Tuesday, June 19, 2007

quality is another word for pigs can fly

~My friend and winemaker, John Zuccarino, posed a question recently to wine geeks concerning a potential correlation between an increase in wine quality and an increase in the point ratings that certain critics give to wines.
~As expected, sycophants come running when such questions are posed. Instead of simply seeing the question for what it is, an attempt to analyze or observe a correlation, they see it as either an attack or an endorsement of their favorite wine critic.

John seemed to embed in his question that he believes the increase in wine quality and the increase in ratings are related. I have a problem with that.

~First, I agree that wine quality may have increased overall in the past few decades, but I believe that the quality leap is a reflection of an increase in wine consumption met by an increase in wine production and competition.
~Still, there was John's question and so I challenged for a definition, because without a clear definition of “wine quality” how can the matter even be discussed?
~John never offered a definition, so here's mine.
~In matters of mechanical things, quality is measurable by how well or even how long a device functions properly, or if it functions properly at all.
~With food production, pinning down the concept of quality is not so easy. you can say that if the food gives sustenance and tastes good it's of good quality. While the sustenance part is measurable, the taste part is not: what tastes good to one person may taste like dung to another.
~Is the quality of a steak in the way the animal was raised, in the cut of meat, in the tenderizing or aging, in the preparation, in the taste?
~Is the quality of a restaurant meal in the freshness of the ingredients, in the cooking, in the service, in the taste?
~Is the quality of the wine in the type of grape, in the balance, in the aging potential, in the taste?
~Winemakers will likely agree that the quality of a wine is connected to its level of technical flaws. But consumers generally haven’t a clue about technical flaws.

Many consumers think that wine contains three or four components—wine contains dozens of components and many of them are measurable with a lab instrument. Some components are natural, winemakers add other components, and some components insert themselves through sloppy winemaking.

One fellow in the particular online discussion that John started was in the quality-correlates-to-critics-ratings camp. But he revealed how little he knows about the make up of wine and its technical parameters. Without that kind of knowledge, how can he even begin to be an arbiter of quality?

He referred to wine as if it were art--it is, and it isn't. There's more science to wine than most people care to imagine. It's called food science and it infiltrates not only wine, plus it is a measurable part of wine quality.

~Second, critics mainly rate a small percentage of all the wines produced in this world. In part, they act on their bias—they like only certain types and styles of wine; hand them something they don’t understand and they may not like it, whether or not its quality is pristine.

In addition, and for whatever reason, critics don’t consider many wine regions important enough to gain their notice, and when they do give in to those regions they often assign the task to lesser, hired guns—after all, there’s only so many hours in one person’s day…

~One word sums up my third problem with the notion that increased wine quality and increased ratings are related: inflation.
~Not more than a decade ago, when I worked as a wine salesman for a distributor, we could see an upward spike in the sale of wines that garnered a rating of 80 to 85 points. As much as I hated to see perfectly good wines without ratings sit on shelves while the rated ones flew out the door, the phenomenon made some sense: 80 to 85 points out of 100 is a pretty good grade.
~These days, wines that score below 90 points often get little notice (and I'm still waiting for a cogent reason to disregard a wine rated 89 for a wine rated 90).
~One major wine critic seems either never to talk about or never to encounter a wine below an 85 rating. Maybe he believes he need only tell the public about wines he and his workers feel deserve high scores; that's fair enough, but he also claims that his scores are strictly personal, intended only as a guide, so who needs to know about them?
~In other words, a most famous wine critic tells the world that his rating system is strictly hedonistic: what gives him pleasure gets his interest and it may go on to get a high score if it really gets his interest.
~That's fine with me. I have no particular problem with hedonistic wine ratings, but I don’t view them as a measure of wine quality? I view them as a personal opinion.
~Quality is a measure of performance, but for it to be a meaningful measure of performance both the measuring device and the expectation of the performance has to be objective. Looked at that way, only technically superior wines have quality. Looked at that way, only a fool would care to consume wine.
~Wine quality remains a slippery concept, but if you like a wine for whatever reason that you like it, why should you care what someone else thinks of its quality, or of the wine in general? So long as it doesn't make you sick or kill you, you've got what you like.
~As a measure of pleasure, hedonism is all about subjectivity. In that regard, ratings inflation may be a measure of marketing or a measure of palate overload, but it certainly has little to do with measuring quality.

