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On the “subjective vs. objective” tasting front, what have we learned?

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Heavy philosophical opining over at Jamie Goode’s blog the other day. Jamie sat down with “academic philosopher” Professor Barry Smith to talk about the philosophical aspects of wine tasting and specifically about “objectivity and subjectivity,” an old and slippery topic that will never be fully resolved, I think, because the question itself is misleading (more on this later).

The Professor did raise an interesting point: He said “all the great wine critics…say…taste is subjective,” but then these same critics “tell you which vintage is better…and which domain is better” and so, the Professor concludes, “They don’t really believe [tasting] is entirely subjective” because, if it is, then they should not be able to state so definitively (so “normatively” in Smith’s words) that something is better than something else, “normative” being a philosophical term implying the existence of objective standards or “norms.”

Well, the Prof does seem to have identified a paradox. How can tasting be subjective if the taster is giving normative judgments on things? But here’s the problem. No wine critic I’ve ever heard of has said that tasting is just a bunch of random subjectivity; I certainly never did. Let me explain why this whole thing of “objective or subjective” is misleading.

Some pronouncements are objectively true. If I say “Two plus two equals four,” that is fundamentally objective, at least in the Universe we inhabit. If I say “Lafite is more expensive than Two Buck Chuck” that is also objectively true.

With judging wine, though, things get more complicated. Consider: Let’s say we expose three different critics to a single wine, blind, and each reacts differently (as is to be expected). That can’t be explained by the wine: It is what it is—its chemical composition is the same for each of the critics. Therefore the difference is in the critics’ perceptions of the wine. The professor understands this conundrum (which is relativistic): The wine’s chemical properties are absolutely objective (i.e. they exist in the real world and can be measured), and yet the critics’ reactions are absolutely subjective. How are we to make sense of this paradox?

Here’s where the Professor introduces a novel solution: “an intermediate level…in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions.” What is this “intermediate level”? The Professor says it’s “flavour.” “Flavours are emergent properties; they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry.”

Confused? Me too. I reread this part of the Professor’s answer a couple times and have to say I never did fully grasp it, perhaps because the Professor didn’t make himself clear (it wouldn’t be the first time a highly-trained academic found himself unable to express his theories in plain English). As near as I can tell, this “intermediate level” would form a bridge of sorts between the strictly objective chemistry of the wine (which we all acknowledge exists, independent of our personal reactions to it) and the subjective, personal impression the wine makes on us.

I think this is overthinking things. It has a bit of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” Talmudic disputation—argument for the sake of argument. Just because you can arrange words so that they take the form of a question doesn’t mean the question makes sense; but too much of our discourse is based on the premise that, if I can ask it and make it sound like a real question, then it has to have a real answer. It doesn’t.

Look, wine tasting shouldn’t be this complicated; it doesn’t require the skills of an epistomologist. A majority of professional wine tasters will usually agree on the more salient or obvious aspects of a wine—that it’s sweet, for example, or that it has heavy brettanomyces (or that it’s sparkling, for that matter). It’s in the more subtle realms that disagreement sets in (is the wine just a bit reduced? Is it too old? Over-oaked? Tannins too rough?). We should not expect agreement on such subtleties among wine critics, whose palates after all are not laboratory devices but flesh and blood, but that doesn’t mean that wine tasting is either totally objective (it isn’t) or totally subjective (if it were, we wouldn’t have broad agreement on those salient aspects of taste). To expect total agreement is to rest one’s thinking on several illusions: (a) that winetasting is a scientific pursuit (it has elements of science but is not in itself scientific), (b) that the taster will be consistent over time concerning the same wine (she will not be, which the Professor also discerns when he implies a “temporal dimension” to flavor), and (c) moving well beyond wine, that there is a such thing as an “objective reality” that all humans perceive in the same way. Yes…and no. Again, it’s the difference between “more salient aspects” and subtler ones: All humans will agree that the Sun rises in the East (if you disagree, then you’re nuts) but all witnesses to a hit-and-run will not agree that the car that struck the pedestrian was blue. The former (the Sun rising) is a salient perception, the latter (the car color) more subject to differing perceptions. When it comes to such subtleties, humans will always disagree; critics certainly will about wines. That makes life more complicated, and frustrating, and uncertain; but also more interesting, and forces us, in the end, to arrive at our own conclusions.


Crying all the way to the bank

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What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?

Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.

Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)

It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”

My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.

So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.

The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:

Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.

Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.


How crowded can Napa Valley get?

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There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.

Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.

Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.

To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.

Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplishedsomething that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.

Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.

If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.


On rosé, trends and “darlings”

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I don’t have anything against rosé. I like a good rosé, as long as it’s dry. One of the best tastings I ever went to was at the old Vertigo restaurant, in San Francisco, which claimed to have the nation’s biggest rosé wine list. The bartender set me up at the bar one afternoon before the place opened, and I happily explored the wonderful world of [mostly French] rosés.

What I do have something against is this meme, which seems to have popped up a year or two ago, that rosé is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I mean, you can’t pick up a Sunset Magazine or a wine magazine or an airplane magazine without an article trumpeting rosé as the chic new black. The latest is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday article, “Planet Pink: How rosé became the wine lover’s darling—and a social media sensation.”

Let’s get this straight right away: rosé is not “the wine lover’s darling.” There’s no such thing as “the wine lover’s darling.” It’s not orange wine, and it’s not Prosecco, and it’s not anything else that has hitherto been acclaimed to be the next big thing. Rosé is simply a nice little wine that can be delicious with charcuterie, but “darling”? I think not.

