HOW MUCH IS YOUR (WINE) NOSE WORTH?
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Robert Parker, considered the most influential critic in the world of wine, insured his nose for 1,000,000 U.S. Dollars.
In the early 1980’s, Parker devised a point system where each wine was given a mark out of 100. Since then, generations of wine critics adopted his numerical rating and ruled the world wine industry for the decades to follow. Their reviews - found in books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, online and/or in sales wine literature - have been long used by consumers and merchants in the process of deciding which wine to buy, thus making selling and buying wines easier while ultimately turning fine wines into luxury goods.
According to Merriam-Webster a critic is basically someone who engages professionally in the analysis, evaluation and appreciation of things such as books, films, music, art and wine. So a critic (from Latin criticus: judge) is a person who is capable of judging something. My points: are all wine critics capable of judging and - if that is the case - of judging objectively? Do wine critics matter because their opinions are better than ours? Are wine critics still necessary in the age of facebook, twitter, blogs, talk shows, and social-networking ?
I am not a wine critic, I am an Italian wine specialist and a sommelier who shares his knowledge and experiences with his wine-loving readers. Since I don’t belong to any lobby, I am free to “criticise” by maintaining all my objections to Parker’s point scale which, among others, has introduced the very much flawed concept of “perfect” wine. Little that you know, Parker has granted his full 100/100 "perfect" score to more than 500 (!) commercially available wines, mostly French Bordeaux Chateaux and American Napa Cabernets, intentionally ignoring – I believe – that:
a) it doesn’t exist a perfect wine – let alone 500 of them - being the latter an organic, living thing under the cork accomplished by human – and therefore fallacious - endeavor ("every bottle of wine is different" anyone?);
b) all his "perfect" scores are the results of “his” individual and subjective judgement.
Though the intention of the 100-point system for rating wine was initially based on the idea of advocacy for the consumer, it gradually grew into a lucrative business causing negative collateral effects in the wine industry, notably:
c) the new wine scoring methodology pushed many producers to plant grape varieties deemed more likely to score higher points in the attempt to achieve the style of wine Parker, and other major wine critics, liked;
d) wine merchants started selling wine based on its 100-point scores instead of its objective qualities;
e) producers started to remunerate wine critics in exchange of laudatory reviews and higher scores in favor of their wines;
f) the 100-point scale is more like a 50-point scale: wines receive a score starting from 50 points above so the scale starts from “50-59-Unacceptable” up but reviews are given only to wines scoring 80 and above. In the end the 100-point scale is basically a 20-point scale.
Despite the damages, numerical ratings proved to be useful in the past and somehow still are, particularly to those buyers who know little about wine or who never venture beyond their wine comfort zone. Today, however, consumers are exposed to wines through fairs, stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, tastings, seminars, courses etc. which allow them to try different wines and increase their knowledge without having to directly invest resources.
More than 10,000 new wines are released commercially each year worldwide and the average consumer can't even begin to sample enough wines to make a comprehensive conscious selection: so wine lovers and wine merchants alike could really use some kind of orientation from wine experts who are supposed to evaluate as many wines as possible and report their findings to consumers with the purpose of orienting them to drink better.
If all the above is not confusing enough, from another point of view some Old World and New World modern wine writers and wine educators recently started to argue more or less aggressively that we are all entitled to our own opinions on wine, and if an individual thinks that a wine is great, then - to him - it is. This like what you like approach may sound wonderfully democratic (everyone’s opinion is of equal value and judging a wine is a subjective matter) - instead - it is misleading and it serves no educational purpose.
Saying that tasting wine is merely a subjective exercise it is a dishonest complaisance. There are tens of thousands wines out there, of different quality and price, and thousands more awaiting to be discovered. An endless choice of bottles to select from which, for those who are not or little familiar with wine, could be a very difficult task no matter their taste buds’ inherent potential.
Mind you, among wine professionals the discussion about subjectivity and objectivity of judgment has never been theoretical. In fact, we are all different individuals, we all have our own history, experiences and education that in time shaped differently our perceptions. And we all have a different biology; for instance some people are more sensitive to bitterness or sweetness, others are unable to smell specific aromas etc. But if we smell in wine vanilla and we deduce that wine has been aged in American oak barrels or we taste fruits and flowers aromas in a wine and assume that it has been vinificated at low temperatures, then we must have learned that somewhere.
It is true that wine is an acquired taste but we still have to use our knowledge to discern its factual properties. This doesn’t mean though that wine tasting is subjective. Tasting cannot be only subjective because it is a combination of objective and subjective experiences, so wine tasting is basically a learned discipline where both subjective and objective play into the process.
Today, with the world wine market being so complex and multifaceted, knowledge is an important factor supporting your decisions. Your palate is certainly important in order to determine your best choice but wine is not only an object of pleasure but also an object of knowledge, and the pleasure depends on the knowledge. You cannot judge or criticize what you don’t know or what you cannot understand.
Roman author Pliny The Elder’s (AD 24-79) nose must have been remarkable as well, since he is considered the very first wine critic of all times. Pliny’s extensive writings on “first growths” encompassed Falernian, the legendary cult wine of ancient Rome. In his writings Pliny recorded the best “denominations of origin” of modern-day Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Tuscany and Campania regions providing tasting notes after having personally visited the finest vineyards of his time.
In 2020 the title of "Best Italy Wine Critic of the World" was awarded in Helsinki to James Suckling (JS).
So here is how JS approaches a glass of wine for review: “I use 15 points for color, 25 for aromas, 25 for body and structure, and 35 for overall impressions. So I work that through in my mind. With red wines, you're looking for relationships between alcohol, fruit, tannin, and acidity, and white wines obviously less on phenolics but more on the balance of fruit and acidity."
I respect JS very much however, I would rather do what the Italian critic Antonio Galloni does: “The process of reviewing a wine starts before actually picking up the glass. I spend about six months of each year on the road visiting vineyards (like Pliny the Elder) and speaking with winemakers in order to understand the essence of what is in the glass. Usually I will have tasted multiple vintages of a wine, and, in many cases, will have tasted the wine from barrel before tasting the bottled wine for review. This means that when I pick up that glass I have in mind the fullest context possible about what I am tasting. As I taste a wine, I mostly look for the positives, while remaining mindful of any flaws or defects. Some of the key attributes I look for are an expression of grape, vintage and place, complexity, persistence and, in the world’s top regions, the ability of wines to develop with age.”
At the end of the day you should be knowledgeable about wine not only by buying and drinking it: taste, study, experiment with as many as possible, become a sort of a wine critic yourself, for your own sake: knowing your wines will make you a conscious and happier wine lover. Plus, as a consequence, you will learn that there are wines which are objectively good. You will be able not only to choose the right wines for you but also – surprise! – you will find out that those very wines you have chosen are usually appreciated by the majority of wine critics, wine magazines and wine connoisseurs alike.
As always I stand with Luigi Veronelli, the visionary Italian oeno-gastronomist and wine philosopher who in the 1950’s, long before Robert Parker, used to say: “The sense of taste, by itself, is not sufficient to create relationships between wine, food, palate and culture; only through education you will obtain pleasures that are not only sensory and sensual but also reflections of your soul…”
My answer to the title?
Your nose is worth every Peso you have spent in wines and wine education!