Why tasting plonk, not just great wine, is important
I taste a lot of common wine, vin ordinaire, plonk, call it what you will. Some of it is pretty awful stuff. I also taste a lot of very expensive wine, the kind sometimes called, for lack of a better word, “cult.” In this, I’m different from some other critics, who taste only the top stuff. Me, I taste everything in my portfolio, which includes “California” appellation wines that often contain Central Valley fruit.
There’s a school of thought in wine tasting that tasting mediocre wine long enough eventually compromises the palate to the point where it cannot recognize the elite qualities of higher-toned wines. The suggestion has a human parallel. It’s like saying that someone from the ghetto can’t appreciate fine art, because he’s been raised under vulgar circumstances and thus his capability to appreciate the finer things in life is limited.
Leaving aside the racist implications of this theory, I would argue exactly the opposite: that tasting mediocre wine makes it more possible for me to appreciate great wine.
The defects of mediocre wines are many, but the most common simply is the absence of concentration. “Concentration” is very important to wine. Its opposite is thinness, wateriness, which is often the result of overcropping the wines. Blending press juice into wine can also make it harsher and contribute to an absence of concentration.
Many, many California wines are mediocre (which means “ordinary, neither good nor bad”). There’s an ocean of mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay produced for the average drinker who doesn’t want to spend a fortune. Lately, we’re seeing more and more mediocre Pinot Noirs, as that variety spikes in popularity, and let me tell you, a mediocre Pinot Noir is even less pleasant than a mediocre Cabernet!
It can be depressing to taste mediocre wines. Even when it’s not actually a drag, it’s not a whole lot of fun. It’s work. You think the critic’s day is spent lounging around in silk pajamas sipping wine, occasionally taking time to snack on a little foie gras or smoked trout? Let me tell you, a flight of Central Valley Cabernets is tough. But I console myself considerably when I find one that’s actually pretty good. If the price is low enough to make it a Best Buy in Wine Enthusiast, that’s a happy day for me.
There’s a part of me (and of every wine aficienado, I suppose) that yearns to taste great wine. There’s a hedonistic and intellectual appeal to such adventures that’s part of the reason why we became wine fanatics in the first place. This is why tasting mediocre wine can be so valuable. It’s as if, after a long trek through the desert, you’re so parched with thirst, that when you finally come across some cool, potable water, it tastes like ambrosia–not just plain old H2O, but some nectar of the gods. You can appreciate the highs all the more, for having gone through the lows.
I wrote last week about score inflation, and how a number crunch of our database at Wine Enthusiast suggests that, in recent years, my very high scores have been inching up–not by a lot, but ever so steadily. I wrote that this could be due to the fact that California wine is simply getting better, which I happen to believe is true. But it also could be true because I’m tasting more mediocre wine than ever, and I think I’m also more acute to discerning mediocrity in a wine than I used to be. That discernment for recognizing problems in wine has a counterpoint in an equal discernment for recognizing superlative quality.
One final phenomenon occurs to me, and it’s something I’ve thought of often over the years but never fully worked out in my mind. What exactly is the difference between a 100-point wine and an 85-point wine of the same type? Are they so completely different that they may as well be thought of as different species–not just apples and oranges, but apples and zebras?
Well, no. An 85 (or 84, or 86, or 88) point wine often isn’t all that different from a 100 point wine. That’s the truth that amateurs often pick up on, but are ashamed to admit, because they think it makes them look stupid. An 86 point Cabernet from Napa Valley is pretty much the same as a 100 point Cabernet from Napa Valley, except for that “concentration” I spoke earlier about. There are other rather abstract qualities that go along with concentration, such as balance, elegance and the finish, but these do require discernment of a type it takes many years to acquire. So, while a discerning palate can appreciate those higher-toned qualities, the mind that rules that palate also understands that we’re talking about shades of difference, not evolutionary paradigm shifts.
Anyway, I’ve wandered a bit from my original premise that tasting plonk can make the palate appreciate great wine even more, so let me reprise with it. Part of me wishes it didn’t have to taste mediocre wine, but my better angels recognize that it’s an important and educational part of my job.
Let’s all wish our friends and loved ones in the path of the eastern storms good luck!