It is well known that wines in many parts of the world taste different than they did a generation ago. Perhaps those with superior taste memories can testify to what wines used to smell and taste like, but all of us can be aware of certain changes. Taken overall, today’s red wines are more robust, more alcoholic, ready to drink at a younger age and more likely to come from a large corporation. Whites are also more alcoholic and more full-bodied; in most of the world, they are quite likely to be either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, to the exclusion of other grapes.
How did this happen?
Some attribute this, with some justification, to the influence of wine critics, in particular Robert Parker. Others see the broadening of the market to include younger, less experienced wine drinkers whose tastes run towards boldness rather than subtlety. The trends may be attributable to better science and technology that make bigger, more alcoholic wines easier to produce.
A wine tasting focus group. Photo courtesy of Find Focus Groups.
The simplest answer is that wine producing companies and their winemakers have simply responded to the demands of the wine-buying marketplace. They are catering to the tastes of the people who are buying wine. That makes sense, but how do they know? They surely hold focus groups and monitor retail sales, but these are fairly blunt instruments. Focus groups don’t necessarily tap into a meaningful cross-section of the people who buy most of the wine. And sales figures reflect a lot more than taste. Price, location, pretty labels and bottles, and the dominance of certain distributors also enter into the calculation. How else to explain the past popularity of Two Buck Chuck?
A big factor in influencing the producers is the feedback that wineries receive from visitors in their tasting rooms, who are the more avid sector of the wine-drinking public. Those of us who enjoy traveling to sample wines can offer direct and immediate feedback to the wineries. They can see what people prefer, up close and personal. Do most visitors smile at that unoaked Chardonnay or do they wince and pour it out? Are the people who are enjoying a 16% alcohol Zinfandel just partiers out to get drunk or are they expressing pleasure at the fullness and depth of flavor that extra ripeness bring along with the alcohol?
There are things that we can do to affect the market when we go wine tasting.
- Speak up. Let the server know what you like and why. If you get a chance to chat with the winemaker or the tasting room manager, be vocal about your likes and dislikes.
- Ask questions. If you have been familiar with a wine for a long period of time and it seems different to you now, it’s fair to ask if that’s the case and why it’s happens. Not all tasting room employees are knowledgeable enough to answer these questions, but if you are just a little persistent, they’ll find someone who is.
- Vote with your wallet. If you particularly like a certain wine, buy some right there in the winery. If you really like the broad production of a winery, join their wine club. The bean counters (or are they grape counters?) in the back office are acutely aware of who their locked-in buyers are and what they like.
Wine tasting voyagers have the power to influence what wineries produce. So go ahead and use your power. That’s what Power Tasting is all about.