By John D Farr
Wine Snobs Anonymous
Wine is a wonderful and diverse drink that is changing rapidly. I am a Foodie and a cook – even a competitive BBQ cook – but wine was not high on my taste buds list until I started coming to Argentina a decade ago. Wine is sold everywhere in Argentina and is popular at every meal. I drink a lot of wine on my annual three-month tour of duty in the country.
This exposure plunged me into learning about wine. I have visited wineries, tasted many wines and also studied wine. Over the years I have toured some 250 food-production operations in both North and South America. It is a hobby. My family was in the livestock, farm and grocery business, and I have all of this in my genes. I would like to share a bit of what I have learned about wine with you here.
People have different tastes. Some of this comes from where you live and some comes from habit. But then, you have a whole different category of people: wine snobs. I’ll get to them in a minute.
People are capable of eating weird things. There are people who enjoy eating horse, dog and even rat meat. Some of the condiments that we enjoy today were actually developed specifically to cover-up the taste of tainted meats and other weird foods. Horseradish is such an item. The English invented in the 1800s to hide the taste of tainted roast beef.
Food laws, as well as sanitation and freshness standards, have changed immensely in a relatively short period of time for virtually all food products. Wine is no exception.
Originally wine was made to preserve fresh fruit juice into the winter season. The only method of storing it was to put it in casks or wooden barrels. These barrels gave wine a wooden flavor that depended on the number of times the cask had been used. Many casks are charred before wine is added. This system worked well for many years.
Then wine snobs started talking about the taste of tannin in wine as if it were a good thing. Tannins occur naturally in some grapes and in wood. Tannin is a chemical agent that binds proteins. When tasted, it tends to make the mouth pucker. Tannins themselves cannot really be tasted, so don’t get hung up about their taste like wine snobs do.
Generally casks are made of oak and used only a few times before being discarded. These barrels cost several hundred dollars each. They are an environmental disaster. To use them, you have to cut down forests, haul around empty barrels and then burn them to obtain largely unnatural flavors in a fresh fruit product. Economically, this makes no sense and it is not good for the environment. It adds immense cost to a naturally fresh and healthy product. If you are addicted to that “taste” of tannins, then you have a problem with “fresh,” and you should consult the nearest Wine Snobs Anonymous and get help.
Another weird taste that wine snobs talk about is leather. Leather is beautiful and functional. It smells and feels good. But nobody eats leather. Unless you grew up chewing on a leather pacifier, you’ve probably never developed a taste for leather. It is OK to laugh out loud when wine snobs talk about the taste of leather or tobacco or wet paint in wine.
A recent wine review featured an attractive blonde wine snob from Canada talking about wine that had a “hint of tobacco” in it. She didn’t look like the kind who chewed snuff, but apparently she did. How else would she know a foul taste like that in a glass of fine wine?
The name of the game in the food today is freshness. Old, stale, “oak tasting” wines may fetch high prices from wine snobs. But most wine certainly does not come from oak casks. An honest winery cannot afford to have old casks racked up in a damp basement while their bungholes face upward as people check barrel conditions and adjust oxygen exposure levels. It is just too expensive and too many things can go wrong.
Even the old cork is giving away to new airtight sealers, which are better for the wine, for wine purity, and for the environment. Ironically, scientists have demonstrated that natural corks add real taste and allow bottles to “breathe.” It is the one taste that really exists that wine snobs never admit to tasting. Yet they often ask you to smell the cork!
Wine is produced from grapes that are harvested and brought directly to wineries, where they are processed into juice. Virtually all wine juice is clear. The squeezing of the skins gives the wine its color and much of its flavor. Modern plants are built with stainless steel and wine is processed and chilled in gleaming tanks whose temperatures are precisely regulated by refrigeration. Tank temperatures are monitored carefully to ensure that each grape variety develops its proper flavor. Many modern wineries have only wines that are between 18 months to two years old. Despite what wine snobs will tell you, the only thing that really, noticeably changes with older wine is the price.
Many wineries are just like food processing facilities. Grape crops and flavors vary from year to year and some people think global warming affects flavor. Much wine today, just like fine whiskey and quality orange juice, is blended. Each winery has a laboratory with wine chemists who know the exact flavors and DNA of each batch of juice they are fermenting and processing. They can blend them to obtain uniformity in taste. People like consistency in taste in all foods. You have certain expectations for Swiss cheese or Blue cheese, and if they taste like onion cream cheese or Limburger, you end up disappointed. Wine is exactly the same. Blending helps create uniformity in each wine.
So when a winery produces a large amount of virtually identical wine, they tend to label it with their signature brand, with private labels, and with a host of unknown names to move it at different prices. I personally never enjoyed a high priced bottle of wine when I considered my options for the money or thought about how many other wines I could have tried for the same price. But marketing is marketing, and wine snobs and tannin, leather, and tobacco tasters will be out there like used car salesman making a pitch for this label or that one – especially if it is highly rated. These hucksters will never give you inside information about how they market their wines under different labels at different prices, even if the same wine has different prices points. You have to find that on your own.
Wine Snobs Anonymous, or WSA, may be the fastest growing organization in the world. Wine is made everywhere these days and has fantastic fresh tastes that are delightful with many meals. Check out your local wines. Go to wine shops or wine bars and taste a variety of wines to find out which flavors you like. Many vineyards do not have a winery and not all wineries are open to the public. It takes time, space, effort and money to cater
to visitors in a winery.
