It's high-time I revisited a topic that I've discussed at length, both on my podcast, in my book, and in hours-long conversations with people all over the world. Whether they were ever listening or not is another matter altogether.
And this time, let's not limit it to points.
What is a value judgement, you may be asking? For these intents and purposes, a value judgement shall be considered a judgement made by an individual (or a group...remember the Anything But Chardonnay crowd? We don't either) that assesses or appraises the overall and supposed objective quality of a wine based on its characteristics, or in other words, its value.
But wait. What just happened there? Did we just equate quality with value? To be clear, I don't think they're the same thing. And if you drink wines based on the points they receive expecting consistency between them, you'll quickly be disappointed, your wallet is going to be confused, and you may wonder what the meaning of value or quality really is.
There are so many factors at play here, and so many intended and unintended effects, it's hard for me to even think about the topic without my head spinning. I may need to get a glass before I continue, if not to stoke inspiration, then to quell the anxious hamster upstairs whose wheel goes into overdrive whenever I start thinking about this topic.
OK. Got a glass. And it's from Orofino. One of my favourites.
Perhaps that's a good place to start: with the man in the mirror. Why are the wines from Orofino Vineyards & Strawbale Winery viewed favourably in my eyes? What kind of value do I see in them?
For me, the number one thing that I feel I get from Orofino is a degree of honesty. A degree of transparency. I do not feel like I am being manipulated by their labels, marketing, or message. Secondly, I like the way the wines taste. OK, if that's subjective to you, fine. But, to be clear, it's not like "Oh I like the Syrah but I don't drink Riesling". I like all of their wines, even if I might choose one more often than the other. Preference is one thing. Evaluating quality and value is another. Thirdly, I feel like the wines are well-executed versions of what they say they are in comparison to other versions of wines that might be similar in varietal or style or region. Fourthly, I think that the wines offer excellent value. When I drink a bottle, I always feel like I've received more than my money's worth. I feel like I've received a wine that was easily worth its taste and quality in terms of its dollar value. I feel like I've paid for quality, care, and expertise. I feel that to purchase a wine of similar style and quality from another producer would cost me more money. That makes me feel good. It makes me feel valued by the winery, as opposed to the other way around. I do value this particular winery. It's a big ol' love fest.
In the sense I spoke of above, there's a relationship of trust that's been built between me and Orofino. Over time, the goodwill that has been developed by the winery producing a market-leading product in terms of quality that comes at a below-market-price also means that I'm more open-minded and willing to forgive any potential shortcomings in execution or perhaps the presentation of an alternative style as a result of, say, a certain challenging vintage. Add to that the fact that I've had a good time at the winery itself and it's almost impossible for me to not enjoy a bottle of anything Orofino makes. Thoroughly.
The value and quality of this winery, for me, was built exclusively through my own interaction in purchasing, opening, and drinking these wines. It was a relationship that formed organically. Nobody told me to expect great things from them, nobody forced them down my throat, and they in no way manipulate their marketing strategy to oversell their product or to trick someone into thinking it is something it is not.
Let's take the opposite approach for a second.
Let's say I opened a bottle of Unánime Gran Vino Tinto from Mascota Vineyards in Mendoza. This wine pissed me off so much that the only one who got a nice warm buzz off of it was the kitchen sink. I wish I had a Mexican Coke™ I could have cocktail'd it with. That would have eased my sorrows nicely.
Here's what happened: I was chatting with a complete stranger from the UK over email and they mentioned that they had picked up a few Malbecs for the weekend. Alright, I generally avoid the category, but I'm like a drunken ex with certain styles of wine: no matter how much I know I should stay away because I've made the right choice and am doing better on my own, I can't help but pick up the phone and fire off a late night text asking if we can meet, just for tonight. Maybe we never should have broken up. And then, after the most mediocre two minutes of my life and a couple of snide remarks and expressions, I'm reminded why we split and wonder how we were ever attracted to each other in the first place. But, I suppose I liked the idea of a cold, British night in a flat surrounded by books and smart people speaking in sweet accents drinking hearty Malbec, so I thought, shit, let's dial up the ex. The ex being Malbec.
