Marks-Schism

7H0A8027Every time I am invited on a tasting panel I vow that it will be my last foray into the world of jangling and wrangling. Although this vow will doubtless become a self-fulfilling prophecy because I invariably bring an unpalatable array of likes and (mainly) dislikes including harbouring a secret deep-seated desire to undermine the very premise of the tasting.

Tasting is personal. Tasting’s about mood. I would never pretend to be an objective taster. The force of my likes and dislikes may not change the opinions of others, so be it. Let’s not pretend the final result, which is more of an arm wrestle, has any value let alone meaning.

Judging is more than looking at the wine as a cold snapshot in time – there is the arc of the wine’s development, imagining it in a decanter, drinking it with food, returning to after a while and drinking a glass, two whole glasses, even a bottle. Not only does the furrowed-brow analysis and the penning of exhaustive tasting notes create a distancing effect from the wine as if the artifice of the wine may only be appreciated by detaching one’s self from the pleasure principle, it creates an extremely unsociable milieu in which to share wine. No talking, no laughter. As far as possible it is the attempt to replicate squeaky-clean laboratory conditions, so that palates can function as utensils, calibrating and evaluating without distractions.

The expertise of the judges is flaunted as if that legitimises an imperfect system. For the purpose of competitions is to reward willy-nilly rather than state some immutable truths about wine or wine tasting.

The systems are refined – judges and super judges, preliminary judging. More is not better, the competence of individual palates is not the question. My palate is so different to that of another individual’s that we might as well be tasting different wines. I look for certain qualities – transparency, life, energy, tension, beauty even; I am less hung up about cleanness. I don’t like oak, extraction, obvious additions, noticeable SO2, fake fruit, cold ferment aromatics, yet others might not have any problem with some of these and would be furiously resistant to any suggestion of uncleanness. Who is right? When in doubt invoke the common denominator of taste, that wine should be functionally safe and recognisable to the vast majority.

Every so often the venerable chestnut about grading wines is exhumed, usually as a result of a so-called “icon wine” faring below expectations in a comparative tasting or because of the perception that the trophy winning wines in major competitions are not out of the top drawer. You have to wonder what the point is. 100 times over. I remember when a Decanter tasting lined up about 200 Barolos from 2006. As well as paying danger money to the tasters I would have questioned the relevance of tasting and pronouncing on wines, the majority of which were probably barely born, let alone in their nappies.

Medal fatigue

Glass o' Lambrusco (Photo credit: www.whitneya.com)
(Photo credit: www.whitneya.com)

Because the exercise is such an artificial one – we don’t taste or experience wines like this in the real world – I think one should bring certain criteria to the judging that would reflect real life experience of drinking such wines.

  • If your criterion is that you look favourably on wines which you would unthinkingly drink a bottle of, then spoofy, pretentious, indigestible wines should score badly. (Reverse Parker Syndrome)
  • If your criterion is that wines should be as distinctive as possible, then many of the technically-correct-but-personality-free wines would fall by the wayside and you would award them lower marks.
  • If you mark wines mainly on objective criteria such as technical competence you will tend to score more highly, as oenologists make wines that are clean and lacking in faults – which creates a higher base standard. Unobjectionable wines may not be beautiful, but mass wine tastings are closer to cattle markets than beauty pageants.
  • If your criterion is that each wine should be rigorously judged against every other single example of this kind of wine that you have previously experienced, then you would probably tend to mark down.
  • If you tend to give the benefit of the doubt and imagine wines in different drinking contexts (i.e. that person might enjoy this wine in such-and-such a situation) you would normally award higher marks.

The psychology of tasting should also be considered, however, with the group dynamic in panels and juries setting the tone and the agenda for the tasting. A dominant personality can cajole less experienced tasters into “improving” their marks, whilst a relentlessly downbeat personality or rogue taster can dampen the entire process. Some tasters defend their marks fiercely as they would their honour (no rowing back or second glances here), whilst others require little prompting to re-examine and re-evaluate. There can be days when certain tasters just don’t taste well and others, when not only do the wines show well, but the tasters are on each other’s wavelength and subconsciously adjust their marking to the mean.

