John JuergensDebatable wines

Well, we're having a presidential debate Friday night (Sept. 28) in our precocious little Oxford, Miss. Isn't that special. Seems everyone is jumping on the bandwagon with collateral events, some of which really stretch credulity and the straight-face test. So I thought, what the hell, I might as well do something, too, to see if I can gin up some parallels between wine making and that sausage making process we call presidential election politics.

When it comes to wines, there is one major difference from presidential politics: We usually don't have to choose between, and be stuck with for an extended period of time, the evil of two lesser. Certainly, we all have our preferences, but if our usual favorite is not performing well or up to our expectations, we can always switch to a competitor with a different philosophical approach to find satisfaction. But beyond that, there seem to be some remarkable consistencies between wine and politics.

I guess I have been blessed with the ability to maintain a radical middle of the road approach to wines. I usually can find something good in just about any wine I select as a running mate for my food or mood. But, as with politics, I recognize that this can be a daunting task for folks who are not all that interested in devoting a lot of time to really digging into the background and character of each wine presented for their consideration, especially in the early stages when there are so many to choose from.

I think there are parallels between the wine and political media that are interesting. Wine pundits are only so helpful in making an informed choice because they have their own biases and favorites, so there frequently is some very selective reporting to deal with. As with any sort of campaign it is always important to check with multiple sources before making your decision.

And just as political parties have their spin experts, the parties that produce wine candidates can supply the most skewed and distorted spin about the character of their offerings. Of course, it is in their best interest to play up and focus attention on what they believe to be the best and strongest attributes of their wine, while downplaying or simply ignoring any deficiencies or defects that might affect its balance. It is only when the product gets close public scrutiny that the true nature can be discerned.

This is why my wine tasting constituents normally evaluate wines blinded, that is, we ignore the labels and the superficial hype, including the financial aspects, and focus exclusively on the fundamental characteristics of each wine. Some of the questions we ask can also be applied to political candidates. We try to determine where the wine came from and whether it truly represents its region of origin. Are there any major flaws? Has the wine been manipulated in any way to appeal to a particular market, or is it simply a generic wine trying to be all things to all people? Are there any questionable flavors or off-odors that suggest something just isn't right about the wine? Is the wine true to the fundamental character of the grape from which it was developed, and is it within the acceptable stylistic boundaries?

After all our slicing and dicing, we try to put it all back together and step back to look at the wine as a total package. We ask ourselves if what the wine has to offer is palatable for what it is, even though it might have a few flaws. Seems like the same process of deciding who to vote for, doesn't it.

Just as political candidates live by public opinion polls, wine producers assiduously survey their markets and adjust their products so as to achieve the widest consumer appeal and to minimize anything that might possibly be offensive. For example, if a wine comes across as a bit to acidic, they will adjust the wine to tone it down a bit. Conversely, if it seems a bit flabby or stodgy, they will punch it up a bit to make it appear a bit more lively. See any parallels here?

For most of my wine consuming life, one of my greatest frustrations when selecting a wine was trying to know what was in the bottle before I committed to buying it. Same thing applies to political candidates. Too many times I have relied on the label information and the less than informed store clerk in making a selection, only to find out later that the wine was not at all what was promised and what I had hoped. This is particularly troublesome when you buy a fairly expensive wine to put down for the long term (up to eight years), and then find out it was doomed to deterioration from the start because of flaws in its fundamental structure. Hmm. To whom might this apply?

A real life example I had of this "marketing strategy" was when I was trying to get the producer of some hugely popular wines to adopt my quantitative evaluation system based on the measurement of the most important wine components. After describing my method for evaluating a wine, I could tell the head of the winery's marketing department was very conflicted. He told me he thought my system was absolutely brilliant and it was exactly what was needed from the consumer's perspective, butů From his perspective, it really put him in a bind because it took away his ability to manipulate his marketing strategy based on consumer feedback. In other words, he would not change the wine, just the message. Seems to apply well to politicians.

But what really chars my staves are the snob consumers. It is an industry-wide maxim that consumers talk dry, but drink sweet. In other words, they will profess loyalty to a certain type or style of wine that makes them appear sophisticated, worldly, progressive, and knowledgeable, but when it comes down to it they just want something that will appeal to their own selfish agendas. Sounds sort of like some disgruntled supporters of a former presidential candidate, doesn't it.

From my many years as both an outside consumer and as something of an insider of the wine industry, I am a lot less na´ve than when I started drinking wine. Winemakers really do mirror many of the characteristics of political parties. I understand the desire to be true to their convictions to make an honest wine that reflects their philosophy and the true character of their grapes and terroir. But from a marketing perspective they have to make and promote what the market demands. And sometimes that means making unpleasant and maybe even unpalatable compromises. Sound familiar?

So what do we consumers and voters, from novice to expert, do about all this? I think the answer is very obvious, but frequently obscured. First, decide what is truly important to you, but don't be a one characteristic consumer-voter. Look for subtleties and nuances from others' experiences with the wine/candidates that might emerge as important considerations after the cork is pulled. Do your own research and don't rely just on what you hear from others. Their "tastes" and what they are looking for probably differ from yours. Try to get past all the hype of the labels and advertising by checking with independent sources of information. And then go with your strongest instincts to make a selection that you believe will contribute most to your overall quality of life and those you care for.


September 2008

To contact John Juergens, write him at

Back to Oxford Town Wines