The Hopeless Quest To Define Wines Of True Character (Or “Screw The Ratings, Even Mine”)

Vinted on August 17, 2011 binned in best of, commentary, going pro, zen wine

Roughly two months ago, in the follow-on discussions on a feature on the wines of Lodi producer Matt Powell, a reader named Olivier chimed on with some though-provoking questions, the kind that, for me, define the 1WD readership because they exponentially increase the value of the content on this little ol’ website.

The discussion was around how we might define wines of “true character,” and it ended with a bit of a challenge from Olivier:

“…[It] would be nice to dig into detailed info (taste/aroma/flavors) that differentiate wines of true character and C+/B- wines. I have my own idea, but listening to others and getting examples would be great and very educational.”

That’s the kind of request that often sends me so far down the wine world rabbit hole that I’m seeing Jules Verne style dinosaurs.  In other words, the really fun kind.

We are certainly rabbit-hole bound, because in the course of thinking about this question, I had to get deep into the very heart of wine ratings.

And I’ve determined that all of them (mine included) kind of suck, even if they do provide value to a lot of people (and they do), and even if they help sell wine (and they do).

Once again, don your miner’s hat, the one with integrated flashlight bulb and intercom link, because you’re gonna need it where we’re going

Here’s the first thing I came to realize in addressing Olivier’s question (which we can rephrase – I hope, without stepping too far out of line – as “what sensory aspects differentiate wines of true character from wines that are, in your view, more pedestrian?”): it has no real answer.

It has no one real answer, that is.

If you start getting technical, then you’re faced with having to put together a long list of possible attributes based on grape variety, or on typicity of grape/site/climate, or on style and/or what one might consider allowable winemaking modifications; and several of the latter items on the list can trump the former.  If you assume that some of it can be boiled down to objective qualities verses subjective ones, then where do you draw the objective/subjective line?

It’s enough to make your head spin faster than one of those spinning cone, reverse osmosis doohickeys.

Then I realized something profoundly simply: wines of real beauty and character, wines that artistically rise above the mundane, are a lot like pornography – you know “it” when you see it (or in this case, drink it).

A wine of real substance makes you notice it, even if it’s a subtle speaker.  It presents itself so genuinely to the Universe (and to you) that you have no other choice than to accept it for what it really is.  They are like people who, to us, seem unique, and they run the entire range in that respect from those who are simply charismatic or eccentric all the way to those who carry themselves with so much grace through our world we might as well call them enlightened.

As Pete Townshend wrote in People Stop Hurting People, “For that is what true beauty is: Time’s gift to perfect humility.”  He was talking about the beauty of people’s souls, but it works for wine as well, I think.  In fact, it’s probably in us feeling that a wine has enough artistic uniqueness to say it has a “soul” that we would consider it a wine that really has true character.

This is why we should say “screw you” to wine ratings, at least when it comes to telling you about a wine’s soulfulness. Ratings serve a purpose, and they often do try to (at least partly) assess a wine’s future potential… BUT…

When we rate a wine, we give it a stamp at a single moment in time; yet a wine with some real soul to it is for sure going to change on us, sometimes years from now, sometimes hours from now in the same glass.  We can only ever mark a particular period in wine’s life, and so maybe we can get close but we can never, ever nail the measurement of a wine’s true character with real precision.  It would be like grading a person when they’re a teenager, giving them a “B” or an “87” on their life lived so far, when one day they might become the world’s greatest psychiatrist or something (in which case I could use their number, because after this post I might need to speak with them).  What would we have graded Hitler, for example, when he was eight and a star student (and singer in his church choir), versus how we think of the horrors he engendered as an adult?

Overly-dramatic?  Probably.  But totally wrong? I don’t think so.  Also, Hugh Johnson is of the same opinion, and that’s gotta count for something, right?

While I can say with a fair degree of confidence that the vast majority of wines that I felt had real character have been given a B+ or higher rating from me, I can also tell you with equal confidence that I have probably gotten a fair number of wines “wrong” in terms of ascertaining their true character, because I’ve only ever experienced them in “snapshot.”  And I’m pretty confident that goes for any rating system and any wine critic out there.  And true character is one of  the most difficult things to think about objectively, because you may hate what I consider amazing, thought-provoking art; if you think I’m off-base here, I invite you to check out this, one of my all-time favorite pieces of visual art, and tell me if you think I’m insane for liking it so much (I promise some of you will).

And real fine wine is real art – sure, most wine is more industrial craft than fine sculpture, but if you think that fine wine doesn’t have the potential to be true artistic expression than I think you’re demeaning the craft a bit too much (and not paying attention – shame on you!).

