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October 30, 2008

Meeting of the Vines

Early last week, my wife dispatched me to our newly-opened (and widely celebrated) local BevMo store to start a gradual stockpiling of good wine for upcoming holiday gatherings. The request came with one very explicit direction: buy only wine that is on sale and has a rating of 90 or above.

So when I came home carrying bottles with ratings of 87 and 88 – or even worse, unrated – I had some explaining to do.

It wasn’t that I completely dismissed her instructions; rather, I felt like I had equally compelling criteria for choosing a wine - namely, I thought it was important to pick some winners. Ultimately, in the spirit of diplomacy, I picked three bottles that met her standards, and three that met mine.

[The lineup: six outstanding Northern California wines. Yes, the bottle on the right is two-thirds empty; good wine doesn’t last very long around our house.]

Predictably, my diplomacy wasn’t enough to avoid triggering an exchange between my curious wife and me, which went something like this:

Her: They’re not all rated 90?

Me: No, but the ones that are lower should be good. They’ve won gold medals at different wine shows.

Her: So what? There are thousands of those little wine competitions. The ratings are more objective.

Me: Sure, but what does a number tell you? I’ve never even heard of the guy who rates them.

Her: It means they’re good!

Me: Yeah … but it’s a different kind of good. I’m more impressed by the competition.

It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized why I was so inherently biased towards contest winners as opposed to high scoring wines. And contrary to what you’re probably thinking, it’s not simply because I’m a runner – more specifically, it’s because I’m a student of the sport of distance running.

Among people who care about such things, one of the most frequent arguments concerning the relative greatness of distance runners is the importance of world records in comparison to gold medals. In other words – is it a greater accomplishment to do something better than anyone in history, or to defeat all of your peers while competing for the most prestigious championships?

If you’re like most people, your first instinct is to think a world record is the more admirable feat – but think of it this way: many world record efforts are nothing more than time trials set under the most ideal conditions imaginable. For every distance above 800 meters, record attempts are typically targeted weeks in advance, with pacers recruited to pull the runner through the first stages of the race before dropping out later on. Even then, attempts are abandoned if weather conditions are not ideal or if the athlete isn’t 100% healthy - it’s basically a speed laboratory where all variables are carefully controlled before the experiment ever begins.

Now compare those conditions to a race like the Olympic 5K. The event is held rain or shine (usually in hot or humid or – in the most recent Olympiad - smoggy extremes) whether the athletes are healthy or not. All of the best runners in the world are there, each one trying to influence the race in his preferred fashion (tactical pacing, surging at particular times, jostling within a large pack, deciding whether to draft or run clear of the fray) in order to win the most prestigious title of their lives. There is a preliminary heat before the finals, making stamina a requirement in addition to speed. The race is a battle; the champion is the one who takes everyone’s greatest effort and proves himself better than all of them.

The most classic example of the record-versus-race debate goes back more than 50 years, to the time of the 4-minute mile barrier. Roger Bannister broke the mark first – with three pacers to help him – in May of 1954, only to have his world record shattered in similar fashion by John Landy just 46 days later. They didn’t race head to head until August of that year, when Bannister outkicked Landy in what is still referred to as the “Mile of the Century”. Bannister’s winning time in the race was significantly slower than Landy’s still-standing world record – but if you asked 100 people in 1954 who the world’s best miler was, 99 of them would have said Bannister. It was hardly even a question.

So … which accomplishment is more impressive? Which one best reflects the spirit of the sport? These are questions that can be bounced back and forth all day; they also bring us back to the aforementioned bottles of wine.

Think of the bottles with 90+ ratings as world record holders: they’ve scored higher than all other competitors in their class. The gold medal winners are the, er, … gold medal winners. They’ve challenged their competitors face to face under uniform circumstances and emerged victorious.

Speaking of face to face showdowns … when it comes to differences of opinion with my wife, I’m about as successful as Charlie Brown trying to kick the football from Lucy’s tee. I’ve mentioned before that my wife is wicked smart – and if you’ve read this blog for more than a week, you already know the word I use most frequently to describe myself (hint: it rhymes with schmidiot). But for the purpose of friendly competition, I’ll go ahead and ask: which bottle of wine would you reach for first? A world record holder or a gold medalist? Or perhaps just the one with the prettiest label?

I suspect I know how this one’s going to play out, but feel free to and weigh in below and confirm it.


Rick Gaston 10/30/08, 11:52 AM  

Huh I've never thought it that way. Again some thought provoking insights. There's a BevMo three blocks from my place and I make regular trips there. The ratings are a plus but I don't base my decisions on them. For the most part I explore and go on my own and that's just an attitude I picked up from art school - what the critics say is the best may not necessarily be what's right for me. That said I have been guilty of buying wines that have been winners of competitions, primarily because I feel that there was more than one person voting for the wine.

By the way I noticed that one of the bottles is already half empty, more than half empty. A little taste test was in order?

Anonymous,  10/30/08, 12:24 PM  

Sometimes you have to decide what's most important and where to make your stand. Do you go for a PR or go for an age group win or go through the motions to live for another battle. Since fermentation is a turn-off for me, this would be one of the rare times I'd try to follow direction.

21stCenturyMom 10/30/08, 1:43 PM  

Dude - you have to stop anthropomorphizing the wine. And if you bought it for a future party you need to stop drinking it too! At least until the party.

