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07.30.2008

How Simple Should Wine Get?

As an advocate for wine, I try to help people enjoy wine more (or for the first time) in whatever small way I can. I recommend what I think are interesting wines that range in price from $10 to several hundred, and I'm always consciously careful about explaining aspects of winemaking or the wine business to my readers whenever they seem relevant or necessary.

At the same time, however, I strive desperately not to dumb down wine. It is a complex beast in some ways, and part of its beauty is in its complexity. This desire to avoid oversimplifying wine can be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, wine drinkers shouldn't have to deal with complexity when they're just trying to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, wine drinkers might appreciate their wine even more if they understood some of its complexity, and in some ways it's a shame to watch someone consume a glass of wine in complete ignorance of its qualities, no matter how much they are enjoying themselves.

It's quite easy for such thinking to drive one into snobbery or into its opposite, both of which were perfectly caricatured in the main characters of the movie Sideways -- Miles who wouldn't drinking any fucking Merlot, and Jack who thought everything was pretty good as long as it got him drunk. I've certainly seen my share of real world examples of both -- people who suggest with some degree of seriousness that American consumers who can't tell anything about a French wine by reading the label just shouldn't be allowed to buy any of it, and people who go to big public wine tastings with the singular goal of drinking as much wine as possible in the shortest possible period of time.

Ultimately, however, I think the wine world is still a bit too intimidating for its own good. The complexities of the wine world keep some people from buying and enjoying wine that really need to be brought into the fold.

Which is why I am glad to see even nascent efforts such as the newly proposed Riesling Taste Scale. The first major initiative of a newly formed organization with the lofty title of International Riesling Foundation, the Riesling Taste Scale sets out a standard classification of Riesling primarily around its level of sweetness.

This scale addresses a common and somewhat annoying problem that can plague even experienced wine lovers: many times it is very difficult to determine just how sweet the Riesling is that you're buying. This is especially true for anyone who has tried to buy German Riesling, even with a basic understanding of the ripeness classifications like Spatlese and Auslese which while they often correspond to the sweetness of the wine, actually measure the sugar level of the grapes before they were turned into wine, and technically have no relationship to the sugar level of the final wine (which is a factor of how the fermentation was carried out, and when it was stopped).

There are those who will decry this proposed scale as yet another attempt to dumb down wine so that American consumers don't have to think much before they buy. But I believe that to be a short-sighted and ultimately elitist reaction to the issue. There are several precedents of such systems working quite well in the world, perhaps most notably the puttonyos classification of the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji Aszu which clearly represents the level of residual sugar in the final wine with a simple number from 3 to 6. An example of a perhaps slightly less successful system (because people don't fully understand it) might be the SMV system used for classifying sake.

It's pretty tough to imagine a classification system for Riesling developed in America taking hold throughout the world, considering that most of the Riesling produced in America isn't that great, and the annual production of the United States is but a tiny drop compared to the volume produced elsewhere in the world. But Riesling is one of the fastest growing varieties of wine consumed in America, so perhaps there will be some momentum around the idea.

In any case, I applaud the idea. It's about helping people make buying choices that are more likely to result in them enjoying a nice bottle of wine and going back for more -- something that everyone in the wine world wants to see.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.