On Dogs, Wine & God

Arthur, of redwinebuzz, commenting on today’s earlier post about what should be the standard for quality in wine, makes the case that a high high quality wine is that which best displays their classic traits and characteristics of the variety or combination of variety and terroir. (Correct me if I mischaracterize you Arthur. Using dog breeding as an example, he writes: “What makes a Doberman a classic example of the breed? The way it best
displays the traits and characteristics that define the breed.”

It’s the perfect analogy, I think.

The Doberman, or any dog breed, is a good example of what I’m getting at when I ask WHY should one standard of wine quality be embraced over another. Over time, dog breeders have bred out or bred in certain characteristics based on an evolving standard for the breed. This implies that over time, the standard for this dog has changed. Which of the varying standards for a breed that have existed over the past 200 years is the “best” or highest quality?

I wonder if it’s possible to argue that a flabby, fruit-forward, high alcohol Cabernet is the style that should be thought of when we ask what are the criteria for high quality wine? I think clearly that all it takes for that standard to be recognized is buy-in by a combination of producers, critics and members of the trade.

To suggest that this style of Cab is not the standard by which quality should be judged, seems to me to be no more than preferring another style to this one that can also be achieved by pampering a grapevine with equal compassion.

What I’m getting at is this (and I’m not sure I like where I am): The quality standard against which Cab-based wines, Pinot Noir, Riesling or Rhone are to be judged amounts to a preference that may have no objective warrant other than “it is agreed that we like this style better than that one”.

Someone can proclaim that “high quality Cabernet-based wines must have a moderate tannin structure that will provide the wine with youthful grip and structure.” That’s fine. But, this statement strikes me as meaningless unless we can say WHY this should be the standard. Simply saying “This is what classic Cabernet” tastes like is really just a statement about the historical record and not WHY that style of Cabernet ought to be considered the standard.

I’m coming to the conclusion that whatever standards for quality in wine might exist, it really is just a statement of agreement among those that are educated, not a statement of anything objective.

Now, this is interesting territory, isn’t it?  In the first place it means deferring to “experts” to tell us what is “quality”, just as Eric Asimov suggests we should be doing. On the other hand, it provides the experts with no other justification for telling others what high quality wine looks and tastes like because it’s all about preference, which is, as far as I can tell, an entirely subjective notion.

To go back to the Dog analogy, this means if you want to gain consent that your Doberman is an excellent example of high quality dobermanship, then you need the buy-in of those who, at this moment in time, have agreed that the characteristics that your Doberman possesses are the same as their preference in Dobermans. It’s the same for wine. If you want consent that your wine possesses the characteristics of high quality wine, you need the buy-in of those that, together, have agreed that the characteristics that your wine possesses happen to be the same that they agree amount to quality.

However, the experts’ agreement that these characteristics amount to “high quality” is not based on anything objective beyond the fact that experts agree. Furthermore, a novice with a different set of criteria for “high quality” could put those criteria forward and only be honestly contradicted by the experts with the following contention: “But I like the other style better.”

This is all much like the argument that atheists and theists have: What is moral and what is immoral?

The theists will argue that if we reject God’s moral code, we are simply left with “what’s right and wrong is what ever you believe is right and wrong and you have nothing but your own relativistic world view to back up your moral code.” On the other hand, the theists will also argue that by pointing to God’s righteousness and his status as the creator of everything, the theists have substantial warrant or authority to say X is good and X is bad: God tells us so.

Now, while I would argue that the theists’ reliance on God’s moral code amounts to relativism of exactly the same sort that the atheist MUST admit they believe in, the theists do have something of a compelling point about having a standard for right and wrong and being able to point to an objective source for that standard: The Righteousness and Perfection of the Almighty God.

In the context of wine, the experts are God and the $2 Buck Chuck devotees are the Abyss of Relativism. The experts have a Standard. The $2 Buck Chuck Quaffers have whatever makes them feel good.

But you have to ask yourself this about the followers of God/Experts: What reasoning did they use when they decided that God/Experts were the right voice to follow?

26 Responses

  1. Randy - April 14, 2008

    Tom, you gotta lay down all those books on metaphysics that you’ve been reading. Seriously.

