Monday, May 21, 2012

How much does personal taste matter in judging?

When judging a wine, how much weight should you give your personal tastes? Much depends on your role: wine buyers for Costco must pick crowd pleasers, while at Arlequin Wine Merchant they can stock whatever they damn well please.

But what about critics? Should Robert Parker et al acknowledge good qualities in wines they don't personally like?

Here's what got me thinking about this.

Michael Apstein, a colleague I have known for years, doesn't like fruit flavors in wine. We are very different there. He's an Old World drinker who likes secondary characteristics; he prizes elegance and balance and walks away from any sign of excess in oak, fruit or alcohol. He once said to me, "If I wanted juicy fruit flavors I would drink fruit juice."

We were paired last weekend at Critics Challenge, a San Diego wine competition, at my request. I also prize elegance and balance, but our opinions on fruit flavors are so different that, given the way Critics Challenge works, we are the perfect couple. At this competition, each wine is tasted by two writers but we don't have to agree. The wine gets whatever the best result is. In other words, if I give it a gold medal and he makes a frowny face, it gets a gold, and only I see his frowny face. Michael said, "No good wine is getting past this table."

We had a long flight of Cabernet Sauvignons on Saturday morning. Not only do I like fruit far more than Michael; I'm somewhat more tolerant of oak and alcohol. These wines had all three of those in spades.

So who ended up being more generous to these wines?

Dr. Apstein. I kept saying, "I would not drink this wine." Whereas Michael said more than once, "I wouldn't drink it, but it's good for the style."

I'm not sure whose approach was correct, and would like your opinion.

I'm writing this before the final tasting session, and I don't plan to be more generous, because of one peculiarity of Critics Challenge. If I give a wine a medal, I also have to provide tasting notes, which the winery can use in its marketing. So the medal could literally have my name on it. Thus in this competition, unlike the Concours Mondial, I give more weight to my personal opinion.

But is that fair? We sometimes judge fruit wines. The odds that I will ever again choose to open a bottle of apple or strawberry wine and drink a glass are slim. (We won't talk about Boone's Farm Kountry Kwencher and college.) So if I apply my personal standards, none would ever get a medal. But what if it's a really well made prickly pear wine? Doesn't it deserve a gold medal? Yet if somebody buys it and it tastes like prickly pear wine, do they then have the right to blame me?

Please, tell me what you think, because I plan to do this again next year. If you see "gold medal from W. Blake Gray" on a wine, how much expectation do you have that I would actually drink that wine? Or put another way, do you expect Robert Parker (et al) to actually drink the wines he gives the highest scores, and would you feel cheated if he doesn't?

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Jack Everitt said...

1. You wouldn't open a bottle of Eric Bordelet apple or pear wine? Seriously?

2. I do (did) expect Parker to drink the wines he gives very high scores to; he didn't, though...rarely seemed to drink any from the US he gave whopping scores to.

Anonymous said...

Great article...and being in the business, I preach on this ALL the time.

The #1 mistake I see in th wine business is buyers chosing only what they like...and not being able to think, "I bet there's an audience for this wine!" Same thing for guys like me that sell it. I, for one, am PERFECTLY capable of selling a wine I don't care fact, I've sold thousands, tens of thousands of cases of wine that wouldn't have a PRAYER at landing on my dinner table...mostly because, (thankfully) not everyone likes what I like.

There certainly are absolutes in wine..."band-aid" is Brett...and it's a flaw...TCA, not good...etc.

But the battle of fruit and acid, alcohol and oak and tannin...those are all very subjective.

I happen to agee fully with the statement, "not what I would drink, but for the style, pretty darned good."

Oh...and I don't drink what Parker recommends...why would I ever force him to do as much? ;)

Larry Brooks said...

I think a basic requirement of a critic is to judge accurately based on quality not personal preference. An art critic may hate 20th century painting, but still should be able to distinguish between a good and a great Picasso. I recall the first wine that I realized this, a very stemmy red Burgundy. At that time I hated stem character in wine still I thought, "this is a really nice wine for the style."

Tim Hanni MW said...

Hi Blake - when are you going to c'mon over to Napa and have lunch with me? Love to engage you on the research I am continuing to conduct on the subeject. AND you get lunch!!

Ther are both physiological and psychological factors at play and understanding what they are, and how they work, goes a long way in solving many, many puzzles lie the one outlined above.

Prince of Pinot said...

I believe a critic should be open to all styles and not base quality on personal preference. The wine may not be for the critic personally, but it may be done well in its style and should be awarded appropriately

Mike Dunne said...

I got as far as "no good wine gets past this table" and you lost me. What does that mean?


1) I sat by Michael Apstein at a tasting of young Burgundy wines in Beaune a couple of years ago. He remarked at one point on how few wines were showing "charm," and I totally agreed, not knowing how to express my similar letdown that succinctly.

2) On the other hand, wine is made from fruit. I look for fruit flavors in wine, and when it isn't there, it's out of balance, with oak, tannin, alcohol or some other element likely dominating. Fruit in a wine in the proper context is a big part of its charm.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: Michael's point was that if a wine is good, one of us is sure to recognize that.

Anonymous said...

To say that Johnny Cash is mediocre because you wouldn't listen to country music doesn't really seem right. If all the leading magazines are saying how great Kenny Chesney is just because he's popular, then I'd love to hear a different opinion, as long as you can tell the difference. Even if you prefer rock n roll. So, can you tell the difference?

W. Blake Gray said...

Mark: I don't listen to country music. But I love Johnny Cash, and not just the American Recordings stuff, though that is brilliant. So I don't know if I'm the guy to answer that question.