My attention was drawn recently to the article Are Wine Tasters Idiots?, reprised from 2013 on Jancis Robinson’s website. The first part of the article lists several examples of the alleged idiocy: cheap wines being preferred over expensive ones, experts describing the same white wine differently simply because the wine in one glass was dyed red, inconsistent assessments of the same wine by different panels, and so on. (There’s more detail in the referenced article from The Observer.)
The author, Alex Hunt MW, then continues with, it seems to me, a slightly injured tone:
What I find so strange is the underlying assumption that wine criticism should be a scientific, repeatable process. I have not seen the same sort of expectations applied to art, film or music critics. Wine experts, it feels, are far more likely to be demonised as the ‘other’, when in fact we have far more rigorous tests of identification and knowledge. The type of tasting exams many of us have passed are, I submit, unflukeable.
I’ll return later to his first sentence, but on the topic of demonisation of critics:
In my recent review for Dinner for Schmucks, I was literally raked across the coals (OK not literally) for giving the film a poor score that others felt was not justified. For example: “You have no idea what comedy is.” or “I pity you for lacking a sense of humor.” Source
“Death threats, rape threats are not OK, and that’s what was happening,” said Rotten Tomatoes editor in chief Matt Atchity in a recent interview about the decision to disable comments on the pages with reviews for The Dark Knight Rises. Source
I guess it’s possible that a winemaker sometime, somewhere threatened bodily harm to a wine critic because of a less than stellar review or ranted about bombing a judging panel because the desired gold medal failed to appear. Let’s just agree that almost nobody likes a critic—of whatever genre—whose opinion does not agree with theirs.
Without doubt anyone who’s entitled to MW (Master of Wine for the uninitiated) after their name knows a lot about wine. Exam requirements are quite rigorous including written exams, practical wine tasting and a research paper. Jancis Robinson has listed details of the 2009 exam here. The practicals involved tasting 36 wines in three 2¼-hour sessions. I think I could have worked out which were the Riojas and the Rieslings, and I have drunk Blossom Hill rosé…
It takes three years to complete the MW course. On the whole, it’s probably reasonable to conclude that the subset of wine tasters who are MWs are not idiots—“earning the MW is a boffo achievement”. (Mike Steinberger)
Alex Hunt MW then veers from the title question, mentioning briefly the infighting that occurs between wine experts who disagree over a particular wine. He then develops the somewhat condescending thesis that a majority of drinkers would prefer a lesser wine—the unspoken assumption being that they wouldn’t appreciate the better wine.
So what about the whiny complaint about the “assumption that wine criticism should be a scientific, repeatable process”? What evidence can we perceive to support an assumption (or conclusion) that wine tasting is being presented as scientific? Well, there are these few sentences gleaned from the site of the most famous wine taster of them all, Robert Parker:
Robert Parker’s rating system employs a 50–100 point quality scale (Parker Points®)… When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions… The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wines. Neither price nor the reputation of the producer/grower affect the rating in any manner… There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize, and there are benchmark wines against which others can be judged.
All sounds a bit scientific, does it not? Of course, Robert Parker is not an MW. So what about:
c) Comment on quality, with specific reference to residual sugar, alcohol and maturity. (8 x 8 marks)
c) Compare the quality of the four wines. Consider the different styles with reference to the current position of the Chardonnay grape in the global marketplace. (40 marks)
c) Compare the quality within each pair. (2 x 12 marks)
All questions from the 2009 MW exam referenced earlier.
Alex doesn’t really answer the question whether or not wine tasters are idiots. The final sentence in his article, which perhaps explains why wine tasters are seen as closer to scum than heroes (his words, not mine), is:
It is the only reason, really, why Bonnes-Mares is objectively better than Blossom Hill: because it gives those of us who have opted in so much more to say.
In other words, there is more raw material for the wine taster to spout overblown and fanciful prose about fermented grape juice. This is what pisses people off about wine tasters.
Developed-looking mid ruby with bricky rim. Quite malty and sweet and a little suppressed on the nose but with considerable power underneath. Transparent cherry fruit with a touch of vanilla. Elegant palate weight, but the whole is still austere and backward. Promising.
Masses of dried apricots, chenille piano throws and wonderful pure acidity. Very clean and bracing. Quite marked volatile acidity. Seems perhaps just a little clumsy when tasted after the Birsalmás…
Pure gold in colour, with hints of yellow still and no amber. Floral, honeyed-peach and apricot, an impression of great sweetness but not over-heady. Honey and lanolin flavours on the palate, rich barley sugar sweetness, great fruit extract, good botrytis, luscious, classy finish.
Deep colour, velvety red, no real sign of ageing, still very youthful and firm berry fruits on the nose, heavily Cabernet in style, blackcurrant leaf, with a cedar wood/cigar box spice coming through, concentrated fragrance followed by rich fruit. Same concentrated, tightly knit fruit on the palate, wonderful ripeness, still showing youthful black currants and blackberries, firm backbone but ripe tannins, superb structure.
Excellent colour. Sweet, thick, full and spicy. Very distinctive. A fancy dancer in a spangled tutu.
I was early, by intention. I wanted to absorb the air, the space, the mojo.
Ghosts of Shamans past—silken-shadowed, proud and twirling—wove the naked canes with threads of dripping gossamer.
In my car, the metal murmuring beneath me.
The music came on. Ornette Coleman.
Frantic, frenetic, almost borderline atonal. Strange against the hazy blues and grays weighting down the coming sun.
Then the track changed. Beauty Is A Rare Thing. The long, lone, keening wail of saxophone, the prophesizing rumble of the toms, the gravitas of bass drops, all the spaces in-between the lonesome spaces.
Beauty Is A Rare Thing.
I drove towards the crest of the mountain; to the exalted limestone histories, to the winery, to the ghosts of Shamans present, past, and future.
I am constantly amazed by the ways landscape is destiny.