Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
The legendary Maynard Amerine's shibboleths are timeless lessons in wine appreciation
In 1976 U.C. Davis Professor Maynard A. Amerine published WINES: Their Sensory Evaluation with Edward B. Roessler. Amerine was a plant physiologist who had served as the chairman of U.C. Davis's renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology during the 1950s and '60s—a seminal period in the California wine industry—and Roessler was a mathematician who chaired the Department of Mathematics and Physics at the same school.
While long forgotten — especially in today's setting, in which sports journalists, ex-lawyers, MBAs, and practically anyone can become widely followed wine critics, dishing out numerical scores and opinions on wines as if they were handed down from Mount Sinai — for a time, Amerine and Roessler's rigorous approach to wine evaluation had considerable impact on the wine industry.
In this book, Amerine erred on the side of minimizing physiological limitations and psychological errors in his recommended format for wine evaluation, while Roessler's statistical analyses were based upon principles of probability, not absolutes. In that sense, the authors were clearly cognizant that any attempt to formulate a 100% objective approach to sensory evaluation would always be less than likely. This may be why, at the beginning of their book, they felt it important to include a sub-chapter entitled "Some Shibboleths that Need to Be Questioned."
In laying out those "shibboleths," Amerine pointed out the fact that the wine industry could be easily plagued by pests he could only define in one way: wine snobs. That is to say, self-appointed experts who are likely to "pervert" widely known wine "axioms," and "who glibly use them without understanding them." Amerine minced no words in describing the danger: "In fact, the wine industry suffers enormously from wine snobs who praise the wrong wines, usually for reasons that have little to do with quality." Makes you wonder what he would have thought of today's deluge of 100-point scoring systems, administered in a fashion closer to a dartboard than anything approaching rigor.
Fifty years ago, the commercial wines that Amerine and Roessler were concerned about generally sold for less than $9 or $12. Even the "great" wines from, say, France's Bordeaux and Burgundy regions sold for less than $25 or $30 — many of them, the same wines that now easily sell for $200, $400, or even $2,000 a bottle. Not just from France, there are now wines grown in the U.S., Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, South Africa, South America, and other places that reach those price ranges. Stakes are considerably higher than in Amerine and Roessler's day, although the consumer can still choose from a huge range of wines sold for less than $9-$12.
Culling quotes directly from the book, the following suppositions summarize eight of Amerine's concerns, along with our takeaways, which if anything are more apropros today than they probably ever were:
1. That wine judges are born wine judges.
Amerine: "There is just enough truth in this to fool many people... Once in a blue moon some unfortunate individual has a low sensitivity to odor and/or taste sensations. The rest of us, the overwhelming majority, have all the physical equipment we need to be become excellent judges of wine quality, even if our parents drank nothing but beer... if we apply ourselves we can acquire the requisite experience."
Our takeaway: Just the fact that seemingly anyone can become an "expert" these days — just start a wine blog, or start an Instagram page, dress in scanty clothing and announce yourself a "sommelier" or "influencer!" — tells you that there is probably one born every minute (sommeliers, not suckers). But since wine tasting prowess is based more on mental rather than physical faculties, the way to become a good judge of wine has never really changed: by learning how to appreciate qualities in wines by accumulating as many possible experiences of different wines as possible.
2. That only experts can enjoy the full quality of wine.
Amerine: "This is nonsense... The expert may know why he enjoys a certain wine but he would be presumptuous to claim that he enjoys it more than the amateur. The latter may, in fact, enjoy a certain wine more fully than the expert precisely because he doe not have the knowledge and experience to make all the possible comparisons among wine.... We concede that the expert does gain a different type of pleasure from his intellectual appreciation of complex sensory perceptions yielded by a truly fine wine."
Our takeaway: The advantage that experts may have over average wine consumers is that they have a larger vocabulary and more experiences to draw upon, as well they should. However, in all probability even the world's greatest experts do not have the exact same taste as you. Wine is really like any other aesthetic choice — a car, a dress, a hairstyle, a book or movie, it doesn't matter, but you are the only one who knows what you love best. You simply can never trust an expert, or wine ratings in a magazine, to make the best choice of wine for yourself.
3. That Heaven keeps some sort of order of merit for the relative quality of certain vineyards, producers, or vintages.
Amerine: "This is sacrilegious. Even the lowliest vineyard and the poorest year occasionally produce a glorious wine. Need we add that some of the most prestigious vineyards and producers have given us some notoriously poor wines?... Famous vineyards, renowned vintages, and producers of great reputation do not usually acquire their prestige unearned. The point, however, is that you should not use such prestige as your standard for judging the quality of wine. The wine may be good or bad, but you are the one who should determine this — for you."
Our takeaway: Wine appreciation depends on so many factors — the time, the place, who you are with, your personal taste, ad infinitum — that the reputation or level of prestige attached to a bottle becomes the secondary or lower considerations determinining your level of satisfaction with any given wine. In fact, many a wine lover can recall getting the best experiences out of wines they never heard of, selling for the lowest prices, experienced in unexpected places or at unsuspected moments. Prestige never guarantees quality in either subjective or objective circumstances. Yes, you should do the research to learn about wines, and what wines are most likely to be best. But once a bottle is opened, it is actually safer to follow your instincts, or what your palate tell you, rather than what you may have read or have been told about a wine. Taste is everything; or as Amerine is often quoted to say, "Drink wine, not labels."
