Wine Critics and Their Biases

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Wine writer Jamie Goode raises a key question about wine criticism—should critics allow personal  style preferences to influence their judgment?

He thinks style preferences inevitably color a critic’s judgment:

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

He grants that what he calls ”spoofulated wines”—overly-ripe, high alcohol, heavily oaked wines—taste out of balance to him and thus are inherently deserving of low scores; and such differences in preferences explain widely divergent scores among critics.

Thus he concludes “It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into.”

Truth be told, I don’t think a wine critic’s job is to be objective. It is to discover what is beautiful, different, or remarkable, to make readers think about their own preferences, and lead them to discover something they might not otherwise have noticed. To do that, one needs an aesthetic perspective, a distinct point of view, not objectivity.

But it is important that critics avoid certain kinds of biases regarding price, reputation, marketing, or personal connections, and if a critic’s preferences are too idiosyncratic her reviews might not be generally useful so it is an interesting question whether objectivity, when appropriate, can be achieved.

I think Jamie is right at least about the relationship between balance, style, and the role of personal preference. Balance is a function of the relative prominence of the various components of a wine—fruit, acidity, tannin, oak flavors—and the extent to which they seem integrated and unified.  Decisions about how to adjust this balance account for at least some stylistic differences among winemakers as well as differences among consumers and their preferences.

Because balance is an inherently relational concept, an assessment of how a number of independent variables in a particular case are related, there can be no objective measure of it. In other words, the balance point of each wine will depend on its unique characteristics and thus there can be no general rule, scale, or metric that determines balance.

But balance isn’t all there is to wine quality. Complexity, intensity, length of finish,  how much flavor there is on the finish as opposed to merely tactile sensations, and liveliness on the palate are also elements of wine quality. Unlike balance these are more one-dimensional, and at least roughly measurable because they are primarily about magnitude and thus can be represented on a scale. I would hesitate to say these are purely objective properties—differences in physiology and background will produce disagreement about them among experienced critics. But the fact that a single magnitude is being assessed reduces the scope of disagreement and increases the possibility that, through training, diverse tasters can calibrate their judgments to each other.

I might not prefer “spoofulated” wines, but I can nevertheless judge their complexity, concentration, length of finish etc. assuming my bias doesn’t prevent me from attending to these features.

But this raises another more far-reaching issue. The judgments of wine critics may be initially subject to all sorts of biases. But can an attentive, self-aware critic overcome these biases? If a critic recognizes that they prefer certain wine styles to others, and is able to analyze the way such biases influence her judgments, can she overcome the bias?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is.

There has been a good deal of research on cognitive biases. The work of Daniel Kahneman especially has demonstrated that our thinking is subject to all sorts of unconscious biases that seriously distort our thinking.

For instance, take what Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy”—our tendency to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, and hence foolishly to take on risky projects.  Yet, clearly, if we know about this bias and discipline ourselves to stick with the hard evidence and have the appropriate skepticism with regard to unsubstantiated predictions, we can overcome this bias.

Are taste biases similar?

With regard to criteria such as overall hedonic quality, on the basis of which point scores are awarded, it is hard to see how biases can be avoided. If your judgment is simply a matter of identifying how much pleasure you get from a wine, then personal preference inevitably enters the picture. You can’t pretend to enjoy what you don’t enjoy or gauge how much you would enjoy a wine if only you had enjoyed it. But there is more to wine criticism than measuring overall hedonic quality.

It is common for art, film, and music critics to give positive reviews to works they didn’t particularly enjoy—perhaps the theme makes them uncomfortable, the film or score was too long, the meaning opaque. But the work might nevertheless be complex, moving, interesting, and have integrity. Pleasure is not the only criterion for judging anything and thus personal preference need not govern all our aesthetic judgments.

I see no reason why wine criticism should be different.

Four Vines Petite Sirah “The Skeptic” Paso Robles 2011

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four vinesI’ve always enjoyed Four Vines because their wines have personality which their marketing emphasizes with names such as Truant, Biker, and Maverick.  Apparently, their new owners, The Purple Wine Company, will continue their “rebel” schtick.

But there is always the issue of whether their marketing gets the personality right.

