John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for October 29th 2011: How Unknown Unknowns Are Robbing Your Wine Enjoyment; Top Ten Smart, less well-known Buys
Are Unknown Unknowns Robbing Your Wine Enjoyment? Or Skip to the Smart Buys if you are enjoying wine just fine, thank you.
This week’s release themes are Sonoma and “Party” wines. The latter is pretty much the underlying theme every release as far as I’m concerned (never drink a wine that you wouldn’t bring to a party), while the former, Sonoma, sees a range of wines that are solid but not outstanding. So I’ve opted instead to delve a little into the world of unknown unknowns and focus on some less common wines worth seeking out.
NATO HQ, Brussels, June 6, 2002, Press Conference by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we do not know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld took a lot of flack for that seemingly absurd response to a journalist’s question regarding terrorism and WMDs. But maybe he is smarter than we think. Or at least maybe he accidentally hit on one of the great truths that shape our lives: ignorance. I’m talking about ignorance in the true sense of the word, that is, not knowing, or unawareness. How limited are we in our world experience, in our wine enjoyment by what we don’t know?
There’s a scientific-sounding name for the impact of unknown unknowns: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, after David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology and his graduate student Justin Kruger. One day in 1996 Dunning had a flash of insight while reading the account of would-be bank robber McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler, apparently, believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would render him unrecognizable on security cameras. So he walked into two Pittsburg banks in broad daylight wielding a gun and demanded money from the teller. At 5’6” and 270 pounds, he was not a tough character to pick out of a line up; he was arrested less than an hour after the surveillance photos of him were posted on the 11 o’clock news. Is it possible to be that stupid?
Dunning began to wonder if maybe some people might be too stupid to even know how stupid they are. So along with his graduate student they designed some experiments to test the hypothesis, and in 1999 published their results in the paper entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments”.  The capacity of our incompetence to mask our ability to recognize our incompetence is now known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I see this all too frequently in the wine world: a nighttime wine course at a community college and you’ve got it all figured out. The folks who really do have a grasp on wine are the first to tell you how little they know.
The wisdom of knowing you haven’t really figured it all out is not exactly groundbreaking stuff; after all, Socrates recognized 2500 years ago that the only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing. But it did get me thinking about how ignorance also shapes consumer habits in general, and wine drinking in particular. How much does what you don’t know about wine inform your wine buying choices? Known things are comfortable, unknown things are risky, even scary. People invariably gravitate to what they know out of fear and uncertainty.
Among the billions of things I don’t know, like the exact distance to the moon or why you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway, there are at least multiple thousands of things I don’t know about the world of wine. What are the 2008 Barolos like? How did Mendoza fair in 2011? Who are the leading producers in Brazil and Uruguay? What is the best match for deep-fried crickets? (I could make an educated guess.) These are known unknowns, and knowing gives me at least the possibility of finding the answers, it’s just a matter of ‘research’. But what about the things in the world of wine that I don’t even know that I don’t know? How different would my wine enjoyment be if I knew more about the unknown unknowns?
Do you reach for the same brand each time you step into the LCBO? Do you stick mainly to the grapes and places with which you are familiar? Did you know that excellent wine is made in Georgia and Japan, and not so excellent wine in Belgium and the Netherlands? How about the black grape variety called mavrotragano from Santorini: did you know that you don’t know how tasty it can be?
As Dunning wrote in correspondence with Errol Morris of the New York Times in an article entitled: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is  “Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.”
Yes, I had to look up anosognosic as well. It means “a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability”.  Even if not neurologically, we’re all psychologically anosognomatic in one way or another. But knowing that is half the battle, and this little bit of surface research inspired by the NYT article just reminded me of how much there is I know that I don’t know, and how much there is that I don’t know that I don’t know.
I was further inspired to delve deeper into the world of unknown wine while reading Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer’s recent piece on why he no longer buys expensive wines. For Kramer, as for me and countless other wine lovers, a good part of the enjoyment comes from the thrill of surprise. With stratospherically priced wines, there is little surprise left – most are boringly predictable: “The majority of the world’s most interesting wines now come from ‘unknown’, or at least unheralded, locales.”. It’s true: while the classic regions remain classic for good reason, there’s more excitement and surprise to be found in the unknown.
So I may buy Volvo after Volvo for the reassurance of known qualities and lack of surprise, but wine buying, at least some of the time, should fall in the category of “acceptably risky” and promiscuous consumer behavior. Otherwise you’ll never know what you’re missing.
In the spirit of discovery and narrowing the field of unknowns, this week’s smart buys are mostly less-known grapes, regions, producers or unusual wine styles. One of the latter is the 2009 INAMA VIN SOAVE CLASSICO DOC $17.95. This is an idiosyncratic example of Soave, a wine with tons of character and depth including palpable salty-minerality, but some slightly oxidative and other-than-fruit notes might send some drinkers running to the nearest industrial chardonnay. I love the quirky side of this wine, made with pure, honest intentions by an artisan, Stefano Inama. Working with old vines and top sites is the key to top garganega, according to Inama, along with low yields, and minimalist winemaking. This is all of that, and more. Nature is not perfect and symmetrical, so why should wine, a product of nature, be any different?
Speaking of chardonnay, if you’re running that way, might as well save yourself a few dollars and pick up the shockingly good value 2009 BOYAR ESTATES BLUERIDGE XR CHARDONNAY, Bulgaria $11.95. Now, this may not set the world on fire, but it’s surely as good as a boatload of $15-$20 chardonnay, delivering easy-drinking pleasure with an extra measure of class for a very fair, unknown region type of price.
If Bordeaux’s your passion but you’re tired of the over-inflated prices of the name-brand appellations, take refuge in the value afforded by the region’s less-celebrated backwaters. The 2009 CHÂTEAU HAUCHAT AC Fronsac $14.95 has a fine mix of red and black berry fruit, integrated wood, sappy, fleshy fruit extract, excellent complexity, balance, depth and long finish, especially at this price.
If full-bodied, heady, amarone-style wines make your taste buds tingle, look to spend about half the money for similar depth in the 2004 CESCA VICENT LO PIOT DOCa Priorat $25.95 . It’s an over the top though not atypical Priorat (in Catalonia’s hinterland), with a whopping 15% alcohol and flavours firmly in the baked/raisined/dried berry (i.e. amarone) spectrum. Yet striking minerality born from the region’s schistous soils emerges on the finish, making this a wine with it’s own unique sense of place.
Also off the beaten path but worth a look for fans of new world-style cabernet seeking new horizons is the 2006 LENTO LAMEZIA RISERVA DOC $19.95. Calabria rarely figures on anyone’s fine wine map for a myriad of reasons, least of which is the capacity to produce interesting, and even excellent wines, as one stumbles across from time to time. This is made from a southern Italian stew of magliocco, greco nero and nerello calabrese (did you know these grapes even existed?), delivering a compellingly spicy, earthy, savoury, ripe black fruit flavoured wine, reminiscent of warm climate cabernet sauvignon.
See all of this week’s unknown smart buys here, and happy discoveries!
From the October 29th Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
1. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.