A brief statement of purpose

There are already about a billion food blogs, so what might be a justification of yet another one, and who am I to do it?

What I aim to do in this blog is more than simply provide recipes. While recipes of my own will, in fact, be posted, some of the blog will consist of a variety of comments about restaurants and their practices, food preparation tips, personal annoyances (such as loud restaurants and the epidemic of misspellings on menus), and whatever else pops into my head relating to what we put in our mouths (and swallow, I hasten to add). The whole thing is meant to be somewhat provocative. I hope, if nothing else, it won't be boring. I, of course, solicit reader participation.

As for who I am and why I think I might have something to contribute to public discussions on this essential and pleasurable activity - eating - you'll have to click here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wine descriptions and ratings: Pretense and Unreliability?

   Wine and pretense are two words that seem to go together quite naturally, don’t they? There are multiple definitions for the word pretension or pretense, but the usage intended here and, in fact, the usage intended in most contexts for most people is, “a claim to superiority or to superior judgment”, with the strong implication that it’s “pretended” or based on weak evidence.  Sometimes the claim to superior judgment or taste is actually grounded in some fact, but the pretentious person is seen as too eager to display that knowledge in an effort to impress others. 
   Wine has no monopoly on pretense. Society if full of manifestations of pretension, in clothing (otherwise, why do people pay far more for an article of clothing with a status symbol logo?), in motor vehicles, in television sets, in furniture, jewelry, and so on and on. One could even make the case that, were it not for pretension and status-seeking, our economy would be even further down the toilet than it is. Be that as it may, this particular post concerns food and drink. More specifically, I want to examine two different yet intricately related questions: One addresses whether the critics and winemakers can make the taste distinctions I ridicule in the following paragraphs. The other asks whether the critics are really as expert as they claim in distinguishing the quality of different wines. 
   First, let’s take a look at the plethora of terms used to describe the taste of wine. In short, they are hilarious. Unless you don’t partake of the fermented grape, you have surely noticed vintners’ descriptions on the labels of wine bottles and aficionados’ fanciful attempts to explain the contents by references to ingredients which are completely absent in those contents. Note that I am not denying that some adjectives can be very useful and detectable even by novices. A couple of examples might be a “buttery” chardonnay particularly if compared to a non-buttery one, and a “grassy” Sauvignon Blanc. Neither ingredient is found in these wines, yet one’s palate can discern the applicability of these adjectives, which, in turn, can be helpful to the consumer in selecting wines in the future. Similarly, one can recognize a “tannic” character and differences in sweetness in wines. There are many other descriptions, too, that, with some tasting and practice, can be perceived as making some sense. But we’ve gone far beyond the sensible, and some “experts” make a living doing so. Consider:
   A few years ago, in the now defunct magazine, Cottage Living, there was an article titled, “20 Luxury Wines under $20”, written by Amy Zavatto, co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine and Food Pairing; hence, an official wine aficionado(aficionada?). I’ve used this article, not for the purpose intended by the author, a number of times since then as an object of amusement, flavored with more than a hint of scorn. Here are some of her characterizations: “Mixed berry pie”. Pie?! Mixed berries? “Stone fruit”. Meaning peaches? Apricots? Alas, she doesn’t tell us, so we’re left adrift, not knowing just what type of stone fruit. “Lemon hard candy”.  Hard? Candy? This is Viognier, by the way. “Lemon meringue”. Meringue? Not just lemon? “Cherry cola”. Does she mean it brings back memories from childhood at the corner fountain – for those of a certain age? And . . . a pregnant pause to build anticipatory tension  . . . “snapped saplings”!! What in the name of all that is right and good is that supposed to mean? (It’s a Cabernet.) Picture yourself going into a well-stocked wine shop before your big dinner party and saying, “I’m serving some choice cow slabs tonight to the influential cognoscenti of our city, and I think a wine which tastes of snapped saplings would be perfect and would cement my reputation as S/he Who Cannot Be Out-Pretensioned”. How do you think the proprietor would react? Would he say, “A fine choice, Sir/Madame, but we have many wines with the nose of snapped saplings. I must know the species of tree to which you refer, as well as its age to advise you properly”.
