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The Question of Quality: Idealists Versus Realists
By Paul Lukacs
Sep 22, 2015
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Fifty years is a long time, but in the history of wine--a history that spans some 8,000 years--it’s a mere blip on the proverbial radar.  But something unprecedented has happened over the past five decades.  Conceptions of what constitutes quality--good wine, even great wine--have changed radically.  And while wine lovers have not reached consensus on the question of what “good” means, it is clear that the old answers no longer apply.

Good wine used to be defined very simply--as wine that wasn’t bad.  By “bad,” I mean chemically flawed, either oxidized because of excessive exposure to air or mouth puckeringly sour because infected with bacteria.  For the great majority of wine’s history, an awful lot of wine was just that.  In fact, until the eighteenth century, when glass bottles and cork closures began to be used widely, most wine, unless consumed extremely young, had turned bad.  Good wine was quite rare, and consequently valued very highly. 

Today, the combination of scientifically informed oenology, modern winemaking technology, and a fiercely competitive marketplace has made bad wine largely a thing of the past.  Some bad wine continues to flow from new wine producing regions (South Asia, for example) or underfunded ones (parts of the former Soviet Union), and unfortunate wine will always be made in small amounts by uninformed amateur winemakers.  But these are exceptions that prove the rule, and the rule is that roughly 95 percent of the wines in your favorite local shop will prove to be chemically sound.

This does not mean that all those wines will taste exciting.  Though the contemporary world of wine is no longer polluted by flawed wine, it is awash in boring wines.  Far too many of the wines that you’ll find in that shop taste okay…but dull.  Little except label design and price tag distinguishes them from the bottles beside them on the shelf.

In this new world in which virtually all wines are reliably unblemished, what then makes one wine better than another?  What constitutes good?  How should those of us who care about wine think about quality?

One answer, of course, is that a good wine is a wine that you like, and a better wine is a wine that you prefer over some others.  This, however, is unhelpful on account of being facile.  It completely ignores the multitude of factors involved in liking or preferring one thing over another. 

No one ever likes anything--whether wine or food or art or design--in isolation.  Human beings are not sequestered individual subjects, but rather social creatures, and our preferences invariably involve when and where we are in the present as well as what we have experienced in the past.  The fact that someone enjoys heavy metal music more than opera involves more than just his or her ears.  So too, the fact that a person prefers California Pinot Noir over premier cru red Burgundy has to do with much more than just his or her taste buds.

Happily, however, two more serious answers to the question of how to define quality are vying for our attention these days.  If only for the sake of convenience, I’ll call advocates of one “idealists,” and proponents of the other “realists.”  The question of which is right, and whether there might be some sort of middle ground between them, remains very much up in the air.

The idealists measure any wines they taste against their conception of a perfect (or ideal) wine.  Those conceptions may differ, but they involve factors such as depth of flavor, balance, length, aromatic intensity, and complexity.  It does not much matter where the wine in question came from, or who made it, or who its intended audience might be.  If it approximates the ideal, it is good.  And if it approaches the ideal, it is great.

The idealists hold great sway in the marketplace, as evidenced by the power of high points or scores to sell wines.  A 99 point wine will appear almost perfect to many consumers and so will fly off the shelf, while a 79 point wine has a way to go, and likely will languish in dusty oblivion.

Some people, however, chafe at the power of the idealists.  As realists, they contend that perfection is a fiction or chimera, and that quality is relational if not relative.  Thus they insist that a good wine needs to represent or bespeak something more than itself--something tangible or experiential, something real. 

The most prevalent example of the realists’ notion of representation comes in discussions of terroir, that elusive quality that many commentators contend good wines must evoke or, in common parlance, “taste of.”  Now, what does that mean?  Not that the wine should taste of dirt, but rather that it should represent the specific locale in which the grapes for it were grown.  Terroir, though, is not the only thing that a realist might contend a good wine can represent.  That wine might epitomize a grape variety, a heritage, even an individual winemaking vision.  The crucial point is that quality becomes measured in terms of the success of the representation.

The difference between an idealist and a realist is neatly illustrated by the celebrated tiff between Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson back in 2005.  These two well-known critics squared off over the quality of the 2003 Château Pavie from St.-Emilion in Bordeaux.  For Parker, this wine was “off-the-chart . . . a brilliant effort,” and merited a score of 96 points.   It “traverses the palate with extraordinary richness,” he wrote.  “The finish is tannic, but the wine’s low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests that it will be approachable in 4-5 years.”  Those were precisely the qualities to which Robinson objected.  "Completely unappetizing overripe aromas,” she wrote:  “[It tastes] porty sweet.  Oh REALLY!   Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion.” 

The Parker-Robinson spat drew a lot of attention from bloggers and other writers, most of whom, when not simply taking one side or the other, focused on the wine itself.  Château Pavie exemplified a new style of Bordeaux--rich, ripe, and flamboyant rather than traditionally austere and reserved--and many commentators portrayed the conflict as being between two styles rather than two critics.  That was not, however, what either critic said when responding to the other. 

Parker claimed that Robinson was prejudiced against this particular property and its proprietors, his “proof” being that she did not taste what he insisted was so obviously in the wine.  In turn, Robinson insisted that the wine was so atypical that it was “ridiculous . . . more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux."  As an idealist, Parker measured the wine he tasted against an ideal standard or form.  As a realist, Robinson evaluated the 2003 Pavie against other wines, particularly others from St.-Emilion, which she had sampled over the years.  These two critics, then, formulated radically different opinions after tasting the wine in question because they came to it with radically different assumptions regarding what constitutes quality.

Interestingly enough, for many of us, the idealist/ realist debate is an internal one.  It pits us against ourselves even more than against each other.  That’s because no real consensus exists anymore as to what “good” means when it comes to wine.  (One has to wonder if consensus exists with any form of art these days, but that’s a topic for another day.)  But then, perhaps--just perhaps--the absence of consensus is what makes this such an exciting time to taste, learn about, and above all else savor the wines we love.  As the distinguished wine writer, Gerald Asher, once remarked, “only idiots take their pleasures frivolously.”