Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Importance of the Printed Word

After a bit of a holiday break to refresh the batteries, it's time to get back to posting on this site. For this first post of the year, I'm taking a break from my standard wine recommendations and am publishing an essay. I'm on my soapbox here, so I hope all of you readers don't mind, but I think this is important. I'll be back to my regular wine choices the next time out.

I'm certain most of you already know this, but wine magazines are being replaced by other avenues, from blogs to iPads. There are several reasons for this, most importantly the economic crisis of the past few years. This is true in many industries, so this isn't just affecting the wine publications, as auto, fashion, sports and movie magazines are either going out of business or publishing smaller issues. There isn't the advertising money out there like there was just five years ago, so there are problems.

Of course, one big reason for the demise of some wine publications is the increase in wine blogs. As someone who makes a living writing about wine (I've written for wine publications for 13 years now), I accept that fact, which is quite clear, as I also publish a wine blog. It's good exercise for me and it's a nice avenue for me to write about certain wines I couldn't write about in a print article.

People today are also turning to apps on smart phones to learn about wine. Technology has changed many industries and it's no different with wine. I actually welcome new ways in which to learn, because, let's face it, there is no one way to take in new knowledge. It's how much you can learn, however, from an application versus an article in a magazine, that makes the difference.

What all of this is leading me to is this. I recently read an article from The World of Fine Wine, a first-rate wine publication from England (full disclosure - I write for the magazine), that made me think about wine in a new light. The article is by Terry Thiese, one of the best-known importers of wines from Europe; the wines he represents have received tremendous critical praise. In this article, which you can read here, Thiese talks about several factors in wines that may or may not equate to quality; these include issues such as concentration, balance and deliciousness (I love that word!). Thiese talks about what these terms mean to an individual wine drinker, so this is an article about how each person's set of values affects his or her appreciation of wine.

Thiese also talks about yields in wine and how we have been led to believe that the best wines are made from the smallest yields. Many in the wine business accept this as almost a universal truth, but Thiese warns against taking this literally. He makes a solid argument about this and several other issues and it's insight such as this from the author that makes this such a valuable article. I think it's something every wine drinker should read.

I point this out because Thiese flies in the face of accepted wisdom on yields. People who believe that the best wines are always made from the smallest yields also tend to believe that the wines that receive a 95 or 96-point rating from an influential wine magazine are "better" than similar wines that garner 87 or 88 points. It's the "bigger is better" argument. As one winemaker told me once, "Bigger isn't better, it's different." Amen to that! It's like saying the best player on a basketball team is the tallest player - maybe he is, but then again, maybe he isn't.

This is another argument against rating wines with points. I've written about this before and I'll do it again, but for now, my point is this. By not reading wine magazines - indeed, how long before there are no wine magazines?- but instead using technology such as applications on smart phones, you learn about wine via soundbites. It's the quick and easy way to learn about wine- these apps will tell you that a certain vintage was better than another or that one part of a wine region is better than another, yet how can one judge individual style or preference this way? Wine is a sensory experience, so what you sense in a glass of wine is probably going to be different than what I encounter.

It's neat that there are new ways to learn, but preferring those over the traditional print publications can have its drawbacks. How does one learn about the appassimento method used to produce Amarone, one of Italy's most powerful reds, on a smart phone? How can you get a feeling for the difference between a Champagne from a large house as contrasted with that of a small grower while using a phone application? You learn about these subjects and hundreds more in the wine world over time, by reading articles and tasting wines. Points don't tell you about the style of wine and a phone app doesn't give you much insight. You have to put in the time to understand these things - there are no shortcuts.

So use your smart phones if you will or look on the internet for some reviews, but if you want to truly understand wine, take the time to read a wine article in a reputable wine publication that was written by someone who knows a good amount of the subject and then edited by another person who also knows about the value of good writing. In the final analysis, there is no substitute for that, with one important exception, tasting the wines themselves and making your own judgment.

Text and photo ©Tom Hyland

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