Thursday, March 29, 2012

a … HA!!!

That noise you hear, America, is the thunder of people running to support my as-yet unchallenged  theory on California wine.

The big guns have joined ranks behind me, so who knows how big this Rally for Reason will grow?

By big guns, I mean the folks behind Freakonomics: Writer Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt, who through two books, a documentary film, and now a radio show, have challenged long-held assumptions about the way we think about money and the economy.

I love it when really smart people reexamine what we firmly believe or stubbornly assume and, with calm scrutiny of facts, show us we're dead wrong.

Stephen and Steven have agreed not to go near my firm beliefs and stubborn assumptions, so I firmly believe and assume my campaign for Wine Truth will advance undeterred.

Of course, Stephen and Steven don't know who the hell I am, but I sure know them, because last week my neighborhood National Public Radio station (shout out to KXJZ, Sacramento!) ran old episodes of Freakonomics Radio in place of an hour-long local issues talk show.

And what to my wondering ears should appear but a story challenging our ideas about the economics of wine. To wit: Wine is a con.

Dubner didn't say it quite so boldly or succinctly, but the episode featured other economists using calm factual scrutiny — and some funny subterfuge — to demonstrate that drinkers can't really tell an expensive wine from swill. OK, less expensive but nicely labeled wine like you can find in any supermarket.

One economist hosted a wine tasting for learned Ivy League oenophiles (wine snobs) by putting a variety of wines in separate unlabeled decanters. Not only could the learned drinkers NOT tell which was expensive and which cheap, but claimed to note a difference in two wines in particular — even though it was the same wine poured from two different decanters.

Another economist created a fake restaurant, complete with fake menu and wine list, carefully constructed to include extremely expensive wines that The Wine Spectator — the beacon and trend maker of wine journalism — had condemned in reviews. The economist submitted his "restaurant's" wine list for The Wine Spectator's annual awards recognition for such folderol. The economist's hypothesis: The awards were an excuse to sell advertising.

The economist's fake restaurant did indeed receive one of the awards. A representative from The Wine Spectator asked if he'd like to advertise the news in the magazine. The economist attended the awards ceremony and explained his fraud.

The same economist conducted a more thorough, scientifically controlled study of many, many wine tastings held at vaunted wine festivals and celebrations, and came up with a similar conclusion to the economist with the intimate gathering of tasters: Wine drinkers can't tell the difference between expensive wines and the more economical ones (which the industry calls by a funny name: fighting varietals).

Carve out an hour of time and listen to the episode. At the very least, it's entertaining.

So, why is expensive wine so darned expensive? It's a meta-marketing tool: It not only makes people think the wines are better for their expense, but they pay the big bucks for the false privilege. Genius! I shall charge in the five- or six-figure range for my illustrations from now on.

The expensive wine probably doesn't cost more to produce than the others, but maybe the prices should reflect the actual costs, huh? Beers are mostly the same price. The smaller so-called craft brewers charge more for their six-packs than the Coors and Anheuser-Busch products (simple input-costs per unit of product stuff), but not anywhere near the five to 10 times what some wineries charge over others for their product. Maybe wine drinkers should vote their wallets.

Look, people are going to enjoy their wines — I recognize there's no stopping that. I can't taste the difference in wines, and when my wife and family and friends go wine tasting, I'm the designated driver for that reason. I have to go stand among the grape cluster-shaped trivets and $50 sweatshirts and chocolate-covered elderberries so the winery staffers can't hear my eyes roll when they talk about how this wine has notes of cherries and noses of vanilla and a finish evocative of sandalwood, or whatever. It's all just countertop psychology: I tell you this wine tastes like fish, and you'll certainly detect a nuanced blend of rock cod and sturgeon, maybe a jouncy afterthought of halibut.

The Freakonomics guys didn't exactly say that all of California's wine comes from one big municipal tank hidden somewhere near Modesto (and that it's all white wine and the red wine is simply dyed); they didn't say all the wineries in the state drive up to little spigots on the tank late at night and get their boutique's allotment.

But that's the conclusion I'm jumping to.

Rally for reason, America, and speak truth to the wine power!

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