On Subtlety

20150116-104654.jpgSubtlety is like a complex joke. You either get it or you don’t. Some people are incredibly perceptive of minute variations and changes of colours, textures, timing, or some other quality while other people can’t see the difference.

If you drive a car going to work, do you think about the weight transfer to your tires going around corner? Professional race car drivers do but most people probably don’t in the course of their daily drive. Most pro sports players, especially the big stars, are able to move in complex ways or perceive small movements in their games at a level far beyond what the armchair athletes watching on TV are capable of noticing. They’ve trained for it.

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Watching the game with Desert Hills Gamay.

I started curling a few years ago and it has always amazed me just how tiny, small variations in anything to do with the game play can cause huge difference in results. From throwing the rocks (weight, direction, spin – called ‘handle’ in curling’) to sweeping (when, how hard), one subtle difference in any variable can effect where the rock will stop. On top of then there’s all the strategies of play to consider. To be even a moderately acceptable curler (not even a pro), one has to be aware of, understand the reasons for, and be able to execute the technique for throwing rocks and sweeping. Curling is entirely a game of subtleties that are very difficult to see on television.

Um, so like, what does this have to do with wine?

Has technology has blunted our senses to a point where we are able to perceive less? I don’t think so. People are different and have always been different even before our current electronic age of smart phones and stupid people talking on them while driving. I think that digital technology is limited and that humans can perceive way more than digital technology can dish out. I think that’s why we’re starting to see vinyl records back on the market. As far as full, nuanced sound goes, vinyl can’t be beat.

It is my belief that different people have different thresholds of perception. Some people can see more details, hear different sounds, and smell more scents than other people. We are all human and humans are all different, although nobody should be judged better because of their skills. If you can’t hear a difference between vinyl and a 128kps MP3 on your iPod then don’t worry about it – you don’t need to buy a new record player. However, for some people it does matter a lot because they can perceive a difference between vinyl and MP3 and to them it is as clear as night and day. I also believe that anyone can learn to perceive anything if given the right guidance.

$5 wine and $50 wine

What’s the difference between a $5 Merlot and a $50 Merlot.

$45.

No, I mean in terms of taste. Is there a difference in taste between the two different price points?

There should be. Hopefully the $50 wine was produced from grapes grown in a high quality, low-yielding vineyard that has unique terroir and is vinified and handled with care using quality tanks and barrels. Ageing this wine in a cellar will change it slightly, smoothing the texture, integrating the many complex aromas and flavours.

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Not Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

The $5 wine was probably mass-produced from grapes grown in many vineyards anywhere (because it doesn’t matter), fermented in massive tanks, pumped through many different processes, and bottled within the year. Ageing the wine is not needed because it’s shelf life is limited to about 3 years. The wine will taste good, smooth, and pleasing but may not have a lot of different flavors or aromas.

These are both generalizations and there are a million shades of grey between the two extremes. There is also the potential for some amazing upsets on both ends of the spectrum – $50 wines that are awful or $5 wines that are beautifully complex. That’s what makes wine hunting fun. It depends on what you are looking for in a wine and how much you can perceive about it.

As I said before, I believe that anyone can really learn to perceive anything if they know what to look for. I find that as I learned about wine, the more I started to look for certain things. I really liked wines that had tannins and that had more than 2 or 3 different flavors and aromas. I wanted wines that had lots of different things going on. I wanted to be challenged with every sip.

Not everyone wants that and sometimes I just good to have a simple glass of wine without anything complicated. I think of music the same way.

Brilliance of the 5th

My music history teacher in university for my second year was an animated fellow. He was an excellent tenor who truly loved music and was oddly good at communicating that to us, his students. (I say ‘oddly’ because many music teachers were either great teachers or great musicians but rarely both.) When it came time to cover the beginnings of the Romantic era of music (the 19th Century) Beethoven occupied a huge space in the syllabus. I can’t recall any single composer that was so important in the history of western music that we studied more than Beethoven. When we started studying the 5th Symphony, I learned why that was.

