On the Value of Wine Criticism: a Conversation with the Blind

Let’s admit it, there are a lot of wine words that raise eyebrows.

The esoteric jargon leaps to mind: “This wine has lift. Excellent palate tension”. “A laser-like focus”. “This wine is rather foursquare”. “Très nerveux”, quoth the French wine critic, often when sampling a dry white wine they like. Can a wine be nervous?

Then there is the dauntingly precise collection of fruits, flowers, and other non-edible aromatic descriptors in tasting notes.

  • Sous bois, or mushrooms.
  • Stones.
  • Latex or Band-Aids.
  • Violets.
  • Saddle leather.
  • Barnyard (or manure).
  • Stalky.
  • White pepper.
  • Pine.
  • Mint.
  • Green bell pepper.
  • Mimosa.
  • Honeysuckle.
  • Geranium.
  • Cat pee.
  • Red currant.
  • Wet dog.
  • Toasty.
  • Tar.
  • Soapy.
  • Nail polish.
  • Apples.
  • Corn.
  • Lactic.
  • Orange blossom.
  • Mousy.
  • Cranberries.
  • Brioche.
  • Bubblegum.
  • Egg.
  • Cheese.
  • Lemon.
  • Magnolia.
  • Lime.
  • Cherries.
  • Apricot.
  • Toffee.
  • Pear.
  • Plums.
  • Peaches.
  • Tobacco.
  • Lychee.
  • Cedar.
  • Petrol.

 

And finally, there’s the troubling lack of consensus between critics regarding exact descriptors for the same wine. What one critic might consider to be a “full” wine with “bilberry, truffle and red currant”, another critic might dub “angular yet fresh with a core of Alpine strawberries”.

If the critics can’t even agree, what’s it all worth? How can it be right?

Deep breath: I vehemently defend these practices and descriptive tools. And, I’ve had it with the parade of Philistines attempting to “empirically” disprove the utility of wine criticism. I’ve read endless articles1 making claims ranging from “no one can tell the difference between a $100 wine and a $20 wine blind; so never spend over $20”, to “wine descriptors proved bullshit in a study conducted by X”… and it’s all useless garbage built on well-intentioned but ineptly crafted castles of sand2.

In reaction to this outcry, Eric Asimov goes off the deep end and suggests we simply qualify wines as either “sweet” or “savory” then shut up3. Others have come to wine criticism’s defense: perhaps in response to fraudsters Rodenstock and Kurniawan managing to dupe the world’s greatest wine critics, Alva Noë penned this defense of wine criticism.  And Barry Smith wrote an article for the World of Fine Wine which, in my opinion, only touched upon the crux of the issue at the second to last paragraph:

“ … there is no guarantee, of course, that those with great tasting skills will be able to articulate the reasons for their appreciation of certain wines. Having the linguistic powers to express what one finds in a young wine is an additional skill, and this is perhaps the key role for the wine writer.”

And yet each of these defenses seems to miss the point. But never mind that for now: please don’t just take my word for it. Consider why I passionately believe wine criticism is legitimate and necessary. A thought experiment.

Consider Seurat’s Un dimanche après midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte.

I actually sort of hate this painting.

Now, imagine that you’ve invited three different veteran art critics to independently describe Seurat’s painting to Bobby, a student of art who has never seen this painting. But there’s a problem: Bobby has macular degeneration and has recently become blind.

The critics must painstakingly describe each element of the painting to Bobby.

Not unlike a wine, the historical details which surrounded the production (the dates and life of the artist, cities of residence, adherence to major schools of artistic thought) would be rather straightforward elements that every critic would expose in a similar manner.  This is the easy part. Just like, say, the history of a Bordeaux estate, vintage conditions, harvest dates, and any adherence to a school or trend in winemaking (zero sulfur; international style, etc).

But these simple details aren’t what we ultimately ask of critics. They’re not the meat of the analysis. What we really seek is to be transported; to have the sensory experience of seeing or tasting delivered to us verbally in a passionate and compelling manner. And that transmutation is not only exceedingly difficult, it is by definition fraught with relativity. Which ultimately ends up the briar patch for the naysayer.

Not unlike our wine critics, no two critics would describe the painting in a completely similar manner. An integral part of the problem is that the galaxy of stimuli is so vast that it’s difficult to circumscribe — a seemingly infinite body of descriptive text could find its source in this one painting. And invariably, some critics would contradict elements of others’ description — perhaps the emotion conveyed; the nature of the colors; or the Pandora’s box that is the intention of the artist.

