subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Maxime and me: 2 peas in a pod, with exceptions

20 comments

So I was in my therapist’s waiting room looking for a new magazine among the pile of old Scientific Americans and Smithsonians when I came across the Nov. 23, 2009 ish of The New Yorker. Not exactly new, but I hadn’t seen it before. Thumbed through it and saw, on page 44, “Lunch With M.,” a story about a reviewer for the New York City edition of the Michelin restaurant guide (and if you have to ask what that is, your idea of a great meal is Red Lobster).

I’d got about halfway through when Doc poked his head in the waiting room and said “Hi.” I was tempted to finish the article instead of having my head shrunk, but instead, I took the magazine and told Doc I was stealing it. He didn’t seem to mind, bless his larcenous soul.

So here’s the thing. The parallels between a Michelin Guide reviewer, or inspector, as they’re called, and me, as a wine reviewer, are eerie. The Michelin inspector profiled in the article is a woman whom the writer refers to only as “Maxime” (the M. of the headline). It’s not her real name, because Michelin inspectors are never publicly identified. In fact, they have been scrupulously, almost paranoically shielded from visibility for many decades, in the way of restaurant reviewers everywhere. Here in San Francisco, I’ve seen Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s restaurant critic, admonish audiences for taking his picture and jeopardizing his independence. So that’s a little different from me — no anonymity here; everybody knows my mug.

With this penchant for secrecy, why did the Michelin people make Maxime available to a reporter from The New Yorker? Because the American editions of the Guide (there’s also a San Francisco edition) haven’t been selling well, and have not achieved the clout of local critics from the Chronicle, L.A. papers and the New York Times; and so the Michelin people launched this “effort to promote…a better understanding of the guides’ means and methods.” Well, if that doesn’t sound like transparency, I don’t know what does. “A better understanding of…means and methods” is exactly what I’ve been forced to explain in this blog due to unceasing demands for same from readers (and I am not complaining, just observing). It’s nice to see Michelin being confronted with the same transparency as I’ve been.

What does Maxime look for in the food she reviews? “You’re looking for something that really tests a number of quality ingredients and then something that’s a little complex…”, she says, noting that “We would never order something like a salad. We rarely order soup.” That’s different from what I do. I review everything from California — not just complex wines but wines that are the “salads” and “soups” of supermarket shelves; hopefully, those can be Best Buys, but Michelin does not include value in its reviews, only quality. But there is another similarity when the New Yorker writer says Maxime “is required to eat everything on her plate…a regimen that calls to mind the force-feeding of the ducks that supply [Jean-Georges] Vongerichten with his velvety foie gras…”. Yes, quack quack, there are days when I too feel force fed, only with wine.

A further similarity: the Michelin Guide has come under attack from its competitors. The Zagat people, interviewed for the article, complained about Michelin’s elitism. “We’ve never believed that there were experts that should tell you what to do,” Nina Zagat huffed.

Hello! Can we talk? How many times have bloggers said that ivory-tower critics should not purport to tell everybody what to drink? That’s what the bloggers call “the democratization of wine reviewing.” So this is a big parallel between Maxime and me.

The similarities pile up. A former Michelin inspector published a tell-all book revealing “the inspector’s life as one of loneliness and underpaid drudgery…dining alone and under intense pressure to file reports.” This, too, is the woeful tale of the wine critic — this one, anyway. Believe me, it’s not all glamor — far from it.

The most interesting part of the article comes when Maxime makes the distinction between her personal preferences and objective quality. “It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’” she observes. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products…You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’” Readers of this blog will recall the many conversations here concerning objectivity vs. subjectivity. Maxime believes in objectivity: she feels she really can differentiate between her personal taste and the existential reality of a properly prepared food, with math-like certainty. And I feel like I too can tell a “technically correct” wine from a bad one.

One can argue, of course, that the line between “analysis” and “liking” is so blurry as to be indistinguishable; and, since there’s no way to prove or disprove that, there will always be two camps: one that accepts the notion of objective judgment, and one that doesn’t. So it is with wine criticism.

And then, a final similarity between Maxime and me: dining at restaurant Jean-Georges, she tries an Artic char, on a bed of watercress remoulade, accompanied by a julienne of apple, and tells the writer, excitedly, “It’s perfectly cooked. I mean, it’s textbook.” It is, in other words, a 100-point fish.

