A while back I was chatting with a few colleagues about the business of wine criticism. I suggested that certain critics seem to have preferences that come across in their assessments. I picked out one in particular and suggested, rather bravely, that I didn’t think their ratings of certain wines were very reliable, and that they were out of step with the new generation of sommeliers and writers. (It’s possible that I may have used stronger language than this.)
“But that’s just your opinion,” replied a fellow writer. I was surprised. A discussion followed. Her view, with which I strongly disagree, is that we all have our own opinions on a wine, and if individuals think a wine is great, then to them it is.
This isn’t an unusual view. And it sounds wonderfully democratic. According to this posture, everyone’s opinion is of equal value. If you think a wine is great, then, to you, it is. It’s common to hear wine personalities who, when speaking to consumers, feel obliged to echo this sentiment: Like what you like, and don’t let other people tell you your taste is wrong! To argue against this seems terribly elitist and snobby.
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But I will. At its core, wine criticism is a demonstration of expertise and aesthetic systems. This is a realm where not all opinions are equally valid, and where it is possible to be wrong.
Despite what wine experts say when they are trying to sound cool and egalitarian, it’s clear from their actions that they don’t actually believe that all opinions are of equal validity and that wine quality is simply personal. They sell their books, articles, and tasting notes. They deliver professional opinions that they think are more than just autobiographical. If all we wine critics do is tell people personal opinions that are only valid for us, why would we expect them to be of any real interest to others? And why would we expect people to pay for them?
To behave this way wine experts must believe that, to a degree, their verdicts are normative. In other words, if as a wine critic I share my opinion, I believe that many people with a normally functioning sense of taste would share a similar view.
This is in part a philosophical discussion about the subjectivity and objectivity of perception. We all undeniably bring a lot of ourselves to every wine tasting. We have personal experiences and contexts that shape our perceptions. And we all have different biology. Some people are more sensitive to bitterness, others are unable to smell specific aromas. We all differ in our sensitivities to smells and strong-tasting foods. For these reasons, it’s tempting to conclude that we all live in private worlds when it comes to taste, each with our own preferences. This would mean wine tasting is a wholly subjective experience.
But can we rescue objectivity? For a universal decree of what constitutes good wine to exist, objectivity must come into play.
First of all, when we taste wine, we are looking for something. We are looking to “get” the wine, to understand its true essence. Some days we seem to get it more than others. We believe that the wine has properties, and by using the right glass, decanting if appropriate, and serving at the right temperature without any competing odors, we might be able to approximate what this wine wants to say to us. There is something objective about the wine that we, as subjective observers, try to determine.
While individual preferences lead us in certain directions, as a community we aim to develop our palates and understand different flavors in broader context.
We taste the wine and make inferences about it. We might smell a bit of vanilla and spice, and deduce that wine has been aged in oak barrels. Or we might taste a tight young wine and assume that it is a bit closed, and will be more approachable in a few years. We use our expertise to discern factual properties about each wine.
Furthermore, individual and possibly biological preferences change with time. How many seven-year-olds like to drink espresso? Do you remember the first time you tried beer or wine? I do. I didn’t like them. I found it easier to start with cider, then I progressed to beer, and by my 20s I was ready to begin exploring wine.
Here’s another example: About 15 years ago, I’d have told you that I don’t like cheese. Then, on a trip to Portugal I decided that I really needed to try the Queijo de Serra, a distinguished, pungent sheep’s cheese with a gooey interior. I didn’t like it at first, but after repeated encounters I now love it. I’ve grown to appreciate lots of strongly flavored cheeses that initially turned me off. Interestingly, it’s often the hard-to-acquire tastes that captivate me the most.
To a large degree, wine is an acquired taste. The wine community tastes together. We talk about the wines we experience, and read what others have to say. We complete formal or informal wine educations in which we discover different flavors and learn to understand the intricacies of the winegrowing chain. As professionals, we are often asked to judge wines in teams, jointly awarding them medals. While individual preferences lead us in certain directions, as a community we aim to develop our palates and understand different flavors in broader context. We have an aesthetic system for fine wine, in which certain wines are serious and other are not.