IMG_0812Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is probably the single-most widely known piece of music that isn’t in a Star Wars movie. The theme of the first movement can be mimed in front of anyone and they will know what symphony it is. Even people who don’t know ‘classical’ music generally know the 5th Symphony’s first movement. It can even be typed – da da da daaaaa – and people will understand it.

This is part of its brilliance. My teacher’s theory about why this particular piece was so popular (not even recently – it’s been popular almost since its first performance, which is an interesting story, but not for a wine blog) revolves around its simplicity – it sounds simple (and loud and fun) but there are so many details for people to look for if they want to. If they don’t, it’s also awesome, bombastic music to hear an orchestra bash out for about 10 minutes. Its brilliance is that it appeals to many different people on many different levels.

The entire first movement (and parts of the other movements) use this four-note phrase as a motif. What can one person do with a motif like that? Tons. Oodles. Buckets. It is a simple motif that can be expanded upon in a million different ways. It’s so simple but complicated at the same time. The theme gets treated differently in very subtle ways over the course of the first movement and ends up a little different at the end. How is it different? You’ll have to listen to find out. That same 4-note theme can be heard in each of the other movements of the symphony as well. Listen carefully…

Come on dude, this a WINE blog. Get on with it.

The best wines are the same. They will not be obscured by details so as to seem forbidding or needlessly complex. Sometimes complexity itself doesn’t taste very good. Instead, they will be able to appeal to a wide group of people who can appreciate it at all levels. People who want to get all kinds of subtle flavors and want to challenge their palate will be able to do that. People who want something that simply tastes great will also get that.

Sometimes a wine needs to be aged for this aspect to be appreciated. That’s why some people age their wines. That’s why I (try) to age some of mine. Sometimes, I want to be challenged with those subtleties that usually only come with bottle age. Other times, I just want an inexpensive, tasty wine that probably won’t be very complex. And that’s awesome too. I like the wine to match the occasion. Nota Bene doesn’t make sense for pizza on Tuesday but it does for a special dinner party.

There’s always a range of subtleties for people who want whatever they want to perceive. From simple to complex, CPE Bach to Beethoven, AC/DC to Tool, or Two-buck Chuck to Petrus, the range of subtleties itself makes life that much more interesting. Enjoy the nuances and subtleties that wine has to offer. There’s a lot out there.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Podcast 148 – Conversation with Marcia Hamm

MeI met Marcia Hamm last summer when I was working at the winery. She and I had a lot to chat about and it became obvious that we just didn’t get enough time to talk. So we kept in touch and I jumped at the chance to record a chat with her in person when she was visiting West Kelowna recently.

Marcia is busy running her own business and wine blog Joy of Wine and has recently become the manager for a new wine store in St. Albert, AB called Hicks Fine Wines which is scheduled to open mid-November (although at the time we recorded this, the plan was to open November 1). She recently appeared on Breakfast Television in Alberta talking about wine pairings – interviewed by a guy in a cowboy hat (is that really how everyone dresses in Alberta??) Selecting a wine portfolio for a new wine store is every wine lovers dream and Marcia is living it. She’s got a lot of diverse interests and is truly passionate about wine.

So sit back, relax, and grab a nice glass of red for this podcast. Cheers!


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The Oral Traditions of Wine

Orality – That which characterizes speech; a culture characterized by the primacy of speech over other forms of signification. Usually opposed to literacy, orality refers to those aspects of a culture’s way of life that are attributable to its investment in the resources of spoken language. These may include formal ways of organizing thought (myth) or knowledge (magic); or they may be associated with rhetorical and other systems for fixing and transmitting sense.”

– from Key Concepts in Communications and Culture Studies by Tim O’Sullivan et al, 1994.

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Rhys Pender, MW, at Clos du Soleil’s first vertical tasting.

Working in wine sales, I have noticed that much of what I do revolves around talking. Lots of talking. When I leave work after going “Blah blah blah blah” all day, I relish the time on the motorcycle heading home, where talking out loud is utterly useless and I can take pleasure from just shutting up. All the wineries and stores where I’ve worked have lots of things to read (back labels, magazines, books, rack cards) but I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to pay attention to those as much. Even those eager customers who carry notebooks around for their tasting notes are few and far between. People seem to make purchasing decisions based on the experience of tasting the wines and on the stories and descriptions told to them by their friends or wine shop person behind the bar.

