Image stolen from Two Friars & A Fool,
a blog by a US Presbyterian minister
with whom I reckon - as a confirmed agnostic -
I could enjoy a good conversation.
“The pursuit of excellence…”, “giving it your upmost”, “striving for perfection”…
All unarguably admirable idealistic mission statements, but how often are they really relevant in the real world? Even the most cursory thought would reveal that there are all sorts of products and services we encounter every day which patently don’t – and can’t – live up to these ideals. The experience you get in the back of an airplane must, by definition, be less ‘excellent’ than the one in Business Class. Otherwise there would be no point in paying the supplement to sit in those more hallowed seats. And the same – in spades – obviously should apply to First Class where 'perfection' is still tempered by a need to maintain profitability..
Do you really imagine that Apple gives us everything it possibly can when it releases the top model of its latest iPhone? Of course not. Back in the company labs in Cupertino, there are engineers who already know what the model after next will be able to do; what they are offering us now is something that is good enough to dazzle potential consumers and cast a shadow over the competition.
Winemakers may strive for excellence but all too often they fall short and end up producing something that’s ‘remarkably good for the vintage’ – the best they can manage after a season beset with untimely drought or flood. Even when they are blessed by more ideal conditions, who’s to provide the definition of ‘excellence’. I have a friend in Southern France who was happy to have produced a Parker 90+ wine which, unsurprisingly, sold more easily and at a higher price than her other cuvée which the US critic had only thought worth 87, but she rated more highly. Was she expected to choose which of these two quite different ‘excellences’ she should make in the following vintages? Or was she to go on making both? And if excellence is debatable, perfection is, by its very nature, well-nigh unattainable
There are plenty of authors whose quest for (their notion of) perfection leads to writer's block and/or an unwillingness to expose their words to the world. And inventors who miss the boat. It was Voltaire who coined the phrase "Perfect is the enemy of good": better to give your guests something - anything - to eat than to leave them starving while you struggle with an intractable recipe. (This Forbes piece by Victor Lipman is worth reading about overcoming excessive perfectionism in business)
The words ‘fit for purpose’ have a much less inspiring ring than references to excellence and perfection, but I admire their honesty. The purpose of the brown paper bag familiar to food shoppers in New York is very different to the purpose of a $10,000 Hermes handbag, but both have to live up to the expectations of the person carrying them. I find the expression helpful when considering wines like White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio and Moscato that regularly attract the disdain of opinion formers. Critics approach these styles – at professional tastings - with the same set of analytical tools as they would apply to a premier cru Burgundy. And not surprisingly they find them wanting. It’s as though a Michelin inspector had been let loose on a sandwich. Saying that a commercial Pinot Grigio does not taste of very much is like complaining about the unsophisticated humour in a comedy movie aimed at teenagers. And if high volume Pinot Grigio producers gave their wine the flavour the critics call for, there's a very high chance that many of the millions of PG drinkers in bars across the globe would simply switch to a more neutral alternative - because that's the kind of stuff they're looking for to quaff mindlessly while focusing on the far more important business of gossip.
But just as it applies to Hermes handbags, ‘fit for purpose’ also applies to wines at the highest levels. Am I really alone in thinking that wines like the extravagantly-priced 2013 Bordeaux whose cellaring potential is acknowledged to be limited, actually fail the test that a cheap Pinot Grigio passes with flying colours? They don’t do what their most likely customers reasonably expect of them.