On May 8th of 2013, a fella named Robert T. Gonzalez, writing for a website called “iO9…We Come From The Future” (now “i09wecomefromthefuture/gizmodo”) wrote a post entitled “Wine Tasting is Bulls**t. Here’s Why“…and the Earth instantly tilted off its axis.
Last week, to my infinite dismay, it showed up AGAIN, looking for all the world as if Gonzo had just posted it. That’s the big problem with internet articles: if it was in print, you’d look at a seven year old newspaper and see that it was yellowed and crumbling and say, “Old news” and get on with your life. But most people don’t read the dates on stuff like this and so…there goes the merry-go-round again…and again…and again.
Well, that’s what it feels like, anyway. Setting aside why the assertions of a guy who isn’t a wine writer (his previous articles for iO9 included “Holy Crap, Elon Musk Really IS Tony Stark“, “Watch the first ever footage of spontaneous ejaculation in a dolphin“, and “Not Cool: when a tick latches onto your penis and you have sex anyway“) and why a science and/or sci-fi website would get so sidetracked as to even notice that wine exists, this is the farthest thing from a new argument. Just in the 28 years that I’ve been involved in the wine biz, it’s now surfaced and made ripples four times. And, of course, the other times the subject raised its goofy head, Robert Parker didn’t shut down The Wine Advocate and slink off with his tail between his legs, Tanzer’s popularity soared, and Wine Spectator, even despite my view that it’s mostly a classic example of incestuous group-think, became a cornerstone of the American wine aesthetic and easily the most widely-read wine publication in history. (NOTE: **For years, my questionable Southern wit has insisted that I think of The Wine Spectator as “The Speckled Wine Tater”. Please try not to do shit like this.**) But, still, in ’13, about ten hours after the piece in iO9, the ensuing brouhaha pretty much registered on the Richter Scale. It was one of those classic examples of the internet creating irrational little tempests out of practically no substance, just like the ongoing widespread quoting of “Best Of” lists of beers and beer destinations: wildly unsupported conclusions given the weight of credibility simply by virtue of a good SEO campaign. Just as Justin Bieber was begat by the easy notoriety available on YouTube, Gonzalez’s superficial list of evidence went viral…and appeared convincing, unless you bothered to think about it. And then it held about as much water as a fossilized cow skull in Death Valley.
His “evidence” included, basically, that 1) wine critics contradict themselves constantly, 2) can’t distinguish between red and white wines, 3) that senses other than taste are involved in wine “tasting”, and 4) that we all know wine tasting is crap, anyway, and all you have to do to prove that is catch one of us in an honest moment.
Well…lets deal with the points one at a time, in reverse order:
4. I’ve admitted, as has almost every wine writer I know, that tastes are so wildly individual that what I taste in a wine is almost guaranteed not to be what Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer tastes in a wine, but the myriad shortcomings of conveying taste in the form of verbiage is, for all of us, pretty much a given. We know that wine tasting can, without question, be looked at as crap and that the view is valid, from one perspective. But we all also know why its both a good thing and absolutely necessary.
3. Tasting is done with more than just our tongues. Well…duh. Really, Sherlock Gonzalez? Did anybody suggest otherwise? OF COURSE wine tasting is done with the eyes, nose, skin, and emotions. That is pretty much the main article of faith for anyone who knows about wine, even if they don’t write about it. The look of the wine in the glass, the feel of it on the tongue and lips, and especially the aroma of it are every bit as vital to an appreciation of ANY wine as the simple response of a stimulated taste bud. And the sum of these creates the emotional facet, which is arguably the most important part of the wine experience. The very fact that Gonzalez bothered to posit this as an “argument” at all calls to mind the famous quote attributed to Oscar Levant: “Leonard Bernstein is telling musical secrets that have been well-known for two hundred years.”