This Petite Sirah is called the “Skeptic” and the back of the bottle proclaims “A wine as inscrutable as midnight…Provocative…caramel on the nose…Profound…intense boysenberry. Keep asking, questioning and drinking deep and dark.”

I call a foul. Petite Sirah is dark in color with dark fruit flavors but there is nothing inscrutable or profound about this wine.

It is flamboyant and ostentatious, with way too much “come on” to be the “mysterious” guy in the corner and has none of the reserve of a skeptic. This wine wants to make friends.

Abundant aromas of blueberry pie leap from the glass with nicely rendered cardamom and vanilla notes topped off with pencil shavings. Savory, opulent, and round on the palate, with firm acidity, even a bit tart. The short but focused finish tastes like a shot of espresso but tannins are polished to a smooth shine and are barely perceptible. Petite Sirah is a very tannic grape with a rough texture typically used to add structure and color to a blend; the Four Vines is an unusual expression of it but one that is becoming more common as this grape gains popularity and winemakers strive to tame the rough edges to make it drinkable for people with weak constitutions.

Really quite enjoyable if you ignore the back label—in fact it’s generally a good idea to ignore the back label.

Score: 91

Ave. Price: $20

Alc: 14.3%

Budget Wine: 14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend 2011 Columbia Valley

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14 HandsSome green, vegetal notes mar the nose but warm baking spices and vanilla support berry aromas and hints of candied cherries all of which provide a sufficiently pleasant aromatic prelude to the feature presentation—a palate striving for suave sophistication. Soft and plush with a velvety texture, medium bodied, and very polished, with candied cherry the dominant flavor note, the warm, easy-going mouthfeel is the selling point of this wine. Very fine grained tannins produce a pleasant finish but the whole thing is confected. Some residual sugar is apparent, the mid-palate is a bit hollow, the flavors relatively simple. This is a wine without much soul but if you want the companionship of a pretty face for the evening this will do fine.

This is a blend of primarily Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet.

Score: 86/100

Ave. Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

Ideology and Wine: Why Arguments are Good for the Soul

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semiotic_square_wine_lovers

The pop and sizzle of wine’s ideological battles reminds us that wine is not just a beverage. A few weeks ago Robert Parker took a swipe at what he calls the anti-flavor elite—sommeliers who promote obscure varietals and less extracted wines—and the firestorm of outrage still smolders where the singed meet to lick their emotional wounds. More recently In Pursuit of Balance—a group dedicated to promoting “terroir-driven wines—held their seminar on what proper Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should taste like, and were ridiculed by the inimitable Hosemaster of Wine as “likeminded people who understood that Balance in wine is truthfully defined as the interplay of fruit, marketing, self-promotion and faux philosophy.” As you can imagine, his comment threads lit up with praise  from the fallen whose pursuit of imbalance had left them stumbling about in an oaky, alcohol-induced stupor.

Tom Wark has been notably silent of late in his crusade against “natural wine” marketing, but the guru of “natural wines Alice Feiring posted the above breakdown of wine ideologies, entitled the Semotic Square of Wine Lovers, a marketing device commissioned by Bosco Viticulori to, I suppose, help wine producers and distributors identify their target market.

Feiring proudly wears the “radical” label and I suppose this chart captures something about the voices competing for attention in the wine world. But it leaves out one significant group of wine lovers–knowledgeable consumers who are just looking for great quality to price ratio. Most of my friends who drink wine can’t afford to be wine snobs, have trouble finding “natural wines, and find the appellation system unreliable. So they go to tastings and experiment with whatever seems interesting for a good price and thus may fall into any category on any particular day. I suspect this let-a-million-flowers-bloom-as-long-as-I-can-afford-it crowd is a significant portion of the wine market.

Many wine writers express a kind of world-weariness regarding these debates about what wine should taste like. Stephen Elliot writing for the Coinoisseur’s Guide to California Wine writes:

… I cannot but question the so very predictable agendas of the true-believing parties involved. Moreover, I have become increasingly dismayed at the “with us or against us” ethos of the same, and I wonder just who any of this is meant to serve. I am betting that the principals are delighting in the publicity. It sells books and subscriptions, but more than a few of us in the business are getting fed up…We have for some time heard from our readers that they are becoming bored with the whole shtick. There have been several steady and exceptionally angry internet voices whose pique for Parker borders on neurosis, and more than a few who, like myself, are tired of being made to feel the need to chose sides, have been equally disapproving of both….Please, dear people, by all means drink what you like, but we will all be better off when we reach the point that the success of one winemaking style is not dependent upon on another’s failing. Your wine of choice will not taste any better because you look down your nose at what someone else might like.

