Controverialist: judgements of quality in wine

One of the issues about wine that really interests me is this: who gets to decide what is good?
This touches on aesthetics, and also definitions of quality, and there are a number of ways of addressing the subject. Suffice to say, a discussion on this topic could make a small book, so here I’m just sharing a few thoughts.

At one level, you could say that tasting is all subjective, and it is up to each individual to decide what is good. Or, a subtle twist: the market decides what is good.

But that’s a bit of a cop out. There’s an objective dimension to wine quality. The wine trade has continual discussions about quality, and wine education and writing separates wines out continually along a quality spectrum.

In some ways, there is a shared aesthetic in the wine trade about what represents quality, and – to a degree – this is self-referential. It is an aesthetic system that people are schooled in, and like the English language, there are subtle modifications with time, but it remains largely the same.

As we taste together, we find ourselves mostly in agreement about broad-stroke judgements of quality. Even so, there are situations where experienced professionals with a good reputation end up disagreeing about certain wines. I find this disagreement among experts fascinating.

I’ll be candid. In my experience, most wine journalists (and there are quite a lot of us) are good at separating out bad wines from good wines. We generally perform well, but only up to a certain level. There are still many who fail where I think it matters most: distinguishing the exceptional and ‘serious’ from among the merely excellent. Some have a tendency to be fooled by spoofiness more than they really should be.

This comes, I think, from a failure to understand wine at a very high level. I’m not talking new world versus old world palates – that’s too simplistic. I’m talking about the ability to separate out, for example, spoofiness in classed growth Bordeaux from serious Bordeaux, or the ability to distinguish wines that possess true elegance from those that rely too much on fruit, or the embellishment of oak.

With tasters, it’s not just an age thing. Young and old alike either lack or possess the ability to understand wine at a high level. Some people seem to have the ability to get it; others probably never will. Nor is it simply elitist: many non-serious wines cost a lot more than much better serious wine.

I’m sure that this all sounds incredibly arrogant, because I’m inferring that I’m one of this select band who really get wine. I’m also suggesting that my interpretation of what is serious and non-serious when it comes to wine is correct. But I think it’s important to get over the fear of being interpreted wrongly in order to make the statement that there is a level of wine that is serious, and that some commentators simply don’t understand the difference between very good commercial styles and spoofy high-end wines, and serious wines.

23 comments to Controversialist: judgements of quality in wine

  • Richard Morris

    The examples of ‘spoofiness’ (not a very helpful word) you give, like over-oaking, could be described as faults and all wine journalists should spot them. Compare say, over-salting in a restaurant.

    If, however, the wine has no faults then a wine journalist’s view of the worth of a wine is no better than any other taster. The arguments you make are always being rehearsed in other fields, like art or music, with no resolution. There is always an ‘expert’ who thinks he knows better than an amateur.

    I think if you need to progress this argument it would be useful to provide some examples of the disagreements you refer to above.

  • keith prothero

    Although I find it useful to learn what people such as Neal Martin and yourself think of a wine,I rarely buy based on your or any other “experts “opinion.
    To me, what matters most is what I think of the wine,and as an example I just do not “get” some of the Craggy Range wines you like .Not to say they are not well made,but too me they are too big and fruity for my palate.Maybe,I will like them in another 10 years or so,but certainly not now.On the other hand my missus thinks they are great !!
    Fortunately,I attend numerous offlines,so am able to drink with food a wide range of wine,and hence my favourite “expert” is myself.

  • I wonder of Keith has touched on something here – suggestibility. I was looking at a American wine website just yesterday, and the wines were grouped not by style, colour or origin, but by Parker points. ’80 – 85′, ’86 -90′ and so on. As if this were the sole reason to buy them.
    I’m with Keith on this one – listen to others by all means but be your own judge.

  • Alice Steyn

    I have to come to the conclusion that wine is very personal, much like perfume.

  • Mike Crawford

    What supprises me the most of wine competitions in South Africa, is the inconsistency. This is not sour grapes, but how does one explain winning the national Terrior Wine award, a Double Gold at Michelangelo and the NOTHING, yes you heared me…… nothing at Veritas, and this is for the same wine…. Boggles me

  • James Davis

    I quite like the US website approach, Nick. The market ultimately determines everything does it not? Aesthetic outputs included, whether we like that or not?