2. Sure, you can fool a wine critic. The world of wine is insanely broad. John Cleese, Monty Python alum and noted wine geek, famously put one white and one red wine into two stone goblets and asked his wine taster pals to tell him which was which. Most of them failed. I once did a professional tasting and was asked to identify a white, blind. “Viognier!” I stated, plopping the glass dismissively on the table, “Dead-certain Viognier“. It turned out to be a Roero Arneis and my face looked like boiled shrimp for a month. In Gonzalez’s example, a white wine was food-colored red and set before a critic. The fly in the ointment, here, is that the flavors in whites are not always unique to whites, despite what most people think. Negroamaro, a Southern Italian red grape, often displays – right along with the red wine flavors of berries and cherries and plums – common white wine traits like apricots, melon, cantaloupe, pears, almonds, and coconut. And, since proper tasting is NOT just done with the tongue, as Gonzalez asserts in Point 3, a wine colored red convincingly can easily suggest some obscure red grape (like one of the 1,200(!) native grapes found in Italy) that shows white wine character. If tasting is done by all the senses and one is deliberately hidden, the entire tasting is fraudulent.
1. Yeah, we contradict ourselves. We taste wines one time and then taste ’em again and write different notes. Reason? Wines change. We change. Even in the short term, in both cases. You do, too. Taste a wine on Friday evening, out with friends you love and trust, in a really great restaurant, and then try it Sunday afternoon, while vacuuming, and see how different it tastes. Tons of things affect how we perceive wines: medications, moods, what’s on our palates when we taste, how long the wine has been open, bottle variation, where we taste, the temperature of the wine, the cleanliness of the glass, smells, noises, aches and pains…well, LIFE, in short. The actual miracle would be if we did taste the same things in a wine every time. Let’s try our own proof. Here are reviews of the same wine, by four of the world’s leading authorities…
“…Exotic spices, wood smoke, incense, rose petal, and assorted red and black fruits are followed by a wine with plenty of power for the vintage combined with a sense of elegance.”
~ Wine Advocate
“…weaving meaty, leafy and smoky notes into the jazzy berry and spice flavors. ”
~ Wine Spectator
“…berry and cherry fruits, toast and cinnamon. Tart and focused...”
~ Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt)
“…candied red fruits, Asian spices and sandalwood, with notes of cola and mocha emerging with air.”
~ Stephen Tanzer
The wine: Archery Summit Red Hills Estate Pinot Noir 2009. So…where were the meat, leaves, toast, cinnamon, Asian spices, sandalwood, cola, and mocha when Jay Miller tasted it for the Wine Advocate? And poor Mr. Tanzer got zilch on the smoke, incense, rose petal, and toast end of things. The Spectator tasting panel discerned a really meager number of little thrills as compared to the others, and my friend Paul Gregutt got totally screwed on the cola and mocha…and who doesn’t love a nice mocha?
So, who’s wrong here? Answer: None of the above.
Here’s the simple truth:
Wine tasting IS a load of crap.
But actually, even Gonzalez’s statement itself is inaccurate. It’s not even “wine TASTING” he’s talking about. Tasting is, in fact, the only way YOU will EVER find out what a wine tastes like and ditto for any wine critic. What Gonzalez meant is “a critic’s description of a wine tasting is bullshit“.
So are: movie criticism, Car & Driver’s test drive reviews, my old ballet and music criticism back in North Carolina, op-ed pieces in every major newspaper, everything ever posted on Yelp, Tom Shales’ incredibly well-written TV criticism, and every other thing ever opined on every other subject in which subjective impressions figure in. Everybody is right…and everybody is wrong.
Except you. You are the final arbiter of your tastes…and that’s not a qualified or qualifiable statement. We are all locked securely within this less-than-a-square-foot of bone and blood and skin, up there in the cranium. We pay tons of literary lip service to the notion of “two hearts beat as one”, being on the “same page” or “wavelength”, “great minds think alike”, the “union of body and spirit”, and all that fanciful stuff we choose to cling to so that we aren’t simply crushed by the isolation of the human condition. But the truth of the matter is that we can take a clue or two as to the virtues of a thing being criticized from the words we read and this can be extremely helpful. But the final proof will come only from your own tasting, viewing, driving, or whatever.
Gonzalez’s piece and the resulting tsunami of online gloating/indignation are, simply put, Much Ado About Nothing. Yes, wine tasting is crap, unless you are the one tasting it. But the fact of wine criticism isn’t crap at all, for one simple reason: people want it. No matter what Mr. Gonzalez says or thinks, Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, James Suckling, James Halliday, and – yes – even Paul Gregutt and your faithful Fool serve a purpose: normal people simply CANNOT taste 2,500 wines a year. They have jobs and families and work and jet skis and monster truck rallies, and the million other things that give substance to our quotidian reality. Those of us who wind up – oftentimes without really intending to – working in the beverage trade can either write about all the nefarious liquids we’re compelled to put into your faces or we can just do it until our heads explode and our livers have to be carried about on a little sidecar.
