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The Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer wonders why good wine lovers tell bad lies.

If You Like It, It Is Good. This is, without question, the biggest lie of them all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard wine lovers—fellow writers, merchants, consumers—serve up this whopper.

Why do they do it? The answer is actually simple: They think it will make wine more accessible to more people. They think they’re doing everyone a favor by “democratizing” wine. Wine is too elitist, you see. It’s important—nay, essential—that wine be taken down a peg or two in order to make it accessible to all.

Kramer is right. This advice is indeed misleading.  “If you like it, it is good” assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers.

Sommeliers, of course, know this is misleading—that is why they put in the work to gain expertise. But they pretend otherwise because customers want their palates validated and are perceived to be intimidated if wine becomes too serious. Granted, not every situation is a “teaching” situation and sommeliers/merchants must be sensitive to what the customer is looking for. But to dismiss the possibility of educating a palate is irresponsible.

Kramer’s remarks stirred up some controversy. Wine blogger Chris Kassel takes Kramer to task for his alleged elitism.

People like Matt want to be the arbiter of what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’, what’s ‘hot’ and ’not hot’, because that’s precisely how they justify their paychecks.

Kassel proceeds to give us a dissertation on the ambiguities of “good” arguing that “good” is best understood as “good for some purpose” or “good at some price”. People who are satisfied with inferior wine are judging with a different set of criteria than an expert like Kramer would use, criteria that are more meaningful to them, according to Kassel.

That is no doubt true. But it doesn’t follow that there is nothing to be gained by expanding one’s horizons. Kassel is skeptical that there is any absolute sense of “good” that can be applied to wine (mistakenly using the Sorites paradox to make his point.) But that question is needlessly “metaphysical”. What is important is that we maintain a distinction between appreciation and evaluation. We can appreciate a wine for all sorts of reasons that are only modestly related to its quality—when relaxing after work for instance. Enjoying what is in front of you regardless of merit maybe all that matters in that context. But when we evaluate wine we are asking a different question—does the wine meet a less subjective standard, consideration of which can teach us something about the character of a wine when compared to others of its type. Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.

Kramer is engaged in this task of evaluation and is right to insist that “if  you like it, it is good” will not do.

 

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