If you’ve been reading this blog you know I love well-preserved aged wines. But there is more to aged wines than just flavor. My essay at Three Quarks Daily considers old wine as the celebration of lost time.
Blind tasting, in which the person tasting the wine is prevented from knowing the producer and/or price and in some cases the variety and region, is thought to be the gold-standard of wine criticism because it preserves objectivity. But some features of a wine cannot be evaluated without knowing variety and producer. You can’t evaluate whether a wine is typical of its variety or consistent with a producer’s style without knowing these facts.
Fred Swan at Norcal Wine produced a terrific summary of the pros and cons of tasting blind. Some critics taste blind and other’s don’t
In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”
Steiman is worried that a critic with an agenda or theory about what wines are best is likely to be biased if tasting non-blind.
But other critics are concerned that blind-tasting excludes important information that users of the criticism want to know:
In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.
I have found blind tasting to be important in training one’s skill as a wine taster. It forces you to really concentrate on what you’re tasting because you are grasping for any scrap of information your senses give you. But I have also found that when tasting blind, I devote so much attention to trying to guess region and varietal that I focus less on quality, which is not a good thing for criticism.
In the end, whether blind tasting is useful or not depends on the purpose of the review. As Swan notes, consumers looking for a good buy benefit if the critic is blind. On the other hand, high-end collectors looking for age-ability and the track-record of a wine need reviews that are non-blind, as do consumers who want to know the story behind a wine.
As for me, on this blog I taste non-blind. That is in part for logistical reasons. It’s a huge challenge for one person to set up blind tastings, not to mention the cost involved in opening 5 or 6 bottles simultaneously.
But more importantly, Edible Arts considers wines as works of art. And I’ve never heard of a film, art, or music critic who evaluates works without knowing as much as they can about the object of their review. All art evaluation requires judgments about how a work compares to others in its genre, how successful it is as a manifestation of its style, what it says about trends, and most importantly what the work means and how the aesthetic features of the work contribute to its meaning. None of these judgments can be made without knowing who produced the work and what the appropriate categories are for understanding it. Knowing what the work is attempting to achieve is essential for judging whether it achieves it aim or not.
The same holds for wine. Without knowing the varietal, the region, and the producer it is hard to know what the wine is aiming for and what the flavors and textures mean. The winemaker’s vision will in part be a product of where the grapes are grown, the style in which she chooses to make the wine, etc. Whether the wine is successful or not depends on knowing those facts.
Furthermore, unlike most critics, I do not taste many wines in one day. I focus on one wine and how it evolves over the course of an evening and how it drinks the next day as well, and always in a quiet place with no distractions. I want to see the wine from as many dimensions as possible. It is not at all clear to me how this tasting regime mitigates worries about objectivity. It seems to me the more you taste a wine, the better your chances of uncovering mistaken impressions one gets from an initial tasting.
But at any rate, for my purposes, this multi-dimensionality is more important than objectivity. And that requires non-blind tasting.
This post by From Vinho Verde to Barolo With Love got me thinking, once again, about why wine is fascinating.
It seems that often those who love wine, also love food, and also love to travel. Because wine and food are associated with particular regions, they become a way of travelling, visiting a country, a culture, a people, learning their likes, their climates, their daily joys from a dish and a glass.
That surely is one reason. Matt Kramer’s recent essay in the Wine Spectator adds another dimension to that thought.
Kramer argues that we live in very interesting times because the world of wine is undergoing another revolution. The previous revolution, when Mondavi, Peynaud and Baron de Rothschild, came on the scene was about using new technologies to ramp up wine quality and mass produce consistent, clean, polished wine. Today’s revolution is not about technology but about “mentality”, a word invented by the Annales school of history that means roughly a shared way of looking at the world that governs the everyday lives of a people. According to Kramer, the “mentality” driving the wine world forward today is exemplified by biodynamic winemaking and natural wines. Both minimize technological interventions in the making of wine and both pay homage to the earth and flavors that exhibit a sense of place. Kramer writes:
This is not just a matter of fashion or “changing taste.” Rather, it’s reflective of an emerging cultural shift, a rethinking of wine beauty itself. What is it that makes a fine wine original? And not least, profound?
I don’t think Kramer’s thesis is about natural winemaking or bio-dynamics in particular. In terms of sheer numbers, grapes grown biodynamically are a fraction of the total, and wines made without the addition of SO2 or commercial yeast are even less prominent. I think what Kramer is getting at is that, along with the farm to table/slow food/and heritage movements in the food world, there is increased interest in locality, artisanal products that maintain a connection to their origins in a community. Small production, artisanal, family wines fit this ethos. Of course, small production, hands-on wineries have always been around, but Kramer is suggesting, I think, that instead of being an exception or afterthought, artisanal methods are defining our concept of beauty, setting the standard for what wine should ultimately be.
I’m not sure how persistent this shift will be or even how widespread it is. But what I find interesting about Kramer’s thesis is his view that developments in the wine world are driven by ideals of goodness and beauty, the same ideals that have inspired great works of art and literature throughout history.
Wine is interesting because unlike most other consumables it engages the mind. It’s not just a matter of taste, but taste shaped by imagination and reason that can express a way of life and cause us to create new ways of living.
That is a heavy burden for a glass of fermented grape juice.
When wine is mentioned in the news (outside the columns of regularly-featured wine writers) the topic is all too often the unreliability of wine reviews. Wine critics are accused of being influenced by price and are notorious for their inconsistent judgments and cavernous disagreements about the same wine, as in this recent assessment. The implication is that wine is wholly subjective and the very idea of wine expertise should be discarded.
I’ve discussed the objectivity of wine tasting in the past (here, here and here). Some of the criticisms of wine tasting are misleading; others are simply misguided. As wine critic Steve Heimoff argued recently, the fact that there is a subjective dimension to wine tasting does not mean that wine criticism is useless. What we want from the critic is his/her personal opinion, not a scientific analysis.
Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.
Well, neither do wine critics.
Steve is exactly right. But I want to take his point one step further and suggest that, in many contexts, values such as accuracy of description or consistency of judgment are not primary—wine critics are aiming at something else.
The ultimate point of wine reviews, especially the descriptive part of the review, is not to accurately describe the wine. If it were, wine criticism would be an abject failure since critical descriptions of the same wine by different critics can be worlds apart. Instead, what the wine critic is trying to do is get the reader/drinker to taste what the critic is tasting. The critic is using words to call attention to features of the wine that another taster—perhaps less experienced or inattentive—might miss. The purpose is to direct the the reader/taster’s attention, to share an experience.
This conception of critical communication is from an academic paper written many years ago by philosopher Arnold Isenberg who was writing about criticism in the visual arts. In discussing critical remarks about the “wave-like contour” of a line in a painting, Isenberg writes:
Now the critic, besides imparting to us the idea of a wavelike contour, gives us direction for perceiving, and does this by means of the idea he imparts to us, which narrows down the field of possible visual orientations and guides us in discrimination of details, the organization of parts, the grouping of discrete objects into patterns. It is as if we found both an oyster and pearl when we had been looking for a seashell because we had been told it was valuable. It is valuable, but not because it is a seashell….And if communication is a process by which a mental content is transmitted by symbols from one person to another, then we can say that it is a function of criticism to bring about communication at the level of the senses; that is, to induce a sameness of vision, of experienced content. (Original in Philosophical Review, 1949)
Wine criticism has a similar intent. When a wine critic refers to for example “road tar” in a wine, he/she is pointing to a feature that may or may not resemble road tar. But the description is directing our attention to something the critic wants us to taste and is proposing that we call it road tar. Of course, the more precise the description, the more successful the directive is likely to be. The point is not that critics should ignore accuracy. The point is that the reader/drinker is moved to search for and hopefully find something she may have missed, or could not describe, prior to reading the description. The aim is not objectivity, and accuracy is just a means to an end. The goal is to communicate an experience.
Metaphorical descriptions of wine—as sexy, brooding, or flamboyant—or evaluative terms, such as elegant or graceful, are even more useful in getting an audience to focus on relevant features. The fact that another critic might use a different word to direct our attention is largely irrelevant. Since each of us has different tasting histories and different habits of talking about those experiences, which description works best to direct attention will be a matter of individual differences.
If, by pointing to the flamboyant personality of a wine, I get someone else to describe it as lively, I’ve done my job. We have a common referent despite the different meaning. Of course, if she describes that same wine as mute and closed, there is obviously egregious miscommunication.
So critics are not striving for objectivity. We are instead striving for awareness, mutually focused attention, and shared experience.
