Berger on wine: A hefty price tag doesn't always mean high quality

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Ever since wine has been a commercial beverage (hundred of years), consumers have been victims of different forms of deceit, mostly aimed at sales.

And it’s getting worse because wine buyers willingly accept being fed a diet of misinformation — or no information at all. They continue to buy wines based on marketers’ fictions, accepting lies or faux facts, and believing high prices indicate high quality.

Fabrications can be seen just about everywhere.

Road signs outside winery tasting rooms state “95-Point Wines!” without saying who (if anyone at all) bestowed such a high score, or which wines got them.

“Gold medal!” says a magazine ad, without stating which competition gave it that award. Or, for that matter, which of its wines was so honored.

A shelf-talker trumpets, “Best of Class!” without details.

Hyperbole and exclamation points are the stock in trade of fantasy-based marketing people, who clearly have serious competitors on commercial internet sites for all sorts of products.

Can you imagine buying a car without first gaining specific details about its specifications, and without taking a test-drive? How about buying furniture off the web that doesn’t give measurements or the material from which it was made? A particular internet pitfall: shoes.

Wine scammers have many ways to promote exalted images for wines that are mediocre while withholding factual information that could enlighten potential consumers.

I’ve seen dozens of wines on retail shelves with prices of $15 to $25. The implication is that in such a price range these are quality wines. But are they?

One tipoff: flowery back-label language about dramatic sunsets, rolling hills, and idyllic settings.

In many cases such wines’ appellations are “California.” I have bought such wines for evaluation. Most aren’t worth even half what I paid.

One of the most popular wine categories today is the “blended red wine.” Some sell for $35 and up. A few are absolutely ripoffs.

A particularly odious example is the red wine blend that gives consumers not even a clue as to which grapes were used. At least that little bit of information could help consumers get an idea of the style of wine inside.

Back in the 1970s, several talented winemakers put technical details of their wines on their back labels. A 1977 Hacienda Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon gave technical details. It was signed by winemaker Steve MacRostie. A 1980 Chateau St. Jean Cabernet provided similar details and was signed by winemaker Richard Arrowood.

I interviewed both at the time, and asked what the data meant. Both said it would empower consumers to begin asking questions about how the wines were crafted.

At the time I was a novice wine columnist so the data meant little to me. But their very appearance spurred me to try to understand what each fact meant. It turned into a superb learning experience, and helped me understand how fine wine is made.

Both Arrowood and MacRostie said putting technical data on their labels would have no impact on most consumers, but those who wanted to know what the data were and could understand them would appreciate the winemakers’ candor.

No one is doing this anymore.

I have no complaints about potentially fictional statements about wines that sell for $10 bottle or less. But the higher the price of a wine, the more consumers should get answers to key questions from restaurant servers or store clerks.

For almost all aromatic white wines (riesling, viognier): Is this wine sweet or dry? Was it aged in oak?

For sauvignon blanc: Is this like a New Zealand or a Loire Valley-styled wine?

For cabernet sauvignon: Would you describe this wine as rich and concentrated or more food-oriented?

For chardonnay: Is this wine rich and oaky or delicate?

For blended wines: What grapes were used in this wine? (A blend including gewurztraminer can differ radically from a pinot blanc/grenache blanc blend.)

Without any technical details on which to base a buying decision, consumers are at the mercy of the hyperbolists. It’s long past the time when consumers should have asserted themselves. Either that or boycott the wines that decline to state what’s up.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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