  1. Hey Steve – feel compelled to point, regarding this:

    “Hello! Can we talk? How many times have bloggers said that ivory-tower critics should not purport to tell everybody what to drink? That’s what the bloggers call ‘the democratization of wine reviewing.’ ”

    that it’s not a sentiment that I see as specific to bloggers. It’s a sentiment specific to a certain viewpoint that is shared by some passionate wine consumers and more widely held by what will become the next big group of wine consumers (Millennials).

    I.e., the bloggers are the pong reflecting the nearby stone, as it were – and are not necessarily the stone itself.

    Cheers!

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    I can’t imagine a restaurant critic who never orders salad and rarely orders soup. It says a limited understanding of the culinary arts to me. It also might give an insight into why the American guide isn’t selling.

  3. Does the Michelin guide also charge restaurants it reviews a fee to have their picture in the guide? That would be another similarity.

  4. Objectivity in wine reviewing is limited to the acknowledgement of a “technically correct wine” (i.e. no flaws), and to the assessment of the “quality of the products” (inputs/factors) employed in the grape-growing and winemaking processes.
    Scores/ratings, based purely on sensory and hedonic evaluation (which is intrinsically personal, and therefore subjective by nature), are merely opinion.
    One might even argue it is informed opinion; it is still opinion nonetheless.

  5. Troy, I don’t know. But if they don’t currently, perhaps the owners will consider doing so. It’s another revenue stream in a tough business: publishing, and as long as such fees don’t impinge on the actual reviewing process, they’re harmless from a consumer’s point of view.

  6. Well stated, Mr. O’Connor.

    But for the wine critic, I wonder how much work is done to assess the growing conditions when tasting. My guess is, only upon questioning the wine maker or grower, can one ascertain these “inputs” and how much truth is being relayed.

  7. Tannic–

    Just offhand, why would a critic or anyone with a glass of wine in their hands and trying to make an intelligent decision about its character care about the growing conditions?

    Wines can be grown side by side and come out totally differently. It is the character of the wine that is being measured, not the story of its production–although many of us do care about and understand at least some of the story, including vintage history etc, but it is not the critic’s job to analyze the winery’s viticulutural practices or even its winemaking regimen. It is our job ot understand the character of the wine.

    And whether one adheres to Mr. O’Connor’s strict constructionis definitions or not, I simply (and I am guessing that most critics) do not care how much water was applied in the growing seaon or whether leaf-stripping or green harvest took place or even if the wine was acidulated. Knowing those things does not, a priori, tell one anything about the character of the wine and thus is not relevant during the blind evaluation process that good critics follow. There is no such thing as a wine balanced by the numbers. Balance is a tasting perception, not a numerical analysis.

  8. Charlie, your opening question made me laugh out loud. Keep on telling it like it is.

  9. David Snyder, CS says:

    ‘But if they don’t currently, perhaps the owners will consider doing so. It’s another revenue stream in a tough business: publishing, and as long as such fees don’t impinge on the actual reviewing process, they’re harmless from a consumer’s point of view.’

    Steve- That’s just the point… How do I and all consumers know it does’nt impinge the process?… Your and WE’s good word? With all due respect, that is not good enough.

  10. David, yes, my good word. If that’s not good enough for you, then don’t read the magazine.

  11. David Snyder, CS says:

    Steve- I don’t… I read your blog, which I am responding to. Obviously many people do read WE, and they believe it to be impartial, which obviously could be argued… That’s not to say that other well-circulated wine publications who’s initials are WS hasn’t been accused of being partial. Whether it be rumored to ‘persuade’ wineries to… wink, wink, nudge, nudge buy a quarter or half page advertisement. OR wine publications that don’t accept traditional advertising as IWC or WA, who also have been accused rightly or wrongly of accepting ‘enticements’ Whether they be trips, meals etc. I am just saying, consider the source…
    There is a reason a mag such as yours and WS have to put ‘Advertisement’ above such things that look eerily similar to legitimate articles.

    Respectfully, -D

  12. David, you are questioning my integrity. My reviews are completely unbiased by advertising concerns. You can believe whatever you want.

  13. David Snyder, CS says:

    Steve- My apologies… I have offended you. I don’t question YOUR integrity, maybe WEs’ but not yours.

