If we keep in mind the distinction between evaluation and appreciation, most of the controversies in the wine world can be cleared up, or so I argue in my Three Quarks Daily post this month.
We really should not allow journalists to write philosophy. In the Napa Valley Register their wine columnist Allen Balik pontificates on the nature of greatness in wine. After complaining that the word “great” is overused (no doubt) and much rumination on how greatness can’t be measured or quantified (indeed) he spins out this pearl of wisdom:
True greatness cannot be expressed by a high price tag or a critic’s score but rather must be based on our own experience and impression of what is exhibited in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.
So greatness simply means “what I like”. Talk about overusing a word, if “greatness” means “what I like” we could just get rid of the word “great” and replace it with “yum”.
Among the many meanings of “great” suggested by Merriam Webster are “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness”, “eminent or distinguished”, “principle or main”, “markedly superior in character or quality”, etc.
Nowhere in MW’s careful specification of uses for “great” does “what I like” appear.
I too would not want to define “greatness” in wine in terms of scores arrived at by a consensus of critics, if only because scores might indicate greatness but don’t tell us what it is about the wine that is great. But at least a wine highly rated by most critics has achieved something “remarkable in magnitude”, distinguished and “markedly superior in quality”. Whether I or anyone else happens to like the wine is immaterial. There are many highly scored wines I find disappointing. But that doesn’t diminish their achievement. My subjective impressions are not the measure of all things.
I recently tried to define greatness in wine as a function of depth, mystery, and resonance, properties which I think are discernible in great wines. Whether that account succeeds or not is not for me to judge but surely we can do better than “what I like”.
Why are otherwise intelligent people attracted to subjectivism like moths to a flame?
Despite the historical importance of blending wine, especially in Bordeaux, and the current popularity of red blends on the supermarket shelves, increasingly among the wine cognoscenti, wines from a single vineyard, a single block, a single clone, even a single barrel are popular. Winemakers today are less inclined to show off their blending expertise and would rather showcase the distinctive characteristics of a single source, especially the vineyard, unsullied by outside influence.
Is this a fad or a more or less permanent trend? It’s hard to say. No doubt the wine world is fraught with style changes—witness the reduced use of oak in Chardonnay or lower alcohol levels in Cabernet in recent years. It may be that we will tire of the whole fascination with the vineyard and return to the idea of the winemaker as the mad mixer of many influences creating a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
But, on the other hand, perhaps what we have discovered is that nature, once set in the proper direction, can produce greater differentiation on its own. Perhaps we get more differences by letting the ensemble of environmental effects take their own course rather than trying to direct them through conscious intent. If so, the current fascination with single vineyard wines will only accelerate.
In the end it’s about creating difference and nature may be more creative than we think.
In most areas of life, mystery is a good thing. Literature, film and science depend on mystery for their very existence. It’s what drives an unfolding plot and the dogged search for an explanation. Religion is loved in part because it lends mystery to life. Yet, when it comes to wine, mystery is something everyone thinks we would be better off without.
Perhaps this zeal to eliminate mystery comes from wine’s position as a cultural symbol of sophistication. Perhaps people feel if they lack wine knowledge they appear unsophisticated so to relieve a sense of collective inadequacy we need to make wine into something ordinary and accessible. But, more likely, wine’s complexity seems like something nearly unmasterable and just too much work. So people involved in the selling of wine try to sell it as something as comprehensible as orange juice or soda.
But this attempt to demystify wine betrays the secret of all motivation–the fun is in the mystery, not the mastery. One of the loveliest facts of life is that the more you learn, the more there is to learn. Learning increases a sense of wonder because it expands the facts on which to build horizons. That is surely true of wine knowledge.
Wine is phantasmagorical, constantly mutating, reacting to geographical and environmental conditions, and changing shape depending on who you are, when you drink, where you drink and with whom. And always with the sense that there is something else there to be uncovered. Demystification means knowing exactly what your getting. Wine is fun because it can never be reduced to a set of fixed characteristics that one could simply know.
All those confusing labels, exotic locales, varying vintages, and proliferating varietals are stage setting for the unexpected and the astonishing. To demystify it is a crime.
Esther Mobley’s paean to aged wines is a wonderful evocation of the joys of finding that gem still going strong after 30 years in the bottle. But that is often a solitary love affair as most wine lovers like their wines young and fresh finding the aromas of old books and dank basements to be off putting if not disgusting.
I share Ms. Mobley’s passion, but even she is puzzled by the lure of old wines as she runs through several possible explanations, all found wanting:
Maybe we project the aura of an aged wine’s rarity, and its often-accompanying expense, onto our sensory perception of it. Precious things taste better than ordinary things. The liking-it stakes are higher.
On the other hand, some of the pleasure may be chemical. As it ages, wine can reveal more umami flavor, that nebulously delicious taste sensation.
