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.
Until the collective wine industry establishes and codifies parameters and standards to objectively evaluate wine quality, the proclamations of critics, judges, and consumers will remain mostly a matter of personal preference mixed with interpretations of culture and sophistication.
Is that a good or a bad thing: who knows?
This is one of the most interesting subjects regarding wine. Sheer definition of the “wine quality” is very challenging. Should we just define wine quality as absence of the faults? Problem is that even if the wine is a textbook example of the Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and all the experts agree that it is a “quality” wine ( whatever it should mean), it is still not given that someone who prefers red Burgundy will actually enjoy that glass of Cab. Yes, I appeal here to the subjective characteristic of “pleasure”, but again, I’m not sure that all the quality ratings will convince someone to enjoy the wine if he or she simply doesn’t like the taste.
Of course it is important to establish “wine quality” when wines are judged for the competition or rated for a publication, but in the end of the day this would be only taken as a suggestion by the general public.
When drinking the wine outside of any competition, wine pros or not, the idea is to enjoy what we drink, therefore what should we say about quality wine which doesn’t give us pleasure? I would say that both “quality” and “pleasure” are important, but I would still put my personal preference on Pleasure :).
The physiology of taste is a complex science, regardless of the social factors. Our appreciation and judging of wine or for that matter art is based on our life long experiences. What we like and dislike; for some the smell of a certain wine will
bring back memories of their grandmothers attic depending on memories of their grandmothers this could be good or bad. In the movie Ratatouille the food critic rates the meal 4 stars because it reminded him of his childhood. Does that mean another would rate it the same? How many times have we all read a tasting note from Robert Parker and scratch our head only being able to agree on the color of the wine. Our collective life experiences are what determine our judgment. That said, there are obvious certain characters that make a wine good or bad from a quality point. You don’t have to be a wine expert to know that a wine that has a serious volatile acidity problem is bad. You may not know why, but I believe the average person knows good from bad. Look forward to reading Terry’s book.
Matt Kramer, in his book “Making Sense of Wine” talks extensively about this difference between liking something and deciding objectively if it is of high quality. In America, we have adopted thoroughly the idea that if we like something better, it IS better. But that’s just not true; all that’s true is that we like it better. If you handed a collection of 19th Century French poetry to me and to an educated and experienced literature student, and asked us both to choose the best three poems found there, he would be able to intelligently determine the best three based on experience, education, and how closely each poem approaches an ideal, perfect version of poems of this era. I would easily be able to choose my three “favorites”, but I have no context within which to place the poems, and no real criteria by which to judge them other than my own experience. Clearly, he would be right and I would be wrong when it comes to which of us selected the best three poems, but I would be right about which I like best.
I agree that we have to be gentle and tactful when we make this point, but clearly there is a difference between better and that which we “like” better.
Perception is reality; concrete reality exists only in a finite, predictable universe. Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, et.al., and Terry Theise, to a lesser extent, have created a finite, predictable universe for wine. Thus, their “reality” has become the predictible reality for wine and wine people. Thus when Parker says a wine is redolent of “freshly laid asphalt on a french country road” and it’s a compliment, the wine community ooh’s and ahh’s and nods their collective head in unanimous agreement. (Please note: whether RP ever made this comment is up for some debate.) If RP, WE, WS, say it is “the best” wine, or a better wine, they have arrived at this label after much thought, analysis, tasting, and judgment by their perceived superior palates… But, in today’s wine world, RP, et.al, are the “old school.”
Increasingly, the “wine blogging” and the so called “social media” universe is creating a “new school” world of wine where their perception is reality – whatever wine they like is the “best.” Two Buck Chuck is the best on Friday night after 10 beers; whatever Gary Vaynerchuk screams the loudest about is the best – at least for that point in time, until he screams louder for another wine that is the best.
The truth is likely somewhere in between the two worlds. Yes, wine is subjective and objective – and education (not a strong point in the US) may be the key – wine is not a snobbish subject, it is not difficult, it is not meant for the “upper crust.” It’s just wine and if it can come off the RP, WS, WE, etc. pedestal but not go as low as the “anti-social media” universe, but level out somewhere in between, it may eventually become a non-threatening part of US culture and silly debates like this one need not occur…
I have read Mr. Theise with great interest for years. His monograph on Riesling, on his website, is the best discussion of how to appreciate this wonderful wine that I have ever read–including my own attempts at convincing my reader to drink more Riesling.
But, his book is another matter entirely. It does too much “codifying” for my taste, and so I accept his writings not as truth so much as interesting views from an informed non-conformist with a great ability to express himself. Kind of reminds me of Randall Grahm in that regard.
Tom P. reminds us that wine pronouncements are subjective. No one is going to disagree with that notion. Even when a group of people agree on the coda that Mr. P. might like to see, that coda will necessarily be subjective. Is there are right level fo acidity for Chardonnay? Does unoaked Chardonnay need more or less acidity than oaked Chardonnay? How about Chard that has undergone malolactic fermentation and has good measurable acidity but tastes soft because it has a different kind fo acidity?
We do agree on many things in wine, but they are in large part learned things. Otherwise, why is it that Americans hate Brett as if it were some kind of terminal disease but other cultures embrace it?
Why was high VA in Burgundy acceptable but not in CA wine?
Why do the words “over 14% alcohol” cause some people to froth at the mouth without ever tasting the wine in question. Too often our “subjective” judgments become “rules” and “standards” and attempt to pass for objective measures when they are based on subjective reactions to begin with.
Therry Theise book is a good read, a very enjoyable read that I devoured in one day. It adds to the literature, the richness, the joy that is wine.
I am not sure, however, that I am ready to annoint it as the truth.