    -D

  14. Mr. Olken,
    Even though our beliefs are fundamentally different, it is always a pleasure to debate with you.
    Wine reviewing is not a hard science. In reality, it can be done in whichever way the reviewer feels like; provided there is an audience for it. This mainstream, commercially successful formula/business model (sensory/hedonic evaluation; 100 Point system) that you and most renowned wine critics employ, is nothing more than a formula/business model.
    I, for one, agree with Patrick Mathews that a “real wine is one that tells a truthful story about its growing conditions” (Real Wine; MB; 2000); and, thus, consider your assertion, that “[k]nowing those things [grape-growing and winemaking practices] does not, a priori, tell one anything about the character of the wine and thus is not relevant during the blind evaluation process that good critics follow”, completely flawed.
    Even the most orthodox of wine critics must acknowledge (RP in some cases does) the importance of knowing and understanding grape-growing and winemaking practices, for wine appreciation and education.

  15. Peter, if you are correct, then you cannot believe in blind tasting.

  16. David, my integrity is the same as the integrity of all WE reviewers. They are my friends and colleagues of long standing, and they would no more tilt a review to an advertiser than I would.

  17. ” Even the most orthodox of wine critics must acknowledge (RP in some cases does) the importance of knowing and understanding grape-growing and winemaking practices, for wine appreciation and education. ”

    Mr. O’Connor–

    I imagine that every serious wine critic has a pretty good understanding of the way in which grapes are grown, of the impact on those grapes of site and of viticultural practices, on the way in which wines are made.

    But, knowing, for example, that a Chardonnay comes from the Ritchie Vineyard tells you nothing about the wine before you have sampled it other than it came from a good vineyard with both cleaned up and not cleaned up Clone 4 Chardonnay. And knowing the maker (Ramey, Londer, Hobbs, Bjornstad–all very good wineries) does not tell you how much you will like those four bottles, if you fall in some sort of preference order and even if they have or do not have the expected range of characteristics. One has to taste the wine to know those things.

    Balance can be implied but it only exists on the palate. There is no way to say anything meaningful and definitive about a wine until it has been tasted.

    Now, once it has been tasted, analyzed, evaluated and the wrapper is removed, then knowing where it came from, how it is balanced in numerical terms, etc, can further inform the critic. But those pieces of information are not even surrogates for tasting the wine. They are only informative bits of information that exist in the ether until the wine is tasted.

    And I would add one more thing. I doubt that you will find many consumers (not wine insider technicians like you and RedWineBuzzArthur) who care about how much water was applied to the vineyard and when or whether green harvest was done or not or whether the wine was acidulated, provides an enjoyable organoleptic experience, goes well with food.

    If the wine does not pass those tests, the rest of the story is an irrelevancy to the bulk of the wine-enthusiastic world. (double entendre intended).

  18. Oops. Looks like something got cut off.

    Last two paragraphs should read:

    And I would add one more thing. I doubt that you will find many consumers (not wine insider technicians like you and RedWineBuzzArthur) who care about how much water was applied to the vineyard and when or whether green harvest was done or not or whether the wine was acidulated. They want to know if the wine is balanced (that is an organoleptic judgment, not a scientific judgment. They want to know if the wine provides an enjoyable organoleptic experience and whether it goes well with food.

    If the wine does not pass those latter tests, the rest of the story is irrelevant to the bulk of the wine-enthusiastic world.

    =========

    To which, I would add. Any wine that meets those lasts tests with flying colors will be of interest to folks who chase after enjoyable wine–assuming that the rest of the description also meets their own personal preference tests.

    People do not drink science. They drink wine that tastes good.

  19. Steve,
    Do you think it makes sense to evaluate simultaneously, and blindly, a red Blaufrankisch/Lemberger from Burgenland (Austria), and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles?
    Do you believe that the geographic origin of the grapes would have any influence on the character of these two “hypothetical” wines?
    If the answer is yes, how can one fairly/properly “judge” the attributes (body, density, structure, balance, taste profile…) of two such different wines without knowing this fundamental aspect?

  20. Peter, no it would not make sense to taste those two wines simultaneously. Beyond that, I don’t quite understand your question.

Leave a Reply


− 5 = two

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives