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Don't Be Tricked

Columnist: Richard L. Thomas
September, 2014 Issue

Richard L. Thomas
All articles by columnist

The average wine buyer is convinced that medals mean high quality. When it comes to quality versus luck, luck will win every time.

Harvest will definitely be here before you read this, so I’m hoping a giant crop isn’t in the future, that the water issues (at least for this year) are behind us, and that there’s enough cooperage to handle the crop we do have. Between Draxton, Truett-Hurst and Rack and Riddle, Healdsburg alone has added a few million gallons of space that should help alleviate some shortfalls.
Isn’t it amazing how some very large operations can just suddenly appear in lovely little (virtually) downtown Healdsburg? Ingoing and outgoing water must be a good business, even in the middle of a drought. I’m a little curious about how these things get approved when, as a resident, I’m being told to let my lawn die and reduce all water use by 25 percent. I guess their money talks louder than my little (?) bill.
I was fascinated to read an article about and a belief by one of its winemakers (Ryan O’Connell) that there are at least three ways winemakers trick consumers into paying too much for a given wine. None of this is new, and I’ve said it several times myself. First, wine competition awards: The average wine buyer is convinced that medals mean high quality. When it comes to quality versus luck, luck will win every time. When most competitions are awarding medals to 80 percent of entrants, it’s really more a money machine for the people who run the competitions. (For those of my readers who don’t know, I’ve quit working at all judging competitions because of this.) Maybe this is also the reason that many big-name wineries don’t enter competitions: When luck beats quality, it’s a decision easily made—unless you’re in dire need of publicity (a new winery), which is why competitions are good for them. I love O’Connell’s quote that says: “Those medals are worth about as much as the blue ribbon on a PBR.”
Second, bottle packaging: Heavy bottles, punts and colors are all tools that increase price but not the quality of the product inside. Third: Regional acclaim: When buying from a famous region, you’re paying for the region’s brand just as you’re paying for the bottle. World fame is achieved at great cost and somebody has to pay for that. Mr. O’Connell,, thanks for the enlightenment. (P.S. I really enjoy all of your wines, especially the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc sold at your Kenwood facility.)
While on the topic of judgings, it seems only right to use the 2014 California State Fair Wine Competition as an example. There were only 2,090 entries from 688 wineries in the entire state this year. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition has greater than 5,000 (just as a benchmark) and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair has about 900 entries. First question: Does the California State Fair judging really mean anything? Not to most wineries, apparently. And how important are medals? Well, 79 percent of the entries received one this year. Does that mean nearly 80 percent of the state’s wines are worthy of a medal? What would have happened had all of the big-name wineries entered?
On the positive side, the Golden State Winery of the Year was awarded to Navarro Vineyards and Winery, which is well deserved. It does a fabulous job year after year, with a wide range of varieties and very respectable price points. Other North Coast winners include Best of Show Pink for Pedroncelli 2013 Zinfandel; Best of Show White for Carol Shelton 2012 Coquille Blanc; and Best Microwinery Red for La Chertosa Old World Wines—congratulations, Derrick (a former student and good friend). Best Sonoma Red went to Hawley 2010 Meritage, and Best Sonoma White went to MacMurray Ranch 2012 Pinot Gris. Also, a category called Best Value (whatever that means) was awarded to Fetzer 2011 Valley Oaks Moscato. Glad to see Concho y Toro still uses some local grapes. With 79 percent medals, how bad could the remaining 21 percent be?
As a final item: How about a research project in France. It started with two wines—a red and a white—and tasters were asked to describe each. In the second round, both wines were white, but one had red pigments infused. In participants’ written descriptions, the first white wine had nearly identical descriptors. But the infused wine also had the same descriptors—for a red wine! Conclusion: Color alone, not aroma, not flavor, told them what to expect—and that’s exactly what they tasted. These were French people, by the way, but probably more than half of our population would do the same. “Tell me it is expensive and I’ll like it!” No truer words were ever spoken. “Give me those thick-punted, heavy bottles with gold labels and I’m sure to love it.”
Next lap around, think about eco-labeling and its effect on the consumer. Homework: Compare a heavy bottle of wine with a light bottle of wine.


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