Let’s think about wine quality in terms of production. Winemakers use specific practices in pursuit of quality, such as harvesting appropriately ripe, healthy grapes; fermenting them carefully to avoid too much oxygen exposure or spoilage microbes; using the right containers for maturation, like clean barrels; and preparing the wine for bottling (e.g., fining, filtering, stabilizing). While there are variations, generally speaking, there’s a shared notion of the sorts of things you need to do to make quality wine, and bad or careless winemaking decreases the caliber of your product.
If you harvest grapes and then make wine in your bathtub, and it ends up cloudy and reeking of animal sheds and vinegar, and you enjoy it, then no one should stop you from drinking it. But there are set standards for what constitutes quality in wine. If you majorly violate the established criteria, it’s perfectly legitimate for professionals to dismiss your wine as bad. We decide together, as a community of judgment, what constitutes good wine. We confer greatness on wines we think are exceptional, and we’d expect all those similarly qualified to agree.
To be part of this community of judgment, you need certain competencies. You should have a relatively normally functioning sense of taste and smell. You should have some experience of wine tasting. You should be free of strong biases, and you should be prepared to judge wines correctly served in decent glasses at an appropriate temperature.
This is why I say not all opinions are equally valid. Someone who has never tried a vintage Port before is ill-equipped to judge the category. And if you are a super-traditional drinker who’s grown up on mature Claret, and who has never tried a wine from Australia, I’m not really all that interested in how you find Barossa Shiraz.
What gets interesting is when experienced professionals within the community of judgment disagree. We do have stylistic differences. I might have personal preferences for lighter, more elegant reds. Yet I can also appreciate more robust Napa Cabernets with quite a bit of extraction and some evident new oak. The problem arises when the style itself shifts too far: Is a Cabernet with 16 percent alcohol and lavish new oak a legitimate wine, or have things gotten a bit out of hand? This is where, as a community, we get talking. It’s where a lot of the interesting discussion takes place. When a new wine producer emerges, his or her wine is judged in terms of what has come before. As professionals, we form an opinion. We’re not always in full agreement, but we usually get pretty close.
Consistently high scores from Parker and Wine Spectator have created famous, expensive wines that many critics and experts consider bad.
There are some fault lines, though. In the 1980s American critic Robert Parker launched a new, highly personal aesthetic system. Before Parker, the established fine wine scene held classic French wines, chiefly Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, and Champagne, as benchmarks. Parker came in as an outsider and judged primarily on his own palate, and how much he enjoyed the wine.
Parker celebrated pleasure, and his infectious enthusiasm caught on. His 100-point scale clearly identified the “best” wines, giving collectors a helicopter to the top: They didn’t have to learn about wine in order to drink the best. His approach allowed new regions and new producers to break into the fine wine club rapidly, without needing to establish a track record.
But it bypassed the sort of wine world conversations that typically determine greatness in wine. The community of judgment was not part of its mechanism. Consistently high scores from Parker and Wine Spectator have created famous, expensive wines that many critics and experts consider bad. This was and remains highly problematic for anyone pursuing truly great wine.
What’s the takeaway from all of this? It’s perfectly acceptable to tell people that their taste should be their guide. But it’s simply not the case that if a wine tastes great to you, then it is a great wine.
Experts aim to transcend subjective opinions in order to truly “get” our wine. We invest resources in becoming better tasters. We learn about wine. We discuss it. These efforts lead to a community of judgment with near-constant consensus about quality. While there is some disagreement around the edges, it’s surprising how much we agree.
This is why some opinions are worth more than others. This is why some experts sell their services as competent assessors of wine, a practice that would be nonsensical if this whole realm were totally subjective. Criticism matters. So let’s open a bottle and talk!