4. That small wineries produce better wines than large wineries.
Amerine: "Some of the worst wines we ever suffered came from small, picturesque wineries. We hasten to add that some of the best also came from small wineries. It is the standards of the producer, and a fair amount of luck, that determines the quality of the wines produced, not the size of the winery. In theory a large winery should be able to make a more careful selection of varieties and the lots for aging, and thus produce finer wines. This does happen, of course, but economics, marketing objectives, and other factors may interfere."
Our takeaway: Oh so true then, and oh so true now. Small wineries can make the funkiest wines, not always in a good way, although sometimes in interesting ways. Nowadays, big wineries are more likely to make sounder, more predictable wines —they didn't grow "big" for nothing. But since when is "sound" and "predictable" more exciting? If you're into adventure, by all means you should explore the products of small, handcraft wineries, and enjoy whatever good, bad or ugly can come from that. Needless to say, it doesn't make sense to sell bigger wineries short, especially those that do "small winery" stuff, like vineyard-designate wines, or specialty lots crafted in minimal intervention style.
5. That wines of one area are, ipso facto, better than those of another area.
"This presupposes that all wines are to be judged by the same standard. One cannot compare wines meaningfully if they differ from each other in a fundamental way. For examples, white wines of one area have their own character and cannot be compared with white wines of another area, which have a different character... Furthermore, people have their own preferences. There is no law that says we must prefer one kind of wine over another."
Our takeaway: Even back in the '60s and '70s Amerine was well aware of the value of terroir differentiations, although his generation did not use that terminology per se. His position as a famous U.C. Davis professor may suggest convention, but he was actually an aesthete who spoke seven languages fluently and traveled to virtually every wine region in the world, and then some. He knew his stuff, including the fact that the provenance of wines has as much or more impact on quality as any other factor. That is to say, the fact that the qualities associated with wine regions of the highest prestige are not always preferred over qualities found in lesser known regions — even those of "naïve domestic Burgundies." Wines are not so much better than each other than they are, simply, different. If he were alive today, Amerine (who passed away in 1998) would undoubtedly recommend exploring all the wine regions of the world that are accessible to consumers, advising you to enjoy each wine for what they are, not by how they are supposed to compare to those of other places.
6. That bottled wines improve with age.
"This is patently untrue for many white table wines and is often untrue for red table wines. Some white table wines improve... But we can all remember wines that were at their best within a few months or years of bottling... some red wines acquire nuances of bouquet that young wines lack... [but] to praise the old wine for its age and ignore its overaged characteristics is a gross error in judgement."
Our takeway: More true than ever. However, it is also true that the commercial wines of today are, on average, a lot better than the average commercial wines of 40, 50 years ago. Therefore, a surprising number of contemporary products — especially handcrafted wines produced with a good sense of balance and restraint — are likely to prove a lot better with an extra amount of bottle age (i.e., 5, 10, even 20 or 30 years of "cellaring") than what you may expect. So we would advise doing both: enjoying wines when they are young and full of bluster, and also trying them out when they are older, wiser, and possibly more likely to please.
7. That wines always improve if left open before serving.
Amerine: "It is true that some wines do improve if left open, particularly if they are decanted before serving... However, the claim that leaving a wine open or dcanting it results in an increase in desirable odors is hard to substantiate. What chemical reactions could take place within a few minutes or a few hours that would produce enough additional desirable odors to be recognizable? ... For each example of an apparent improvement in sensory impressions with early opening of the bottle or decanting of the wine, we can cite examples of wines, particularly old red wines, in which quality deterioriated rapidly."
Our takeaway: As the result of our our own "blind" trials, we absolutely agree with Amerine that the benefits of "breathing" or decanting are highly overrated, and usually delusional. Very often, wines (young and old) taste better when opened, poured and consumed within seconds. Furthermore, we have found that it is change of temperature and/or mental disposition, rather than exposure to air, that usually has more impact on perceptions when wine sits in an open bottle, a decanter or glass after a few minutes (see our 2012 post, Does price and letting wines "breathe" matter?).
8. That expensive wines are better than cheap wines.
Amerine: "Some are, many are not. Price depends on many factors that are not necessarily related to quality. Those who buy wines on a price-basis deserve what they get... As usual, there is some truth to this shibboleth. The finest wines are made from more expensive grapes... The producer must charger a higher price for his higher expenditure. But it is the quality of the wine, not the price, that is important. Some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear. This means that the wines are sometimes not worth the higher price if quality alone is the criterion for selection."
Our takeaway: Truer than it ever was before, particularly in respect to the highest priced wines of today which are inflated largely for two of the most obnoxious reasons: 1) because of the tiny production or relative rarity of wines in relation to demand; and 2) because the consumer segment driving up prices of these limited production wines happen to be wealthy people who are oblivious to quality purely in terms of sensory attributes. Wealthy people, as is well documented, often have the worst taste, or no taste at all because it doesn't matter to them. It is also true, as Amerine says, that high-priced wines generally involve higher cost production; but most certainly, not the 10, 20 or 30 times more cost suggested by their prices. And besides, you must always ask yourself: If, say, a $200 wine tastes better than a $20 wine, does it in fact taste 10 times better, especially in terms of pure pleasure or aesthetic experience? In most cases today, the answer is a resounding no. But this, of course, is between yourself, your palate, your common sense, and your pocketbook.
Fifty years ago, Professor Amerine was merely saying it like it is. Those things, even the circumstances, have not changed a single bit.