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Am I a chemical or a literary wine writer?

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There’s an article in Issue 27, 2010 of the World of Fine Wine. It’s about wine writers and objectivity, and although I’ve now read it three times, I still can’t quite tell what the author, Barry C. Smith (described as “Director, Institute of Philosophy, University of London”), is trying to say. To call this article dense is like saying Lady Gaga has legs. (Unfortunately, I was unable to find an online link to the article; W.O.F.W. is pretty good at building a moat around its subscriber-only articles.)

If Prof. Smith has a point, it seems to be that wine writers should hew more closely to “the subject matter of wine itself,” rather than writing about “themselves as subjects writing about [wine].” It’s not exactly clear what he means by this, except that Smith also defines two forms of wine writing, one that is “chemical” while the other is “literary.” I can readily appreciate that distinction (if I understand it correctly). The wine writer can write about wine from a very technical point of view (assuming he is aware of its technical specifications, which isn’t always the case). He can write about acidity and pH and the chemistry of the soil in which the grapes were grown and the kind of oak in which the wine was raised and the specific textures and flavors he experiences and so on. This is a kind of wine writing appreciated by some (whom we commonly refer to as geeks). It is useful, but limited in its appeal;  students of enology find this kind of writing in textbooks, not usually in expository wine writing (unless it’s in a journal with scholarly ambitions, such as the World of Fine Wine).

The second kind of wine writing, what Smith calls “literary,” is more along the lines of classic English language wine writing over the centuries. Smith makes it clear at the outset he loathes this approach. He accuses it of being “predominantly personal.” He says it is the kind of writing “dreamed up by humanities professors who show a touching faith in the power of the word and the pen.”

Having set up this dichotomy, Smith then attempts to resolve it, but this is where his article turns incoherent, as articles by philosophy professors often do. (Confession: my baccalaureate is in philosophy.) Smith, who badly needs to break down the straw man he has set up, turns to “sensory scientists” as the magic bullets who can break the impasse. Rather than depend merely on the “subjective” writing of the “literary” writers, or the atomistic approach taken by the “objective” “chemical” writers, we wine writers should instead take the time to discover this sensory work “from [which] we are learning more and more about the complexities of flavor perception.”

We’ve been over this ground before at steveheimoff.com, as for example in last month’s post on white Zinfandel. There may be a minor land rush of research into why and how people form taste preferences, and some of it may or may not be legitimate and stand the test of time; but I don’t see how a professional wine writer could have his art or craft improved by being a devotee of sensory science. It’s just another university major, replete with Ph.D papers and funded research, that keeps graduate students busy. Maybe I’m wrong; I’m sure people will write in and air their views. (By the way, this entire topic is just another variation of the “subjective” vs. “objective” conversation we’ve had on this blog on numerous occasions over the years, as for example here.)

I’ve tended to come down someplace in the middle–that is, that wine tasting is subjective, but with objective forces acting upon it. But that’s wine tasting. Wine writing should be graceful and stylish and personal and clear if it is to be intelligible, and if it’s not intelligible, then nobody will care about it even if it’s objectively true.

At any rate, Smith ends his article by challenging us wine writers to explain “what they are up to, why it matters, and why they are good at it.” I’ll try to address these three areas briefly.

1. What am I up to? Answer: Good writing, pure and simple, as I see things.

2. Why it matters? Answer: In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t. If it matters to someone, I’m glad.

3. Why I’m good at it: Answer: Because I work hard at it. Very hard.

  1. One of the reasons why I like getting detailed analyses of the wines that I am tasting blind for my publication is that they explain what I am tasting, why my perceptions are my perceptions. I don’t get to know those numbers, of course, until I have finished my evaluation. That is how blind tasting works. But, when the bottle is revealed, and if the winery has supplied the information, I do at least get to learn how pH, total acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, blending grapes, oak aging have produced at least some of the sensations that my palate is picking up and that I will then describe for my readers.

    But, it will be the rare day when “the numbers” will be the focus of my reviews. No one, not even the geeks, think that wine is made up of chemical analysis. Numbers do not describe wine. They may inform our palates to some extent about causality, but they do not begin to explain the complex interactions that result in what we smell and taste.

    Your comments the other day about RS in an Estancia Riesling help make the point. Residual sugar is residual sugar. Fair enough, and a wine with 1% RS is not dry. Unless its acidity were screechingly, tooth-enamel threateningly high, that wine would not taste totally dry in comparison to a Pey-Marin Riesling.

    But, describing it as dry does not change the fact that it tasted dry in the setting–and it is that fact, not the fact of its RS, that wine reviews need to be about first. In the early years of Connoisseurs’ Guide, we used to do simple home tests for residual sugar in every Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Sylvaner, and horror of horrors, Green Hungarian. And we put those results at the top of the tasting note–stated in ranges, not in specifics

    The absence of those varieties in meaningful numbers eliminated that practice but we still test whites and reds we suspect of having residual sugar if that information has not been supplied by the winery despite our requests that it be supplied.

    With Riesling making a comeback and many Riesling makers now either stating the RS on the bottle or using the range inidicator methodology espoused by the International Riesling Federation, we are back to talking about residual sugar levels. But this time, instead of catergorizing the wines by levels of RS, we now categorize them by the impressions of sweetness they convey.

    I don’t think wine writers need to do any more than that.

  2. Well, on the Sediment blog we write about everything which surrounds the wine itself, from glasses to customer service, from cost to lifestyle, as much as the “chemistry” of the wine itself.

    If that makes us “literary”, then we’re flattered.

  3. As much as I like the geeky stuff and like to write about geeky stuff, there’s not much demand for more technical wine writing. It’s about knowing your audience. First, most Americans have poor scientific education, and they aren’t about to open up a chemistry textbook to parse some wine review. Furthermore, wine has this whole aura of pretension surrounding it. Romanticizing, hyperbole and general verbal diarrhea about scenic vistas, lifelong dreams, and ideal terroirs intrigue people. Knowing that ambient temperature, exposure and drainage are a good chunk of terroir burst that mystical bubble.

    I’m not saying this is the way it should be. But this is reality. Lawyers, doctors and other white collar country club types are the target audience for high end wine. These are not scientific types. But they do like luxury goods, that is certain. Sure, scientists and engineers have money, too, but they are less interested in the pomp and circumstance. Heck, they might even look at that 4.0 pH and 15.3% ABV and wonder how a wine is holding together if not for Velcorin.

  4. Steve, thanks for the heads-up. After reading this I feel I can find a better use for a good hour or so of my life than to seek out and digest this article by Dr. Smith (Danger, Will Robinson!).

    Everyone writing about wine – whether you, me, Charlie, Samantha or our good Dr. of philosophy – is in truth writing about their own experience of wine. Dr. Smith’s distinction is arbitrary. I recently heard a quote from statistician George E. B. Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” As a model to give us insight into what makes good wine writing, Dr. Smith’s model is not just wrong, it is useless.

  5. As stated in Greg’s comments, “Know your audience.” I was the moderator for a blind tasting of cabernets for 18 relatively new wine drinkers last Sat. night and was guiding them through a thicket of wines from around the world, trying to get them to critically analyze what they were experiencing.

    More than halfway through, one participant asked about the descriptors I’d been using during the evening, particularly “blueberry” and she asked whether or not the wine maker had actually added the berry itself to the grape juice. While I could have explained the chemical background that lends flavors from one food to another, I gave her the short-form explanation that similar chemicals in different foods can give similar flavors to different foods.

    The “light bulb” came on, she got it and moved a little further along the wine trail to a greater understanding and appreciation of the grape.

    Balance is needed in most human endeavors — we need to have a bit of fun with our learning to make it interesting and to make it stick in our memories. To paraphrase Julie Andrews, “A spoonful of wine makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way…”

  6. Duncan Williams says:

    Interesting discussion; the irony that a philosopher is suggesting that we should infuse wine writing with scientific data is amusing and a bit disturbing at the same time.

    In my experience, the tasting experience is overwhelmingly subjective. Our sensory organs are all wired somewhat differently. Our threshholds for certain compounds vary by significant degrees.

    Wine writing should probably lean to the literary side. At the same time, the geeks should probably invest a few dollars in a pH meter, a burette, and a Clinitest set so they can have some numbers to fall back on. Aside from them, the numbers should stay in the winery.

    Note to Charlie: I’d take numbers supplied by wineries with a grain of salt.

    Wine is about fun and new experiences. Let’s not overthink it.

  7. Duncan–

    While I do not have reason to question the technical numbers supplied by wineries, they do not come into play in tasting because they are not known at that point.