  • Ben Smith

    Jamie, I think this is very analogous to music – especially classical music. I’m a heathen when it comes to classical, but I do ‘know what I like’! I can enjoy (say) a piece by Mozart I believe just as much as a classical music scholar (the music equivalent of the supertasters you refer to) even if I can’t make out the finer points of its greatness.
    Secondly, because sensation (whether taste, hearing or other) is so subjective – and transient – I’m not sure you can confidently state that you ‘get’ a ‘serious’ wine better than someone else. What you undoubtedly can do is capture your impressions of it more eloquently and completely than many could (like a music critic!)

  • Simon Pringle

    The terrific and much needed conversation (especially here in Aus) contrasting technically well made wines and beautiful wines. As a Riesling maker I think technicality has totally hijacked the variety to the point that the consumer just ‘doesn’t get’ the wines the makers and critics rave about. How much austerity and piercing acidity can the average punter take.
    Equally I’m a firm believer that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If a critic tells me I must recognise the beauty in something, and I don’t, does that make the critic an aesthetic snob or me an ignoramus. Beauty is so subjective. I love listening to descriptions that informs me how you came to your opinion, but don’t tell me it is definitive. That is a huge line to leap over.

  • Cam Haskell

    Great, interesting post. One of the things I quite like about your writing Jamie is that you taste a diversity of wines – from all over, from all different styles, at a whole lot of price points.

    But for me a related issue is that the compaction of scores (that almost all wines are scored from 85-100 or 15-20) confuses this. Or rather, confuses tasters. A more genuine scale, as operates in just about every other field of critique would be vastly more helpful. Teasing out the differences aren’t as fine when you’ve a more critical mindset in place already. But the reality is that it’s all too difficult to find a critical review of any wine, no matter how entrenched the brand, how poor the vintage or how terrible the wine.

  • Really interesting post and comments, but it made me wonder if it’s of any relevance or use to your average citizen wine-lover/drinker/user. This whole thread (post + comments) IS elitist (in the good sense!) in that it’s only of interest to experts and professionals. Your average wine-lovers are not going to get to taste a ‘serious’ Bordeaux very often, and they do (on a special occasion say) they’ll not be able to compare it to other Bordeaux or tell if it’s ‘serious? excellent’ ‘spoofulated’ or whatever.
    The classical music analogy is good. Imagine music critics discussing the intricacies of the notes/medolies/harmonics/ etc while mere listeners just listen and enjoy (or not).

  • This post and the comments only reinforce the need for wine consumers to be able to understand wine ratings and wine reviews. Too often they are taken as “gospel,” without a true understanding of how the scores and reviews are produced.

  • Jason Palma

    Can you give us some examples of serious wine and spoofy wine? I think telling examples will reinforce your argument….

  • Nelbo

    Just one question…What is a Controverialist?

  • the art of wine is mood. a well stocked cellar should cover all 88 keys on the board and a few chords. a less than spectacular wine can receive its oscar in the supporting role, and a well endowed star can irritate in the wrong application. outside commercial purposes, wine is rarely poorly made. purity, terroir, and proper usage is the key to never having a mediocre wine.

  • It’s amazing how “bad” many of the best known wine journalists are at wine tasting. It’s amazing, to be specific, how many of them can’t recognize brutal flaws like bret, excess VA, and even oxidation, and consumers are left holding the bag because they buy 90+ scoring wines rife with these things (and when they do buy high scoring wines that they find repulsive, sadly they are left thinking that there’s something wrong with them, not the critic).

    Personally, I’m convinced that most of the better known wine journalists attained the status that they did because they’re good, prolific writers (kudos for that), or because they’ve had the drive, wherewithal or luck to be in the position they’re in. But with even the good ones (and don’t get me wrong: I find that there are also lots of great, amazingly accurate journalists and wine professionals out there), wine judging or criticism is still the same as with any other judging or criticism of the arts and crafts (films, books, painting, music, et al.): ultimately, the only real judge of anything is the consumer. The beholder, if you will.

