Monday, January 23, 2006

Fine Whine

It's quite unusual for me to point people at the comments section of a Slashdot story. Usually there's nothing to see on /. except the usual Natalie Portman / Soviet Russia / Beowulf Cluster idiocy, which is great fun if you're 15 and have no social skills, but which is excruciatingly tedious for everyone else.

What's doubly unusual is that the Slashdot story is about wine. Seems a company in Japan claims to have developed a gadget that rapidly "ages" wine, doing in seconds what would normally take years or even decades.

The comments cover most of the salient points. Some posters argue that it won't catch on, because people are so stuck on the traditional way of making wine. Others point out that a lot of people are into wine solely because it's expensive (and therefore sophisticated), so they won't go for anything that makes it less of a luxury item. Some posters quote studies showing that wine conoisseurs often have trouble distinguishing expensive wines from cheap ones in blind tastings, remarking that the whole subject is a complete pseudoscience. There's a bit of the inevitable beer vs. wine arguing, of course, and quite a few people express doubts that the machine even works, at least in the way the article describes.

Now, I like wine and everything, but I'm basically a beer geek. It's sometimes said that farmers make wine, and engineers make beer. Well, and SCA dorks make mead, but that's beside the point. I have to say that if someone invented a gadget that made beer taste better, I doubt there would be any controversy about it. Beer's not generally regarded as, or priced as, a luxury item, and the price tends to reflect the actual cost of ingredients and of distribution, where wine pricing is a black art that reflects perceived scarcity, name recognition (for both the winery and the geographic area), ratings by a handful of superstar reviewers, current fads in pop culture, and so forth.

It's notable that the original story's from the Sydney Morning Herald, since Australia seems to be the blessed counterexample to the whole wine-as-snobby-luxury-item meme. If the gadget works, they'll probably go wild for it, just like they have for putting wine in boxes. It's been repeatedly demonstrated that wine in a box keeps better than wine in a bottle, but outside of Oz everyone seems very resistant to the idea, I guess because it takes away some of the mystique. Next people will be drinking the stuff out of regular glasses, and just imagine how horrible that would be.

It concerns me a little that certain elements of the beer world want to be more like the wine world. I don't know where they got that inferiority complex from, but it definitely exists. The recent push towards Belgian-style beers reflects this line of thinking. I mean, as a business person you're certainly going to be on the lookout for anything you can do that would boost your margins. You'd be silly not to. And putting strongly-flavored, high-alcohol beers in chunky bottles with corks seems to be a winner right now. It's also interesting to see the mixed reaction in the beer world to certain breweries experimenting with micro-canning, i.e. putting beer you'd actually want to drink into a can. My first experience with this was about a year ago, with the tasty products of the Oskar Blues brewery, and I have to admit it was kind of surreal, drinking something from a can and being able to taste the hops. Like boxed wine, canned beer keeps better, and it's easier to take with you if you're going camping or rafting or whatever.

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