  2. Arthur Przebinda - April 14, 2008

    I agree and recognize that just as dog or cat breeds, wines have evolved over time.
    However, the combination of tannin qualities and phenolic and aromatic compounds which clue a blind taster in to the varieties in the cepage are inherent in the genetic make up of the grape at hand. An arguable exception would be Pinot noir, whose multitude of clones can express very different characteristics. Yet even those have clear commonalities (there is some common thread all 115 clones share with each other and Pinot noir in general). The way to change those characteristics is to change the DNA of the grape – SIGNIFICANTLY. When one breeds dogs, that is exactly what one is doing. Through an indirect manner, one splices in more desirable genes into the finished “product”. And here, admittedly, my dog analogy falls apart as most wine grapes are not propagated through sexual reproduction but by grafting scion (genetically identical clones) onto existing rootstock. So the capacity or potential for each clone to express its intrinsic characteristics is always there, the only thing that changes is the human intervention which manipulates the expression of those traits.
    You are correct that the standards, as we define them, represent merely a consensus of those (presumably) most informed in the matter. I agree that it represent a lack of finality and resolution and I understand that it leaves one lacking a conclusive, absolute reason for those standards being – in intellectual impasse. It also begs the corollary: “if standards are defined by us, whey can’t we re-define them?”
    In today’s first discussion I said: “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 weight placed on the other issues – some of which may have a less immediate relevance.
    When one thinks about the physiologic evolution of the grape on the vine, one can draw connections between different stages along that evolution and the finished product: its aromatic and flavor profile, its structure, longevity, food friendliness. These recurring connections are objective: whether you like it or not, that flabby, soft, fruity and oaky Cabernet will not last as long, have the same nuance, complexity and synergy with food as one that was made in the “classical” manner. It may declare itself as a Cabernet but it will differ from a finer version the same way my guitar playing differs from Eddie Van Halen’s.
    I think that those who value all these aspects of a wine tend to make those connections I mentioned above band tend to follow the ‘experts’. For them the logic of the experts resonates with what they have observed. Their truth is self evident in the invariable nature of the grape and not in their own preferences.
    (I am truly and genuinely a fan of this style of thought provoking writing. Where is your award?)

  3. Mike - April 14, 2008

    While there are standards for dog breeds (often agreed upon by vote; now that is objective!) its agreed that the judging can be highly subjective.
    “The reason why the same dog does not always win, is that by its very nature, all judging is subjective. One judge may overlook a too-steep shoulder angle, while another may not forgive it. Some judges prefer certain colors in certain breeds, others may not care so long as it is a sound animal. There are different types within each breed, such as the Labrador retriever, which often has the shorter-legged British type versus the longer-legged American type. One judge may prefer the British type; the following day, another judge likes the American type.”
    Of course the last comment would not apply to wine because its commonly known that British and American wine critics are in close agreement!
    And just how objective are dog breed standards? My wife and I have 3 Standard Poodles, so here is a link to the breed standard for poodles http://www.akc.org/breeds/poodle/index.cfm
    Obviously very precise standards; the only thing that would be an objective assessment would be height! But by comparison dog breed standards would seem to make deriving standards for wine almost too easy.

  4. Tish - April 14, 2008

    Gosh, this blog has turned into a genuine virtual philosophers’ retreat. Maybe change the title to Fermentalism?
    I think this discussion needs to acknowledge that the “What is a Cab?” question is actually not comparable to “What is a Doberman?” because — pun intended– the cat is already way too far out of the bag. There are too many Cabernets floating around the Great Wine Sea to classify with the same meaning we do, say, dogs. A $10 Bogle Cabernet is a different thing entirely from a $100 Napa Cab; and at the same time, I would guess that 7 out of 10 people grabbed off a street in Kansas City would prefer the more drinkable Bogle, no matter how much greater a Cabernet we may deign the Napa wine to be.
    Morevoer, the dog breed discussion, while admittedly based on “expert” preferences, the factors dog experts analyze are visible and therefore able to be debated/decided with some certainty of common ground. Wines, by contrast, are hopelessly subjective because taste is subjective (and that is not a bad thing, just a thing); my apple is your pear; my tannic is your firm; my kiss of oak is your whack of oak, etc.
    So, while I admire the analogy, Tom, I think it doesn’t quite work. On the other hand, this debate is quite fertile if we all realize and accept that it can only have meaning at the high (as in price and complexity) end of the market. To borrow one of Arthur’s metaphors, it is easy (but not very interesting)to compare a teenage dabbler’s electric guitar playing to Eddie Van Halen. At the same time, a Van Halen vs. Clapton vs. B.B. King debate will ultimately return to preference of style, on top of technical musicianship. And that’s where most “Will the real Cabernet?” debates wind up, too… as expressions of stylistic preference.