   This person is hardly the only one guilty of such pretentious hilarity. Look on the wine labels. An inexpensive Aussie Grenache-Shiraz tastes, we are told, of “eucalyptus”. Next time I have a bad cough, I’ll rush to the store to purchase it. Gala apples characterize a well-known California vintner’s Chardonnay. Damn! I could’ve sworn it was Fuji apples! We’re told to expect red currants, not black currants. Not just raspberries but “wild” raspberries. Leaving aside the fact that they weren’t part of the winemaking process at all, are we expected to believe that any mortal can distinguish between store-bought fresh raspberries and wild ones in a wine? What about raspberries you’ve grown in your back yard garden? They’re neither wild nor store-bought. Hell, what about frozen raspberries? Another label claims that grapefruit and white peaches will be found in the bottle - white peaches, not yellow.   
   Can the “experts” really distinguish between a wine which has notes of Gala apples from a wine with notes of Fuji apples? Of course not, although simply “apples” might very well be applicable to some wines. 
   Now having said this, I should acknowledge that flavors are combinations of chemical components. Think about it: What exactly is blueberry flavor? It’s a specific combination of chemical compounds with a specific molecular structure. So is it possible that there are certain combinations present - currants, for example - in certain wines, and the palates of the experts are so sensitive and finely tuned that they can detect them? So when they claim their presence, they’re being both truthful and accurate? This would be a very interesting area for further research, although its importance pales in comparison to research into cancer and heart disease. Unless and until the day comes when it’s convincingly demonstrated that wine experts’ taste buds are so far superior to normal peoples’ taste buds as to be virtually supernatural, I think we have to say no one can distinguish between red and black currants, not to mention snapped saplings and lemon meringue.
   “Suggestibility from Authority” can be very powerful. The “expert”, the authority, says his much deeper knowledge and experience - much greater than yours - permits him to tell you what to thin and, in the case of wine, taste. The impressionable then simply accept what they’re told. This human dynamic is commonplace in many areas of communication. One should, in fact, often yield to claims made by the truly knowledgeable. Who am I to question the latest findings in quantum mechanics and string theory? A physician may or may not be correct about a diagnosis, and I should ask her many questions, but I’m in no position to contradict her. But, particularly in such impressionable and subjective areas as wine, and particularly given the results of some recent research, the old adage “Question Authority” or even “Ignore Authority” should prevail. There’s, of course, an easy way to test the critics’ superhumanly sensitive and imaginative palates. It’s called blind tastings paired with statistical analysis.
   So now, as promised, let’s take a closer look at the experts’ expertise in rating wines on ordinal (ranked) numerical scales. There’s a long history of scientific research calling into question the palates of wine critics. Some recent evidence has emerged that these wine “experts” are, if not full of it, at least half full of it, and by “it”, I’m not referring to wine, rather to the “end product” of wine and food that has been consumed.
   Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist at the California Institute of Technology who has authored a number of books, most recently The Grand Design, co-authored with Stephen Hawking. He also likes wine. The Wall Street Journal published an article of his “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion” back on November 20, 2009. It’s quite interesting. 
   He first summarizes some past contretemps concerning wine fraud and wine tastings, which have had the cumulative effect of raising the question of just how legitimate wine ratings and descriptions are. For example, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that even the experts can’t identify more than three or four flavor characteristics in wine, yet one finds far more in many descriptions. A Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon (at $100) was described in The Wine News as having “dusty, chalky scents followed by mint, plum, tobacco, leather, and tasty cherry with smoky oak accents.” I’ll leave aside the question of just why dust, leather, and tobacco might taste good in any beverage. But The Wine Advocate described the same wine as having “promising aromas of lavender, roasted herbs, blueberries, and black currants.” This is a total of twelve flavors or “presences”, none of which clearly overlap. And what are “promising” aromas? Aromas that once upon a time had potential? “That lavender is really going to be a contender some day.” Was that potential not realized? Quelle tragédie!
