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.
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 often hear it said that despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, drinking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If the wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And of course the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.
For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude that “only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, I think there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what’s in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it’s not all that matters and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.
Burnham and Skilleås in their book The Aesthetics of Wine engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point) but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.
Imagine 3D animations of a wine’s development over time tracing in precise detail all the chemical reactions a wine undergoes from fermentation through aging to popping the cork that can generate a recipe for all those stages. Thus, in this imagined scenario, wine factories can synthetically produce an exact duplicate of any wine you want. All wines at all stages in their development can be manufactured and sold at a modest price. That 2005 Lafite that sells for thousands of dollars per bottle, you can order it as it tasted in 2025 for about $30. The special bottle of La Tâche purchased at your daughter’s birth and opened for her graduation—no problem, just order another. The vagaries of farming, vintage variation, wine faults and supply limitations now all a part of the misty, dimly remembered past.
And let’s imagine these synthetic wines have been put through rigorous taste tests and it is demonstrated conclusively that there is no discernable difference between the synthetic wines and the originals.
Is that a wine world you want to live in?
I suspect that some people would say sure. If what matters is only what is in the glass then nothing would be lost in the 2030 scenario and much would be gained. There are benefits to a world in which even people with modest incomes can drink great wine.
But I suspect that many of us would demur. I know I would. We know that people value originals and that art works discovered to be forgeries lose all value. We are inherently fascinated by origins as psychologist Paul Bloom has shown. Isn’t part of what we enjoy about wine its connection to a place, the unique conditions of its production, and the creativity, initiative, and risk-taking of the people who made it?
The fact that wine is a collaboration between humanity and nature is part of its appeal. So is the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what you will get when you open the bottle. As Burnham and Skilleås write:
Having to expect the unexpected may not only be a fact of life in the wine world of today but also something that creates a welcome frisson in the wine lover.
So too does the sense of regret knowing that for special bottles you will never have that experience again. The maturing and decline of a bottle and the fact that all the bottles of a cuvée will eventually disappear symbolizes much about the human condition. These symbolic connections are all severed in the 2030 scenario.
Would these losses be worth the opportunity to drink a 2005 Lafite whenever we want? Would we even appreciate such a wine when perfection becomes the norm?
More deeply it’s worth asking whether human ingenuity could create the remarkable yet subtle differences that the collaboration between culture, geography and nature create?
If these considerations carry any weight for you, then your appreciation of wine goes far beyond “what’s in the glass’’.
Wine is an aesthetic object as worthy of our sustained attention as works of art or the wonders of nature. Yet wine aesthetics occupies a precarious position since wines’ charms also play well as an alcohol delivery system and a commodity beverage, which detracts from aesthetic appreciation.
As an aesthetic object the appreciation of wine depends on the practices of formal wine tasting. The swirling, sniffing, swishing, choice of glass, tasting standards, and tasting notes, etc. are designed to make the aesthetic properties of wine accessible to us. But these wine tasting practices are performed at public tastings, competitions, winery tasting rooms, as well as by wine media organizations, in contexts deeply influenced by the commercial aspects of the wine trade. Reviews are written to inform consumers, wine tastings aim at selling wine, awards at competitions are primarily used for marketing —it’s only at private affairs among wine lovers that aesthetics are unencumbered by commercial interests.
The limits of these wine tasting practices get some discussion in the wine media including debates about the meaning and appropriateness of scores, the relevance of endless fruit descriptors, the prevalence of disagreements among critics, etc. But the main problem with our wine tasting practices is that they seldom take into consideration the fact that wine changes in the glass and in the bottle. Most quality wines don’t show their true aesthetic value until many years after they are released. Yet, except in rare cases where investment decisions must be made, aged wines are seldom evaluated and are written about only occasionally. Even at winery tasting rooms, it’s an exception when older, more fully developed wines are offered as part of the tasting menu.
Furthermore, most published wine reviews and awards are based on very limited contact with the wine. Typically, a wine is evaluated in a group with many other wines that share some feature such as varietal or region, and critics give at best just a few moments attention to each one. This is especially true of large wine competitions where judges may taste over 100 wines in a day. The problem is that wines change in the glass as they are mixed with oxygen and volatile aromas are released. To get the full measure of a wine it must be tasted over several minutes if not hours. Some wines are closed (i.e. lacking in aromatic intensity) and may have rough textures unless decanted and allowed time to develop in the glass. The fact that wine changes in the glass is an essential part of the aesthetics of wine yet our wine tasting practices seldom take that into account. (This is why I review wines one at a time and spend at least an evening with each one.)