We are getting close to agreement on this. I know I’ve softened a bit–have you???
By its nature, aestheticism is personal and interpretive. There are “upper” aesthetics and there are “plebeian” aesthetics. Hardly ever the train meets, but in the case of wine, the “upper” aestheticism has prevailed for quite some time–been that way since the Sumerians.
Extraordinarily interesting question. I recall Matt Kramer discussing quality vs. personal preference.
I love the logic behind TT’s argument, but is “quality” based on ironclad facts, or precendence? Are the quality fingerprints of a Cabernet based on the characteristics of a high-end and long-standing left-bank Bordeaux house (because it’s just what’s been around the longest)?
Winemaking flaws are flaws, but the acidity/alcohol/tannin level is key. It may be different everywhere in the world (even in adjacent vineyards). Discounting these variations would, indeed, spit in the eye of the concept of “terroir”. I’m glad this caveat was at least mentioned.
I found this to be a great post from Tom, so much so, that it motivated me to add a comment to a blog for the first time! I have always found it very interesting to read about “objective quality standards” when it comes to wine. The above post discussing 19th century French literature is actually a very good example of why there are not objective quality standards in wine or literature. From the literature example, a trained student of French literature and myself might choose three very different poems which each of us think are “best”. I am untrained, while the student is an expert, to most people the student would be correct and I would be wrong. How does a regular person interpret the results when two equally qualified experts, read the same collection of poems, yet each expert picks three different poems? How do we then determine who is right and who is wrong? In wine reviews this happens all the time, one “expert” can award a wine a 91 while another “expert” will award the wine an 85. When I taste (or blend) a wine my first thought is always “did that first sip taste good?” I feel that this will be what most wine drinkers will also be asking themselves (experts included). From this point on the more experienced tasters might start quantifying why they liked the wine or they might just sit back , relax and enjoy a good glass of wine.
Quality will always be subjective but when the same opinion seems to be the majority overall, then it surely lends weight to the actual fact doesn’t it?
We have wines here in Turkey that should be used for cleaning the toilet and this shows in the price. A lot of people buy cheap wine rathar than quality wine and when questioned will admit it.
Flawed wines, those with actual technical flaws, can be objectively measured, but even then, we basically determine the flaws first with our senses. In that regard, tasting findings are a learned response. To some extent, that response is subjective, but it can also be accurate and reliable if coming from a reliable source.
When it comes to the kind of wine criticism to which Theise addresses himself, and which we are discussing on this blog for the most part, then the subjectivity quotient goes up. That is why one critic may dislike a tannic Cabernet and feel it will never come around, giving it scores in the low 80s or worse, and other critics will taste the wine and judge that it is still nascent and needs a decade or more to find itself and give scores in the 90s.
But, that said, the most widely read and respected critics do not often vary enormously. Rather, their ratings tend to vary by stylistic preference around a mean. Without meaning to pigeon-hole people’s palates, it is pretty widely acknowledged that Robert Parker will like riper, bigger wines than Dan Berger will like. No one says one or the other is wrong (well, Dan might on occasion, but that is why we like him so much), and thus subjectivity controls. No coda of absolute quality exists that will guide the judgments of all tasters. It is on this point that Tom P and I have sparred (politely, most of the time) on this blog and others for some time now.
In “Effects of non-sensory cues on perceived quality: The case of low alcohol Wine”, Masson, J. et al, assert that the notion of quality can be both viewed as subjective, which the authors identify as PERCEIVED QUALITY, and objective, defined as EXPECTED QUALITY.
They note that “[t]he overall perceived quality of a food [or drink] product is influenced simultaneously or successively by sensory cues as the product is tasted, and by non-sensory cues (brand, type of wine, alcohol content, etc.). In purchasing situations, however, gustatory cues are seldom available. The consumer then relies on non-sensory cues to evaluate product quality and to make a selection among the various alternatives on offer.
“Expected quality, which encompasses non-sensory cues, can be defined as all of the expectations or beliefs regarding the anticipated performance of a product. Its study is of particular interest as it influences overall perceived product quality and consumer satisfaction. Expected quality itself is influenced by the consumer’s experience with the product, the consumption context and quality indicators. Quality indicators can be distinguished according to their intrinsic nature (they cannot be changed without modifying the product)”.
For high-end wines the objective notion of EXPECTED QUALITY can be ascribed to the valued economic inputs (QUALITY INDICATORS) employed throughout the entire grape-to-wine production chain, such as: 1) artisanally farmed, scarce/low-yield grapes from a highly valued piece of land; 2) fine craftsmanship, intensive use of human capital and employment of low-interventionist, artisanal approaches in the winemaking process; 3) judicious use of high quality oak and a slow-maturation/long-aging period; 4) a perennial highly esteemed brand with a validated/robust/consistent track record.
Quality in wine can be measured. (as to whether or not it’s of value to the consumer is largely irrelevant)
Most wine is consumed for the experience, whether they take value in its appreciation by others (ratings), or in bringing something special to their friends and families. It’s an art, an interaction and a connection. This isn’t just subjective, it’s unique to a time and place, a moment stylistically when the wine has synergy with society. (read: think of port, it’s up and downs..)
The redneck drinker doesn’t need to be educated. Maybe they spend all their time working on classic cars and appreciate every nuance of craftsmanship in fine automobiles while we drive a mass produced mid-size that had a great review in consumer reports.
I personally share wine that I love with anyone I can get to drink it, but I’m not about to choke them to death geeking out about why they should appreciate it too (unless they genuinely want to know). You like Yellow Tail, great, here is a Szforzato, lemme know if it works for you, cheers.