Thursday, May 8, 2014

What if Robert Parker judged in a wine competition?

I just spent three days as a judge at the world's largest wine competition, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. More than 8,000 wines were entered, which meant more than 300 judges were needed.

Every one of these judges is a wine expert: wine brokers, critics, enology professors. Something I marvel at every year is how different not only are our opinions, but our standards and expectations.

Example: This year my panel got a flight of 11 Cavas. They were mostly fruit-driven, simple but pleasant wines. I gave 4 golds and 6 silvers, with only the last wine, an older wine, getting no medal from me.

The two judges next to me, from Portugal and Belgium, gave no medals to the first 10 wines, and gave only the last one a silver medal. They gave the same reason: They preferred its complexity, whereas I thought the wine was interesting but unpleasant.

I have this kind of interaction every time I judge wine: people with good palates and knowledge who simply disagree. I don't think I was "right" on the Cavas. What differed was our standard: I rewarded pleasure, while my neighbors punished simplicity. Ultimately the statisticians will sort it out.

I don't know which way Robert Parker would have gone, had he sat on the panel with us. But it would be interesting to have that discussion with him, and I think he's missing out by not having it.



You must have confidence in your palate to judge and rate wine, whether on a panel or for a magazine. I may not think I'm "right," but I don't think I'm "wrong" either, and that goes for both my likes and dislikes.

Fairly often I taste something that gets an extremely high score from the Advocate and I think of it as my Concours Mondial colleagues did of those Cavas: fruity, pleasant, but a bit boring.

Wine Advocate has assembled a group of tasters who prize ripeness, pretty much to the exclusion of other characteristics about wine. This is a valid point of view, a popular one and a financially successful one. There's no reason for the Advocate to change unless it wants to expand its influence into Europe and Japan. And why should it? Everyone who follows wine knows what the Advocate stands for, and that's a good thing.

I regret that Parker and his colleagues don't have these occasional thought-provoking conversations with people whose standards and expectations are different. Take away the vitriol that often accompanies wine disagreements online, and just listen to what other experts are saying.

I also regret never sitting on a wine judging panel with Parker, because I'd like to hear his enthusiasm and expertise in person. Maybe he wouldn't convince me that blueberry is the new black. But I'd like to hear him make the case.

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5 comments:

Larry Brooks said...

"Everyone who follows The Advocate knows what it stands for." There is the crux of it for any critic. There are certain critics you trust and others you ignore based on your own personal taste. I remember the early days of The Spectator fondly as the reviews were very accutate descriptively. I never paid attention to the scores only the descriptions. I also think that the idea of typicity should be taken into account. Are Cavas meant to be or are they typically complex? I don't think so. A simple wine that does what it should competantly should be rewarded for it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: I agree about typicity, but one problem with the Concours Mondial in that regard is we only know vintage, not region or grape variety. This leads to some amazing discoveries (read tomorrow's post) but does make some wines harder to evaluate.

That said, by the end of the flight I think we all knew they were Cavas. If not Cava, they were some other straightforward sparkling wine.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

"I regret that Parker and his colleagues don't have these occasional thought-provoking conversations with people whose standards and expectations are different. Take away the vitriol that often accompanies wine disagreements online, and just listen to what other experts are saying."

Blake, how do you know RP is not having these discussions?

I thought Parker bashing was out of fashion.

W. Blake Gray said...

I really hate to go here, Mark, but since you ask, Mr. Parker had a terrific opportunity to taste and discuss wine with other writers at last year's Professional Wine Writers' Symposium but chose not to do so. I'm not going to get into that at length here as it has been widely covered elsewhere.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Blake,

Something you wrote as a comment reply caught my eye:

"[regarding typicity] . . . one problem with the Concours Mondial in that regard is we only know vintage, not region or grape variety."

What is the intrinsic reference standard against which you and others are judging when you don't even know the wine's grape variety?

(Seems incredulous to me . . .)

Beyond that flight of 11 Cavas, what other wine "categories" did you judge?

~~ Bob

I would respectfully take issue with this assumption/conclusion:

"Every one of these judges is a wine expert: wine brokers, critics, enology professors."

These judges may be "wine informed," but fall short of true "wine expertise."

I invoke Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and Geoffrey Colvin's "Talent Is Overrated" reporting of social scientists's studies that expertise comes from 10,000 hours -- roughly 10 years -- of intense study and deliberate practice.

There are too many self-identified, self-declared "wine experts" in the world.

Saying it's so doesn't make it so.