And yet, in spite of this, each critic would be contributing legitimate information. Each critic would be elegantly articulating a thoughtful impression. And — barring questions of integrity and candor! — each critic’s description could be considered equally valid, as it invited reflection, cultivated appreciation, and brought greater understanding.

Now, it is possible to conceive of an art critic saying completely bonkers things, i.e. “Seurat’s painting is a collection of black and white vertical lines, which burn into the retina and induce nausea…” And perhaps this is equally possible in wine criticism. A wine critic who cries “black and white vertical lines” when none are present should logically be pushed out of the nest as an aberration — or at the very least, greeted by a wave of critical dissent, and held at arm’s length by skeptical consumers.

Consider Robert Parker’s infamous appreciation of Château Pavie4. Regarding the 2010 vintage, John Gilman, a critic whose palate I most often agree with, described it as:

“the biggest train wreck of the vintage”, “absurdly overripe, unpleasant to taste and patently out of balance…The liqueur-like nose offers up a high-octane cocktail of kirsch, framboise, smoke, mocha and a boatload of new oak. On the palate the wine is deep, huge and very overripe and pruney, with zero focus or delineation, a blur of alcohol, and the most profoundly astringent, searing and brutally tannic finish that I have ever tasted.”

Ever fair and even-handed, Jancis Robinson also dared disagree with Parker over Pavie: this time it was the 20035. Par for the course with Parker, things got dirty right quick: “Her comments are very much in keeping with her nasty swipes at all the Pavies made by Gerard Perse and mirror the comments of … reactionaries in Bordeaux.”6

“Am I not allowed to have my own opinion? Only so long as it agrees with Monsieur Parker’s, it would seem.” Oh, Jancis. Your grace in the face of turd-hurling macaques does you credit.

Earlier I’d mentioned “…a critic whose palate I most often agree with”. As with art or theatre critics, or hell, even Amazon product reviews, one most approach any appreciation of a thing with a dose of skepticism. At least until one has had a chance to verify a symmetry between the aesthetic of the reviewer and oneself on a few occasions (does the Amazon review reek of Astroturf? is the review punctuated by damning typos à la definately?), at which point one abandons a skeptical posture and slowly begins trusting.

So, if while seeing a musical that Ben Brantley describes as “essential”, I feel said musical is total horse shit and find myself surrounded by a population of hysterical subhuman hyenas with whom I apparently have no genetic ancestry, I can assume Ben Brantley’s palate and mine differ regarding musicals: done. Don’t rule out theatrical criticism in general; don’t decry the utility of his writing for the hyenas; just note the sensory difference, and move on.

Look: it’s simple. We need criticism. We can’t see every film, eat at every restaurant, attend every art exposition, purchase every 200 lb appliance via Amazon and then return it, be everywhere at once. If you are eager to write off wine criticism and tasting notes, you’d better be ready to write off nearly all these equally subjective yet indispensable forms of criticism.

We need a useful way to verbally describe wine. There’s no Smell-O-Vision, no Aroma-scope, no Sensorama, no way around it.

If 100 or 20 points and highly relative language is our only way of doing it, so be it.

But let’s cool it with the red-hot disdain for wine criticism. So much ire is founded in what seems to be a green-eyed jealousy that “these critics say they taste things that I sure as shit can’t”; so, the naysayer concludes, “it must all be worthless”. Curiously, other forms of cultural currency are spared this onslaught. Why do we not witness legions of accusers decrying a lack of empirical consensus in film or restaurant reviews? I suspect it has something to do with the air of intimidation relative to wine as a cultural currency. Perhaps it’s the singular immediacy of wine tasting: it lights upon the palate, taste receptors begin firing … and the consumer patiently awaits the critic’s promised fireworks. If the experiences don’t align, the average Joe feels swindled and calls bullshit.

And therein lies the remedy to this conflict: naysayers need to loosen up and more freely embrace relativity. If my mulberry is your plum, fine. Reading a note, one can easily glean a sense of vibrancy, of whether the taster enjoyed the wine — this is the critic’s first task. If the alignment of aromas doesn’t correspond in a 1:1 fashion, must we throw our hands in the air? Second, the point score is a vital gauge to help contextualize the degree to which one enjoyed the wine, and just how much of a rare bird among other wines it truly is. We run into major problems with the quaffer ghetto phenomenon, but barring that, it works pretty well.

Naysayers most often balk at either strange or exceedingly specific descriptors. Let’s put that to rest immediately: here is a link to a great repository of “strange” aromatic descriptors which are often founded in isolated chemical compounds, so, shut up naysayers, we got chemistry.

