Ignorance & Quality: The Big Wine Question
"In yet another anti-intellectual effort to take fancy-schmancy wine
down a peg or two, a new book purports to demonstrate that price bears
little relation to quality and that the experts don’t know what they
are talking about."
This is how Eric Asimov at The Pour begins a post that I think is deliciously provocative.
The "effort" he is referring to is a new book entitled, "The Wine Trials". The book describes a set of blind tastings of wines costing between $2 and $150 undertaken by 500 experts and non experts alike. The less expensive wines are preferred or, as the author says, "hide the label and the truth comes out."
So what? We’ve heard this before. A tasting or study reveals that often less expensive wines beat more expensive wines in blind tastings. Asimov answers the question of "So What" this way:
"Since when is popularity an indication of quality?….I’m not arguing for snobbery, but I am arguing for standards….Look, people like what they like…But you
cannot rationalize ignorance. It’s perfectly fine to be ignorant about
wine. Nobody should feel obliged to know a thing about it…But ignorance is not a virtue, nor is knowledge the
equivalent of being a snob. People who know something about wine have
made a commitment to it, so their opinions ought to matter more."
I think Eric, as a wine writer and reviewer and wine expert, is reacting to this book and its ideas a little differently than the average person does because in essence this book is taking aim straight at him: the expert. The whole point of the wine trials is to use "experts" as a punching bag in order to make a simple statement: when it comes to wine trust your palate, not the expert.
Just as Eric has not read this book, neither have I cracked it. But even so, I think I can say this: The book does not suggest that less expensive wines are of higher quality (as I think Eric suggests the book is saying), but rather that less expensive wines tend to be preferred. The reason I assume the book is not making this distinction is because were it to make such a distinction it would destroy the very premise of the book: that as consumers we should rely on our own palates to determine what we prefer. Surely the author would not contradict Eric Asimov’s palate were he to taste a $2 wine and a $40 wine and prefer the $40 wine, would they?
But now to the heart of Eric’s provocative post that you must read. It begs a very important question:
WHAT STANDARDS SHOULD BE USED AND WHAT CRITERIA SHOULD BE SET DOWN TO DETERMINE QUALITY?
Is it possible that what wine experts understand as "quality" is really only the possession of the knowledge of what has been preferred by experts in the past and in the present? (there is that word "preferred" again.)
What makes Ridge Montebello Cabernet better than Charles Shaw Cabernet?
What makes Dom Perignon better than Andres Sparkling Wine?
Eric suggests that those that can not recognize that the Monte Bello and the Dom are of higher quality than the 2 Buck Chuck and Andres are ignorant. To be ignorant is to be without knowledge.
What knowledge do those that prefer the less expensive wines not posses that those who prefer the more expensive do posses? It strikes me that not knowing what the experts prefer has nothing to do with any objective standard of quality, but rather with how widely the two groups have read on the subject.
So I have to ask again:
WHAT STANDARDS SHOULD BE USED AND WHAT CRITERIA SHOULD BE SET DOWN TO DETERMINE QUALITY?
This question can be asked by an individual about their own approach to wine criticism AND it can be asked about the wine criticism generally. One thing is for sure, if you are going to review wine, you damn well better be able to answer this question for yourself. And if you aspire to expert status, I think you at least are obligated to answer this question in general.
Now, I happen to agree with Eric Asimov. I too believe that "standards" ought to apply to the art of wine evaluation as they should to any critical evaluation of any work of craftsmanship or art if we are going to go about comparing things and if we are going to take those comparisons seriously. I further believe the process of coming to a determination of what those standards are is another word for "education". Coming to the conclusion about standards is exactly what drives those of us who choose to contemplate wine and the culture of wine.
So, let me end with one more question: Did those folks who took part in "The Wine Trials" apply appropriate standards in, seemingly, determining that less expensive wines tasted better?
1. I might “prefer” a six-drawer dresser from Ikea over the same size dresser beautifully constructed from fine oak for many reasons – but I suspect the oak dresser will be judged higher quality by anyone who knows about furniture.
2. I wonder how many people surveyed would prefer a McD burger…?
3. This may be just me, but if drink more than a glass or so of wine below a certain quality level, I get a ripping headache. That’s a form of instant wine knowledge.
I thought there was more to this post. It seems to be encapsulated in the comment: “another anti-intellectual effort to take fancy-schmancy wine down a peg or two,”.
