80, or a $150 for. Of course wine collectors track all those ratings as they are stock tickers (well, they kind of are). But considering the world of wine, those people are an absolute minority (okay, don’t bring up the 80/20 or 90/10 – that is not the subject of the post).

So Joe Roberts argues that Cellar Tracker ratings might replace all the expert opinions simply because they are the crowd sourced and it is proven by many sources, which Joe is citing, that crowd-sourcing is the way to go in today’s world. It is stated that the crowd-sourcing works because it is proven by TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon and thousands of other sources soliciting people opinions. Well, may be, but it depends. Let’s look at Yelp, as the food world is probably more related to the wine world than travel or gadget shopping.

Different people review restaurant on Yelp, and for the most of the cases the reader of the review doesn’t know anything about the writer. But if you think about an average restaurant, a lot of aspects of the review are based on the common sense. The understanding of the “good service” is pretty much universal. The understanding of “clean” versus “dirty” is also quite universal. “Run down” is pretty well understood. When the food is served cold, or you have to wait for 30 minutes for a cup of coffee, you don’t have to be an expert to universally recognize it. And if you ordered steak in a restaurant, I have reasonable expectations that you know how good steak tastes like.

No, you can’t take the ratings on Yelp for granted. People get upset, people get unreasonable – true. But this is where crowd-sourcing works the best. If a restaurant on Yelp has four stars out of five, based on the average of a 150, or 300, or better yet, 1000 reviews, you know that your chances of good experience are pretty high. If the restaurant has five stars based on 3 reviews, you know that means nothing in terms of your potential experience. The fact that that restaurants are judged on the multitude of factors, many of which are universal and even independent of the type of restaurant (clean Thai restaurant with good service is not any different from clean steakhouse with good service), gives you a certain level of reliability of the crowd-sourced ratings.

Wine is different. There is no foundation to all those ratings, outside of smell, taste and ability to deliver pleasure. But – “tastes good” is highly individual. If someone only likes to drink California Cabernet, convincing the person that this Sagrantino was a great wine might be difficult. Now, if you look at the crowd-sourced ratings, like Cellar Tracker offers, it means nothing, as based on the rating alone you can’t align your base with the people who wrote the reviews. You don’t know if the person who rated that St. Joseph Syrah at 78 simply doesn’t like barnyard undertones, or the wine is actually bad. You have to read the review to try to figure out what is wrong with the wine, and why the reviewer didn’t like it, may be he was just in a bad mood or had the wrong food with it.

When it comes to the wine critics, the situation is different. Yes, I know, the most famous of them are periodically accused of bias and various forms of dishonesty, but this is not relevant here. As the critics, they are able (and expected) to judge the wine objectively. Also, wine critics typically have their area of expertise, like James Suckling focusing on Italian wines, Steve Heimoff on California or Allen Meadows on Burgundy. I’m not trying to say that if a critic rated the wine at 95, it means that this will be a great wine for you no matter what – but at the same time, that objective persistency, consistency of the ratings and narrow focus of the critic allows you to align the base, and then have a quick opinion, a probability of liking the wine based on the given rating by a known critic. I don’t buy my wines based on the ratings, and I’m not willing to pay $100 more for the bottle of Cabernet only because Parker gave it 96 versus the wine next to it with only a 90 rating – but that rating allows me to establish a frame of reference.

Let’s look at the big picture. We can see an increased interest to wine all over the world. We also see an increased wine production all over the world. People “en mass” are increasingly more comfortable and more knowledgeable about the wine, especially if we are talking about Millenials and younger generations. And that does lead to the reduced role of “The Wine Critic” (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, etc). But – the need for the critical information about the wine is increasing, and as people gain more knowledge and learn to trust their own palates, they are willing to take wine advice from the lesser figures than Parker or Suckling, and they are willing to take it from many different sources – blogs, twitter, web sites and other digital media outlets. People are building their own tribes. This is where Cellar Tracker comes to play – but only for the people who are inside, only for the people who uses the service and is able to align the base. My personal “wine experts” tribe consists of many bloggers I started following over the years, one by one. Reading their posts, tasting the wines they are talking about, having a dialog, I was able to build my alignment, little by little, one glass at a time. I know that I can rely on and willing to take Jeff’s (the drunken cyclist) advice for the Pinot Noir, or Oliver’s (the winegetter) for German Rieslings, Julian (VinoInLove) and Stefano (Clicks & Corks) for any of the Italian wine, or Alissa (SAHMmelier) for the wines of Texas. This is not my unique experience – I truly believe this “tribe concept” works for everybody, more and more so.

