The Umpire and the Judge

December 31, 2011

One of my law professors, the late E. Allan Farnsworth, was fond of a parable about a crew of baseball umpires gathered at a bar after the game to talk shop. (While not essential to the substance of the story, it works best if you imagine the appropriate local accents and period details: This is definitely a bar nearabouts the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field; figure there’s a newsboy outside in a tweed cap shouting “Extra! Extra!” and perhaps a few fruit carts.) Each one of the umps has something to say about how to do the job.

“Some o’ dem pitches are balls, and some are strikes,” says one. “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”

“Sure, some o’ dem are balls and some o’ dem are strikes,” says the second ump, twiddling a toothpick. “I calls ’em what they are.”

The third ump chomps down on a cigar. “Now, some o’ dem pitches look like balls, and some o’ dem pitches look like strikes. But they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em.”

*   *   *   *   *

Apparently the new issue of the Wine Advocate is out, which is a big deal everyone is talking about because it contains the first report on California’s Napa Valley since the Emperor of Wine bequeathed coverage of the region to his designated successor, Antonio Galloni. Galloni may or may not be calling them as he sees them, but to many of his readers the wines ain’t nothin’ ’til the Wine Advocate calls them. Consider, for example, one of the common locutions in modern winespeak: phrases of the form “95-point wine” to refer to a wine rated 95 points by the Advocate or a selected number of other wine publications with a similarly authoritative aura. (Wine Spectator qualifies, but the Wine Enthusiast doesn’t. Don’t ask why; it’s just something everybody knows.) The idea seems to be that the point rating is an intrinsic, physical property of the wine, as if the ritual of scoring actually transsubstantiates the liquid from mere wine to 95-point wine. And that property remains with it for its entire life and beyond. A 95-point wine is always a 95-point wine, even as it closes down, matures, fades, and dies (a process which can take decades in some regions, but which can take barely longer than it takes a carton of milk to go bad in the case of many highly rated California wines).

When the transition to Galloni was first announced, a chorus of writers and merchants let themselves get excited by the prospect that it might represent a revolutionary philosophical change at the Wine Advocate and that the overblown, cartoonish wines that Parker had scored so ridiculously high for so long would finally get their comeuppance. I never bought into this fantasy. Galloni went on record stating that “[i]n terms of critical evaluation, one of the main things I look for is conviction. The style of the wine is less important to me than feeling that a winemaker is 100% behind what they are putting into the bottle.” I really mean no disrespect to Galloni, who has proven himself a man of discerning taste, but to me that approach is a wholesale abdication of the duties of critical evaluation—equivalent to calling a pitch two feet wide of the plate a strike so long as that’s the target the pitcher was aiming for. Criticism in any field is supposed to involve an exercise of judgment, which necessarily entails inquiring not only whether something is a good example of what it is aiming to be, but also whether what it is aiming to be has any value to it in the first place.

Oscar Wilde put it best in his dialogue “The Critic as Artist”:

Ernest. Well, I should say that a critic should above all things be fair.

Gilbert. Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question, is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all. . . . One should, of course, have no prejudices; but, as a great Frenchman remarked a hundred years ago, it is one’s business in such matters to have preferences, and when one has preferences one ceases to be fair. It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of Art.

As in any other creative field, there is a spectrum of sensibilities that wine can be made to appeal to—which is the most politic way I can think of to say that there are highbrow wines and lowbrow wines. But the peculiar thing about wine is that it seems to be the only creative field whose critics utterly refuse to distinguish between the two. You will not find a music critic willing to argue that bubblegum pop music is as important as Beethoven, or even one who reviews both on the same terms as though they are the same kind of thing. But that is exactly what is occurring in wine criticism today. Sure, most critics don’t take the mass-produced commercial brands all that seriously, but many of the wines they do take seriously and esteem as truly great hew to the same vulgar aesthetic. Occasionally a gadfly might come along and proclaim that the emperor has no clothes. But a critic who aims to be indifferent to style is in no position to do so, because it can be said even of the most appalling styles that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like,” as the old saying goes.

The other problem with this sort of style agnosticism is that it is never applied consistently. Suggest that a critic ought to malign an expensive, sought-after wine and you will immediately be reminded that there are readers who like the style and are only interested to know whether the wine is a good exemplar of that style or not. But the same supposed obligation to meet the wine on its own terms is never enforced in the case of wines with less mainstream appeal. You will never see a 99-point mondeuse. That is, of course, fully justifiable if a critic believes in fundamental standards of excellence and has made the determination that even the finest mondeuse does not have the virtues of a great cabernet. But what’s the justification for that disparity if the critic isn’t even purporting to judge the intrinsic value of one style or another? Surely any number of quirky, offbeat wines can be made with at least as much “conviction” as a glitzy cabernet in a heavy bottle with a celebrity consultant and a waiting list for its waiting list.