But she rightfully rejects these explanations because they fail to acknowledge that love of old wines is more an intellectual pleasure:
That doesn’t satisfy me, though. The joy of aged wine can’t be merely chemical, because I know that it rewards knowledge. This joy began to reveal itself to me only once I began to speak wine’s language of aroma, flavor and structure. In a cruel paradox, the more old wine disappoints me — and boy, does it love to disappoint — the more I’m drawn to it.
For me the attraction is in part sensory. There is a remarkably beautiful, fragile delicacy to well-aged wines that can be achieved only through many years in the bottle. Nothing else you can savor has it. But I agree with Mobley that part of the attraction is intellectual.
Aged wines reveal in a particularly evocative way that wine is a living organism in vital communication with its environment, undergoing mysterious transformations that can neither be predicted nor explained. And to sense that flicker of life amidst decay, to find an organism clinging to life suffering the travails of time—that is a classic and very human story. Wine has that uncanny resonance with human endeavor, a capacity for allegorical correlation that in part explains its allure for those of us who feel at home amidst musty books and dank basements
I suspect that most people who drink wine regularly think they are able to distinguish expensive wine from the cheap stuff. But there are numerous studies like this one that show the average wine consumer can’t do so in a blind tasting. This is not surprising. The relationship between wine quality and price is not straightforward—there is a loose correlation but with lots of exceptions. Price often has more to do with supply and demand than the intrinsic quality of the wine.
But more importantly, wine is a vague object, with features difficult to discern. The properties of fine wine are not simple sensations but involve judgments about complexity, finesse, and harmony that require the discernment of relationships between multiple sensations that experts and connoisseurs spend years learning to appreciate.
It is strange that anyone would expect the average consumer to reliably identify quality wine. We don’t have that expectation in the arts or music. Most “average” art lovers prefer Kincade to Pollock, and Katie Perry is far more popular than Arvo Part. Enjoyment and quality are only loosely correlated.
So what’s the average wine consumer to do about this?
The good news is that learning to distinguish quality wine from cheap wine is really just a matter of gaining experience. So drink more wine. What’s so hard about that? But in fact it’s not just drinking more but drinking more thoughtfully that builds competence. Start paying more attention to what you drink and note the differences. Compare wines side by side and try to describe the nuances. If you’re on a budget that’s no problem. Start out with cheaper wines until you get good at detecting differences and then gradually move into higher price tiers keeping in mind that price isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality.
Or alternatively, just buy really expensive wine and don’t worry about it. Studies show the higher the price of a wine, the more we enjoy it. Even if you can’t tell good wine from bad you will persuade yourself of the quality of the costly wine. Your pleasure will be based on an illusion rather than genuine quality but caring about reality is so, well, last year.
More drivel about wine and subjectivity, in this case, from a Professor of Oenology no less. In an article for US News and World Report entitled “You Aren’t Wrong About Wine” Anna Katherine Mansfield writes:
There’s no denying that sommeliers and and their ilk go through extensive training in order to match descriptive words to wine qualities, but that doesn’t mean that their description of a wine is right for you, or that you’re wrong if you don’t agree with it.
And after detailing the litany of reasons why people differ in what they taste and can describe in a wine, she offers balm to stressed out consumers worried about their tasting deficiencies:
This Valentine’s Day, pick a wine you already know you like, or one that you can taste at the store or winery before you buy, because all you really need to enjoy a glass is your own nose, your own palate, and good company to share it with.
Up to a point, this is good advice. Obviously you can enjoy a wine without analyzing it, and if you’re buying a wine for Valentine’s Day, wine appreciation probably isn’t the main thing you’ll have on your mind.
But the entire thrust of the article is that there are no standards by which to judge wine and everyone’s opinion is equally valid regardless of experience.
The problem is that if how a wine seems to you is your only consideration in judging wine quality, and there is nothing independent of your current opinion that your judgment must answer to—in other words if there is nothing to get right or wrong about a wine—you have no reason to explore wine further. You already know everything there is to know since there is nothing beyond your current sensations to discover.
Obviously this is a recipe for boredom and ignorance. The very idea of growth and development assumes that there is something you don’t know that requires further inquiry. (One would expect a university professor to know this. Go figure)
The article begins with a complaint about how often the taste of the wine does not conform to the tasting notes on wine bottles, which she argues are presumably written by experts. Well no. Tasting notes on wine bottles are written or at least vetted by marketing departments interested in selling wine. They use whatever descriptors will convince you to buy. So I wouldn’t take them as the standard.
But when you find that a tasting note by an independent critic does not conform to what you taste in a wine, the best thing to do is taste again and again in order to taste what the critic does. In the end you might not succeed because as individuals we sometimes do differ in what we can taste. But more often than not you will discover something about the wine that you didn’t taste before investigating.
The point of this is not that you want to train to be a sommelier but that you want to maximize your enjoyment of the wine. Quality wine always has more to give than what we are aware of in the present moment. The point of wine education is to enhance experience, not to diminish it.
