How Should We Evaluate Distinctive, Original Wines?

wine evaluationWhat is going on when we evaluate a wine (or book, film, or musical work for that matter).

Here is one way of conceptualizing it. We develop standards of quality through conversations between experts. In the wine world those standards are often region-specific and are sometimes supported by legal requirements. But the standards themselves are perceptual patterns. There is a flavor and textural profile, a complex pattern of sensations, that a typical Chianti should exhibit that is different from a typical wine from Medoc, for instance. In many regions, especially in Italy and France, there are official panels of tasters that enforce those standards. Only wines that exhibit the appropriate flavor profile are allowed to use their regional designation on the bottle. But even in the absence of official tasting panels a consensus can form about what, for example, a typical Napa Cab should taste like.

These standards are reinforced by wine education institutions. As a result, blind tasters can gain expertise in identifying the origins of a wine. Without these quality standards blind tasting would just be a guessing game. Part of developing a sense of the taste profile of a region is developing a sense of what an ideal representation of that taste profile is like. Thus, in addition to a standard about what a typical wine from a region should taste like, we get a perceptual standard for what the highest quality Chianti or Napa Cabernet should taste like. So there are two standards at work—a standard of typicity and a standard of exceptional quality.

Individual wines then are assessed with regard to how close they conform to those two standards—a typical wine from that region and the best wine from that region. This is a quantitative judgment because we’re concerned with how much order of a certain kind a given wine exhibits. Wines that are typical of a region must have all the expected elements in the right relationship. Wines of exceptional quality must have all those elements but with more intensity and complexity yet all coming together harmoniously—with more order than the typical wine.

According to this conception of wine evaluation, wine scores such as Robert Parker’s 100- point scale make some sense since we are engaged in a quantitative judgment. A score of 95 indicates that a wine has more of that expected order, a clearer, more focused, and more intense sensory pattern, than a wine that scores 85. The latter may be typical but not exceptional. However, it doesn’t follow from the fact that a judgment is quantitative that we have a precise way of measuring that quantity. The degree of order a wine exhibits is something we cannot be very precise about. This is where wine scores become problematic. The scale suggests more precision than is actually available to us. Nevertheless, despite this practical lack of precision, conceptually this form of evaluation is clear enough. We have a general principle embodied in our perceptual capacities—a taste profile representing what is typical or ideal. And a judgment about how much conformity there is between the individual wine and the general pattern of either typicity or exceptional quality.

But there are deep problems with this way of conceptualizing evaluation.

The problem is that many wines have a kind of individuality to them. They express the distinctive features of a particular vineyard in a particular vintage or they may express the distinctive style of a particular winemaker. This consideration is independent of whether the wine is typical or an ideal representation of its region. In fact if it’s quite original it may lack typicity and differ markedly from an ideal expression of its type. What makes such a wine work are the relationships among its elements independently of any relationship to an externally imposed standard. For wines that have that kind of individuality, there is no independent standard or taste profile that it must conform to. Conformity would destroy its individuality. The only way to honestly evaluate such a wine is according to some standard internal to the wine, such as past vintages or by trying to assess how much of its potential for excellence is realized in the particular bottle you’re drinking, which we can know only vaguely if at all.

Of course, individuality is not the only thing we value about wine. But it is what separates the best wine from just ordinary, good wine. Although we can intelligibly ask how distinctive or original a wine is, the question of how closely it conforms to an external standard is irrelevant. At this point, it isn’t at all obvious what a wine score is supposed to measure. Such wines create their own rules.

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