Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"The Wine Trials"

Robin Goldstein -- who edits the Fearless Critic guides -- has published an intriguing little book about wine. It's called The Wine Trials. [Caveat: I know Robin, and I participated in one of his wine tastings last week.]

If you like wine, this book gives a lot to think about.

Goldstein's argument

Goldstein argues that most people buy wine based on image rather than smell and taste. He argues that when most people are given wine without seeing the label, they prefer cheap wines just as much or more than expensive wines.

To prove this, he organized tastings in New York, New England, Austin, and Houston. The tasters included everyone from ordinary folks to wine professionals. They tried wines poured from bottles in paper bags. Some of the wines tried were in the $50 - $150 range. Many wines were under $15.

The result? Although the some of the pros preferred the expensive wines, most ordinary people actually preferred the wines under $15.

To me, this doesn't suggest that cheap wines are inherently as good as expensive wines. It just proves that people are more likely to prefer the kind of wines they are used to drinking.

Goldstein's book raises this question: unless you want to waste money, why develop a habit of preferring expensive wines if you already prefer cheap ones?

Top 100 wines under $15

Goldstein used tastings to come up with a list of the favorite 100 wines under $15. This top 100 list is surprising.

For instance, of 35 white table wines, 11 are Sauvignon Blanc. This probably reflects the current trend toward crisp unoaked whites. Only 7 are Chardonnays, even though that varietal still dominates the market.

Yet I was amazed at the near-absence of wines from Germany and Austria, particularly Riesling. (There was one Riesling table wine and one dessert riesling). Riesling was once the most popular red or white varietal in the world. Many sommeliers believe riesling is the single best varietal of any color to match with most foods. And good Rieslings are available for under $15.

Were the tasters not offered many Rieslings? Or did the tasters not like them?

The red list includes more than 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and 5 Malbecs. But even though Zinfandel usually works with a wider range of food, the list only includes 2 Zins.

Again, were not many Zinfandels tasted? Or did the tasters not like them?

The problems with wine tastings

As much as I applaud Goldstein's book, I suspect this sort of blind tasting is not the best way for me to pick wines to drink with dinner.

One problem is food. When I drink wine, 90 percent of the time it is with food. Food changes the flavor and the experience of wine.

Although many of Goldstein's tastings are in restaurants, I see little mention of food. The photos show tasters sitting in front of 6 - 8 glass of wine. No food. At the tasting I attended, food was prepared by oustanding local chef Justin Yu. Yet the food was served after most people had turned in their tasting results.

These blind, no-food tastings may be the best way to pick a cheap wine to serve in bars or at parties, when people drink wine by itself. But it is not necessarily the best way to choose wine that will enhance the experience of eating.

Another problem is the head-to-head comparison. We normally experience one wine at a time. In a head-to-head tasting, a wine might stand out in a group of 6 wines because the taster's palate is reacting to all six wines. Yet a different one of those wines might be better when experienced by itself.

For instance, in tastings of pricey red wines where I have tried 15 or so wines against each other, I find that fruity California Pinot Noirs often stand out. Some of the worst performers in these big tastings are Rhone wines. Yet I often get much more enjoyment out of a Rhone wine than a Pinot Noir when I drink it alone.

Goldstein's book is just a start

I agree with Goldstein's main argument: most people, including me, will enjoy a number of different wines that cost under $15. Plus, his paper-bag tasting method is the simplest, cleanest way to prove that.

But I seriously doubt that this book's top-100 list represents the best cheap wines to drink with food. I suspect it is a list for the best cheap wines without food. If different foods had been served, my guess is that the top 100 wines under $15 would have been a completely different list.

Because I want the best cheap wines for foods, I am going to have to do a lot of my own experimenting. I am going to have to cook a lot of diverse dishes (hamburgers, scallops in white sauce, pasta with red sauce, Thai salad). Then I am going to have to try each dish with many different wines in brown paper bags.

This is going to take a long time and many, many tests.

Life is short. I had better get started.


rr said...

lets hear more about yu's food!!!!

anonymouseater said...

I promised him that I wouldn't post about his food. But what the hell.

The best dish was this amazing cold soup with flavors of corn and basil. I wondered whether the method of extracting the corn juice was similar to your corn puddin'. It was very pure. There was hardly any grit in the texture.

Both the corn and basil flavors were intense. Some aspect of the corn flavor was distinctly Asian, but I couldn't isolate it. It did not taste like soy or fish sauce.

Another excellent dish involved cabbage rolls with either pork or beef. (Yu was too busy for me to get details). They tasted different from any cabbage rolls I have tried.

Apart from those two dishes, my memory fades. It was, after all, a wine tasting.

justin said...

thanks for the shoutout.

They were chilled beef cabbage rolls with charred scallions and sauteed mushrooms.

And the soup was straight up just corn and basil, although the asian flavor that you have gotten probably was the fleck of thai basil I stuck in there.

Nice to see you again, hope you enjoyed the book. I figured that this was a good way for me to show the people that the "undercover chefs" for FC at least sorta knew what they were talking about.

anonymouseater said...

