If you have ever seen the Black Mirror episode called ‘Nosedive’, where everyday interactions as simple as riding in an elevator with people, office dialogs, or how you are driving (already is something we can rate for many truckers) are rated with a 5-star system, you become slightly aware of this important and scary trend of ‘likeability’ and ‘please-ability’. We live in a world of likes, points, and stars and often base our decisions for where to eat, what to buy, and who to trust on these likes, points, and stars. But are they really exact indications of a truly high-quality product or experience or just something that stays in the middle enough to please the masses, not crossing over that delicate line where providing something different or unique could yield an extraordinary experience but be seen as unfamiliar or scary to others?
Perhaps it’s not always the worst trait to be amiable, friendly, welcoming, and comfortable, as much of the American culture is. I know this spirit in me often brings a comfort and familiarity and comfort to the Americans at our tastings. Italians have their reputation for much of this also, but anyone who spends a little time walking the streets of Rome knows that Italians also have their way with opinions and aren’t afraid to voice their emotions and thoughts, often coming off as loud, rude or ‘passionate’. Often these heated arguments sound far worse than they are, and minutes later after everything is out, laughter ensues. And I have found that some people here, who maybe are more reserved and take some time to open up or who I might have perceived as harsh or tannic on the surface, are ironically usually the ones who have the most authentic hearts and often the most welcoming when just given a little time to show their true colors – perhaps you could say this about the Piedmontese people who are like their wines – slow to open up but once they do…mmmm.
Take for example TripAdvisor, where 5-stars is the best you can do. You can get all the ‘best, most amazing experience, the highlight of my trip experiences’ but those few where your opinions rubbed someone the wrong way can haunt you as a business owner. Authenticity can be a double-edged sword. But can you really trust numerical ratings as quality – for example, if someone has a 4.6 and another a 4.8, does that mean the 4.8 is better? Or… is it just more in the middle, meaning not a ‘better’ experience per se, but less risky? Without mentioning names, I found this to be the case with a local company here. How their experience yields nearly all 5 stars, without being anything that unique or special, just an easy-going, nice, pleasant experience, is beyond anything I could understand and got me thinking about the power that can come from playing it safe.
Now let’s think about how this relates to wine. Imagine you are a commercial winery (as 90% of wine comes from only 30 companies in the US). You have the choice to make any kind of wine you would like, but likely you are going to make something that pleases the masses when you are commercial – likely a likable wine, soft and slightly sweet on the palate, often Cabernet or Merlot that is good but not too risky, easy to understand and pleasing to the masses. Then Barolo comes to mind – a wine that takes time to understand. A wine that needs time in the bottle. A wine that is hard to understand the first 5 times, even 50 times, that you drink it and might have you reluctant to want to revisit it. But, once you can get over the acidity, tannins, and alcohol that can appear to bite you in the beginning, you realize that what is behind it is a world of depth, complexity, history and flavor that ironically has you sneaking an extra sip at any given chance. But, upon that first sip, you may not have been so quick to dish out a glowing 5-star review.
Even take for example the 100-point ratings with wine. Any rational person would say that a 100 point wine is perfect, or 93 is better than 89, right? I would beg to differ. From my experience, I have to say that this might be another case of a middle-road myth. I can now attest to the fact that the Robert Parker 100-point ’97 Screaming Eagle wine was just this – big, easy, pleasy and soft on the palate but offering nothing in terms of a wowing experience. It was a wine that you spoke nicely about (perhaps because this $4,000 bottle was kindly offered to us by a friend) but that was completely overshadowed by a 50 year old ’66 Latour that in it’s younger years surely had some firm tannins and might have scared some people.
But what scares me the most is how this concept of making everything ‘likeable’, ‘slightly sweet’, ‘easy and pleasy’ to get nice reviews or market shares, is changing how wines are made, which in turn influences what our palate perceives as ‘good’ and ultimately what will continue to be produced as a result. Wines with wild souls or tannic tempers are being replaced by the calmer cousins Cabernet and Merlot. Super-Tuscans were invented to ‘fix’ the issue of acidity in Sangiovese – why not just a little bit of Cabernet or Merlot to make this wine a little softer and easier to understand (and capitalize on marketing this easy wine to the Americans). Most agree that Bordeaux has changed significantly in the last decades, now under the spell of Michel Rolland and Robert Parker, who’s influence has forced many to adopt the trends of green-harvesting (increasing ripeness) and micro-oxygenation (softening tannins) to yield a wine that is heavy on fruit, high in alcohol and influenced by oak to attract the high scores (and ultimately high price tags) that come with pleasing those two.
For someone who is exposed to an infinity of wines, as sommeliers often are, we often seek something that moves and stimulates us or that provokes a sense of uniqueness for us to ponder. Easy wines may make it easy to get intoxicated, but I find myself more mentally stimulated and intoxicated by a wine that pokes and plays with my palate.
Numbers may just be merely a concept of relativity, and 5-stars, 100-points, and 1 billion likes all need to be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe some acidity, or tannins) perhaps.