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July 2014

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Red Heron and Another Jeff Wine Rant

(Important note: This is a rant. If you don't know what a rant is, please look it up. I've discovered that I've had to warn some people, as it's a bit of a departure for me. Thank you.)

The mostly insipid Slate has (finally) knocked one out of the park: Mike Steinberger's recent four-part series on wine language and individual differences in how we taste things, including wine. Mike has confirmed for all time what I have long suspected: That bitter wine (including most Cabernets and nearly all Chardonnays) is shit wine. No, he didn't say that. What he confirmed is that the human experience of taste is not uniform—we don't all taste the same things the same ways.

Duhh!

Wine snobs generally assume that if they say a wine is spectacular and sublime, it is. If said wine makes Jeff gag for its bottomless bitterness, well, that's because Jeff is a yahoo red-stater with insufficient education and breeding to appreciate the spectacularly sublime whiff of cat piss and moldy oak floorboards. The possibility that bitter tastes overwhelm all other tastes in my mouth doesn't occur to them, because it doesn't happen to them, and of course their experience is normative. But now—OMG—one of the wine snobs has had the courage to admit it.

The series is informative and funny; read it all if you have any least interest in wine. Mike explains the current state of the art in flavor science, and how research seems to divide humanity into supertasters, tasters, and nontasters, who differ primarily in the intensity of their reaction to bitter flavors. (Here's another piece on the topic.) Then he lays waste to the whole concept by getting his sense of taste quantitatively tested, only to discover that the science as it applies to him points in all different directions: His genes, his tongue anatomy, and his sensitivity to bitter flavors do not agree. As is true in so many different areas, we find that in the subjective experience of flavor, we need more science, and better.

Wow. A wine critic has been forced to admit what most of us intuitively grasp: Each of us tastes what we eat and drink in entirely different ways. The standard language and uniform culture of wine enthusiasm are learned, and although they are weakly based on identifiable nuances in taste, the operative word is "weak." This language and culture are passed along as received wisdom and mercilessly enforced, though every so often a cultural power like Roald Dahl has the courage to call the whole pretentious business the nonsense that it is.

Here's the only thing you really need to know about wine, and it's as true of wine as it is true (as Professor Schickele says) of music: If it tastes good, it is good. Do not apologize for what you like, ever.

Let me throw yet another handful of mud into the faces of the wine snobs. Michigander Steve Salaba brought a bottle of St. Julian's Red Heron wine ($7 at Meijer's) to Chicago on his last trip here, and we tried it during dinner at Gretchen and Bill's last week. It's a semi-sweet, non-vintage blend of American red grapes and Concord grapes, and quite unlike anything we've ever had before. It's a wonderful summer grilling wine that goes beautifully with the hot dogs and hamburgers that Bill expertly flung about on the coals. Serve it chilled.

Red Heron is about 75% Concord, which is a taste you don't get much in wine because wine snobs hate Concord and have declared it bad in all its possible uses. According to them, Concord tastes "foxy." Umm...what does that mean? And is it really bad? The truth is that we're in circular reference territory here: Technically, "foxy" refers to the flavor of the Concord grape, an American native that was originally called the "fox grape." So the wine snobs dislike Concord grapes because they taste like...themselves. I suspect that it really means "reminds of us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unworthy fare for self-anointed cultural sophisticates." (One particularly pugnacious wine critic called the Concord grape a "mutant blueberry," though it really is a grape and tastes nothing like blueberries—or oak floorboards either, which we consider a big plus.)

Red Heron is not easy to find outside of Michigan, and I'm unlikely to get it once we return to Colorado. So it is with relish that I will recall sipping Red Heron from my grandmother Sade Duntemann's 1919 crystal goblets, between bites of Bill's most excellent hamburgers. Life is good, wine does not have to be dry, and your experience of wine—as with all of life—is unique. Let the wine snobs chew their floorboards with ecstatic praises. It works for them. You and I can see it otherwise without explanation or apology.

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Comments

As rants go, that one is very reasoned and coherent.

I agree that there is much more to be learned with regard to the sense of taste. Personally, I cannot enjoy most beers due to what I perceive as an ever growing bitter aftertaste. This may be due to the hopps, but it seems unrelated to the level of bitter perceived by those who can enjoy it. And yet brussels sprouts are a delight to me.
My apologies, it seems that LJ's spell check function decided to take a vacation. Hops instead of hopps.
An insightful and worthy rant.

"If it tastes good, it is good." is much the same sentiment expressed by the French chacun à son goût.

So, does the same apply to literature? Is the only goodness or quality relative to the taste of the reader? Are we perpetrating a fraud by holding up the work of Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Hemingway, Bradbury, and Dick as being in some absolute way better than Clancy, Evanovich, Pournelle, or Bujold?