Hi Justin. You make that soup sound so simple. Yet it was so seriously good.

Robin Goldstein said...

You raise many great points. I would love to do wine tastings paired with food in the future...a very complex undertaking, though; I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how it might work and how it could be properly controlled. For instance, we couldn't use food as delicious as Justin's, because it wouldn't represent most of the food people eat :)

Just wanted to respond to one point: the lack of Riesling and Zinfandel wines in the top 100 (many were tasted, few made the cut) is, I think, a reflection of the lack of availability of less sweet treatments of those varieties
in the mass under $15 market. I say mass because we limited the universe of 540 or so wines tasted to the bestselling wines in the US (based on NABCA stats) so as to maximize the book's relevance to readers across the country, urban and rural. Unfortunately, the only widely distributed brands of Riesling, such as Blue Nun, are off-dry, although two crisp, acidic Austrian Gruner Veltliners made the list. Likewise, many large-production under-$15 Zins have serious residual sugar. Likewise for Aussie Shiraz, which fared poorly as well. The more balanced, more artisanal under-$15 bottles that you rightly identify are victims of the limitations of our scope. I wish it could have been broader but the experiment was enormous as it was. I'm exploring ways of broadening it for future editions or books.
Cheers, RG

anonymouseater said...


Thanks once again for putting out a book that challenges our perceptions and makes us think.

I'm surprised that some good, cheap, large-production Zins did not make the cut - Cline, Ravenswood, even Rancho Zabaco (Gallo). As you suggest, the culprit probably is residual sugar. That sugar makes these Zins fantastic with turkey and dressing. But it does not work so well when drinking wines comparatively, without food.

I was only joking about starting a battery of tests with food. I'm not sure that is feasible to do a test like this with foods. You would have to use so many foods, and so much wine, that it really would take a lifetime. (Still, I promise that a $9 Cline Zinfandel is mind-blowing when paired with L'edel de Cleron cheese.)

Your method is probably the most practical, "scientific" method available. As consumers, it is the best source of information we have. Again, thanks.

katie said...

I think wine is meant to be paired with food. I think that element is instrumental to determining a good wine. I review our under $20 wines on my site and always try to at least find a great cheese pairing. Although, problems or no, I am quite jealous of your participation in such a project. Sounds like great fun and food!

Misha said...

Robin: the Fearless Critic book is seriously awesome.

One of the inserts mentioned a restaurant from a chef who recently moved from Mexico. Any update on that?

Anonymous said...

The wine industry is riddled with snobbery and always have been. It was years before the great Australian and South American wines were taken seriously. For wine reviewers the temptation to concentrate on a wines image rather than taste sometimes proves too great and this is reflected in the attitudes of wine drinkers. It is amazing to watch peoples’ reactions to the results of a blind taste test. I was involved in one recently where a woman preferred the cheapest wine of the selection and told me that she would never of dreamed about going and buying a wine that cheap.

Tom C. said...

I haven't read the book, but it seems like an unspoken assumption is that enjoyment of wine is limited to smell and taste. I think you're right that casual wine drinkers tend to like what they know. But I (and I suspect you) and a minority of other wine drinkers enjoy wine for more than just the taste and smell. Sure, that's a huge part of it, but I like thinking about it too, particularly with respect to "old world" wine. For example: How did the primary grape varietals used get there? How does the wine grown and made in a region mesh with the region's traditional foods? What's the geology and climate (i.e., terroir) like there? How do wines made from varietal X differ from region to region?

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the "personal hedonism" (i.e, taste and smell only) model of wine enjoyment, but just that, to some wine drinkers, there's more to it than that.

So this book sounds like it may be useful to casual wine drinkers (and may make them feel more secure that it's OK to like what you like), but I'll bet it soon gets cited as "proof" by those who like to take the position that wine geeks like me are just effete snobs who just like to throw their money away to impress others, and don't know a "good"-tasting wine from a bad one with a receipt.

Tom C. said...

I meant "without a receipt" -- sorry!

anonymouseater said...


Good point. Actually, the book admits that point, and does not make that assumption. Goldstein concedes that wine can be better appreciated when you know the broader context -- the grape, the location, the history, the winemaker, etc. There is no question that there is an intellectual aspect to the context of wine.

But there is a difference between appreciating a wine and judging a wine. Goldstein argues, and I agree, that judging the quality of a wine is best done blind (with the paper bag). This prevents our presuppositions about varietals and regions and vintages from getting in the way of our pure judgment of taste and smell.

I used to rely heavily in my judgments about wine on Wine Spectator, and then Robert Parker. As I was learning to find which wines I liked, it would have been much more useful to me if I could have participated in this sort of blind tasting, or at least learned the results of blind tastings. It is not the only information I want. But it is, perhaps, the most useful piece of information in selecting which wine I will enjoy the most.

Robin Goldstein said...

thanks misha! you should send me an email (send it to the feedback address at and i'll take it from there)--i'd love to trade ideas for the next edition.