rpm wrote:I suppose I'm laying down a marker with synchrodan when I start off by saying I'm not a philosophical relativist and that I believe in the existence of (though not necessarily our ability to accurately discern) absolute truth and so I reject his position that all preferences are equally valid (and not just for the holder of them). As more of an historian than a philosopher, I understand that all of us bring our biases to bear on our work, but I also would argue strongly for the need for making as strenuous an effort as possible towards objectivity. Perhaps we can approach objectivity only asymptotically, but the impossibility of ever knowing we can achieve it does not mean we should not even make the attempt.
While we may not be able to ever achieve an absolute understanding or objective evaluation of wine, I think that there is something that approaches being an objective standard, which is the collective judgment of serious wine professionals (and their dedicated amateur colleagues who collect and taste serious wine, but do not make a living from it) over the past 150-200 years that we have reasonable records and writing about wine that is recognizable and intelligible. By that I mean, wines made in essentially similar ways from vineyards that are still producing in climates that are essentially the same subject to seasonal and reasonable annual variations -- it's my firm view that an astute, well-trained wine maker from, say, 1800, would be able to come into a modern winery working with similar varietals and (other than purely technological innovations that essentially give the wine maker more control over what's going on) understand what a modern wine maker was doing, and could meaningfully discuss and contribute to the decision-making in the production of a modern wine. And vice versa.
Of course, that level of knowledge is the result of a combination of some talent, a lot of training over many years. And, it's a kind of judgment that may differ from the everyday appreciation of wine. It's rather like understanding fine art -- most of us are not connoisseurs of art and do not have a deep understanding of art, but we know and appreciate that there is art that is generally considered great for articulable reasons, and that there are people who are devoted to understanding great art, either as a business or an avocation. With art, most of us know what we like and don't like when we see it. Sometimes, we like great art and sometimes we don't. Similarly, many of us are fond of works or styles of art that would be considered inferior or commercial. Which is fine, as long as we understand there's a difference, and don't try to change the standards by which great art is judged.
I think wine is similar. Those of us who have been fortunate to learn about, taste, and appreciate wines generally considered great probably do consider those wines to set the standards by which we judge wine, and to in some (perhaps fleeting) sense embody a reasonably objective standard of greatness. That does not mean that we like only great wines -- I've known people who profess to drink only the highest quality of wine and they often have more money than taste or knowledge -- or that we don't value wines that doe not meet those exalted standards.
In fact most of what even professionals drink would not count as "great" wine and would include a surprising amount of pretty ordinary or 'standard' wine. Those wines need to be appreciated for what they are and should not be directly compared to great wine. When a professional or serious amateur tastes a lovely wine that's enjoyable now, he or she does not say that should be the standard for all wine, but accepts it on its own terms.
Therein lies the heart of my beef with Parker: with little understanding and no training, but a newly discovered love of wine, lawyer Parker set himself up as a wine c.ritic and began to rate wines based on is own palate. Which, as I have written often over the years, in large measure because it was untrained, was biased in favor of easily approachable and fruit forward wines that immediately delighted his senses. Of course, that is an approach that appeals to a lot of people, especially those who are not experienced, and as a result, he was tremendously commercially successful.
The problem, from my perspective, is that lots of wine drinkers, instead of taking the trouble to learn about wine (and so have their palates progress from approachable wines to those which require more understanding, but which, over time, greatly repay the effort and are the 'change your life' wines of yesteryear) continue in more or less a rut of increasingly expensive approachable, fruit forward, bold (and often heavily oaked) wines which are often not especially well balanced. Wine makers and marketers, who want to sell wine after all, have in large measure responded to the increase in demand for this sort of wine by making more of it. Initially, that occurred in the middle market, but there has been increasing pressure over the past 25 years on the high end to change the methods of vinification to produce (especially in Bordeaux, Burgundy and in California) to produce wines that will obtain high Parker ratings and hence sales. What we don't know is whether those new style wines will age well and develop in ways similar to the great wines of the past. What I suspect based on limited evidence (and I'm not the only one of this view) is that these wines will not hold up and will fade away about the time the great red (and white) wines of the past 200 years would have just been coming into their primes. And, that upsets me, I confess. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to join the great conversation of wine and experience some of the same heights I have been lucky enough to.
