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.