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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
06/18/2012
Monday Manifestos
The Judgment of New Jersey-—Another Flawed Tasting

By Charles Olken

Both the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal are reporting on a tasting whose results ostensibly elevate New Jersey wines to the level of Bordeaux reds and Burgundy Whites.

Having lived through the “Judgment of Paris” excitement back in 1976 (look it up if you don’t know what I am talking about) and having concluded long before the tasting took place that the California wines were going to show well (which, of course, they did), I knew then and know now that young wines with a decent dollop of ripeness and enough showy oak are always going to show well in some comparative tastings.

It happens all the time, and it is not a new phenomenon. The plain fact is that luscious wines win tastings, especially blind tastings in which the expectations are mixed at best and unknown at worst. This is not to say that the New Jersey wines are plonk, and that their $35 price tag has nothing to do with some mix of quality and marketability or that Mouton-Rothschild’s $600 price tag is somehow configured differently.

We have always known that one pays lots of extra money for small but significant increases in perceived difference. We have also always known that some folks will pay over the odds for the wines in their cellars but are very happy with mid-quality tennis rackets, shoes, shirts, steaks. So, when a mixed bag of average to professional tasters gathered in New Jersey to taste a mix bag of wines, it is not surprising that there were mixed results.

The tasting and its results are flawed, not because such tastings are worth doing and redoing and doing in a variety of ways and venues. The more tasting the better. The more comparisons of wines that should not be compared (if one believes the insider geek arguments), the better. Some will produce replicable results and some will not. But, all such tastings are flawed because, in their rawest states of analysis, they lead folks like the New Yorker to publish articles entitled “Does All Wine Taste The Same”?

Over the years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has done its share of “flawed” tastings. We offer no apologies to anyone who is offended by putting Tuscan reds into a blind tasting with California Sangiovese. We make will provide no mea culpas for bringing New York, Michigan, Washington, California, German and Australian Rieslings together. Frankly, tastings like that are fun to do and frequently produce results that make us think. Occasionally, they even produce results that change perceptions. But, frankly, doing a tasting with six Red Burgs and six California Pinots does not prove a lot except that many tasters can tell many wines apart but that all tasters rarely tell all wines apart. Sure, we Californians love it when our wines fool almost everybody—like the Gary Farrell Pinot in one such tasting that we all, including a couple of visitor from Gaulle, picked out as French.

These kinds of tastings, done in isolation, neither confirm nor deny the greatness of wines from France or California or New Jersey. I know why the California wines in Paris won the tasting. They tasted better as young wines. I know why similar tastings of aged wines have at times shown the California wines to still be tasting better several decades later, and I know why the opposite has also been shown. Wine is not monolithic nor are tasting preferences and competences. And I also know why, on occasion, a $12 Cabernet will outpoint very good wines with much higher prices. Accessibility, better balance when young, intensity that still-nascent wines have yet to develop all can bring about such results.

Our response here at Connoisseurs’ Guide is to retaste all of the wines that show well. Change the context, put the great and the almost great together. Bring standards to bear that measure greatness, not just accessibility, into the equation. Let the wines show themselves again.

That is the standard that needs to be applied to the New Jersey results. Let those wines be tasted against a wide variety of peers in a wide variety of settings. Then the results will not be a one-off that lead otherwise intelligent writers into premature judgments.


 

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Comments

Judgement of New Jersey
by Richard Leland
Posted on:6/18/2012 4:14:43 PM

My good friend Matt Parfit pointed out that the judges at the New Jersey tasting were the same ones who worked the Pacquiao - Bradley fight.

Wine ages
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:6/19/2012 7:21:16 AM

Charlie,

I don't argue your overall point, but from what I remember, the wines in the 1976 Paris tasting were all of comparable age, except for one California wine, which was the oldest in the tasting.

Apples and Oranges
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/19/2012 10:07:57 AM

Thomas--

It is not the conduct of the tasting that bothers me. I like "apples and oranges" tastings. It is the drawing of ridiculous conclusions based on flimsy evidence that bugs me.

For the New Yorker, a magazine I respect, to publish an article suggesting that all wines taste the same because a couple of New Jersey wines did not disappear down the drain when tasted blind with French wines is absurd. It highlights the flaws in such tastings and tries to make science out of randomness.

Redox Redux
by Clark Smith
Posted on:6/19/2012 12:07:19 PM

I think some readers missed your point that great wines are often closed, reduced and ill-mannered in youth, a consideration the generally cellarless American winelover often ignores. In general, French wines of the same age as Californians will show less well because they are built for distance rather than comeliness.  However, the important point about the tasting is the surprising fact that New Jersey wine, Pennsylvania wines, North Carolina wines, even Iowa wines have become really quite good of late.  Apples and oranges to be sure, but these new areas really do have game.

built for distance
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:6/19/2012 1:52:30 PM

Clark,

I'd love for you to elaborate: what is done in California to build for comeliness as opposed to what is done in France to build for distance?

Whatever that difference is, was it in play in the 1970s?

..and Charlie, I agree that drawing conclusions from comparative tastings is, at best, a crap shoot. But you also have to allow that the peridocials that printed the results aren't exactly wine-centric. In fact, I once wrote a letter to the New Yorker editor asking that the next time some yahoos writes anything about wine in that magazine, maybe the editorial staff could do some fact checking.

 

As for the Wall Street Journal, as we used to say in Brooklyn: fuhgedaboudit.

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