“All Life is a Dispute Over Taste and Tasting”

by blog on July 21, 2013


“All Life is a Dispute Over Taste and Tasting”

(Friedrich Nietzsche)

When the words wine and industry appear together in a sentence, portentousness and navel-gazing are always in the vicinity. However, junk and science is one of my favourite juxtapositions. All this and less appeared in a recent article in The Guardian that claimed that professional tasting was a pseudo-science (or words to that effect).

“Hodgson’s findings have stunned the wine industry. Over the years he has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine.

“The results are disturbing,” says Hodgson. Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.

“Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win.”

-David Derbyshire

Remember smooth Ian Ogilvy, a member of the Roger Moore academy of petrified acting, tasting an unknown bottle of wine with his stuffy relatives and saying ‘A-ha! Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine which fooled you all!’ And Great Uncle Something-Or-Other’s monocle shooting from his eye in astonishment! Wars have been started for less reason.

We is all fools to a good (or bad) blind taste.

The Guardian article proposed that perceived wine expertise was nowt more than a con. A few choice blind-tasting exercises, using an array of psychological tricks and auto-suggestion, demonstrated that wine critics could be fundamentally confounded with the gentlest of prods. I suspect that the motivation behind this was to see who would rise to the bait, in which case it achieved its purpose. To assert, however, that Hodgson’s findings have “stunned the wine industry” is the kind of hyperbolic nonsense that we have come to expect from the press (as no-one was exactly overcome with paralysing astonishment by the results of these various surveys). However, I find the results curiously reassuring more in that they lift the lid on an array of complacent Panglossian attitudes in the world of wine. A wine pundit is someone whose livelihood depends on the confidence of his or her assertions, but if the foundations of those assertions rest on shifting sands…

“No-one is prepared to admit that wine doesn’t have any taste.”

Bernard, Black Books

For so-called experts are inclined to exalt the evaluative process, defending the rarefied levels of knowledge required to understand the art and science of wine and the tasting thereof. Those in the industry tend to cleave to the notion that, as the wines are tasted blind, the judging process is necessarily without prejudice, and that the palate can be perfected through training and experience.

Nevertheless, those who participate in the process will always have their special agendas and prejudices. This is where Derbyshire’s article cracks open one of our favourite wine chestnuts by asking “if tasting wine is so evidently a subjective activity, then are not the judgements about wine, by definition, potentially skewed and therefore, flawed?”

There is an argument that we need value systems because, whether we like it or not, a hierarchy of good and bad wine does exist, and important aesthetic and qualitative judgements can only be confidently made by those with well-trained palates. Also, as ignorant consumers confronting colossal choice, we require signposts to enable us to discriminate between good, mediocre and plug-ugly – and since we cannot possibly taste all the wines out there, we need all the help we can get!

One international judging competition summarises their aims thus:

The objectives of this event are to inform consumers and international wine professionals about the quality of the winning wines, helping the dissemination and communication of the same; provide guidance message to 80% of consumers who expect international references on wine; strengthening the production and development of quality wines and contribute to the dissemination of the culture of wine and reasonable consumption of this beverage with beneficial health qualities.

Entire classification systems are predicated on the assumption that quality can be calibrated; and, by extension, that some wines may be proven to be inherently better than others. If this is correct, a scale can be devised to categorise those wines with superior attributes. One of the by-products of this system is that winemakers are making and presenting wines to please critics, because they believe that the published opinions of critics influence the choices of consumers.

Returning to our thesis, when the act of tasting and evaluation is down solely to an individual and his or her opinion, it is almost impossible to verify the validity of such an opinion, or the qualifications that said individual possesses for arriving at it. For who determines what is an excellent palate? And what is excellence, anyway? Is it do with consistency, the ability to scientifically deconstruct the flavour of the wine, or it intuitive and inspirational, or simply the manifestation of “good taste”? When we read restaurant, theatre or music reviews we may find critics whose tastes closely mirror our own and will follow their recommendations accordingly – this is about compatibility rather than correctness, and trusting the integrity of the person.

