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What Rudi taught us: The producer-critic complex, and never taking a wine for granted

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“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”

This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?

The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)

But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.

This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.

Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.

Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.

  1. Eloquently stated, my man!

  2. Steve,
    Well said and written. The post makes me think of how we are crafting a world with little room for naivité, a luxury we could experience growing up but that is rapidly disappearing as we become digital beings. Kudos for the honesty. I don’t always read blogs, but when I do I Steve!

  3. I enjoy this direction of conversation. First time post but I have been lurking for sometime.
    Spending that much on hard-to-get fermented grapes tends to be more of a mental comfort than a sensory one.
    Reminds me of the quote: “A good person can get you through a bad wine, but a good wine can’t get you through a bad person.” -some old winemaker.
    That said, IMO, what we are all here for is ‘thought provoking’ wine. Sensory is a world of pondering and memories. We continue these thoughts as vino lovers on your blog and in our conversations.
    Most cult/expensive wines are not trying to be thought provoking, just good/balanced and too easily become a seamless quaff. In other words, expensive wine does not provoke thought per se, it relieves you of your purchase anxiety with all the bases covered.
    Ditto to never take a bottle for granted, (or the company you keep)and trust your palate.
    Cheers!

  4. I have always liked that quote from Asher because I have experienced that it has a thread of truth to it. Sometimes I will find a sample bottle is flat and the backup (if I have one) can be a large improvement. I have recently opened a couple samples that I was looking forward to trying only to experience less than inspired results. One was confirmed by opening the backup, and the other, with no backup has me wondering if a single bottle could be that obtuse. I will likely ask the winery for a second bottle.

    Sometimes the ‘good bottle’ theorom can be taken even further. Years ago when I would taste blind as guest of another wine publication every so often one of the editors and I would be polarized on a particular wine. A condition that I attributed to his tasting from the top half, and me from the bottom half. :)

  5. Patrick Frank says:

    I appreciate the admission that subjectivity enters into perceptions of wine, and you, Steve, are more out-front about that issue than most critics. Which is cool. So this is a minor discussion point: The level of subjectivity for wine and modern art are indeed high, but I think they’re about equally high for movies and music. And that’s me speaking subjectively, I imagine.

  6. Patrick, yes I could have included music and movies on the subjectivity list. But one question: What do you do when one film–say, Citizen Kane–is said to be one of the greatest ever made, by several generations of crtics? Does that lift it above the subjective into the objectively great?

  7. excellent post

  8. doug wilder says:

    We have all heard comments how confusing wine reviews can be for people who don’t follow the subject closely. The other day I was listening to NPR and their jazz critic was reviewing an artist who had just released two albums, one with a trio, the other with a quartet. His detailed and lively descriptions of what I was listening to meant absolutely nothing to me :)

  9. Patrick Frank says:

    Steve, a great question, here are a few random thoughts. Very few creations have the status of being judged the greatest by several generations. Such judgements usually happen within one culture or group. I don’t think you can talk about “objectively great” art works of any kind, because of cultural differences. Michelangelo’s David is offensive to many muslims because of its nudity, for example. When you say something is objectively great, I think you have to ask “to whom?”. And I wonder if the same goes for wine: Folks with highly sophisticated palates are looking for different things in a wine than average folks like me. And what’s deemed great will change over time, just as wine tastes are now maybe getting more restrained. And Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, for the first time since 1962.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding this comment . . .

    “… most of the heavy lifting in this persuading [that 'there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their (high) prices'] is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. …”

    . . . the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance” comes into play.

    Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance

    If someone has spent a small fortune for a fine wine, and little or no pleasure is found in its consumption, then the buyer-drinker is conflicted.

    The buyer-drinker can either cast doubt on the product and critics’ reviews that extolled it, or cast doubt on his/her powers of discernment.

    (Candidly, how many ego-free wine drinkers confess their benign ignorance — or “blind spot” — about certain styles of wine or exotic grape varieties?)

    ~~ Bob

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