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Oops! When famous wine writers get it wrong


I liked Eric Asimov’s mea culpa last week when he wrote about how he had mistaken a Syrah for a Pinot Noir, in the company of people he was having dinner with at a restaurant. Of course, it’s always gracious to acknowledge one’s faux pas with a dash of self-deprecating humor, and Eric did, claiming that one of his missions “is to do away with the aura of omniscience that so often adorns wine writers.” Well, there’s nothing like getting the variety wrong, in public, to take that aura of omniscience and pulverize it to smithereens.

It does happen to the best of us. Harry Waugh‘s famous, and similarly self-deprecating, remark that he hadn’t confused a Burgundy for a Bordeaux “since lunch” comes to mind. Now, Eric put up a little fig leaf to hide his nakedness when he said that, after all, it hadn’t been a light, silky wine he’d confused for Pinot Noir, it had been a Copain Syrah — Copain’s style being dense, dark wines. Here’s where the psychology comes in. Eric knew he’d ordered Copain off the wine list. His brain was expecting a broodingly ripe, dark Pinot Noir, so when he tasted the Syrah, that same brain censored, in essence, the wine’s “Syrah-ness” (pepper? violets? crushed blackberries? meat?) and hallucinated instead a “Pinot Noir-ness” that was in accordance with Eric’s expectations.

Remember all the debate in the blogosphere last summer about whether wine tasting is “subjective” or “objective”? I should think that this settles the matter. It’s “subjective” because the brain can never be entirely neutral. Somebody once said that Andy Warhol’s films of the 1960s, such as Sleep or Empire State Building, were the only authentically neutral films because they had absolutely no point of view. But that’s not true. Their point of view was precisely that they had no point of view. And the reason they had no point of view was because Andy Warhol had decided to simply point his camera at something, and then leave it running while he read magazines or went to the bathroom. His films therefore did have a point of view: boredom, banality, unconventionality.

The most extreme example of a wine taster having no point of view with regard to the wine is the Master of Wine tasting blind. This is supposedly the classically objective way to critique a wine. The mind as a camera, capturing incoming information, with the brain functioning as a computer, analyzing it in a completely detached way, then printing out data in the form of a review. But does anyone really believe a person can function like Frank Herbert‘s mentats, in Dune, which Wikipedia defines as “humans trained to mimic computers: human minds developed to staggering heights of cognitive and analytical ability…the embodiment of logic and reason”? Can’t be done, and that’s the overarching reason why wine reviewers must approach their jobs with humility and even a bit of apology. As Eric discovered, mistaking a Syrah for a Pinot Noir comes with the territory.

Okay, so what happens when that “aura of omniscience” is stripped away from a wine writer? It’s not exactly a case of “the emperor has no clothes.” But it does mean that wine writers not only have to review to the best of their ability, they also have to be great historians, students of popular culture, with an aptitude for science and geology and — above all — transcendent writers.


This emperor is missing some clothing!

  1. Wine writers leave themselves open for this, especially Eric Asimov who wrote his famous “Burgundian, Not Burgundian” Pinot article a few weeks back. As you say, a little bit of humility instead of a “know-it-all” approach works best.

  2. We performed an experiment some time ago at a tasting panel at Appellation America. We blind tasted wines from Napa Valley and had to guess what the varietal was. We had a bit of egg on our face when it was revealed that some of the wines we thought were Cabernet Sauvignon were in fact Syrah and one was a Merlot. But then that went towards our belief that there is a homogenization of wine production that, as in this case, makes it difficult to decipher a Cab from a Syrah or whatever.

  3. Hey Michael, totally agree. It’s the internalitanlionize of style.

  4. I made a similar comment on Eric’s posting. Expectation is such a powerful driver for the experience a person has. Depending on the measuring height of the expectation, the experience can either jump that bar with ease, or barely pull itself over it. It’s the same idea as hot-coal walkers training their minds to take them into a state where the coals are not hot. Of course, the burn in this case, is realizing the wine is not the one you thought you were tasting. I believe it’s an easy mistake for even the highest-trained palette to make and it’s a testament to people appreciating reviewers, but also exploring their own tastes.

  5. Sean Thorniley says:

    I tell folks tasting wine with me all time that wine tasting is very subjective. Time and place have as much to do with the “perception” of a wine as the vineyard and wine maker. Humans are susceptible our own personal experiences and perception which influence everything we do.
    Last night while sharing some wine with friends we watch a comedy that was the favorite of one of us and only one other of the six of us had seen it. While the humor was not my style it wasn’t bad, especially since three of my friends loved it tremendously (thus I enjoyed their experience as part of the whole), while my wife thought it boring and longed for her two hours back. We were all in the same room sharing the same food, wine and film, but had several different experiences.

  6. Confusing Syrah and a lot of CA Pinot is easy to do. The big ones come off like diet Syrah / Syrah Zero.

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