This week we are very lucky to have Michael Fridjhon, Wine Columnist of the Year in the Louis Roederer Wine Writing Awards 2012, as our guest blogger on the Horse’s Mouth. Following our blog post on competitions, he writes about the overload of information available in the digital age and the shares his views on wine assessment.
The digital age has transformed the way we access information, the way we process it, and the value we ascribe to it. The internet and its search engines yield up in seconds data that only two decades ago would have required a professional researcher endowed with limitless time and endless resources. Newspapers and magazines carry reports which previously were the content of esoteric publications. No one can seriously suggest that the decision-makers of the 21st century are forced to arrive at their conclusions in an unavoidable state of ignorance.
That said, it is equally true that much of what is available is unsifted, raw and of uncertain quality. Search engines do not distinguish between stupidity, disinformation and the real thing. It is easier today to create and perpetuate a myth among literate people than at any time in the past century. It is not just that we are burdened with too much data – though this undoubtedly a component of the problem. It is that, confronted with so much information – all apparently of comparable quality – sometimes the most accessible, rather than the most reliable, lands up being used.
Enthusiastic amateurs – in whatever field – can become self-published bloggers, offering their opinions unmediated by an editor or a publisher. This makes the verification of source material more important now than at any time in the past. While this can be done with relative ease in an environment where performance criteria can be imposed, and the results monitored, it is particularly problematic where the reviewer attempts to assess the worth of an object of aesthetic pleasure. Commentary can only be about preference, which is necessarily subjective. When it comes to judgements about wine, for example, there is no easy way of comparing the aptitudes of critics or the impartiality of their views. In addition, for qualitative wine judgement to be effective, it must go about its task free of the influence of brand or marketing message.
However, tasting blind – in other words – without any idea of who the producer might be, also has limitations. Deprived of data relating to pedigree, even the most competent tasters cannot pass comment on the potential complexity or longevity of a wine. In this respect, the best that can reasonably be expected is a judgement on whether or not it can sustain bottle age. The more important question – will it evolve and develop the complexity which sometimes comes with secondary and tertiary characters – requires a knowledge of the site, and a sense of the history of other vintages of the same wine.
There is little doubt – except perhaps among producers whose reputations rest primarily on their marketing efforts – that a tasting exercise (conducted by trained and competent judges) where the provenance of a wine has been concealed is the closest thing we have to an objective assessment of quality. Stripped of its brand attributes, what is in the glass is the result of what the winemaker achieved with the material at his disposal. The best treatment of the best grapes is the winning wine in the context of such as tasting.
If the panellists at a competition have applied themselves to the class of wines laid out before them, focusing on how the samples present themselves at that moment in time, they have done the job expected of them. They cannot be expected to pronounce on the distant future. For this the serious wine buyer needs to go elsewhere and examine the track record of the producer. Punters who go to the yearling sales judge the colts and fillies for what they are. They must then look to the pedigree to formulate an idea of what they are likely to achieve.
Consumers who use ‘blind’ tastings and show results to direct their purchases should bear this in mind. For enhanced accuracy, they should apply their own judgement to the competitions, investigating the aptitude of the panellists, the methodology and integrity of the judging system, the coherence of the show ‘message’ over a period of time. They should also be ready to take a longer term view by consulting ‘sighted’ reviews – such as the annual Platter Guide.
The business of wine assessment is inexact, but isn’t arbitrary. It doesn’t always achieve consensus. A high hit rate, as few duds as possible, and the occasional gold-seam is probably the best outcome possible.
Michael Fridjhon is the Director of The Reciprocal Wine Trading Company, South Africa’s oldest and most respected fine wine importer. He is the Director of WineX which will be held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 24 – 26 October 2012 and he also contributes to the well respected Grape blog.