The shelf talker and its discontents
How is a wine defined?

A chat with Julia Hallman, general manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge this week about the shelf talkers that I had been busy taking down and am now busy putting back up.  The interlude gave me a chance to see how the wines shelves look without them (less busy) and also see what the response of our clientele would be to their temporary disappearance.  The result of our little experiment: shoppers really do rely on them.

So now the question becomes what these signlets should say. There’s not a lot of space to work on business card size tags.  Julia noted that based on what she had been hearing constituent grape variety/varieties are the most sought-after data.  This started me down a road I’ve trudged before: just what is it consumers are thinking when they ask themselves “What kind of wine is this?”

It’s a question that has its origin in what I have called elsewhere the fog of wine: that disturbing combine of mystery, doubt, and anxiety all of us feel at one time or another as we try to find our way through the thickets of place names, soil types, cultivars, and flavor profiles wine confronts us with.

Though it seems natural enough now, clearing the fog by focusing on grape varietals is a relatively recent phenomenon. The likely reason it took so long: the wine industry’s deep, historic aversion to transparency.  For centuries wine was distributed via brokers and negociants whose business it was to blend stocks of wine into saleable condition while completely obscuring the process by which they accomplished this.

Tavern keepers and householders would order Hermitage, or Medoc, or Nuits Saint-Georges and who knows what would actually be in the wine.  It was very unlikely that end-users knew the names of the constituent varietals or, if they did, that they would have considered such information important.

This knowledge was professional domain expertise restricted to people in the trade, the growers themselves, and few others.  More likely they identified wine simply by its brand name — the Pommeroy’s Ordinary Claret of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories.

Such was the case until at least the mid 19th century when it began to be chic for civilians to acquire this kind of insider information in the process of cultivating connoisseurship.  So far as I know, the pervasive habit of identifying wine primarily by reference to its varietal composition is a mid-20th century phenomenon that took hold when the American wine, food, and travel writer Frank Schoonmaker had a hunch that that U.S. consumers eager for a firmer handhold on wine would latch onto this new approach as drowning sailors to driftwood.  They did.

What is it consumers are thinking when they ask themselves “What kind of wine is this?”

Before getting too down on old Schoonmaker, recall that at the time he championed the technique at California wineries Wente and Almaden (where he was taken on as a marketing consultant), these properties and others in the Golden State typically sold wine under generic brand names such as Rhine, Mountain Chablis, and Hearty Burgundy.  It mattered not all that wines so described bore no resemblance to the historic European regions their names evoked. Under the circumstances, Schoonmaker’s innovation has to be considered an advance.

In the 1980’s varietal labeling went mainstream with the appearance of a new kind of wine. Sourced mainly in California, Australia, and Chile these new products married low-price (well under $10) with a substantial rise in quality (the retail analogue might be IKEA or Target) and made chardonnay, merlot, and pinot noir as familiar to casual wine drinkers as red, white, and rosé. They’ve been known as “fighting varietals” ever since.

The curious thing about this identification business is how persistently wine buyers will find a single criterion a sufficient basis for deciding what to plunk down their money for.

It might be the varietal – but it might just as reasonably be a region, points awarded by critics,  auction prices,  cult status, or what is known to be  trending at the moment: natural, orange, no-sulfur, oxidized, high-acid (remember the marketing for the Summer of Riesling? ), mountain-bred, small-producer, folkloric, wines vinified subject to cosmic influences, unfiltered, vegan, those having a touching story, the personality-driven (Look, a wine by Arianna Occhipinti!), wines with small mammals on the label – one could go on.

In light of this it becomes a real challenge to surmise what may be the single bit of information on a business card-sized tag that will prompt a shopper to reach for the Capital One card.

Maybe what we really need isn’t a shelf talker — it’s a fog horn.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at



Stephen Meuse can be reached at

Red wine, please
Hold the cream and sugar


I was pouring one white and three red Bordeaux at Central Bottle on  a Friday night a few years ago with the idea of playing a little catch-up on a neglected category. I’d noticed that the only attention the little Bordeaux corner got was from French speakers and a few people of – shall we say – mature years.  My boss Liz Vilardi pretty much summed up the problem in her teze for the event in the morning email newsletter: Bordeaux. Bor-d. Eaux. Bor-ing. Irritatingly expensive.

She went on to say that she thought the tide was turning, although my sense was and is that this is optimistic. The reaction of visitors to the tasting table that night, particularly the younger ones, bore this out:  namely, a sip followed by either no reaction or a frankly puzzled look. After a couple of hours of this, I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself. I tried the old trick of suggesting these were wines that would come into their own taken alongside the right food (no less true for being a cliché, by the way).

