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.”
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?
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.