We are, in short, tools; implements for you to use to keep yourself from spending your family into living in a station wagon. Again, people want wine criticism, because they want to believe that what they’re about to buy is a good use of their money, and they want that validated by an “authority”, even if that’s just the wine steward at the supermarket. As someone who stood a foot away from the public for two decades as they made their wine decisions, I can state unequivocally state that people crave validation for their purchases and that’s the only real and proper use for those of us who write about wine.
Here’s a simple and, in my own experience, totally reliable way to properly use the implements like myself, Parker, Tanzer, et al. Start with the unshakable fact that if you fixate on any one wine critic and simply buy what they tell you to, or if you shop for wines based purely on scores you’re found from those sources or – worse – online sites like cellartracker, on which composite scores are generated by the users, you’re gonna buy a lot of wines you’re probably going to hate. Latching onto one authority is guaranteed to fail. Your palate will change, the critic’s palate will change, wines will change. Count on it.
Back when I was a little wine newbie, I hit immediately upon a System. You can have it, gratis, since I rarely use it, these days:
Start with a wine that shows up on three or four critics’ lists. Copy the reviews, buy the wine, and taste it. Record your own notes and compare with the reviews. Find the one most like your own impressions. Then buy two or three wines recommended by that critic. Taste before you read their reviews and then compare notes. IF that critic’s review closely mirrors your own tasting notes, you MIGHT – I repeat, MIGHT – be able to develop a general level of trust and rely on their reviews and scores as a buying guide.
Later on, I simplified the system and it worked, again, just fine: read just the scores from any three of the Big Four – Parker, Tanzer, Spectator, Enthusiast – and then from two other sources. Mine were Tom Stockley, until that awful day when he was taken from us, and the old X Wine, an edgy website for younger wine lovers that contained irreverent capsule reviews that were surprisingly astute. If all five sources gave the wine decent scores, I’d buy it and try it, and, about 90% of the time, it was at least very drinkable, if not 750ML of pure revelation.
Know that, even if you do find that Paul Gregutt or James Suckling or The Pour Fool steers you to wines you like, that dynamic will, absolutely, change as your tastes evolve and ours do the same. No little marriage of convenience like this is ever permanent and you still have to constantly guard against convincing yourself that you actually do like a wine simply because Parker gave it a 96 and you think you should.
Wine tasting IS, without question, crap – as is Robert Gonzalez’s trite little compendium of the Shockingly Obvious. As with any other tool one adopts for their convenience, from a car to a laptop, it’s the judgment of the purchaser and the proper use of the implement that shapes its usefulness. You can buy the most luxurious, tricked-out Lamborghini available and you’ll have a fabulous driving experience…right up to that moment when you decide to take it off-roading in the high Rockies. Then, you have a quarter-million dollar piece of junk that will leave you stranded. Proper usage determines effectiveness. In cars and in wine writers.
And finally…if you want advice on your cholesterol level, do you go to a guy who repairs lawnmowers? That’s exactly what those millions of folks did who quoted the Gonzalez piece. If you want advice about wine, go to somebody who knows wine. The wine world is awash in myths; scraps of outdated and/or fundamentally false ideas that shocking numbers of people adopt as Gospel: The elusive White Zinfandel grape (which doesn’t exist), sulfites as the main cause of wine headaches (it’s usually a histamine response), all Australian wines are just fruit bombs (absolute nonsense), Italian wines are all sour (larger absolute nonsense)…the list goes on and on. PLEASE, feel absolutely free to use the “contact” or email buttons on most wine writers’ web pages and ask any questions you might have. I can’t speak for Tanzer, Parker, Gregutt, et al, but certainly, you can use my email button any time you have a question about anything. Ultimately, articles like the Gonzalez post are gnats that circle the body of the wine culture and deserve just about that much attention, especially in the age of the internet, in which everybody can be a star for a moment.