Now, all of that said, I do believe that most of us, most of the time, taste wines simply to find what we like and, perhaps learn a bit more in the process. And, I would agree that if you're buying wine you should buy wines that you and those you drink with will actually enjoy. I'd never counsel someone who likes sweetish, fresh tasting wine (say a NZ Sauvignon Blanc or a Mosel Riesling) to buy a bone dry Chablis or Muscadet. I think people should experiment, because I think they may discover interesting new things, but there's no obligation to experiment -- if you know just what you like, and don't want to change, that's fine. NO ONE should ever drink wine he or she doesn't like.
But, let's not pretend that whatever you or I may like is objectively as good as wines that are acknowledged by expert consensus over the past 100 years as great, or that there are no standards in wine other than our personal, totally subjective standards.
whew. end rant.
I am glad we started a new thread in this section, as I am pleased not to have to disturb the sanctity of the Cab Franc's thread in order to continue this discussion, so onto my response to RPM:
Hah.. I didn’t expect (but quite enjoyed) such a response! First, I want to make clear that I am also not a relativist, and I generally agree with RPM’s comments. As I mentioned, I think, just as in art, there is wine that people can qualify as generally “Good” or “Bad”. It is the degrees of good or bad that become difficult.
I think what might be most preferable is if wine reviewers were to review wine in a context of the region, its characteristics, and its balance, without assigning a score. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable, and probably desirable, for a wine reviewer to explain the color, nose, flavors, etc. of the wine. S/he could also explain how these qualities complement (or overpower) one another. S/he could then further give his/her assessment of how these characteristics compare to that of other wines in the region and same grape. These observations should not be particularly controversial. I know that some people might taste different flavors in a wine than others, but that does not mean that if you observe certain flavors in a wine that others do not, you are necessarily incorrect. That’s one of the cool things about wine – different people get different experiences out of the same bottle.
The problem only arises when you decide to make an assessment of quality on those characteristics such as, “This wine is not oaky enough.” Whether the particular reviewer likes the attributes s/he observes is what I find particularly irrelevant and undesirable. Don’t tell me a wine is bad because it’s not fruity enough. I may happen not to enjoy fruity wines. But you can tell me that you find wine out of balance because there is a strong astringent taste with weak fruit.
There is a theory in philosophy of science called “Scientific Realism”. The idea is that if you get a bunch of rational observers together to witness some event, and all or the vast majority come the same conclusion about that event, then that conclusion should be considered fact and objectively so. There is also a school of moral philosophers who have developed a similar theory called “Moral Realism”, which works in a very similar way, only with ethics instead of science. Does this apply to wine? I believe it can, at least to some extent.
The degree of objectivity, in this case, comes into play with the observation and context, not quality. For example, if you get 50 people with fairly discernable palates in a room, each with a glass of the same wine, and all 50 taste cherry in the wine, then I think it’s safe to say that “cherry flavor” is a quality of that wine. Whether or not those 50 prefer that cherry flavor is not relevant. And if someone understands the winemaking process and regional variances, then s/he can comment intelligently on how the wine compares in its characteristics to other similar varietals.
So I think that ideally, whether or not a reviewer “liked” a wine should not be paid attention to by a wine consumer. What should be noted is what characteristics that the reviewer noted, what the balance and structure is like, and the wine’s context to comparable wines in the varietal and region. Based on those factors, the consumer can then decide for him/herself if that wine sounds like something s/he would enjoy. The idea that a wine should be scored on a numerical basis, and that basis is what we should use to choose wines, is rather absurd. Would you give a Monet a “score” of 96 and a Degas only a 92?