Wine Whine

The Dish has got Jonah Lehrer guest-blogging this week, or last week, or whatever.  He writes about the arbitrary nature of wine evaluations–as in, what’s good, what’s okay, what’s horse piss, and how nobody really knows the diff.

I tackled this subject in an aesthetics class when I was a university student.  I think I was drunk when I wrote the following…

Robert Parker is the Siskel and Ebert of the wine industry! First, though, by way of introduction…

To understand aesthetic expertise, and to ultimately decide whether it is worth taking seriously, one might naturally begin by examining the standards a particular aesthetic expert brings to bear in pronouncing a judgment of taste. The various categories by which an expert evaluates the object of criticism—be it a bottle of wine, a piece of sculpture, a disco song, or any number of things—determine the manner in which criticism is levied. If the historical context of an object, for example, is not an evaluative criterion, then the evaluation of that object will deliberately de-historicize it. Or, to make the matter plain, in the case of a bottle of wine if the sound of the wine is not considered to be essential to a determination of its worth, sound falls off the expert’s proverbial radar. If one wants to evaluate the expert’s evaluations, it is not a bad idea to begin by examining how his evaluations are made.

In the case of Robert Parker and his kryptonite-enhanced taste buds, a bottle of wine is awarded, on a scale from fifty to one hundred, “up to five points for colour, 15 for aroma and bouquet, 20 for flavour and finish, and ten for ‘overall quality level’…or ‘potential for further evolution and improvement’.”1 But why, the wino on the street corner might wonder, is not cost-effectiveness included in Parker’s evaluation? It would certainly be a more useful evaluation from the wino’s perspective if such a consideration were given its due. Why not give a wine five points for giving you the most bang for your buck? Alas, Parker offers no defense for the specifics of his methodology; instead, he relies on his impeccable reputation as defense enough. What he implicitly assumes, of course, is that the standards by which he judges wines are shared by his audience; but as Janet Wolff reminds us, “we cannot presume a unified experience, or set of experiences” across a particular group of people.2 His lack of a defense is unfortunate, too, because a particularly peculiar criterion in Parker’s system is the color of a wine, which apparently—by some mysterious mechanism—influences its quality. “Why,” the hypothetical blind man might wonder, “can I not evaluate this wine? Am I not equally endowed with senses of taste and smell, even if they are not, like yours, enhanced by kryptonite?” Indeed, one must hand it to him: the hypothetical blind man has a point. Color seems completely arbitrary in the assessment of wine, and it is not difficult to see how the other categories might be similarly regarded as arbitrary. Or, if not completely arbitrary, they can easily be shown to be arbitrarily weighted.

I will show you. Steven Shapin suggests that the ten potential points Parker awards for ‘overall quality’ function as a fudge factor in Parker’s system.3 For, what is ‘overall quality’ in wine? Was not the purpose of breaking down the evaluation of wine into specific categories precisely to determine the ‘overall quality’ by examining particular qualities, evaluating those qualities numerically, adding those numbers up, and looking at the end result? Why, then, are we examining ‘overall quality’ as if it can be evaluated on its own terms? It seems that if ‘overall quality’ is more than the sum of its parts (the sum of its constitutive evaluative criteria), then there is little need to bother with the parts in the first place. Who cares if the wine scored a five out of five for its color when its overall quality is a paltry two? “I don’t want a wine that looks like heaven if it tastes like shit,” the (coarse) blind man might say; and we would not be unjustified agreeing with him again. There seems to be little point in assessing the worth of a wine’s color, texture, or aroma if, in the end, ‘overall quality’ is not a result of these factors, and, indeed, is wholly distinct from them. The lesson to be drawn is this: if a world-renowned expert such as Parker cannot formulate a system that does not, in the end, rely on an obscure evaluative criterion to justify itself—and, moreover, if that obscure evaluative criterion is precisely that which we seek to assess by way of the other evaluative criteria (in this case, ‘overall quality’)—then the judgments of the world-renowned expert ought to be regarded as suspect.

Of course, more often than not, precisely the opposite happens, and the judgments of the world-renowned expert are received warmly, unflinchingly. The most fashionable critics are embraced, and their influence is manipulated to fit the ends of those who have the power to manipulate them. Even though Parker himself seems to espouse a democratic wine judging ideal and dismisses notions of penultimate expertise when he says “[t]here can never be any substitute for your own palate,” and “there is nothing scientific about [my point system], and it should not be interpreted that way,”—even if Parker is a reluctant standard-bearer, in a sense—his voice today sounds loudest in the assessment of wines.4 As the prevalent critical voice, its influence extends into the production of wine itself. As Shapin puts it, “[i]f producing an alcoholic fruit bomb increases your chances of getting a ‘Parker 90’, then fruit bombs we shall have,” a fact that has met with its fair share of resentment from the rest of the wine consuming community.5 Beyond the realm of wine, though, one obvious problem with affording priority to a single expert’s judgment of taste is clear: the producers of the objects subject to critical evaluation tend to manipulate their product to fit the taste of the expert in question. Why? To maintain financial viability by gaining critical acceptance. Despite the fact that Parker suggests that “there can never be any substitute for your own palate,” the very existence of his supremely-regarded palate means the wines provided to me for evaluation are ever more likely to be the hedonistic fruit bombs he exalts in his criticism. In a very real sense, Parker, the expert, whose opinion can literally make or break a wine producer, defines the scope of the wines available to me.

