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jumping the sharkThe debate about alcohol levels in wine is not only tedious. It is causing otherwise sane people to lose their grip on reality. I’ve enjoyed Mike Steinberger’s essays on wine and food in the past, but his recent article for Wine Searcher is disturbing. The article starts out promisingly enough,deploring the grossly overpriced and overhyped Sine Qua Non (a rosé sold at auction for $42,780 last year!) which routinely gets astronomical scores from Robert Parker.

I’m not being dramatic when I say that I literally can’t stomach them. I’d think twice about dumping the wines in my sink for fear of damaging the pipes.

The complaint from Steinberger and many others, in addition to the excessive price, is that Sine Qua Non and other wines of their type are too ripe and too alcoholic. Nothing new about this accusation—this debate about Parker’s palate and over-ripe grapes has been going on for decades; and Steinberger concedes he and his low-alcohol partisans are having no luck convincing the rest of the wine world that they are right:

Personally, I’ve made my peace with this kind of polarization. The evidence is overwhelming – tastes vary dramatically, and one man’s nectar is another man’s rotgut. That’s just the way it is, and I think it’s part of what makes wine such a compelling topic and rewarding hobby.

Good point. If we all liked the same wines, wine would be boring with nothing to talk about. But the frustration of failing to convince his fellow wine lovers must be getting to him. He then goes on to say:

Critics, of all people, have an obligation to take a stand, and if you truly adore the subtlety and elegance of La Tâche, it is impossible to believe that you can derive equal pleasure from wines like Krankl’s The 17th Nail in My Cranium (it’s a Syrah that weighs in at around 16 percent alcohol). These are wines that offer completely conflicting notions of balance and quality – and, no, it doesn’t matter a bit that they are made in different regions and from different grapes. In fact, I’d say that any critic who gives whopping scores to SQN and then turns around and does the same with DRC is not really a critic; he’s a shill or – worse – a cynic, deliberately not coming down on one side or the other for fear of offending his audience or costing himself potential readers/subscribers.

Huh? This is absurd. For those unfamiliar with the jargon, DRC refers to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, producers of La Tâche arguably the finest Pinot Noir in the world—elegant, full of finesse and subtlety, and relatively low in alcohol. La Tâche is radically different in style from Sine Qua Non. The former is seeking elegance and finesse, the latter raw power and concentration. Why can’t I admire Sine Qua Non for its power and La Tâche for its subtlety?

No doubt, these high-scoring, over-ripe, over-the-top new world wines such as Sine qua Non and Saxum are garish and exaggerated, trying too hard to be hedonistic.  I couldn’t possibly drink more than one glass in an evening. I prefer Burgundy Grand Crus—it’s not even close. But the Sine Qua Non is still an achievement; it is one of the better wines of its type and I can recognize it as such. Steinberger is claiming that wine critics in principle cannot maintain the objectivity to judge wines they don’t prefer according to their merits.

Think of how ridiculous this sounds. According to Steinberger if I prefer impressionist paintings I must therefore despise cubism because they are radically different styles of painting, and the features that make impressionist paintings lovely are nowhere to be found in Cubism. Moreover, I could not judge Picasso (in his Cubist period) as great a painter as Monet, since I prefer Monet’s style, without being disingenuous and cynical. This is absurd. Part of developing critical expertise is developing the ability to judge merit without wholly succumbing to mere personal preference. Personal preference cannot be eliminated from the equation—why would we want it to be. But good criticism should teach us something about the wine, not just about our likes and dislikes.

Someone striving to look beyond personal preference to find something intriguing about a wine other critics praise is neither a shill nor cynical—it’s called curiosity. It is hard to think of anything more cynical than the view that there is no such thing as expertise, only prejudice and corruption.

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