Are Winemakers “Bad” Tasters?

“The Tasting Panel” magazine is one of those small wine publications that boosts its circulation by sending free copies to wineries and other trade outlets. Otherwise I would have missed this gem of a column by editor-in-chief Anthony Dias Blue:

Why Are Most Winemakers Terrible Tasters?

Some years ago, I called out a certain large winery about their wines, which were consistently overwhelmed with vegetal flavors. The winemaker couldn’t understand what I was talking about. To him, the wines tasted exactly the way they were supposed to taste. He had become cellar blind.

Winemakers seem obsessed with flaws. Clearly, many American winemakers have been taught in their university courses to put each wine through a rigorous check list of defects. They are adept at breaking a wine into many pieces. This obsessive attention to detail can obscure the view of the wine as a whole… to miss the individuality and character of a wine. The wine completely without flaws is going to be a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable wine.

When I became director of the San Francisco Competition one of my first official acts was to nicely but firmly tell all winemaker judges to stay home.

Then, paradoxically and apparently without irony, ADB finishes his piece with:

Winemakers, listen up. Go out there and taste other wines, a lot of other wines. Maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge and, more important, it’s sure to make your own wines better.

Tony, Tony, Tony… where to start? First off, I’m going to dismiss the assertion that a wine without flaws is always, by definition, “a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable.” This apologia—that there is a distinction between flaws and faults, and that the former are forgivable in certain wines while the latter are not—seems to be making the rounds just now in the various media. This is hogwash. There is no distinction. And while flaws/faults can be tolerated at certain levels (levels which vary from taster to taster and flaw to flaw) they are never to be celebrated.

Secondly, it is a winemaker’s job to say: “I am making this wine to taste like THIS, not like THAT.” Every winemaker does this—each of us has an archetype, an ur-form, an ideal that informs and inspires the profile of each wine we choose to make. This is not “cellar blindness”, it’s conviction.

Third, again, it is our job to be able to thoroughly deconstruct any wine and identify flaws. Any winemaker that can’t do this doesn’t deserve the title. And the ability to do this is a prerequisite natural talent—not something “taught in university courses.” Some winemakers choose to intersect professionally with wine only in this mode, but every one I know (and that is a considerable number) in their personal relationship with wine appreciates the whole, and understands individuality and character—perhaps on a level a mere wine judge can only dream of.

And that leads to my final point. It was Anthony’s exhortation that “maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge” that I found utterly risible, in that it’s ridiculousness had me nearly falling off my chair with laughter. Anthony seems have to have forgotten something. The Right StuffIn the world of wine, us winemakers are the astronauts. We are the ones with the training, the skills, the talent, the intuition, the guts—the right stuff—to fly this thing. Guys like Anthony are the ground crew: indispensable, talented, specialized. We couldn’t do what we do without them. But we don’t aspire to do what they do.

No, I think it’s Anthony and his like in the ground crew that need to get out more. They have fallen into the same sort of complacent trap exhibited by Howard Chua-Eoan in the misogynistic bit of dross he recently penned for TIME Magazine, “13 Gods Of Food“. In her exquisite riposte, chef Amanda Cohen notes:

One thing we all have to keep in mind when reading these pieces… is that Mr. Chua-Eoan can only include what he knows and, like most editors, he spends so much time typing that he can’t get out into the world like the rest of us and see what’s actually going on. Instead, he’s trapped in a bubble, going to the same parties again and again, seeing the same chefs over and over, fighting for gift bags at the same events as all the other food editors.

Mr. Chua-Eoan can’t get out into restaurants like us normal people and meet chefs on his own… [he] is not so lucky. He has to meet chefs at special events which, as we all know, have their own problems inviting women. It’s a human centipede out there and instead of criticizing we should all just count ourselves lucky our mouths aren’t stitched to some event organizer’s anus.

I don’t have the same level of disdain for wine editors that Chef Cohen apparently has for their counterparts in food media, but her point about “the bubble” is as real in our industry as it is in hers. I believe that folks in the wine media simply can’t get out enough to know what is really going on.

Anthony Dias Blue’s view of winemakers and their tasting modes are clearly based on just a few anecdotes. According to the frequently mis-quoted UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger, anecdotes ARE data—but only when you have enough anecdotes. As my fellow winemaker (and excellent taster) Tyler Thomas commented when I pointed out ADB’s column to him, statistical certainty is dependent on sample size.

But really, I do get it that it’s a lot of work acquiring an adequate sample size to understand how winemakers actually taste wine in the wild. It’s just so much easier for guys like Anthony Dias Blue to create an under-informed, simpleminded fiction. And their readers will never know how they are being misled.

7 thoughts on “Are Winemakers “Bad” Tasters?

  1. DR

    Cellar blind eh?
    Perhaps Mr Blue doesn’t have an understanding of how flavors (as distinct from tastes) are formed and perceived. He fails to acknowledge that the input for flavor is largely via smelling (retro-nasal olfaction) and that various anosmias and other degrees of sensitivity are often genetically encoded. As such, even though we’re all the same species, tolerances will vary, at the baseline as well as after experience.
    You can train to improve, as you can train your ears to improve, but the limits and construction of flavors will differ from person to person – with limits.
    Bit of a self righteous proclamation by Mr Blue.

    Additionally, it’s not entirely clear to me how the paragraph about “training to detect flaws” is related to the one immediately proceeding it. Mr Blue seems to be pointing out a perceived fault (under-ripeness??) to the wine maker in question, then goes on to deride the idea of tasting for faults.
    What have I missed?

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      I don’t think ADB has a problem understanding how flavors and tastes are perceived. However, there is no question in my mind that he is “competition blind”. The thrust of his piece is basically: “if you don’t like and dislike the things in wine that I do, you aren’t welcome to judge in the wine competition I stage.” My reaction is: “so what?”

      Reply
  2. DR

    That shows either a lack of understanding, insecurity, smug self importance or some combination thereof

    I’d like to think it’s the first

    Reply
  3. Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    John,

    You’re welcome.

    As I stated in an earlier comment to a Steve posting, when folks decades ago internalized tart, tannic off-vintage red Bordeaux as their “typicity” reference standard, it took a “village idiot” outsider like Parker to publicly declare these “taste maker” emperors (British writers) and serfs (gullible collectors) had no clothes.

    Thank gawd we no longer begrudgingly accept under ripe, vegetative/weedy, overly tannic California Cabernets and Merlots as the style benchmark.

    (Aside: I organize collectors’ wine cellars, and have been sampling quite a few lately from the 1970s and 1980s. Ugh!)

    Some unattributed wine wag once puckishly declared that “the first obligation of a wine is to be red.”

    More seriously, the first obligation of a wine is to be pleasurable. (White, orange, rose, or red.)

    Regards,

    ~~ Bob

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      Bob – I’m completely with you on ” wine’s first duty is to be pleasurable” but it’s important to recognize that each of us has a different trigger to trip — some vastly different from each other. I have never considered Parker a “village idiot” — far from it, and he has been one of the most reliably consistent tasters of this era — but I long ago learned that if Parker rated it highly I was probably going to give it a pass. See, I actually really enjoyed some of the Bordeaux and California wines from the 70s — these were the ur-forms and archetypes for me. I was in wine sales in the mid-80s and got caught up in the Parker mythos because it helped me sell wine, but I mistakenly bought a bunch of 82 Bordeaux for myself based on his puffery. Over time I became more secure in my own preferences, and by the late 90s I was certain that not only had these wines not aged well, they really never had been that pleasurable to me in the first place. I’m not picking on Parker here, just pointing out that each of us has our tastes formed for us differently.

      Reply

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