NOTE: The core of this post is something I first wrote four years ago, nearly to the day. The impetus for writing it has never changed and never will: the typical, tedious, irritating tendency of ALL types of people – from wine weenies, beer geeks, and whiskey snots to Joe Six-Pack – to say insupportable things like, “This is the best wine in the world” or “Joey’s Carburetors and Brewing Pilsner is the best beer in the United States!” And 99% of these people have never tasted more than MAYBE fifty different beers, wines, or whiskeys and have almost NO frame of reference for making that sort of all-encompassing claim.
I have to draw a line, here: when folks who say “Kenny’s Fireworks and Wine Cellars Cabernet Franc is the best wine I have ever tasted!” – THAT is a fair statement. It doesn’t lay claim to being a universal, of speaking for me and you and your Mom and every other person on the planet. I love that statement because, for twenty-eight years, while selling wine, it gave me a roadmap to guiding consumers to other wines that offer similar characteristics to their fave juice.
The video below is something I usually take exception with: pouring wine for people who know little or nothing about the stuff and asking for their opinions. In this case, however, it’s what Martha would call “A Good Thing”.
There are no claims, here, about the wines’ qualities or flavors. No judgment except, “Which one do you like best?” Nineteen staffers at this website were asked to taste; people of varying levels of knowledge. In short: a typical cross-section of Americans that you’d get if you rounded up 19 folks at random as they shop at your local big wine store.
The relationship between wine price and quality is called, by us wine-geek tradespeople, “QPR“. Yeah, it IS a wine term but it more than applies to anything else. Here is a blind tasting of a favorite whiskey of mine, George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey. It’s 22 minutes long and I find the whole thing fascinating but, as a Southern cracker, I have no problem handling two cracker accents for that long. I’m going to try to start you at the relevant part, at which they guess at the price of this whiskey, but in case my techie chops fail me, that begins at 9:18 in, after these two have swooned over this stuff for almost eight minutes…
To recap…well, they over-estimated this inspirational little bottle o’hooch – by more than triple its actual price. THAT is mind-boggling QPR…which we will explain in a hot minute.
But there is also the aspect of Perception; the assumption of quality based on a higher price…which is wrong about 80% of the time. This is no less a problem than the act of finding something so delicious that you assume you could never afford it. In fact, it’s the same thing: the idea that stuff has to be better because of its price.
The relationship between wine price and quality is called, by us wine-geek tradespeople, “QPR” – Quality to Price Ratio. It’s a verbal shorthand that wine industry people use to convey the quality of a certain wine. “It’s a great little QPR wine,” my rep will say, and that lets me know that, in his or her opinion, it costs less than it could. Use this: walk into your local wine shop and say, “I’m looking for good QPR wine” but beware: a wine that’s $200 and could cost $300 is also a good QPR wine. That Dickel, at $28, is the same QPR bargain as the bottle of Israeli sparkling wine that I reviewed last year, which sells for $35 but, if it was a Champagne, would easily fetch $100. In QPR terms, those two beverages are the same. QPR just means that it’s better than the price suggests, so you’ll still have to set a price point but the wine steward will, at least, know you’re paying attention.
Ever since this blog started, back in 2008, in the Seattle P-I, I’ve preached this over and over. Critics like me are suggestions only, guideposts along your wine journey. Me, Parker, Tanzer, the Spectator tasting panel, Anthony Diaz Blue, doesn’t matter, you’re not supposed to make any of us your Final Word. Paul Gregutt, Sean Sullivan, me – we’re our most useful if you don’t live near a place where you can go and taste wines regularly. In that case, we can all provide you with some useful tips for those infrequent buying trips. But STOP – for the Love of God – thinking that, if you buy and taste a wine that some “expert” says is wonderful and you don’t like it, that presumptively means there’s something wrong with you. There is NOT. Neither is there something wrong with me, if I write about it and praise it. It just means we have different tastes. And if you buy and drink a wine that doesn’t please you, just because I said it was great…well, who’s the Fool now?
Just this morning, I got a nuclear dose of the second aspect of this question of Tastes: on Twitter, a young lady who works for The Brewing Channel (and has clearly taken that to mean that she wields some Authority) wrote, “Sure, you’re entitled to your taste & opinion, but Pilsners are still the superior style just so we’re clear.” Well, no, we are not. There is NOTHING inherently superior about Pilsners. They’re a light, slight, unchallenging style of beer – collectively described as “easy drinking” – that was the stylistic base for Bud and Miller and Coors and every other one of those watery domestic lagers that were basically all Americans had to choose from in beer for almost 125 years. It is NOT “superior” to ANY other style of beer, except to this young lady and, I suspect, the six or eight pals of her with whom she sits and pontificates about beer. YES, of course, there are varying degrees of quality among Pilsners. Our debased American version was the deliberate and shoddy invention of Adolphus Busch, who started Anheuser Busch with a dumbed-down version of a glorious German recipe that eliminated most of the expensive barley and rye that were used in the Euro Pilsners and replaced them with rice and corn, the cheapest fuggen grains he could find. Why? “Because,” as he explained to his brewers, “Americans don’t know beer, anyway. This will be good enough for them.”
