Judging A Wine On Its Own Merits

I recently came across this exchange between Wine Wonkette (Amy Corron-Power) and 1 Wine Dude (Joe Roberts) on Amy’s “Another Wine Blog” (which is up for a 2011 Wine Blogger Award–and BTW so is Joe’s blog).

  • Joe: “Do critics give decent ratings to wines that they don’t personally like but otherwise are made well, just in a style that they personally do not prefer? I know I do – and have been taken to task for it several times on-line, but have always come back to the fact that I try very hard to minimize (NOT exclude!) my personal preferences when it comes to coming up with a firm rating / recommendation.”
  • Amy: “I admire your ability to judge the wine on its merits versus simply your own personal taste.”

Interesting concept, but…

I don’t think there is any such thing as “judging” a wine on its merits.

No disrespect to Joe or Amy, but in my opinion the idea is an oxymoron on its face; it begs the question of the standard that is being used to judge. Judgements based on sensory evaluation by can never be completely objective, because individual taste will ALWAYS play a role.

That’s not to say there aren’t objective standards–there are. But these standards are based on laboratory analysis. The only objective standards that can be used to judge wine are based on quantitation of the levels of compounds related to universally-recognized wine flaws: things like TCA and acetic acid, or more exotic and uncommon things like geosmin and ochratoxin. Note I did NOT include things like levels of ethanol and 4-ethylphenol (Brettanomyces marker) as different people have different opinions as to how much there can/should be in a wine.

I could go so far as to say that if someone gave me enough money, I could develop an analytical program targeting compounds produced by molds (Aspergillis, Penicillium, Botrytis), spoilage bacteria (Lactobacillus, Pediococcus), yeasts (Pichia, Kloeckera, Brettanomyces, Schizosaccharomyces, and yes even Saccharomyces), insects such as multi-colored Asian ladybeetle, even smoke from fires–and predict from those results what fraction of the population would find a particular wine objectionable; sort of a reverse of the service provided by Enologix.

On the other hand, someone could just hand me a glass and ask me what I think. I will tell you my opinion. With more authority than 99% of the wine “reviewers” out there. I have the résumé to back this up, and it does not include any letters such as “CMS” or “WSET”.

16 thoughts on “Judging A Wine On Its Own Merits

  1. Thomas Pellechia


    Your post illustrates exactly why for many years I have called for two things that I believe would make critical evaluations and judgments less subjective, if not ever completely objective:

    a set of industry-agreed upon standards by which to judge wines (as it is, each competition/critical analysis has its own methods);

    an army of sensory and analytically trained judges/critics, not to make evaluation a technical function, as those who always misunderstand my desire–on purpose–but to secure some measure of expertise for the process.

    Having said that, I agree with Joe on his point that it is possible to evaluate a wine style that is not to one’s liking. I have done it multiple times as a judge. For instance, I am no fan of wines produced from the Niagara grape, but as I reside and have judged in New York, I am forced to sometimes encounter them. I know what a Niagara is supposed to smell and taste like, and I know something about wine flaws, too. With that knowledge, I can–and do–judge Niagara on its merits, not on what I truly think of the grape or the style of wine it produces. Actually, it is quite simple to do, as long as there are no technical flaws with which to deal.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Thomas – I agree–it is possible to evaluate wine critically while maintaining some distance from personal preference. It is possible, but it is not common.

      There are “industry-agreed upon standards by which to judge wines”, which I alluded to in this post when I discussed the merits of laboratory analysis. One can train to identify the correlation between sensory feedback and analytical result. But few do. Frankly, this is the purview of of the professional winemaker and consultant, not the professional wine “expert,” writer or reviewer. In my next post I will recount some of my own experiences in this pursuit.

      I understand and respect that there are accrediting organizations that ostensibly exist to train people to a higher level of expertise. My cynical side believes that these organizations (and the services that have sprung up around them to help people obtain certification–for a fee) exist more to perpetuate and aggrandize themselves than to “certify” expertise. It may be un-American of me to point this out, but memorizing parts of McNeil’s book (or Herbsts’), working through Le Nez du Vin, and/or practicing to be able to identify the difference between a 2005 Echezeaux and a 2009 Kosta-Browne Pinot in a blind tasting–don’t prepare one to make dispassionate critical evaluation of wine at a professional level.

  2. Thomas Pellechia


    I did not make myself clear–either that or you can’t read me 😉

    I know there are technical standards in the wine industry, but what I am referring to is setting common standards in the judging and evaluation industry. As you point out, some people prefer a level of Brett. that others do not. That’s plain stupid if you are applying it to critical evaluation of a product’s merits. Most evaluation, in my view, is about the evaluator rather than about the wine–you know, “I’m a 95 on that wine.”

    Re, the accrediting stuff–I agree with you completely. I don’t think that what they do has anything to do with evaluating the merits of wine, at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from having met many of the graduates.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Thomas – It was me that did not make myself clear: it is un-American to insist on “setting common standards in the judging and evaluation industry.” 😉 Aren’t we all created equal?

