Monday, November 23, 2009

Crying uncle

Once more, I allowed myself the masochistic enjoyment of entering into a debate about wine evaluations and ratings. Each time I get into one of these debates is always scheduled to be my last, but for some reason I can’t stay away. It’s possible that I am guilty of the identical trait that I level against wine critics: hubris.

This is the issue in a nutshell: wine critics claim generally that experience is far more important than knowledge; I claim that without knowledge, experience is only as important as the lessons learned from it.

What critics mean is that if you have many years of experience tasting and consuming wine, then you have enough information to make quality assessments concerning wine.

My claim is that in order to assess quality you first need established standards and then you need to be trained in identifying them. It’s simply not enough to have been tasting wine for some time.

About tasting wine, most critics claim to taste wine blind, but do they?

Sure, most reputable critics taste wine without knowing who produced it, but they also taste the wine knowing what it is: a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, etc. That’s hardly a blind tasting.

Perception often gets in the way of an assessment. If you know you are tasting Chardonnay your brain will seek those traits in a Chardonnay that you have come to know through experience, but your brain may also overlook those traits in the wine that detract from its varietal characteristics—or, your brain may simply fabricate the traits that it expects should be there but may not be there.

We taste with our senses, but we make decisions with our brain.

Remove advance perception (hints) and people’s tastes mechanisms become confused. The trained, knowledgeable taster picks up the hints on his or her own. If you can’t find Chardonnay traits in the wine, it’s either you or the wine at fault; there are ways to find out which.

The other problem with wine criticism is its insistence on working from a purely subjective base and then passing it off on the consumer as if it were an objective result—in the form of a score. When you look into the scoring system and what each number means you find that the numbers are tied to vague concepts of quality that cannot be duplicated consistently among tasters. This situation is tested when a truly blind tasting includes multiple tastes of the same wine yet produces a wide variance in results.

The reason for this problem is that assigning a number to a concept says absolutely nothing about the thing being evaluated. The emphasis is on the person doing the evaluation.

I both blame and understand the wine industry for the situation in wine criticism. On one hand, the industry hasn’t decided definitively what constitutes wine quality or if it has, it doesn’t seem to be telling anyone. On the other hand, having a volume of favorable opinions floating around has opened up a marketing tool for wineries (many critics no longer report on the wines that they hate).

Whenever these debates get going, someone is sure to say that if I were to win the argument, I’d be taking the soul and enjoyment out of wine by making the quality assessment technical. It’s a specious and diversionary accusation. Critics can’t have it both ways: are wine evaluations about quality or are they about enjoyment? Quality standards can be measured; enjoyment is a nebulous concept that changes from person to person.

If wine critics care about credibility then they should gladly embrace establishing a universal evaluation system instead of a calibrate-to-my-fabulous-palate system.

Still, I’m so overwhelmed by this subject and my inability to persuade the critics that I have decided to join them. That’s right: I’m crying uncle and becoming a wine critic, and here’s my system.

First, noticing that wine rating systems have inflated over the decades anywhere from a 10 to a 100 point scale, I’ve devised the ultimate scale: 200 points.

Second, since I already know that I am evaluating wine, and every wine that I evaluate will claim to be wine, in my system every wine starts with 100 points for being what it says it is.

Third, my system is so simplified that you the consumer don’t even have to wonder about my talent, experience, knowledge or anything else. If I don’t like a wine, it receives 101 points. If I like it, it receives 200 points—end of story.

If you agree with my score, then we are calibrated.

If you don’t agree with my score, what’s wrong with you? This stuff is quality.

Geez, wake up fellah! Have you as much experience as I have?

Happy Thanksgiving—I’ll return soon after this holiday fades into the past.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2009. All rights reserved.


  1. Thomas:

    Try as you might, you cannot remove the human element.

    As I noted in a previous post on another blog; it doesn't really matter how many people you have trained up in a particular system, it is, at the end of the day, a consensus of opinion.

    What constitutes quality for Cabernet for instance? Is Rutherford Cab the model? Does the standard dictate the alcohol level?, the RS?, the time in oak?, the type of oak?

    I am not hostile toward greater objective understanding of wine, or anything else for that matter, I am just having a hard time envisioning a system that gets to the "truth" of in some, not unwieldy, way.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Steven,

    Rutherford Cabernet should be the model for Cabernet produced in Rutherford, which means it bears little to no relationship to Cabernet produced in Paso Robles. They should never be evaluated as just Cabernet. But with the appellation divisions, I'd also look at the 75% rule. That's where double blind tastings begin to show there stuff. You surely know how much influence 25% of other grape varieties can have on a so-called varietal wine. It's a ruse for critics to claim that they are evaluating a grape variety when in fact they are evaluating a blend.

    Not that I'm saying that the 75% rule needs to be abandoned. What I'm pointing to is just one area where the concept of quality has been led to a nebulous conclusion.

    Still, even if you don't agree with that, there has to be ways to agree on benchmark measures for quality--how does the food industry do it? Maybe they have a model that can be adapted.

    And, if you can't agree with that, you must agree that wine critics have a free hand to determine, individually, what constitutes quality by way of a personal chart that can't be replicated. That's why it's so easy to wake up each morning to find a new wine critic on the Internet.

    I simply can't find the value for consumers in the present system, except for those whose palates are calibrated to their favorite critic, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.

    Finally, if nothing can be developed by the wine industry to get a handle on the guidelines for quality, at the very least the industry should make an attempt to get critics to work from the same standard. You know, like withholding samples until the ground rules are established.

  4. May I submit the possibility for an alternate theory?

    Once you understand wine enough to think this hard about ratings, they become meaningless and only your own experience matters. Therefore, ratings are for the child who does not even understand what question they should be asking. Therefore you should explain to him or her the story of when our ancestors were brought out of Egypt... oops, sorry wrong gastronomic holiday.

  5. Ha, Rob,

    Yeah. If I had my way, critics would either be barred from using a rating system or at the very least be forced to come with one that means something.