No, not really--though we can talk about originality of concepts, skill at drawing characters, or pure brilliance at turning a phrase. That only takes us so far. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the contrary, we cannot fully and objectively define "quality." We can't, and we need to get used to it. The variabilty of the human experience of the world is breathtaking. "Quality" is what meets our needs, and our needs are all over the map.

The problem is that all quality is subjective to a greater or lesser extent, and the real fraud lies not in assuming that the classic are great, but that certain things are beneath notice simply because they violate cultural norms. I like sweet wines, but I also like dry wines, and I revisit Shakespeare periodically without slandering Larry Niven. Elitism is the problem here, and that's really what the rant was about.
I own and enjoy St. Julian's wines, and I like the dry stuff. Your point that people taste stuff differently is well taken. Your bigger point about elitism is also valid, and alas not a new phenomenon.

Mark Twain's book The Innocents Abroad was a thinly-veiled rant at the elitist tastes in European art of the 1870s. Twain insisted on seeing with his own eyes and enjoyed pre-Raphaelist art, which was not in vogue.

Ironically, the introduction to my 1980's paperback copy of the work, penned by some obscure academic, took issue with Twain's taste in art!

(Anonymous)

tastes vary; drink what you enjoy

When I was young and foolish, I drank sweet wines. Later, when I learned what a horrible impact they had on my hypoglycemia, I dropped them, and stuck to the dry reds that I really enjoy. I did enjoy the sweet wines, but hated the horrible headache that often appeared even as I was enjoying the wine.

Your rant is well founded, at least to the extent that we all experience different sensations in response to identical stimuli. It's not unlike the question of what each of us experiences as the color red. But we have no more ability to determine that than we have to determine what each of us experiences in the flavor of a wine, a steak, or a vegetable.

I would not be willing to drink St. Julian's, because I know I would pay heavy dues. It has, for me, nothing to do with the Concord grapes that I was raised on -- my grandparents often sold their grapes to St. Julian's, as their farm was in Lawton, only a few miles from St. Julian's in Paw Paw, MI. I still consider the Concord the best grape for eating, but from what we see in the stores, many disagree. Or perhaps more likely, we see the California grapes because they are more durable than the fragile-skinned Concord, which doesn't ship well. Most of the Concords wind up in Welch's grape juice (which happens to make me gag, not because it's bad, but because of childhood excesses.)

Lately, I have been buying a Chilean wine, a blend of Cab and Merlot, and at $7 for a 1.5L bottle, it's half the price of your St. Julian's. I like it; you would not.

But the bottom line is the bottom line: at the price of even cheap wine, there is no excuse for drinking a wine you do not enjoy.

Bill Meyer

Re: tastes vary; drink what you enjoy

Don't be too sure! I write about sweet and off-dry wines because nobody else does and it's the contrarian thing to do, but I like non-bitter wines at all points on the sweet-dry continuum.

So do spill the details on that Chilean wine. I've had some terrific wines from Chile and I'm always looking for tips on ones that I haven't yet tried.

(Anonymous)

Re: tastes vary; drink what you enjoy

The Chilean wine is Frontera, and is a Cab/Merlot blend. I like it nearly as much as the Yellowtail Shiraz from down under. The flavor has some complexity, and the price -- at Costco -- is certainly right.

I don't drink as much wine as I used to, though. Besides the blood sugar issue, there is the impact on my sinuses the day after. And I'm told that red wines contain 200x the histamines of white wines. But hey, if we gave up everything that's bad for us, life would be awfully dull!

There are review snippets on Frontera here:
Review snippets (http://www.banfivintners.com/BANFI/REVIEWS/REV_CTFC.HTM)

Bill Meyer

(Anonymous)

Red Heron

Hello, my name is Michelle, and I just was doing a search to see if I could find a distributor in Chicago that sells Red Heron, and the Google search terms that I used brought up your blog. I just wanted to make a quick comment, because I am from Michigan, very close to Paw Paw where St. Julian's Winery is. I have grown up with their wines, and sparkling juices when I was younger, and I think they have some of the most amazing wines, and Red Heron is my absolute favorite! I am glad that you enjoyed it. It is a bummer that it is hard to find much outside of Michigan. Even though it's only a $7 bottle of wine, when I get some, I treat it like a $100 bottle and only use it for special occasions, because I don't know how long before I will have a chance to get another bottle! Again, thank you for this post!

Re: Red Heron

Meijer's Supermarkets has carried it in the Chicago area for a long time, and I have also found it at Binny's liquor stores. Little by little it's getting out there, though I have never seen it here at home in Colorado Springs.