Friday, August 08, 2014

Knowing what's good for you

For the better part of 25 years of my professional life, I firmly believed that my notion of a 'good' and a less good wine mattered rather a lot. I was bolstered in this belief by newspaper, magazine and book publishers who payed me to express my views on paper, and by the astonishing success of the International Wine Challenge of which I was co-founder and co-chairman.

Admittedly my notion of 'good' did not always coincide with other critics' but that's the nature of criticism after all. The arbiters of taste who failed to share my enthusiasm - or lack of it - for a particular wine were quite simply wrong. As of course were the consumers who were sufficiently deluded to follow their advice. As a Brit, I naturally particularly equated this wrongness with some of the top US critics. How could they possibly like the over-alcoholic, over-oaked, over-priced red  monstrosities to which they regularly awarded points in the high 90s?

Today, my views have changed pretty radically. I still am clear in my mind about a good and a bad wine but I'm far readier to try to understand why others think differently. It's rather like no longer saying about apparently mismatched couples that "I can't imagine what he/she sees in her/him", but trying to understand the attraction. I personally don't choose to spend my money on Starbucks coffee or Big Macs or Krispy Kreme donuts but I can see why so many people do so - in preference to what I might have chosen.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of what they are used to, culturally or socially; we all inherit and adopt tastes. Sometimes the appeal lies in something other than the flavour. I'm writing this in rural France where non-Frenchmen and women who regularly holiday and quite possibly have houses here, attune themselves to happily consume rustic wine they'd complain about if it were offered to them in their own countries. People wanting to embrace 'natural' wine also recalibrate their palates to accept smells and tastes they would previously have rejected. When in Rome...

The brain can also find a reward in consuming something that is said to be 'good' or 'expensive'. I'll bet that many of the less well-off people who apparently relish the occasional opportunity to eat Foie Gras or caviar would not choose to make either a regular part of their diet if they won the lottery. I know of plenty who'll drink Champagne when offered it, but actually prefer Prosecco and, to return to my point about Starbucks, there are those who unashamedly admit to liking Nescafé more than a freshly brewed 'real' coffee.

To the critics, it's all a matter of education. Of teaching the misguided and unsophisticated what they should appreciate. That principle can work very well, of course. Even today, I'm occasionally surprised and heartened by someone saying that their journey into the higher levels of wine enthusiasm was helped at an early stage by something I may have written or said 20 years ago. And those moments reassure me that I wasn't wasting my time - and that the critics writing today aren't wasting theirs either. But I've shifted my perspective.

I still use my knowledge and experience - and personal opinion - of what's good and bad when judging at competitions like the IWC or Mundus Vini, when working with consultancy clients or when benchmarking our Le Grand Noir wines against competitors'. But I'm increasingly intolerant of intolerant critics. I know when I'm right, but I'm far less confident of saying that others are wrong. After all, those Big Californian wines I thought so little of are still selling well at the prices I laughed at, and the critics who praised them still have their audiences. And the art critics who mocked their colleagues for supporting - what they thought to be - meretricious artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are still waiting for time to prove them right.


6 comments:

  1. Ha, welcome to my world. What took you so long. We're all different and welcome to own view on taste of wine or coffee. Just wrote a column with Apothic as wine of the week. I said I don't like it and critics all hate it but i know lots of people will love it. No one is critical if you put sugar in coffee but are very judgmental of people who like it in wine

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  2. Precisely Martin. In fact I've been in your world for quite a while... (And writing quite a lot - for professionals - about Apothic). But I hadn't previously quite found the way to put those thoughts into words...

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  3. I believe that it was Michael Broadbent who on being asked what was a good wine replied " If it tastes good, it is good" Like truth and beauty - all you need to know.

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    1. That echoes my thoughts - but runs counter to the way many critics refer to wines recommended by others with whom they disagree.

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  4. Anonymous11:06 am

    Very agreeable, Robert. Maybe I should give you my father’s (bemusing) palate for homework. On second thoughts, you’ve enough to do. What can I say. Wine’s nebulous. A simple drink one minute, a craft or art, the next. Sometimes it gets greedy and wants to be all of those at once. A very nice customer said yesterday that she only buys what she can taste because while she trusted my advice, she doesn’t have the words to explain what she likes and/or why she likes it. I’ve got news. I speak (fairly) fluent winespeak and sometimes have the same problem. Like many things in life, it’s a subjective consumable.

    The Secret Wine Adviser

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