Doubting the 'experts' part II

As promised, I thought I'd continue with the emerging phenomena of wine consumers disregarding or not listening to the "experts" in print or believing in awards handed out at wine competitions. Over the last few years I have had consumers coming into the Cellar looking to purchase nice wines, wines of good value and/or wines of the world and at the same time are questioning the little gold medal stickers attached to the labels. Many of the folks simply shrug and tell me that, "Well, these things don't mean a thing."

The same thing applies with the finite ratings, point-scale attributions, awarded to wines on a 100-point scale that we find in different wine magazines and journals throughout the United States. Consumers are not only balking at these once hallowed "marks of achievement," but are flat-out ignoring them or are derisive of the fact that these "measurements" of quality have to be given to wine in the first place! The most important fact is that many consumers, over the years, have tasted wines with medals affixed to them and found them very marginal or out-and-out terrible bottles of wine. Why? And why is this happening now?

1. Wine judges — Many years ago, when I began commercial wine judging, there were no "classes" that one could take to become a proficient wine evaluator. Commercial wine judges were chosen by experience in the field, that is, being intimately involved in the wine business as either/or winemaker, viticulturist, retailer or wholesaler. Many of the wine judges — in fact all of the wine judges I knew — also crossed over and were retailers who had tenured or apprenticed at wineries and worked in vineyards and traveled extensively within the business. This allowed the judges to have a vertical knowledge of wine appreciation, essentially from the soil to the shelf, with interaction with (sometimes) three generations of winemaker and grape grower per harvest season.

This generational understanding, these years of knowledge, served the wine competition judge well. Not only was he or she involved physically and spiritually with making wine and walking the vines but listening to those who had gone before. This was the wine judge of the past. This kind of wine judge was immersed in the business of wine. This is what I call vertical wine understanding. The big advantage of this kind of immersion is the fact that wine judges understand the point of view of different winemakers and do not rest upon their likes or dislikes in evaluating wine; that style counts for little. Their job is to evaluate sound winemaking technique as well as fine viticultural practices. This understanding is lacking today and consumers are seeing this.

2. Horizontal evaluation — This is the prototypical wine judge of today. It is the "more is better" approach to evaluation of wine.

Many of the master wine classes offered today, where many of the wine judges come from, are very into cramming data into the student. A broad swipe of the brush is the motivation and the result of what is accomplished is a broad surface understanding of wine. There is no requirement to "spend a year" interning or apprenticing and getting spiritually and physically involved.

Wine understanding begins with getting dirt under the nails and sharing the anxieties and hopes of those in the business of putting wine on the table or in the competition. Many (not all) of the wine judges today are not unlike those reading a cookbook and wondering how they think a meal will turn out instead of getting in there and getting some hands-on experience so that when the next meal is served they have some sort of experience based cognition of what to expect and of course to evaluate. In this sense, feeling and experiencing first-hand what goes into a bottle of wine is invaluable to the evaluation of the wine itself.

Well, that's how I see it. Be back next week!

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