*   *   *   *   *

Unfortunately, the new Wine Advocate continues the familiar pattern, with most of the big scores awarded to the same kind of wines that got those numbers from Parker. In fact, as Alder Yarrow concludes at Vinography, “Galloni’s scores match Parker’s with an almost scary precision.” Which is why a lot of folks can’t help but suspect that Galloni isn’t exactly calling ’em as he sees ’em. Nothing in Galloni’s biography or body of work to date suggests that if he could choose to drink anything at all, he’d be inclined to choose a truly epic piece of trash like, say, Kongsgaard “The Judge” Chardonnay (a “98+”). Probably he just thinks he’s being fair, as Wilde’s Ernest would have had it.

But maybe this pattern makes more sense if one considers the possibility that calling ’em as they see ’em isn’t really the main service that many collectors want their critics to perform for them. Sometimes it seems as if the desired service is not recommendation but ratification. Perhaps it’s within the realm of theoretical possibility that somewhere in the world there is a new Wine Advocate subscriber, perhaps recently emerged from a coma or released from long captivity in an Iranian prison, totally unaware that the anointed trophies of the new issue are mostly the same names the Advocate and the Spectator have been pumping for umpteen years, and he’s war-dialing wine retailers as I write these very words trying to capture those must-have bottles of Abreu, Bryant, or Kongsgaard. More likely, however (and no need to flog me!—believe me, I am so deeply ashamed of the cynicism that I shall administer the flogging myself), the typical Parker subscriber already has a capacious cellar stocked with the approved selections and a regular incoming flow of more of the same, and his interest isn’t necessarily in being told what to buy but in having the sagacity of his existing investments reaffirmed. Even if he wasn’t forced into buying the same Napa wines year in and year out just to keep his place on the mailing list, he’s already got a relatively settled array of names on his radar screen and he’s not about to revert to tabula rasa and wrap his head around an entire new universe of wines  any sooner than Antonio Galloni is going to go and give 99 points to a mondeuse. But all those wines coming in . . . “they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em” . . . where’s the pride in ownership supposed to come from, if they’re just wines? They need to be 95+ point wines. A critic has to step up to the plate.

For further reading/viewing:

  • Antonio Galloni interviewed by Tyler Colman at Dr. Vino.
  • Commentary on Galloni’s Napa Valley report from Fred Swan, W. Blake Gray, and Alder Yarrow, and, in case you’re tired of the cynicism but not yet tired of that stock photo of Galloni, an alternative perspective from Matt Latuchie at Terroirist.
  • The parable of the umpires as retold by Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy.
  • Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist.
  • On YouTube, a classic Kids in the Hall skit which is always the first thing I think of when I see a cellar full of high-scoring California wines. (I know, I know! More flogging! First column of 2012 will be a ray of happy sunshine, I promise.)

Through a Glass Darkly

December 16, 2011

Two of my biggest wine-collecting regrets pertain to the same wine. A number of years ago I took the advice of a critic and bought half a case of a 2001 Côte-Rôtie which the review had described in enticing language as a powerfully earthy, old-style wine. But when I opened the first bottle and stuck my nose in the glass, instead of the funky thrill ride I was expecting, I got nothing, nothing at all. And it tasted so frail and vacant it seemed like one of those generic older red wines that might have aged just past the point of having any personality left to offer—hardly a promising attribute in a wine just released. A half case of Côte-Rôtie was a not-insignificant investment for me and I felt utterly frustrated that I had five more bottles and absolutely no desire ever to drink one again. I ended up getting rid of them one by one in the time-honored method of disposing of regretted purchases: I brought them to the houses of non-wine folk I figured wouldn’t know the difference. And that was my second regret, because years later I had occasion to drink a vintage with a quarter-century’s worth of age on it, and it was, of course, glorious and brimming with all the personality and depth one craves in a mature Côte-Rôtie.

The wine was Bernard Levet’s Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche. And since tasting that ’83, I made an effort to restock Levet’s wines in my cellar and taste newer vintages of it to see what I might have missed in the 2001. It seems to me that when a wine or a type of wine you’ve always been bored by suddenly delivers an amazing experience, one of two things usually happens. Either it turns out to have been one of those chance alignments of the stars and leaves you with a memory that’s no less true for being impossible to recreate, or it has an effect uncannily like flipping a switch and somehow activating the area of your brain that can make sense out of the stuff—and once that switch goes on it never goes off. Every subsequent bottle delivers something you’re never quite able to figure out how you missed before.

But Levet hasn’t seemed to fit neatly into either one of those categories for me. Some of the bottles I drank after the epiphany ’83 showed a textural allure I had never noticed before, maybe because it wasn’t in the popularly accepted textbook definition of Côte-Rôtie, which tends to fixate on savory flavor components like bacon and olives. But truth be told, some of the bottles seemed just as anonymous in flavor as the 2001 was years ago. Under other circumstances one might wonder if it’s another case of “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but that doesn’t accord with the history of this estate. At Levet, they make ‘em exactly like they used to.

