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.