It's a truism of journalism that you always try to emphasize the positive. I subscribe to this myself. But occasionally the time comes when, in the interests of your readers, you have to address what can only be called the shadows of your subject.
For example, when we scribes offer advice to wine newbies, it's usually all sweetness: Do try this, do investigate that. This makes sense. After all, emphasizing what might be called "potholes in the road" is hardly encouraging, is it?
However, there are times when newbies must be told—dare I say it?—a few truths. Of course, there is no such thing as a "truth," but I believe that some assertions stand up to scrutiny.
So, if you're a wine newbie, allow me, someone with a bit of mileage, to offer a few observations about "defensive wine driving." I'd like to think that your wine life—and your wallet—will be the better for it. You tell me.
Among the many seductions of scoring, one of the most lulling is the ventriloquist impression that a score somehow exists independently from the taster who creates it. Big mistake. A score is the taster.
All of which is to say that if you use scores in deciding which wines to pursue—and I think you should, by the way—then you had better pay attention to the particularities of the palate that promulgated that score. This is why Wine Spectator always specifies the taster. (And it's why you should avoid “tasting panels” like the plague that they are.) Scores don't come from nowhere. They come from someone.
In any field where there is a substantial degree of aesthetic subjectivism—whether it's music, art or wine—you are always well-advised to consider who's doing the evaluation.
Usually, people ask: "Is he or she qualified?" They want a reassurance that doesn't require them to think, so they lean on wobbly credentials such as Master of Wine or some other such "proof" that someone knows about the subject at hand.
I regret to inform you that if you invest your trust in such credentials, never mind which, then you have been gulled. All too often people who acquire such credentials are model test-takers. They are very good, indeed exceptional, at mastering just the sort of trivia that these tests specialize in. The self-aggrandizing claims of the credentialing bodies notwithstanding, they are no indicator of judgment.
Judgment is the key word here. Really good tasting is not about the ability to identify a wine blind (however impressive that parlor trick may be), but rather, how insightful the taster is. Your job is to try to get a sense not of the taster's acuity, but of his or her aesthetic priorities. Do they correspond to your own? Are they consistently applied? Can you triangulate from their sensibilities and values to your own? Scores alone tell you none of this.
Bottom line: Pay less attention to the score and more to the taster.
In his book The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell famously distinguished between what he called "knowledge by description" and "knowledge by acquaintance." In our own way, we wine lovers grapple with the challenge of what philosophers call epistemology—the nature of knowing.
I was recently at a trade tasting where 150 or so wines were available, many of them from noteworthy producers. It made me think about Russell's knowledge distinctions.
With wine, there are actually three categories: "knowledge by description" (reading tasting notes); "knowledge by acquaintance" (what we sample at a tasting); and what might be called "knowledge by exposure" (what we learn from actually drinking a wine, preferably with food and with other wine lovers).
Today, these distinctions have become blurred. "Virtual tasting" has deluded some wine lovers into thinking that they "know" a wine because of other peoples' tasting notes in chat boards, blogs, magazines and newsletters.
It's easy to see how that sort of pretend-knowledge is nonsense. What’s much harder to recognize is that even when you've actually tasted a wine yourself, your knowledge may be of the most superficial sort. Yes, you can make a judgment about a wine at big tastings. We all do it, present company assuredly included.
But here's the rub: Your knowledge of a wine is minimal in such tastings. Most folks look at the number of wines tasted and conclude that multiplicity is the problem. It can be, for sure. But the real problem comes from what might be called the "distortion of context."
I've taught a lot of wine-tasting classes and I'm here to testify that I (and any other teacher) can set up a series of wines that will convince you, without a shred of doubt, that one wine is better than another.
Even the greatest wines can be made to look lesser based on the context of other wines in the tasting. Great wines are usually creatures of considerable subtlety. They can be made to look, say, thin or paltry when compared with more emphatically flavorful, if less subtle, wines.
Here's the point: Never fully trust "knowledge by acquaintance,” i.e., what you glean from a sample at a tasting. It's worth something, to be sure. But at most, it’s only a guide to what you should further investigate, the better to achieve "knowledge by exposure."
Tasting numerous wines can be—indeed, usually is—deceptive. You think that you've acquired depth if only because of quantity. But too often, the result is a distortion. Even the best professional tasters, folks who are used to tasting wines in substantial quantity and are practiced at compensating for such distortion, must struggle consciously against this effect.
Bottom line: There's no substitute for the deep, true knowledge acquired through prolonged exposure. A martial artist monk in Matthew Polly's charming book, American Shaolin, put it best: "I do not fear the 10,000 kicks you have practiced once; I fear the one kick you have practiced 10,000 times.”
Philip A Chauche — Germantown, MD — June 21, 2011 12:32pm ET
Steve Walker — Raleigh, NC — June 21, 2011 4:10pm ET
Kc Tucker — Escondido, CA USA — June 21, 2011 7:26pm ET
J G Avedesian — Indian Wells,California, USA — June 21, 2011 7:51pm ET
Stephen George — Oakland, CA — June 21, 2011 8:48pm ET
Jonathan Lawrence — somewhere in the world — June 21, 2011 9:21pm ET
Chris Haag — vancouver, bc — June 22, 2011 1:21am ET
William R Klapp Jr — Neive, Italy — June 22, 2011 7:51am ET
Jonathan Lawrence — somewhere in the world — June 22, 2011 8:20am ET
James R Biddle — Dayton, OH — June 22, 2011 9:33am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — June 22, 2011 9:40am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — June 22, 2011 11:52am ET
Matthew Slywka — Seymour, CT — June 22, 2011 12:50pm ET
Scott Creasman — Atlanta, GA — June 22, 2011 1:48pm ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — June 22, 2011 2:28pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — June 22, 2011 7:36pm ET
Jesse Becker, MS — San Francisco, CA — June 23, 2011 12:14am ET
Scott Richardson — Orlando, Fl — June 23, 2011 2:13pm ET
Joseph Kane — Austin — June 23, 2011 3:02pm ET
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