    Critics, for instance, generally adore James Joyce, Jonathan Franzen, Ingmar Bergman, Jackson Pollock, etc. — artists that I may find absolutely tedious or uninteresting. Nothing wrong with the critics, and nothing wrong with me. We all need to be our own judge of quality; and hopefully we can find wine critics (which I have done) who are pretty much in line with our own personal taste.

  • Thanks for all the great comments – I agree that my argument would be much enhanced by specific examples. I’ll try to think of some without upsetting people too much.

  • One way I judge how good a wine may be — an oblique approach — is by judging how I feel about the suggested mental processes and resulting style displayed by the writer. Thus I would be inclined to try virtually any wine cited by Hugh Johnson, by Gerald Asher (if he was still published), by Michael Steinberger, by Kermit Lynch (even though as a merchant he has a license to spin), by Steven Spurrier, and by David Schildknecht, whose prose can be Germanically professorial and sometimes difficult to track but, like the rough-hewn work of the American novelist Theodore Dreiser, usually repays the effort.

  • Paul Tudor

    What is wrong with upsetting people too much? I think you need to be a controversialist…
    You make some good points, but we do need more detail. Keith provides an excellent example, Craggy Range. Craggy produces excellent wines at the lower price points, but they have consistently failed to make exciting or ‘serious’ wine at the top end, which was a stated aim of the company when it was established. However, there does appear to be a group of critics, journalists, whatever you would call them, who have been seduced by these wines. Are they really characterful, personality wines, with a distinct regsiter of terroir? If so, then set up the blind tasting and I will take out another mortgage and come over there and participate…

  • Jamie:

    I like the word “spoofy” – it seems an appropriate sort of word from a controversialist dialect. It’s also an economical shorthand for my own descriptor: “Overly-manipulated wine-like beverage.”

    Just my 2-cents but if it was me I’d resist the calls to name names. Unless you just feel like opening all your veins at once by also naming names of the spoofy journalists you think can’t tell the merely excellent from the serious.

    All in all you have hit on an excellent point: this elitist conversation among wine experts has little real value to the non-specialist consumer in helping them make the “best” purchases.

    Far to many wine experts seem to have forgotten – or never known – that outside of our little circle, the root of any appeal for the broader public lies not in the content but in the entertainment value of the conversation between us.

  • Rick Schofield

    Jamie you are way out numbered, but generatedsome posts …

    The consumer who buys the wine gets to decide if it is good, not a writer & not the winemaker & not an MW & not a merchant.

    And who cares if a wine is serious or if an imbiber is serious, anyway? The boring people care I suppose.

    I don’t have a serious home theater system … does anyone care? I had creamed spinach tonight – – is that bad? I don’t even know what farm it came from.

    The good people who make their living in wine don’t need to care about quality. They need to care about profits and repeat clients. (90% of Americans & 50% of Frenchmen don’t drink wine on a regular basis, anyway.) Value would be more noble than quality.

    It’s about selling what you have. If some consumers or writers think they can find a better bottle for the same price, that is their opinion & perogative.

    IT IS all subjective because quality doesn’t necessarily put money into the pockets of merchants & vignerons. It comes down to the palate of the person spending the money even if they prefer Velveta to Muester d’Alsace.

    I’m not driving an Audi or Lexus either, by the way (because I buy too much wine, maybe).

    Rick Schofield
    Port Ewen, NY

    PS: What training to wine writers have anyway – a BS in English Lit?

  • Writing as someone who plies his trade as a wine hack, I’d like to make the observation that the reason why professional criticism involving aesthetics (wine, art, music) is so readily dismissed is that the consequences of a “wrong” purchase decision are relatively low. Spend £20 or £30 on a bottle of wine you don’t like, and there will be some irritation but for most of us, not life-changing. Discover prostate cancer symptoms, for instance, and the average punter is going to opt for the most knowledgeable and experienced opinion he can find.

  • I think Craggy is a good example – some lovely wines, some verging on true seriousness, such as the Gimblett Syrah and the Quarry, but then many just going a little too far in terms of smoothness and ripeness, presumably with the US market firmly in focus. I really like the wines, but they could be even better, I reckon – I have given them very high scores in the past, I admit, but I’m coming round to the viewpoint expressed here. I still really like them, but they aren’t NZ’s very best.

  • Jamie
    Have you read this paper by David Hume originally published in 1757 “Of the Standard of Taste”?
    “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

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