However. Defender as I am, there is a viral set of descriptors that even I once had issues with. No authoritative dictionary explains these terms:

nerveux (nervous) – viral in French wine circles, because you feel smart saying it. I think this is my most despised descriptor, as it seems to be the most divorced from reality. Interestingly, Frank Schoonmaker defined this descriptor in the 1964 as “Applied to wines that are especially well-knit and well-balanced, with both character and breed”.7 However, that is at odds with current usage, as it is typically used to describe high acid8 white Burgundy and Riesling, sometimes Pinot Noir. I think I get it; there’s “tension” on the palate. Which begs the question: why not simply refer to …

tension – seemingly bullshit, but this I’ll admit this nevertheless proves useful. Again, great whites seem to be the object of this descriptor. Anywhere “nerveux” can work, an allusion to tension can work9. From what I can gather, it involves high acid or another dense, somehow “heavy” palate element (massive weight, or some other heavily-embossed midpalate presence) which is kept in check by that balancing acid on the finish.

foursquare – drove me mad, to the point of my prodding its purveyor John Gilman. He pointed out: “foursquare means chunky, simple and blocky – used mostly in UK wine writing I believe (I picked it up from reading Clive Coates for several years and it found its way into my wine description lexicon). I like the term because it suggests a lack of excitement, while allowing that the wine is competently made on some banal level.” Thanks, John. So there you are, irrefutable descriptive value here.

lift – ie., “This wine has lift”. Such a viral power: I found myself using this term even if I’m not really certain what it means. There’s something quite alluring about it. Jancis claims it is simply volatile acidity10. Other sources simply call it acidity11. Or, perhaps it’s not acidity at all.  Upon tasting the 2013 Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Rosé with Virgile Rousseau, I was instantly starstruck, and found the wine to be a damn near perfect rosé. And I don’t even like most rosé! Here, however, was a Languedoc rosé that was as cool of a character as could be. And by golly, “it has lift”!  To which Virgile immediately replied, “Yes, it does … that could be the CO2, that often creates that effect”.

Mind: blown, again.

I take it to mean that the wine is anything but onerous on the palate, that it has a slight effusiveness that invites drinking, thanks either to CO2 or acidity. Here is an excellent exploration of CO2 in wine.

angular – This is initially a weird bird. I take it to mean a wine which is not seamless and integrated; a wine which doesn’t present an even, unified whole. This often happens with young wines, wines that are transitioning from one phase of life to another, or wines that are simply out of balance and too astringent. The wine will present a certain nature on the initial attack, then get squirmy on the palate or finish. It will often come across as thin and disjointed. Perhaps time will iron out the problem; perhaps not. This source12 claims it is simply an excess of acidity.

So how ’bout that? Save for “foursquare”, every single nebulous descriptor above is basically a different way to describe acidity. Ha! What are your least favorite descriptors? Let me know in the comments.

***

Not unlike Seurat’s painting, each glass of wine is its own dense universe of stimuli. Some denser than others, to be sure; but those who accept the challenge of transmuting aroma into word should be praised rather than scorned. Our task is identical to those who would endeavor to describe perfumes, and, as it turns out, the results are surprisingly similar (see here).

Is there ultimately that much harm inflicted if my painting of the wine’s aromas contains a color or texture which you do not sense in the source? If I do, and you don’t, must you at that point don a suicide vest and destroy the whole museum in the supposedly holy name of Consistency?

Our ability to verbally communicate is indeed beleaguered by the relativity of our tasting apparatus and a host of personal associations. And yet: we can communicate, we can approximate a tasting experience verbally. Scaling description down to a naked, minimal place of illusory objectivity gets us nowhere: I fail to see how “sweet” or “savory” can in any universe be construed as more communicative than “red currants and smoked bacon”.

No one can ever deny me the satisfaction that is finding the “golden descriptor” — just the right word to describe an elusive aroma I sense in a wine. Somewhere in my head, I hear a congratulatory gong sounding. “Yes! Eureka! That’s it! Nailed it! (gooong)”

