Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial The Enduring Mythos of Wine

The Enduring Mythos of Wine

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The wine world has always been full of myths—mystique and imagination play as big a part in our enjoyment of wines as facts and figures.

People like mystique.

Yet, almost all myths are eventually dispelled; at which point they become more like inconvenient truths, things that many cannot or will not accept.

When I first started in the industry in the late 1970s, it was “common knowledge” that the finest wines in the world came from France, and California wines were, at best, pale imitations.

Well, events like the Judgement of Paris in 1976 quickly put an end to that.

The French wine judges at the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris / Photo Courtesy L’Académie du Vin
The French wine judges at the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris / Photo Courtesy L’Académie du Vin

In retrospect, the Judgement of Paris demonstrated that taste in wine is highly subjective, based primarily on experience. Or, in the case of the Judgement of Paris, the lack thereof. You can bet the French judges in 1976 truly believed, when handing in their scores, they were rating French wines higher than California wines. The problem: they had zero experience tasting California wines; they simply awarded the most points to the wines with greater intensity. Not a problem for modern day California wines.

Today we understand the “best” wines are about more than intensity. There are factors like balance, harmony, sense of place, pedigree, and other terroir-related distinctions. After 1976, the wine-drinking world learned that California examples can be just as interesting as any other, especially in terms of intensity.

Americans have taken this to the bank. We are proud inventors of the 100-point rating system—a myth of another sort. No matter how you slice it, numerical scoring is a way of measuring intensity, largely in lieu of other sensory factors. We may truly want to believe that a 95-point wine is better than an 89-point wine, but logic tells you that the critics or magazines conjuring these scores are as partial as anyone. All quality ratings are personal—the opposite of objective. It would be like giving The Beatles’ “Yesterday” 95 points and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” an 89, when in reality you may very much prefer “Paint It Black” and despise “Yesterday.” That is the absurdity of numerical ratings—they never tell you what wines are better for you.

One-hundred-point apologists will always say that this is still the best way to advise consumers and celebrate wines. It’s not.

Photo by Vale Arellano on Unsplash
Photo by Vale Arellano / Unsplash

The New York Times‘ “Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021,” is a round-up of over three dozen works of fiction and nonfiction chosen by five staff critics. Instead of numerical ratings, these writers used what all wine critics should seriously consider when making their assessments: words. They used words to summarize each book, parse distinctions, and highlight their significance—even while pointing out strengths and weaknesses. The benefit: readers receive the information necessary to make their own choices.

It seems perfectly possible to evaluate wines the same way, without erroneous use of numbers. We just have to start demanding this from the wine media.

Earlier in 2021 a brainy colleague of mine, Deborah Parker Wong, brought up another myth that has always been repeated as gospel: When storing wines, all bottles must be laid on their side to keep corks moist and preventing wines from oxidizing. Research papers going as far back as 2005, however, have clearly demonstrated that this is simply not true. Not only is there more than enough humidity in bottles to keep corks intact and wines fresh, researchers found that wine bottles are probably better off stored upright. If, however, you are storing wines for long-term maturation, you still need to keep bottles as close to optimal temperatures (55° to 60° F) as possible, because temperature, more than anything, is what affects wine quality during long-term cellaring.

Wine geeks, however, are funny people. I seriously doubt any of them have been rushing down to their cellars to stand their bottles up. It’s wine geeks, especially, who will also swear until their dying day by the basic wine maxim called “breathing”—the opening and/or decanting of young red wines a considerable amount of time before consumption.

I like to cite the December 1997 issue of Decanter—the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine”—reporting on a double-blind tasting involving Hugh Johnson, Steven Spurrier, Serena Sutcliffe MW, and Patrick Léon (the latter, at the time, the winemaker for Mouton-Rothschild), who were asked to assess the quality of a 1961 Mouton-Rothschild, a 1982 Clerc-Milon, a 1980 d’Armailhac, and a 1990 Mouton-Cadet. Each of these wines were:

  • Uncorked a few minutes ahead of time, and then poured and tasted
  • Uncorked a few hours ahead of time, and then poured and tasted
  • Uncorked and poured into a decanter a few minutes ahead of time, before poured into glasses and tasted
  • Uncorked and poured into a decanter a few hours ahead of time, before poured into glasses and tasted
  • Uncorked, and then immediately poured into glasses and tasted (that is, no “breathing” at all)

Guess which wines, across the board, were the ones that this impartial panel of immortals preferred the most. Answer: The bottles that were uncorked, immediately poured and tasted. It turns out that “breathing,” whether for a few minutes or a few hours, doesn’t really “improve” wines at all. If anything, it can be detrimental.

Decanters used in Guard & Grace restaurant in Denver to enhance guest experiences of red wines / Randy Caparoso Photography
Decanters used in Guard & Grace restaurant in Denver to enhance guest experiences of red wines / Randy Caparoso Photography

So how do we account for contrary opinions? I chalk it up to the stimulus of neural activity in medial orbitofrontal lobes, the “pleasure center” of our brains. There have been a number of studies demonstrating that wines tagged with higher prices consistently result in sensations of more pleasure than that of lower priced wines. (In these studies, price tags are typically switched, and the results remain the same: Price, not wine, inflates pleasure.)

The same stimulus occurs whenever we are served wines of a certain level of prestige; or when wines are handled with great care, such as being poured from attractive decanters. (As sommeliers in restaurants, we have always been acutely aware of this shrewd yet sure-fire way of making guests feel they are getting more for their money.)

I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that sensory perception can be flawed in many ways. We not only question ourselves, but also question facts and truths. It’s like there’s an override built into our nervous system. When our senses are prepared to perceive that a wine will taste better, it truly does taste better. Errare humanum est.

Which is exactly why wine myths will never go away. When it comes to pleasure, or for the sake of reasonably consistent belief systems, it is simply more convenient to keep our myths around.

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Randy Caparoso
Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Randy, not sure where you were going with this. It is the opposite of my wine experience. I drink 10-30 year old wine regularly and yes SOME wines do not benefit from decanting as much as others. To generalize and say that ALL wine will not benefit from “opening” is a disservice to the industry. It exemplifies just the mindset you are attempting to discredit. The wonder of wine is its diversity. As I think you really know, it is difficult to know how to manage the service of most aged wines. They could be going through a “closed” phase, or simply not have enough fruit, acid, or tannin left to benefit from adding oxygen to the wine through decanting. Why can’t we all be a little more open minded and acknowledge there is a diverse wine experience to be had and enjoy it for what it is.

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