Are you still with me? Wow, I really have to thank you for sticking along. Let’s round this up. No, the wine world is not going to rotate around Cellar Tracker. Yes, the role of The Wine Critic will decrease, but in the end of the day we will still have more of them. There will be ever increasing number of people who will be willing to share their experiences (and sometimes put it in the form of numbers), and there will be ever increasing number of people willing to take that advice. Crowd-sourcing? Kind of, but very different. May be “Tribe-sourcing” is the word. The world of wine is big, and it is only getting bigger – I think we all can perfectly get along.

Don’t know about you, but I need a glass of wine. Cheers!

How Possessive Are The Wine Lovers?

September 17, 2013 32 comments

MWWC_logoIf you are following wine blogs, you might have noticed the theme “possession” showing up here are there. Yes, this is no accident – the common linking factor is the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (MWWC for short), in its third incarnation.

The theme for the first challenge was “transportation” – it was relatively easy to tie up to the wine both directly and allegorically. The theme for the next challenge was “trouble”, which sent me home scrambling  – “trouble” is not the first thing which comes to mind when you are looking at a glass of wine. In the end of the day, many bloggers successfully found the connection and produced a lot of interesting posts. The current theme, “Possession”, is a whole different game. On one side, it has a direct connection to the wine – but it is too direct for the nice intricate piece. “I possess wine. Sometimes, wine possesses me. The end”. On another side, it is almost forcing you to go into pretty much the exorcism route, which can be played, but this is not necessarily pretty (need examples? Do a google search for “wine possession” – you will find some stuff which might make you afraid to visit your cellar when it is dark).

So as you can deduce from my rant, I don’t have a good play on the theme. What you will find below is rather a collection of random thoughts, centered on the wine appreciation, with the nod towards the “possessive” relationship of wine lovers with the subject of their love.

So how possessive the wine lovers are? We can find few different types of “possessiveness” among the wine lovers as such. First, there are wine collectors (of course, that is an obvious one). But even among wine collectors there is one extreme group which I would like to exclude from the actual category of the wine lovers. That is the group which rather collect the money than anything else. Wine is strictly an investment for them, and they never think about bottle of wine in terms of the actual content. For this group, the wine is only an object which will appreciate in value, and at some point it will be exchanged for cash and profit. This group also includes the worst possible type – the wine-possessive ego-maniacs. For this group the wine which they stock in their cellars is intended to be an ego-booster – “I spent on that bottle 10 times more than you did”, and “my bottle is bigger and more round than yours”. In the end of the day, I’m not even sure if this group even belongs to the true wine lovers category.

Then there are those who love wine, but don’t care to possess it at all. Folks in this group happily drink the wine at any occasion, they serve the wine at their parties, and they buy a bottle on the way home when they feel like it. But they really don’t “possess” wine, as they don’t keep much wine in the house, and most importantly, they don’t assign any special attributes to any bottles.

And then comes the rest. The group of wine lovers who possesses the wine and actually, is possessed by the wine at the same time (I’m including myself in this group, so I’m continuing here from the collective of “we”). We keep the wine. We make the wine special by associating special mementos with those bottles – “ahh, this is the year we got married”, “remember we had this wine in Tuscany”, “this is the year our son was born”, “remember that winery visit”. We do our best to keep those bottles cool, quiet and comfortable. And then we wait. While buying the wine with mementos, we are also investing, of course. We are investing into exciting anticipation of how special this wine will taste when we will finally open it. While we hold on to the bottle, we can re-live that future moment over and over. We are possessed with finding the right moment for that special bottle. But what is important, that right moment also includes the right people. How many times have you thought “ohh, if they (whomever “they” are) are coming over, I got this special bottle we have to open”. Yes, we are possessed with wine. But we don’t buy it just to enjoy by ourselves. We are also possessed to share. We  want to share the experience. We want to share the special moment. We don’t want to keep it to ourselves. Without special moment or a special company, that bottle never gets to be opened.

And that is what I want to leave you with. Possessed by wine. Possessed to share.

Wine Gadgets: Pourers

May 30, 2013 14 comments

As it was introduced a week ago (here is the post), we are starting to discuss a subject of the wine gadgets in the Thursday posts. Gadget post might not happen every Thursday – but at least you are about to read one now.

I don’t plan to rate gadgets – but I will tell you if I think you should own one. I will tell you what I like and don’t like. I will tell you why I think the gadget useful – or why I think it is not. I don’t really plan to acquire new gadgets just for the purposes of these posts – but this might change in the future.

Now, let’s proceed with our first gadget – The Pourer.

