by Andrea Frost

The Unexamined Wine

Sometimes the simplest statements have the most complex meanings, while other times they mean exactly what they say.

Many statements about wine and life still baffle me no matter how long I ponder them. One I often flounder over is the seemingly simple “If you like a wine, then it’s a good wine”. I find this about as helpful as being told to “Just do what makes you happy” when asking for advice on living a self-determined and fulfilling life. That’s it? A good wine is the one I like, and the key to life is to do what makes me happy? Both proclamations would be far more compelling if wine and life weren’t the subjects of so much talk, angst and judgment about what makes a good one.

Even so, I wonder if there’s a valid point here. If I like a wine does that make it a good wine? Let’s stretch out and take a walk with the idea together.

I can imagine how the idea came about. Perhaps it was offered in response to the innocent yet gargantuan question, timidly asked between sips: “Is this a good wine?” It’s a fair question, especially because we wine people trumpet the idea that wine sits on a quality scale and that this is the most important thing to know about a wine (as narrow a band for pleasure as it may well prove to be).

What’s more, I’m sure the statement is offered as encouragement and to ensure that any burgeoning interest in wine isn’t discouraged the way it might be if we took the question literally and delivered a précis on what makes a good wine. No-one, no matter how big the wine bore, wants to evaporate the pleasure or burden the curiosity with all that information. So I’m sure this statement is offered hoping that whoever is inquiring just enjoys their wine without worrying about all the other stuff. With this in mind, it is a kind and well-intentioned thing to say.

However, the problem with such a statement is that sometimes things are bad, wine included, whether you think so or not. No-one is done a favour if poor-quality wine is championed out of some sort of wine egalitarianism. We’d all learn to appreciate bad wine while producers celebrated mediocrity and everyone’s capacity for joy was diminished. Nineteenth-century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said, “Uncritical egalitarianism poses a threat to excellence, seen by democratic man as an easily removable cause of envy and exclusion”. The same thing can be said for wine, more or less.

So what means do we have of knowing if a wine is good, regardless of whether you like it or not? One way is to apply a merit-based system of critical assessment, as is done in hundreds of wine shows held around the world every year. These shows are designed to ‘improve the breed’ and showcase winemaking excellence. Judging criteria typically cover things like the look, aroma, typicity of variety and region, balance and integration of select winemaking techniques. This framework allows experts to determine whether a wine is good without bias or favoritism.

Yet, like all merit-based systems, this is no guarantee of good wine either. For one, the qualities that make a good wine in show systems have changed over time so that a wine judged as good a decade ago might be different to a wine that is judged to be good today. Grey areas exist with judging decisions as well – one judge’s idea of a feature in a wine may be another’s flaw. Then there are the issues of winemaking style and fashion. So, even judges won’t always agree on what makes a good wine. Wine shows are a legitimate, helpful and professional attempt, but they only go so far towards solving our problem of what makes a good wine.

Another limiting factor, at least when it comes to solving our quandary, is that wine shows only judge the quality of the wine in the glass. This is precisely the point, and indeed one of the virtues of the system, but it’s not a holistic look at what makes something good. In the same way that performing well academically doesn’t vouch for a person’s character, performing well in a wine show doesn’t ensure the wine is good in the broader sense.

What if a wine is ‘wine show’ perfect, but is made with little concern for the environment? Some might consider a wine that is made biodynamically to be a ‘better’ wine given their philosophical and environmental leanings. Others might value wines more highly if they use methods and traditions that preserve a country’s winemaking heritage. Often the factors that amplify a wine’s position are quite personal and not covered by a merit-based system.

Not only are many of these factors quite personal, I think they should be quite personal. One of the lovely things that comes from contemplating wine is that we eventually work out what we value in a wine and as a result, what we believe makes something good. In an increasingly commercial world, where our personal values are constantly being blurred with brand and company values, it’s wise to know the difference. Although these principles might be developed through the lens of wine, I tend to think that the qualities you value in wine will be similar to the qualities you value in life.

And let’s not ignore that other great mystery that no system can account for, that deeply personal experience that happens between you and your glass of wine. No-one sees the world like you, feels it like you, or can imagine being in it like you. Like a book, a meal, a lover or anything else you choose for your own reasons, you may well like a wine without explanation. As the philosopher Saint Augustine said, “Love, and do what you like”.

All this is a perfect metaphor for life, isn’t it? What should we trust to tell us if something is good? A system that is a legitimate, but evolving, attempt? Experts who are human, subjective and ultimately flawed? A process that judges content but ignores context? Or yourself, based on what you know, value, think, reason and feel?

If you like a wine does that make it a good wine? Well, that all depends who you ask. Which I suspect is what was meant all along.