John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for Feb 16, 2013
Chaos Theory and the Importance of Good Wine Lists; Tuscany; Kosher Picks, Top Ten Smart Buys.
In this report I look at the Chaos Theory and why restaurants with bad wine lists will go out of business. I also cover the February 16 release featuring the wines of Tuscany. About a dozen wines are hitting the LCBO shelves, and overall, the quality is high. What’s also notable is that despite the Tuscan predilection in the last couple of decades for highly polished, internationally styled wines, this release highlights steadfastly traditional producers; no modern IGT blends, no Napa lookalikes. Read below for my top picks from classic appellations like Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello. Following Tuscany, you’ll find the top ten smart buys from the rest of the world and my kosher wine suggestions for Passover.
Chaos Theory: The Butterfly Effect on Wine.
Why Restaurants with bad Wine Lists will go out of Business.
(Modified from my original article published in 2012 on torontostandard.com)
Chaos theory is a fascinating field of mathematics with far-reaching implications for just about everything, including physics, economics, the weather, and whether or not you’ll enjoy your glass of wine tonight, and the meal, and the company. It has to do with the interconnectedness of all things: nothing exists in isolation; the laws of cause and effect govern all. Even chaos is predictable.
Chaos theorists study systems that are constantly changing, dynamical systems as they’re called. A minor change in a dynamical system at one point will lead to a massive change in the future. This was famously termed the “butterfly effect” by Edward Lorenz in a paper delivered 40 years ago entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? A seemingly insignificant change in one part of the system, like the gentle flap of a tiny butterfly wing on a distant continent, or the first family to default on a sub-prime mortgage, potentially leads to a dramatic outcome at some point down the road. 
But chaos, as I see it, is not limited to physical systems. Psychological chaos also exists. It’s the idea that some minor thought that flashes across the mind almost imperceptibly, insignificant at first, can change your entire perception of something over time. That little thought drops in your mind, and then ripples outward, lapping against other parts of the brain and triggering other, more powerful impressions until suddenly your life view is different.
It’s well documented that outside influences affect sensory perception. Marketers know that branding is powerful; even pre-school children are subject to the powerful influence of brand perception. In a study some years ago, 77% of children offered three bags of identical French fries preferred the taste of the fries in the bag with the MacDonald’s logo over the fries in the two generic, unmarked bags . Adults are no less immune. Time and again, studies have shown how a higher price associated with a bottle of wine correlates with greater enjoyment, compared to the identical bottle believed to be less expensive. And price is just one factor. Region, grape, producer, label, closure, critic’s review and countless other factors also affect perception of quality. (I’ll note that in these studies the wine experts are less easily swayed.) It’s not that consumers are simply being fooled, either. They really are enjoying the product as much or more. FMRI scans in study subjects show the identical images associated intensified pleasure . Sometimes it’s enough to think the wine is good. This leads to the conclusion that for most people, the perception of quality is as powerful, if not more powerful, than the quality of the actual molecules swimming around inside the bottle.
But let’s get back to chaos: does it work both ways? Does your perception of the wine spill back over to other perceptions? If all is truly interconnected, then the influences that change how you perceive the wine must also in turn be affected by the wine itself. I’d say that wine, like everything else, has the ability to change how you perceive your surroundings (aside from the effects of alcohol).
You’ve experienced how human relations can turn on seemingly insignificant details – they’re complex, dynamical system. Just think of that first date or job interview when you had an intuitive sense that things were going well, or badly, without really being able to put your finger on it. Maybe it’s a minor, mildly annoying habit like fidgeting that sets you off, a barely perceptible nasal whine or a disagreeable eau-de-toilet. Suddenly, and involuntarily, once the butterfly has flapped its wings in your mind, the weather changes. The person may start to seem a little less smart, not quite as beautiful, and finally downright unsuitable. A minor detail has coloured the perception of apparently unrelated things – is fidgeting or perfume related to intelligence or beauty? No one would claim so, but perception is powerful.