I’ve included stories from friends as an influence here because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the influence of the wine shop person, who has a vested financial interest in making sure that the wine is appealing. That’s their (my) job. While it is unlikely that a person selling wine can ever make someone purchase a wine that has a taste that repulses them, it is possible that that person can enhance the tasting experience itself enough to make it more pleasurable than it might be otherwise. Ever get home from wine trip and and find that the wine doesn’t really taste like you remember in the wine shop? There could be a few factors at work there (bottle variance, travel shock, etc) but the presentation (the stories of the wines / sales pitch) are a part of that experience and therefore somewhat influential on the perception of the wine at that moment.

This has been my experience especially when asking people to try two wine styles about which they have huge preconceived notions and would otherwise refuse to taste – oaked chardonnays and rosés. These are two different styles of wine that have had huge backlash over the recent decades and there are still people who prejudge the modern examples based on past experiences. Oaked chards will always be “vanilla wine with some grapes added” and rosés will always be sweet “Mateus” or “White Zin” (depending on the person’s age). I’ve noticed that how I introduce these particular styles of wine has everything to with how they will be perceived. I happen to enjoy both of those types of wines and perhaps my enthusiasm for them is somehow infectious. Who knows how effective I would be at selling those wines were I not to be as fond of those styles?

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, and Andreawine.com

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010

Preferences and tastes are individual. Everyone behind the wine bar has had different experiences with wine and with the wines that they are talking about. Most of them at least like wine and a lot of them (in BC at least) are selling wine for a casual summer job because they are retired or are students. Others enjoy learning about everything that wine has to offer and are focused entirely on every aspect of it from start to finish. Regardless of where the person behind the bar is coming from, everyone has a unique perspective that they use to tell the “story” of the wine at the bar. Because these kinds of interactions are essentially verbal only, I believe that wine sales is an intensely oral tradition rather than a written tradition. I think a big part of wine culture itself is also oral in nature and that most people have experienced wine this way. How many books on wine do most people read? Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Wines has never made the Times best seller list at any point but I think every wine lover should read it. Most people will have more experience talking about wine than reading it. Just like the fish that was THAT BIG, the stories can get a little convoluted.

There’s a game that I used to play at summer camps called Telephone. We would all sit in a line or circle and the leader would whisper a phrase to the person at the head of the line, who would then turn around and whisper that to the next person. The message would get whispered from person to person all the way through the line until the last person who would say out loud what they heard. Without fail the original message of “Swimming in the lake is fun!” would mutate into “Weasels like to bake pies!” and everyone would laugh hysterically.

Just like that camp game, the message that people hear can sometimes get muddled. Oral communication is tricky that way, especially coming out of an age where oral communication has been relatively rare. Sure, we’ve all been talking the whole time but can we all listen with the attentiveness before technology (recordings) allowed us to hear things repeated back verbatim? But that’s an article for a whole other kind of blog…

Technology and social media is bringing back a kind of oral tradition (called Secondary orality by Walter Ong) which perhaps explains some of the appeal of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On these platforms, ‘facts’ are debatably not the same as ‘facts’ that we would read in a newspaper article or peer-reviewed published work. (Of course, what constitutes a ‘fact’ is another argument altogether.)

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Roie Manoff behind the bar at Silkscarf Winery in Summerland.

People remember stories that they hear (such as from wine shop sales people) and think that they are ‘facts’. I saw a tweet the other day from someone who had had the ‘facts’ somewhat turned-around from the ‘facts’ as I think I know it. It was a photo of a bottle of Merlot and the tweet mentioned something about the Merlot coming from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. As it happens, I used to work at the winery where that particular Merlot came from and that particular bottle was definitely not from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. That winery made two Merlots and the tweet featured the lesser priced version of the two (which was blended from across unknown number of vineyards of any possible age).

