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Berger: What do we know about wine?

A California winery executive was in Chicago on business and had an exasperating travel day before arriving frazzled at her hotel room.

After checking in and changing clothes, she went to the lounge and ordered a glass of the house chardonnay. When it arrived, she asked the server whose it was.

The server looked puzzled, then said, “Uh, yours…”

It doesn’t shock me that the server, in a well-regarded hotel bar, wouldn’t know who had made the wine or that such information was vital for some patrons. But that’s because I have come to believe that most Americans know very little about the wines they consume, and do not want to know even basic facts.

The evidence is everywhere.

The largest-growing category of wine today is the blended red, with blended white wines also peaking. For the most part, consumers do not ask what’s in the various blends they are offered.

Proof of this is easy to see: red wines with fanciful names are appearing everywhere and very few of the wines have back labels that say anything specific about what’s inside. Most back-label copy is so non-descriptive a teetotaler could have written the text. To wit:

“Our Special Reserve Red Blend is aptly named because it has been made to our exacting specifications and is a reflection of the best life has to offer.” Thanks, that helps.

The category of “unidentified red blend” is so pervasive today that every market chain in the country now carries many different versions. Very few are identified as to type and/or style. And still buyers seem to care little that the wines they buy are totally generic.

One bit of information I have seen lately involves the letter GSM, which inside the industry refers to a blend that includes grenache, syrah, and mourvedre. Such wines are similar to the wines of the southern Rhone such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Yet on two different wines I sew recently, the letters appeared without any explanation!

Vintages once meant something. But to make sense of a vintage means you have to know something, and most wine consumers do not want to remember if 2009 was better than 2010. Indeed, bottle age once was a benefit in red wine, but the main thing with almost all reds today is, drink ‘em young.

One bit of proof that the vintage no longer means anything to most consumers: the fact that E&J Gallo’s line of Barefoot wines has grown into many millions of cases a year without vintages appearing on any of the wines.

Speaking of Gallo, the company released a report some months ago that said a poll it commissioned found that more than 60 percent of all those asked said they added flavorings to their wines. After Gallo released a number of new wines with the flavors already added.

In the last year, we have done an informal survey of wine servers in restaurants. We have asked questions about some of the wines on their wine list. In about half the cases, the answers were generic enough to indicate that the servers knew nothing about the wines and were just winging it.

Moreover, look at the sommelier fallout of the last two years. Once a noble calling that required a lot of study and an engaging manner, the sommelier has fallen out of favor. Fewer and fewer restaurants are employing such people.

Why? My guess is that it can be boring to hear of the average yield per hectare of a Loire Valley Vouvray and it’s that very sort of stuff that burns out more buyers than you can believe.

If generic wine is OK, then varietal wines have less meaning as well. Is creeping homogeneity the order of the day? Certainly it is at the lower end of the price spectrum. Still, if you look around, you can find some nicely made generic offerings.

Wine of the Week: 2012 Project Paso, Lonely Oak Red, Paso Robles ($10) – The labels do not tell you that this wine is 41% Zinfandel, 37% Merlot, 11% Petite Sirah, 9% Syrah and 2% Barbera, and that the wine is light, simple and elegant with the spiced component coming from the main grape and the mid-palate richness from the second grape. Best served slightly chilled, it has ample freshness and grapeiness for a reasonable price.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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