Wine scores, of course, are a different matter. They don’t attempt to shape our thoughts or experience. Their purpose is to help consumers find a bargain, gain advanced knowledge of quality, or provide marketing points for wineries—a purely commercial rather than aesthetic function.
To be sure, wine scores are useful to consumers but if wine criticism were to reject the tasting note in favor of an exclusive reliance on numerical ranking, the purpose of critical communication would be lost.Follow @DwightFurrow
Tom Wark’s blog post,”The Moralist the and Wine Blogger” struck a nerve, in part because I’ve had this debate with myself.
Wark, a wine publicist and widely-read blogger, summarizes a conversation he had with someone who insisted that time devoted to drinking, promoting, or writing about wine is wasted time.
It’s just that the consequences of selling wine and wine blogging don’t really play an important role in anyone’s lives. It doesn’t help people. People’s lives aren’t bettered and they don’t really flourish more because you write press releases and go on about wine ratings or wine laws or natural wine…Let me put it more bluntly: If you are not working to improve the well being of others then you are missing the opportunity to live a good life and wasting the most precious commodity we all possess—a life lived in close proximity to other conscious, living beings.
In response to the obvious rejoinder that wine gives some people great pleasure and many wine lovers find wine writing to be engaging, Wark’s critic accused him of selfish rationalization.
The claim that moral concerns ought to outrank any other consideration is not new. In fact the dominant moral theories in our moral tradition—Kantian and utilitarian theories—both entail that we have categorical duties to help others in need that invariably outweigh the satisfaction of personal desires or the pursuit of personal pleasure.
But such moralism (whether theoretical or practical) is just a load of bunk.
There are saints among us, people who seem capable of genuinely taking up the cause of humankind, of sacrificing everything personal for the sake of the common good. It is an odd psychology, worthy of understanding and celebrating. But most people are not like that. For most of us , if we are to be effective, if we are to get up each day full of motivation and drive, we must do what we love. But we cannot love everything or everyone. There is no love without discrimination. To love something is to hold it in higher regard in comparison to what is unloved. If you love your spouse, other people are less deserving of your attention.
And a life without love is not worth living.
The difficulty with moralists is that their demands are infinite. There are simply too many people in need, so to take up their cause is to crowd out all personal satisfaction from one’s life in a never ending and ultimately failed attempt to alleviate human suffering. The moralist’s demand is thus a demand to blot out what one loves—in a word, nihilism. (With all due respect to The Dude and his cohorts, it is best to avoid nihilism.)
Now, of course, from the fact that I cannot serve everyone, it does not follow that I should serve no one. But it does follow that only the piecemeal serving of individuals is possible and a general prescription to serve everyone is incoherent. So how do I choose who to serve? The only coherent answer is to serve those you love first and everyone else can get in line. (Which is not to say we aren’t traumatized by the destitution of those we cannot love)
Which brings us back to wine, because for Tom Wark and his readers (of which I am one), it is wine they love. Perhaps this is the crux of the moralist’s argument. She may be on board with my prescription to serve those you love as long as we’re talking about people. But wine is just a beverage, a commodity, not worthy of serious concern.
And now the moralist’s problem is becoming clear. She simply does not drink enough wine having not had that moment of revelation that unites wine lovers, that finds extraordinary beauty in, say, a cuvée from the hills behind Beaune.
But more seriously, artists, artisans, writers, musicians, actors, intellectuals, and, yes, winemakers, are engaged in creating something all human beings desperately need—culture. Human beings do not live by bread alone, we seek meaning and we are always in danger of losing it. Through culture we transform the organic, physical, instrumental, impersonal flotsam and jetsam of experience into symbols that express and sustain meaning. It is where the creation or destruction of what we value is enacted, where we decide what has significance and what does not.
So nothing is more important to human flourishing than to keep culture alive.
We especially need beauty in our lives, for beauty arouses the desire to draw things near, it impels love and a thirst for knowledge. The loss of beauty is like the loss of love. Without it, everything is reduced to a forgettable, discouraging sameness that is another road to nihilism.
An acquaintance with beauty will not by itself make a person better, but pervasive ugliness will surely make her worse.
Moralists have every right to censure the vicious; but they should leave the creators of culture alone (if indeed they are not vicious) because they are as necessary to human flourishing as food and water.