What is it about the wine press that they always have to be discovering some trend? I suppose it’s inherent in the nature of media publications. If you write for a newspaper, then you have to dig up some “news.” If there isn’t any, then you take some current thing and inflate it so that it can plausibly be called “news.” This happens in politics all the time: it’s the “shiny new thing” phenomenon, also known as “shiny object syndrome,” where a new idea captures your imagination and attention in such a way that you get distracted from the bigger picture and go off in tangents instead of remaining focused on the goal.” In my opinion, Republicans do this all the time: they dangle Obama’s birthplace, or some other nonsense, in front of the electorate, hoping to divert our attention from real issues, such as jobs, healthcare, the cost of college education, climate change and the vast disparity of incomes in America—issues for which that political party has no answers.

Wine writers are not quite as cynical or calculating as political operatives, but “shiny object syndrome” is something they indulge in due to the pressures of their jobs. One couldn’t really publish a wine section in a major daily newspaper and say, “There’s nothing particularly new in the wine industry today,” could one? So you come up with yet another “darling.”

Now, what’s this about “a new social media sensation”? Same old same old. If you want to bolster your case that something really is a darling, then you go to the Google machine and find as many glowing references to it online as you can. That bolsters your case: not only is it your claim that something is a darling, but all those wise people out there on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are saying the same thing! Therefore it must be true: for social media doesn’t lie, exaggerate or distort, it is a magical expression of authentic thinking in the world, and thus the perfect tool for trendspotting.

Well, I am being sarcastic, of course. Social media is filled with the same ridiculousness as life itself. The rule of social media is fifteen minutes of fame, after which the phenomenon in question sinks back into obscurity, to be replaced by the next “darling.”

Besides, what if rosé really is the new “darling”? Does that make you want to run out and find a rosé? Maybe you’re the type of person who feels that you don’t want to miss out on something that everybody else knows about. If that’s the case, it’s not rosé you’re looking for. But, as I said, rosé can be delightful, especially during the kind of heat wave that California is now experiencing. It’s forecast to be one of the longest heat waves we’ve had in years—started yesterday and will continue at least through this week. This is not what growers need at this time: it will profoundly speed up the ripening process on those grapes not already picked, leading to a possible crush rush; there will be cases of sunburnt fruit; and if you can’t find pickers to harvest your grapes in time, you’re going to have sugar spikes to deal with.

I am off on another road trip for Jackson Family Wines, down to Newport Beach for a fancy dinner. This time, alas, I must leave Gus behind, but he’s in good hands with my family. Have a great day. Grab yourself a nice rosé, chill it, and savor it later this afternoon by your pool, if you have a pool. If you don’t, savor it anyway.

Salud!

 


Bloggers: Go big or go home

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It’s amusing when a blogger hauls my name out for snarky commentary. I always think it’s in order to drive traffic to his blog. The major bloggers wouldn’t stoop to fulminating against me (or each other) because they have far more important things to write about, and also because there’s a certain respect at the higher level where one just doesn’t stoop to dinging other bloggers. It’s called professional courtesy. But at the low level, well, I guess some people just have no manners.

The latest is some dude who calls himself the blue collar wine guy, who dropped my name in his very first sentence, and then just had to add the gratuitous slap that I’m working for Kendall-Jackson so I “don’t have time for research.” This was in response to my post the other day, “18 tips for wineries on better communication.”

What’s so silly about his post is that, immediately after rejecting my premise that wineries should do a better job at providing information (and who could possibly disagree with that?), he turns around and agrees with it! In fact, his entire second paragraph is an observation, along the same lines as mine, that—as he says—“wineries have some problems with dissemination of information.”

Why not just agree with my post and leave it at that? Because otherwise he wouldn’t have any controversy to stir up.

For years, I’ve taken the position that I don’t reply to brickbats from grouchy bloggers and tweeters, because to do so is (a) a waste of my time and (b) only serves to bring attention to people whom nobody cares about anyway. But let me tell you, it does get tiresome being a punching bag.

The good news is that wine blogging is growing up. It’s a lot less negative than it used to be. Bloggers who have been around for a while are learning their craft: they are understanding that they won’t be read by serious people unless they get serious about writing—and that means generating respectable, high-level content, not gratuitous slams of better-known writers. But the bad news is that the slamming still pops up every once in a while. Like Dracula, just when you thought it’s been stabbed in the heart and left for dead, it arises. Or maybe a better metaphor than Dracula is the cockroach. Just when you thought the exterminator has gotten rid of them, out crawls one across your bathroom floor.

Hey, blue collar wine guy, what did I ever do to you? We’ve never met (if we did, I don’t remember). I’ve never insulted you. I never even heard of you. I write a quality blog, which is the reason it’s been around a long time and is still widely read. If I can give you advice (which you’re perfectly free to reject), it would be to stop thinking that you can attract readership by attacking another blogger. That is so 2008. You seem to be a reasonably intelligent person. Use your brain to stay positive and creative. Ad hominem crap won’t get you where you want to go.

Yours sincerely,

Steve Heimoff

P.S. I don’t work for Kendall-Jackson, I work for Jackson Family Wines. I’m happy to explain the difference to you.


Not all small wineries are cool. Not all big wineries aren’t. Read on.

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When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.

I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”

Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.

Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”

Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.


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