I agree 100% with Eric. There is this really ugly aversion to things smart, sophisticated or intellectual. I don’t want to sound haughty and stuffy but after having a conversation about philosophy and politics with a tri-lingual plumber in Berlin, I cannot help but see this as a pervasive problem in our society. This goes beyond the “selective ignorance” and a “low-information diet” proposed by Timothy Ferriss. We want to simplify and distill all issues (no matter how complex) to no more than seven simple bullet points. Some people resist broadening their wine horizons for fear of coming off as “snobby” and “sophisticated” Is it because informed and intellectual people are somehow thought of as “stuffy”, “snobby” and “elitist”? We often do turn our insecurities and intimidation into anger and resentment and direct it at that which intimidates us. Maybe that is why the average folks who want to learn more about wine face some weird but very real, though unspoken, social pressure to not appear “too smart” or “too snobby” – the “adult”: version of “uncool”.
But here’s another variation to consider: one winemaker who has been around for 30+ years maintains a small vineyard, produces fine handcrafted Pinot Noirs and sells them in the $40-$50 range. Not far away another grower who has 3 vintage years of experience makes an average product, puts it up in fine handcrafted glass bottles sealed with local beeswax and finished with a handwritten label, and sells it in the $95 range. If you bought a bottle of the latter you would probably be inclined to believe it to be an exceptional wine, wouldn’t you…?
Yes, I think there is a degree of anti-intellectualism going on as Eric Suggests.
But I really do, also, believe that the process of describing the standard is the really interesting and intellectual exercise. How is that done?
As for quality: it is that state of the grape when it expresses the most defined and typical varietal characteristics with consideration given year and site. So a Pinot noir with cola, plum, low acids (high pH) and 16% ABV and melted vanilla ice cream is NOT quality.
This ‘experiment’ is like having a bunch of high school graduates doing antimatter research or giving them stethoscopes, prescription pads and scalpels and telling them they are competent doctors.
>”The whole point of the wine trials is to use “experts” as a punching bag in order to make a simple statement: when it comes to wine trust your palate, not the expert.”< Of course, but you forgot to add: "…and to sell more wine. Specifically: cheaper to produce, easy to sell wine." One final note: "palate" is not the same as "preference". A “palate” is both the roof of the mouth and the abstract concept encompassing the set of sensory (and cognitive) skills useful in assessing a wine (or other culinary creations). "Preference" is the inclination of one individual or a group of individuals to make a particular selection when given a set of choices. This may seem a pedantic distinction to make at first. An informed and trained ‘palate’ leads to different ‘preferences’ than an ‘ignorant’ or ‘uninformed’ one.
Are you asking, me, Tom or are you using “you” in the figurative sense?
“As for quality: it is that state of the grape when it expresses the most defined and typical varietal characteristics with consideration given year and site.”
See, this is what I’m looking for. Some standard. Now, why should this be considered a definition of quality?
I think Wineguy’s is a rhetorical question.
I think that standards should be based on some sort of bench mark. I don’t think they should be so loose as to obviate some key knowledge of uniqueness of variety, region and wine making. They should not be so strict as to apply a narrow set o filters to all wines from all regions. Bordeaux wines (classic ones at least) can be thought of as a benchmark for Cab f, Cab s, Merlot, P Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere. The way each of these varieties expresses the ‘classical ideal’ in Napa, Monterey County, Santa Ynez, Chile, S Africa, Australia etc, will be different owing to a number of “terroir” – related factors. However, there will be a common thread to the character of these resulting wines when made in different location with the classical profile in mind.
I think the main distinction between the informed and the neophyte wine drinker is the approach to the wine: the first typically looks at high fidelity of typicity, structure, food pairing and age worthiness. The latter probably is primarily interested in immediate quaffability and enjoyment with no consideration given to the other issues.
So obviously, for the two groups the standards may be different. The point to make to the neophyte that they are not to be faulted for their preference of the easy-drinking, soft, fruity, oaky Cab 2-3 years out of the vineyard (!!!!!). They can enjoy the wine guilt-free. But they should understand that the wine in their hand is a different beast altogether from the one made to not be opened for 10 years or more. It should be made clear that the two styles are in different categories. It becomes clear that the two styles are actually two different kinds of beverages and applying the same standard of quality to both is pointless.
See my post above. What makes a Doberman a classic example of the breed? The way it best displays the traits and characteristics that define the breed.
If a Pinot noir looks, smells and tastes like a Syrah and ages like milk, it’s a lousy Pinot noir.
Otherwise, why go to the point of planting, growing Pinot noir and labeling it as a varietal if it has no distinction and tastes no different than a Cabernet grown east of Shandon and picked too late or a Ruby Cabernet grown outside of Bakersfield?
Distinct a unique character is a winegrape’s best asset. When you strip that away, you might as well ferment grape juice and label it as such.
Of course we can get into the issue of pyrazines in Cab as an example of where does the standard or benchmark le, but I would argue that the eschewing of “veg. character” is driven by neophyte preference and strips the wine of unique and complex character. It may be preferred, but is not better quality. At least not in ever location.
“Tom, I think that standards should be based on some sort of bench mark. I don’t think they should be so loose as to obviate some key knowledge of uniqueness of variety, region and wine making. They should not be so strict as to apply a narrow set o filters to all wines from all regions.”
