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Reviewing wine: subjectivity is part of the complexity

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I finally finished Allen Meadows’s The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée. I took my time, as I do with things of great pleasure I don’t want to end.

I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a Burgundy lover, or able to afford these wines (who is?), you’ll learn a lot. It’s not every book that has so many things in it that make you think. This one is rich in provocative statements, such as this one, right near the end. Allen is recounting a tasting of 1945 Romanée-Conti, the only wine he’s ever given 100 points to. He wonders, “Had I been transported to another emotional dimension because of something in me, in the wine, or a combination of the two?”

What is striking about this isn’t that Allen was transported “to another emotional dimension.” Anyone who loves wine has probably had that experience. It doesn’t occur often in one’s life; it may never occur, but when it does, you remember it. No, what hit me was that Allen allowed as to how “something in me” might have been responsible, or equally responsible, for whatever the experience of that wine did to him.

To me, the question–which Allen doesn’t directly answer, but I think his conclusion was that it really was “a combination of the two”--implies something I think we all know, but tend to overlook. Our experience of wine isn’t limited only to its hedonistic qualities, “hedonistic” in this case meaning the way it presents itself to the five senses. There is a sixth sense–call it esthetic, spiritual or emotional–we don’t understand well, because it’s not measurable, or even explainable, in common physiological terms. It is, in fact, the thing that makes up happy, that lifts our spirits, that makes us simply thankful it exists. Now, wine may be a feeble vehicle in which to arrive at such peak experiences. Other human beings, a painting or a poem, the sight of a puppy or kitten napping, hearing the speech of Dr. King may send us there far more frequently than a sip of wine. But when wine does it, it remains seared into the memory.

Writing this makes me think about the 100-point system, about rating wines, about blind tasting. The critics of all these things point out, with some justification, that in order to truly appreciate a wine, you must drink it in the full knowledge of what it is. That is the way Allen tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti and is in fact the way he tastes most of the wines he reviews. My own inclination, at this point in my career, is to taste wines blind, but still, I do wonder. Question: If you read the transcript of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, would it have the same impact as hearing it? Put another way, do you think that if Allen had tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti blind, in a flight of old Burgundies, he would have given it the only 100 point score in his career? I don’t think so.

Allen–an intellectually honest man–recognizes that his experience with the ‘45 Romanée-Conti raises the question of consistency, which he calls “the greatest of all attributes for a critic.” Readers want to be reassured that a wine review from a trusted critic hews closely to, if it is not identical with, a second review of the same wine, by the same critic, written within a similar time period. It would serve the consumer poorly if, on one occasion, the critic gave the wine 84 points, and then on another occasion scored it 94 points. Readers would rightfully question that critic’s credentials.

But here’s another reflection Allen makes on that ‘45 Romanée-Conti. “Peak experiences require a certain moment in time, under just the right circumstances, with a certain knowledge, experience, and emotional state. Rarely can those circumstances be replicated.”

Think about that. Allen is basically saying that the wine tasting experience is not replicable! Granted, his proviso is for “peak experiences,” such as the ‘45 Romanée-Cont. But it’s not clear to me why those parameters should not apply to one’s experience of every wine, whether it’s a Napa cult Cabernet or Two Buck Chuck.

This is a conundrum I think about all the time: Since “just the right circumstances…and emotional state” are so variable over time, then why should we expect any consistency from wine critics? I suppose the answer is at once simple and complex, like most things. It’s simple, because if a wine is, say, horribly flawed, we would expect the critic to pan it regardless of how his own personal circumstance varies over time. Similarly, if a wine is absolutely fabulous (to that critic), then we should expect him to praise it every time, although it would be unreasonable for us to demand that he score it precisely the same. (I personally think a range of 4 points is perfectly acceptable for repeat tastings, given bottle variation and things of that sort.)

But then there are all the wines in the middle: neither horrible nor fabulous. That’s the neighborhood where most wines live. The truth is, they’re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another. It’s these middle wines that can score the most inconsistently in repeated blind tastings. They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing.

Does this irresolution make the reviewer’s job irrelevant or, worse, useless? I don’t think so. The one conclusion the reader should take away from every review is that, while the review may not have been carved in stone and handed down from the Deity to the critic, still, the reliable critic has tasted lots and lots of wines over time, and is in a better position than most people to make a pronouncement. In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.

  1. Chuck Hayward says:

    From Steve:

    “The truth is, [wines a]re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another… They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing… In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.”

    Bravo. Well said and right on the money. Thanks.

  2. Steve you have always been more upfront than most about the subjectivities in wine eval. Your openness about it increases my respect for you.

  3. I feel that this shows one of wine’s most expressive aspects — that we can recall almost all of the details, feelings and subjective experiences of those “peak moments” brought about by the alignment of just the right circumstances.

    The wines combine with people, food, the atmosphere of the moment, and all the other elements of the moment (the “terroir of the experience”) and they become imprinted within us. I’ve had similar experiences with movies, books, art and outdoors experiences — and they all tend to fix in my memory as being part of being *in the moment* at that point in time.

    Day-to-day wines are just that — like food that feeds the fire within but without great inspiration. It takes a great wine to stand out from the background, just like great food will stand out from the daily fare.

    Those inspirational moments of food, wine, a great book or Monet’s flowers on water are the “peak moments” and stand out by comparison to the day-to-day. It’s great to have a background level of experience that will show the standout moments of going to the mountain top — and it shows the necessity of paying attention on a daily basis to the things in life that are part of out daily lives. Never know when a “peak moment” may speak to us.

  4. Thank you Patrick!

  5. I often hear people compare the reviewing of wine to that of movies, books or art but I don’t see how it stands up. The latter do not change over time while the former does.

  6. I can see how the emotional reaction when knowingly tasting a legendary vintage of a legendary wine, particularly one that after replanting in ’46 could never be the same, could evoke a new dimension of pleasure that otherwise, if in a blind tasting, would have evoked disappointment in the tired qualities of a faded, tawny Burgundy.

  7. To me, unsurprisingly, Steve’s piece is yet another argument in favor of seeking out a larger range of opinions about selected wines (“selected” since a larger group, whether together or apart, can’t be expected to review hundreds of wines). This follows the temper of the times: to solicit the assessments of many, whether consumers or critics, across a whole range of products.

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