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Drinking Out Loud

Differences of Magnitude

Are professional wine critics different from other wine lovers?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says that assigning a score to a wine is a subtle art.

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 6, 2016

As a wine critic, I’m frequently asked why one wine scores a point or two better than another. Oddly, the questioner usually supplies what he or she assumes is the correct answer: It’s the critic’s vast knowledge, right?

You can imagine their surprise, even bafflement, when I reply that, no, it’s really not quite about knowledge. Or at least, it’s not all about knowledge.

There’s something more subtle at work too: It involves a critic’s acute sense of what might be called “differences of magnitude.” Not incidentally, this awareness is one of the main differences between a wine lover, however enthusiastic, and a wine critic. Allow me to explain.

When any of us first starts pursuing something that offers depth and scope, the first order of business is, yes, acquiring knowledge. Really, it doesn't matter whether you're studying medicine, law, accounting, carpentry or even wine as a hobby, never mind the profession of winemaker. So you sop up all the knowledge your brain can hold. Knowledge is traction. You can't move forward to real understanding without it. So far, so logical.

Some folks are adept at not just assimilating knowledge but then somehow catalyzing it into perceptivity and judgment. Think of doctors who are exceptionally good diagnosticians. Others, however, lack that talent. They're missing that certain something that harnesses knowledge and transforms it into insight, a sort of intellectual photosynthesis. Any wine lover is available to this capacity—or not. It's not a function of being a professional.

So what, then, makes a professional wine critic different from any other wine lover? After all, every wine critic I know started first as a wine lover and only later morphed into a professional critic.

I know someone who was insistent that being a full-time wine critic was his true destiny. I warned him that being a professional wine critic was different than his original passionate, even obsessive, wine loving. He was skeptical. Now he knows.

What did he discover that he didn't know previously? In a phrase, it's the effect of "differences of magnitude." Critics of all sorts are subject to this particular, even peculiar, force. It's a distortion field, of sorts.

Think of it this way. You've seen a certain movie a dozen times, then two dozen times. You know it intimately. You begin to notice things you missed the first time or two. Then, after the tenth time, small elements begin to loom ever larger. By the twentieth time, that effect gets magnified yet more.

This is the critic's perspective. After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it's not that you're bored (although that's surely possible). Rather, it's that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you.

Maybe this difference really is only an inconsequential minor detail. But more often it is that seemingly small something that makes a wine leap from the pack. However small, the difference really isn't minor but something that actually raises the level of the wine's "game." But it can take careful attention to recognize this.

For example, such a "minor-but-it's-not" difference could be a subtle yet informing sense of minerality. Or a powerful impression of finesse that gives the wine a rewarding elegance. (This, by the way, is much more than a wine being merely "smooth.")

Or maybe it's just a certain sort of individuality, a difference that gets magnified only after tasting in a larger context of many other wines of the same kind. When examined closely enough not all birds of a feather really are.

You know what happens next, of course. This "magnitude of difference" results in a high score and effusive verbiage. The critic's excitement leaps off the page—or should, anyway. What he or she is trying to convey is really all about the magnitude of difference. It’s what accounts for that extra point or two.

"Why did you swing on that pitch and not the other one?" you ask the pro baseball player. He shrugs and says that the other pitch wasn't quite as perfect; it was a quarter of an inch too distant—or so it seemed. A magnitude of difference.

All the great baseball hitters are connoisseurs of pitches. To us, a pitch’s magnitude of difference seems minor, even undetectable. But it's really not.

It's the same with wine.

Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  September 6, 2016 2:07pm ET
Question: You stated "After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it's not that you're bored (although that's surely possible). Rather, it's that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you." Would it not take some time to notice that difference and are some wines at the beginning of the tasting suffering from their place in the lineup? Maybe had they been tasted later, they would have scored 1-2 points higher? Or is this something a critic would know immediately without really becoming familiar with that vintage?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  September 6, 2016 3:20pm ET
Jamie Sherman: You ask: "Would it not take some time to notice that difference and are some wines at the beginning of the tasting suffering from their place in the lineup?"

This is an excellent question and the answer is an admittedly ambivalent, "Yes. Maybe."

I can't speak for my colleagues who are in the tasting trenches in a way that I am not. However, I've done a reasonable number of big-scale tastings over the years. So I have a respectable familiarity with the process.

Speaking only for myself, I can say that unless it's a category of wines with which I've had little prior--and extensive--exposure, such as, say, Hungarian Furmint, then you pretty much instinctively *know* when a wine with a magnitude of distinction presents itself, never mind whether it's at the beginning, middle or end of a big line-up.

I recognize that this may seem implausible to tasters who are not experienced in these things. So allow me to offer a analogy.

Most of us are familiar with how Golden Retrievers look and act. (And believe me, I love them all!) If you or I are shown a line-up of 100 Golden Retrievers we would probably know--or at least sense--in a surprising brief scan which dogs offer some kind of "magnitude of difference" from the others.

Maybe ten of the 100 dogs stand out for some reason: personality, looks, size, or a combination these and other factors that quickly register in our assessment. Of those ten dogs, some would likely be at the beginning of the line-up and the others elsewhere. But you'll spot them all the same.

What powers your ability to do this is a deep familiarity with the subject and a disciplined discernment.

You ask (about wines, not dogs): "Maybe had they been tasted later, they would have scored 1-2 points higher?" Yes, maybe indeed. Wine-tasting for all of us, never mind whether it's one wine at dinner or 100 in a line-up, is always a snapshot. Today, at this moment, this is how a wine struck me (or you).

I'd like to think--as I'm sure my tasting-trench colleagues would agree for themselves--that I'm consistent in my judgment from one day to the next. But a point or two difference? It's always possible, of course. At least for me, anyway.
Jerold Greenfield
Fort Myers, Florida USA —  September 7, 2016 12:26pm ET
I think there's another point to be made here, and that has to do as much with "small differences" as with strict personal preference. It's well known that some critics (world famous ones) have a well-demonstrated preference for certain styles of wine. So much so, that it's said that some winemakers craft their products in a way that will appeal to that palate in hopes of getting a higher score. I think that needs to be taken into account as well.
Jerry Greenfield
The Wine Whisperer

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