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Monday Manifestos
Seeing ‘Em Like You Call ‘Em: The Pitfalls of Perspective and Wine Writing

By Stephen Eliot

It’s a close play at second. The dust clears and the umpire exclaims…”He’s safe! He’s out! He’s either, neither or both!” A laughable call in a Disney cartoon some seventy years back, but not so funny if you are a newcomer to wines looking for a clear call and reliable guidance from the press.

There are as many opinions as there are bottles, and the participatory populism that is the internet means that everyone in the stands is ready and aching to make the call. Everyone is an expert. No one is an expert—and, as the result, the very notion of expertise is the target of regular assault.

The now-wearisome rallying cry is to be true to yourself and follow your own palate. The problem, of course, that such a viewpoint presumes that you are familiar with every wine, winemaker and wine-region that is out there, and most folks have little inclination to work all that hard. Moreover, most do not have the resources to taste their ways through thousands of bottles to find those that speak to them most. That is where the experience of “experts” and their ability to clearly convey character and perceived quality comes into play. Experts and critics, I would argue, have a useful place, but the role of perspective looms large in their work.

In a follow-up comment on last week’s discussion of Italy’s claimed superiority when it comes to producing food friendly wines, the shadowy Jim Francis pointed out that perspective always shapes opinion. I have no argument here. There is no question that a good many consumers are content with buying by the numbers; 90 points and above is fine, anything less is not. But, those who want more, who actually want to learn and have come to grasp the marvelous range and diversity and outright magic that can come from a good glass need to become active players in the process themselves. Recognizing the perspective of any advice-giver seems a good place to start.

Now, this morning’s musings are not meant as a critique of this or that writer or publication. There has been and will be more time to explore specific instance, but the trigger for thought on the topic was last Sunday’s New York Times piece on “What Do Wine Experts Recommend for Cheap Drinking”. It has already raised a few eyebrows and garnered more than a couple of sidelong looks for its wholesale exclusion of California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and Washington State as sources for fine values at $12.00 or less.

I do not know how many “experts” were polled, but the list of twenty cited was an impressive roster of retailers and sommeliers, both male and female, throughout the country. On the surface, the mix is a good one, and there would seem to be little argument with recommendations from people with credentials like these. But, when the question of perspective is raised, then the results become a bit less “scientific”.

Who polled the experts? It was Alice Feiring, the nemesis of Robert Parker and self-proclaimed savior of natural wines who rarely has a kind word to say about California wines. Hmm, might perspective play any role here? No, she did not pick the wines, but she picked the pickers. The question has been raised that just maybe that sommeliers, who by the way made up the majority of respondents, might have their own biases as people who necessarily are looking for something out of the norm, something not easily found, something that will mark their lists as unique. And, while two New World wines managed to make the cut, one was from Oregon and the other from New York, both which were recommended by sommeliers who places of business were understandably located in Oregon and New York respectively.

The point, dear readers, is perspective, and the incumbent need on the part of the informed consumer to ask such questions before blindly falling into line. I do not doubt the sincerity behind the participants in the poll, but neither am I ready to enthusiastically embrace their opinions…i.e., Dr. Loosen Riesling as a great wine with Pizza???

My advice? Find those voices that ring true to you, and listen to a fair number before deciding on who is “right”. Bias is not hard to see. Robert Parker likes “hedonistic” wines, Alice Feiring does not. Fair enough. Consistency is key and methodology, I would argue, is critical in its creation. We happen to believe in blind tasting, while others find it anathema. Finding “terroir” is not hard to find if you know come to the table able to understand what you are tasting. Tasting with winemakers over lavish luncheons on their home turf with labels displayed in advance has always struck us as problematic. Everything tastes pretty good in such venues and opinions so formed are necessarily a bit suspect.

In the end, all of us in the trade, be they retailers, sommeliers or writers, are bound by opinion and cannot escape perspective. The best of them, like the best umpires, to keep the baseball analogy going, understand that it is not about them, it is about the integrity of the game. They work to look at the play from as many angles as possible before making the call. It is the way you get to the major leagues.

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No Subject
by TomHill
Posted on:10/9/2011 1:10:42 PM


   Yup.....when I took a look at that list of recs, my first reaction was this had some bizarre recs, by some people I knew nothing about, other than their stated "credentials". Then, when I started to re-read it, I saw Alice's by-line there at the top. That explains it. Whenever she writes anything, it's not to inform, but always has a (not-so) hidden agenda, mostly self-promotion. Her (rather) broad rejection of Calif wines is pretty well known, with a few small/eccentric exceptions.

   To characterize Alice as the "nemesis" of RobertParker is rather overstating her importance in the wine world. She has not saved the wine world from Parkerization. When I query winemakers about Alice, most just sort of roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders.



No Subject
by Patrick
Posted on:10/10/2011 3:27:56 PM

The essay diagnoses a problem:"Everyone is an expert. No one is an expert—and, as the result, the very notion of expertise is the target of regular assault." But then it proceeds to exemplify the problem by impugning the judgment of experts in the New York Times. After reading this, I am tempted to follow that "now wearisome rallying cry" and trust my own palate.

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