Your Taste, My Taste

The perennial question of objectivity in wine evaluation has been rehashed lately in the trade media. While the main focus has been calls for "objectivity," in the sense of "freedom from undue commercial influence" (a standard to which wine writers apparently must adhere, while our political leaders -- among others -- are given a pass) the discussion has occasionally digressed into the subjectivity of tasting, bias, and shopworn criticism of the 100-point tasting scale.

When I have put in my two cents it has been to assert that I am in the camp of "all tasting is subjective and hedonic." This was on my mind this morning as I woke up, thinking of an old winemaking acquaintance for whom this certainly must be true.

This guy (I'll call him Chet) was the winemaker at a place I worked early in my career. I knew Chet before we worked together, and had tasted wines with him on several occasions. After I started working for him we were involved in much more intensive blending tastings. We never agreed.

To my taste, the wines Chet preferred were fruity and flabby with hints of salad dressing in the finish. Years later we were at a casual dinner with winemakers around the table; one guy popped a very respectable bottle of Chardonnay made in the classic California style. Nine winemakers at the table were saying more or less complimentary things about the wine. Apparently unable to contain himself, Chet popped out with "too much f***ing oak!" The rest of us sort of stared at our plates for a second, reacting as though drunken Uncle Diddles had just told a really off-color joke at the family reunion.

I was embarrassed for Chet. More than disagreeing with him, in my youthful arrogance I actively thought he was full of crap, and I simply could not take him seriously any longer. We didn't speak to each other for years. Eventually I evolved, and came to realize that he was right -- within his worldview at least.

I came to realize and accept that Chet's career aspiration was to make the perfect mass-market wine. He was working from a different archetype than I was, a different ur-form. Chet's archetype came in a jug, or a box. He could understand and in his own context appreciate great wines, but those were not the wines he wanted to make. And these days I would say good on him -- the wines he wanted to make are the wines most Americans seem to want to drink, if sales volume is any indication.

What I was thinking of as I woke today was "what is my own archetype?" Certainly I have one -- one wine that has influenced all the wines I have produced over the years. Certainly it is not a Parker archetype. "Cocktail" wines leave me cold, and I have no experience making what would constitute a "good" one -- nor do I aspire to. Surprisingly, I found that my archetype is not a Pinot, though I love making Pinot, and probably drink more Pinot and red Burgundy of a certain style than anything else. Likewise my archetype is not a great Rhone, though I do love wines of Cote Rotie, Cornas, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

No, I go back to my early teens for a wine I had with a family dinner. This was in Houston in the late 60’s or early 70’s. My dad took the family to a little Basque restaurant in a nearby mall, for my first taste of paella. Back in the day in Houston, you weren’t likely to find a Basque wine on the list even at a Basque restaurant, much less a decent Spanish wine, and very few French wines for that matter. But you could find decent Italian wines. Dad ordered a Valpolicella, probably the first one I ever tasted -- surely the first one that I recall tasting.

The recollection of that wine is still with me. I remember aromas of dried cherries and citrus peel, briar and marzipan. The wine was full in the mouth, but not flabby, with good body and acid, and enough tannin to grab at my youthfully sensitive palate. And I recall that the combination with the saffron in the paella was more than the sum of its parts. This was maybe my first experience of a great food wine.

So, yeah, this is where my brain goes when I seek to make sense of a wine I’m putting together. I’m looking for complexity in the nose, with a balance of fruit and woodsy elements, and a structure in the mouth that balances acid and tannin -- my rhetorical square. And overall I’m looking for food-friendliness. All in all, that’s an archetype I can be satisfied with -- a 100-point wine.

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