I don’t disagree with you on this being at least an important element in the standard for these wines.
But I’m more interested in WHY this should be the standard or at least part of the standard for these wines. WHY should this be an important part of the standard. WHY, for example, shouldn’t the soft, high pH, easy to drink cabernet set the standard?
The wine critics are following all this with…bemusement.
If I did not clarify in my follow up post, please let me know.
Perhaps you could elaborate?…
As someone who considers himself knowledgeable about wine (assuming that knowledge is drinking, reading, traveling and conversing widely on the subject over the past 30 years) my response to the Newsweek snippet was to pre-order the book from Amazon.com. Anything else would be a pretty poor response on the part of a critic that is unless you are Asimov and believe its perfectly fine to be ignorant.
And of course there are standards in wine. That is why there is such clear agreement on any individual wine, or wine region.
There is no question that standards for wine quality exist. But the question is WHY choose those standards?
So were the “experts” who chose Charley Shaw ignorant? Since wine is a personal experience you will not get everyone to agree on what benchmarks for quality will be be. If you are a wine producer you should be doing some pretty good market research to determine who is drinking your wine and how to focus on them. Chucky is marketed for everyone, and Ridge is marketed for a focused group of drinkers. Since there are 150 ways to make wine, quality is going to be variable even if you have all of the chemical parameters the same.
In the end drink what you like and buy what you can afford.
“There is no question that standards for wine quality exist. But the question is WHY choose those standards?”
Please list the standards, and also indicate which can be measured objectively, and which are subjective. And then tell me which critics use these standards and the limits of their ability to detect the objective measures. As far as I know the data is simply not available.
There is no doubt that the more experience a wine drinker has, the more confidence he/she may have in their ability to objectively assess the quality of wine. But much of what is assessed is not true objective measurement. Thus I’m quite confident that I can identify a well made wine based on subjective assessment of structure, balance etc, but I can’t tell you my limits of detection for some of the components that contribute to those subjective determinants; acidity, sugar, alcohol, oak, tannins, etc, etc. Yes, I had my tolerances to these things assessed many years ago, as part of a wine course, but who knows what my tolerances are now. My assessment of wine, like most of us, is based on my experience. Some will say, well as long as you can identify a well made wine what is the problem? Simply put, what I call a quality wine is going to be different to other (experienced) tasters, and even if we agree that a wine has quality I’ll bet our descriptions of how we came to that decision differ widely.
Please list the standards, and also indicate which can be measured objectively, and which are subjective. And then tell me which critics use these standards and the limits of their ability to detect the objective measures. As far as I know the data is simply not available.”
Well, to list just one: tannin intensity. Generally, these days, a wine that has really significant amounts of tannin structure—and I mean rip your tongue off kinds of tannins—are generally rated down by critics. The tannins can be measured in two ways: sensory and chemically. I’d have to think about which specific critics demonstrated an adverse opinion of this characteristic, but I’m bet I could pin the names of 20 known critics on a dart board, throw the dart and verify that this critic would down grade a wine for this quality.
That said, I’m not disputing that anyone, particularly well trained palates, can very effectively explain what standards they think need to be met in order for wine to be considered of “high quality”.
What I’m thinking about are how the criteria for these standards are set.
You listed one, that is ONE, component of wine to address my argument. But what I wanted was a LIST of standards.
Let me do it for you. We all presume that any critic/judge worth his salt will judge (score) wine based on a list of parameters that include (as a generalization) color, smell and taste. While common elements exist just about every critic has his own way of scoring/assessing those elements, none of which is done objectively; I don’t know a single critic who performs objective measurements on wine during their critical assessment.
OK, so a number of critics may agree that a wine is tannic. Ask them what they are sensing when they say that individual wine is tannic. Then ask them to grade the level of tannin on a score of 0-10. See how many agree on the same description and/or number.
Most critics have a scoring system to be thorough, but there is no true consensus because any individual critic wants to differentiate himself from other critics. And speaking of critics, as Elin McCoy noted in her book, the standard bearer no longer uses his scoring system – a number just forms in his head. Now that is critical objectivity!
Now that you are a member of the OWC, I would encourage you to seek out the opportunity to join with others in creating a consistent and reproducible system of communicating (or rating/ranking) things like concentration, astringency and character of tannins.
You an I agree more than you realize. And two (or more) heads are better than one. I have a number of ideas on how to create consistent parlance to describe wine. I’m sure you have some ideas as well. perhaps we can contribute to the collective wine world together?
“Most critics have a scoring system to be thorough, but there is no true consensus because any individual critic wants to differentiate himself from other critics. And speaking of critics, as Elin McCoy noted in her book, the standard bearer no longer uses his scoring system – a number just forms in his head. Now that is critical objectivity!”
