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In Vino Veritas - A Useful Allegory in the Age of the Big Lie
By Rich Cook
Jan 19, 2021
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In wine, there is truth.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that truth is a pretty hot commodity right now.  After a few years of the “Alternative Facts Era” (which is hopefully taking its final breaths on the same day that this column is published) I couldn’t be hungrier for an unobstructed view of truth bolstered by actual factual evidence and the perspectives of experts whose hard-earned expertise has been severely undervalued of late.  I believe that wine and the truths that lie within might just be instructive for a time such as this.

One of the reasons that we treasure wine is that its inherent truths are self-evident.  When we open a bottle, pour it in a glass and raise the rim to our nose, the wine begins to reveal itself, and for better or for worse, the truth begins to come out.  Often our first impression of the wine is less-than-favorable, particularly when it comes to newly released wines that are structured to age into the future before their full truth can be exposed.  With a little time, and awareness that certain factors can mask the underlying truth, what may have presented poorly initially can, ultimately, present beautifully.  If you are paying attention, that wine will show you what it is.

Can people disagree on what truths a particular wine presents?  Certainly.  I see professional judges do it all the time – even in blind judging situations where marketing schtick and other potentially prejudicial factors have been removed.  A good judge will listen to arguments for and against a particular aspect of a given wine, and then either adjust their opinion of the wine or bring their own expertise to bear when making a case for a wine’s merits or demerits.  In the end, in almost all cases, a truth can be agreed upon, even from divergent opinions.

At the wine business level, such disagreements can even lead to legal disputes where experts are asked to weigh in and give opinions based on their sensory skill sets to determine whether damages are owed to one party or another in a contracted production process.  I was recently asked to testify in an arbitration where a winery owner sought compensation from a contracted custom crush facility over what the owner felt were wines that were below the contracted standard.  I was asked to explain (to both sides of the suit) tasting notes that I had rendered on wines in tanks and barrels at the request of a newly hired winemaker who wanted a neutral, third-party expert opinion on the status of the wines he was inheriting in their mid pre-bottling status as well as a few wines already in bottle.  I  had noted that some wines seemed to be doing well considering their life stage, whereas other wines showed some deficiencies.  While I couldn’t speak directly to the reasons why a particular flaw appeared in a particular container as I wasn’t present during the processing, the truth of the problems present was evident in my glass.  I was asked by one side whether particular wines might be enjoyed by other tasters even though I had found fault with them.  While my answer to that question was, obviously, yes, I noted that I never cease to be amazed at what some people will drink, and what they won’t drink for that matter.  But that doesn’t change the facts that present themselves in a glass.

Of late, we’ve seen some efforts to try to get more truth to consumers prior to purchase, whether in the form of information on bottle labels, further sub-divisions of appellations, third party certifications and the like.  I think that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t always come without a catch, or catches, depending on which side of the business you’re on.  One of my favorites is the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale found on many back labels.  Easily understandable, akin to a wordless yellow traffic sign, it’s usually a simple line divided into four parts – with “Dry” at one end and “Sweet” at the other, with a mark somewhere along the line that gives the customer an idea of what to expect.  This even takes care of variation in other designations, like the German Prädikat system that can have a sweet wine fall under the normally dry Kabinett designation in some vintages.  Simple truth, simply stated.

Other details can be a little more difficult, and they may require more research by the consumer to get at the truth before purchase.  For example, sub-appellations can give a customer specific information about a wine, but only if they are aware of the particulars involved.  In Europe, a sub-appellation like an Italian DOCG may indicate to the composition of the wine, a particular geographic area, or both.  In America, a sub-appellation is likely tied more to soil types and prevailing micro-climate weather patterns.  A wine from the Adelaida District of Paso Robles is subject to completely different growing conditions than a wine from the San Juan Creek District of Paso Robles, some thirty miles to the east.  The difficulty here is that the consumer’s willingness to dig into these truths varies widely from person to person – so much so that some wineries opt to stay with the macro-AVA only on the label until the knowledge of the sub-AVA’s and their profiles becomes more widely held.  There is always a bonus, however, for those that do the digging.

So, how much truth is too much truth?  For me, I’ll take all the truth I can get.  That said, I’m not in the business of marketing wine.  Anyone in the business will tell you that making wine isn’t terribly difficult, but selling that wine can be exceedingly difficult, and marketers find some truths to be “too much” for some consumers to bear, or more accurately, too much for some sales report bottom lines to handle.

There’s a movement of late to include the standard food nutritional label on wine labels, showing calories, sugars, etc. – the whole enchilada.  I see no problem with this.  Some states have requirements that force restaurants to list the calorie counts of their meals on the menu that a client sees before ordering, and it’s admittedly a bit of a downer when you notice that the double bacon burger platter that you had your palate set on during the drive to the restaurant comes in at an eye-popping calorie count.  Freedom to choose that burger isn’t at issue, but ignorance of the calories involved might have far larger consequences – consequences that can reach beyond the individual.

I’ll go to bat for a change I’d like to see in the industry in the interest of truth:  I’d like to see batch numbers on non-vintage wines.  Part of my ask is personal, as I often taste a non-vintage wine that I’d like to recommend, but I’m usually swayed off of the idea because I know that the next batch may be a completely different wine.  This puts me in the position of potentially misleading the consumer should they purchase a wine based on my recommendation that comes from a different batch.  While great strides have been made by wineries that endeavor to offer consistency or even a “house style” in their non-vintage offerings, I’d still like to see some more truth attached.

I’m a jazz player and fan, so I’ll finish up with a quote from one of my heroes.  Miles Davis said “Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery.”  I suspect, since you’re still here, that you agree with Miles and are one of us – one who seeks the truth, and the knowledge that leads to the truth.  If you are one of us, I hope you’ll join me in converting others over a fine glass when you get the chance.  If this is a new thought for you, I challenge you to take another step:  When you taste the next wine that really gets your attention – that gets its truth across to you in a pleasing or unpleasant way  – see if you can find some reasons why.  I think you’ll enjoy the deeper experience of finding “In Vino Veritas” whether you enjoy the wine or not. 

More columns:    Rich Cook
Connect with Rich on Twitter at @RichCookOnWine