And… he was right, for about 120 years, until craft beer came along and people noticed that, oh yeah, beer can have flavors – lotsa flavors and chewy body, too. And Pilsner became an also-ran style for a rather long time, before making its current come-back.
Maybe the most important thing to remember, in reading a beverage critic, is that, no matter how hard we may try to maintain an Everyman palate, critics aren’t worth squat unless they build up a substantial knowledge base and doing that WILL change your personal aesthetics. I try hard to just ask “Does this taste good and will Joe Half-Case agree?” But I’ve tasted something past 20,000 wines, by now, over 10,000 beers, over 1,000 bottles of spirits, over almost thirty years in this business and I thought about every single one of ’em. I am, just like you, a product of my own tastes and preferences and I do get nudged by those – hard. In the case of any wine writer, unless they’re as green as tree frogs, our palates are different from yours. That is, in fact, the main reason why you cannot make any of us your sole Buying Guide. If I like a wine, you should immediately google reviews for that same wine. Read them. If enough of them agree, try the wine. That is the proper use for guys like me.
EVERYBODY is suggestible when it comes to tastes. I wrestle with that problem constantly. It’s why I don’t form close friendships with brewers, winemakers, and distillers. I could, very easily, taste the beers from some guy I like, personally, and mentally erase shortcomings I would single out in a stranger’s beers. I might see them as better than they are. It’s why I NEVER read about a wine I’m going to taste in any other reviewer’s words before I try it. Gregutt, Sullivan, Parker, Tanzer, et al, can sway my judgment. When you taste ANY wine, be a blank slate. Have no feelings about it. Just let what happens in your mouth decide.
What’s shown in these videos is nothing new. Research has proven out these facts about tasting many dozens of times. This relationship between perception and reality, between price and quality, between the power of suggestion and empirical experience, is as objectively true as anything you’re ever likely to hear or see about what you buy. And yet, so many people will run right out, after Parker issues a 95-point score, and snap up that wine, without even tasting it. Many won’t even read what he writes about it, which is nearly always more valuable than the score. They see that 95 and salivate, like Pavlov’s dog. That is an unutterably dumb way to buy wine, to be involved in your wine journey, and to spend your money. DO NOT automatically assume that the $15 bottle of Argentine Cabernet on that wine shop shelf is in ANY way inferior to the $80 bottle of Napa Cabernet two feet away. In the 50+ blind tastings I’ve held in my 30 years in the wine biz, I used two bottles of Cabernet, both of which retail for less than $25, as ringers, up against Cabs at price points ranging up to $150. The minimum number of Cabs on those tables was six, in every case; the maximum, about ten. In 90% of those tastings, the ringers came in at either first, second or third. The ultra-premiums, in 60% of them, came in dead last.
Those two ringers? Concha y Toro’s “Marques de Casa Concha”, from Chile, and Peter Lehmann Cabernet, from Australia’s Barossa Valley. They are still two of the wine world’s greatest bargains. The best ultra-cheapie? McManis Family Cabernet, from California…about ten bucks.
Same in beer: I once reviewed a new Stout from Ninkasi Brewing (below) and gave it 95 points. That same day, I got a message from one of the anonymous “experts” on BeerAdvocate.com, saying, “Are you kidding with this review for that Stout? We already discussed that beer here and decided that it’s just average!” That sort of groupthink is incredibly insidious and the “group” can be anything more than one person. I replied, as I always do, that my job is to write about what I think of these beverages, not to parrot the collective opinion. It ALL, every bit of this, comes back to individual tastes, preferences, likes vs. dislikes and literally no two people are the same. We all know this, intellectually, but we all forget it very easily.
If you never believe anything else written in this blog, believe this: There is absolutely NO correlation between the price of a bottle of wine and its quality. That is where QPR enters in. We are ALL searching for QPR ad its effect on price tags, whether we know the term or not. I have never net a single person who did not grin conspiratorially and lean in and say, “Ya like this wine? I got it for sixteen bucks at ___________ and everybody thinks I paid fifty dollars for it!” We are all ticked to death when we actually get maximum satisfaction for minimal outlay. And I can make that same statement in complete confidence about beer and booze, too. There is also no such thing as a universal “Best”, no matter how fervently your (allegedly) beer-savvy buddy may be. Unless you taste EVERY beer of the same style, made everywhere, you don’t know what “Best” is. You only have an opinion – yours. And you pour that little steal of a wine or beer that you discovered for the next person and they may very well shrug and say, “Eh, it’s okay.” Most of us know how that feels, too.
Tastes. Preferences. Choices. QPR. “One man’s trash…” And usually I just nod and smile and say, “Good Get!” but for those who want to insist that their fave is the zenith of the winemaker’s, distiller’s, brewer’s art…I often want to roll up a handy magazine and swat them right across the top of their pointy heads. Hard enough to hurt…
I’m sorry to break this to you but there are no shortcuts. If you want to find that perfect drink for you, you’re just gonna have to taste a lot of different bottles until you find the one that rings all your bells. Guys and gals who do what I do can help with that, by pointing you in useful directions. But unless you Trust Yourself, you’re always going to be a little disappointed with wine, your beer, that special whiskey, and never really understand why.