It was quite a trip. My latest sojourn to New York City lasted three days. In that time, I crammed numerous meetings. Sadly, none of the meetings were wine related and so, I also managed to miss my daily muse.

Then, upon my return, I read a few blog entries by Tom Wark, at Fermentations. It seems that Tom is in a philosophical mode—and a deep one at that.

Tom’s postings concern the value of establishing a wine quality parameter. He seems to think that the task is insurmountable.

Tom’s basic point, I believe, is that quality is put forward in such a subjective manner by wine reviewers and critics, as well as by wine consumers, that an objective measure simply cannot be pinned down.

I agree, and I disagree—how’s that for being unequivocal?

First, I agree with Tom because he’s gotten it right: self-appointed arbiters of taste are forced to make definitive proclamations. If they don’t, why would anyone listen to them? And the only way anyone can make a definitive proclamation, especially when that anyone has little or no technical training, is to be subjective.

The fact that wine reviewers and critics can lure others on board their ship of fools is because so many of us are insecure about our abilities. One of the most distressing revelations I gained while operating a wine tasting room was how often people seemed proud to proclaim their lack of knowledge.

Even regular wine drinkers often started out by saying that they didn’t really know much about wine. I countered with, “You know what you like, and that’s all there is to know.” And then, I shamefully proceeded to tell them what I thought they should know. This is the same methodology that critics use. I call it gaming the consumer.

The result of such a situation is reams of paper and digital print about what “I” find appealing and little discourse concerned with what it might be that “you” want. And why not? The words of critics spring from self-assurance, they have no need for another opinion; discourse is not their modus operandi. Under such conditions, quality is a moving target.

Where I disagree with Tom, is that I believe there are ways to establish quality parameters for wine. The point is, though, that they must be established and agreed upon.

Many wine consumers would agree that the smell of TCA is not part of quality in wine. Many probably would agree that wine isn’t supposed to be vinegar. Even the most self-assured critic is likely to agree that wine isn’t supposed to taste like Coca Cola—well, most critics might agree…

In my view, the best way to establish quality is to codify the technicalities of wine. The only way for that to happen is through an organized effort of technically trained people to create and agree upon technical parameters. Following that, an organized effort must make sure that wines are measured, and the parameters are met before they are subject to analysis by critics and reviewers.

Consumers are then assured that every wine that is reviewed has been rigorously passed through a quality analysis, and that the reams of paper and digital print produced by reviewers and critics are in fact what they have been all along: a bunch of subjective opinions. It might be fun not to let reviewers and critics in on the result of the technical analysis—a method that should underline their subjectivity.

Establishing quality parameters and exposing subjectivity for what it is are actually the easy parts. The more difficult task is the one that I believe Tom’s posts truly address—a few questions.

Do we have or should we have a relationship with wine? Why?

Why do we feel the need to agree or to disagree about wine?

What is it that makes us think that others should heed our proclamations?

What is it that makes any one of us imagine that he or she is the arbiter of taste?

Why do so many of us seem to need the approval of someone else before we can enjoy a glass of wine?

When did wine become a subject of philosophical thought rather than merely the lubricant that allows philosophy to flow?

Why can’t we simply enjoy something without having to dissect and obsess over it?

I’m sure Tom has other, more important questions in his head. In fact, I think that for a fellow whose function is to create and write PR for others in the wine industry, Tom may be thinking too deeply. If he keeps it up, he may find himself writing good books instead…

Tom Wark’s blog

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2008. All rights reserved.

Comments are closed.