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.