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Articles,  July, 2002

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The Ideology of Wine, 
 How To Criticize Wine When Everythingís Subjective

These days, it seems to me wine lovers tend to fall into two groups: the intellectuals and the hedonists.  The intellectuals also tend to be traditionalists, while the hedonists are modernists.  

What draws these lines so sharply? Well, these are often code words.  Are you a lover of Turley Zinfandel? Ripe fruit. Dense body. Lots of flavor. Yum. Join the hedonists. Or would you characterize Turley as overripe fruit, too high in alcohol, and off balance? Your election to the Intellectuals is under way.

 Each group has its zealots, those who hate what the others prefer. The Intellectuals rhapsodize over Burgundy. Ahhh, the transparency of the wine, the terroir! The Hedonists want to know where the beef and flavor is, and why itís so wrong to like ripe, forward fruit.  Pass the Cal cab. The Intellectuals get excited about balance and ponder complexity.  To a Hedonist, this means it doesnít really taste all that good, but thatís not important. The Hedonists want to know why anyone would waste that much time thinking about a wine with no distinguishing features.

 Folks, canít we all just get along? More importantly, how does one bridge the gap and still be a wine critic?

 Where this all really begins to irritate me is when the condescension begins. I frankly find this more a function of the Intellectuals. Sniff. You like THAT? Itís not complex. Itís not traditional. Itís ďobvious.Ē It merely tastes good. From a Hedonistís point of view, returning fire, a lot of the wines the Intellectuals like arenít really elegant or complex, just thin and bland.  To the Intellectual, itís maybe a food wine. To the Hedonist, itís a wine that is so reserved (or comes with so many rustic flaws) that you had better drink it with food,  to give you something to focus on and/or cover up its flaws, or youíll fall asleep from boredom.

 The Intellectuals also tend to create lots of rules. They love rules. Rules go with Traditions. Traditions are good.  Thy wine may have this much alcohol and no more. If we read more than that on the label we wonít like it, even if when we taste the wine blind it doesnít seem hot at all.  If you make a sugary table wine in Germany, we call it Auslese  or even Spatlese and it is traditional and it is good.  If it shows too sweet in Alsace, thatís a problem. It is not sufficiently traditional, even if, well, it doesnít seem much different than Spatlese and Auslese. Why? It has always been thus (or so they think) and always must be.

 The Hedonists, on the other hand, have no rules. Anything goes in pursuit of fun. We would be scared to give Hedonists the key to the Romanťe-Conti vineyard. We might wake up to find shiraz planted and pinot noir vines ripped out.

 The reality is that wine comes in many styles and flavors, and there is room for many different visions.  People are neither evil nor stupid for having preferences.  Letís resolve not to defend subjective choices with seemingly objective buzzwords. ďComplexityĒ is a neutral term, and in the eye of the beholder.  How ripe ďripeĒ has to be is often just a matter of taste. How old ďoldĒ should be is debatable.  Quality can be objectively judged up to a point, and then subjectivity takes over.  Most will want wines with some finish, some flavor, some harmony, some mid-palate concentration. In what proportions those elements arise, may be a matter of taste though.

 So, does this mean one can really never say anything about wine?

 How can anyone reviewing wines say anything at all? Is it all ďrelative?Ē No, as noted, there is an objective gauge up to a point.  Certainly, I write periodically that a particular wine is not my preferred style, but is a great example of it. More importantly, though, a critic should have a point of view.  Speaking in strong terms and making clear decisions inevitably comes from that criticís heart and soul. If you disagree with their vision, you may not agree with the final conclusions thereafter, although hopefully a decent job will be done identifying various objective criteria.  So, yes, I still reserve the right to say in strong and unequivocal terms, ďthis stinksĒ  and this method of winemaking ainít getting the job done.

 I tend to lean to the Hedonists, by the way, though my cellar is in fact almost half French. So, you figure out what that means. To me, it means I appreciate many different styles.

 So, we let the Intellectuals and Hedonists recommence warfare?  So much for trying to be understanding?  In a way,  yes. Itís not a bad thing to have a strong opinion.   To some extent itís all just as it should beóif only each group would recognize that their preferred goals and styles are not Holy Writ, and the members of the opposing group are not shiftless fools to whom one may condescend. Thatís where the problem comes in.  So, the next time I tell you that X wine is a total failure, know two things: (1) I believe what I say, so Iím giving you my best call; (2) I donít think youíre a fool if you disagree, as long as we both recognize the objective factors inherent in the wine before applying our subjective filters.

 Conviction. But with Respect. 

So, there you have it,  you fancier of old, cracked up wines that a dog wouldn't drink. Uh, sorry. That's for another article!



Copyright Mark Squires, © 2002 all rights reserved.