I don’t quite understand this complaint. Wine producers and their marketers will always seek to encourage people to drink the style of wine they produce. If customers are buying your wine then they are not buying someone else’s—there are winners and losers in any market and so success might entail someone else’s failure. Furthermore, to judge something as admirable or worthy because it has certain characteristics is to implicitly contrast it with something that lacks those characteristics. To prefer everything equally is to have no preference at all. So if you find yourself consistently preferring one style of wine over another what is wrong with expressing that preference, especially if you are a taste maker in the business of persuading others to share your point of view?

To those who insist we should just taste the wine and forget the ideology, I think this attitude misses the point of ideologies. The 19th Century literary critic Walter Pater wrote:

The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end….Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.

We develop ideological frameworks because they help us pay attention to what we, out of habit, might fail to notice. Rajat Parr’s constant advice to seek balance or Robert Parker’s diatribes in support of big flavors are attempts to get us to break old habits and look at wine from a different point of view (or in Parker’s case to return to our forgotten roots). Whether one agrees or disagrees with this, I fail to see what is morally objectionable about such advocacy.

We know from all the empirical evidence that beliefs and context influence what we taste. Theories about what wine should taste like are attempts to reframe our drinking habits; they make wine more interesting not less. If they become wearisome it is not because ideas are irrelevant but because they wear out their welcome after awhile and we need new ideas—we need more ideology not less.

San Diego Wines: Edwards Vineyard and Cellars Syrah 2009 Ramona Valley

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EdwardsI’m know I’m out of season, which is not unusual for me. I suspect most people are stocking up on rosé or Sauvignon Blanc in anticipation of warm summer evenings on the veranda. But I’m opening a wine that can best be described as autumnal. An autumnal wine is dark and complex with plenty of weight and body like the clothes you wear to ward off the chill, something you sip while curling up with a good novel as the rain pummels the roof and the wind wails. Such wines get their character from oak that supplies the toasty flavors we associate with fireplaces or wood stoves.

This recently released Syrah, made from estate-grown grapes, fits that description. Fig, a little white pepper, and lots of pencil lead and vanilla enclose the scent of wet autumn leaves—a very complex nose that reveals a different aspect every time you sniff it and repays exploration. More typical berry notes grace the palate with coffee holding down the mid-palate and a robust, persistent finish. Concentrated, but despite being big and ripe, there is nothing in excess here. Sturdy and taut without an ounce of flab, a very well structured wine,with medium-grain tannins, textured but not grippy.

Oak gets a bad rap these days because of some of the clumsy, ponderous wines to come on the market in recent years. But the oak here is deftly applied and focused.

Although chill evenings by the fire are months away, if you need a wine to stand up to hefty grilled meats this summer, this one will serve nicely.

Very small production, available at their tasting room in Ramona and at selected shops in San Diego. When you visit the tasting room you get the added bonus of tasting their very fine Petite Sirah and Cabernet as well.

 

Score: 91/100

Price: $28

Alc: 15.7%

Blackstone Cabernet Sauvignon Winemaker’s Select 2012 California

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blackstone. pngPart of Constellation’s stable of supermarket wines, Blackstone’s Cabernet is for adults. Simple black cherry and loam on the nose, on the palate a little coffee with the fruit, but it avoids excessive sweetness and doesn’t pretend to be lush. It goes down easily without trying to hard. Salutary restraint on the oak chips but the palate is a little thin and tart, the short finish more puckery than drying, a passable weeknight table wine best consumed with food.

Score: 82

Ave. Price: 8

Alcohol: 13.5

Cooper Hill Pinot Noir 2012 Willamette Valley

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cooper hillWe use a variety of criteria to evaluate wine—intensity, complexity, balance, structure—and even more esoteric qualities such as elegance and finesse. Oddly enough, originality seldom appears on the list.  In fact, typicity—the degree to which a wine is typical of its variety or region, and quite the opposite of “originality”–is a virtue in wine criticism.

