Sunday, March 17, 2013

How do you judge a wine? Or, does every palate matter?

Lately a discussion has floated around the wine world as to whether “every palate matters.”  It’s a valid question, especially since the internet allows us all to express our opinions publically alongside the opinions of professional critics and folks in the wine business.  To me, it all comes down to how you’re judging the wine.

This question jogged a memory from grad school, so I dug out my notes on Immanuel Kant and David Hume’s theories of aesthetics from a literary theory class.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but here is my simplified (and somewhat extrapolated) version of things.  There are 2 ways to judge an aesthetic experience – like art, music, or wine – that is meant to bring pleasure or have some effect on the senses and/or emotions: 

1)  The purely intuitive approach.  This means you don’t think about or analyze the experience very much.  You just let your senses and feelings take over, and see what they tell you.  For wine, this would mean just drinking and going with a gut opinion (pun intended).  Either you like it or you don’t.  This approach is more subjective, based on your own tastes.

2)  The analytical/critical approach.  To do this, you must have knowledge of the thing you’re experiencing, like a music critic reviewing an opera.  You apply your knowledge and judge whether the aesthetic experience is working or not.  For wine, this means you would taste carefully, make notes on aromas, balance, structure, varietal characteristics, etc., and come to a carefully reasoned judgment.  This approach is more objective.

Both approaches are valid.  The intuitive approach to wine is where “every palate matters.”  You know what you like, and you should drink what you like, even if the critics say it isn’t good.  Wine is meant to be enjoyed.  The analytical/critical approach is where we can benefit from wine experts.  They have studied and trained in this area and can judge a wine based on objective criteria that we may not be able to perceive, such as nuances of balance, ripeness, and subtle faults.

Experts can also help us understand WHY we like what we like, direct us to new things that we may enjoy, and help us find the best value.  Roger Ebert once said his primary purpose in writing movie reviews isn’t just to tell you whether a movie is good or bad (although he does that), but to also describe the movie in a way that helps you figure out whether you would like it or not.  Wine critics can help us in the same way.

So does every palate matter?  My answer would be yes and no.  Yes, because your palate matters to you.  Wine should be enjoyable, so drink what you like, even if the experts disagree with you.  No, because education and experience matter.  Some people know more about wine and have learned to be better tasters than others.  I think the right answer is a balance between these two sides.

So learn about wine, improve your tasting skills, be open to trying new wines, and listen to those with greater knowledge and experience.  All these things will deepen your enjoyment of wine and lead you to new and exciting wine experiences.  But keep drinking what you like!

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