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Tuesday Tributes
Please Excuse The Heresy--But Some Wines Are Simply Better

By Stephen Eliot

Wine appreciation is a personal thing. I understand that. One’s particular palate or taste has a lot to do with enjoyment of this or that bottle, and you and I may not agree as to a preferred grape or style. That’s okay. Still, I do get tired of the endless defense of know-nothing subjectivism and claims that cheap wines are every bit as good as those generally more expensive bottlings held in such high regard by those who pay attention to such things.

I fully admit that I have more than once enjoyed a simple, comparatively inexpensive wine at the right time and in the right setting as much as I have some of the high-ticket classics, yet while quality is not absolute, I do believe that some wines have more of the stuff than others. It seems, however, that there are those that do not agree.

The latest is Katie Kelly Bell, a food and wine contributor to, who questions the validity of the notion of “quality” and seems to come to the multiple conclusions of no, yes, maybe and its really doesn’t matter anyway. While her article is titled “Is There Really a Taste Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Wines” 1, it is not really about cheap vs. expensive but is instead one more feel-good accession to lowest common-denominator populism that sanctifies the eye of the beholder as the single source of vinous truth.

Now, there are folks who have made a mountain of money selling cheap wines, and I can understand why those in the trade might preach that there is no wine is worth more than $10.00 if they are making a good profit off the $5.00 one they are trying to get me to buy. I can understand a certain frustration and even simmering jealously on the part of those whose budgets do not allow access to pricier wines, and I get it that there are curmudgeonly people with axes to grind whose sole reason for existence is to complain. I do not get it, however, when supposedly saavy, wine-educated people start making the same claim, and I am left wondering what gives.

You might believe that Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon is as good as Chappellet’s Pritchard hill bottling, but, I am sorry, you would be wrong. I would not look down my nose at you or hold you up to public ridicule, but I sure won’t be opening the good stuff should you show up at my place for dinner. In fact, you just made my life easier when it comes to picking out your Christmas present. Yes, drink what you like, but do not tell me that there is nothing to the notion of real quality and that I have been deluding myself for all these years.

Of course you should drink what makes you happy, I would never argue with that, but the idea that are just so damn many variables that ultimately one wine is just as good as another and that real quality is pure chimera is one that I simply cannot embrace. Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator calls the belief that “if you like it, it is good” the biggest lie in the culture of wine, and, insofar as its mitigates against further learning and deeper appreciation of wine, I must say I agree. There are reasons the great producers and vineyards have been so esteemed over the years; it is because their wines are BETTER!

Sure, I am probably feeling a little defensive as reviewing wines is what I do for a living, but the notion that the words “good” and “bad” have no intrinsic meaning is just stupid. I suppose it comes back to my argument that there is such a thing as an educated palate, and that the more experience, knowledge and insight you pick up along the way, the more such truths become evident. And, happily, I do not feel like I am shoveling sand back into the sea for there is more interest in consumer wine education and classes than ever before. I would like to think there are reasons why.



The price of art
by Sherman
Posted on:7/17/2012 11:01:02 AM

I could charge $10M for a sofa-size painting from a "starving artist" at a sales event in a regional hotel, or I could charge $10M for a true undiscovered Picasso original. Is there a definite difference between the two? Would you feel you got a better value for your $10M with the "starving artist" painting or the Picasso?


To those who are satisfied with a fast food burger, then more power to them -- that leaves more of the good stuff for those who will appreciate it. Should they dersire, at some point, to elevate their palates and refine their tastes, then there are plenty of ways to go about it (wine education and classes, as noted above). 

No Subject
by harvey posert
Posted on:7/18/2012 10:19:11 AM

As PR consultant to Bronco, producers of Charles Shaw, I see these comments.  Of interest should be that this is the l0th anniversary of the wine at Trader Joe's, and over 660,000,000 bottles have been sold.  Good or bad?


some wines are simply better
by Sal
Posted on:7/18/2012 11:59:41 AM

Quality of anything is personal, and that includes wines.  I am sorry, but volume sales of a wine does not mean good or bad on the same scale as at what price.  At $2/bottle I think Charles shaw is a good value, but certainly I would not compare it to wines in the $50/bottle or above.  In some very small blind tastings, it might get a way compared to under $50/bottle.  On the scale of color, aroma, taste etc. it always shows what wines are bad, good, very good or exceptional.

