Why Does Wine Criticism Try to be Objective When Everything Else is Personal?

“The wine has a ruby appearance and the nose shows a mixture of earthy strawberries and red cherries. The palate has delicate nuances of tobacco and chocolate to offset the red fruits, and there is a lingering bitterness on the finish from presently unresolved tannins.” Sounds sort of objective, doesn’t it? You have to wonder whether really the purpose of a tasting note in the modern fashion to identify the various influences on nose and palate wouldn’t be served better by a direct chemical and physical analysis of color hue, aromatic components, acidity, alcohol, phenolic compounds, etc. At least that would be objective instead of pretending to be, although whether it would tell you whether you would like the wine is another matter.

But how can a tasting note tell you whether you would like a wine when everyone has a different palate? Sample the diners at a restaurant – everyone likes a different amount of salt on their food, why should they all like the same wine? (And what is it with restaurants that refuse to put salt on the table? Isn’t it the height of arrogance for a chef to decide that his level of salt and pepper is perfect for everyone? Is that different from the position of the wine critic? I have noticed a correlation, by the way: at restaurants with salt on the table, I rarely need to add salt to my food; at restaurants without it, I often have to ask for salt. I suspect this reflects an attitude problem with the chef – for some reason that is obscure to me, chefs who under-salt are adamant about it…)

The old style of wine criticism that went in for flowery metaphors wasn’t to my mind much more useful than today’s more technical analyses. “This wine is like a friendly Labrador bounding out to meet you,” is one that has stuck in my memory. I suppose technical criticism gives you more sense of what a wine might be like, although I am puzzled by the contrast between the trend to soi-disant objective analysis with the general focus in today’s environment on personalization. Look at Twitter and Facebook: it’s all about ME, and the more personal the anecdote, the better. Look at the decline in newspapers, where in desperate attempts to keep readership, half the articles are about the writer not about the news? Why is wine an exception, why do we look for comment that’s actually about the wine instead of about the taster’s totally subjective reactions and reminiscences?

It’s interesting that in a group of tasters, people can usually distinguish different wines but often describe them in different, sometimes opposing, ways. The difficulty of relating to someone else’s tasting notes may be less in differences of perception than in differences of description. I used to taste with someone who often distinguished wines as having black olives versus green olives. I could see what he meant, although my own descriptors were quite different – but I would have been puzzled if not quite misled to have tried to assess wines on the basis of his notes alone. I keep tasting notes on every wine I drink; they are useful to me, but I don’t fool myself that they would necessarily be useful to anyone else.



2 thoughts on “Why Does Wine Criticism Try to be Objective When Everything Else is Personal?

  1. This is such a true observation. As a WSET diploma candidate, I have learned to use the discriptors listed by WEST for tasting notes, yet in the meantime, what truely helps me to distinguish a wine from one to another is my own extra notes that are completely personal to me. then the question is, can one determine the identity of a wine by just reading the tasting notes from a wine critic?

  2. I totally agree with what you say. I do believe in transmitting concrete information — call it a “tasting note” — to readers, preferably with a score. But only when that score/note is linked to a well-defined wine style. Hence the success of Robert Parker. Scores say much more than notes, even if these notes try to be “objective” by using sentences like “the fruit came helicoptering in my mouth”. Furthermore, a tasting note has only value if it is technical, by means of cutting the wine in its different elements (fruit, acid, tannin, alcohol etc.) and linking them to current winemaking practices of the region, in order to assess the wine’s quality. The rest is indeed about the taster’s individual preference. What I miss in today’s wine criticism is a rigorous “stick-to your-philosophy/preferred wine style”.

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