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Enough With The Numbers Already—Give Me Taste, Balance, Range

By Stephen Eliot

For the past several years, the “numbers” of wine from acidity to pH and especially alcohol have been central to a great deal of the conversation about fine wine and sometimes a catalyst to vitriolic contention. I have lately begun to wonder, however, if rather than leading to a deeper appreciation of things vinous, the fixation with numbers routinely serves to do just the opposite. Rather than signaling a new sophistication and awareness on the part of twenty-first century wine lovers, it is possible that such statistical preoccupations might just as easily be seen as a lazy intellectual shortcuts to half truths in a post-modern, quick-click-and-go culture.

Debate has too often replaced discussion, and I find myself ineptly drawn in to argument even with old friends with whom I used to congenially talk about wine for hours on end. Where once we would ramble on about character and what we liked or disliked about this or that wine with plenty of enthusiastic, must-try recommendations, these days talk too quickly turns to uneasy discourse about what is and what is not the “right” way a wine should be made. And, inevitably, alcohol, acidity and pH become the measures of worth, rather than whether the wine is complex, satisfying and tasty.

I admit that I have tried my best to not join in the wars about the immutably correct level of ripeness, where perfect pH lies and the virtues and deleterious effects of alcohol high and low other than to argue that wine is best approached one glass at a time, but sometimes the conflict finds you however hard you try to hide. Bullets and bombs do not respect conscientious objectors.

It has been claimed by some that the awarding of points and critical commentary is poisoning modern wine appreciation, but it seems to me that static models and unyielding statistical checklists are the far greater dangers, and lines drawn in the sand have a way of being lost in the next new wind.

Now, I am the last person to accede to the notion of absolute subjectivity and the idea that beauty can only exist in the eye of the beholder. This morning’s meanderings are not meant to imply that quality is entirely relative. There are reasons that some wines are and have for years been universally regarded as being praiseworthy, just as there reasons that the three-dollar stuff costs what it does. But, what makes a wine greater or lesser is how it performs in the glass, not how it adheres to any single set of rules, and, to those new to wine and old hands alike, I would remind that an open mind is still the single most important avenue to learning…numbers be damned.


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