If that’s a Soave I’ll eat my cat’s hat. Well we’ve all had to nibble on the feline’s fedora and been flummoxed by the glaringly obvious. Blind tasting is an important component of wine examinations in that it tests a combination of sensory appreciation and experience. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. Here are some basic tips. Don’t confuse a seriously bad wine for a great one. Aim low. Ask rhetorical questions that don’t give away your cluelessness: you’re not telling me this is a New World wine? Or it’s not Chardonnay surely? If it is you can cover yourself; if it isn’t you were saying anyway that it wasn’t and if it is you were only seeking confirmation. Finally, if you boob like a prize rube, take solace in the following words from James Joyce: ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery’. Or blind portals as the case may be.

-The Real Alternative Wine Glossary

Grand tastings, with judges drawn from across the globe, are, of course, more comprehensive, as a multitude of opinions may be usefully accrued and distilled – the e pluribus unum approach – but this would-be definitiveness presents new difficulties. The more judges, the greater the need for plausible negotiation and compromise leading to more potential muddle in the pot of message. The scoring system that purports to be a scientific representation of a cross-section of opinions becomes more a random exercise in discovering common denominators. To make progress in the tasting committees one has to trade off positions, thereby subsuming merits of particular wines into a kind of realpolitik. As individual evaluative criteria naturally vary, excellence may not the universal determining factor.  For example, a wine’s intrinsic deliciousness may be the be-all-and-end-all for some judges, whilst, for others, technical correctness may be paramount, and so this wider range of opinions may arrive at conclusions that are as much about the process as about the nature of the wine in question.

Tangentially, we have noticed the way consumer tasting panels have held back export licenses for spurious reasons such as “lack of typicity.” Some of the best and most exciting wines may not appeal to a common denominator of taste; transcending expectation is an impeccably bad reason to disqualify a wine. Since these examples are not isolated it behoves us to question the quality of the candidates on these panels and the quality of the criteria by which they arrive at their judgements.

Assessment becomes even more problematic when one builds in the additional variables that both determine the way the wine may taste and the way we may taste the wine. We already accept that mass tastings are mere snapshots in time; they are dependent on which wines are submitted, how the wines perform on a day, what they are being judged against and where they are in the arc of their particular development. It is the luck of the draw versus the time of the month. On a psychological level you would have to assess how a panel performs on a given day and how human interaction and personal relationships affect the nature and outcomes of tastings. Were the same wines to be tasted by the same panel on a different day would the results be identical (or even proximate); how about a different panel on the same day, and so on and so forth. Let alone the arguments within a panel as each individual tastes differently and applies his or her set of personal criteria (and experience) to the wine.

Further variable factors might include the physical and emotional health of the taster, the weather, the temperature, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of light, the shape of the glasses, the innate mutability of the wine, the presence (or rather absence) of food as a contextual framework, the quality of the closure and the nature of the vintage (in determining typicity). Returning to the taster the way each individual palate is calibrated determines the way some people respond to the oenological identity of the wine. One taster’s wine fault may be another’s singular characteristic. What is reasonable amount of sulphur to one person may taste caustic to another, what some might find proportionate in terms of alcohol, VA, acid, wood flavour, reduction and oxidation, for example, another might perceive as unbalanced and unpleasant. We all have our tipping points – for me blandness is a fault and as is any sign of overt manipulation or denaturing, and being slap-happy with oak is as bad as a chef emptying a salt cellar into a sauce. I know many tasters implicitly believe that there is no line between an oxidative wine and an oxidised one. As Lucretius said: What is food to one man is bitter poison to others. We go round and round in circles making the case for acceptable interventions (or non-interventions) but what we are often saying is that we wouldn’t drink the wines that the other person likes – even if you paid us. As tastings are not viable with polarised opinion there must of necessity be a forced agreement – a mien profile (the wine may or may not mean) to endorse wines that tick certain boxes.

The results favour wines that are competent, consistent, unchallenging and non-polarising. Is that good taste or studied neutrality?

John Updike wrote perceptively: “I think ”taste” is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.” So should be the vigneron be true to the terroir and the wine be true to itself, not second guess good taste.

Does this invalidate judgement per se? The act of tasting and responding is interesting more for what it says about the people and less about the wines themselves. As there is no pretence at objectivity and the totality of opinion is less than the sum of its various parts one can celebrate the subjectivity and fallibility of the process rather than pretend that our judgements are entirely dispassionate.

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