The push-me-pull-you tactical battle over marks often means that the wines that provoke the most extreme reactions get left in limbo. I recall one tasting where a panel was split 3:3 over a Vouvray from Huet. Three of us wanted to give it scores in the mid 90s (gold medal) and three wanted it to be thrown out for being oxidised and plain undrinkable. The fault-finders won the day, but a truthful reflection of the tasting would surely have published all the scores and all the opinions. If wine tastings eliminate controversy or take the line of least resistance then they are neutered.

The art of tasting

15“Forget all rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it—whether slowly or fast—every form of resistance to a complete release should be abandoned.”

Do you bite your tongue when you see someone tasting badly, by which I mean tasting through a veil of prejudice, which is the physical equivalent of coating your mouth in a mixture of cotton wool, egg yolk and coffee grounds? A closed mind sups exclusively on suppositions and saps the life from the wine. Good tasters are adaptable; they can be critical, but they can also make the necessary leap of understanding.

Who assesses the assessors? I am an imperfect taster myself but I can spot slackness and complacency in others. As I pour wines into the glasses of the tasters I watch how they approach the act of tasting. There are a variety of responses which suggest to me that many are a long way from capturing the spirit of the wine. I say spirit, because the act of appreciation yokes the ethereal and the practical, that combination of intuitive and objective qualities.

No wine was ever intended to be scrutinised microscopically because then you begin to search for elements that the wine does not have. Which is why I enjoy wines that are flawed and that move in the glass; they don’t present a monolithic target, they possess a fugitive quality that is intriguing and you keep returning to them to try to understand what it is that keeps you coming back to them.

Tasting in intellectual isolation may be the done thing but I believe that you should never reject a marker. Trade tastings are not like being a member of the Decanter or International Wine Challenge panels where you operate with minimal information in order not to prejudice your judgement. No taster, however much they flatter themselves and are flattered by others, is, however, a precisely calibrated instrument whose palate can objectively assess (in absolutist terms) the quality of wine. Outside the contrived milieu of competition tastings one should want to assemble as much information as possible in order to build a complete picture of each wine as it is being tasted.

And yet there are people who turn inwards and deprecate contact in order to focus. Tasting like automatons, they give nothing of themselves and they take nothing from the wine. Wine drinking is a social activity; these “self-ex-communicators” have mentally detached from the pleasure principle. One of my bête-noires, for example, is pseudo-intensity manifested as over-agitating the glass, the compulsive taster’s twitch, which results in working the wine to death – classic analysis-paralysis. “Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” (Thoreau). The most receptive tasters know how to balance analysis and enjoyment. They “feel” the wine rather than score it for correctness.

orange wine glassI’ve seen tasters hold a wine up to the light, recoil, and tell me that a wine is out of condition because the colour is wrong or the wine is completely cloudy. Parroting tendentious half-digested WSET dogma indicates a taster who examines wines on a narrow spectrum and reduces everything to a standard Manichean good or bad. If wine is always tasted within a particular spectrum then wine becomes the sum of its faults, the number of degrees it has deviated from the straight and narrow.

Tasters become habituated by ritual. What is the rationale of tasting exclusively white wines followed by reds? You might as well taste by region (to gain an understanding of the region) or by grower. Physiologically, as well, it is important to break up the pattern of tastings. If you taste nothing but high acid whites your palate becomes over-adapted and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine quality. The same goes for tannic reds.

