Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hybrid George M. Taber: Review of A Toast to Bargain Wines

George M. Taber, author of the famed Judgement in Paris, participated in a number of panels, and gave the Keynote speech at the recently held European Wine Bloggers conference (Brescia, Italy, October 12th - 14th), all on the same topic: storytelling.  In these public appearances, Mr. Taber mentioned his soon-to-be-released book A Toast to Bargain Wines -- even reading some passages from the book in an early morning workshop -- and I, at that time, resolved to acquire and read said tome when it became available.

The full title of the book is A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks.  I found some dissonance between the title and the layout of the book, on one hand, and the title and the content on the other. 

In Taber's three previous books (Judgement in Paris, To Cork or not to Cork, and In Search of Bacchus), an average of 280 pages was devoted to the telling of the "story." In this book, what I consider "the story" runs for approximately 158 pages, with another 123 pages taken up by a buyer's guide to bargain wines; material which, in my humble opinion, and based on the title, is referential and, as such, would have been better positioned in an appendix. I read the "story" component of the book and set the reference material aside for use when needed. It is not clear to me that this is the best medium for delivery of point-of-use information such as a wine-buyers guide anyway. If you are in the grocery store and decide that you want to purchase a bargain wine, an electronic reference source would have greater utility.

In contrast to its prominence within the book, the presence of the buyer's guide is not indicated in either the main or sub- titles. At the wine bloggers conference we were told that our stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This story has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a buyer's guide.

In terms of organization, the book is divided into three major sections: A Global Business in Turmoil; The Iconoclasts; and The Wine Revolutionaries.  Each of these sections is preceded by a short introductory paragraph which, in my view, could have been aggregated at the front of the book to provide an overall roadmap.  I needed a navigation aid through the first four chapters; something to tie them to the title.  The first chapter (titled Embarassing Moments in Wine History), for example, seemed to have no place in the book until Mr. Taber ties it to novice tasting capability in a closing paragraph.  In Brescia Mr. Taber had recommended using an anectdote as a "grabber" to start a story and, maybe, that was the intent here but, if so, it had me faked out.

The book was slow-moving and somewhat non-specific through Chapters 3 and 4.  In the chapter titled Unravelling the Mysteries of Taste, Mr. Taber spends a lot of time on Tim Hanni and his battle to have the wine establishment understand that people taste differently.  The inclusion of Hanni's Taste Sensitivity Assessment was interesting as it helped in understanding some of the differences between reviewers' reports and helped me to understand where I stood on his scale.  While interesting, this chapter seemed broadly applicable and no significant attempt was made to tie it to the main topic of the book.  I raise the same issue with the chapter on wine judging competitions.  At the end of the story Mr Taber tried to tie these all into the reader being an arbiter of his/her own taste but by this time the damage had been done.  The attempt to correlate should have been done up front.

The story reached its pinnacle in the wine revolutionaries section and, specifically, the stories around the introduction of Two Buck Chuck and [yellow tail].  This is George Taber at his best, tieing primary and secondary sources together in a tightly spun yarn which is both entertaining and revealing.

One of the sessions at the European Wine Bloggers conference was titled Stories Never Told.  One of the shortcomings of this book is that it does not adequately tell the consumer story.  Iconoclasts, winemakers, gatekeepers all get their day in the sun; not so the customer.  When the writer segments the market, it is from the producer/retailer perspective: luxury; ultra-premium; premium; low cost; and extreme value.  No attention is paid to population segmentation of the type that has been discussed by Lorey and Poutet and Marion Demoisser -- and written on extensively in this blog -- which segments customers by drinking profile: regular drinkers; occasional drinkers; and non-wine drinkers.  The issue that I would have liked to see addressed was whether the bargain wines covered in the book are penetrating the regular-drinker segment (as implied in the subtitle) or whether they are increasing the number of drinkers by positively impacting the actions of the occasional and non-wine-drinking customers. This is a story that is of exceptional importance, especially to markets such as France which is experiencing declines in regular drinkers and increases in occasional and non-wine drinkers.

I have bought George Taber's books in the past because of his capabilities in research and storytelling.  In this book, Mr. Taber makes himself a part of the story.  Beginning in 2009, he blind-tasted five or six wines per day in order to come up with the final best buy list included in the book.  In the section on gatekeepers, Mr Taber warned us about their role and positioning as arbiters of taste, yet he plays the role of gatekeeper in this book.  And he does not even alert us as to his Sensitivity Taste Assessment so that we can get a sense of where his taste lies; that is after warning us in the body of the document to pick a gatekeeper who is most aligned with our taste and to then stick with that individual. 

I get the storyteller Taber brand; the jury is still out on the hybrid (storyteller-gatekeeper) Taber.

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