Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Anti-American Wine 'Expertise' in Korea

A Good Red Wine Moment
Lee Je-chun: "...avoid American wines"
Toasting the Reds?
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

Now, a post on one of those worldly charms that Silly Sally has been warning me about...

Last week, the JoongAng Daily published an article by Daniel Jeffreys, "Looking for a good wine? It's all a matter of balance" (May 18, 2007). While I'm happy to read of the increasing prominence of Western wines here in Korea, I found the statements by one of the Korean wine experts a bit ... how should I say? Um ... idiosyncratic.

I'm no expert, though, so I sent an email to my old friend and wine expert Bruce Cochran, asking for his opinion. At the time that I sent the email, the article was not available online, so I didn't send the entire article but typed up a few selected quotes for Bruce to consider.

Here is my initial email to Bruce on the subject:

Bruce, I have just read a somewhat disconcerting article on wine, giving the opinion of Korean experts, and I'd like your brief but considered (polite) response to some choice quotes and paraphrases of quotes from one expert. I'd provide the entire article, but it seems closed to online viewing.

Here's what Lee Je-chun is reported to have said:

"The most important attribute of a good wine is it's (sic) balance," says Lee. "The exact combination of acidity, alcohol and tannins."


"For Lee, wine means red wine. Like many connoisseurs he regards white wine as frivolous. When he talks about balance he's referring to the subtlety found in vintages made with grape varietals like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon."
While I'll admit an affinity for red wines, I find Lee's attitude toward white wines off-putting. What's your opinion? Lee goes on to state:

"It's best to choose a wine that has 13.5 percent alcohol by volume," he says. "Anything less than that and the wine will be too thin with no finish. And if there's more, the wine's taste will be overpowered."

By this he means it will be too syrupy. Like other experts, Lee is critical of wines like Chateauneuf-du-Pape because their alcohol content hovers around 12.5 percent.
I'd agree that too little alcohol would make for a thin wine, but the percent should be balanced with other factors, and 12.5 percent doesn't seem bad to me. Lee adds:

And avoid American wines.

"They cost so much because the land is the most expensive in the world," says Lee. "With good American wines you are paying a lot for the soil and not so much for the grapes."
I find this hard to believe, but if it's true, I'm willing to learn. I can't believe that American land is so expensive, and I'm sure that one can find excellent American wines for competitive prices, though as imports to Korea, they might be overpriced, a point that I'd need to look into.

Anyway, Bruce, my feeling is that this expert is biased, possibly not an expert -- or perhaps knowledgeable but idiosyncratic. I'd like to post a blog entry about this, but I want to speak with knowledge, so I'm turning to you. If you want to reply, keep in mind that I'd be citing and quoting your remarks ... so you might perfer to decline.

Or you could see it as an opportunity to contribute to an understanding of wine here in Korea.

Not that many people read my blog...
After sending this email to my friend, the article became available online, so I sent it along so that Bruce could read the quotes in their context -- and I added this comment:

The article is one that I want to like, and I'm happy that Koreans are taking an interest in wine -- not just in drinking it but also in knowing about it. I've just a bit taken aback. The Korean expert's wholesale criticism of American wines may be correct, for all I know, but it smacks of the Anti-Americanism that is so common and even casual here and other places that I've lived outside of the States. I've come to consider Anti-Americanism as something like the weather -- I can talk about it, but I can't do anything about it.
So much for my remarks. Here is Bruce's response (though you might first want to go read the JoongAng Daily article):

Good Morning Jeff,

At least it's morning here. Writing is easier for me during the morning hours. I'm not sure why.

Thanks for sending that complete article. It helps me a little, as I try to understand this fellow's words, and perhaps some sentiment behind them.

Let me please just comment on a few of the quotes.

First, let's stipulate that all are welcome to the wine world, and I, personally, am pleased to see people in an old culture open up to the world of wine.

Maybe there's a little anti-Americanism with this fellow, maybe subconsciously even if it's that prevalent. If he'd prefer that we leave him to Kim Jong-il...

But never mind that for now. Let's look at the wine comments.

One thing I noticed from the start, is that he is one of the few people left in the world who are still drinking French wines. Even the French are drinking less of it. The French wine industry has been tanking (excuse that, please) for some years now. They lost England, they lost the U.S. There are reasons both for their lost business and their difficulty in trying to recover, but that takes too long for this email. You might Google the initials CRAV. That's a winemakers' trade union in the south that has become desperate enough to set off some small bombs to protest their loss family farms, while the government officials dither about what to do.

The main reason is that French wines are difficult to learn because they are named for French places. Most of the world now uses grape names. Learning your favorite places for your favorite grape is easier as a step #2 than as step # 1 in learning about wine.

I do agree with him on the importance of balance.

I also agree with the idea of too much sun producing too much sugar, which means too much alcohol. This is a problem in Napa Valley right now, because of some warmer weather, and some winemakers extract alcohol through a process called reverse osmosis.

But too much water meaning too much acidity? I think temperature is more of an influence, as in underripe grapes. I think of 1982 German wines, poised to be one of the great vintages until untimely autumn rains swelled the grapes with water. That produced record quantity instead of record quality.

Regarding his preference for red wines, that's a national trend here, too. Part of it is the perceived health benefits. Part is a maturing "national palate". But all of it is the newby's tendency to latch onto something they can easily understand, to the exclusion of many other things. How many times do we hear somebody boast, "I only drink ..." ... followed by a famous name that is so allocated that you know they can't get very much of it. Some people in the trade call them "label drinkers." It's a sign of immaturity, as is the idea about drinking only red wine. Maybe he'll grow out of that.