Even with such a simple accessory as a wine pourer, there are many many different types available:

  • Standard pourer
  • Measuring pourer – you mostly see those at the wineries and wine tastings. They allow you to dispense the exact amount of liquid with every pour
  • Pourer/stopper combination
  • Aerating pourer

I own a substantial number of pourers of different forms and sizes:

2. VacuVin Wine Server Crystal - my favorite, most elegant

2. VacuVin Wine Server Crystal – my favorite, most elegant

Why would you want to use pourers? I see two reasons:

  1. Aesthetics of pouring wine into the glass. Somehow, I find it more aesthetically pleasing looking at the wine going into the glass when the pourer is used
  2. Cleanliness of the bottle, hands and tablecloth. Using of the pourer prevents the wine from dripping all over the bottle, which subsequently leads to round stains on the tablecloth (especially when you deal with the red wine).

Just so you can relate to what I’m offering here, compare this two pictures. First one – pouring wine just standard way:

Pouring wine

Pouring wine. See that drip in the making?

and this one – pouring wine using Crystal Wine Server:

Pouring wine using Crystal Wine Server

Pouring wine using Crystal Wine Server

Which one do you find more elegant (and I’m not even talking about dripping)?

Are all of the pourers the same? Not at all. Not all pourers will fit all the bottles (interestingly enough, some of the screwtops offer a particular challenge for pourers as they often have a bit wider neck than the regular bottles). Some of the pourers are more versatile, some of them less. Some allow an easy addition of wine stopper, and some just don’t. Some of them also can work as aerators, but I will reserve that subject for the time when we will talk about aerators.

If you look at the five I presented to you above, they are all slightly different. #1, VacuVin Black Wine Server will fit a lot of bottles, will be okay with most of the screwtops and will allow the use of any bottle stoppers. This is definitely an advantage.

I find #2, VacuVin Crystal Wine Server the most aesthetically pleasing. However, it might have challenges fitting the screwtops (might simply fall out of some of them), and has probably the shortest lifespan (the bottom cracks). No stopper can be used together with this pourer.

When it comes to #3, it doesn’t even look like a pourer, right? But this ring performs an important function of stopping the drips, so as far as I’m concerned, it is pretty much a pourer. And it will fit on majority of the bottles, which is also a plus.

Pourer #4 is a flexible pourer – it is more or less a piece of plastic which you can fold and insert into absolute majority of the bottles. Works similar to #2, classic pourer and of course it should be taken out when you will need to recork your bottle. The advantage is that it is quite universal and will fit various bottle types.

Pourer #5 is a pourer/stopper combination. It works quite well, but has limitations – it will not fit some of the bottles with the thinner neck. Otherwise it is simple and I think looks pretty good.

Bottom line: considering that pourers are inexpensive for the majority of the cases, I would recommend to have variety on hands, so you will be prepared to enjoy bottles of any forms and sizes in style, and without annoying drips.

Variety of pourers can be found on many web sites and in catalogs – here is selection which can be found on Amazon: Wine pourers.

What do you think? Do you own pourers, and if you do, do you use them? Do you think they make sense or do you think they are just waste of the money? Comment away!

And now, to make it even more entertaining, I’m adding a simple poll here – with every new poll I will provide results from the previous one. Let me know if these are good questions or if you want to know something else.

Whew, and we are done here. Cheers!

Wine Gadgets!

May 23, 2013 32 comments

Wine accessories, or gadgets for short. What is your take on them? Do you find all those wine gadgets to be a nuisance, a waste of money and useless? Or do you have your favorite bottle opener you swear by as nothing else can deal with the bottle as quickly, neatly and efficiently?

Being an oenophile, I find myself surrounded with all those little wine tools – some I buy, some I get as presents (dear friends: two dozens of bottle stoppers is quite enough, no matter how fancy they look like, I think I’m set for quite a while, so please bring the wine instead). But the important part is that I actually use many of those little gadgets – some pretty much daily, like bottle openers, pourers, glasses or vacuum pump. Some occasionally, like bottle chillers, Champagne bottle stoppers, aerators and decanters. Some are reserved for the OMG moments only, like that Wine Away spray. Some are used only when guests are coming, like glass charms. And then there are those which are priceless when I travel, like bottle sleeves or special wine carriers and even suitcases.

DSC_0602 Wine Gadgets

The fact of the matter is that I use the wine gadgets, and many of them actually help with the wine appreciation. Like the simple bottle pourer, which helps to avoid red smudges on the wine labels and red circle on the table cloth. Or elegant glass, which exhumes with excitement as soon as it is filled with golden or purple liquid.  Where am I going with all this? Simple. As I do it with wine, I want to share my gadget experiences with you – and to tell you what worked for me, what didn’t work, and what you might find useful.

At this point my plan is to have a wine gadget posts on Thursdays – there are plenty of little tools to talk about, so I don’t know whether this will be a weekly feature or not, but time will tell. And if you have any “yay” or “nay” to say about this idea – your comments are always welcome. And until the first gadget post – cheers!

P.S. Don’t forget that today is Chardonnay Day! Celebrate one of the world’s most popular grapes in style!

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