I generally go for the Steele Vineyards Pinot Blanc. Delicious. Or I look at Runner Susan's blog and use her reviews.

As for the rating vs. medal it's a toss up that probably gets decided by how much I like the label.

No one ever accused me of being a connoisseur. Oh - I also really like Pomolo. Deelish and cheap.

Gretchen 10/30/08, 3:12 PM  

I never look at ratings or awards. Unfortunately, the criteria I have to look at most is price. Fortunately in California, there are many good wines that meet my criteria ($10 or less) especially if I hit them on sale. Of course, there are also many bad wines in that range, so in order to sort them out, I have to go through the painful task of tasting many wines. *sigh* Life sometimes throws these difficult challenges our way, but I am prepared to meet them head on.

Anne 10/30/08, 3:42 PM  

If you buy wine by winners you should watch the movie "Bottleshock." And if you picked out the Barefoot bottle, let's just say you've been served.

jeff 10/30/08, 4:18 PM  

i just check the alcohol content. whatever will get me sh*tfaced fastest wins in my book. teehee

kidding, kidding. i think i'd probably grab a medal winner.

miki 10/30/08, 6:11 PM  

I read an interview with the guy who rates those wines. Wong? Fong? Anyways, what I got out of the article was that he rated wines based on the lowest common denominator. What he thought most people would be pleased by, not necessarily what he thought was best.

Personally I have never had much success purchasing a good tasting wine based on his scores. So, either his rating system sucks or I am not the lowest common denominator which means...I'm better than everyone? ;) I think not, but I agree that experimentation with a few tried and true is more successful and more fun.

Darrell 10/30/08, 7:49 PM  

I'll go for a medal winner any day. I really usually chose by an interesting label and a reasonable price tag. I can't see spending a ton of money on something I'm gonna flush in an hour or two.

Legs and Wings 10/31/08, 2:03 AM  

I'm a sucker for the label too - and, Australian wine.

Makita 10/31/08, 2:57 AM  

Did you actually contemplate all this BEFORE you purchased the wine or did it develop on your way home?

I don't often drink wine - perhaps I've never found one I like - but when I do purchase it myself, I tend to gravitate towards the pretty labels. However, after considering your discussion, I'd have to vote: Gold Medal Winners. :D

Paul Taylor 10/31/08, 11:10 AM  

I think score is part of the equation, but how did they taste? Did the 90+ taste better than the award winning wines?


mweston 10/31/08, 2:01 PM  

I have had high rated BevMo wines that sucked, and their in house rater has a conflict of interest, so I don't put much weight on that. Ratings from Wine Spectator have a little more weight.

The short answer is that I would choose any of the reds over any of the whites, and would probably try the Shiloh Road Merlot first since I have liked another of their wines (Syrah as I recall). But that's just me.

Addy 10/31/08, 3:36 PM  

Didn't actually know they were rated....Guess I'm newer to the wine business!

Like Gretchen, my focus is generally on price, for the every day wine.

After that, its' the label. I seem to be drawn towards animal labels, because they're fun.

Haven't met a bottle I didn't like though, so my system seems to work just fine for me

Sunshine Girl 10/31/08, 9:42 PM  

Some champions are turkeys.
Some turkeys are champions.
If you like it, drink it!
Speaking of which....

Anonymous,  11/1/08, 5:33 AM  

I, like mweston, place a bit more weight on ratings from established institutions such as Wine Spectator, Wine enthusiast, etc.

I don't have a very similar taste in fermented beverages to the general populous, so I prefer to dig a little deeper than ratings alone and look into reviews.

Sunshine Girl has a point though, if you like it, drink it! Who cares how it was rated. Maybe the raters haven't tried this one yet and its actually fantastic.

Rainmaker 11/1/08, 12:03 PM  

Wine rankings are a funny business. There's some great articles written on them and how it works (or doesn't, as it may be).

If I had to choose between an Olympic Gold medal or a world record, I'd just the Gold any day of the week.

Pete 11/4/08, 10:48 AM  

A few thoughts from someone who's been in the wine PR business for many years....

Ratings by the major publications CAN be valuable -- if you take the time to calibrate your palate to that of the reviewer. I respect James Laube, who reviews California wines for Wine Spectator, and Steve Heimoff, who does the same for Wine Enthusiast. And yet recently, one of my wines received a 90-point score from one of them -- and a 79-point score from the other! So, know your reviewer.

As for wine competitions, there are tons of them and the value of the results can vary wildly depending on both the quality of the judging and the judging protocols employed. Plus, most wineries don't do competitions, or at least do very few. That said, winning a gold medal at a competition usually requires getting the thumbs-up from several judges. So this indicates a greater chance that the wine is generally of good quality.

Victoria 11/11/08, 12:23 PM  

Honestly, I'd be more inclined to shop at a smaller store that might have some lesser known wines, but who had a staff member who really knows their wines. I realize I'm living in a great area for this (I can think of at least 3 different outstanding wine stores in the Berkeley/Oakland area, with plenty of wines around $10-12), but in my opinion, someone who you have talked with before, and who might know your tastes if you shop there enough--not that I speak from experience or anything--would be better bet for a good bottle of wine than a rating system. There is a ton of excellent wine out there that doesn't end up getting rated.

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