The comment about 13.5 percent alcohol is just pure crap. Again, I'd point to a fine German riesling as a pointed example.

And who is he to decide what is "good"? I don't like liver (except foie gras d'oie). Is liver good or bad? How about raw oysters? Not much consensus on that. I suggest to my wine class students that it's really more appropriate to say you like or dislike a wine that pass judgement on its goodness or badness.

As to Chilean wines, they aren't all grown at high altitudes. I do like them, though. Just got back late Feb from my third visit.

The comment about sunny days and cool nights is accurate and is used a lot in the wine trade.

Now as to the comment about high real estate prices in California, that's hard to argue with, particularly if you consider Napa Valley. But there are other parts, too. How much does land cost in those Burgundian vineyards he likes? Or Bordeaux (the best parts)?

It sounds to me like he was told this concept by somebody else, probably someone who is selling French wines. (Don't discount the sometimes insidious influence of the trade. I say that as a member of it.)

And this is followed by his comment about the importance of vineyard location in French wines. How much would a parcel of Chateau Margaux cost?

The concept of eating a chicken with the feathers still on it bothers me a little bit. I understand what he means though.

I think we're reading the comments of a fellow who has learned just enough to feel pretty good about his knowledge, which in the wine world means he likely has a dose of humility in his future. In his culture he's probably an expert, and "in a room full of blind people, the one-eyed guy is king." Plus, he needs to sell some wine.

It's hard to make blanket statements about wine. I've been in the business for 28 years as a retailer, wholesaler, importer, teacher, writer and tour guide, and am still surprised from time to time. It's one of the things that makes the wine world so fascinating. You can never learn it all.

Thanks Jeff, for an interesting look into a culture where wine is new. I remember when it was like that here...
Well, there you have it. Now, go drink some good wine -- or whatever you fancy. As the days heat up, I begin to prefer the chilled white stuff that Lee Je-chun warns us against...

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At 7:48 AM, Blogger Jon Allen said...

I managed to miss that article in the Joong Ang. It really did make me smile.

That Korean chap really has been taken in by his French wine seller!

A very well balanced response by your friend.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jon Allen.

I suspect that you and my friend Bruce are right, namely, that Mr. Lee has been listening to his French wine seller.

I'd also bet that Mr. Lee has got a lot of French wines stocked up in his cellar...

Let's wait until his going-out-of-business sale and get some good French wine cheap.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to admire your friend Bruce's take on wine, especially the part about only judging whether or not you like a wine rather than attempting to make a value judgment. To put it bluntly, I don't trust any "expert" who tries to tell me to like and what not to like. I like what I like, and that's that.

A common definition of "expert" is "someone who knows more about a subject than I do." Considering how much the average Korean knows about wine, it probably wouldn't take much for this man to be considered an expert.

Like you, I have been heartened to see a growing wine culture here in Korea (if only because it means it will be easier for me to get wine), but I suppose the emergence of such "experts" is part of the process.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Charles.

My friend Bruce grew up with me in the dry Ozarks drinking Boones Farm 'wines' but has gone on to become a true expert in wines and alcohol (and food).

Since he's remained based in Arkansas, he knows very well that he has to remain open to the inexperienced wine drinkers who know what they like, and he doesn't criticize them for that.

He does try to get them to taste other wines, and he talks about a more complex palate. Eventually, they learn to like dry red wines even if they, typically, prefer the sweet white ones at first.

And as for this Korean wine 'expert', Bruce is right that he'll learn a dose of humility if he sticks to his calling.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:05 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Is your e-mail address in your side bar?

At 4:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, no and intentionally so.

But I'm pretty easy to find by Googling, for a lot of my emails to the Milton List pop up as items.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Cochran is, as any respectable or at least any Arkie not too snooty will agree, far more expert at judging the precise qualities of fruits of the vine. But I'll take a stab at my take on Mr. Je-chun's opinions, admittedly, I am not nearly, heck not even in Wrigley's outfield where Bruce is concerned.

Je-chun states, "a good wine is it's balance, the most important attributes acidity, alcohol, and tannins". Apparently he pretty much writes off white wine totally.

Mr. Cochran doesn't seem to take much issue with that totally (in my humble opinion) inept appreciation of the clearer variety's particular allure. But perhaaps Mr. Je-chyun is not familiar with the raptures of the fruit of a beverage known and available in nearly every section of the world. Admittedly the alcohol content somewhat exceesd the, what was it, 13.5%?

Mr Gee-chong apparantly has never sniffed the bokay of a good "Everclear". Generally I have found that merely getting that first whiff exorcises too of the attributes he's mentioned, the acidity and the tannins. the alkyhal shines through however from that first snift.

The thing about the clear vintage is this, it helps with your diet, unless you're talking about the Japanese legislature. It doesn't do a doggone thing for your digestiun but you don't gain any wait until a day or too later.

Mr Jay-chin should hold off any opin onions about white vintages intireely until he's tasted everything the world has to over.


At 8:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I believe that the illustrious JK is discussing the merits of moonshine -- and I don't mean the sort of moonshine the we've all of us experienced nor the nonsense that goes by that name but the juice of the grain, pure, distilled alcohol.

Truly, it doth lack tannins and acidity, though it burneth going down.

Or so I'm told. I've never actually tried any, but we have an expert in JK, who undoubtedly rivals Mr. Cochran in knowledge concerning this particular variety of spirit.

Jeffery Hodges

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