The problem isn’t with the customer getting their facts straight. Perhaps they heard them talking about the other, more expensive Merlot and got them confused. But the less than truthful information could have mutated well before that, confused in the mind of the person who happened to be telling them the story – i.e. the wine shop person who sold them the wine. Wine shop people are told to tell “the story” of the wine, which comes from the viticulturist / wine maker to the wine shop sales personnel (through any number of communications or marketing managers). Just like in that camp game of telephone, ‘the story’ can be easily and inadvertently altered at the beginning with more changes happening over the course of the summer as the same story gets told over and over again by the same person.

There is also the issue of where that ‘story’ comes from. Was it from the wine maker? Winery owner? The communications manager? PR person? Director of Sales? Wine shop manager? They all have a reason to include or exclude certain facts for various reasons. Some wine makers are secretive while others are openly candid. Who’s version of the story will be ‘the story’? Will it really impact how the customer appreciates the wine?

From my experience, it absolutely will. Anyone who has had a bad experience in a wine shop or with a particular wine will not only have trouble trying that winery’s wines again but will also have their own story to tell. I explored that recently in a post about expectations in the wine shop wherein that oral storytelling tradition has been integrated into the megaphone of social media platforms. In that case, do the ‘facts’ really even matter all that much?

Perhaps all sales, not just in the wine shop, are part of a tradition of orality. I find it fascinating how this aspect of our human nature (humans have been an oral species far longer than a literate one) is present in a culture based around an age-old beverage like wine.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke

Podcast 140 – How to be a wine snob

When did you start drinking wine? Was it good? Was it sweet? Be honest…

There’s a psychological reason for that sweet tooth according to Andrew Barr, the author of Wine Snobbery: An Insider’s Guide to the Booze Business. It’s not a new book by any stretch but Valerie chose a couple of pages that were particularly interesting. The essential argument is that we have an innate dislike of bitterness so we have a natural tendency to seek out sweeter wines. As we age, our palates evolve and the assumption is that we learn to desire that bitterness and see sweet things as being ‘immature’ or ‘simple’. This argument rationalizes the disdain and condescension for simpler, sweeter wines like Mateus, White Zin’s, or the Liebfraumilch’s of olde, which can never be ‘taken seriously’ in the context of fine wine appreciation.

But does this argument hold water? Or maybe wine? Calli, Valerie, and I try to dissect the argument. What do you think? Has your palate changed since you ‘discovered’ wine? When did you start getting into wine? Has your palate gone through an evolution?

 

 

The V Word

20131028-152054.jpgWhen I first started getting interested in wine, I remember hearing the word vintage bandied about but never really sure that I knew what it meant. I knew that there were ‘good’ vintages and ‘bad’ vintages from watching James Bond, who I remember commenting on a bottle of Dom being ‘a good year’ in one of them. As I began to study wine more in depth, I would very quickly learn that ‘vintage’ is both fascinatingly helpful and utterly useless information when it comes to tasting wine unless you know what you’re looking for…

20131028-152032.jpgWhen I first started working here in the Okanagan, as a cellar dude for the ’07 crush, I was always curious about what the wine makers and vineyard people thought of the vintage. I asked them questions about it all the time and tasted as many grapes as I could to assemble an early composite of the vintage’s potential, at least in my own mind. The grapes tasted fabulous to me but I’d had little experience with so many different varieties at the time so I never trusted my own opinion. As for the weather, I assume that it was a pretty good summer because, during lunch breaks, I was the only guy sitting in the sun. As a recent transplant from the coast, sunshine was a precious commodity that I had not had much of in seven years so I was making up for it. This was reaffirmed when a co-worker of mine said, “You know, I’m getting kinda sick of summer.” That’s when I knew that I’d made the right choice to move to the Okanagan.

Wine is made once a year. This tiny fact is sometimes greatly overlooked by the wine-purchasing public out there who may consider wine to be a manufactured beverage akin to beer, booze, or cola. They assume that when a winery runs out, they just go and make more wine. Before I was able to drink, I had no idea how truly natural wine is and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t alone in this thinking. If I hadn’t been asked questions about this from multiple customers over the years, then I would likely have never written this paragraph at all. Unfortunately in our modern culture, the detachment from the natural world around us has broadened to such a degree that we assume everything that humans use must be manufactured by humans as well. I believe this detachment has lead us as humans to justify the abuse of our environment (resource extraction, pollution, etc) for economic benefit. What does it matter if all the bees are mysteriously dying when I can still buy honey at the supermarket?

