Is the wine industry kidding itself?
Recently, I read a post on Joss Fowler's excellent Vinolent blog which mentions 'the confidence trick that is often intrinsic to the business of wine' and it got me thinking about the uneasy balance between the romance and reality of wine.
A large part of what makes wine so enjoyable are the stories that surround it. These usually concern the people and the place involved in its production, the history and origin of the wine, its rarity or its distinguishing features.
For example, last night I tasted a delicious Grenache from Spain called Clandestinus which is produced and bottled in France. Apparently, the must is selected in Spain, then shipped over the border to France where it is vinified and bottled. The appellation is Vin d'Espagne - so, basic Spanish table wine, but written in French (an intriguing curiosity for wine nerds). The wine is delicious - vivid, crunchy, authentic - but there is no way you could divine its unusual background from tasting alone, and understanding that story is a significant element of what makes it an interesting and valuable wine (especially in the context of recent stories about some French activists sabotaging tankers of Spanish wine that cross the border). Without that identity, Clandestinus becomes just another one of thousands of delicious but otherwise anonymous European wines.
Furthermore, most wine professionals would agree that there is very little objective truth in blind tasting. Scoring systems are periodically debunked, tasting notes for the same wine can vary wildly between critics (and often from the same critic), price and quality has minimal correlation - so it is inevitable that sceptics from outside the world of wine frequently revel in pointing out what charlatans we are (this 2009 Wall Street Journal article is one of the most measured and insightful summaries).
This is 'the confidence trick that is often intrinsic to the business of wine.' To make money, we wine professionals present (or interpret) subjective opinion as objective truth, and exploit the romantic stories of wines to increase their value.
Occasionally, somebody within the industry tries lifting the lid on all this. In 2001, Stuart Walton wrote a scathing exposé called You Heard It Through The Grapevine (read Jamie Goode's interview with him) then in 2008, Malcolm Gluck did much the same with The Great Wine Swindle (of which an extract appears on the Daily Mail website). They caused quite a scandal at the time, but in the long term they've succeeded in changing precisely nothing.
So are we kidding ourselves? Are we consciously ignoring the contradictions and falsehoods in wine because that keeps us all in business? Or is there a more naive truth, that the industry retains faith in the wonder of wine and genuinely wants to enthuse and communicate that wonder?