    The numbers that personally interest me the most are the balance numbers including TA, pH, RS and ABV. Of these, the most often fudged is likely to be ABV followed by RS. But RS is often simply not given by wineries. Often, a winery will simply say “dry” and then one is left to argue how dry is dry. We use Clinitest for RS and have for three decades now. We do not test for pH, TA or ABV but we have had winemakers take bottles back to their labs and run those tests–most often when we suspect something for which we have no data.

    By and large, we find TA and pH numbers to comport pretty well with our tasting experiences. I would never suggest that we are human labs, but it is not rocket science to taste lemon juice or cranberry in a wine and have those tasting sensations comport with higher acidities. We have spent a fair bit of time looking at the interactions of pH and TA, more for our own edification than anything else. but it interesting as happened just the other day to have wines side by side with the same high TAs but vastly different pHs. Both tasted of acidity but one was firm in texture and slightly chalky in feel while the other was decidedly soft yet acidy to taste. No RS in either by the way.

    That said, our tasting notes are descriptive, which means subjective with no apologies, rather than fact-based science. It has not yet been said in this very good conversation today, so I will say it. Wines with similar facts can taste radically different, even when coming from the same winemaker because of terroir differences.

  8. I did not read the article but, based on Steve’s post, I believe the author is sustaining that any critique or proposition (be it analytic-aesthetic or synthetic -scientific) should be presented via a universal frame of knowledge. So that the description can transcend the individual experience and develop formal/logical and interpersonal value.

  9. Steve,
    Great title for this blog as it sounds so much like when I used to write for scientific publications. We were forbidden for ever inserting an “I” or an opinion. It had to be all data all the time. Even so, interpretation of any data comes down to the writer’s “I.”

    I personally prefer reading wine writers that insert their personality and stories into an article. Numbers give us clues but not experience. Science is only one kind of experience. Wine invites us in and wonderful writers can help us learn, enjoy, laugh and love wine even more.

    In some ways it’s much harder to be a writer with a flare for the personal or literary – it takes courage to put our ‘real self’ out there. Thanks for being one of the ‘way showers.’

  10. Sondra, I guess we all write in a way that mirrors our soul. At least, I try to. Blogging (as opposed to magazine writing) has brought my style in a more personal direction.

  11. “Smith, who badly needs to break down the straw man he has set up, turns to “sensory scientists” as the magic bullets who can break the impasse.”

    That’s funny. Alot of sensory science supports a relativist view of how people perceive flavors. Which would make the writer talking about the wine just as personal and subjective as the writer talking about his/her self writing about the wine.

  12. The numbers are useless for those that don’t know how to use them.

  13. Barry Smith says:

    Ho hum. Best intentions often fail. I was trying to make things clearer not more mysterious and yet somehow Steve seems to have attributed to me the very view I was attacking. Leaving the rhetoric out of it, I was responding to a WFW article by Edward Ragg who sets up the distinction between chemistry and literature and leaves no room for what I believe is the important level we’re addressing when we perceive and describe wines: namely the flavours they have.

    It’s one thing to be the target of contempt for what one writes but it’s much worse when one is criticised by someone who is missing the target and attributing to me the views I object to. Is it my ‘obscure philosophical style’? Is it lack of care reading what I wrote? Or is it that moat around WFW articles that means Steve hasn’t actuall; read what I said but responding to some othertwise filtered version?

    Anyway, for what’s it’s worth and so you don;t all spend too long being at cross-purposes, what I actuall said was that wines have objetcive properties: i.e. they can be lacking in acidity, can have ripe back cherry flavours, they can have fine or grainy tannins, they can have a texture like silk or velvet, they can be short or persistent, they can show their alcohol too much. The oak can be well-integrtated. Wines can be balanced. They can have flavours of kerosene and lime, they can have aromas of vanilla or violets, or the sharp sting of volatile acidity. They can have delicate rasperry flavours or blackcurrent. They can smell of banana. All of these features I take to be features of the wine that some of us – not all – and not all of us, all of the time – can pick out with attention and experience.

    What I am not convinced of is the view that taste is just subjective (and this can mean many things) and that therefore all one can do as a wine writer is describe one’s experience – that’s just autobiography and at best poetry – but what one really should be trying to do is describe what you are experiencing. I don;t want to read about you, I want to read about the wine you’re experiincing.

    Okay, that’s the best I can do to put things plainly. You may still ‘loathe’ what I’, saying but as we say inphilosophy, before you criticize someone’s views you have an obligation to understand them.

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