This is in contrast to other forms of art like painting or music where originality always counts for something.

I suspect this has to do with the role that blind tasting plays in wine evaluation. Wines that are atypical are hard to identify when tasting blind since they may not exhibit features expected of a region or variety. At any rate, I tend to go against the grain on this one—I’m always looking for original expressions of a grape or region and find new flavor profiles to be inherently exciting. Of course, the wine has to taste good as well.

So I found this Cooper Hill Pinot intriguing despite some reservations.

It has the typical nose of strawberry jam but earthy notes suggesting wet clay and eucalyptus become prominent with aeration. Red fruit, earth, and herbal notes are standard for Pinot Noir but these are given a twist in the Cooper Hill that make this wine stand out.The wine is medium weight on the palate and the cranberry-inflected fruit is not as forward as most Oregon pinots. It is a bit hollow in the mid-palate and quite tart, lacking some of the silkiness I expect from Pinot Noir,  but the finish is glorious—clean, pure, and of surprising length. It left me feeling refreshed as if I had been drinking crystalline spring water.

Oregon Pinot Noir is often described as “Burgundian”. I seldom find the comparison apt because most Oregon pinots have brighter, more prominent fruit, lack the barnyard characteristics of Burgundian Pinot Noir, and the mushroom/truffle aromas are more subdued. The Cooper Hill edges closer in style to the French version although it remains distinctive. The finish itself is worth the price.

 

Score: 90/100

Ave. Price:  $17

alcohol:  13%

Budget Wine: The Great American Wine Company Red Blend 2012

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great american wine companyMade by Rosenblum Cellars, a Sonoma winery best known for their very solid, premium Zinfandels, this wine is a tribute to “American Heroes” , the veterans who are recipients of Rosenblum’s annual donation to the USO. In addition to the patriotic sentiment, the wine is actually quite good for the price.  A little dusty earth, cardamom and hints of vanilla support the black cherry aromas all which combine for a pleasing nose. Very fruit forward and rich on the palate, with fig notes dominant. The mouthfeel is fleshy, round, and soft with almost no tannin and just enough acidity to avoid the dreaded pejorative—flabby. A little too sweet for my taste but very drinkable and full of flavor. Definitely intended to be a crowd pleaser and it succeeds.

This is a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and unlike most wines at this price point, apparently spent 12 months in real oak barrels. Rosenblum knows their way around Zinfandel; this wine maintains the flavor profile of Zin but they succeed in stripping out the overbearing tannins characteristic of Petite Sirah while preserving its bright fruitiness.

Score: 86/100

Ave. Price:  $10

Alc: 13%

Biases in Crowdsourced Reviews

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crowdsourcingI’ve found crowdsourced review sites like Yelp to be utterly unreliable for anything but the most basic information about a restaurant. A new study suggests that a number of biases influence people who write such reviews.

The size and racial makeup of a city, the price of a meal and even the weather can skew the quality and quantity of online restaurant reviews, according to the first large-scale academic study to analyze how outside factors affect crowd-sourced review sites.

The study, which will be released Wednesday, used computer models to examine nearly 1.1 million reviews of 840,000 restaurants over nearly a decade.

Among the findings:

– Reviews written in the summer were more likely to be negative

– Reviews written when temperatures were below 40 degrees or above 100 degrees or when snowing or raining  were more likely to be negative.

– Restaurants in the Northeast and on the West Coast were reviewed more than those in the South or the Midwest.

– People living in urban areas were more likely to write reviews

–  Diners in large cities were more forgiving about waiting times that those in smaller communities

– Sushi restaurants were given higher reviews than burger restaurants suggesting ambiance and price influenced the results.

One limitation of the study is that Yelp reviews were not included in the results.

Many of these results suggest that a person’s mood influences their judgment–not a surprising result at all.

But when this evidence is combined with an earlier study that suggests crowdsourced reviewers are influenced by what other reviewers have already written, especially when the reviews are positive, there is reason to doubt the reliability of crowdsourced review sites.

There is still no substitute for a well-trained, experienced professional critic. Yes, they are subject to biases like anyone else, but professional reviewers, whose livelihood depends on their reliability, are more likely to be aware of that and make a conscious effort not to let biases related to mood or peer pressure influence them.

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