So, sorry, Olivier – I can’t really answer your question.  I might as well try to give you a handbook on how to fall in love, or how to react to a Picasso, or how to choose a style of clothing.  What I can tell you is that when you taste enough wine, you will know the ones that are worth speaking to, because they are the only ones who actually have something interesting to tell you The assumption is that every time you pick up a glass, you’ll be spending a moment or two to listen to them.  Just don’t look for ratings to be anything other than a rough guide to those vinous conversations.






  • Albert

    I think what started out as a way to direct people to wines that might include your definition of "character" has morphed into something different. Perhaps, not by virtue of the intent of the critic or reviewer, but the way the reader uses that score. Scores and ratings, to me, have taken much of the mystery and 'journey' out of drinking wine. Like skipping to the pot of gold and bypassing the rainbow altogether.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Albert – that's a fantastic way of putting it!

  • Frank Haddad

    You have nailed this one Joe, there are thankfully ,some wines that resist points descriptions etc.

    • 1WineDude

      Frank – indeed, they do. Or, at least they defy a single point-in-time descriptor other than "sh*t this thing is awesome!" ;-)

  • italianwinegeek

    I like this assessment- and totally agree. As a consumer, ratings might help guide people towards "quality" or towards "wine varietal correctness" or even just towards trends in the wine media, but they will never tell people what they'll actually enjoy drinking. The key is, as you said, tasting enough wines until you know which ones really speak to you. Great advice for the novice and professional!

    • 1WineDude

      @italianwinegeek – Nice to hear from you! And thanks for the kind words. Cheers!

  • Frank Haddad

    Joe I tend to use OMG, we did a tasting with some wine folks at Tinhorn Creek, and your comment of "sh*t this thing is awesome! and OMG where used by folks who grow the grapes and make the wine.

    • 1WineDude

      Frank – HA!! Excellent…

  • Frank Haddad

    Joe here are a couple of links of how i try in my own inadequate retro style notes to describe the wines we are talking about. As you said you know it when you see it.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Frank!

  • Olivier

    Good morning Joe, it’s Olivier ;-)
    As you can see, I’m a loyal reader of yours. I really enjoy reading you every day. So first of all, thank you very much for tackling this hard topic. I like how you approached it, and I do think you’ve brought many good points and material to help get closer to the truth.

    So here is my contribution for today:
    First, how does the dictionary define “Character”: (1) The combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another, or (2) A distinguishing feature or attribute, as of an individual, group, or category.
    And how about “Personality”: The totality of qualities and traits, as of character or behavior, that are peculiar to a specific person

    From these definitions, the common theme is “Different (as in stands out) / Unique”
    So now it begs the question: Different in what aspect: (1) Sensory aspects (taste/aroma/flavors)? (2) Qualitative aspect (as in wine without any defaults, well made, etc)? (3) Dynamic aspect (as in flavor transformation over time). Conclusion: I guess “Character or Personality” means different (or unique) based on part or all of the above. I’d like to think that it’s mostly based on sensory aspects (now or over time), but that’s only my personal opinion.

    Now, whether you like the wine or not shouldn’t prevent anyone to rate a wine as a wine of character. I might not like your all time favorite pieces of visual art (actually I do), but it shouldn’t prevent me to recognize that this is an art piece of character. I might not like a “wine of character”, but it shouldn’t prevent me to agree that it is indeed a wine of character/personality.

    Which brings me back to the rating system in general: When Parker or WS (or others) rate a wine 90+, what does it mean? It’s a wine well made? It has character (or true character)? And what about liking it; do you think that Parker or WS would rate high a wine they don’t like but which expresses true character? I’m actually asking the same question to you Joe: do all your B+ and above ratings wines you like? Or have you already rated high one or more wines that you didn’t like but which were of true character?

    Having said that, why “true” character or “true” personality. Why not just “character or personality”? Does “true” simply mean “strong” (of strong character), or does it means something subtler. I’d venture to say that if you use the word true, it means someone’s making reference to something (as in benchmark against something). In my opinion, it should be “terroir”. Therefore, a wine of true character is a wine that stands out with unique characteristics/personality among wines sharing the same terroir. But that’s just an opinion.