It’s waiting for you…
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  1. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis; http://jezebel.com/new-survey-determines-that-wine-adjectives-are-mostly-c-472857513; http://io9.com/wine-tasting-is-bullshit-heres-why-496098276 []
  2. Most  rely upon conclusions drawn from decontextualized, blind tasting scenarios, and often feature a senseless hodge-podge of wines presented to a group of tasters who not unlike their study designers have little experience tasting wine. Others expect identical outcomes from tasters in different circumstances. []
  3. I have not read Eric’s book How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto []
  4. Parker on 2010: “98+ : “…Since Perse acquired this estate in 1998, most Pavies have possessed off the charts richness and the 2010 is no different. It also reveals an opaque purple color, abundant notes of roasted coffee, blackberries, cassis, full-bodied power and sensational density, texture and length. There is also a boatload of tannin, so do not expect this 2010 to provide near-term consumption. Somewhat reminiscent of the 2005 in its freshness, precision and intensity, it requires 7-10 years of cellaring and should keep for 3-4 decades thereafter. I had this wine on four separate occasions and would rank it slightly behind the 2000, 2005 and 2009. ”
    http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/sensational-or-just-bad-on-2010-pavie-two-critics-disagree/ []
  5. Parker on 2003: “98 points: The 2003 Pavie (7,080 cases; 13.5% alcohol) is closest in style to the 2000, but slightly more evolved and exotic. Its dense plum/purple color is accompanied by an extraordinary perfume of charcoal, creme de cassis, melted licorice, espresso roast, and blackberries. The wine, which hits the palate with a dramatic minerality, comes across like a hypothetical blend of limestone liqueur intermixed with black and red fruits. With massive depth, richness, and body, this tannic 2003 should be forgotten for 4-5 years, then enjoyed over the next four decades. The integration of acidity, tannin, and wood is flawless, and the wine is incredibly pure, rich, and intense. Kudos to Gerard Perse, who is trying, in a more modern fashion, to recreate the glories of such ancient Bordeaux vintages as 1921, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1959, and 1961. From my perspective, he comes as close to that goal as anyone in Bordeaux.” []
  6. http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Robinson-Parker-have-a-row-over-Bordeaux-2755642.php []
  7. Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Frank Schoonmaker; Hasting House, 1964. Fourth Printing April 1967; p. 233. []
  8. see nervous: http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-educational-questions/abc-of-wine-glossary-of-wine-terms/ []
  9. http://www.jamessuckling.com/neds-blog-tension-in-pinot-noir-comments-on-burgundy-in-2008-2009.html []
  10. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a200808292.html []
  11. http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-educational-questions/abc-of-wine-glossary-of-wine-terms/ []
  12. http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/wine-topics/wine-educational-questions/abc-of-wine-glossary-of-wine-terms/ []

3 comments

  1. Brent says:

    Excellent post @gargantuanwine. I’d also add that the empirical studies out there attempting to bash wine expertise are likely to focus on wines which are probably going to be in a grey area to begin with (i.e. I think they are selecting wines which will yield a headline grabbing result). If you gave 20 true wine experts, say, 4 glasses: 3 yellow tails and an excellent chablis grand cru, and asked each to pick the best one, I bet you would get perfect agreement amongst the experts.

  2. Brady Daniels says:

    Hi Gargantuan,

    I suppose wine criticism has some value, but I am not a huge fan of the business.

    My primary problem with wine criticism is implied precision. If a critic drinks the same wine separated by a few hours, will they describe it or score it the same? Or will one sample’s plum be the next sample’s mulberry, and one wine’s 89, be the next’s 91? Color me skeptical. In this field more than many, beware self-styled experts.

    Art is equally objective, but is generally criticized at a different level, incorporating not just appearance, but technique, style, history, and yes, even motive. Comparing a tasting note to an essay on Seurat’s la Grande Jatte seems odd. The former supposedly seeks to inform you, the latter to educate and persuade you. To give some credit, I have seen Gilman approach this level.

    Reviews of 200 pound appliances might seem nearly as superficial as most tasting notes, but often contain many more objective elements, such as size, wattage, etc. For me it is easier to buy-in to a review a toaster based on the fact that it has four slots that can each toast a large slice of bread without flipping, than to trust to believe a piece of wine-writing that includes mulberries and scores.

    I agree that critics are very helpful in teaching new wine drinkers, but they can be a crutch, and perhaps exert too much influence on them. In the end, I think a goal of true wine lovers should be to shed dependence on critics as fast as they reasonably can. I was slow. I subscribed to and believed Parker up until 2007 Southern Rhone. I subscribed to Meadows until two years ago. I now know what I like and tend to buy that way. And I trust a few merchants and friends who know my palate, and say, “Brady, this one’s for you.” Parker and Meadows never did that.

  3. Gargantua says:

    I’ve updated the definition of nerveux to include Frank Schoonmaker’s definition dating back to 1964, which I recently uncovered while researching another article.

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