Minimizing the subjectivity of wine reviewing
It comes as no news to me that “lighting can influence both how wine tastes and how much consumers are willing to pay for it.”
Everything influences how wine tastes: temperature, setting, time of day or night, what you previously ate, how you feel, if you got enough sleep, the glasses you taste from, the flight in which the wine is included, what you see outside the window (if there is a window), whom you are with — I could go on.
Under these circumstances, the curious reader will wonder, “Well, then what’s the value of a wine review?” This is a fair question, and one that can’t be analyzed enough.
I know a fellow — Rod Smith, whom many of you also know — a fine writer. We once were at a tasting that Andy Beckstoffer held in his Rutherford offices of Cabernet Sauvignons from his portion of the To Kalon Vineyard (Robert Mondavi’s portion is spelled “Tokalon”). There was a small group of us scribes sitting around a table, tasting and scribbling. Rod had been fairly silent, so I asked him what he thought of the wines.
I remember Rod giving me a less than charitable glance and then saying, in fairly withering terms, “I don’t review wines. I write about them.” Well, sure; I took his point. Rod had reached the conclusion (I’m doing a lot of inferring here, but I think it’s true) that wine criticism is so inherently subjective, there’s no point in doing it. His approach is to write beautifully and elegantly and factually on all aspects of wine’s history and production.
I do that, too, both in my articles for Wine Enthusiast and in my books for University of California Press. (In my Russian River book, there are only one or two critical remarks made about specific wines, and none at all in my Conversations book.) But I also am paid to be a critic, and so a critic I must be. That means I have got occasionally to defend our practice, in spite of the many instabilities that afflict it.
Along these lines, 1WineDude wrote yesterday of his experience at the pre-Premier Napa Valley tasting, where our hosts had graciously set up big flights of Cabernet and Chardonnay. The Dude described his aversion to tasting his way through such massive events (and gently prodded Vinography for doing so). I didn’t make it into print in that posting, but I was there at the Culinary Institute of America, and ran into Dude at one point. When he asked me what wines I liked, I had to tell him, “None,” because the fact is that I wasn’t there to drink or taste. It makes no sense at all to me to try and review wines seriously under the circumstances of a mob scene, in a fairly alien environment of fuss and confused commotion. Instead, I took advantage of the scene to study it, rather like an anthropologist in the field (Margaret Mead among the Samoans?), witnessing the sometimes odd, sometimes amusing, sometimes baffling behavior of the populace. You can learn a lot from just watching people, especially when so many of them are bloggers.
When I taste wine formally, it has to be under precise circumstances in my home. Same time of day, same glasses, same table, same computer, same pattern of opening bottles in the kitchen and bagging them, same corkscrew (a standard somm’s), same view outside my window of a terraceful of geraniums and cacti, same lighting, even with the same TV turned on (with the sound off), which comforts me. Only then can I be assured that all the influences I described above can be minimized in their impact.
Does that make my winetasting less subject to distortion? Yes. Does it make it perfect? No. People who are deadset against individual wine reviewing will always find plenty of reasons to criticize it, and their reasons have some validity. All I can do is do my job, as carefully as I know how, and hope it has some value.