My Three Quarks post this month is a somewhat revised version of my two recent posts on Edible Arts exploring whether wine tasting should strive for objectivity.
One of the often repeated objections to the validity of wine criticism is that the influence of alcohol destroys the capacity for good judgment. Unlike music or film criticism, wine criticism is necessarily performed while inebriated and is thus inherently unreliable.
The standard response is to point out that wine tasters and critics typically spit when confronted with a large number of wines thus limiting their exposure to alcohol. But alcohol is absorbed through the tissues in the mouth. Just a few sips of wine will give you a mild buzz even when spitting.
Is this really an issue? I doubt it. In fact mild inebriation might improve wine criticism.
There is some evidence that mild inebriation enhances sensory experience. Test subjects in a variety of experiments show an enhanced ability to detect aromas when under a mild alcoholic influence:
Endevelt’s team then tested the senses of people in pubs around the cities of Rehovot and Herzliya. Forty-five volunteers were asked to perform a scratch-and-sniff test, in which they had to identify which one of three odour compounds was different from the other two.
Across all three experiments, the team found a correlation between a person’s blood-alcohol level and score on tests of odour detection and discrimination. But while low levels of alcohol improved performance, too much – about two units within an hour for women and three for men – led to a significant reduction in sense of smell.
In addition there is some evidence that alcohol enables certain kinds of learning and memory because the release of dopamine strengthens synapses and the reward systems in the brain.
But perhaps more importantly the mildly intoxicating effect of wine consumed in moderation helps us engage with reality. Wine has long been recognized as a social lubricant enhancing sociability, conversation, and graciousness in part because of the alcohol. In other words wine makes us more receptive to a sense of community and the emotional register of people around us.
It is not implausible to think this heightened sensibility achieved through mild intoxication might also make us more sensitive to a broad array of properties in wine, more aware of subtle shifts in the flavors, contours and textures of the wine, and more aware of how the complex dimensions of a wine come together to form a unity with distinctively aesthetic properties such as elegance, finesse, and harmony.
The capacity for receptivity is fundamental to all aesthetic experience. If receptivity to aromas and sociability is enhanced by small quantities of alcohol, why not the full array of properties and their relationships available in wine?
Wine critics, drink up!
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.
When drinking fine wine, we tend to focus on the intensity and complexity of aromas, the lushness of the texture, how refined the tannins feel, and the length of the finish. But, thanks to modern wine technology, most of the wine you buy above the $20 price point will have intense aromas and a plush, refined mouthfeel. Lost in our pursuit of power and luxury are more subtle features that are difficult to pin down or describe.
Great wines, even those that are powerful and impress with their size and weight have a gentle, inner beauty that emerges from nuance and subtlety. They have complexity but it’s not doled out all at once and can be sensed only by carefully observing a wine’s motion.”Finesse” is what we usually call it, and many of those industrial wines that seem of high quality don’t have it.
But to discover these dimensions of a wine you have to allow the wine to take control, giving the wine a chance to direct your attention. Like two dancers in sympathetic motion, taster and tastant melt together becoming one, as if we sense in the wine an offering, a generosity that too much aggression or impatience will destroy. Gracefulness really is a form of grace.
Discovering these dimensions of a wine takes time. A cursory tasting, a need to move on to the next flight, and a calculative frame of mind that attempts to add up a score will not allow them to emerge.
If something hits you over the head, it isn’t nuance. If it screams it isn’t tenderness.
Wine and, according to Otis Redding, young girls share this need for tenderness.
In the debate about whether winetasting is subjective or objective we need more nuance. One side claims wine tasting is subjective because we can’t agree on wine quality. The other side claims there are objective, chemical components of wine which explain wine flavors and aromas about which we can be correct or mistaken. Both sides are right but express only partial truths. There are objective and subjective dimensions to wine quality.
The problem with the objectivist view is that a collection of chemicals doesn’t add up to beauty, finesse, complexity, or any of the other aesthetic concepts used to describe wine. But that needn’t leave us mired in subjectivity.
That we have different responses to wine is inevitable given our biological, cultural and personal differences. What matters is that in our tasting we adopt a form of play that creates space where something indeterminate or unusual can be sensed that can disrupt our expectations and give us a clearer view of a wine’s quality. But this will work only if we engage the wine as we would a work of art; our own sensory and emotional experience is itself an object of reflection. In other words, we should consciously embrace our perceptions of unfamiliarity, confusion or even dislike in order to open up opportunities to taste what we might have missed. Embracing displeasure and questioning pleasure are essential elements of the process.
