One of the most pernicious aspects of rating wine by using numbers is that it leads to an overwhelming demand by consumers for high scores over distinctive characteristics.
Sameness is seen as a virtue, and wine makers seem perfectly willing to comply.
As a result, over the last two decades we have seen a growing homogenization of almost all wines, notably varietal wines, to the point where most red wines smell and taste alike.
Cabernet sauvignon no longer smells like cabernet, many chardonnays have more of an affinity with tree limbs than grapes, and syrah is usually more like prune juice than wine. Sure, exceptions can be found, but for too much wine is just ordinary.
And most American wine buyers seemed content to accept and consume wines of little real character as long as they are seen as fruity and soft.
By contrast, Chianti doesn’t sell well these days because they tend to be very dry, and only purists appreciate such things. Nor are we making most red wines to age. Most are drinkable soon after release, without any complexity.
More evidence of growing homogeneity: The recent success of actually sweet red wines is a trend I never thought I would see.
The tradition of aging expensive red wines in barrels decades ago left the wines with a slight oaky aroma, so cheaper wines began to emulate this with wine makers using oak chips. Such wines remind me of the air freshener in a Chicago taxi: artificial.
Much of the homogeneity we see in our wines was anticipated by the deterioration of many of our foodstuffs in the last few decades, a devastating trend now on view in most restaurants.
I ordered pancakes a few days ago. What itcame with them wasn’t maple syrup. The café called it “table syrup.” It was atrocious. And inedible.
Caesar salad? Good luck finding one with garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice or Parmesan cheese. One version I got was made with spinach and blue cheese! Caesar Cardini would be appalled.
Coffee? It’s either made from poor-quality beans, or stale beans, is over-roasted, or spent too much time on the hotplate, so it’s burned. Some restaurants have put it in espresso machines to help coffee-loving diners.
Butter and cream? Often the product of a chemistry lab, not a cow. “American cheese” only resembles cheese. It has none of the aroma or taste. Legally it is cheese food.
A local restaurant we have dined at puts oil and balsamic vinegar on the table in the same dish, for dipping bread. It’s implied that the oil is from olives, but it has absolutely no olive flavor. Is it canola? And the balsamic is as sweet as chocolate sauce.
The faux-ness in many of our foods is reflected in the same situation in many of our wines.
By government regulation, a Pinot Noir must contain at least 75 percent of that grape. But at low prices, you can only use such mediocre grapes that the resulting wine can’t possibly smell like the grape variety. And few do.
No matter, many wine makers have all sorts of tricks to create $5 or $10 “pinot noirs” using additives such as grape concentrates and other grape varieties and proprietary wine making tactics.
So the resulting wines may not smell or taste like pinot noir, but as with “maple” syrup, “Caesar salad,” “creme,” and many other faux concoctions, the public usually doesn’t complain.
Nor would such complaints even reach the right people. Store clerks and restaurant wait staffs really do not care if your complaint is perfectly valid. So what if the merlot smells more like prunes?
“We haven’t had any complaints,” is the usual reply.
“You have now,” is my rejoinder.
In restaurants, with wines by the glass, we have an option: ask for a small sample to see if the wine has any typicity. Or quality that justifies the price.
But when we are buying bottles in a store, our only choice is to take a bottle home, open it, and see what’s what.
Decades ago, I knew guy who carried a dozen wine glasses in the trunk of his car. He would buy a bottle in a store, open it in the parking lot and determine if it was worth going back to get more — or return the bottle instantly, usually with a pointed comment.
That tactic may seem extreme, but it’s certainly one way to determine if a bottle is worth what someone is charging for it.
Wine of the Week: 2012 Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico, Toscana DOCG ($19)—This stylish all-Sangiovese red wine is typically rustic and fruity and works beautifully with pasta dishes. The regular bottling ($12) is very good, but the DOCG version is special and definitely worth difference.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.