  3. Steve Slatcher

    Couldn’t agree more. In fact I agree so much I was blogging on pretty much the same topic yesterday. And BTW I do have WSET certification – albeit at a rather modest level – but please don’t hold that against me 😉

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Steve – well done you for getting the WSET cert. Not sure I was clear that I believe any education is a wonderful thing.

      But let’s agree that having that accreditation doesn’t necessarily qualify one to give me feedback on how to make my wines “better.” 😀

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Yes, and everybody is a winner, and all opinions are equally valid under every value system. But seriously–that whole “all men are created equal” bit has been taken too far. Yes, we are all created equal under law. But if we were all actually created equal, I’d be a famous singer/songwriter, scratch golfer, Nobel Prize winner in quantum physics. Transitively, there are very few people born who can do what I do (though I do it only moderately well by my own lights).

  4. Steve Slatcher

    Agreed. Neither does it qualify me to judge your wines. The best thing I can say is that it maybe helps me better understand why I like some wines and not others. And, even more importantly for me, helps me find the ones I am more likely to enjoy.

  5. 1WineDude

    Hi all. I have something to add here (hopefully it is of actual value! :).

    With respect to critiquing wine (“judging” is such a loaded, terrible term, isn’t it?), if you have built up a following of any appreciable size as a critic then I think you have a few obligations (more “moral-ish” than “legal-ish,” obviously): call it as you see it, be as consistent as possible, & constantly try to improve.

    In that context, I can bring in some personal preferences for Brett tolerance, for example, and make a “call” on a wine rating based on that, and have it be valid – because even though part of it is entirely subjective, people follow my comments about a wine (god help them! 🙂 in part because their tastes align with mine. So there are, for sure, 1WD readers who have similarly lower tolerances for Brett, for example. To them, a lower “rating” of a wine in that case is a valid one. Sure, it a “lemming” effect could be argued but in the case of 1WD as an example, it’s pretty clear that I encourage people to formulate their own tastes & then disagree with me, and that I don’t view my rating on a wine as definitive, etc.

    Regarding the certifications, etc.: What the WSET stuff does, to Thomas’s point, is help me set as much of the objective portion of tasting / review up front as I can, which I think in turn helps to minimize (NOT eliminate – that’s impossible) the subjective portion. But the point here, for me, is that the subjective portion is not somehow invalid simply because it’s subjective. It’s validated by the thousands of people who continue to read them, which is why I’ve no interest in engaging in criticism that is totally objective and dispassionate.


  6. John M. Kelly Post author

    Joe – I’m not arguing that rendering experienced opinion on wines has no merit. I believe that relying on the subjective evaluations of those with more experience is hard-wired into our genetics. This kind of work has clear value, easily measured in the number people who follow you, or Charlie, or Steve, or GV, or RP or even James Suckling (however ironically).

    I’m not even arguing that an experienced subjective evaluator can’t provide a positive evaluation of a wine they don’t like–“this wine is not to my taste but it is well-made, true-to-type, and someone out there will probably like it”–the proverbial left-handed compliment.

    What I am arguing against is the semantics of the discussion, the vagueness evident in the way that words like “judgement” and “merits” are employed. These terms, and many others related to criticism, are by definition subjective. The ability of an experienced evaluator to render a left-handed compliment does not make one any more “objective.”

  7. 1WineDude

    John, I disagree fundamentally that a critic awarding what they consider to be a fair ‘grade’ to something which is in diametric opposition to their personal subjective tastes as being a back-handed compliment. I know from my personal experience that doing it takes a lot of focus and gumption and a relatively clear head (at least, it does for me, maybe it comes more easily to others). I’ve gotten flak from the Internet peanut gallery for giving badges or grades to some wines that were higher than what those people *personally* thought the wines ‘deserved’ but I stand by those decisions and grades and don’t consider them small beer.

    In terms of the semantics, I completely agree with you. The language is bound by multiple meanings in the words that we use, like Russian – it’s not binary, and we’re stuck with it. It makes me a little queasy to think about ratings as passing judgments, because when it comes to really fine wine it’s kind of like trying to put Picasso paintings into some kind of talent show where they are pitted against each other in a bizarre form of competition, but one that’s ultimately meaningless because if you dog the Blue period more than I do then it doesn’t matter at all what I think of the Blue period or how I would ‘score’ it. I’ve written at length about that on 1WD, and I’ve never fully come to terms with it (don’t think I ever will, actually).

  8. John M. Kelly Post author

    Joe – Thanks for the very lucid and self-aware acknowledgement of the semantic dilemma that will forever be present in this discussion.

    Regarding my characterization of a critic giving a positive evaluation to a wine they don’t “like” as a left-handed compliment: frankly, that’s how I look at it – both from my perspective as a producer as well as a consumer.

    If you acknowledge that your evaluations are subjective, and that people are choosing to read you because they find your particular POV helpful in guiding them to wines they will also “like,” then doesn’t giving a good score to a wine you don’t like do them a disservice?

  9. 1WineDude

    I don’t see a conflict in terms of not doing right by my readers in those situations, because I’m guessing part of why they read me is because they know that is part of how I review wines. If I am anything, it’s transparent about what I’m doing. 🙂

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Joe you have been transparent in all the time I have read you–transparent in a good way, not “thin and shallow, easy to see through” 😉


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