Finally, there is the matter of assessment of quality. Take a wine made or rather, crafted, by a small grower – a few hundred bottles here, a few hundred bottles there, certainly not “manufactured” in commercial quantities. Yields are minuscule, elevage can be slow – some wines only released after several years in barrels. Yet I have frequently overheard mumbling about the wines being expensive. This is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with false perception. You might as well argue that none of the first growth Bordeaux represent actual value for money – they are variable in quality, they cost a minor fortune and they are fairly widely available. Marketed as a commodity they have “perceived value”. Artisan wines are rare and unique; they represent the challenges of the vintage and an aspiration to make something truthful (and beautiful) without compromise. You shouldn’t put a price on that, and those tasters who blithely dismiss wines as being expensive have little idea of relative value and zero idea of aesthetic value.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” wrote Anais Nin. The truly proficient taster will be duly responsive at the time and then, later on, will recollect his or her impressions in tranquillity. The more I taste wine, the more I am reminded that I need to flip over my preconceptions and that I do not exist to have adversarial relationship with wine. On many occasions the wine has challenged and surprised me over a period of days which suggests that first encounters are not always reliable and that my judgement can sometimes get in the way of my instinct. A salutary lesson; one should always be humble.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. David Crossley

    I have my WSET Diploma, albeit a very old one. I was taught to taste. I was not taught how to almost die with joy, as when I tasted (oops, no, DRANK) an array of Jura wines last night, including an Overnoy/Houillon 09 Ploussard and a Puffeney 2004 Savagnin, let alone the Ganevats and Tissots which bookended them.

    Scoring wines is for robots, experiencing the untold pleasures of truly exciting wines is an altogether different thing. You just tell me the story and, if I like it, I’ll buy the wine and experience the joy for myself.

    Of course, others may lack the confidence that comes with nearly 40 years of wine obsessing. But hey, what’s the best way to learn? By experience, or through a critic’s long list of scores penned with the certainty of a religious zealot? There’s always something which scares me about the score obsessed..but perhaps this isn’t the right place…

  2. Eleanor Shannon

    I agree. I got my AIS sommelier degree in 2010 in Milan. Afterwards, I began traveling around Italy tasting wine and discovering that the ones I liked best were artisan wines with character….as you wrote: “Artisan wines are rare and unique; they represent the challenges of the vintage and an aspiration to make something truthful (and beautiful) without compromise. ”

    The whole sommelier, tasting, point scoring craze does seem to reinforce the tendency for wine drinkers to develop a taste for wines that have been “standardized”. When people find that their preference for “the familiar” jives with the experts’ 90+, you have a marketing bonanza.

    I spend my time looking around Italy for wine that is a pleasure, that is fun to drink and share, that touches me in some way, that has character, that expresses the uniqueness of a place in a given vintage year…. Usually that kind of wine has a good story and good people behind it, and I love sharing those stories.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and well written piece. Cheers!

  3. Peter Bamford

    Hi Doug, I had a read of this piece to prepare myself for the Fair. Lots to agree with, but please do consider another aspect of the fact that we indeed all have different palates and skills.

    You note that “there are people who turn inwards and deprecate contact in order to focus… The most receptive tasters know how to balance analysis and enjoyment. They “feel” the wine…”

    It takes certain personality types (and perhaps quite some brain power) to assess a wine and to worthily engage with its pourer at the same time. I usually prefer to take a glass away and spend several insular minutes over each wine, to try and think through its present and its future. After all, in any ‘tasting’ setting, minutes are all we reasonably have; and if we don’t give the wine maximum attention and respect, then we have no chance of anticipating its likely future. Its future is important, because we won’t buy and drink it all that day!

    As you say, “on many occasions the wine has challenged and surprised me over a period of days, which suggests that first encounters are not always reliable and that my judgement can sometimes get in the way of my instinct.” But for those without the brainpower to consistently see and distill our gut instinct, all we can do is labour at length!!

  4. Doug

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your comments. Of course that each person comes to a tasting with their own approach to tasting. The fact that you spend more time with each wine is a good thing. I was more referring to certain people who don’t give anything of themselves to the wines and are not interested in learning anything about them. For them the tasting is a numbers game. Of course the way we experience wine is in a social context, with food and for pleasure. Tastings don’t provide that naturalistic context; it is up to taster to try to imagine what the wine would be like to drink as well as to taste!

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