  5. Tom Wark - April 14, 2008

    I had a feeling I’d find you here today.
    The only point I wanted to make by using Arthur’s dog analogy is that over time the standard by which breeds were judged has changed.
    Is the 1845 standard a truer or better standard? Can a wine critic say with any reasoned explanation why their standards for judging quality are better or more informed than the quaffer?
    What I’m waiting for someone to do is explain WHY one standard is better or more reliable or truer or better than another and to do so using a reasoned, logical argument.
    I don’t think it can be done.
    Am I wrong about that? I’m really not sure. But I have an inkling that I’m right. However, I’m not sure I like what this means.

  6. Arthur Przebinda - April 14, 2008

    “A $10 Bogle Cabernet is a different thing entirely from a $100 Napa Cab”
    The problem is that too often (and because the public has bought into the “wine is subjective” line) the $100 Napa cult Cab *IS* just like the $10 Bogle Cab.
    I think that too many people subscribe to the all-too-comfortable conviction that wine is subjective because it gives them solace in the face of their ignorance of wine, it is also a convenient crutch for the critic who doesn’t want to loose readership or be accountable for making bad calls. “Wine is subjective” is Heideggerian, but it is not in line with the physical world. Preferences are subjective – no contest there. But the rules of chemistry, physics and physiology do not bend to our beliefs. TCA (or apple or pear, or currant etc) always smells the same – regardless if the person smelling it recognizes it as such.
    The point Mike is also making (indirectly) is that nobody as ever organized people to come together and discuss when it is reasonable to call an aroma “intense” or “light” or a “kiss” or a “hint”. A common, consistent parlance is achievable without stifling individuality. We just need to come together and exchange ideas from a “let’s solve this problem/discrepancy” point of view and not of one of “it just can’t be done”. But he is right that people fear loosing their distinction by adapting a universal system (that God forbid, would be consistent and understood by all).
    To turn your use of my guitar metaphor around: Van Halen vs. Clapton vs. B.B. King is like comparing Syrah to Pinot and Cabernet and trying to decide which is a better wine. You cannot compare things of different styles and of different makeup and derivation with the intent of picking a winner. You have to judge them separately on the merits of their respective categories.
    To address your final comment I speculate that you would agree that best stylistic embellishments are acts of nuance and finesse. Thus, they are subtle. Hence, the differences should be likewise subtle. BB and Van Halen are not even in the same stylistic galaxy – but they are superb examples of those things which define theri respective styles.

  7. Arthur Przebinda - April 14, 2008

    To answer your question< can offer this: People bitch and moan about how this critic or that critic has skewed and altered the face of wine. Those most frequently accused of having this impact never laid out strict criteria be whych a wine would recieve points, puff, stars or nods. These influential critics have always rated based on their personal preference (in herently skewed by contrast error in large comparative tastins). There fore, *any* standard that is arrived at by concensus of those knowledgeable about wine (and its production) which lays out criteria for quality across wine's different characteristics and is then *adhered to* is superior to each critic giving a wine a number or whatever indicator of relative quality based on their own personal *preference* or in an attempt to reflect what the critic believes will appeal to their readers.

  8. Tish - April 14, 2008

    I really don’t disagree with you. But we are talking different dialects. The taxonomy options with wine are too myriad. For instance, I could say that BB and VH are indeed similar in that they are guitar players; a clarinetist… now that would be different. And with wine, the line between same and different is very blurry, as the Bogle vs. Napa Cab example shows.
    It would be interesting if you could somehow find a way to frame the issue so that everyone is really considering the same issue… but, again, with wine I can’t help but return to the futility of being truly on the same page. And that holds for even when intelligent, experienced people are sitting in the same room with the same batch of wines. There is too much human variation at play that transcends all of our efforts to standardize and objectify. Tasting history, for instance, and personal thresholds of aroma/flavor perception; not to mention the individual means of choosing words. I have come to embrace this futility happily though, as it is one of wine’s wonders. And I do admire the philosophical zeal you bring to the table.

