Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blind faith

The way wine critics taste and assesss wine professionally has very little in common with the way most normal mortals consume it on a daily basis. And in some ways the professionals' method is fundamentally flawed. A bit of contextual information can, after all, make a huge difference to the accuracy of the way anything is assessed. I was reminded of this by a report by the Independent art critic, Thomas Sutcliffe, of the ‘Secret’ exhibition at the Royal College of Art. This annual event consists of 2,600 postcard-sized pictures by students at the college and – in presumably rather fewer numbers – by world famous artists. And, it’s the nearest the art world ever gets to a blind tasting, because all of the works are unsigned and on offer for the same price. – £35. So the picture you buy could be a good or bad original by a reputed master, or a good or bad copy or pastiche by a student.
Setting them out in this way, Sutcliffe says, levels down, rather than up. ‘Deprived of the normal guidelines for taste – track record and name and contemporary fashjion – you’re as likely to find yourself thinking that there’s not much to choose between acknowledged talent and unknowns as you are reassured that quality will always shine out... It really is quite difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and a sophisticared imitation of incompetence’.
Critics as illustrious as Clive Coates eschew blind tas ing completely, reasoning that, for example, some producers’ wines, look far better or worse at particular stages of their evolution . Giving a verdict after a single anonymous encounter is like taking a photograph of horses when they are half-way around the track – ignoring the fact that the grey that’s lagging behind the others has a history of putting on a late sprint into the winners’ enclosure. And what about the bottles twhose contents are let down by a less than great, but not actively TCA-laden, cork?
Other critics allow themselves the freedom to review their marks and words after the labels have been revealed if a wine seems atypical. But this kind of correction-by-hindsight inevitably carries its own dangers. A pair of winemaking friends in France told me of a fascinating tasting they had set up with a group of fellow enthusiasts. It all started out in a completely traditional way. Eight bottles of red were set out for assesment in camouflaged bottles. Marks were collected and totaled and an order of preference was anounced. When the results were set against the unmasked bottles, the tasters were surprised to find that they were quite different from what might have been expected. In particular, the wine they had almost all liked best most bore the label of an estate in Bandol, while the similarly near-unanimous loser carried the unmistakeable livery of Chateau Margaux. Naturally everyone present reviewed their notes and marks and poured themselves fresh samples.
Witth the knowledge they now had, the tasters were able to find qualities in the claret they’s previously missed. It was, they agreed, typical of a young M├ędoc to underperform at this stage of its career. And so the conversation continued, until the hosts revealed the cruel trick they had played. In fact, neither Margaux nor Bandol had featured in the tasting. All the wines had been produced iin various other parts of Languedoc Roussillon and decanted into empty bottles from more illustrious regions. As it happens, I wasn’t one of those who were duped at that event, but I might easily have been. And so might almost every other wine lover.
A few weeks ago I spent some time walking around an exhibition of what I thought were Cartier Bresson photographs (I was in the Fondation Cartier Bresson in Paris) marvelling at tthe Gallic master’s characteristic style and skill. Thanks to poor signposting, I’d carefully looked at 20 or 30 pictures before discovering that they’d all been taken by a brilliant near-contemporary called Inge Thorman.
Unfortunately for those who favour a world divided neatly between black and white, the human brain is not and can never be, an analytical machine. We all carry the baggage of previous experience and knowledge. Ultimately, we all have to choose our own way to judge everything around us – and remain ready to be made fools of all too regularly.

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