Saturday, September 12, 2009

Upon Further Review, Not So Great

My girlfriend and I re-visited a tasting room was had patronized well over a year ago. We've both become more adept at tasting wines since then and have tried a broader array of wines as well. The results were instructive. While I don't want to go out of my way to knock this place--it's a tasting room in Solvang that sources most if not all of its fruit from outside of Santa Barbara County--it's pretty remarkable how mediocre the wines were. And most of them were priced close to $30 per bottle, if not higher.

The whites were somewhere between off-dry and sweet, which we'd noticed on the previous visit. I think we actually skipped most of those since we didn't want to taste sweet wines, but this time we gave a few a try. The thing with sweet wines, which for me is anything with 10 g/L of RS or more, is they almost always taste good. But unless they have acidity and complexity like a Riesling to back it up, the nectar-like qualities tend to dominate everything else and hide flaws that would be apparent in a dry wine. This yummy and sweet flavor profile is something you can come by pretty cheaply, though. And that's what really got me on these wines. A couple were decent with nice blowsy, super-ripe aromatics, but there was nothing to them that really justified a $20 to $30 price tag.

The reds, which we'd liked previously and noted as tannic and powerful, turned out to be equally disappointing. There are certain aromas and flavors I''ve become adept at picking out: bell pepper, vanilla, cherry, barrel toast, barnyard and a few others I'm probably missing as well. Bell pepper, I like. Excessive toast, I dislike. Yet there's one other thing that I loathe, raisin and prune aromas. Unfortunately, just about every red here was exceedingly raisiny. I like fresh fruit flavors, but can tolerate some jamminess if there's other stuff going on. Once it reaches the raisin point, there's just nothing I can like about the wine.

The thing that really gets me about this place is that they're located in a tourist town and seem built to cater to that mentality. It's easy to trick a novice looking for a souvenir into spending too much on an overripe wine. Quite simply, their wines are overpriced for what they offer, even if some taste pretty good. It's all the more frustrating when one sees where they sourced the grapes. Their Petit Verdot is made from Sierra Foothills grapes, while several others simply bear a Central Coast or California appellation. That's not to say that good grapes only come from well-known regions, but chances are they're not paying very much for the grapes they put into the $30 bottle of wine.

If they're not paying much for the fruit and the wines are nothing special, then why is the customer paying a high price? Because the sell "premium varietals" in a tourist town where a lot of people who drop in for a tasting will likely associate the high price of a luxury good with quality. One to avoid if you know what I'm talking about.


Jeff said...

Ah, the dreaded raisin. You know, I like port. It has something that a lot of these wines don't...why is that? Because I find the whole raisin thing to be wholly enjoyable in a decent port.

CabFrancoPhile said...

This place actually had a good port. Maybe not surprising since for most of their reds I wrote down "port-like" in my notes!

I find so much comes down to expectation. If I'm expecting table wine and end up with something halfway between table wine and dessert wine--a cocktail wine--I don't like it. It'd be nice if producers (and critics) could do more to highlight what wines are. I'm coming to terms with cocktail wine as an acceptable style, but there's no reason why this style is superior. Even if Parker or Laube like them more.

Jeff said...

Yeah, I think we have generally the same opinion about the whole cocktail wine thing. If it's not too expensive, they're all right occasionally. It's weird to think about what is the "correct" style for wine, isn't it? I mean, I'm not into Parkerized/Laube stuff generally, but who am I to say? There are a lot of people that like them. So now the question is, are the people that like Parker sheep? Or do we have tastes that are differ from the norm?

CabFrancoPhile said...

I definitely think there's some subset of people who can't think for themselves. If a 90+ point wine sucks, they won't question it.

But I'm also convinced a lot of people prefer simple flavors. Their palates seemingly never evolved from Froot Loops, candy bars, 1/2 pound cheeseburgers, and chunks of red meat. I think it's no coincidence that steak wine is considered superior to pork or fish wine. Amplitude, not dynamic range is the primary consideration. More Metallica than Bach.

Jeff said...

You know it's interesting talking about the subset of people that can't think for themselves, but see the thing is, I don't think it's a subset. Assuming the population follows a normal distribution of some trait, say intelligence, for instance, then it seems logical to assume that there are actually very few exceptionally intelligent individuals. +3 SD above average intelligence should only encompass about 3 out of every thousand people. Following this logic, there are a lot of idiots, a and a lot of average people. Call it approximately 84% of the population falling into that category (All area +1 SD and everything less)--a lot of people. Thus, you get the American palate and the point system...and you get folks easily placated with fruit loops and cheeseburgers from McDonalds.

CabFrancoPhile said...

The $100 question for me is who are the people who consistently buy the high price, high rated wines? There are certainly some people who are wealthy because of their intelligence. But I'd bet on many wealthy winos being reasonably intelligent, reasonably educated, but mainly being interested in wealth and status as an end. So you end up with someone looking to wrap his narrow American palate in a veneer of faux sophistication.

It's interesting, whether it's art, classical music, wine, food, and so on, there are always wealthy people who want to be associated with this "high culture." But they're really just consumers who think there is a price tag for buying sophistication. Go to a classical concert or recital, for example, and you'll see well-off 50 year olds other gossiping between movements or napping during the most important passages. When it comes down to it with wine, you either need talent--a really good nose and palate, which probably follows a bell-curve distribution--or effort--educating yourself--to get it. If you are wealthy, though, you can use your money to take the shortcut.

Jeff said...

That's the whole China thing. I guess that the price of Latour is strong partially due to demand in China for "the best." I guess in some circles it's considered rude if you aren't serving Latour? Now, I've never had Latour so, I wouldn't be able to tell you how good it is (I'm betting that it's good but not worth the 1,000$-$2,000 a bottle for the '05). And that's a lot of folks doing exactly what you're saying--buying their way into good taste.

So I take it that you're really into classical music?

CabFrancoPhile said...

Yep, I do like classical. I definitely see certain parallels between Western art music and wine. Both have been co-opted by the upper classes, yet highly-trained artisans/artists are actually responsible for their production. But maybe you could say the same for luxury cars as well, where engineers and scientists meticulously design what ultimately is status symbol.

Interesting you bring up Latour. I came across an article involving Latour and other several other first growths. It'll make a good post.