Wine: On Expertise (again)

Perhaps a journalist out there can tell me: does each publication have a list on the wall of tried and trusted non-stories that can be dusted off and reliably ventilated whenever it’s a slow news day?  You know the stuff: shonky builder rips off consumer; political-correctness-gone-mad as local council observes health and safety legislation; criminal sentenced according to guidelines; and so on.  Because if so, is it possible to remove “wine tasting found to be imperfect science” from it? 

I write a propos this tired piece from the Observer last Sunday.  Ostensibly about the “revelation” that professional wine tasters are actually inconsistent in their evaluations of wine, it is a thinly veiled attempt to stir up the reverse-snobbish juices by knocking pretty much any form of wine appreciation or expertise.

The reason this article is a non-story is because we know.  We in the wine world (which I extend to enthusiastic amateurs, not just professionals), know perfectly well that wines taste different to different people, and even to the same people in different conditions.  We know, and we don’t care.  Jancis Robinson’s website unashamedly records tasting notes of the same wines tasted on different occasions with different scores and notes.  Decanter magazine has regularly published different evaluations of the same wines by different people (much to its annoyance, I imagine, when readers write in pointing out, pointlessly, that a wine has been reviewed differently by different people).  I have been present in the room when people have been stumped in a blind tasting by a wine they have drunk on many occasions in the past.

To understand why we don’t care, we have to look at the context in which wine judging/evaluation (whether by experts or otherwise) takes place.  Hopefully we can all agree that wines taste different to each other (a point that even the Observer  article appears to accept).  Wine is also a subject of interest for some people, like football, cars, or pornography.  Given that wines are different, and interesting, is it not fair for those interested in that subject to attempt to evaluate the relative merits of different wines and offer their opinions to those interested in hearing them?  If it is fair, then (1) there’s nothing wrong in trying to evaluate the merits of wines; but (2) a little learning is a dangerous thing, so people should be aware of the limitations of doing so.

Most people interested in wine are aware of such limitations, although there is a residual scourgey amongst certain wine merchants of selling wine on the basis of, for example, “pounds per Parker point”.  Thankfully though, not all merchants are so mercenary, and indeed to his credit the proprietor of Planet of the Grapes thoroughly ridiculed me once for mentioning that a particular wine he sold had been given 5 stars in a recent review.  It didn’t make a scrap of difference to him, he sold it because he liked it.

Everyone knows that tasting wine in a show situation makes it difficult to judge; everyone knows that palates get jaded after trying lots of different wines.  Everyone knows that temperature affects the taste of wine; indeed Dom Perignon has made a (somewhat affected) attempt to prove the point, as Richard Hemming reports here.  Everyone knows that wine show medals should be taken with more than a pinch of salt (something I wrote about years ago here).  Indeed many wine enthusiasts would snigger at the idea that a wine should be purchased, let alone conspicuously enjoyed, only because its bottle was emblazoned with a show medal.  Indeed certain subcultures of the wine world will avoid wines given high scores by certain critics, in their own reverse-snobbish way.

But wine experts deserve being listened to nevertheless because they are, by and large, people of learning in the area, and whatever the limitations of wine judging, they have interesting things to say about the subject matter.  The better wine writers, I find, treat scoring not as some sort of precise ranking exercise, but as a indicium of relative quality, and wine descriptions not as something aspiring to the specificity of a patent application, but rather as a helpful impressionistic general guide to the character of a wine.  Enthusiasts about a particular subject matter like communicating with each other and wine judging is all part of the great dialogue between people with a common interest.  Whenever I read a review of a wine, I don’t think “only 16.35 points out of 20! I don’t buy anything less than 16.5!” I think to myself that the writer is saying “here is a wine I tried; I think you may care for it sufficiently so that I have written my opinion of it”.  I may file it away in my memory as something to look out for.  If it piques my interest I may buy some.  I may find I agree or disagree with the expert.  I may find that I agree with some writers more often than not. I find this exercise on balance helpful.  Surely it’s better than walking into a shop and simply picking something at random; certainly it’s no worse.  And it would be a bit dreary to explore your subject of interest while ignoring the views of others.

It seems to me this research misses the point entirely in that even if one or more experts evaluated the same wine differently on one or more occasions, that doesn’t render their evaluations any less valid.  It’s no Schrödinger’s Cat – no physics professor is going to lose any sleep about a wine being both “dry and savoury” and “hard and peppery”.  It can quite comfortably be both without upsetting the building blocks of the universe.  I suppose there is the risk that objective features of a wine (e.g. it’s acidity or alcohol level) can be misdescribed, but in my experience experts are pretty reliable about that to the extent they even bother with such mundanities.  The reader, too, should be credited with some knowledge – anyone reading a tasting summary of, say, German Rieslings, is hopefully going to know the parameters of that style and realise that a description of such a wine as being “fat” would have to be relative and import a completely different meaning than when used to describe, say, a heavily oaked Californian Chardonnay.

As for this point about people not being able to tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, this is possibly the clearest non-point of all.  If you aren’t interested in wine, good for you if you can’t tell cheap from expensive, good from bad or whatever.  If it’s all the same to you, go and buy the cheapest bottle of wine you can find and knock yourself out.  But for those of us who are interested in the subject matter and do not want the monotony of drinking the same thing all the time, again it comes back to the uncontroversial point that wines are different.  Some wines are cheap and crap; others are expensive and crap; some are expensive and good; and some are cheap and good.  Part of the fascination is finding the ones that represent value to you, the taster, which is necessarily going to involve trying different wines at different prices.  Here, for example, Jamie Goode enthuses honestly and candidly about a good cheap Bordeaux.  Great.  But what are we supposed to do, drink it and only it because others are more expensive?  Are we to regard parsimoniousness rather than curiosity or enjoyment as the actual objective of our hobbies?

Finally the point about fooling people into drinking white wine thinking it is red.  I’ve been the victim of this prank only once and thought it was an odd wine unlike anything I’d ever drunk before and declined to try to identify it blind.  But the point is that it’s hardly a surprise that when people are deliberately deceived into thinking something is the opposite of what it is, their opinion differs.  That is why blind tasting of wines is my preferred method of evaluating them.

The problem isn’t that wine judging is unscientific (although it may well be); the problem is in the ignorance of assuming that those interested in wine elevate wine judging to the level of the scientific. We don’t; and to assume we do misses the point of the whole exercise.


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