Back to the wine. Unánime Gran Vino Tinto. All kinds of points from all kinds of critics. Like, 93 points from my man James Suckling (he is his own man, not mine). 93 points from Wine Enthusiast™. 89 points from my local guy, Anthony Gismondi™, who is such a notoriously hard scorer (as if 85 was bad or something...that's an A in uni) that most wineries actually do advertise an 89 from him because it's supposed to be good. Personally, I like that he gives out the 89 a lot because it reminds me that the scale isn't just 0-10 that starts at 90. Regardless, according to the critics, this wine should be bangin'.
The bottle is heavy and big. The label is black with bronze with shiny things. It's designed to look premium. Big spiel on the back about how it is premium and why it is premium. It's a blend of Malbec and some Bordeaux varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot. It's supposed to have a nice hunk of new oak present. It costs $30 in a category of red wines that are known for being deep in colour, smooth in texture, and, if not simply inexpensive, offering good value. Then you pile the points and accolades of all of these critics and "experts" on top, and quite frankly, I'm expecting something.
And it sucks.
I'm disappointed. The wine does not deliver the kind of profile that it advertises. It does not bat above the quality of wines in the category of Malbec & bordeaux varietal wines from Argentina. It's not flawed, it's not faulted: it just tastes like a slick marketing job, the payoff of a critic in which other critics become complicit (fuck all of you), and an undiscerning consumer base who won't get too fussed over it because they won't notice that there's anything wrong.
How did this happen? How did I become so sour about this wine?
Let's have a look.
First of all, the expectations were high. Why? Because of the fact that this wine is expensive within its category. Like, at least $8-$10 more than the average spend I would make if I was forced to buy Malbec from Argentina all the time. Generally, that's never a great place to start. The expectations, that is. Nor is the prospect of having to buy Malbec from Argentina all the time. Secondly, you've got people whom the world has deemed authorities on the subject of wine deliciousness throwing their panties onto the stage upon which this wine casually dangles the microphone. Which essentially leads to higher expectations. It also leads to the feeling of being ripped off. I feel like I did not receive more deliciousness than I paid for. And just for the record, if it wasn't deliciousness, I did not receive more character than I paid for. I did not receive more quirkiness than I paid for. I did not receive more experience and opportunity to expand my oenological mind than I paid for. I did not receive a product whose cost was inflated due to an increased focus on ethics, morality, or process.
I felt like I purchased a wine that was worth less, in all of those categories, than what I paid for it. I feel like I paid for an increased margin or basket size that was captured via a marketing scheme and careful branding. I feel like I paid for someone's idea of status.
It's not the feeling you want to have when you drink wine. Sure, I could find a good use for it. I could turn it into a great story. I could stay up all night. I could have a blast. I could break-dance. I could fight. I could kick your sorry ass.
Instead, I cut my losses, chickened out, and wrote this article while watching this wine dwindle into the abyss where my garburator used to be. Compost, baby.
When somebody does something honestly and continues to seek improvement honestly and presents that thing that they've done honestly, you can tell. Your expectations change. You start to seek understanding. You seek knowledge. It becomes less of a transaction, and more of a mutual appreciation. And sometimes, the marketing, the smokescreen, the bullshit, the value transaction sometimes it is complemented by a product that is redeemable and does also offer value. I'm not naïve to that idea. Sometimes, that transactional incident provides respite from the intensity, focus, and effort that the pleasure of understanding requires. I can get down with that.
More often than not, though, for me, the greatest value is realized when my desire to understand collides with a wine producers desire to produce honest, decent wine that means something to them beyond a marketing scheme or a critic's score out of 100.
You should try it sometime.