Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Q & A with Robin Goldstein, “The Wine Trials”

By Jessica Yadegaran
Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 at 10:58 am in Uncategorized.

If you read my Sept. 24 cover story on Bargain Reds you know I had the pleasure of interviewing wine author Robin Goldstein of the Fearless Critic Series, and the latest incarnation, “The Wine Trials,” where 100 wines under $15 outscored $50 to $150 bottles.  In the book, Goldstein talks about the taste of money, a fashion industry esque shift to behavioral lifestyle marketing and a magazine scoring system that is becoming increasingly iffy and unethical. Here’s what didn’t make it into today’s piece:

Corkheads: I understand the taste of money — that the pleasure of expensive wine is coming from the experience and not necessarily from its own taste. But I still don’t understand why your blind tasters prefered the inexpensive wines. Can you explain?

Goldstein: It was a weak preference. The easiest explanation is that everyday wine drinkers favor wines with slightly higher residual sugars.

Corkheads: What is your observation of the value category $6-$15 and why are there so many options?

Goldstein: If you look the past 100 years of history with the exception of inflation, that’s traditionally been most wine in Europe. Except for the past decade or two. By far most wine produced and sold has been in the $10-$15 range. That’s the natural price point for wine. When you look at the price of production and a reasonable mark up (30 percent or under). When you have the prestige wines where the producers are trying to get 500 percent markup that’s problematic. Burgundy and Bordeaux has acquired a certain cache. They become more valuable and we’ve come to expect a higher markup but what you have now is different. They’re thinking, ‘Let’s just see if we can make a wine and woo the critics and market the wine the right way and hire a wine consultant who’s in bed with the critics. The consumer is the loser in that transaction.

Wine is starting to be marketed in a way that fashion is. A cosmetic and handbag company is starting to buy these producers and apply the technology of behavioral marketing to wine. Consumers in China and Russia are buying up top producers when they don’t even know what they’re drinking, or why.

Corkheads: Explain to me how the “placebo effect” could be guiding magazine critics to consistently overrate expensive wines.

Goldstein: This is about magazine critics tasting wines nonblind. Nobody, including me, is immune to the knowledge of the experience of expensive wines. If someone told me I was about to taste a $5,000 bottle I’d have an impression going in. There’s stuff in the brain that results in fundamental changes based on our expectations. Spectator tastes blind. Enthusiast does not all the time.

Corkheads: Is there any reason for everyday wine drinkers to pay attention to ratings?
Goldstein: Well, taste blind yourself. Take critics opinions and see if you agree with the opinions of any given critic. Stick with that critic. People shouldn’t buy wine to show off to yourself and others but rather you should buy it for its inherent qualities. This system will crash at some point. Ultimately wine drinkers are going to realize what’s happening. They’re going to rise up against the gouging and say, ‘This is ridiculous.’ And we’re going to arrive at a goal of having more reasonable prices and enjoy a good wine at a fair price instead of focusing on the show-off qualtities.

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  • Ron McFarland

    I see similar discussions all the time and they all seem to circle back to Robin’s last comment about finding a critic and sticking with that one as a trusted source of information. I extend this to include retailers and sommeliers too.

    Everyone agrees that ratings only create mystery, confusion and margin and this is why the industry loves them. Consumers who have no clear method of learning and exploring remain in the marketing grasp of the sellers.

    Returning to basics will go a long way for many in finding new and delicious wines. To set the table with nice glasses, prepare tasty foods and enjoy with friends will consistently reward our efforts.

    Wines that are crafted with this end in mind, regardless of price, will delight everytime.

    Can you imagine the story of a wine made with a high score in blind tastings or from a critics tasting of 30+ wines as the end goal?

    With the phrase “get it” in the news more and more, it is clear that some winemakers get it more than others.

  • Jessica Yadegaran

    Indeed. Thanks for writing Ron. New Zealand rocks. Fingers crossed for my first trip there sometime next year. What’s the best time to go?

  • Ron McFarland

    New Zealand is great year around. Just have to choose your activities – skiing in July or maybe harvest season in late March / April.


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