Given Parker’s motivations (he sees himself as the Ralph Nader of wine, according to Shapin6), it seems odd that in pursuit of a level playing field he would establish himself as the game’s new referee. Rather than eliminating the elitism he saw corrupting the wine industry, he simply replaced it with his own. Arguably, this could be seen as success enough. That is, if it is so easy to usurp a system of evaluation and reorient it around a new standard of taste, then, by implication, standards of taste in general reveal themselves to be simply the preferences of a significant elite.7 Even if Parker has established himself as the establishment figure in wine circles, this line of thinking goes, at least he has shown that elitism is susceptible to overthrow. Insofar as he has shown this, he has proven that with enough sets of rogue taste buds and enough willpower, the triumph of democracy over the forces of elitism in judgments of taste is inevitable. However, this explanation is somewhat dishonest. Let us consider an analogy. Let us consider a political analogy, with all this talk of Ralph Nader, and the democratization of taste, and so on. If I seek to overthrow a repressive political regime in order to establish democracy, and I overthrow said political regime successfully, only to install myself in the position of power the members of that regime once held, would one say that I had achieved democracy? Or have I simply adjusted the balance of power to my liking and maintained the structure I purported to be fighting against? “If there’s a legacy for [me], it’s that [I] leveled the playing field,” Parker says, but the gulf between the reality of the situation (tyranny of taste?) and the supposed intention of principle actor (democratization of taste?) is not bridged by appeals to rhetoric.

So if the wise man’s evaluative criteria turn out to show that his wisdom merits scrutiny, and moreover, if his very status as a wise man tends to promote exactly the opposite effect—tends to promote, according to Jurgen Habermas, the growth of “specialists who seem more adept at being logical in…particular ways,” to whom the general public generally defers8—then perhaps we ought to abandon the notion of expertise altogether. If we are to have democracy in judgments of taste, it seems that we must. But, before taking such a drastic measure, it is useful to draw a distinction between the institutionalized notion of expertise as typified by the specialist or critic, with its pernicious social effects, and expertise of a more “everyday” sort. Habermas notes that “the reception of art by the layman, or by the ‘everyday expert,’ goes in a rather different direction than the reception of art by the professional critic.”9 The observation is not an uncommon one to make. Indeed, as H.L. Mencken said, the critic

is, first and last, simply trying to express himself. He is trying to arrest and challenge a sufficient body of readers, to make them pay attention to him…and he is trying to achieve thereby for his own inner ego the grateful feeling of a function performed, a tension relieved, a katharsis attained which Wagner achieved when he wrote “Die Walkure” and a hen achieves every time she lays an egg….The form is nothing, the only important thing is the motive power, and it is the same in all cases.10

The critic, then, relates to the object of criticism in a rather strange way. For even though he is engaged in an evaluation of an object, his evaluation is primarily a vehicle for asserting power over, and exclusivity of rights to, a particular critical discourse.

Parker and the wino differ in the sense that their respective evaluations of wine differ in ideological origin. The wino evaluates wine simply because wine is an aspect of his “everyday” life, not because he has any interest in asserting to an audience the power of his critical capacity. Parker evaluates wine, if we are to take his word for it, because he felt a desire to eliminate elitism from wine criticism. Even in explicitly democratic terms, the very telos of his mission entails an assertion of the power of his critical capacity: he must stand above the rest in order to successfully expose their elitism. Perhaps it is due to the nature of his evaluative expertise that his mission to democratize the judgment of wine stands as such an obvious failure. Perhaps it is because the critic is so obsessed with achieving the katharsis Mencken speaks of that so much criticism—of art, wine, and what have you—seems fundamentally removed from genuine interaction with the object of that criticism. Indeed, much criticism seems far more akin to what Mencken describes it as: an attempt to command the attention of a community with the novelty and strength of one’s ideas. Engaging with the object of criticism is admittedly necessary to this aim, but it is in fact a secondary concern.

Which leads me to conclude that I would rather have a glass with the wino than Parker any day.

1 Shapin, p. 1, column 3

2 Wolff, p. 517

3 Shapin, p. 1, column 3

4 Ibid, p. 1, column 4. Though, in fairness, Ralph Nader’s motivations are not always entirely clear, either.

5 Ibid, p. 2, column 2

6 Ibid

7 I think Nietzsche mentioned something like this with regard to the Reformation.

8 Habermas, p. 463

9 Habermas, p. 465

10 Mencken, H.L., p. 433 in A Mencken Chrestomathy, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.)


2 responses to “Wine Whine

  1. footnote no. 7 is priceless

  2. Tom, I love your Parker piece! Wonderful!

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