More Thoughts About Scoring Wines

A couple of years ago I participated in an amateur tasting of American wines. Of the Zinfandels we tasted, my favorite was a Seghesio because it was rather restrained and felt Old World-ish. I suppose it's not the typical cult Californian Zinfandel; the wine that fit that mold was a Helen Turley Zin, which was so alcoholic and over the top it was like drinking rum.

I wonder: should I have scored the Seghsio the highest because I liked it more and it was more in line with what I look for in a wine? Or should that honor have gone to the Turley because it is more typical of what a Californian Zinfandel "is all about"?

This simple question is actually quite complex. It can be broken down into several related questions:

  • Should you judge a wine according to your own tastes or accoording to what you perceive to be some objective standards?
  • Are there actually any objective standards, truly? Or are we always bogged down by cultural and stylistic expectations?
  • How much should stylistic typicity be a factor in scoring?

I hope it's obvious I'm all for individuality in tasting wines. In all areas of aesthetic enjoyment for that matter. There are, I agree, some objective standards but the lines are fuzzier than people would admit. Someone who drinks Californian Chardonnays all the time might perceive them as being balanced while I would see the oak as overwhelming the fruit and throwing the wine out of balance. On the other hand, I can read subtleties in Rothko while you might think it's boring crap. The point is, if I'm right - and I'm always convinced I am where art, in any form, is concerned - then I should be able to convince you of the internal logic of my aesthetics and that's how I personally bridge the gap between subjective and objective standards. Standards are always subjective but the ones that make enough sense to convince a lot of people are perceived as objective.

This need to convince other people explains why cultural differences are such bummers. I can't cite any actual research but I recall reading that certain cultures can't really grasp melody and harmonics, so don't try to explain Mozart to them. And of course, most people won't grasp modern art at once without stepping through, at least superficially, the various art forms that led to the explosion of non-figurative art in the 20th century; thus Aunt Shoshana thinks Rafi Lavie reminds her of her 4 year old granddaughter's drawings. Cultural differences also explain why most of my friends scream when I put on the Minutemen.

I will now attempt to tie all this in with styles and genres and the appreciation thereof. I believe in change in art through evolution rather than revolution. There are been very few heralds of artistic revolution, few instances where a new style/genre was created from scratch. Even Picasso didn't invent Cubism overnight, but it was rather a long process influenced by other art movements of the time and neither did he do it all by himself. I'll be a bit sarcastic now and say that most people will follow the flavor of the month like sheep. However, art movements are led by wolves who are smart and idiosyncratic enough to tweak existing art forms, giving at least a passing nod to tradition, and in the end coming up with something new. There is never a truly clean break, though, you can always find predecessors if you dig in deep enough. Having come up with something relatively new, a "whole new thang" will only become entrenched in the public mind if it convinces and makes sense to a strong core of individuals and then slowly seeps into the general public. Yes, I am in fact refering to Richard Dawkins' concept of the meme, which explains how ideas evolve and survive in a process similar to genetic evolution.

The only way you can play in the meme game is if you judge a work of art by your own individual taste. If it's convincing enough to alter your tastes and make you re-think your outlook, then all the better and tough luck if it can't. By following your own taste, you are not only being true to yourself, but in the end you are helping create a more vital, more robust, art form. Because only the strong survive (or the most unique or the most memorable or the most useful or, you know what, the most commercial). If you try to second guess what other people might enjoy, you're fooling yourself, and, worse still, the public - if you're a professional critic.

So, to answer my own question, yes, I should have given the Seghesio the higher socre.


Anonymous said…
I won't scream when you will put the Minutemen, actually I might be very pleased.

I think a good judgments is based on:
1. Personal taste (like in music).
2. Other wines (like in music, I judge bands when I compare them to smiliar bands).
3. Rating wine/album it doesn't really matter to other products of the artist or vinegar.

But, a big one ... Taste can change in everything you consume. Natives in Africa will be able to listen to Mozart as we can to listen to drum beats.
2GrandCru said…
I don't think the natives in Africa will be able to enjoy and understand Mozart overnight. Same for our appreciation of African music. My Fela Anikulapo Kuti CD isn't exactly a hit at home and it's actually quite western.
Unknown said…
I never said overnight, I agree it is a process and not all of them might like it. And about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, I am not even suprised. After all it is the western civilization that makes the tune in our world ..

It is like Robert Parker with wines. You don't need to agree with him to see the wine industry is changing by his reviews. The same is what people are listening too. They rather listen to what the big music labels advertise then to search a good music by themself. Modern world judgment is very tricky.
2GrandCru said…
I want to explain what I meant by "overnight". If you take a non-Western man (or woman), who has never been exposed to Western civilization,and played Mozart to them, they wouldn't be able to relate to it at all. In any sense. Their culture hasn't prepared them to even relate to thw western scales and harmonics. At that moment, you can't communicate the aesthetics with them. A 21 century Western person would be able to relate to African drum music because it has infiltrated to Western blues, rock, hip hop, even jazz.

About the music industry, what you're saying was probably truer until about 5-7 years ago. First of all, the music the big labels are selling might be crap and familiar crap at that but it wouldn't have become familiar crap in the first place if it wasn't a successful meme. After that, since salespeople like to sell things that have sold well in the past, the big record companies won't look for the thing. But over the years, new styles have seeped in from the fringes. Rap and hip hop is a good example. I think the internet has changed that in both obvious and subtle ways.

It's obvious a lot of people who buy wines by Parker scores actually enjoy them. I think a lot of people who disagree with Parker feel he doesn't get certain styles. But that only means he's being true to his taste and not to popular perceptions of those styles.
Unknown said…
Hi Chaim, You can leave out scores. The way I see it, if a friend offered to pick up a mixed case of California Zins for me - at his or her expense, and money was no object - would I ask for a Turley to be among them? Heck no. And that adds up to a lot more than 90+ points.
Unknown said…
I enjoyed your posting.

I think there is a difference between personal enjoyment and professional tasting/judging.

For purely personal enjoyment, I absolutely think that "good wine" is what the drinker defines it to be - people should find (and then work to expand) their own tastes.

When it comes to any type of professional criticism, though, I think critics should likely at least agree on Key Categories for discussing the judged item - with wine it might be a handful of areas like complexity, balance, etc. Clearly differernt critics will have different sweet spots within the ranges on each of those categories (and maybe some critics will suggest new categories or spots others had not heard of).

And I also, as an aside, have found that the best way to "make use of" professional critics notes is intra-rater (in other words to compare the critics ratings against their own other ratings instead of comparing notes from different critics).
Unknown said…
Hi Richard:

There is an inherent error in what you suggest: "...critics should likely at least agree on key categories for discussing the judged item...".

The fact is they don't. One critic's intense, fruity and rich is another's "over-ripe" and another's luscious and rich is yet another's overoaked and overweight, and the examples go on and on. The most famous example of this in the last few years was the Jancis Robinson versus Robert Parker assessment of a recent vintage of Chateau Pavie.
I once attended a lecture given by the well established British wine critic Gerald Asher. He read out a Parker description of a wine (he didn't say what) that clearly impressed Parker and was given a very high rating. In Asher's opinion, the description would be disastrously atypical for a red Burgundy (Pinot Noir), and yet in the end he revealed that was precisely Parker had written about.