Avoiding the norm


When questioned, the majority of car drivers think they are better at driving than most other car drivers. In fact, one survey revealed that no fewer than 93% of drivers believe their skills are above average (see this academic paper), and it's almost certain that a similar percentage of winemakers believe the quality of their wine is above average.

The phenomenon whereby individuals assume they are better than their fellow humans is known as superiority bias. Naturally, most people assume they are too clever to fall victim to that. Similarly, most of the world's wine is of decidedly average quality. And nowadays, improved winery technology means that following a generic winemaking formula has never been easier.

Such wines tend to be technically well balanced, with acidity, tannin, body and alcohol all carefully managed. Specific yeast strains are used to increase mouthfeel or enhance varietal character or emphasise esters. Modern procedures such as thermovinification and micro-oxygenation have become used as standard, to help ensure stability. Oak staves offer an affordable way to add a certain degree of spicy aromatic complexity.

The result is, by definition, formulaic. Wherever it may come from or whatever varieties are used, a large portion of the world’s wine production ends up being homogeneous. And for most wine drinkers, that’s normal.

Whereas we wine nerds are constantly on the quest for something different. For us, the very thing that makes wine appealing is variety and uniqueness. Hence the lust for grand cru burgundy, or the fad for fermenting in concrete eggs, or the urge to discover obscure new grape varieties and regions.

Pursuing wine that is out of the ordinary can lead the tenacious oenophile towards the world’s most engaging and delicious wines – but it can also uncover all manner of winemaking horrors. When the desire for avoiding averageness becomes fundamentalist and arbitrary, wine gets decidedly abnormal.

The worst offenders are outright faulty: oxidised, volatile and foul-smelling liquids. Even worse, they often masquerade as the most authentic expressions of their origin – yet in reality they tend to share the same dodgy aromatic profile, caused by winemaking practice. Or lack of it, perhaps.

Of course the perception of normality differs among individuals. The more familiar you become with something, the more normal it becomes.

Malcolm Gladwell discussed this issue in a recent podcast about satire. He observed that because people see what they want to see, the power of satire is all too easily undermined. The supposed victim identifies with the caricature and laughs along in recognition, while the audience laughs at the parody – and neither side feels any compulsion to change.

After all, if the clown prince of wine satire can work in the court of the Emperor himself, then anything’s possible.

Wine has the potential to be so much more than normalised plonk made to an international recipe. The vast majority of people may think they want normal wine, but the vast majority of people also think they’re better than average drivers – in other words, perhaps sometimes people need to hear a second opinion.

That doesn't mean that everyone needs to start convincing themselves they like the sort of extreme flavours you can find when winemaking goes gonzo – but it does mean that it behoves anyone that loves wine to bang the drum for supernormal wines; those that eschew mainstream, formulaic winemaking and embrace their points of difference. After all, this is exactly what makes wine interesting in the first place.