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.)

7 Responses to “The Umpire and the Judge”

  1. Well done Keith.

    Certainly, comparison with the third umpire fits right in, especially after you realize that the wine isn’t exactly the focus of wine criticism. If it were about the wine, it would have required setting standards so that the word “great” would have meaning.

  2. King Krak, I Drink it Orange said

    I don’t see how Galloni could possibly call them as he sees them with Parker still in the picture; simply impossible. If he did give his own scores, they would of course be much more different than the scores that were printed. If people agreed with his scores, Parker would be livid and Galloni would no longer be the California critic.

    Galloni is in a no win situation with California. Why did he even agree to do it?!

  3. Fascinating, excellent article! I gave up with Parker a very long time ago, precisely due to his predilection for overblown, cartoonish wines you describe, so it is a real shame the new bod for California continues to promote alcoholic jam rather than some of the properly beautiful wines from the region.

    The claim of style-agnosticism is therefore totally mendacious for the reasons you identify. What a sad periodical the Wine Advocate must be these days if all it says is, “You are right, keep buying the same”. For sure, we all have perennial favourites and I am very happy to buy a few wines from the same people every year. However, discovery and exploration (in all things not just booze) are the spice of life. Simply having prejudices confirmed and never knowing the novel is the province of only the most tiresome and dreary. You’ve given me more good reasons to roundly abuse my less enlightened friends when they describe their purchases with numbers. Arses.

    On the subject of the new, I had a Barbaresco from Sottimano (2007 Pajoré) for the first time last night. I don’t normally go for wines at the migraine-end of the alcohol scale but I was rather taken with this expression of the regional style and didn’t resent dropping a crippling amount of fun tokens on it in the slightest. It may not stop me from largely buying Burgundy, but the delight at trying something good and new from outside my usual preference-zone had me bouncing around giggling with delight. I know Domaine Dujac are good and I like them, I don’t need or want anyone to tell me that, but I didn’t know I’d like this; finding out I did was a hoot!

    Cheers,
    David.

  4. scott said

    Keith,
    I think you are onto something when you write that some amount of subscriber demand relates to wanting “the sagacity of his existing investments reaffirmed.” That is not the only business pressure that helps explain the minimal Galloni effect, at least so far. Even if he thought Parker had lost it completely, it just isn’t in Antonio’s interest to pop the Parker bubble in one revolutionary article, now that he got promoted and probably became an equity partner in the business. I guess that would have been fun to see, but it would also have caused a lot of collateral damage to good people in the valley who are ultimately the people on the ground at the terroir level, and who are not necessarily nouveau riche douchebags who love to drink and want to make cough syrup for vainglorious score sluts. TWA and Napa could keep the current paradigm going in a symbiotic chokehold of trophy wines and fruit bombs, or they could try to slowly deflate the bubble and shift the paradigm, but both lose big if they pop the bubble in spite to satisfy the aesthetic superiority of certain bloggers.

    I haven’t read the full article nor drunk many of the Napa wines, but there were a few hints (the -2 shift, no triple digits, vintage analysis) that maybe Antonio is playing the long game here. I agree with Matt Latuchie that the pudding is in Sonoma. The baseline is more even, there are fewer sacred cows, and the revolution has not been televised. If Galloni is on the bus, we’ll see him elevating the better 2009s, as there are many magnificent wines, but also willing to dish out 85-87 scores — mediocre scores that deflate prices — to people who picked at the wrong time in 10 and 11.

    While at times haughty and presumptive, this is nonetheless a sensational wine column: provocative, reasoned, and elegantly constructed. A true pleasure to read.

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