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Pretty in drink

Do judge a wine by its cover

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

Most wines are one-night stands. A majority of bottles, at least in this country, are purchased the very day they’re to be consumed. And so, a wine that doesn’t want to be alone in the corner at last call needs to get a bit tarted up to attract customers. You know: some trendy clothes, a little more makeup than might be typical (or wise), perhaps a lurid but impossible-to-ignore scent. And frankly, being a little bit cheap doesn’t hurt, either.

But what do all these exterior trappings really say about a wine? Might they be no more than a carefully-constructed but insincere persona? Is there any substance underneath all the glitter? Do these things even matter if a one-nighter is all that you’re interested in? And, have I taken this analogy entirely too far?

As it happens, there’s an answer to at least some of those questions. How a wine presents itself on the shelf does, with fair frequency, reveal something about the liquid in the bottle. Learning to read those signals can help separate bottles that are worth a mindless hour-long romp from those that might be good for a conversation, a second date, or perhaps even a long-term relationship.

It turns out that most consumers who buy wine for fleeting encounters make their decisions based on the packaging, especially the label. Thus, it’s in the interest of wineries to make that label as appealing as possible. For the last few years, that’s mostly meant “cute” animals and vivid graphics that (according to the reams of marketing data generated for the massive liquor conglomerates that produce such wines) appeal to the modern but non-wine-savvy consumer. And don’t forget the endless advertising campaigns and promotions that inevitably follow.

All this market research, graphic design and advertising costs money. Serious money. So for these wines to sell within the lower-end price range required by the mass-market, something has to give…and that something is the inevitably the price paid for grapes, a product for which the phrase “you get what you pay for” is especially apt. Yet these wineries also need a lot of grapes, which means the highest possible yields, which means even lower-quality juice. To this is applied an elaborate series of winemaking adjustments and enhancements (few of which are themselves all that cheap) to bring the beverage up to a market-tested level of basic quality, which usually means as much boisterous fruit as possible. To put it uncharitably, these are as much laboratory concoctions as they are wine, crafted to meet a pre-identified market and carefully-managed price point. Which is, it’s worth pointing out, far from the same thing as saying that they’re bad. To torture the earlier analogy a bit more, perhaps it would be most accurate to say that these beverages are uncomplicated, obvious, and even a little bit easy.

There also exist wines at similar price points that look well-worn, even somewhat used, with labels seemingly unmodified since sometime early in the previous century. Whatever these wineries are spending money on, you can be sure that it’s not graphic design. Or marketing. Or advertising. Does this mean higher-quality grapes? Sometimes. More generally, these wines (which tend to come from the Old World, or New World producers who style themselves traditionalists) are less-influenced by modernizing viticultural and winemaking techniques, which means that fruit (and oak, when applicable) are de-emphasized in favor of greater individuality, occasional rusticity, and less fear of the structural imbalances that signify vintage variation. In other words, more character paired with greater unpredictability; one night it’s Reese Witherspoon, the next it’s Amy Winehouse. You know what I’m saying.

However, that’s all at the lower end. What about the pricey stuff? Are the distinctions between expensive wines as clear as those between, say, “old” and “new” money at a chic society hotspot?

Yes, but to a lesser extent. In general, the old classics retain their traditional qualities despite only minor updates to their appearance. The sort of winery that produces top-quality, cellar-worthy wine only infrequently attempts to appeal to the casual consumer; there’s already insatiable worldwide demand for their wines, so why waste the money? Whereas fancy, “designy” labels, ultra-heavy or unusual bottle shapes, etched glass and other exterior fripperies usually mean a wine meant to appeal to fans of the “international style”: fruit-forward, sometimes heavily-oaked, with lowish acidity and smoothed-out tannin, designed more for the moment than the future. However, here one must be careful. There are wineries with strongly traditionalist sensibilities that nevertheless enjoy playing around with their products’ appearance. Why not?

Ultimately, consumers will choose wines based on their individual preferences, but it never hurts to come armed with a little advance knowledge. So are you in the mood for an anonymous quickie, or looking to settle down with a grapey soul mate? (And are bag-in-a-box wines kinda like a vinous prophylactic?)

Editor’s note: Thor Iverson’s column will not be appearing next week, while he enjoys a restful stay in the Betty Ford Center for Analogy Rehabilitation.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)

   

Copyright © Thor Iverson.