Should wine critics and buyers be surrogate drinkers for the masses, or is their job to open our minds to new discoveries? Either way, surely their palates are too developed to serve the average Joe? By ANDREW JEFFORD
Wine tastes nice. I know this will be the most banal sentence ever to appear in Decanter but it’s an important starting point for what follows. Imagine that you’d just returned from nine months spent on a Buddhist retreat in a Nepalese monastery, or journalistically embedded with the Saudi Arabian Police Force, or shipwrecked on a small, coconut-strewn Pacific atoll. Following your dazed tube ride back from Heathrow, someone asks if you’d like a glass of wine. A glass of wine! As you sip, the recollections of your former life and its quiet pleasures and consolations slowly return, evoked by the flavours of blackcurrant and blackberry, the rounded acidity, the faint caress of tannin. That wine may only be Gallo Family Vineyards Red, but at that moment it’s bringing you more pleasure than any previous glass of wine you can recall.
I’ve never been in quite these situations, but I have been deeply grateful for a glass of simple wine – when the only alternative was water or worse. That’s the option confronted daily by millions of wine drinkers of modest means or limited experience. There areothers whose flavour world is made up of Dr Pepper, Coke, Chicken McNuggets and the occasional chocolate cream-filled treat from Dunkin’ Donuts. Most of them, given Latour 2003 and Blossom Hill White Zinfandel in a focus-group taste-test, would emphatically prefer the latter. Even Decanter readers will be working to a sub-£20 ceiling per bottle for everydaydrinking: the average Waitrose customer spends £5.80 a bottle on wine; the averageSainsbury customer £4.46. Most of what iscalled ‘fine wine’ will be largely excludedat these price points. In the light of this,aren’t most wine critics (and a sizeablepercentage of sommeliers, buyers and other wine professionals) living wine lives of illusory finesse?
One role of the wine critic is to be a surrogate drinker. I’m currently looking forward to a 50-vintage vertical of La Mission Haut-Brion, but who will I be acting as a surrogate for? I can’t afford to buy this beautiful wine in recent vintages, let alone historic ones; nor can the overwhelming majority of those who will read my articles. Wouldn’t my time be better spent writing up a vertical of Koonunga Hill or surveying own-label Côtes du Rhône?
Thus, the case for the prosecution is relatively easy to make. Provided you believe that surrogate drinking – via tasting – is the preponderant role of the wine critic (and, to a lesser extent, buyer); provided you believe that wine critics (and buyers) should be writing (or buying) for the entire community of wine drinkers; and provided you believe that those drinkers are only interested in
the wines which they themselves can afford, then, yes, most of us have lost the plot. We are writing self-indulgenttwaddle of little practical benefit. Now let’s mount a case for the defence. When I launched my website, I locked myself up in the electronic stocks and invited all-comers to pelt me with eggsover this wine critic ‘twaddle’. Thereaction was muted. Not many eggs; indeed, barely a raspberry. Reader responses drew attention to the fact that
every wine should always be judged within its class and against its peers
(‘There should be a 100-point example for every kind of wine,’ posted Kathleen Lisson), while both Ryan Opaz andRobert McIntosh made the useful distinction between objective judgments of absolute quality (where the complex wine will always be better than the simple one) and subjective judgments based on pleasure (where simple wines might, depending on circumstances, be better than the complex ones). Or, to put it another way, the difference between a
tasting and a dinner. Almost everyone who responded felt that it was indeed possible to taste objectively, and that it was every critic’s
duty to do exactly that (‘wine evaluation isn’t anarchy’, as John Lahart put it). Moreover, the insights of this kind of critical application can and should be used to lead drinkers out of their comfort zone and towards something they might find difficult at first but ultimately hugely rewarding. Rémy Charest posted: ‘I’ve seen many people who hardly know their Bordeaux from their Burgundy fall in love with an unusual wine like Switzerland’s Petite Arvine, partly because they were intrigued and curious, partly because it was well-presented to them, but mostly because it is just tasted good to them, whether or not they could define the experience.’In the comfort zone Whenever I get to spend time with ‘ordinary’ drinkers, I’m always struck by the initial trenchancy of their views about certain wine styles. Some ‘can’t stand’ oaked white wines; others ‘never touch’ anything from particular grape varieties or entire nations; a third sub-group think
all sparkling wines are ‘disgusting’. The trauma often turns out to be based on an unhappy initial experience. With a little leading by the hand, their non-negotiable exclusions can usually be resolved and their comfort zone widened. This is what every sommelier should be doing every day: talking to customers, setting them at
their ease, then leading them to pastures new via potentially exciting wine and food combinations. Most of those sommeliers I know well are never happier than doing this.