    Thank you so much for posting this blog Joe. I love the fact that you’re trying to come up with answers as well. If I may say, I’m a loyal reader because I think you’re a wine blogger of true character ;-)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks for that Olivier! It's people like who keep me coming back to do this every week!Such great and probing questions… I will try to hit what I can here…”whether you like the wine or not shouldn’t prevent anyone to rate a wine as a wine of character”- I agree totally. In fact, I often rate wines higher than I would if I were rating them based on personal preference in terms of what I like to drink myself (conversely, I often have to rate Rieslings lower but many of my B- / B Rieslings I would rather drink myself than many of the B+ / A- reds that I rate).However, I seem to be in the minority in this approach. My ratings start with mostly objective elements of color, faults, etc. and then get more subjective, though I try to minimze the subjective. I'd argue that MOST of the biggest, most influential U.S. wine critics don't do that, they rate based on how much they enjoy the wine and equate that enjoyment with overall quality, which is not something I want to do. Which leads us to…”When Parker or WS (or others) rate a wine 90+, what does it mean? ” – I think it means, primarily, that they really like the wine and think that those who have similar palates to theirs will really like it, too.So, when you ask “do all your B+ and above ratings wines you like? Or have you already rated high one or more wines that you didn’t like but which were of true character? ” I can say emphatically that No, they are NOT all wines I personally want to drink and YES, I rate them highly because they exhibit real character to me (more on that below) despite the fact that I might not want to drink them often myself.”Having said that, why “true” character or “true” personality. Why not just “character or personality”? “- I'm about to get all “Karen MacNeil” on you here, but I agree with her that these are what we would call “great” wines, and great wines are great primarily because they elicit an emotional response from us. For me, that tends to mean that they a) are unique and/or b) are impeccable made / of very high quality and c) invoke clearly the intent of the winemaker and grower, whether that intent is to evoke a sense of a particular place in the world, or similar… but it is done with a sense of craft and artistry. THANK YOU so much for your comments and though-provoking questions! I really am enjoying it whenever I see your name pop up on the comments! Cheers!

      • Olivier

        Likewise Joe. It's a joy to interact with you on these culturally and intellectually interesting subjects. I try to read as much as I can, and it's a challenge because time is limited and there is so much content out there… a little bit like wine itself actually, there are so many out there and so many you can buy or drink per week (mostly limited by finance I have to say). But if there one I come back to everyday and read first with my morning coffee is yours. I just LOVE your style, and the subjects your write about. I will digest your response and even re-read today's post and resume our discussion if I have anything else relevant to add. I definitively have enough food for thoughts right now to fuel many interesting off-line discussions with my wine buddies ;-) … as we enjoy a few bottles with a nice diner. You have a great week. Cheers!

  • Patrick

    I don't think the question is that hard to answer, as long as you abolish the term "true character," which sounds vague and pretentious, and replace it with something about quality, which is the cup we all race for. So what makes quality? Complex aroma, depth of flavor, good acid balance, appropriate tannins, you know the drill. What more would you need to know than that?

    • Olivier

      Hi Patrick,
      I would agree with you if my definition of quality was the same as yours. But I do think that you can find simple wines, with light flavors, good balance which are very well made, thus of good quality to me. Depending on the occasion (pick-nick, BBQ, light summer lunch outside on the patio), I'd prefer a simple light and refreshing wine (A good Chablis for example), and keep the complex aroma, depth of flavor, etc for a diner with friends who like wine too. But in both case, I could have had 2 wines of what I consider good quality. It's really a matter of personal definition, and since there is no standard ones everybody agrees on, then everyone has it's own. Maybe your definition is the right one…I just don't know. But I sure enjoy reading what people have to say. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

      • Patrick

        Thanks for the discussion. It sounds like you and The Dude want to say that certain wines can be "ineffable" or "artistic" or transcendental in some indescribable way. I have to say that if someone finds something indescribable or indefinable, then I think they need to try harder. The words are there, right? We all know that language can be inadequate to some experiences, but I think we should try to say what we're experiencing. To say "I know it when I see/taste it" sounds just a bit like a cop-out to me. I am saying this as an author; I write books about art for a living.

        • 1WineDude

          Patrick – it's not that they are indescribable. It's that that are not universally describable with one set of criteria.

          • Olivier

            Agreed Joe, but like Patrick says, we still should be trying to find these words because without them, it's difficult to share experiences with accuracy and excite people about a great wine of character ;-). Having said that, I believe that mystery and unexplainable are part of any art form, wine included; it's actually a part of wine that I really enjoy. That's why at some point, it becomes very personal, and even sometimes we can't even explain it to ourselves. We just love it, and we have this feeling about it, and we can't even explain why?

            • 1WineDude

              Yeah, Olivier – it is a lot like that. And I do try, and I know a lot of others who take this seriously do as well. Often, I don't do the wine justice with my words, but that's never stopped me before so it won't stop me now! :)

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Patrick -see above, I think for the really, really fine wines, we are talking about more than just those things… it's the combination of them, done artistically. And there's just a lot of subjectivity involved when you get to that point, I think.

