Discrimination is a strange thing. On the one hand, no one likes being its victim, and hardly anyone confesses to being its practitioner. On the other, connoisseurs and critics discriminate all the time. That’s because the primary Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb “to discriminate” is “to make or constitute a difference … to distinguish [or] differentiate.”
We generally consider discrimination to be a bad thing when we think the standard being used is inadequate for the distinction in question. For instance, we disapprove of employers using skin color, ethnic origin or gender as a basis for hiring (or not hiring) someone. At the same time, though, we value discrimination — indeed, we rely upon it — when we judge the standard to be legitimate. We do so, for example, when we trust a critic to help us decide whether to read a particular book or watch a particular movie. Much the same happens with food and drink.
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A website like Zester Daily helps us choose what to eat and drink. It thus is chock-full of discrimination, as privileging one object (say, Mennonite tomatoes, to cite a delightful recent article by Susan Lutz) over another (cold storage tomatoes) is itself an act of discrimination.
Even though I live fairly close to Lancaster, Pa., the heart of Mennonite country, I have not tasted the tomatoes that Susan loves so much. And although I enjoy cooking and (even more) eating, I cannot honestly say that my food standards are sufficiently well defined to allow for more than personal judgments. But as a professional wine writer, I rely on certain non-personal criteria to distinguish between a good and a bad wine, or between an exceptional and an average one.
Unfortunately, few of my wine writing colleagues seem to think that specifying standards is important. Perhaps because serious wine criticism is relatively new, it lags far behind criticism in other areas — in the arts, for example, in literature and, yes, in food. Wine writing lacks a rich history; we have no Brillat-Savarin, Grimod de la Reynière or M. F. K. Fisher to inspire us. And although we are fortunate to be able to read the work of some superb stylists (Gerald Asher, for example, and Hugh Johnson), contemporary critics tend to offer little more than sterile scores, numbers that suggest objectivity but in actuality do little more than mask subjective opinions.
Pick up any introductory guide to wine and you almost always will read that you should ignore the critics and trust your own judgment — nonsensical advice, since people wouldn’t buy such guides if they already felt confident in their ability to judge. The world of wine is getting bigger and more complicated every year. It desperately needs what the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume called a well-defined “standard of taste.”
Any such standard has to be based upon what actually is in the bottle. It also must reflect an awareness of the past, the wines that can serve as benchmarks or models for current ones made with specific grape varieties or coming from specific regions. As Hume, who was thinking about both aesthetic and gustatory taste, wrote, we cannot ignore “the consent and experience of nations and ages.”
Wine lover’s standards
So what criteria other than “it tastes good to me” or “it got 95 points” can we use to discriminate between a truly fine wine and an ordinary one? Let me suggest five:
1. Balance. A top wine works as a whole, with no single element (e.g., acidity, tannin, sugar, etc.) dominating over the others. When those elements are in balance, the whole becomes harmonious.
2. Depth. The same wine also needs to have substance and presence. Even if it’s light-bodied, it demands that you pay attention to it.
3. Length. The best wines invariably have long, lingering flavors and so leave lasting impressions. You can taste them long after you have swallowed them.
4. Complexity. A great wine never leaves a single impression. It instead is multilayered, conveying many different flavors and sensations.
5. Typicity. Finally, a truly fine wine will taste as it should taste, meaning that it will be true to its many origins — the varieties with which it is made, the place where those grapes were grown, even the vision that inspired it.
There may well be other criteria to include in any standard of taste for wine lovers, and a full understanding of these five certainly calls for more than the simplistic explanations I have provided here. But at least for me, this is a good start, an initial step toward more informed, honest criticism. That’s because I’m convinced the world of wine today needs more discrimination, not less.
Top photo: Glasses of red and white wine. Credit: iStockphoto