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Category Archives: $10 wine

Can we use wine back labels to figure out wine quality?

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wine back labels

Mark Thornton: “The words — and not what they mean — on wine back labels are a clue to wine quality.”

Because, finally, someone has discovered a way to measure the relationship between what’s written on wine back labels and the quality of the wine.

The breakthrough came from a Harvard Ph.D. student named Mark Thornton, who took data from 75,000 wines in the Wine.com inventory, and compared what was written on their back label — and not what the words meant — with ratings from the site’s users and from wine critics.

The findings? That certain words appear on the back labels of wines of lesser quality, while certain words appear on the back labels of wines with higher ratings. Thornton told me he knows this isn’t perfect, given how scores and wine ratings work, and he wants to improve that part of the study. In addition, he wants to refine the way his software decides which words to analyze, perhaps eliminating regions and better understanding phrases, like grilled meats instead of grilled and meats.

What does matter is that Thornton’s work is apparently the first time anyone has done this kind of research, making it as revolutionary as it is helpful in deciphering the grocery store wall of wine.

Thornton, whose parents teach in Cal State Fresno, says this study interested him because it’s about wine, which he likes, and because it ties into his PhD research, which deals with how we describe things. One of the concepts this study takes into account is called “naive realism,” in which we assume that what we sense has to be true for everyone, when it obviously isn’t. Which dovetails neatly with wine.

Thornton’s findings confirm many of my suspicions about wine back labels, as well as how critics use descriptors. The word clouds on his site summarize the results; I’ve set them up so you can see them more easily here for the consumer ratings and here for the critic ratings.

These are among the highlights of the study:

• Restaurant food pairings or terms like pasta appear on the labels of the lowest-rated wines. Thornton says this may well be because the wine doesn’t have any wine-like qualities to recommend it.

• Words used to describe sauvignon blanc — grapefruit, herb, clean — show up on the critics’ lowest-rated white wines. This is not surprising, given that sauvignon blanc has always garnered less respect from the Winestream Media than chardonnay.

• A location on the back label seems to indicate lower quality white wine; “handcrafted” is in the higher quality word cloud. For reds, “value” and “soft” are poor-quality words, while “powerful” and “black,” probably used to describe black fruit, infer higher quality. Handcrafted is especially interesting, since it doesn’t mean anything in terms of wine production.

Finally, a word about prices, which is also part of the study. Thornton divided the consumer ratings into five price ranges, and there was little difference in perceived quality between the first three ranges. In other words, you get more value buying the cheapest wine. Shocking news, yes?

The critic price-value rankings were even more bizarre. The worst value came from wines that got scores in the mid-90s, while wines in the high 90s (and even 100) were less expensive, and the best value wines were around 90 points. Thornton says he isn’t quite sure why this is true, though it may have something to do with critic bias. My explanation is simpler: Wine scores are inherently flawed.

TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2015

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TEXSOM International Wine AwardsThe wine competition business is at a crossroads, with entries still not back to pre-recession levels, with wineries cutting the marketing budgets that pay entry fees, and with the reliability of competition results called into question. Hence my curiosity in judging the the TEXSOM International Wine Awards this week, which organizers want to become the wine competition that addresses those questions.

TEXSOM used to be the Dallas News Morning News competition, perhaps the leading wine competition in the U.S. that wasn’t on the west coast. Its new organizers (who include friends of mine) understand how the landscape has changed, and want to find ways to adjust.

That means giving wineries more to market their product than just a medal — finding better ways to publicize the wines that earn medals, working with a wine publication to publish tasting notes for medal winners, and publicizing the medal winners with its audience, sommeliers around the world. TEXSOM started life as educational organization for sommeliers and restaurant wine employees, and much of its focus remains there.

In addition, this year’s competition included some double-blind judging, apparently in response to the questions raised about whether medals mean anything. This was particularly intriguing given the quality of the judges, many of whom have MS or MW after their name, and almost all of whom are among the country’s wine retail, wine writing, and winemaking elite. (Whether one can include me in that group I’ll leave to the readers of this post.)

Finally, a word about the wines — or, in this case, not much of a word. I didn’t judge the first day of the two-day competition, thanks to our annual Dallas ice storm. Day 2 was 98 wines, almost all from California, and most of those from Paso Robles. We gave more than our share of golds (two cabernet sauvignons and a viognier in particular),  and especially silvers, but few of the wines were memorable. But that’s hardly enough of a sample size for a fair judgment.

Wine of the week: Barão de Vila Proeza Dao Tinto 2010

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 Proeza Dao TintoPortuguese wine has become chic over the past year or so, which is surprising given that it has been around for hundreds of years. So what’s different this time?

Mostly that quality keeps improving. The Wine Curmudgeon has written about Portuguese wine that isn’t vinho verde off and on over the years, and the only consistent thing has been its inconsistency. The Portuguese are best known for port, the fortified dessert wine, and their table wines, red and white, often seem like afterthoughts. The whites can be thin and acidic, while the reds sometimes have a heavy, ashy feel to them.

The Proeza Dao Tinto ($9, purchased, 13%), though, demonstrates that the country’s winemakers are making impressive progress. It’s a nice little red wine, simple but not stupid, made with touriga nacional, the primary grape used to make port, plus tinta roriz, the country’s equivalent of tempranillo, and alfrocheiro, a blending grape. This combination gives the wine a rich, almost port-like feel, with plum and berry fruit. It’s not as pleasantly tart as a Spanish tempranillo can be, but that’s not a flaw.

A label note, since these terms are so unfamiliar: The producer is Barao de Vila and the wine is called Proeza, and it’s made in the Dao region, north of Lisbon about halfway between the coast and the Spanish border. Tinto, of course, is red. Drink this with traditional red wine food, and it’s also a red wine for summer — low alcohol, lots of fruit, and something that can even be served a little chilled.

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