I've been thinking lately about the idea of quality. One of the stock answers I've develop to questions about moving away from the Bay Area is "better quality of life." To be honest, I don't have a good explanation about what that means - differences in cost of living, climate, and culture obviously affect the qualities of day to day life, but can you really know that this affect will indeed be better? I moved to San Francisco from Chicago eleven years ago, and don't regret a single moment, but I can't honestly say that the "quality" of my time here has been any better than it would have been if I'd stayed in the mid-west.
So there's the set-up - quality is probably a concept that at best is nebulous and subjective, and at worst is completely impossible to define. I began my wine career working for a large gourmet super market chain, and they have explicit standards of quality that determine which products are sold in their stores. This is similar to wine-guru Darrell Corti deciding not to sell table wines with over 14.5% alcohol in his family's Sacramento store. These decisions might be deemed arbitrary, capricious, or even hypocritical, but I think it's necessary to draw the line somewhere. Besides, how can you actually take a stand and believe in anything without being at least a bit of a hypocrite?
I really want to know what people think makes a quality wine. I'm not talking about preferences, just because you like something doesn't make it good, and vice versa. (I rocked out to Gino Vanelli's "I Just Wanna Stop" on the way home from work tonight - I love that song, but I'm not going to argue that it's of high quality. Conversely, I'm not a big fan of Marty Scorcese's films, but I respect them.) I'm not talking about merit either, the whole "XXX wine is the worlds greatest white wine." The question is basically, what's the difference between a good bottle of table wine and Thunderbird?
There are some simple background answers. Thunderbird is made from vineyards allowed to produce extremely high quantities of fruit (yields), it fortified with low grade grain alcohol, there's added sugar and stabilizers meant to both speed up the production process and extend the shelf life. Thunderbird is an industrial product, made in huge quantities.
This example is obviously an extreme - few of us drink Thunderbird (without irony at least). Industrial production isn't anathema to quality either - Dom Perignon and Cristal are made in astounding quantity and are exceptional products considering. The spirit of the question remains. Where do we as individuals draw the line on quality? Do you have to actually know something about wine to decide what quality is?
Personally, I feel like a quality wine is made with grapes and the barest minimum of required additives (cultured yeast, acid, sugar, and sulfur used as little as possible if at all). The grapes should be grown in a regional with a moderate climate, and the yields should be reasonable. The wine should be treated as minimally and as naturally as possible - no oak chips, no de-alcoholization. This is the ideal, but not every quality wine will meets all (or any) of these requirements. Obviously, all of this stuff comes from my knowledge and experience of wine.
I believe that much of the wine industry uses the general ignorance of consumers to pass of bad wine as quality. Two Buck Chuck is an easy target (basically just box-wine, bottled in glass and marked up), but the trickery comes at all levels. No winery in Napa will tell their costumers that they remove a degree or two of alcohol after fermentation from their expensive cabernet sauvignon.
I'd love to hear what people think defines quality. What do you look for when you drink wine? When you think a wine is really good, why? Is there a common theme throughout different types of "quality" wines? Does enjoying a wine mean it's good? Does a wine have to be good to enjoy it?
Think about it. Pour yourself a glass, and take just a few seconds to ask yourself what it is you're tasting. Let me know - I'm really curious.
Here's a wine to try this week:
2006 Edmunds St John Bone Jolly Gamay Rosé - hot damn this tastes good!