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Friday, 1 January 2021

Why Life Is *Not* Too Short For Bad Wine

I rarely drink the same bottle of wine twice.

I don't mean that in any philosophical sense. I don't mean that wine is a dynamic, living thing and therefore no two bottles can be identical, given differences in production, bottling or storage.

I don't even mean that a single bottle changes over time, just like the river we can never step into twice.

No. I mean it quite literally that, as an (amateur) wine reviewer, I am often invited, to sample all sorts of different wines and it is rare that I am offered the same wine twice.

This suits my nature; I get bored easily and enjoy the unpredictability of constant variety. The more wines I try, the more other wines I can can compare them to. And comparing wine is where the fun is - for me, at least.

For me, wine tasting has always been as much an intellectual activity as a physiological one.

Building A Taste Memory

The name for this in wine education is building a taste memory; that is, learning and memorising what a wine should taste like given the grapes, region and wine-making style used. Blind tasters then apply this in reverse to make educated guesses about the wine they are attempting to identify. Is it pale enough for a Pinot? Is it oaked? Warm-climate or cool?

To my mind, blind tasting for its own sake is something of a party trick, and the MW exam rightly focuses more on candidates' reasoning than whether or not they guessed correctly.

Back in the world of assessing wine for its quality, rather than identity, I find judging a single wine in isolation to be more difficult than when comparing a number of wines.

Behavioural Science and Tasting

The reasons for this can be found in behavioural economics. Start with Daniel Kahneman's observation that thinking is to humans is as swimming to cats; we can do it, we just prefer not to.

As a result, when making decisions, such as whether a wine is good or not, we find it easier when presented with a small range of options. Relative decisions (preferences) are easier than binary absolutes. Good / better / best is a more straightforward assessment than good / not good.

Three is ideal here; the Romans knew this and often used the power of three. The very fact that we have good / better / best dates back to Roman times and has been preserved linguistically ever since.

No-one has quite established why we like threes, but it does seem as if three genuinely is the magic number.

This bias towards threes is known as "extremity aversion" (again, from Kahneman) and has been empirically proven; in simple terms, when faced with a choice of small vs medium vs large, we will tend to gravitate towards the "medium" option, regardless of the actual size of a "medium".

To our three S/M/L options, add in a new, larger choice, then remove the smallest and what happens? People will now gravitate to the formerly-large-now-labelled-as-medium option; we prefer the relativity of "medium" not the absoluteness of medium.

The Value of Pointless Choices

Dan Ariely demonstrates this point with his talk on the Pricing of the Economist magazine. It's worth watching the whole clip, but the TL:DR is that even a choice we don't want has a function, which is to help us decide what we do want.

This field of behavioural science is known as Choice Architecture; it is literally the science of how we make choices and how to make choosing easier for people. More formally, it is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented and the impact of that presentation on decision-making.

Tasting in isolation requires an assessment of the quality of the wine by reference to our taste memory of other wines. We compare the present sensations of tasting a real wine, one in a glass in front of us, against the historic memories of having tasted other wines previously and mentally comparing actual sensations to historic memories.

Do it enough times and the brain will build short cuts, but like physical exercise, these have to be developed and maintained.

This is why, I believe, tasting wine in small groups is the easiest way to make an assessment.

The Magic Number?

I find two is a good number for wines of the same style; do I prefer this Pinot or that Pinot? Is this oaky Chardonnay better than that oaky Chardonnay?

Two is slightly less helpful with wines of different colours or styles, say when comparing red Burgundy with white Burgundy. Yes you get a sense of the producer and you can compare each against the other, but you are also assessing each wine against its theoretical type from memory.

I find groups of three wines to be helpful when the wines are more diverse, but still relatively familiar and this is my most usual tasting routine. I open three bottles on a Friday evening and taste my way through them over the weekend to see how the develop with time, food and aeration.

Larger numbers are better for deeper dives, where differences are more nuanced. This can be logistically more difficult with whole bottles, especially where they are sparkling wines, but can be done and certainly repays the effort.

Larger numbers of smaller samples also work well for breadth; the entire range of one producer or a masterclass on a country, for example.

As a general rule, the smaller the size of the sample provided, the more effort needed for an assessment and therefore the more useful it is to have a tutored tasting to highlight nuances that might not be immediately noticeable on just a few sips. The flip-side of this is that while you get a detailed snapshot of the wine, there is less of a sense of what it is like to live with, what foods it matches with and how it develops once opened.  

The Role of Bad Wine

I have also noticed another phenomenon: palate acclimatisation / fatigue.