This topic is heading in a slightly different direction from which it began. That’s ok. And thanks for the comments.
I’m not sure we can’t see general consensus among wines on most wines. It would be interesting to look at, say 7 or 8 critics and how they rank various wines to see if my hunch is right.
I’m not so sure that critics are really that concerned with differentiating themselves from others via reviews, however. At least I don’t see much evidence of that.
But to bring it back to where we began, to the issue of how one, or many, determine a standard by which to judge wine, my main point is this: I’m not sure there is much that can be demonstrated that shows one standard or set of criteria is particularly better or truer than another.
This is a great discussion, but I think at the very bottom of all this is something I’ve just been dealing with on our blog at augustbriggswines.com, i.e. the only way to determine what wines you like are to taste for yourself. As each wine reviewer’s taste differs, so does yours – so who do you trust? We’ve seen some backlash against some reviewers’ taste preferences, and this is a good thing. No one or two reviewers should impact wine styles/production as much as has happened.
Yes, certainly, some reviewers taste thousands of wines a year, and their perspective on overall quality has value – but each consumer still has to decide on their own what they like, and all viewpoints are totally valid. We should be encouraging all wine lovers, regardless of tasting experience level, to take every opportunity possible to taste wines, whether it’s at local retailers, with friends, or at local wine events. Only in this way can anyone really discover what they truly like.
The promise of finding cheap but excellent wines will help sell books, but at the same time I’m sure there will be a lot of people disappointed with at least some of the wines featured in the book.
Is it ignorance or lack of bias?
Interesting that standards are established by experts, not amateurs.
How many of us started drinking wines that today would not be considered quality? Who among us did not have an epiphany wine experience that created a true thirst for knowledge?
I would suggest that standards could be based on unreachable measures, which creates an objective range to judge, or that standards could be based upon the average or median, which allows measurement of variation. Either would be helpful, but never satisfy the others’ criteria.
I love this blog – thanks for your comments. In my opinion it’s a mistake to publish a book where all wines are tasted blind. Parker certainly doesn’t taste blind and neither do the guys at WS.
I have a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. I was in a serious of blind tastings last week and I stupidly thought one of the wines was a terrible Pinot Noir from South Africa. Turns out it was Nebbiolo from Barolo. Because my initial impression led me way off I was unable to get past the intense tannins on the PN, which is of course a classic characteristic of Nebbiolo. The wine was delicious and from a great producer, but unfortunately I couldn’t spot that because I had New World Pinot in my head. And those sort of judgements happen all the time. In the MW program they warn us that quality is almost always rated lower in blind tastings and so to tread carefully when asked to write about quality.
There is absolutely a list of standards for a high quality wine. Here’s my list…
Balance: b/n alcohol, acid, tannin and fruit components
Intensity of fruit flavors / phenolics
Complexity: is the juxtaposition between the acid, alcohol, phenolics and fruit profile compelling?
Length: probably the most important component to a high quality wine, is the finish persistent?
Refreshing: Jancis Robinson says that for her all wines of quality provide refreshment. (a vague term – but I understand what she’s saying)
Ability to age: high quality wines should have the tannin and acid structure for further development in bottle.
Typicity: I saved this for last because it’s the reason why I feel blind tasting is difficult, particularly for the “non-expert”, when judging quality. Charles Shaw might be more pleasant on the attack, but it just will not have the stamina of a classified growth Bordeaux which will evolve in the glass. The excitement behind buying higher quality wines (which are more often than not more expensive) is to see the evolution. It’s EXCITING! it’s fun to watch a wine change and I’d argue that $2 wine is no capable of being compelling for longer than a few minutes.
I think this book is a disappointment to those of us who study, make and love wine. Sensationalism does little more than provide confusion to the consumer. assuming all wines under $13 are better than those over $13 is a grave mistake.
I’ve enjoyed Eric Asimov’s column in the NY Times and his non-nonsense attitude until I read his words above. “People who know something about wine have made a commitment to it, so their opinions ought to matter more.” This is the very definition of elitism, isn’t it. How do you define “knowing” something about wine – how much money you spend on it? How many trips you make to the tasting room? Critics are notoriously inconsistent with wine when you take the label and context out of the equation.
Experts hate tasting blind precisely because of this phenomenon. If you can’t distinguish (or don’t have a preference) for wine made with higher cost production techniques, then you really don’t know as much about wine as you think, huh?
I love wine very much am a great lover of it. i preferres to i to take wine of various costs that may be the lower price one or the costlier one , that doesn’t mind’s me .The very mood i have at that moment will forces me to take the interested one.I agree with the author very much, it’s not the way to distinguish between price of the wine ,that will definitely depends on one’s own palate.
Trivia Game Challenge
Well done. Looks classy.