Devil's Advocate - When Not to Keep Quiet

When you are served a faulty bottle of wine at a professional event, should you say something? Or remain politely silent? Robert Joseph shares his experience of making the wrong decision.

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Robert Joseph, with horns, and a finger over his mouth
Robert Joseph, with horns, and a finger over his mouth

A wine friend with roots in India was telling me about a dinner at a winery in Portugal where the owner had lamented the way political correctness was making him pause before telling racist jokes ‘to break the ice’. “Obviously, I’m not a racist myself” he said, and none of the 10 or so white male guests, including an MW or two, apparently disagreed.

Unlike my friend - the only person of colour at the table - who couldn’t resist expressing his feelings. People who aren’t racists, he quietly explained, don’t feel the need to rely on that kind of humour. “I did feel quite lonely” he said, when recalling the uncomfortable event.

A day before that conversation, we had been sitting side by side during a very memorable tasting of 16 Super Tuscans of varied vintages at Vinitaly hosted by Italy’s first MW, Gabriele Gorelli. Described as the ‘Judgment of Verona’, it marked the first time the 16 members of a group called the Historical Super Tuscans had got together to present their wines in the same place at the same time.

In alphabetical order, they brought the following wines:

 

Antinori                                 Tignanello 2007

Badia a Coltibuono               Sangioveto 1999

Brancaia                               il Blu 2001

Castellare                             I Sodi di San Niccolò 1999

Castello di Albola                  Acciaiolo 2009

Castello di Ama                    L'Apparita 2009

Castello di Volpaia               Balifico 1993

Felsina                                 Fontalloro 2004

Folonari                               Cabreo Il Borgo 2010

Fonterutoli                           Concerto 1990

Isole e Olena                       Cepparello 2006

Monsanto                            Sangioveto Grosso Fabrizio Bianchi 2001

Montevertine                       Le Pergole Torte 2014

Querciabella                       Camartina 2008

Riecine                                La Gioia 2009

San Felice                           Vigorello 2007

 

The wines were not served blind, and the idea was not to rank them – which would have been a questionable exercise, given the range of vintages. We were, however, all asked to mark the wines out of 100 to enable the organisers to create a score for the overall group. Where, in other words, do Super Tuscans sit on the hierarchy of fine wine?

The only problem was that four of the wines – a quarter - had varying levels of cork taint.

The fault in the first bottle – the Fonterutoli Concerto 1990 - was picked up by another taster sitting at the table in front of ours. After hearing his call for another sample, neither of us was sure he was right, until the replacement bottle arrived and displayed more fruit and richness. “I know this wine and vintage” he explained, acknowledging that the sample we’d had was just a little flattened by the TCA.

My Turn

Then it was my turn to be the person who annoyingly raised their hand about the other three – Brancaia 2001, Ceparello 2006 (two bottles) and Vigorello 2007. By the time I got to the third of these, frankly, I felt embarrassed to be the lone complainant but, to be clear, there was no disagreement from other tasters; these wines were all significantly more tainted than the Concerto. My rationale was that if the scores we were all asked to hand in at the end of the event were to have any real value, there was no point in any of them being based on atypical samples.

A few hours later, I was one of a minority of males sitting at another landmark Vinitaly tasting headlined ‘Iconic Women of Italian Wine’. Again, the lineup was impressive, and again, TCA raised its ugly head in the shape of a badly corked bottle of Arianna Occhipinti’s Vini de Contrada 2019 from Sicily. This time, however, like everybody else in a crowded audience, I said nothing. Just as no one raised the subject of the levels of Brettanomyces in Elena Fucci’s Titolo Aglianico del Vulture 2012 – though both faults were acknowledged in private discussions after the tasting.

Was I too ready to raise my hand at the Super Tuscan tasting? Or wrong not to do so at the subsequent event? By any standards, my behaviour was certainly inconsistent. And should the brett and TCA be treated separately at events like these?

Some readers may take a different view, but I believe that if you are confident in thinking the particular bottle of wine you have been served in almost any situation to be atypical (most likely spoiled by TCA or oxidation), you should say so, especially if others are tasting it seriously alongside you. Otherwise, you are doing the wine the same kind of disservice as you would be in allowing someone to be publicly judged on the basis of a misquotation of what they said. For the same reason, I also believe that, if you can, you should share your experience with the distributor and, ideally, producer. Far too many winemakers claim to have few, if any, TCA problems, because ‘we don’t get any complaints’.

(As an aside, when organising tastings myself, instead of having the front or left hand side of the room all sampling from the same bottle - and possibly unknowingly having the same TCA-flattened experience - I now ask for the wines to be served alternately, to every other taster. This allows anyone with any kind of doubt to sniff one of their neighbours' glasses to see if there is any evident difference.)

Can't Complain

Raising the subject of brett at a public event is trickier. Here, we’re not talking about some tasters in the room getting a different experience to others; if one bottle reeks of horse stable-floors and/or Band-Aid, so will the others. But sensitivities and tolerance to the fault – and it is a fault - vary, as does tasters’ knowledge and experience. And, now that many producers are cutting down on filtering before bottling, there are growing numbers of examples of wines becoming more perceptibly bretty over time. What may have been a ‘slightly animal’ character that made a red more complex a year ago, may now be mouth-dryingly offensive. But maybe not to everybody.

I happen to be quite sensitive to brett (while tolerating low and – to my tastebuds inoffensive – levels), but I know enough people who aren’t, to understand that having someone interrupt a tasting to complain about it may not always be welcome.

Oxidation and TCA are different. Good winemaking, storage and shipping and careful attention to closures should go a very long way to eradicating both, just as education and social pressure should remove racism and misogyny from dinner tables. But the speed at which any of this happens will depend on the way we all react.

If I had been at that dinner in Portugal, would I have broken ranks to tell my host what I thought of his comment? I'd like to say that I would, but, as happened at the Iconic Women tasting in Verona, maybe I'd have waited for someone else to say what needed to be said. And when no one had done so, we'd all have taken another spoonful of bacalhau and politely changed the subject, like well-brought up Englishmen uncomplainingly sipping our oxidised wine.

What if the politically incorrect joke had been about gender? How would any of the Iconic Women Winemakers in Verona have felt about my, or my fellow male guests, remaining silent about that?

If some readers dislike my treating racism and misogyny as though they are comparable to something as trivial as faulty wine, I entirely take their point. Of course, their significance is quite different, but the point I am trying to make is that, while keeping quiet is often the easier option, it can have consequences.

It’s just possible my friend’s words may have made his host pause before inflicting one of his 'ice-breaking' stories on another set of guests. And maybe another couple of complaints about poor bottles might be all it takes to prompt a winemaker to pay more attention to how she seals her bottles.

So, yes, looking back, I should have gone on raising my hand in Verona.

 

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