Bronco PR
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:7/18/2012 12:10:02 PM

I love a good bottle of "plonk" at the right place and time.  I also love a really exceptional, well aged bottle of something brilliant, and quite probably, expensive.  Generally the expensive wine is better.  It may not surprise as much and it has a higher bar to clear to be worth the price.  I have even enjoyed an occasional glass of Charles Shaw, but generally I don't find them worth the alcohol grams.  Not bad, just not worth drinking.  I would like to ask of Mr. Posert this:  Of the wine you choose to drink, how much of it is Charles Shaw?

Better For Whom?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/18/2012 1:41:10 PM

Harvey Posert, who has been around the wine barn a time or two poses (no pun intended) an interesting question for which I have an absolute answer.

Better, as the term in used here, is qualitative in nature. Better has to do with depth, balance, varietal precision, nuance, layering, ageworthiness and the entire panoply of judgment points that folks like Connoisseurs' Guide brings to the tasting table.

Harvey knows, because he has held a similar position at Robert Mondavi back when that meant a great deal, that the award of preferential rankings is based on those mostly subjective criteria.

No one would give an inexpensive wine 98 points just because it was the best at its price point.

That said, people will choose to drink wines that suit their tastes, their wallets, their experiences, the moment and plenty of those choices, as Kurt Burris has said so thoughtfully, can include wines as inexpensive as Two-Buck Chuck.

But, even if I choose TBC for the gang in the neighborhood for our 4th of July cookout, that does not make it better on a comparative qualitiative basis. Nothing wrong wiith that, of course, because in serving the wine, I am making a decision that it is "better" for the time, place and my wallet.

Still, Steve Eliot's point is really about comparative quality as we assess it, and it is our experience that cheap wines are, on the whole, lower on the comparative quality scale than higher priced wines.

Note please, that I said "on the whole" and not "universally". We all know that some wines, regardless of price, miss the mark. In point of fact, that is the premise upon all of the wiine rating publications hang their hats.

Are some wines simply better?
by Jan Wells
Posted on:7/18/2012 3:00:54 PM

Dear Stephen: I have been a wine marketer in CA for 50 years. I find these discussions to be amusing, even among such impressively well-informed folk as Harvey Posert (a friend) and Charles Olken, whom I admire. Who among us would allow someone to tell us what genre of music to admire, or whether Picsasso is greater than Rembrandt? We would say, "That's absurd; I know what I like." Which is why the pretense of objectivity about wine rankings (as opposed to thoughtful written commentary) is absurd. (I see that Decanter feels obliged to go "numerical," as Mr.Olken felt the need to do a few years ago.) Where are the 100 point Chenin Blancs, I ask? Can we expect any 95-point Muscats any time soon? No; the winewriting commentariat considers these varietals to be of a lesser order. Based on what?  Maynard Amerine and Edward B. Roessler tried to set us all straight in 1976, in the introduction to Wines, Their Sensory Evaluation. Shibboleth

Yes. Better.
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/18/2012 4:03:03 PM

Hello Jan--

Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words.

I hope you noticed the blog entry about my visits to Chenin Blanc makers in the Loire Valley in May. I am a great fan of that grape and wish we did more with it here.

But, I have rarely felt that it can achieve the depth, layering, nuance that a top Chardonnay can achieve. To be sure, some of the late harvest Chenins do just that, but a brisk, crisp, lighlty floral Chenin does not transport me in that way and thus does not earn the high praise that the top Chardonnays receive.

This is not Picasso versus Rembrandt in that we are comparing wines of the same age, made in somewhat similar ways (they grow, they ferment, they age, they are put in the bottle, they are tasted) and one can directly compare, in my opinion, such items as nuance, depth and pleasure. I would not argue with those who tell me that no Chardonnay can possibly be as ethereal as a great dry Savennieres, but I would disagree.

