Wine is a hard thing to discuss without sounding like a blowhard, which is probably why sommeliers and niche publications willing to embrace pomposity exert a tremendous amount of power over not only the industry, but also the public perception of vineyards. In light of this skewed power structure, voicing an opinion can be a bit daunting – no one wants to sound ignorant. But the real faux pas, according to Wine Battles CEO Mike O'Brien, is pretension. O'Brien's subscription service pits pairs of vintages against each other in a battle for tannic supremacy and asks that budding oenophiles act as color commentators and scorekeepers. The idea is to make drinking wine fun again.
"I always thought wine was such a spectacular addition to dinner, but sort of controlled by uptight people who made me feel stupid," says O'Brien. "We want to talk about it in layman's terms."
O'Brien grew up in Monterey, California, where he lived alongside great vineyards – occasionally stomping grapes – but he didn't get a chance to develop his interest in wine until after he profited from an early tech venture. Ever the engineer, O'Brien's approach to the appreciation of fine wine was methodical. He carefully compared bottle after bottle until he knew what suited him. He kept notes. "I like to quantify," he says. "I have a need to quantify this stuff."
Wine Battles offers four-, eight-, and sixteen-bottle tournaments featuring four, eight, and sixteen bottles of wine apiece. Using rubrics shipped with the bottles, players judge each wine based on a variety of criteria – nose, acidity, bite – then choose a winner. Each player's judgments are entered in an online database that, over time, uses the information to begin recommending different bottles. Champagne, Pinot Gris, and Cabernet battles have already been held and the most recent overall winner, selected by the entire WB community, was a 2009 Galante Vineyards Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.
But the real tournament takes place before the bottles get shipped. O'Brien and his team narrow down a field of roughly 80 wines as they search for appropriate entrants for each tournament. The wines they choose are both high end, think $120 a bottle, and slightly obscure. O'Brien likes to feature unknown vintners because it allows him to offer better wines without hiking up the price of the battles. And the price is a rather attractive proposition unto itself. Each battle costs roughly $70, which means that the bottles involved are generally being sold under market value. Wine Battles is not intended to be an affordable wine of the month club, but it can certainly serve that purpose.
Wine Battles is not a great activity for a couple, but if you plan on having a group of friends over and don't want to host another BBQ, it works rather well. The most important thing: Get the conversation going quickly. O'Brien says he likes to designate a moderator who can serve as an MC, getting even the most reluctant tasters to share their opinions. Not knowing much about wine doesn't, he points out, make your opinions any less valid. [$68 for a single battle; WineBattles.com]