Thankfully, wine lovers in their private venues are able to take account of the full aesthetic merit of wine. But it is odd and a bit disturbing that public discourse about wine only occasionally focuses on these changeable features of wine that are among wine’s most important aesthetic features.
We wine lovers are constantly accused of snobbery, pretension, and arrogance, some of it deserved but most of it misplaced. All of this sniping, often encouraged by the media, could be set aside by simply acknowledging the fact that there are many reasons to drink wine and each require their own norms.
Sometimes we drink wine to get buzzed, to enhance our enjoyment of friends or grease the wheels of social commerce, to relax after work, or to accompany a meal. The aim of all these activities is simple pleasure and, to achieve this goal, wine quality need not matter much. Truth be told, 99% of the wines on the supermarket shelf will be satisfactory for this purpose and it’s pointless to be concerned with scores, tasting notes, sniffing and swirling or any of the other paraphernalia of wine tasting if this basic form of enjoyment is all you’re looking for. People who pretentiously introduce sophisticated tasting activities in these contexts really do risk being jerks unless their expertise has been requested.
But sometimes we drink wine in order to appreciate the wine—that’s why we’re wine lovers after all. We want to fully experience the wine and discover all there is to know about the wine and its origins—what its features are and how they produce pleasure. With appreciation we’re concerned with our own experience of the wine, an experience that has intrinsic value. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves and the appreciation of wine is no exception. We can appreciate a wine regardless of whether anyone else does and regardless of how it compares to other wines. Since the primary focus is not on comparing a wine to others except for purposes of classification and understanding, wine scores, producers, and prices have only a minor role to play in the process of appreciation. But wine talk and our ability to articulate what we are tasting is essential, because it is through shared experience that we sharpen our perceptions and acquire knowledge.
When the goal is appreciation, some of the paraphernalia of wine tasting—sniffing and swirling, tasting notes, type of glass used, temperature at which the wine is served, characteristics of the region it’s from, etc.—become very relevant. These practices make the characteristics of the wine more available. When the goal is appreciation, clowns who complain about “know-it-all” wine tasters are being the jerks. They should find a good sports bar and belly up.
Finally, we might drink a wine in order to evaluate it. For purposes of evaluation I’m interested not primarily in my own experience but in the capacity of a wine to interest others as well. So evaluating a wine brings instrumental value into the picture. In evaluation, we treat wine as a stable object that other people also have access to and as useful in generating aesthetic experiences. So we’re trying to answer the question “How good is this wine in general at producing pleasure when compared to other wines?” Comparison and judgment are essential to evaluation so wine scores and prices, if they help in the process of comparison, are essential tools as is knowledge and trends in the market, what other people are inclined to like, etc. When the goal is evaluation, people who form strong opinions and express them are playing the game correctly; people who don’t like judgments should find a beach and soak up rays, with a bottle of cheap Chardonnay within reach.
If we pay attention to how drinking and talking about wine serves a variety of purposes, peace in the wine world will reign—and maybe it will spread.
Well, we can hope can’t we?
Recently in a post complaining about how the term “balance” has been abused in the wine world, I defined it as “the relative prominence of the basic structural components of a wine–fruit, sugar, acid, tannins, alcohol and oak.” When no one element is dominant, nothing sticks out as too much, a wine is in balance. Today, I complain about confusing balance and harmony.
Balance is the crucial standard for a wine because it characterizes a wine that is pleasant to drink. Wines that are out of balance will always be unpleasant. They will be harsh, cloying, sour or clunky and include distracting elements that interfere with enjoyment. Even novice tasters can sometimes identify unbalanced wines.
Because people differ in their sensitivity toward various components in a wine there is a subjective aspect in judging balance. Nevertheless, all wines regardless of price should be balanced, and many wines under $10 achieve it. Of course many also fail because of mistakes made in the vineyard or in the winery. But balance is always achievable; it is the bottom line when judging wine quality. Because balance is a function of the relationship between several components there will be many ways to achieve balance and each varietal and region will have many balance points. Balance doesn’t require perfect symmetry. You can draw attention to some aspect of a wine and give it emphasis as long as the other components provide sufficient counterweight. Thus, many different styles are possible within the framework of a balanced wine.
It is important to keep in mind that wines can start out being unbalanced but come into balance through the aging process. And wines can start out being balanced but lose it as it changes in the bottle.