   Mlodinow describes some studies done by Robert Hodgson, the proprietor of Fieldbrook Winery in California. Hodgson had been curious about how a given wine from his winery would win gold in some competitions and nothing at all in others. He convinced the organizers of the California State Fair competition to allow him to conduct controlled experiments over four years. His conclusions: “The probability that a wine which won a gold medal in one competition would win nothing in others was high” and the distribution of medals “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.” Mlodinow also notes a the case where an individual at a “a well-known Paso Robles winery who had conducted his own test, sending the same wine to a wine competition under three different labels. Two of the identical samples were rejected, one with the comment ‘undrinkable’. The third bottle was awarded a double gold medal.” Now, do you really think the first two “undrinkable” bottles were spoiled en route? Or had bad corks? No, not likely. 
   Perhaps when a critic says a wine is reminiscent of, specifically, wild raspberries, not store-bought, we should take this as simply a kind of literary license, an attempt to spruce up the language and neither he nor we should take it seriously. not take it literally. If we removed all the adjectives, adverbs, and similes from the great novels, would they still be great? Of course not. But the wine raters give every impression that they’re completely serious about their descriptions, and they intend those descriptions to guide consumers. They aren’t writing literature; they’re writing what they contend are at least somewhat objective analyses of the liquid in question. If they think otherwise, then it’s all just a joke among the cognoscenti.
   Similarly, perhaps we shouldn’t take too seriously the awarding of 92 points for a particular bottling. All that apparently means is that that critic really liked that wine at that specific moment in time. We might be able to conclude that the wine isn’t best used for cleaning toilet bowls, but that’s about all. Even then, another critic or judge, as the evidence demonstrates, may give the same wine only 80. But if it’s this variable and unpredictable among the experts (the problem of intercoder reliability in social science jargon), why should the whole point business matter to us as ordinary wine drinkers? 
   As for me personally, I’ve been drinking and enjoying wine for well over forty years, but even if my financial wherewithal had permitted the serious pursuit of wine collection and investment, I’ve always been reluctant to put a great deal of money into something which one only “rents” for a few hours. Perhaps more accurately, my wife and I are more comfortable spending on food than on wine. (Yes, I could pursue the “rent” imagery, but I won’t.) Occasionally, more like rarely, I’ll splurge on a real French premier cru Chablis or on a $40 bottle of real champagne, but the bottles reposing in our 35 bottle wine rack right now are in the $6 to $15 range. I suspect this is the range into which many people’s wine purchases fall. So based on this experience and on these tastes, here is what I suggest when it comes to how one might approach the business of ratings, label descriptions, and price. 
   First, ignore the ratings. Sometimes in wine shops and liquor stores there’ll be a small handwritten tag under some wines showing someone’s point rating of it. Ignore these little signs. Also ignore any indications of medal awards.  
   Experiment. Here’s an example: Buy a bottle of three-buck Chuck Chardonnay and a bottle of three-buck Chuck Cabernet. These are, of course, the wines available at Trader Joe’s. If there’s no TJ’s where you are, buy something in the $4 to $5 range. Now purchase four additional bottles of the same varietal (a Chardonnay and a Cabernet), one pair for around $10 or $11 and the third pair for $20 to $30. Do a blind tasting with friends. Look up on the web how to do this properly. Have everyone take some notes. Nothing at all formal or structured, just impressions and, of course, whether they like it and how much. If one happens to detect an apple flavor component, that’s fine. 
   I’m guessing that most people will be able to accurately distinguish the lowest priced wines from the highest priced. That isn’t to say they’ll all prefer the highest priced, but most, I think, will. There are unmistakable differences between three-buck Chuck Chardonnay and a $30 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay. Whether the individual is willing to pay for the highest priced is a separate question, of course.
   Tasting parties such as this will accomplish the following: You will liberate yourselves from the judgments of the experts; you’ll educate yourselves on the differences among wines, even among wines of the same grape; in time, you’ll be a better informed consumer; and it’ll be fun. All of this without the highly questionable “guidance” of the self-claimed experts.
   De gustibus non disputandum est . . . usually.

No comments:

Post a Comment