Greatness in a Wine: Is it Personal?


penfolds vs hill of grace Joe Roberts AKA 1Wine Dude raised the most pressing of philosophical questions. What is greatness in a wine? A good question but Roberts’ answer is disappointing.

The context is a face-off between two exceptional Aussie wines: Penfold’s Grange vs. Henschke’s Hill of Grace Shiraz.

Those favoring Hill of Grace point out that, as a single-vineyard wine made from meticulously maintained ancient vines, it represents the ultimate Shiraz terroir expression. As a wine that can only ever come from one small place and is made in small quantities, Hill of Grace seems to fulfill the romanticized ideal of rare, authentic fine winemaking that has taken hold in the minds and hearts of American consumers (or at least of those who can pony up a price tag floating well over the $500 mark per bottle). It’s a Burgundian-style rarity, taken hold in the Southern Hemisphere.

The other contender, the better known Penfold’s Grange, is sourced from multiple vineyards with variable terroir, the best grapes from the best sites in Barossa Valley, a system that allows higher production levels, little vintage variation, and a long, documented history of dependable ageing.

So which is the greater Shiraz? Is greatness born of rarity and nature, like a canyon, a mountain or an ancient redwood forest? Or, like Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto or the career of a hall of fame athlete, is greatness in the sheer effort of creation, of wisdom, talent and artistry built upon dedication and focus? Does greatness just happen naturally? Or, like The Avengers, can greatness be “assembled?”

His answer is that there is no answer.

We can only ever really rate and compare greatness personally, because, like art, its effects on us are fundamentally, uniquely, and intensely … personal.

That doesn’t seem right and the answer is disappointing because it’s too easy. To say it is subjective is to claim that everyone’s answer is equally good which makes thought irrelevant.

Although preferences are personal, I doubt that greatness is. Greatness has to do with impact which is more or less an objective fact. I once made a group of students angry by claiming that Hitler was a great man, during a discussion of the “great man” version of history (where changes are driven by individuals, not social context). Hitler was great because he had impact, but was not good in any sense of the term.

Happily, with regard to wine, greatness does have to do with goodness. I can’t think of a wine that has had impact that was not also good in some sense. (Two Buck Chuck had impact. It is not good wine but it is considered acceptable for the price and that acceptability is its virtue)

Greatness in aesthetics suggests a level of consensus about quality as well as impact among those with the relevant experience. The Stones or the Beatles are great because a consensus formed among a wide variety of intensely interested music lovers that the music of the Stones and Beatles is significant. Arthur Lee’s Love in the 60’s or 10CC in the 70’s made good music but were not great because they lacked recognition.

Regarding Penfolds vs. Hill of Grace, there is a reason why these two wines are being compared. They are on nearly everyone’s list of excellent Australian wines. That these wines are highly regarded is not a personal judgment but reflects a consensus. Consensus is a sign of objectivity although not an infallible criterion.

The question of which is greater doesn’t have much to do with “natural” vs. “assembled”. That is a matter of personal preference (or perhaps ideology). If greatness is about impact, it seems to me Penfolds must get the edge because, as far as I know, it has had more impact than Hill of Grace. It more readily comes to mind as defining quality Australian wine.

Of course, there are many ways of having impact, only some of which involve notoriety, and thus many ways of achieving greatness. Perhaps Hill of Grace has had a more subtle form of impact on winemaking in the region of which I am unaware. Greatness is not necessarily noisy. It is also not a zero sum game.

But it has little to do with subjectivity. We are all great in our own minds but true greatness is something else.


  1. Joe Roberts commented via email; I post it with his permission.

    Thanks for the mention. I’d only offer that I think you read too much subjectivity into the conclusion. I’m not saying at all that greatness is entirely subjective, nor trying to imply that thought should be suppressed on the matter (the existence of the article is actually the primary evidence against the latter). I’m saying something a bit closer to what you have elucidated here, which is that after a certain point or quality level, most of the wine world acknowledges the greatest contenders. Just as is done is sports, etc. But past that point, at the tippy-tippy-top of the pyramid, the debate does become more and more subjective and actually is like comparing say the 1970s German soccer team to Spain’s current team and asking which is greater – it just becomes an academic exercise. I had a bit more on that but we edited it out of the original PP submission. Cheers!

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