It is important that we have a word to describe what good yet inexpensive wines share and I think balance qualifies. But if we are going to describe the full range of wine quality, it’s essential that we distinguish balance from a related concept—harmony. Too often in wine writing I see balance and harmony treated as synonyms. I think they are distinct concepts.
Many wines have balance but they don’t leave an impression of movement or cohesive activity. You can pick out each element analytically and none will stand out as being too much but there is no impression of interaction among the elements. By contrast some wines of higher quality will seem alive because their components are interacting, accentuating each other but in a way that seems consonant, not simply staying out of each other’s way but influencing each other. That is harmony. When the acidity is freshening the fruit and fruit is softening the angularity of the acidity and the dryness of the tannins; and the tannins provide a foundation that lengthens the taste experience, the wine evolving through many stages with no jarring sensations in the transitions, that is the beginning of harmony. But just the beginning.
Harmony is intimately related to complexity. When wines are simple there is not much to harmonize and what harmony there is will not be apparent. But when complexity is added to the picture the possibility of a unified story, a larger whole that the elements contribute to, emerges.
An analogy with music will help explain what I mean. Harmony in music refers to the combination of different musical notes played simultaneously that produce a pleasing sound. The sounds are working together to create a unified whole in which the separateness of the notes is muted and the sounds are consonant. But a simple triad (e.g. a C chord played on the piano) is harmonic but not very interesting. It describes an important structural element of music but has little to do with musical quality if it is unrelated to a larger musical whole. But when harmony, the sense of consonance or agreement, arises from complex disparate notes over time having a tendency toward resolution on the tonic, the foundation of the key signature, then you have the basis of musical quality at least as defined in Western, classical music. The composers skill and artistry comes from being able to take contrasting, diverse musical elements and getting them to work together and seamlessly interact to contribute to an overall pattern. Complexity without harmony is cacophony although of course dissonance can be deployed if it contributes to the larger whole and the composer is able to manage it.
Harmony in wine is similarly a function of this relationship to a larger whole that emerges through complex interaction. Great wines have tension and paradox. They have a kind of nervous energy yet feel fluent and supple. They exhibit power and delicacy, profundity and charm, yet despite the contrasts it all feels well put together in a unified whole effortlessly achieved. This goes well beyond balance.
Matt Kramer in a recent article, as well as in his book, argues that harmony is a wine fundamental, something that all wines ideally should exhibit. I’ve disagreed with some of what Kramer says in that article but on this I wholeheartedly agree. It may be the most important concept in defining wine quality.
I’ve been thinking about harmony as it applies to wine this week but got distracted by the idea of balance, a related but dissimilar concept. I think there are problems with how this word gets used in some contemporary debates and so harmony will have to wait until next week.
Balance refers to the relative prominence of the basic structural components of a wine–fruit, sugar, acid, tannins, alcohol and oak. When no one element is dominant, nothing sticks out as too much, a wine is in balance. An unbalanced wine will have one or more of these components noticeably too prominent given the style of wine in question. This is an important qualification. Balance is varietal and regional specific. A Barolo will have more prominent acidity and tannin relative to fruit than a Napa Cab. But that doesn’t mean the Barolo is out of balance if it’s balance is characteristic of the grape or region.
Balance is also subject to individual differences. Individuals differ in their sensitivity to alcohol, tannins, acidity and sugar. A person more sensitive to tannins than average will find tannic wines out of balance that others find acceptable.
Here is the issue I want to point to. Over the past several years many writers and critics have been advocating for better balanced wines with less alcohol. The complaint is that very ripe wines, especially from California, are too high in alcohol and thus out of balance. Excessive alcohol and excessively ripe fruit, it is alleged, lack nuance and complexity, feel too heavy in the mouth and are thus tiresome to drink. Granted many California Cabernets (and other varietals) are high in alcohol pushing well past 15% in some cases. But high alcohol would be out of balance only if there is insufficient fruit extract and acidity to bring them into balance. And this is typically not the case. High alcohol by itself would not cause a wine to be imbalanced since balance is a relationship between several components. There are of course California Cabs that lack acidity or show distracting hot alcohol but that isn’t generally a characteristic. One might not like these wines. I’m only occasionally attracted to then. But it isn’t balance they lack but finesse.
What those who claim to seek balance in wines are after is, in fact, a different style, not more balance. They prefer lighter wines with less fruit extract and more finesse. Not better balanced wines but wines with a different balance point.