That then brings us back to your first question: "Who among us would allow someon to tell us what to like..... etc?"

The answer is simple. The millions of people who subscribe to the various wine publication all over the world and in several languages. It is an obsevable fact that they exist and they have existed for years before you and I came on the wine scene.

In basic terms, we taste the thousands of wines so that they do not have to.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/19/2012 8:16:45 AM

"In basic terms, we taste the thousands of wines so that they do not have to."


Whixh is what's wrong wiht people in general: lazy, and too trusting of other people's opinions.

On the topis at hand: until the collective wine industry decides what constitutes "quality" as a means of evaluating its overall product, this argument will remian in perpetual motion, with all participants believeing that theirs is THE measure of quality.

In short: quality is not to be confused with desire.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/19/2012 8:17:44 AM

...sorry about the typos--going too fast so that i could (should) get back to work.

Quality !!
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/19/2012 10:05:26 AM


As long as the world consists of 25,000 separate bottlings, there are going to be folks who comment on them so those "lazy" folks do not have to taste hundreds and thousands of dollars of wine to choose a Riesling for sipping, a Sauv Blc for the first course, a Pinot for the second and a late harvest wine for dessert.

By the way, even though there are only about ten cars in the price, size and quality range of my next purchase, and even though I will drive many of them, you can bet that I will also read Car & Driver, Consumer Reports and anything online I can find to help frame my decision.

And here is the difference. With wine, you don't get a test drive. That is the job of folks like Connoisseurs' Guide.

And trusting CGCW is not exactly like trusting a blind squirrel to find acorns.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/19/2012 1:14:23 PM

But you do get to test drive a wine, if you have the adventuresome spirit to find out for yourself.

Me, I'd rather try to taste the 25,000 bottles and fail to get to all of them than to taste only what I am told is good to drink.

Mind you, Charlie, I don't blame the reviewer; I blame the lazy consumer.

On the subject of quality: from a manufacturer's point of view, a product is designed to perform a certain way for a certain market--like a car. If the car leaves trhe assembly line having passed all separat quality control tests, and then goes on to do what it was intended to do, without causing death, injury or major repair expenses to drivers, then it is a quality product, whether it be a Ford Falcon (remember them?) or a Ford Thunderbird (boy, do I remember the first batch of those).

My point: quality is related to intentions as much as it is related to performance. The individual wine consumer is ill-equipped to decide on his/her own regarding intentions, and can only surmise subjectively regarding performance.

Quality is not up for discussion. It is a standard that must be identified before production, not after it.

No Subject
by Frank
Posted on:7/20/2012 11:26:30 AM

I recommend "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence" as a good read for everyone attempting to define Quality.  The book has nothing to do with wine, but everything to do with this discussion.

For me, quality emerges when you can taste both the character of the grapes and the artistry of the winemaker.  While the correlation to price is certainly not 1.0, it is still clearly greater than zero.

Patronising c...
by Johnny
Posted on:7/20/2012 10:22:36 PM

@ThomasP, I know you mean well, and can clearly see your frustration.  But I can't help feel that your need to stick to your course is clouding your ability to recognise the issues at hand?

The phrase "but you do get to test drive a wine", if "a wine" is defined as "any wine in the world", is clearly, absolutely, categorically, nonsense.

Let's say I am not lazy and I have a budget of $500,000 to explore (and yes, in the real world, real people have budget constraints), how much of the total wines produced in the world can I "test drive"?  I doubt I would even get past the works of the Bordeaux 1st/2nd Growths of the last 50 years, and that's before heading East to Burgundy ...

Obviously I can do SOME exploration, but the idea that I should try 25,000 wines before picking a Poujeaux to go with me steak is ridiculous in the extreme. 

Recognise that what you are advocating is practically very difficult to achieve, show some compassion and empathy, and people may have more time for your more admirable and subtle views. 

And you will come across as just that little bit less patronising ...

to Johnny...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/21/2012 7:11:41 AM


You are missing my point, but that's my fault. I should have made it more plain: it's the exploration that matters.