Fred Brugues at Sketch speaks overtly about wanting his list to be ‘a garden of grape varieties’ and Jason McAuliffe of the Dorchester (and formerly Chez Bruce) is famous for his enthusiastic championing of obscure novelties. Even a sommelier like François Bertrand at Le Gavroche, where classicism prevails, feels happiest when he can introduce guests to something new, even if it’s modestly priced. The finest wines, by contrast, are usually served with a certain amount of trepidation – since no sommelier will get to taste (let alone drink) them regularly; many have been bought in maturity from brokers with inevitable question marks about provenance, and you never really know if the guest is choosing the wine simply because it is famous and they are wealthy(in which case disappointment may ensue) or through genuine affection. Critics and buyers taste a lot of wines. So aren’t their palates very different, and significantly more developed, than that ofthe average consumer? In truth, far from being over-refined, most professionals’tastes are wildly catholic, embracing every winemaking extreme from vin jaune to vintage port via filigree Mosel wines,ancient Dão and unctuous Barossa Shiraz – provided, of course, that the example in question is a good one. You could, if you like, say that many ‘ordinary’ consumers are horizontally fussy (they have little breadth of palate but like what they like very much indeed), while professionals tend to be vertically fussy (they like almost anything but it must always be a good example of its type). Perhaps only the enlightened amateur, suspended at 45 degrees from eachextreme, can attain tasting nirvana? Desire to learn Most of us can recognise these patterns of ignorance and expertise inother fields. It’s easy, for
example, to get out of yourdepth when buying something for the first time, or when trading up to the next tier of sophistication. Decanter reader Henry Goulding (in explaining why he wasn’t going to pelt me electronically) described
how he ‘tried buying a new set of golfballs and was astonished at the variety on
offer. Reading the reviews of some of them left me helpless and baffled: torque,
degree, bounce, spin… It meant little tome, though to others obviously not. But
that’s what we all like – to know a subject better, to revel in what UK poet and playwright Louis MacNeice called “the drunkenness of things being various”’. The key, of course, is the desire to learn. Daniel Craker, who has made wine in locations as far flung as Jurançon and Lebanon, said that in his experience consumers either ‘trust in ignorance or trust in learning’. He said: ‘When working in a French off-licence, I was often confronted with the unconditional Bordeaux drinker, who had no doubt never tasted anything other than Bordeaux and didn’t intend to either.’
They trusted in ignorance. Others, though, were open to Craker’s suggestions. ‘Apart from the odd customer who left with flustered remarks about this upstart Englishman, many were willing to try something better
adapted to their menu and, if Igot it right, came back for more.’ So have we learned something about the wine professional’s role? When I presented this discussion to French critic Michel Bettane during the judging week of the Decanter World Wine Awards, he was very clear about his aims. ‘I try to be a teacher. I try to be clear enough to be understood, to take the hand of ordinary people and lead them to the best things I have learned from the best growers.’
Even if those things are difficult or elitist? ‘I’m happy to be sophisticated,’ Bettane replied. ‘I tasted with people who were more sophisticated than me 30 years ago and I learned a lot. Most people are better tasters than is generally acknowledged. You just have to allow them to make comparisons, and then they learn quickly. Of course sometimes your taste will be more sophisticated than the consumer’s. For Americans, that’s a drama. If Robert Parker doesn’t taste like an ordinary American customer, he’s finished. In France, some consumers can be very stupid. We have good wines but not good tasters. Often, I have a fight between me and my readers. But that’s how everybody learns. In that sense, I am proud and happy not to taste like the ordinary consumer.’
Grasp the inaccessible
We could summarise the case for the defence by saying that surrogate drinking (via tasting) may indeed by the preponderant role of the wine critic, but that wine critics aren’t writing for the entire community of wine drinkers. They are only writing for those who trust in learning and wish to learn. By definition, such drinkers aren’t only interested in the wines they can find and afford. They are interested in discovering the new and the unusual; and sometimes in revelling in the inaccessible. (Indeed they may be bored or irritated by coverage of the banal.) And sommeliers and wine buyers aren’t just there to meet basic needs, but to expand the horizons of those they are serving or buying for.
I once had a chance to taste Montrachet and Clos Vougeot 1865. That chance
will never come again, and no one who read the pieces I wrote afterwards would
have been able to compare notes with me. The Montrachet was staggering a
bit but the Clos Vougeot was deep and pure, with poise and inner architecture. The wine had palpable tannins and a sense of breath-freshening fruit … fruit pressed when Gladstone was Chancellor, when the Suez Canal was nearing completion and when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was newly published. I wrote; no one complained. We all need to dream, after all. Now, when’s that
La Mission tasting?
Written by Andrew Jefford