There’s a certain wine produced in California that enjoys a cult following. In the past, a famous critic has touted the wine, which is why it was able to become a cult wine in the first place.

The way in which the wine is produced, however, leaves it open to many airborne bacterial and yeast infections. As a result, most releases of this wine that I have tasted suffered from major measurable technical flaws and I now avoid the product.

Even some of those who salivate upon release of each new vintage of this wine often admit that it is spotty from bottle to bottle and that it often goes completely off while aging in their cellars.

Objectively, this wine would likely fail most tests for serious technical wine flaws. Subjectively, it remains a cult wine and probably has no trouble selling out.

~To paraphrase my friend John's question: does high praise from a famous wine critic turn a flawed wine into a high quality product?
~I believe it was Peter Pan who said that to be able to fly you must want to believe.
~Think about that the next time you taste a pig of a wine that you hate but bought because it got a 92 rating; then, imagine that it is a high quality wine and maybe you can get that pig to fly.

John's question

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
June, 2007. All Rights Reserved.


  1. TP - One of several posts in John's thread that resonated with me stated: "This is just the tip of the plethora of issues that are given birth by discussions such as the one on this thread. ... Nevertheless, I find it utterly fascinating and far less simple than some of the dogmatic opinions professed..." The more one learns about this convoluted topic, the more humbled one often becomes (notwithstanding everpresent shills, hacks, profiteers, arbiters of fashion and others afflicted with incurable cases of greed and/or hubris). Indeed, from the perspectives of the elite (e.g., Bordeaux First Growths) or the goliaths in the wine industry (not uncommonly at opposite ends of the quality spectrum, incidentally), would it be as profitable to allow this 'playing field' to become more level through freer dissemination of critical determinants? I have often felt that such 'insiders' treat wine consumers like mushrooms raised in the dark. Subjective determinations of a particular wine's relative quality -- primarily based on (subconsciously?) circumscribed sensory criteria seems to overlook this bigger picture altogether. Currently, that bigger picture requires much more time, resources, learning, and other forms of commitment to comprehend or act upon. No wonder so many over-worked and often under-informed consumers gravitate toward unvalidated (analytically speaking!) mega-validators; some of whom, long ago, may have actually aimed to perpetuate quaint practices such as 'business ethics'). Sigh. With all due respect to John, contentions that “points inflation is rubbish,” are provocative simplifying assumptions, nothng more. The following quotation is from Nicholas Faith's monograph titled Cognac: “In the the early 1980s an international firm specializing in the creation of artificial substitutes for natural tastes concocted an ersatz cognac and smuggled it into one of the routine tastings conducted by the Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac. IT WAS DULY APPROVED. By no means outstanding, said the tasters, but perfectly acceptable.” Caveat emptor.

  2. Jay,

    I'm sure that by now you know how I feel about the subject.

    I've spent many keystrokes trying to make people understand the difference between objective wine analysis and subjective wine opinions: objective analysis is that which is measurable and can be duplicated; subjective opinion is that which may be but more often is not measurable or duplicated.

    Professional wine people such as winemakers and laboratory workers engage in the former; critics and writers usually engage in the latter.

    The problem with consumers is, whether by implication or by inferrence, far too many seem to harbor the belief that the latter reflects the former.

  3. TP - Please keep those keystrokes firing. I believe that on many fronts we fully concur. Several complicating factors (RE: “The problem with consumers is, whether by implication or by inferrence, far too many seem to harbor the belief that the latter reflects the former.” ) are the Michel Rolland-esque go-betweens that cross your 'former' and 'latter' boundaries. In this respect, between the Rolland family's highly qualified analytical laboratory for wine, his jet-setting wine-tailoring advice to dozens of winemakers worldwide, and evident access to various influential circles (including critics and writers), the wine scene has probably never been more incestuous, so to speak. Sacre bleu! Indeed, 'Parker-ized' (and, by inference, 'Rolland-ized'?) wines actually have anthropomorphic predecessors in the form of Emile 'Peynaud-ized' wines. Emile -- a veritable wine hero in my book -- apparently disliked this term as vehemently as his latter day mega-validators seem to.

  4. ...and while Peynaud may have espoused definite views about wine, I seriously doubt that he espoused one-size-fits-all views about how to produce it, from country to country, region to region, winemaker to winemaker. Some seem to do that today, or at least the results of their advice taste that way.