Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It was quite a trip. My latest sojourn to New York City lasted three days. In that time, I crammed numerous meetings. Sadly, none of the meetings were wine related and so, I also managed to miss my daily muse.

Then, upon my return, I read a few blog entries by Tom Wark, at Fermentations. It seems that Tom is in a philosophical mode—and a deep one at that.

Tom’s postings concern the value of establishing a wine quality parameter. He seems to think that the task is insurmountable.

Tom’s basic point, I believe, is that quality is put forward in such a subjective manner by wine reviewers and critics, as well as by wine consumers, that an objective measure simply cannot be pinned down.

I agree, and I disagree—how’s that for being unequivocal?

First, I agree with Tom because he’s gotten it right: self-appointed arbiters of taste are forced to make definitive proclamations. If they don’t, why would anyone listen to them? And the only way anyone can make a definitive proclamation, especially when that anyone has little or no technical training, is to be subjective.

The fact that wine reviewers and critics can lure others on board their ship of fools is because so many of us are insecure about our abilities. One of the most distressing revelations I gained while operating a wine tasting room was how often people seemed proud to proclaim their lack of knowledge.

Even regular wine drinkers often started out by saying that they didn’t really know much about wine. I countered with, “You know what you like, and that’s all there is to know.” And then, I shamefully proceeded to tell them what I thought they should know. This is the same methodology that critics use. I call it gaming the consumer.

The result of such a situation is reams of paper and digital print about what “I” find appealing and little discourse concerned with what it might be that “you” want. And why not? The words of critics spring from self-assurance, they have no need for another opinion; discourse is not their modus operandi. Under such conditions, quality is a moving target.

Where I disagree with Tom, is that I believe there are ways to establish quality parameters for wine. The point is, though, that they must be established and agreed upon.

Many wine consumers would agree that the smell of TCA is not part of quality in wine. Many probably would agree that wine isn’t supposed to be vinegar. Even the most self-assured critic is likely to agree that wine isn’t supposed to taste like Coca Cola—well, most critics might agree…

In my view, the best way to establish quality is to codify the technicalities of wine. The only way for that to happen is through an organized effort of technically trained people to create and agree upon technical parameters. Following that, an organized effort must make sure that wines are measured, and the parameters are met before they are subject to analysis by critics and reviewers.

Consumers are then assured that every wine that is reviewed has been rigorously passed through a quality analysis, and that the reams of paper and digital print produced by reviewers and critics are in fact what they have been all along: a bunch of subjective opinions. It might be fun not to let reviewers and critics in on the result of the technical analysis—a method that should underline their subjectivity.

Establishing quality parameters and exposing subjectivity for what it is are actually the easy parts. The more difficult task is the one that I believe Tom’s posts truly address—a few questions.

Do we have or should we have a relationship with wine? Why?

Why do we feel the need to agree or to disagree about wine?

What is it that makes us think that others should heed our proclamations?

What is it that makes any one of us imagine that he or she is the arbiter of taste?

Why do so many of us seem to need the approval of someone else before we can enjoy a glass of wine?

When did wine become a subject of philosophical thought rather than merely the lubricant that allows philosophy to flow?

Why can't we simply enjoy something without having to dissect and obsess over it?

I’m sure Tom has other, more important questions in his head. In fact, I think that for a fellow whose function is to create and write PR for others in the wine industry, Tom may be thinking too deeply. If he keeps it up, he may find himself writing good books instead…

Tom Wark's blog

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. Thomas,

    Some (limited) progress has been made along the lines you seek. For instance:

    Survey of analytical methods and winery laboratory proficiency

    Author(s): Butzke CE, Ebeler SE
    Source: AMERICAN JOURNAL OF ENOLOGY AND VITICULTURE Volume: 50 Issue: 4 Pages: 461-465 Published: 1999

    Abstract: Results of a survey of methods of analysis for five basic measurements of wine composition (pH, titratable acidity, volatile acidity, ethanol, and residual sugar) used in commercial winery laboratories are reported. A laboratory proficiency test was conducted with cooperating wineries for the same measurements. The proficiency test showed satisfactory results for the analysis of pH and ethanol in wine with coefficients of variation between wineries of 1.2% and 1.8%, respectively. Less than 20% of the wineries were proficient in measuring titratable acidity or volatile acidity. The range of reported volatile acidity concentrations varied more than two-fold. The analysis for residual sugar yielded unsatisfactory results, with a coefficient of variation of 140% and reported values ranging from 0.01 to 4.0 g/L. The results of this preliminary proficiency test suggested a need for improved laboratory quality management systems, especially with respect to analytical method standardization and validation, and for the establishment of proficiency testing program for American wineries. An "ASEV Winery Laboratory Quality Systems" CD-ROM was developed to guide wineries from the first steps of setting up a quality management system all the way to winery lab accreditation, and a continuous and frequent inter-laboratory proficiency testing scheme has been established.

    Author Keywords: wine analysis; winery laboratory; quality systems; proficiency testing; collaborative testing; method validation; ISO 17025; ISO Guide 43; wine quality

    Also note that the International Standards Organization (ISO) has established standards for wine evaluations from a tasters perspective (I think). Just how useful or reliable this approach has been is unknown to me. No matter how well-thought-out the approaches are, a major impediment would seem to be the bothersome degree of uncertainty introduced by inter-individual differences in preferences concerning taste/aroma profiles, taste bud sensitivities, etc. The cynic in me anticipates that such programs shall remain under-funded for reasons we understand (e.g., potential losses of marketshare, manufacturing of consent by marketers and their paymasters, 'Veblen goods' may actually seem more pleasing to our brains, etc.). This is a GREAT topic that is often swept under the rug. Thanks for raising it.

  2. Bravo, signore. The thing is that many people will totally agreee with your points. Then the next day or later in the same day go back to the dissecting and philosophizing about wine. Like you say, if they let wine do what is meant to do, then we all will become less literal and monotheistic and let wine lubricate those philosophical wheels, ball bearings, pulleys etc.

  3. "Where I disagree with Tom, is that I believe there are ways to establish quality parameters for wine. The point is, though, that they must be established and agreed upon."

    Let me be clear that I have no doubt at all that criteria and parameters for wine quality can be set, either by an individual or a group, trained or untrained in wine. However, I don't think that objective, universal criteria can be established and backed by logic and rationality that allows anyone setting the standards to get away from preference.

    Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog

  4. Tom posted,

    "...I don't think that objective, universal criteria can be established and backed by logic and rationality that allows anyone setting the standards to get away from preference."

    Vinegar, TCA, Unintended oxidation, things like that, and even, as Jay's post alludes to, setting standards on acidity, pH, etc. are all technical items that can definitely be agreed to objectively by technicians.

    The first step, however, is to identify what wine is regarding each individual variety and region. A monumental task, but one that can be achieved separately within each region.

    Overall, however, I do agree with you. It's not the wine's fault that people can't allow it to be what it is. We have to make it be what we are.

  5. Jay,

    The differences between people's sensory evaluation capacity is exactly why listening to reviewers or critics is simply a crap shoot. I believe that those who claim to "calibrate" their tastes to a critic's taste simply use that excuse to remove personal responsibility from the process. Far too many people that I meet simply have no idea of their own powers, so they hand that off and wait to be led to a discovery--and there's always a croupier out there ready to deal them some cards; sometimes there are only three cards, and the dealer's name is Monty!