Of course in the end the wine must give pleasure in order to be positively evaluated. But the process must involve some questioning of the assumptions we bring to the table when we taste.
Responsible wine criticism involves taking a critical approach to wine appreciation in which we become aware of our perceptions and feelings and experience them as experiences, a form of self-relatedness in which our reactions are part of the wine’s meaning. This is different from an attempt at pure objective description. There is no attempt to ignore or discount one’s personal reactions but to look at them as something which themselves must be assessed.
We evaluate not only the wine but our assessment of the wine.
Obviously, this kind of critical reflection doesn’t guarantee a quality judgment. There are no guarantees. But critical reflection is essential to any account of objectivity that has a chance to succeed.
Since I’ve been banging on this topic a whole lot recently, why stop now? Especially when what I’ve been arguing is supported by a luminary such as the great wine importer Kermit Lynch who is probably more responsible than anyone else for introducing Americans to wines from small, high quality, European producers.
The issue is the modern tendency to describe a wine as if it’s a basket of fruit instead of trying to articulate the personality and emotion of wine. Reminiscing about his early years in an interview for Food and Wine magazine, Lynch says:
Now you see French winemakers, Italian wine makers, saying that this wine smells like a cherry or a berry or something—no, no, back then the wines were human beings.
You know, all that berry and cherry stuff, it’s not even a practical way to talk about wine, because even if you tasted a lot of wine, if you go in and taste the new vintage when it’s three months old, it might smell like cherry. You go back a month later and it might smell like boysenberry. You go back later and think “My God! Where did that coffee aroma come from?” So by the time your review gets in the magazine, the wine no longer smells like what it did when you smelled it. That’s always bugged me, the new way of writing about wine as if it were fruit juice. When wine was described in human terms, as a man or woman for starters, then you really got down into some interesting conversations.
He’s right about this. Wines change. They’re always in motion, in the mouth, in the glass, in the bottle, and in the barrel, always interacting with their environment and showing different aspects over time. Because wine continually changes its form, even as we taste it, we have to relate it to other things that continually change such as a person’s mental and emotional state, the features of our natural environment, or the tensions and releases of music.
Wine lends itself to metaphors associated with persons because each wine is an individual and has a unique way of unfolding just as each person or song is an individual with a distinctive character.
The fruit basket approach to tasting notes does capture a part of what we taste but leaves the most important part, the wine’s process, out of the description.
Alas, I see no prospects for a change in our approach to writing about wine—we seem to like our fruit basket if only because it’s comfortable and familiar.
There is a strain of thought in the wine and food world that assumes the object of our affection, a remarkable dish or great bottle of wine, is best understood as a representation of the culture in which it is embedded rather than a composition with intrinsic, aesthetic value. On this view, our attitudes and judgments are nothing but the sum total of critic’s scores, magazine puff pieces, Facebook likes, Yelp reviews, wine education seminars–the whole deluge of information and misinformation that hurtles toward us every day, not to mention our own personal histories and educations that form our taste preferences.
The poor object, the dish or wine cuvee, is just a cipher, a placeholder, for socially-formed, aesthetic values determined by the cultural framework in which we live.
There is much to be said in favor of this point of view. No doubt our preferences are deeply influenced by culture and history. But it has a serious flaw. If wine or food quality is nothing but the outcome of agreements formed around contemporary tasting practices and popular conventions, we can’t explain how the new arises and captures the attention of people on the cutting edge of change. If great wines and cuisine are nothing but the product of dominant cultural discourses, we have no vocabulary to explain what goes on when those cultural practices are rejected and new taste preferences catch on, and we therefore miss the potential of dishes or cuvees that are off the beaten path. A set of assumptions that cannot explain change is surely deficient.
The alternative to this assumption that cultural practices and discourse determine taste preferences is to view new works in the wine and food world as having some degree of autonomy from their history of production and reception. They have qualities that appeal to us on their own terms, not just as an expression of culture.
I’m not suggesting that some works have universal appeal or express essences that are outside the influence of time and culture. Instead, I’m suggesting that some artifacts have qualities that cannot be assimilated to existing cultural paradigms. Because the “new’ matters to us, we should intentionally seek to foster sensitivity toward new directions, always on the look out for new experiences. Although wine and food are cultural practices deeply penetrated by the hierarchies of everyday life filtered through the framework of media and its ability to manipulate, works nevertheless must be viewed as having their own trajectories and potentials to be able to mount criticisms and challenges to prevailing preferences and experiences.
When natural wine became the rage among New York somms or molecular gastronomy sent chefs back to their chemistry texts it wasn’t because such moves were endorsed by prevailing cultural norms. They weren’t trendy when they first emerged. It was because someone said “ to hell with cultural norms, let’s do it differently” and set about creating works that made no sense.