The more bottles I drink of particular wine that I drink over time, the more bored I get with that wine., regardless of its absolute level of quality. It happens with basic wines, which is fair enough, but is most upsetting when it happens with expensive wines; paying a lot of money for a wine but then not having the energy to appreciate it properly is, for me, one of life's great disappointments.

Once lockdown started, with no tastings to go to and no wines to be reviewed, I started buying wines in quantities that I have never done previously (for various reasons). And I found the second bottle of any particular wine bought as a case was never quite as interesting as the first - regardless of price. With palate boredom quickly setting in even for the more ambitious wines, perhaps especially for the more ambitious wines, I found I had to stash away the multiple bottles I had bought and keep as long a period as possible between trying the same wine again.

This distance of perspective sorted the problem and returning to a previously-sampled wine after months rather than weeks meant I could enjoy it almost as if tasting it for the first time again.

The reason for this phenomenon is that our brains need novelty of experience to be most receptive, as Tim Harford points out in this Financial Times article about the role of location in forming strong memories.

So, for me, the custom I have acquired of constantly trying out new wines on an ongoing basis means that each experience, each new wine sampled, is as memorable as it can be and not "just another bottle of x".

Viewed this way, not only is life not too short for bad wine, but bad wine is actually an essential part of our wine enjoyment.

Not So Much Bad Wine As Basic Wine

Now, let's not exaggerate here; no-one wants to drink faulty, vinegary plonk on a regular basis or suggests that that's a good thing. Rather, a mixed diet of pleasant and uncomplicated wines alongside the complex, nuanced and in every way world-class highlights the superiority of the good ones in such a way that we can appreciate them more than if we had to drink them all the time.

This is not a Romantic observation, albeit it has slightly Romantic overtones; rather it is based on the science of how we think and choose.

Those who focus on the liquid in the glass may find this approach at odds with the notion that a better wine is a better wine. Placing the wine at the centre of the observation is understandable but flawed. If a wine tastes better simply by being priced more expensively, then it is too simplistic to consider the (subjectively-assessed) quality of what is in the glass alone.

Moreover, wine scoring is merely the trading of subjective assessments around a consensus. A wine's score is not inherently provable, just as any one person's rating of anything (music, films, books) can never be proven to be right or wrong, it is merely a subjective opinion of preference. And if we insist on always coming to a consensus, in practice this allows no room for innovative, nonconformist dissenting voices and we stagnate.

Scoring a wine on points has always struck me as looking through the wrong end of the lens, albeit it has practical uses when done in certain ways.

More important than a wine's score is the subjective opinion of whether I like it. And each person has to go through that assessment for themselves; it is not for me or any other reviewer to tell the reader what she should like or to criticise him for preferring something else.

And yet I do not quite adhere to the iconoclastic, populist, "anything goes" philosophy of appreciation; the notion that the wisdom of crowds will always identify the best result (it does not, as it will exclude outliers, i.e. the greats and the terribles) or the idea that we don't need wine experts to tell us what to like.

This conundrum sits at the heart of the Willy Russell play Educating Rita; in becoming more educated, Rita finds herself having to become more of a conformist to views and values that undermine her natural inquisitive spontaneity. The paradox is that broader experience leads greater conformity of thought.

Yet if we are to have any sense of order, rather than complete anarchy, we need to have at least some agreement around parameters; balance, complexity and elegance are good things, finer tannins are better than rustic tannins. These things are generally agreed in wine-appreciation circles but are not objectively, provably correct (however much you may consider them fundamental), but merely a long and widely held consensus around preference.

Ultimately, there are no absolutes here; there is neither a free-for-all on assessments of quality, nor empirically provable, ironclad rules about what makes one wine better than another. Rather there are schools of thought (belief is perhaps more accurate) that we either go along with or oppose.

As I was taught doing whilst doing my essay subject options at degree level, having your own opinion is a good thing. Knowing how your opinion matches up against the academic consensus of thought on the issue is a better thing.

The role of education / criticism in wine appreciation, therefore, is to help us:

- broaden our experience

- establish the limits of what we like and don't like

- understand the consensus on quality (even as it changes and develops)

- verbalise, should we choose to do so, why we agree or disagree with established consensus 

This piece was inspired by a series of twitter conversations over the course of 2020 with:

- Felicity Carter

- Liz Gabay MW

- Meg Maker

- John Atkinson MW

- Andrew Neather writing for Tim Atkin

- Peter Pharos

- Richard Bampfield

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