Now imagine a restaurant scenario, a very complex system indeed. The success or failure of a restaurant is based on so many factors that no one has been able to nail down exactly the secrets of success. There are the tangible things that don’t change like the location, the décor and the menu, and then the things that are constantly changing, such as the actual food delivered, the service, the mood of the maître d’ and the waiter, the company you’re with, the general vibe and even the weather. All of these elements are interconnected and each affects the perception of the others, fixed or not. A sunny day on the patio with close friends makes everything taste a little better, just as a surly waiter or a tense meeting with an acquaintance produce the opposite effect. Minor things are constantly happening that have a profound effect on your overall enjoyment – it’s chaos theory at its best.
And wine, too, is part of the puzzle. Imagine the cheerful server arrives and suggests a wine from your favorite region, one famous for its fine wine. He reassures you that it’s excellent and will be a fine match for your main course. The bottle arrives, the label is attractive, it’s closed with a high-end natural cork (or screw cap, whichever you prefer) and served at the perfect temperature. You will like the wine. And not only will you like it, but your enthusiastic energy will likely spillover to your tablemates, too, who will also perceive the wine as excellent. And not only will the wine be excellent, but the food will also taste better, the ambiance will be a little more pleasant, the location not so far out-of-the-way and the service will even appear more seamless. In the end, you are more likely to return to the restaurant.
In a study conducted by Cornell University entitled Fine as North Dakota Wine, diners in Illinois were offered a free glass of cabernet sauvignon along with a prix fixe menu. Half of the diners were told that the wine was from Noah’s Winery in California, the other half that it was from Noah’s Winery in North Dakota; both were identical (Two Buck Chuck, as it turns out). And the results? “Those drinking what they thought was California wine, rated the wine and food as tasting better, and ate 11% more of their food. They were also more likely to make return reservations.” Not only does this support the theory that everything is interconnected and that chaos theory rules, but also shows that restaurants with crappy wine lists are bound to go out of business, sooner or later.
The February 16th release features the wines of Tuscany. About a dozen wines are hitting the LCBO shelves, and overall, the quality is high. What’s also notable is that despite the Tuscan predilection in the last couple of decades for highly polished, internationally styled wines, this release highlights steadfastly traditional producers; no modern IGT blends, no Napa lookalikes. All are from classic appellations: Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello. And for the most part, they are classic, savoury, dusty, gritty wines that highlight the many faces of Sangiovese. Hats off to the Vintages team for focusing on the more unique and distinctive wines of the region.
Coincidentally I’ll be in Tuscany from February 19-24 for the Anteprime Toscane, the annual gathering to taste the latest releases from Chianti, Vino Nobile and Brunello, so I’ll save a more detailed report on the state of the region and vintage details for a later posting, so let’s get on with the highlights from February 16.
Topping my list this week is the 2007 Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva ($44.95), a very strong vintage for the wine. It’s produced from the vineyards surrounding the fortified abbey of Passignano, which have been yielding impressive wine for a thousand years. Antinori acquired the land in 1987 and has also used the Abbey’s cellars for winemaking since. This is a rich, ripe, concentrated and highly savoury example, umami-laden, with superb complexity, suave but taught and firm palate, like raw silk, and excellent length.
I’ve been an admirer of the Poliziano estate in Montepulciano for several vintages now, and the 2009 Poliziano Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano ($25.95) is well worth a look. 85% prugnolo gentile, the local name for sangiovese, is blended with cannaiolo and colorino, plus a splash of merlot to produce this wonderfully, earthy, herbal, dusty red fruit-flavoured Vino Nobile. It incorporates all of the expected savoury character of sangiovese from the region, neither overly rustic nor compromisingly modern – just right.
A pair of Brunelli also worth your attention: 2007 Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino ($41.95) and 2007 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino ($57.95). Caparzo is another longtime favorite, regularly bringing together traditional styling, high quality and fair price. The estate belongs to the single-minded businesswoman Elisabetta Gnudi-Angelini, and comprises the vineyards on the hill of Caparzo north of Montalcino as well as selected sites in the southern, eastern and western parts of the appellation. The estate Brunello is made from a blend of all of these, aged for 3 years in large (5000-8000l) neutral casks to retain the natural expression of the variety. It’s a terrific value, favourably axed on finesse and feminine elegance.