Then, while chatting with a 20-something Chinese couple who were clearly interested in the subject but not appreciative of what they were tasting I tried this gambit: “Bordeaux,” I said, “is a cup of black coffee.”

By way of explanation I noted that black coffee isn’t something we like straightaway.  If we get interested in coffee as youngsters it’s typically because it’s been made into something more in tune with immature tastes by being lightened with milk or cream and sugar – familiar flavors children know and instinctively like.  It’s only later, if ever, that we learn to appreciate coffee taken straight-up, with no fat or sweetness added to mitigate its strength and bitterness.

Black coffee is a frankly adult taste; it bypasses all the usual pleasure receptors and rings a bell deep in our most grown-up part.  I can’t say what part this is exactly, except that it may be the same one that takes pleasure in hard work or in solving a knotty problem.

I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself.

This resonated with the young couple, so I started using it whenever anyone was wondering why they should consider Bordeaux when so many other wines offer more gratifying fruit and less chafing tannins.  I explain that even the Brits – who had long been the primary market for the wines of BDX — were already defecting in favor of Australian and Chilean lollipop wines in the 1980’s.

Part of the fault for this can be laid at the door of younger drinkers with untrained palates, but the Bordelais need to shoulder some blame for not caring as much about the quality of the coffee they were brewing.  It may be that the growing interest in ‘mineral expression’ and in the low and no-sulfur production methods that result in drier, more savory wines will gradually put a new generation of young wine drinkers in a position to more readily appreciate classical Bordeaux style.

Let’s hope so.  A region with so glorious a past, one that has contributed so much via its classed growths to the notion of wine as an elite, civilizing beverage, shouldn’t be allowed to sink into obscurity — on any grounds.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

How to speak wine bar now

I’ll admit to
I’ll admit to being a little in love with the analytic tool known as the the semantic square.   There’s seduction in the way it gives clarity to certain kinds of ideas one struggles to achieve by other means.  A neatly designed square is particularly good at illuminating how perceptions shift as you move from one position to another along notional axes.

The one below is a result of my interest in a phenomenon we’ve been watching for several years now: the fashion among younger wine enthusiasts and the retail shops and sommeliers who cater to them away from well-known wine producing regions and international varietals toward lesser known regions, hyper-local cultivars, and naturalist approaches to winemaking.

It’s been clear for some time that what once was a modest outpost of wine counter-culture has migrated toward the normative –  not at your local Capital Grille maybe, but in smaller, independent, mostly urban restos/wine bars with a claim to have their fingers on the pulse.  Today the epitome of cool is the wine bar where you don’t recognize a thing on the list and everything came into being with as little winemaker intervention as possible.

As in all fashion systems, the goal seems to be for insiders to distinguish themselves sharply from outsiders by creating barriers to comprehension. In other words, you can’t join the club without understanding the code.  What follows attempts to show how the code operates in this particular instance. It also suggests how reflecting on the means we use to conceptualize wine can offer insights into what we choose to drink and why.

Continue reading How to speak wine bar now

Memoirs of a wine lover
Casanovas aren't what they used be. Neither is their wine.

“After that we went from one casino to another, not intending to commit any debauchery, but for want of something better to do.”  

History of My Life (Volumes 1 3729_bIn the field of playing the field, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was a giant who gave his name to generations of comparative midgets – guys who couldn’t pretend to attain the lofty standard he set for both quality and quantity.  For The Original, the highly intelligent, well-educated offspring of an Italian actor and actress, no effort, ingenuity, or gold was to be spared in pursuit of a date – or “asssignation” as it was then styled.

Casanovas aren’t what they used to be.  Such is the conclusion I’ve arrived at as I near the end of volume 2 (of 12!) of the work, one of the authentic literary monuments of the eighteenth century and a real trove of detail about the pursuits, politics, clothing, domestic arrangements, and, of course, gender relations of the Europeans who lived it. Food and wine figure prominently here either as accompaniments to seduction or the actual instruments thereof. Remind me to tell you the one about Emilie, Armelline, and the one hundred Venice oysters.

With the aid of an electronic version of the memoirs (courtesy of Project Gutenberg) I was able to note each instance of wine mentioned in its 2679 pages.

Many are likely to be familiar to the 21st century reader, namely: refosco, muscatel, muscat, Champagne (lots of this), red and white Burgundy including Chambertin (“Truly Chambertin and Roquefort are excellent things to restore an old love and to ripen a young one.”), Bordeaux, Malaga, Tokay, Rhine (or Rhenish), alicante, Cape (South Africa), La Mancha, Montepulciano, Montefiascone, Languedoc (as Beziers), Orvieto, Hermitage, Gatta, Neuchatel, aleatico (as “Oleatico”).

Continue reading Memoirs of a wine lover Casanovas aren’t what they used be. Neither is their wine.