Pale-Necks, Rednecks and Wine Quality
"I do not believe nature has any use for our democracies. Some things are better than others, and on of our functions is to guide our readers toward appreciation of these distinctions as gracefully a we're able."
This is Terry Theise, the great importer of wine, explaining his belief that quality is objective and can be discerned in wine. It is also Terry explaining that it is the obligation of the learned wine aficionado to tutor the less knowledgeable in a kind an gentle way.
I cam across this quote while reading through Theise's new book, "Reading Between the Wines" a new issue form the University of California Press that just goes to show that the ivory tower can churn out some pretty wonderful products.
But what Theise does not explain, as far as I can tell as of yet, is what philosophy of aesthetics determines how we can derive an objective criteria for determining quality in wine. Clearly, he's not convinced that "pleasure" derived from the drinking of a wine gets us toward a criteria for determining quality in wine:
"There are no 'invalid' moments of pleasure in wine. But there are higher and lower pleasures.
Once you have graduated from the low you can always return. It's fun to return. You should return frequently, because it's good to stay in touch with your inner redneck."
Despite the downstream implications of possessing an "inner redneck", the fact remains that far more drinkers determine the value and even the quality of a wine based primarily on whether or not it gives them pleasure. Theise know this, yet he dismisses this tendency of the average drinker as philistinism. He dismisses it for what is surely the same reason nearly every critic, wine professional, winemaker, grapegrower, wine retailer and wine writer dismisses the simple "pleasure criteria" as too simple an approach to wine evaluation: They have developed a heightened level of discernment where wine is concerned that they don't want to waste.
With a higher level of discernment, the non-wine redneck is able to do a number of things the average pleasure seeking redneck cannot. Among these things are:
-Detect and describe production faults in the wine
-Measure the length of a wine
-Determine the relative age of a wine
-Measure a wine against an historic model of its type
-Detect evidence of a region's terroir in a wine
-Discern and detect higher or lower levels of alcohol
-Detect the impact of vintage variation on a collection of wines
The list goes on and on. The point is that as soon as a motivated collection of people can discern more in a wine than the average person (because they care to), the next and most obvious step is ranking the importance of various characteristics wines might possess. This in turn inevitably leads to creating something of an objective outline for what constitutes quality in a wine.
But let's be clear about something. While Terry Theise and many others, including myself, obviously have adopted the notion that there are a set of factors that can help us delineate one wine from another based on its "qualitative" factors, these are subjective judgments.
No one can say with any degree of righteousness that to be of a "better quality," Chardonnay must exhibit some degree of acidity. No one can say with any guarantee that "fine" Bordeaux ought to have at least a bit of tannin. And no one can say with finality that "great" Red Burgundy ought to have some ability to age. All they can say is that these are the criteria and factors we have adopted to determine the qualitative differences in wines.
What is really interesting is that despite the Rednecks' proclivity to judge wine base primarily on the "pleasure" it delivers and not on whether it matches a pattern or principle or model, they are surely willing to admit that these models for quality they don't understand probably exist. There is no other way to explain the fact that "shelf talkers" that show up underneath wines on grocery and drug store shelves do indeed help sell those wines. The Rednecks, while not being able to judge the wines with anything like the same sophistication as the critic who is mentioned on the "Shelf Talker" underneath the wine, do appear to believe that there is some objective criteria that led the critic to bestow the wine with a score of 90 or with a description reading, "a beautifully crafted Zinfandel delivering harmony and intensity".
Of course the other side of this coin concerns the sophisticated wine drinker that has bought into the notion that wines can be judged objectively. If you've ever sat a formal wine tasting or judged a wine competition, you've likely heard a wine sophisticate say something like this, "While this is really an outstanding example of X, I simply don't like this style of wine."
The pale-necked wine drinker is admitting that while they believe in the notion of objective standards of quality, they return to hedonism where their own preference is concerned.
By the way, Theise's "Reading Between the Wines" is a pretty interesting work from a man who is as deeply involved and ensconced in the detail, romance, science and marketing of wine as you'll ever come across. It's well worth a read.