Oddly mirroring the explosion of pirate culture as a result of lovable lout Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, a swash-buckling, treasure-hunting fervour has also enveloped the wine world. In recent years there has been a strong backlash against wine snobbery and a renewed sense of adventure when it comes to ferreting out the hidden gems and bargains of the industry. I think it’s fantastic.
The increasing popularity and pull of wine blogs, making a wider variety of wines from all over the world accessible to a broad audience, has certainly helped to spearhead the questing spirit by letting lesser known wines, regions, and producers get some time in the spotlight. The on-going debate over the credentials and abilities of the reviewers behind this segment of wine media is, to me, far overshadowed by the opportunity to discover wines that were previously unheard of, and also to be able to get an appreciation of a wine from various perspectives, and various points in the maturation of a wine-loving palate. To poo-poo a reviewer for his or her inexperience is to forget the beauty of culturing wine tasting as a hobby.
Palates develop, change and become more finely tuned, this much is true, but so much about wine tasting is about a visceral sense of enjoyment and in its subjectivity, acts as a glaring snapshot in a series of progressions that compile personal preference, technical knowledge and descriptive ability. You can never know it all, you can never be perfect, and let’s face it, the vast majority of consumers out there are currently in the throws of beginner-to-intermediate level knowledge, exactly when blogs can be most influential in broadening horizons and suggesting bottles off the beaten path.
How then, to promote a love and understanding of wines across all regions and price ranges? In statistics, a sampling method called stratified sampling exists that acknowledges a sample population that may be composed of a number of distinct groupings or categories. Regarding each of these groupings as separate “strata” allows for higher analytical precision and the ability to evaluate data within each of the various subgroups. The same sort of stratified evaluation is easily applicable to the wine world, where a vast selection of potential strata just sit quietly, waiting to be exploited by reviewers and drinkers alike. In the sea of wine now readily available via online shops, blogs, and outlets, never has there been a greater, or more important, opportunity to change the way we think about wine ratings. What we need is a large dose of what I call The Theory of Wine Relativity.
Is it really fair to compare a first growth Bordeaux from a stellar vintage to a Finger Lakes meritage from an off year? Not really. And yet simple number scalings, taken out of context and plastered on sales tags all over retail stores are essentially doing just that. It removes the air of subjectivity from the number, removes a sense of place and adds a slam of finality that has the ability to doom or elevate a wine in the consumer’s opinion.
One of the greatest opportunities I feel any reviewer has is to comment on a wine within the scope and development of our own talents. To compare it with what we have seen in the past, what we know, what we like, and also the status quo. Within each of our own personalized “strata”, we are able to evaluate a wine through a lens quite unlike that of our peers and offer something that mere numbers lack: perspective and passion. Some of these strata are intrinsic to the very process of tasting and reviewing, others require a good deal of knowledge and/or research, but all can help to form a more complete picture of the wine involved. It’s a might bit egotistical to think that someone Google searching a wine will be content to read a single review, yours, and make a snap judgement based on your recommendations alone. We live in the information age, where dozens of reviews can exist for individual wines and more often than not, an aggregate sense of characteristics is what fosters interest.
The point? Write what you know. How does it stack up to other wines you’ve had from that region/vintage/varietal/producer? Are there other similar wines that you would recommend more? Does the wine represent solid bang for your buck (QPR)? Would you personally buy it again? Most importantly, what exactly did you like; what didn’t you like? Give the wine a sense of place, lay out your own experience with it and leave it to people to make their own judgments. We don’t yet have an objective enough system of quality to make speaking from on high a viable option. The key is to remember that there are people out there who might like the very characteristics that you’re so intent on bashing, and what you see as a negative, might be someone else’s positive. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Take the descriptors “highly extracted”, “high alcohol”, and “jammy”…they scare the bejeebus out of me and are a giant red flag in the world of my personal tastes, but to other people, the bigger, the bombier, the brawnier, the better!
I suppose, from my perspective, our “job” as wine bloggers is to expand horizons by increasing the number of wines that are getting spotlighted. We have the opportunity to make people think, and to make them think for themselves by providing an information service. We spark interest (or controversy) in mainstream and (more importantly) off the beaten track bottlings that deserve some attention. Qualifying your tasting notes experiential details anecdotes may be the most important thing we have to offer over the dry, lamely presented reviews in major publications, who are so crippled by space restrictions that the tasting note becomes but a descriptor barcode, and not a true representation of the wine itself.
Now, I’m not slamming the traditional publications. I believe that they’re invaluable to the industry and definitely a needed part of wine media. What I’m saying is that bloggers have the chance to expose things differently, to be more free with their thoughts and ideas, and to add a dimension to wine journalism rather than just top up the layer of traditional thought.
Get creative, don’t be afraid to do things differently or to slough off conventional wisdom (but also know when it’s an appropriate aide), and help spread the word about the wonderful world of wine. That’s why we’re all doing this, isn’t it?