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Category Archives: Wine rants

Will cheap wine kill you?

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cheap wine arsenicYes, “Will cheap wine kill you?” is a great search engine headline. And no, it’s not a plot by the the Winestream Media to return us to the good old days before the recession, when they thought cheap wine was so bad that anyone who drank it deserved what they got.

Rather, it was the big wine news last week, based on testing by a Denver lab and carried on the CBS News website: Cheap California wine has lots and lots of arsenic, more than we should ingest. And it might kill you.

A few thoughts about the story after the jump, and why it reflects so badly — again — on the Fourth Estate:

Chateau Bonnet Blanc and why scores are useless

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Chateau Bonnet BlancChateau Bonnet is the $10 French wine that is one of the world’s great values and has been in the Hall of Fame since the first ranking in 2007. As such, it has always been varietally correct, impeccably made, an outstanding value, and cheap and delicious. The 2012 Bonnet blanc, which I had with dinner the other night, made me shake my head in amazement. How could a cheap white wine that old still be so enjoyable?

What more could a wine drinker want?

A lot, apparently, if a couple of the scores for the 2012 on CellarTracker (the blog’s unofficial wine inventory app) are to be believed. The Chateau Bonnet blanc scored 80 points from someone who said the label was ugly and 83 points from a Norwegian, and that a Norwegian was using points shows how insidious scores have become.

The irony is that the tasting notes for the low scores were quite complimentary. The 80-point mentioned “crisp dry tones and pleasant blend of melon flavours” while the 83 described herbs, minerals, and citrus, and neither noted any off flavors or flaws. Yet, given those scores, the Bonnet blanc was barely an average wine, hardly better than the grocery store plonk I regularly complain about on the blog.

Which it’s not. Those two wine drinkers are allowed to score the wine as low as they like, and they’re allowed to dislike it. That’s not the problem. The problem is consistency; someone else gave the Bonnet blanc a 90, citing minerality and lime zest — mostly the same description as the low scores. Yet a 90 signifies an outstanding wine. How can a wine that three people describe the same way get such different scores?

Because scores are inherently flawed, depending as they do on the subjective judgment of the people giving the scores. If I believed scores and I saw the 80 or the 83, I’d never try the Chateau Bonnet blanc, even if I liked melon flavors or minerals and citrus. Which is the opposite of what scores are supposed to do. And that they now do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do means it’s time — past time, in fact — to find a better way.

For more on wine scores:
Wine scores, and why they don’t work (still)
Wine competitions and wine scores
Great quotes in wine history: Humphrey Bogart

Champagne Jayne and the new censorship

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Champagne JayneCensorship used to be easy to understand. The secret police came to the door in the dark of night and you were never heard from again. Which is what makes the Champagne Jayne case so terrifying — the secret police have been replaced by lawyers working within the legal system of a Western constitutional democracy, and what they’re doing is as legal as it is morally reprehensible.

The French Champagne trade group, CIVC, is suing Jayne Powell, an Australian wine writer whose specialty is Champagne and sparkling wine and who calls herself Champagne Jayne. The trade group claims that Powell’s name, because she writes and teaches about other sparkling wine, violates the European Union’s trade agreement with Australia that defines what can be called Champagne. CIVC wants an Australian court to make Powell stop using the name and anything associated with it, like email addresses, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and domain names. In this, they would force her out of business.

And, in a touch I love, Powell would have to “destroy all material marked with the name ‘Champagne Jayne’, including brochures, pamphlets, and other goods.” In other words, burning books.

This must seem bizarre to Americans, given our right to free speech under the First Amendment. But it shouldn’t. Even though Australia’s free speech protections aren’t as strong as those here, this case is not about free speech as we understand it. It’s about intellectual property, and how post-modern business is using that concept to carve out an exception to our traditional free speech protections. First Amendment law in the U.S. focuses on preventing the government from censoring speech, but says little about groups that aren’t the government from doing it.

Case in point: The Cristal-Cristalino lawsuit, in which the luxury French Champagne won a judgment against the cheap Spanish cava and forced Cristalino to change its name. The federal judge who decided in favor of Cristal said the case seemed silly on the surface, but that she had to go by the law, and the law said any confusion about the name, no matter how small, must be decided in Cristal’s favor. Shortly thereafter, I got a letter from Cristalino telling me I had to obey the judgment by never referring to Cristalino as Cristalino and by replacing any reference to the old name on the blog.

In other words, I am being censored by a French wine company, regardless of the First Amendment.

This is why I have written this post, contributed to Powell’s defense fund, and urge everyone to join me in boycotting Champagne. Powell can’t speak for herself — she is under a court-mandated gag order. And if the CIVC gets away with this, and it seems like it will, then it sets a precedent for any business that doesn’t approve of what someone writes, wine or otherwise. Don’t like what I say about your wine? Then sue, claiming I used your brand name incorrectly. Don’t like what the New York Times’ Mark Bittman says about your fast food? Then sue, claiming Bittman infringed on your intellectual property. (Which is my hint to the Times — this affects all of us who practice journalism, just like Times v. Sullivan.)

Also depressing: The lack of outrage from the Winestream Media, few of whom have come to Powell’s defense. In one respect, this isn’t surprising, given that its business model is based on sucking up to the wine business. But one would think that someone would remember Martin Niemoller.

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