  9. Mike - April 14, 2008

    “But he is right that people fear loosing their distinction by adapting a universal system (that God forbid, would be consistent and understood by all).”
    This is exactly what I do fear. If we could all, somehow, come to a point where we were all in measurable objective agreement on the components of wine that constitute one (great) wine from another then we loose much more than we gain. Then we would truly end up with homogenized wine on an international scale, not just the perceived homogenization that many decry today. I treasure the subjectivity of wine assessment; it provides us with great diversity. It provides a $10 Bogle Cabernet and a $200 Shafer Hillside Select, a Rosemount Shiraz and Grange. The differences that any group, newly minted wine drinkers to professional critics, have in their wine experience, their preferences, that may or may not influence their pronouncements, and their differences in formal education as wine judges, are all components in generating diversity. And I applaud it, just as long as its appreciated that we are all individuals, and as such fallible. These things make my wine experience all the more personal and worthwhile. If we could all agree, what would we talk about?

  10. Arthur Przebinda - April 14, 2008


  11. Arthur Przebinda - April 14, 2008

    Again, an impasse. I do not believe that using the same definition of “intense” or “light” or whatever would make us into zombies.
    The majority of the wine buing public – for whoim most of the wine in this world is made – are casual quaffers. As such, they are far more likley to chose the easy drinking, immediately accessible wine over a more structured one that needs time in the cellar and can’t poured as a social drink at parties. It is by validating the appeal of the fruit bomb style to these people that Parker rose to influence. Without their preference he would be alone voice in the wilderness.
    Critical acclaim and commercial success rarely go hand in hand so I do not think that your fears are likely to come true if th entire wine writing world would adapt a universaly system and standard. The only things wthat would happen is that the existing discionnect between the public and wine critics would get a little wider.

  12. Tom Wark - April 14, 2008

    “As such, they are far more likley to chose the easy drinking, immediately accessible wine over a more structured one that needs time in the cellar and can’t poured as a social drink at parties.”
    What if you shake it up in a decanter, really really hard. Wait….Then shake it up again?

  13. Arthur - April 14, 2008

    Not to be difficult, but you lost me…..
    Are you talking about shaking up a forward fruit bomb or a wine that needs a decade in the cellar?
    The former won’t really benefit and the latter will do one of several things, but you will not get tannins to polymerize and precipitate the way they do in the cellar over time. They will not instantaneously evolve into some comples sublime, open and inviting flower. Those are typically nonenzymatic changes that have a steady rate which cannot be accelerated.
    But then I’m speculating as to what you’re asking.

  14. Chris Campbell - April 14, 2008

    Sometimes just having a good dog is enough.

  15. Robert - The Wine Conversation - April 15, 2008

    Sometimes just having a good wine is enough.
    After all, look what centuries of dog breeding have done to bring us freaks like greyhounds, Dalmatians prone to deafness, Dobermen facing tail amputations and ear surgery (they look meaner with ears pointing up), and shaven poodles.
    Who wants to match up those categories to wine?

  16. Wayne Shipman - April 15, 2008

    Dog breeders and winemakers all share that same goal of: excluding others for financial benefit. If the same accumulation of DNA or clusters of grapes yields something determined to be better in the marketplace, well then they win financially.
    My neighbor’s dog, a hybrid “cross-breed” that would not be recognized by any standards, is still a beautiful and well-behaved pet. She was expensive. Purists cringe.
    Wine is not immune to this. Sit in a liquor store on a Friday and watch what leaves the premises, a/k/a fills the cash register.

  17. Justus- Cathedral Ridge Winery - April 15, 2008

    To add another facet to this discussion- How is a blended wine supposed to be judged?
    Is there a benchmark for each blend? Are there certain wines that exemplify that type of blend?
    With dogs of mixed breeds, you sometimes get mostly characteristics of one dog, sometimes a bit of both and sometimes the dog shows characteristics you wouldn’t expect from either breed. Within one litter, the dogs can look and behave completely different.
    So… what makes a good blend?

  18. Arthur Przebinda - April 15, 2008

    I would still defer to the merits of the grapes in the cepage.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - April 17, 2008

    Wine generally is assessed by critics based on past experience, both with how the wine and the assessor have acted in the past and should act in the future.
    I don’t think that kind of assessment leaves room for objectivity and so, quality remains a nebulous concept, relegated mainly to the act of elimination–eliminating the known technical flaws, that is.
    In fact, even many of the known technical flaws are not agreed upon–thing “good Brett and bad Brett.”
    To me, wine criticism is a form of gaming the consumer.

  20. Thomas Pellechia - April 17, 2008

    That should read: “think good Brett…”

  21. David J - April 20, 2008

    I’ve never finished Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’–I have a clunky Spanish translation from dense French prose– but what I remember seems pertinent– struggling here with the relation of sensory perception to our discursive ability to contextualize & communicate this mysterious input through the a-priori category of ‘pleasure’…?

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