If you forgo what I propose--test drive as many wines as you can--and buy only what you read about you are more likely to get into a rut of consuming the same relative wines in their narrow taste profile, over and over. That may not exactly be lazy, as I characterized it, but it certainly is boring--to me.

In any case, the subject was quality, and I still do not subscribe to the concept that each individual gets to determine the quality level of any given wine. 

People confuse quality with preference, the way Frank above states it.

If I were to disagree wiht Frank about a particular wine, it might say a lot about Frank's and my taste, but it says nothing about the quality of the wine.



No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:7/21/2012 12:57:20 PM


Is it yourcontention that all wine reviews are about preference and not quality. If so, then you must be ready to argue that most wines are wines of quality and that quality is not relative but absolute. Either the wine has quality or it does not.

I find that too narrow for my purposes.

whoever you are...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/21/2012 5:17:26 PM

No, it is my contention that quality is not to be confused with preference.

The conversation about quality was sidetracked with a converstaion about reviewing when Charlie made this statement: "In basic terms, we taste the thousands of wines so that they do not have to." A statement to which I snidely remarked about people being lazy.

Ley me ask you: Is it your contention that if you think a wine is of high quality then those who do not think so don't know what they are talking about? Could it possibly be the other way round? Is it posisble for people not to recognize quality? Is it possible for others to recognize it where it isn't?


I am thinking of a numnber of extremely volatile cult wines that, from a winemaking perspective, are not quality products, yet they sell for high prices to the easy marks in this world... ;)





I Am Whoever--Sorry
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/21/2012 6:25:55 PM

My bad. Did not sign in.

Let's just take your last comment. "I think a number of higly priced cult wines are extremely volatile and are not of high quality".

Yet, as you note, they are in high demand. If they were universally seen to be flawed, they would not be in such high demand. So, either the buyers and reviewers of such wines are wrong about perceived quality or you are.

I am not suggesting that the wines are not volatile. VA helps make Sauternes what they are. I am suggesting that your hard-edged separation between quality and preference is too narrow.

Yes, it is about semantics, but I come down on the side of the public. The public does not pay over the odds for wines it thinks are flawed. And whether they recognize VA the way you or I do is not the issue. Even quality is a perception and cannot be precisely defined.

Flaw recognition is not necessary for qualitative perceptions. Otherwise, wine reviwing would be an exercise in chemistry rather than hedonistic appreciation.

No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/21/2012 8:16:12 PM


Quality, as it relates to a product and not to a person, has a clear definition, which does not include interpretation or perception but does include meeting a standard. Ask anyone who produces a product. Or just look it up.

Why did you choose to misquote me?

This is what I posted: "I am thinking of a number of extremely volatile cult wines that, from a winemaking perspective, are not quality products, yet they sell for high prices to the easy marks in this world"

Not quite the same as what you misquoted:"I think a number of higly priced cult wines are extremely volatile and are not of high quality".



I Am Whoever--Sorry
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/21/2012 8:32:28 PM


Not sure I did misquote you, but if I did it was inadvertant. I thought all I did was rearrange your words to create a distinct line of discussion with the same meaning.

I know that you and I do not agree, and will not agree, on the usage of quality. I accept a broader definition that includes likeability. You do not.

Yet, even though I think that many cult wines are way overpriced, I do not see them as failures. A wine that is not a quality product is a failure. I am not arguing that some of them have or do not have high VAs. My view is that the wine possesses quality if the conclusion is that it is an enjoyable, rich, tasty wine. Clearly wines like that are not spoiled in the opinions of those who like them.

We are now dancing on the pointed end of the pin, and I think we should stop before someone gets the sharp part in a painful location. Please feel free to take one more go. I think I will rest on whatever it is I said or think I said.


No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/21/2012 8:32:43 PM


I hope you didn't misquote me on purpose. What you put inside quotation marks is not at all what I posted.

"Flaw recognition is not necessary for qualitative perceptions."

You are literally saying that a flawed product can still be a quality product, as long as one perceives it that way. That makes no sense at all.

Look "quality" up in the dictionary, as it applies to a product. You might find the word "standard" in the definition, but I doubt you'll find the word "perception."



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