  • rsher

    Frenchy – This wine has a certain je ne sais quoi to Loose translation – an intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive…Or as I like to say it has a little sumpin' sumpin' going on…Hard to quantify via a score..92, 94 etc… Yes, does it have a soul, character, complexity, depth…anything that makes you say 'yeah, I gotta get me more of that' and suck down the rest of the bottle.

    I just was having this conversation yesterday with another winemaker about wanting to create something of character, complexity blah blah…it's a wrestling match. Make a sweet oak bomb wine…check the box, phone it in, whatever you know people will guzzle down in the tasting room. Or make (create) something special, with careful attention to place, style, craft whatever….and maybe sell less or take much longer to sell or sell none at all.

    Vineyards, harvest, yeast, barrels, touch, cellar….etc. These all matter to winemakers who care and have the ability to create something special– or who are allowed to create something special.

    • 1WineDude

      rsher – Well, I guess it depends on the aims of the wine. I don't see anything wrong with making a fruit bomb, sweet wine, or anything else that you know will sell. I don't like the idea of doing that with fruit that's special and ought to get a more potentially artistic treatment… but those are not typically wines that get created at high volumes, while I think it's possible to do that more with the former scenario. So I see room for both – which isn't to say that is how most producers do it, of course! :)

  • rsher

    Don't mind a fruit bomb either…an oak ladden, vanilla fruit roll up?? Not so much…Sure garbage into the winery = garbage out…but assuming you've chosen said vineyard well and have obessively compulsively managed it, then it would/should be special. I don't believe you can get that sumpin' sumpin' special from a mass produced wine. Smaller artisinal producers, micro wineries can deliver on that front….but we digress.

    If I trusted a reviewer of wine and I thought my palate was similar…only through trial and error, I could buy a wine with reasonable certaintity that you've given it a 96 and I therefore would love it as well.

    • 1WineDude

      rsher – "vanilla fruit rollup"… LOVE it! :)

      I think you nailed it with the trusted reviewer sentiment – my A- might be someone's C, especially if they don't like Mosel Riesling I suppose! Cheers!

  • academicwino

    This may seem out of the blue, but I wonder how much the mood of the reviewer at the time of the rating affects the score. Studies have shown that mood changes the aroma/flavor of a wine, so I'm wondering if it makes a difference if the review is in a bad mood or a good mood when he/she is reviewing the wine. If they are in a particularly nasty mood, they may give the wine a poor rating, when that same wine, if rated on a day when the reviewer was on top of the moon, would be given a much higher score.

    A huge part art, a small part psychology?

    Sorry to detour from the rest of the conversation so much, but these things intrigue me!

    • 1WineDude

      Academic – I am convinced that it plays a part, and that is from my own personal experience.

      An example: I've tasted wines while sick to my stomach with a bug and having had little sleep due to the illness. And I have to physically and mentally slow down in those situations, and really kind of spend 5 seconds just meditating, anything to calm my mind. And FOR SURE the wine tastes/smells differently after that happens. If you take it seriously, then I guess you need to look at that as a job: "I am here to review this stuff professionally… get it together, man!" I wouldn't be surprised in the least if a future study confirmed that link with wine.

      The converse is also true – if you're in a freewheeling mood (you won an ipod, you got laid, whatever) then the wine might taste *too* good then… same thing applies, gotta focus!

  • Randy Caparoso

    Kudos, winedude, on thought provoking thoughts. Bottom line: anyone who tells you there is an objective way (or a numerical way with any degree of integrity) of evaluating wine is full of shite. If such a critic continues to defend that objectivity, he/she is *especially* full of it — consumers and readers are thus advised to run away screaming.

    • sephage01

      Thanks, Randy! I know we've discussed this at some length already, but I do feel like a sort of a hypocrite in using ratings at all. But… people asked for them, and I've never pretended that they were totally objective, so maybe I'm only 1/2 full of shite. :-)


  • Herzog Wine Clubs

    Goes hand in hand with what you said about your lessons learned At Summer Wine Judging Camp… judge's palates/tastes are going to differ and on top of this the wine differs as to what point in time it is tasted/reviewed/judged. Two factors that have a direct impact on the review but are essentially "variable." Interesting stuff!

    • 1WineDude

      Herzog – Yeah, that is a good way of summing it up. The thing that gets me really riled up all the time about this stuff is not the scores or ratings but how they are used. People *can* trust their own tastes, they only need to develop them, and that is not hard to do AT ALL. If people did it, they would realize just how freaking easy it is to do that. Just about *anybody* can do it.

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