Levet Côte-Rôtie is just one example, albeit a particularly demonstrative one. The point of the story is that a whole lot of ageworthy wines are in the same bucket: capable of transformation but not into a form one can discern by extrapolation from how they taste at a young age. And yet an awfully large amount of the verbiage generated about wine seems obsessed with trying to accomplish just that. The standard form of the tasting note has become the familiar catalogue of component scents and flavors followed by a prognostication about the wine’s “anticipated maturity,” and the fact that the person doing the prognostication has almost never personally experienced an example of the wine’s aging in that fashion is, quite astonishingly, not thought by anyone to discredit this exercise.

What’s to blame for this credulousness? Above all, it seems that many of us have some difficulty reconciling ourselves to the idea that anything in wine is truly dormant and beyond our powers of detection. We see the wine as a deterministic universe whose perceptible characteristics at two years of age will dictate what happens at every subsequent frame of development, in the manner of the character from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia who ruminated, “If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future. . . .” The problem is that wine evaluation is not algebra and the soul of a wine is not the sum total of the so-called “descriptors” one reads in the tasting notes. The things that determine how it might develop are not necessarily things you can taste or feel. I once bought some bottles of a relatively inexpensive Graves because it tasted eerily reminiscent of Haut-Brion. A few years later it didn’t. Why? Because it wasn’t Haut-Brion.

But still the idea of aging-by-formula remains the subtext in so many tasting notes purporting to see into the future. In its simplest form, the thought process goes something like this: Tannins help a wine age, and this wine is tannic; therefore it needs time. There are endless variations on the theme: As wines age they lose their baby fat, and this wine has a lot of baby fat; therefore it will be a long time before it fades. Or: Wines integrate with age, and this wine seems very disjointed; therefore it just needs some time to come together. Or: Wine ages on its balance, and this wine is perfectly balanced; therefore it will age effortlessly. You can pluck any one you want to justify any arbitrary prognostication. For example, one person tastes a heavily tannic, backwards wine and concludes it’s structured for long aging. Another person tastes the same wine, decries its lack of balance, and quotes the late Henri Jayer: “If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic.” Which one is right? Answer: It depends. Some wines have a track record for starting out punishingly tannic and eventually becoming exquisitely finessed, while other wines that might seem structurally indistinguishable from the starting gate never manage to shed the harshness–or, just as disappointingly, they do shed the tannin but don’t reveal anything interesting in the material that remains.

It’s true that aging is just a series of chemical reactions; it isn’t magic. So if we perceive some of the necessary inputs for those chemical reactions, then choosing to cellar a wine on the basis of an early taste isn’t an entirely blind gamble. But of course the character revealed by aging is of vastly more importance than the mere attainment of longevity. Accordingly, the fact that a wine is “built for the long haul” or “has the stuffing to age” or (insert your favorite cliché here) tells us very little about what we really care about.

I recently opened some newly released Barolos and Brunellos from the 2006 vintage, trying to decide whether I wanted to buy additional bottles of any of them for the cellar. I’m not sure exactly what I was hoping to see. Some of the bottles were beautiful, especially Brovia’s Barolo Rocché. Others were so tough and backwards they hardly offered any pleasure at all, such as the Francesco Rinaldi Cannubbio and Conti Costanti’s Brunello di Montalcino. And this tells me . . . absolutely nothing at all about which ones I will be glad to have bought fifteen or twenty years from now. The 1985 Rinaldi Cannubbio is one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe the 2006 will end up in a similar place. But tasting the wine now doesn’t give you any hint of how it might get there.

My proposal is this: Let’s put an end to this silly and misleading practice of opening young wines for the sake of science. Let’s instead resolve that every bottle we open will be for the sake of the satisfaction it can deliver on that day. That doesn’t mean I plan to give up drinking young, newly released wines. That’s not something I’d want to do even if I had an unlimited supply of mature stuff. But I will make an effort to avoid listening to that devil-on-the-shoulder that keeps trying to trick me into trying to sneak a preview of those wines that everybody knows aren’t designed to offer any reward for a long, long time.

For further reading:

  • Importer Neal Rosenthal’s profile of the Bernard Levet domaine, concluding with the much-needed warning that “Bernard Levet’s wines are well-structured wines that are built for aging and experience significant improvement with time in bottle.” It is interesting to observe that Levet owns old vines in the La Landonne vineyard which comprise his Côte-Rôtie Les Journaries bottling and which would cost a few hundred dollars if, for whatever reason, you felt like buying the version from Guigal instead.
  • A book by a famous wine critic characterizing Levet’s wines as “vegetal” and “mediocre,” rating them in the 70s, and advising against aging them.
  • Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in print, or on CD.
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