Altesino coincidentally also belongs to Gnudi-Angelini, who purchased the well-established estate in 2002 (she also owns Borgo Scopeto in Chianti and Doga delle Clavule in the Maremma). Altesino has always been on the forefront of innovation in the region, including being the first Montalcino estate to introduce the concept of cru wines (especially the excellent Montosoli Brunello) and was among the first to use small French barriques for their IGT wines and to shorten ageing in wood to preserve more fruit in their Brunelli. Consequently, the Altesino style is modern leaning, offering a fruitier, richer, riper style than Caparzo. The 2007 delivers dried red and even blue fruit on the nose, with substantial depth and intensity on the palate; tannins are light and fine-grained, evidently very ripe, while sweet, chocolaty wood notes emerge on the finish and pull this back into the more modern style category. I’d like to see this in 2-4 years when the ensemble has better integrated, and considering the length and depth, I suspect this will improve significantly.
More moderately priced and fully ready to enjoy is the 2006 Castello d’Albola Chianti Classico Riserva ($22.95). Albola’s Riserva is a lean, mid-weight, juicy-tart example with modest wood influence. The fruit is mostly red, texture is firm and dusty with mouth-watering acids, and length is good to very good.
And lastly, Tuscany is not particularly known for its white wines, but 2011 Teruzzi & Puthod Vernaccia Di San Gimignano ($15.95) is a regional stalwart above the mean. Don’t expect a fruity wine; this will appeal to those who enjoy distinctively old world style whites build on chalky, mineral, resinous flavours. The palate is light, bone dry and very crisp, and thus more suited for pairing with food than sipping. Try this with herb-flecked, olive oil drizzled Mediterranean sea bass on the grill.
Top Ten Smart Buys
Beyond Tuscany, the February 16th release offers a handful of excellent old world wines. Highlights include a pair of Bordeaux whites: the intense and age worthy 2009 Clos Floridène Blanc ($31.85) crafted by white specialist Denis Dubourdieu, and the flavourful and zesty 2011 Château Roquefort Blanc ($14.95).
A pair of Bordeaux reds is also worth considering. Put the 2009 Château De Pez ($58.95) in the cellar for 3-5 years, or pull it out for a special occasion in 2025 – this is a seriously structured and substantial wine. The 2009 Château Teyssier ($23.95) offers more immediate pleasure in a tasty mid-weight red, highlighting the quality of the 2009 vintage.
Greece and the venerable firm of Boutari offers us the 2007 Boutari Grande Reserve ($16.95). It’s an extraordinary value for aficionados of traditional style nebbiolo, which the grape of Naoussa, xinomavro, closely resembles stylistically.
One of my favorite champagnes makes a return to Vintages on the 16th: Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne ($48.95). I’m a fan of the Ayala house style, a model of delicacy and elegance (certainly relative to Bollinger champagne, which owns Ayala). This bottling, disgorged in July of 2012, highlights the mineral profile strengths of champagne, and with low dosage (7grams), comes across as riveting and fresh. See the rest of the Top Ten Smart Buys
February 16th also features a handful of kosher wines, several of which are mevushal (see definition) listed as KPM in the LCBO catalogue and on the website. It’s a challenge to make good pasteurized wine to say the least, but two stood out from the release for both their fresh fruit flavours and overall high quality. If you’re inviting me for Passover dinner this year, I hope you’ll be serving the Banero Extra Dry Prosecco ($13.95) to start, followed by the 2010 Vignobles David Réserve Côtes-Du-Rhône Villages ($23.95).
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
From the February 16, 2013 Vintages release:
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory
-  http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/preschool-branding.htm
-  http://www.darkcoding.net/research/wine%20economics_Robin%20Goldstein_vol%203_1.pdf
-  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-08/cfb-fan080607.php