This tendency, when writing for the public, to flatter everyone’s untutored opinion is neither good for the consumer nor good for the wine industry. It encourages the industry to produce mediocre wine and the public to accept it without question.
We were tasting wines in flights of three all of the same varietal, and we were informed of the varietal, region, and producer but did not know the order in which the wines were poured. This is a relatively easy blind tasting task, or should have been. For the third flight we were (allegedly) tasting quality Merlot or Merlot-based blends from Bordeaux, Colorado and Virginia. But, alas, the pourer made a mistake and slipped a Syrah from Northern Rhone and a Southern-Rhone style blend from California into the line-up so only one wine was Merlot.
None of the gathering, which included several trained wine tasters and experienced wine lovers, noticed that two of the wines were not Merlot. (I correctly identified the Virginia Merlot but failed to identify the imposters.)
I do not mention this to call attention to blind-tasting miscues which are so frequent as to be unremarkable. This episode illustrates how essential top-down, cognitive processing is in determining what you taste. Because we were told the wines were Merlot no one noticed the meaty, black pepper, herbal, or balsamic flavor notes typical of Rhone-style wines. The absence of plum or chocolate, typical of Merlot were chalked up to the wines being atypical.
In other words, what you taste depends on what you know. (I suppose one could argue we tasted the Rhone characteristics but didn’t attend to them but the result is the same)
This situation is structurally very similar to the renowned experiments carried out by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. Brochet served wine science students two glasses of identical white wine except that one wine was dyed red. The students overwhelmingly described the red-appearing beverage using descriptors characteristic of red wines. This study was widely reported in the press as demonstrating that wine tasting is BS. But of course that is not what it shows at all. Like the experience with my tasting group last week, these experiments show that what we know (or think we know) will significantly determine what we taste. Blind tasters are taught to use decision-trees in which features are excluded based on what you know. When there is deception involved those decision trees inevitably lead you to the wrong inference.
Importantly, subsequent studies performed by Burnham and Skilleas and reported in The Aesthetics of Wine confirm the dependence of taste on cognition. They gave tasters a wine and asked them to determine whether it was a red wine or a white wine dyed red. The tasters overwhelmingly correctly identified the wine. When the possibility of deception is made explicit, tasters are not fooled by visual information. Again, what you believe determines what you taste.
The important implication here is not to exonerate our tasting group from an egregious error but to point out that the appreciation of wine benefits greatly from wine knowledge. If you don’t know what to look for in a wine, you probably won’t find it.
Oh, and as a side note, in that flight which included a highly respected, very expensive Syrah from Northern Rhone and a wine of similar reputation from California, the Virginia wine, Rendezvous from RdV Vineyards, was preferred by most members of the group.
Jamie Goode’s post What is Greatness in a Wine? is insightful because it moves greatness out of the realm of subjectivity and personal preference:
Greatness is conferred on wine by a community of judgement. When we, as the wine community, taste wines together, we recognize the great wines. It’s an aesthetic system, where we form a judgement together, by tasting together, discussing, listing, buying, consuming.
But ultimately this kind of answer is unsatisfying. When the wine community confers greatness on a wine presumably there is something about the wine that warrants such a judgment. Without an account of what that is, the judgment is threatened with arbitrariness. The job of a critic is not just to announce greatness but to explain it by giving reasons. A genuine understanding of “greatness” would include those reasons not just the fact of widespread agreement.
Such an account of course is hard to provide. As Jamie writes, “There’s no definition that we can apply to determine whether a wine is great or not.” Each great wine will be great for different reasons and general rules that mention complexity, harmony or finesse will not capture the individuality of great wines. The best we can do is use description, metaphor or some other rhetorical device to call attention to those features that seem salient yet inarticulable.
Yet, perhaps Jamie’s idea is in the right direction. A great wine is great because it appeals to a wide range of people in the wine world who agree it’s a benchmark but often for vastly different reasons. Each person’s account of why the wine is great will differ due to biological differences, differences in descriptive powers, aesthetic preferences, and the fact that we all have different tasting histories. Thus, perhaps what makes a wine great is it’s ability to generate a verdictive consensus despite those differences.
Greatness in a wine lies in a wine’s capacity to be appreciated from many different perspectives, a multi-dimensional potential that invites a common verdict despite vastly different ways of arriving at it.
Thus, it is not the fact of agreement that makes a wine great but an underlying breadth or accessibility that makes it alluring from multiple points of view.
Sadly, without some way of quantifying this “underlying breadth” or specifying its causal mechanisms that explanation is close to empty—like attributing the effectiveness of a sleeping pill to it’s dormitive power.
But it does point to the fact that this underlying breadth is not an arbitrary accident but is in some sense “in the wine” and perhaps it is something we can learn to sense if we practice looking for it.
The search for it is likely to be more interesting than picking out aroma notes.