“Peaches come from a can.

They were put there by a man

in a factory downtown.”

Peaches, by Presidents of the United States of America

But that’s another discussion for another blog. Suffice it to say that not all people are on the same page about how wine is created. So here’s the short – short version;

Grapes grown on vines in vineyards and are harvested once a year in the fall. The grapes are pressed and fermented (a natural process involving yeast, just like bread) into wine which is bottled and then sold. The vintage on the label is the year that the grapes were picked.

Hopefully most people know that the weather can change quite a bit from year to year. Sometimes it can be extreme (hot and dry or cool and wet) or more moderate. Weather can have an effect on the quality of the grapes for that year’s harvest, although the extent of that influence is up for discussion. Sometimes the weather gets particularly nasty, as it was for the end of the summer here in the Okanagan Valley. I saw waves of thunderstorms, hail, unusually high winds, and annoyingly wet weather. It isn’t unusual to have some wet weather in the spring and fall but this year felt particularly violent. How can weather affect the vintage and what does it mean to you when you purchase wines in the years after when the vintage

There is a saying in the wine industry where you can be sure that the absolute best vintage at a winery is the one that they are selling you. Wineries will never tell you that this particular year is a ‘bad’ vintage because that is bad sales and marketing mojo. There are key words that some wineries will use to describe vintages that are not exactly stellar. “Challenging” is one of my favorites. “Difficult” is another key word. Then there are various summations of the weather – Hot, Cool, Wet, Dry – sometimes with their appended durations – “a short, cool vintages” etc. I find it extremely interesting how some wineries (and wine writers) categorize vintages and how important it is (or not) to a particular winery and their portfolio.

20131028-152046.jpgSo a vintages was long, hot and dry. So what? What difference will that make to the wines produced in that year? Will anyone remember what the weather was like 2 years after and how that will impact the flavor of a wine? Unlike what David Suzuki says, I believe most winery owners, wine makers, and vineyard workers are more aware of the changes in weather patterns from year to year because of the threat of variations in the vintage. They collect this information fastidiously because it can be used to promote their products in good years, or excuse the differences in lesser years. It is in their best interest to be able to recall a season’s meteorological mood.

Do all wineries even want their portfolio to reflect the qualities of the vintage? From my experience, the larger production a winery has, the more they will want to suppress vintage variations, which is easily accomplished with the right winery gadgets and processes. These are generally medium to large production wineries who’s survival depends on selling a lot of wine. Other wineries, usually smaller producers, either want the vintage’s qualities imbued in their bottles or do not have a choice because they lack the expensive equipment and resources to limit the vintage’s influence. These smaller producers are left with more risk when facing a ‘bad’ vintage while the larger producers are able to ride out a bad vintage with less variation.

The trick is knowing what you, as the consumer, prefer.

In one of my all-time favourite podcasts from Grape Radio, Wine importer Terry Theise, when asked about the vintage variations of grower’s Champagnes on his portfolio, said (approximately – I’m going to paraphrase this) that the people who want consistent, predictable wines are the same people who buy Bud, Miller, and Coors while the market for his wines are for people who prefer single malt Scotches and micro-brews. Terry Theise doesn’t draw a judgement of any kind either way but as an importer of small, terroir-driven producers, his market obviously requires more of the latter. Personally, I don’t have a problem with either side of the debate although I myself find it more interesting if the same wine tastes different each year.

The biggest problem with vintage is that I think that there is a disconnect between the consumer’s perception of the v-word and the industry’s. If you, as a wine drinker, want to open up bottles of wine that are consistent, predictable, and always to your taste, my advice is to look for the larger wineries on your wine tour or at the liquor store. You will get more enjoyment out of more wines with less risk of finding something that isn’t to your taste. If you love the challenge of exploring and want to taste different things in every bottle of wine, I think you will enjoy the smaller boutique producers. You will enjoy the thrill of finding something new and will taste some truly astounding creations but you might run into some wines that fall short. Whatever your preference is, take the time to appreciate and remember to trust your own opinions.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke