Why Tasting Matters

The Gotcha Gang sneers from willful ignorance
Oct 7, 2014

"The first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. … Without wine lore, and wine tasting, and wine talk, and wine labels, and, yes, wine writing and rating—the whole elaborate idea of wine—we would still get drunk, but we would be merely drunk.”—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

It's a drumbeat that never seems to disappear. It ebbs and flows, cresting with, say, one or another narrowly defined sensory experiment "proving" that tasters can't tell a red wine from a white by smell alone (using opaque glasses).

OK, so what? I can think of all sorts of wines, such as the many white wines now made with extended skin contact, that deliver red-berry notes in the scent. With my eyes closed, I too would think I was drinking a red wine. Big deal. Does that make me (or you) a chump? A bad taster? A poseur? Hardly.

But the skeptics of sensory value, who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers, are really just part of a bullying anti-intellectualism with a long history in America. (That it appears in the likes of the New Yorker magazine is rich indeed.)

I mention this because we wine lovers are subject to a larger trend in modern American life, namely, an openly voiced doubt about the veracity of the senses. Our culture today finds questionable anything that can't be "scientifically proved”—which is another way of saying "quantified."

Well, wine can't be quantified, never mind this or that scoring system. Music can't be quantified (never mind the mathematics that musicologists routinely invoke in their analyses). Dance can't be quantified. Even baseball, which is very nearly a sanatorium for crazed statisticians, can't be reduced to metrics, try as they might.

All of these, and many more, are forms of beauty and are viable and legitimate only when perceived and evaluated by the senses. Yet it's now fashionable to openly doubt the validity of the senses. Witness the inevitable chortling whenever a work of art (or a bottle of wine) is revealed to be counterfeit.

We saw this in full cry in the latest—and most extreme—case of wine counterfeiting, that involving the now-convicted Rudy Kurniawan. He duped all sorts of people, some of whom surely should have (and could have) known better.

It worked because, really, the Kurniawan case actually had little to do with wine. Rather, it had far more to do with greed and self-deception. Wine just happened to be the medium, as they say in art circles. We saw the same motivations (and inclination to not look too closely) with Bernard Madoff and his monumental Ponzi scheme that offered too-good-to-be-true returns.

Our era doubts what it drinks. And tastes. And smells. The sensory life is dismissed because if a machinelike regularity isn't achieved, then the results are considered inherently questionable. (Ironically, it was the very machinelike regularity of Bernie Madoff's annual returns that should have been a red flag.)

What we're dealing with here is a willful ignorance. It's willful because its celebrants have no intention of crediting any possibility that someone might actually know something that they, in their insistent ignorance, do not. ("The first reason people drink wine is to get drunk.")

We see this all the time—and not just with wine. Think of the common and conventional reaction to the now-famous "spatter" or "drip" paintings of Jackson Pollack. Understandably, nearly all of us, upon first viewing these paintings, scratched our heads in wonderment. This was art? Those who knew submitted that it was. You know what happened next. They were derided as credulous fools.

Yet it turns out that, even though the critics at the time couldn't entirely explicate it, they were onto something. More than half a century after Pollack painted his drip paintings, physicist Richard Taylor submitted a paper to a major physics journal suggesting an underlying fractal regularity to Pollack's seeming chaos. Whether that is true remains to be proven definitively. And in itself it proves nothing. But it does suggest that our sensory assessment of what might at first glance appear random should be trusted. Something is there in those paintings—and we can at least sense it.

You might consider instead the great Carnegie Hall concrete-in-the-stage kerfuffle. The short version of this story is that after Carnegie Hall, famous for its extraordinary acoustics, was renovated in 1986, musicians performing there, as well as music critics, complained that the sound wasn't the same. The lush, warm sound was deadened, they insisted, by a layer of concrete under the stage.

Nonsense, said the management, there's no layer of concrete under the stage. You're all just imagining this. The then-president of Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern, defensively offered to rip up the stage on the condition that critics pay to replace it if no concrete was found.

Then the stage began to warp. Finally, in 1995, according to the New York Times: "They discovered that there was indeed concrete under the stage, several hundred pounds of it in a layer that varied from 1 to 4 inches thick." It further noted, "One thing is all but certain: Besides causing the warping, the concrete drastically reduced the resonance of the stage, a crucial part of any hall's acoustics."

All of which is to say, about wine and us as tasters, that what we taste is real. We can and do regularly, if not necessarily infallibly, know how good something is. Yes, we're subject to prejudice and fashion and are certainly swayed by our surroundings and the opinions of others. We're not machines.

But here's the thing: We're better than machines. And don't let anybody tell you differently.

The life of the senses is subtle and rich. Such a life represents a substantial truth, never mind that it can (and should) vary from one person to the next. Above all, it's legitimate. Those who would say otherwise are vulgarians—and they would have you descend to their level.


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