New works that have some novel dimension create room for new experiences by transgressing habitual distinctions and routine behaviors. They do so because there is something about them that resists assimilation to the prevailing cultural framework. Of course, sometimes nonsense is just nonsense. There is no guarantee that what is novel will have value. But we will never discover if it’s valuable or not unless we nurture its resistance, grant it autonomy and see if it takes flight. That requires some cultural appreciation for novelty. But it also requires objects that are genuinely novel.
From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. People devote lifetimes to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to make wine. Yet we have forgotten how to drink it, if we ever knew. For in all the tasting notes, scores, marketing fashions, and sommelier exams that define our contemporary wine culture, we lose sight of wines’ deeper significance and mystery. The word “soul” has unsavory connotations so I won’t throw it around. But whatever it is that allows us to live with gratitude, conscience, humor, and eros—wine can speak to that part of us, the whole self, not that truncated part that is a palate or nose.
As wine lovers we know this implicitly but professional tasting practice typically doesn’t acknowledge it, opting instead for clinical descriptions of flavor notes and structure.
There is a place for those clinical descriptions but they don’t begin to capture the essence of wine and I wonder if professional wine tasting sometimes does wine a disservice by leaving out the emotional dimensions of wine.
In the wine world, blind tasting is the principle methodology for judging wines. Ideally, wines should be tasted without knowing the producer and often without knowing the region or varietal. The purpose of blind tasting is to eliminate sources of bias that might shape our judgments. Students being trained by the main certification agencies must devote endless hours tasting wines blind and learning to identify via the flavors and textures the origin of the wine.
But while blind tasting has its value, and is certainly useful in sharpening one’s senses, it seems to me to harm aesthetic evaluation. In fact it makes aesthetic evaluation impossible.
In the aesthetic evaluation of any artifact, the success of a work depends on how the materials that make up the work are used. Aesthetic judgment is a matter of recognizing the degree to which a work realizes the potential of its materials. Great works of art have a sense of completeness about them; poor works leave us with a sense of something missing and incomplete, a use of those materials that lacks expressiveness.
Wine evaluation is no different. A wine is good to the extent it realizes the potential of the grapes, available oak treatments and other processes that go into making the wine. Great winemaking unlocks the hidden potential of the grapes and vineyard and makes that potential available to us.
The problem with blind tasting is that if you don’t know the geographical origin and varietal of the grapes used to make the wine, you have no way of assessing the degree to which the wine realizes that potential. You have no way of identifying what that potential is. In fact, I would argue you need to know the aesthetic aim of the winemaker before assessing whether the wine accomplishes that aim or not.
Evaluations of wine based wholly on blind tasting by necessity never reach the level of aesthetic evaluation because there is no way to assess the degree of compliance to an ideal without knowing what that ideal is.
Of course, in many contexts we can taste wines blind, and then once the origins of the wine are revealed go on and complete a genuine aesthetic evaluation. But in too many contexts, such as competitions, reviews by magazines, etc. the brunt of the evaluation is based on tasting the wines blind. And sommelier certification agencies devote most of their attention to an evaluative practice that leaves aesthetics out of the picture.
Aren’t we therefore creating a wine culture incapable of aesthetic judgment?
It may not be possible to have hope for our political situation so I won’t go there. But regarding wine matters I do hope that in 2018 we can lay to rest the idea that there is some magic bullet to make wine easy. Because it really isn’t. Sure, it’s easy to find a wine to enjoy as a beverage or as an alcohol delivery system. Almost any wine will do.
But to understand wine, to grasp its nuances and complexities, to get genuine aesthetic enjoyment from it takes work and attention. Downloading an app to identify labels won’t help you. That’s just filing and bookkeeping. Even reading a few books on the subject is only a start. It’s not something you can pick up through casual acquaintance. Wine books that promise to teach you what you need to know about wine in a few breezy chapters are as misleading as the books that promise you can “teach yourself calculus in 10 easy lessons”.
And following point scores or crowd-sourced reviews tells you little except what the crowd likes. Appreciating wine is about appreciating individuality, something crowds are not well-equipped to grasp.
Don’t get me wrong. Discovering the beauty of wine is not excessively complicated. It really is not like calculus. It takes no special talent; only the willingness to drink widely, pay attention to small differences and keep track of them over many years, and place those patterns you discover in the larger framework of what others have noticed throughout the centuries of wine appreciation. In other words, it requires discipline, not talent.
It’s not easy but nothing worth doing is easy. And, really, how hard can it be to drink widely and pay attention?