Does it matter whether a wine is good? A lot of discussion, writing, pleasure and money rest on an assumption that it does. Lately I’m not certain.

I mean, sure, at some level, yes. But the question of goodness so quickly enters a rarefied, picayune level of hairsplitting. A real risk of division arises, between those who care about wine, and those who care too much.

Because all of us care, we assume that we care in more or less the same way. We profess to care about what is good. But how do we locate the source of a wine’s quality?

Those of us who sell wine at my workplace get together once a week to taste wine “blind.” The intention, aside from staff education, is to determine in a more or less objective context which wines we think are worth selling.

After research that includes reading wine journals and books, discussions with salespeople and examination of what’s on the shelves of both our stores and others, we choose between 12 and 20 wines at reasonable price points. We place the wines in brown paper bags. We taste together, recording our impressions on a standard assessment form regarding overall quality, flavors, weight, appropriateness with food and so on. Then, we discuss.

The underlying presumption behind the exercise is that we will gain a better understanding, individually and collectively, of which are the “best” wines. In fact, we agree much more often than we disagree. But often our consensus is at odds with the preferences of our customers.

A recent tasting of Côtes du Rhône reds, one of the most popular categories for everyday “table wines,” revealed mostly that none of us much likes Côtes du Rhône reds. And we universally disliked the ones that are most popular in the marketplace.

But what are we going to do about it? Get some new wine buyers to work for us, with more divergent tastes? Narrow the Côtes du Rhône section? Widen the Côtes du Rhône section?

Tasting blindly, it is assumed, will eliminate the peripheral attributes – label design, the producer’s prestige, one’s personal history with the wine, etc. – from an honest assessment. But what if the peripheral attributes of a wine aren’t, in fact, peripheral?

A friend who sells wine for a living recently wrote me, “(For) what actually generates sales in the (retail) market, as much as I hate to say it, there is little correlation with our personal qualitative assessments, whether they be objective or subjective. Marketing and branding play a huge role in determining which bottles a customer is likely to bring to the register, despite the fact that certain distributors, such as the one I work for, wear as a badge of honor the fact that scant few of our producers have anything resembling a marketing budget.

“This means that passionate folks such as you or I have to do our best to imbue any given bottle with that certain sense of specialness in order to get it out the door.… Context is everything with wine, and without that context you might miss the point entirely.”

But is it an honest execution of my professional responsibilities to “imbue any given bottle with that certain sense of specialness”? I spend my life with wine in part because of the stories, but whose interests do the stories serve? How do we locate the source of a wine’s quality?

I recently had dinner with the sort of enterprising, impassioned people that wine is so good at finding. Americans with a longtime interest in Italy, the couple traveled to wineries they fell for so hard that they decided to find them a place in the U.S. market. The wineries had little American representation, though, so they kept their day jobs while setting up distribution channels to make it happen. That is a lot of work, and in the best of circumstances there’s not much – if any – money to be made at it.

The wines didn’t impress me. Given the Côtes du Rhône experience described above, though, what do I know? Regardless of my “taste” (or lack thereof), I have a pretty clear sense of the market, and I’d guess this couple’s Italian wines will have a hard time standing out.

The stories they told me – of their own love for the regions they visited, of the winemakers’ humanity and conscientious viticultural practices – are beautiful. They should be told. They are part of the reason that wine matters at all. But are they part of the wine?

Wine writer W. Blake Gray recently wrote a profile of Rombauer, whose California chardonnay is, he notes,”one of the best-loved in America, not by sommeliers, but by ordinary people.” Rombauer was among the first, in the 1980s, to produce the rich, buttery style of chardonnay brought on by 100 percent fermentation in new American oak and copious stirring of the lees as the wine ages in cask and undergoes full malolactic fermentation.

It was popular from the beginning, so the challenge for Rombauer was to find enough fruit sources to scale up from 1,000 cases per year to the current 100,000, while maintaining a consistent product. Consistency and market presence are paramount.

Rombauer’s winemaker, Richie Allen, told Gray, “They’re wines that we’re incredibly proud of. I worked at Penfolds (whose Grange wine is one of the world’s most coveted) and one thing I learned from (chief winemaker) Peter Gago was, you don’t make what you like, you make what sells.” The nakedness of that statement is impressive. Its power is irrefutable, even if its claim isn’t.

This is Rombauer’s “story,” even if for me it serves as anti-story. It’s exactly the sort of situation – large-scale, market-driven, with active disregard for the vagaries of climate – from which wine provides me an escape. But 1.2 million bottles of Rombauer chardonnay are consumed every year. It must be good.

How do we locate the source of a wine’s quality? Perhaps the better question is, how do you locate the source of a wine’s quality? And how do I? And how might we best have a nice conversation about it? And over which bottle?

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]