One of the best secrets in the wine business: Rose wines. Much like the first pressing of olives for extra virgin olive oil, the Rose wine of any type of grape is the first taste of a new wine harvest. It is a taste that almost everyone involved in wine production savors to find out how good the new crop is that year. I learned this secret from the vintners in the wineries. A fresh Rose of a dark grape variety can be as sensual a wine as about anything you may experience.
The wine of choice in Argentina is Malbec. Malbecs vary by winery. This wonderful wine goes with any meal, served cool or warm, and is just delightful. It grows exceptionally well in the Andes region of Argentina. A few years ago some good friends and good wine tasters visited Argentina and tried a different Malbec every night for 30 days. There favorite ended up being the cheapest one.
The reality is that good wineries cannot afford to export poor wine. Big wineries produce a great amount of wine each year – it is a fresh product. They market the SAME wine under different labels at various price points. There is more variety in wine labels and pricing than there are wines!
A fine Malbec Vinegar can make a salad dressing dance. There is also a big difference between wine vinegar and specific grape vinegar. A fine Balsamic Malbec vinegar is worth bringing home for your kitchen.
Mendoza is the center of the wine region in Argentina, but there are other valuable production zones. Fine wine is also produced north of Mendoza and the hot new expanding area for wine is the Rio Negro area in Patagonia, east of Bariloche in the heart of the apple and fruit production region. Some marvelous fine wines come from this area. The Argentine secret for grapes is lots of water, long sunny days and cool nights. Argentine wine is now on the world scene because of the country’s cheap exchange rate, but Argentines have been producing fine wine in these areas for years. Old European wine families from France, Germany, Italy and Spain have been here for a long time.
ARGENTINE WINE HISTORY
Wine Snobs tend to say that Argentine wine has just arrived on the scene. That is because they do not know their history. In the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was first opened, Argentina built the 16,000 square-foot Argentine Pavilion to showcase Argentine products, including a selection on fine wines that were very well regarded. That was 120 years ago!
Members of WSA do not like to hear about wine that tastes old and stale. They like to hear about the taste of things that were never in the bottle in the first place! Have you ever heard about how a wine tastes when it is “full of life and good cheer?” Or how about one that tickles “your tonsils “(just for fun) or “awakens all the senses” of the mouth? Toothpaste ad writers have better definitions of how your mouth should feel after a nice sip of vino than do the old Wine Snobs. These ad writers do not discuss old and odd flavors in your mouth.
The quaint view of a little boutique winery is almost like a fairy tale. The good wineries today are very clinical and clean. They are carefully managed with the finest computer wine-science available, just like most fine food processing plants. Outstanding quality control and purity of product does not happen by accident or by a group of elves sprinkling stardust on the harvest. Quality wine is produced only after being subjected to carefully thought-out scientific processes. To some extent, a winery’s standards and cleanliness does more to determine if a wine will be “fine” than anything else, and this is true regardless of where the wine is produced.
The careful growing of grapes is also critical to good wine. Like any good agricultural product, the final product set often set the day the vine is planted. Agriculture is a science today and good grape production is tied to plant quality and product handling standards – be it grapes or potatoes or apricots – at harvest time.
You can be sure that the various wine magazines and ratings are all based on personal taste and all are designed to sell wine. Do not be snookered by these pitches. Be your own wine taster. To thy own self be true, be a your own Wine Snob. Most wine shops will help you find some fine fairly priced wines to try and discover what appeals to you. You should concentrate on figuring out the taste and type of wine that you like.
If you are looking for something with a taste of raspberries or strawberries, go to the fruit section of the produce department and get them. I prefer cream on mine. If a wine has a hint of blueberries, maybe the grape picker got drunk and picked blueberries instead of grapes. If you are looking for a fine vino in a variety of grape types that wakes up your taste buds, then stay in the wine department and explore around.
Some labels look and sound so nifty and homey that you want to buy them just to support the folks picking those delectable little grapes. Many of those labels are owned and produced by giant beverage companies. Do not let their marketing fool you. You would be astounded to know how intertwined ownership is in alcoholic beverages industry around the world. Mega corporations produce a lot of wine, just like they produce a lot of our food. Wineries are expensive businesses.
Set yourself free and be your own WS. Be true to yourself. Your own taste buds will tell you a lot more about a wine than a label or a trumped-up magazine review will. And it is a lot more fun finding out what you like on your own than it is to read what some sanitized wine snob in a faraway place has to say.
If aging really counted for much in wine, they would tell you the number of years certain years were in certain barrels. They would also tell you how often those barrels had been used previously. Whiskey makers do this regularly. In fact, they are often required to do so by law. Most wineries only use a barrel a few times and then pass them off to other uses, like cutting them in half and selling them as flower containers for the patio. It’s time for you to get over the old image of dusty barrels in a basement.
In early 2008 Stanford University and Cal Tech released a study showing how people’s perceptions are changed by the pitch they get on wine. The tests used the same exact type of wine in blind tasting surveys. They asked tasters primarily about price. In every case, people thought the higher priced wine tasted better. The old snob appeal works wonders. The ultimate test was for a $10 wine. Testers pitched it as a $90 wine. Across the board, every tester thought it was a superior wine. There was a cross section of people from wine fanatics to the casual wine drinker in this big study. I rest my case!
Friends, do not let the Wine Snobs ruin your budget or your own idea of good taste. Explore different wines, look for the bargains, find out what you like and enjoy.
Think and taste “fresh” in wines. Avoid musty, old, non-food tastes in wine. They don’t really exist, or at least they don’t exist naturally. Set your palate free and enjoy the fruit of the vine as it was meant to be, fresh and alive.