As a critic you must always be careful not to express any opinion as to what the originator of the criticized subject should have done, but stick to your assessment of the result. Criticism is a personal amalgamation of analysis and interpretation. It is not necessarily a positive or a negative assessment – even though often it is exactly either positive or negative – but an assessment of meaning and purpose. In the area of pictorial art or literature for instance, criticism can be seen as a debate in the public, where various players overstate or understate the significance of a given phenomenon. Even though wine, too, is an aesthetic phenomenon, there exists practically no wine criticism; in the world of wine you find, on the whole, only personal assessments resulting in a quantitative judgment on a scale from one to six stars, from 50 to 100 points or from zero to two billion poppy seeds.
Notes and points
The idea that the quality of a wine can be quantified on a scale is so deep-rooted that it is difficult to think of other ways to judge a wine. Let us begin by dwelling a little on the scoring. Points or notes is a funny way to proclaim the winner of the day at a tasting in the wine club. In spite of all its reservations and shortcomings (and we shall return to them later), scoring may absolutely be legitimate. In that case you have to imagine a scale where the bottom rating is undrinkable and the top rating is perfect. As a starting point all such scales are an expression of the following formula: unacceptable – acceptable – good. If you find this a bit constricting you may add two ratings to the formula: quite unacceptable – unacceptable – almost acceptable – acceptable – good. Or yet another two: quite unacceptable – unacceptable – almost acceptable – acceptable – almost good – good – really good. According to your temperament you may let the wording correspond to numbers and let the scale go up to 12, 100, 1000 or 2 billion. In its simplest form such a scale has the built-in problem that the gap between the bottom and the top part of 'acceptable' can be enormous. And how do you distinguish a wine which is just good from one which is really fantastic? Conversely, the tendency seems to be that the more possibilities for distinction the scale gives you, the more lenient the judgment will be: 87 or 88 points? Honestly? And once you have given the magic 100 points, what the heck then do you do when you get an even greater experience?
But perhaps the problem in reality lies somewhere else.
It is plainly problematic to compare such different experiences as wine can be. How do you quantify the experience of drinking a young, simple Muscadet Sèvres et Maine with mussels and sea rocket on a mild summer day on Bornholm with the kids playing on the beach compared to drinking a 40 year old, noble and extremely complex Romanée-St-Vivant in a cellar of an old lady in Burgundy? Do they belong on the same scale at all? Can you compare them? And should you compare them? It reminds me of a joke from my childhood: Which is higher, a soprano voice or the Round Tower? Of course it is easy for a grown-up person to realize the confusion of the concepts, and that the problem is that the metaphor is taken at its face value, but for a five-year-old child it is not a linguistic but a concrete mystery; which is actually higher? And although it may be a fine exercise to put yourself in a five-year-old boy's place, you might as a wine drinker perhaps wish to be a bit more mature, to put it like that. Just once in a while, at any rate.
Opening up or closing down experiences
In newspapers, books, and magazines wines are normally described with a short account of recognizable taste sensations (a kind of summary, if anything), an assessment of the balance of the wine and possibly comments on typicality. In conclusion the account is closed with an overall evaluation in the form of a score. And 'close' is the proper word. As a consumer guidance it may be said to live up to its purpose. A consistent taster who describes and evaluates wine soberly (and in fact there are some who do that) may – when you become acquainted with his style and taste – be a guidance that helps you find out which wines you like and which you don't like. Just like a film, art or book reviewer in the newspapers. But as a wine review it is rather a one-track approach. We give a short summary of the wine, shut the book with a snap, and put the stamp on the wine: 4 stars. Did anyone become wiser? Or more thirsty, for that matter? Probably not. The final allocation of points is precisely equal to closing down the experience. There! Such is the quality of this wine. Full stop!
To me the purpose of an analysis and an interpretation must at any time be to open up the experience. A well-informed analysis of a novel with a view to the context of the novel and its importance for literature can open your eyes to totally new ways of reading the novel in question, but also to literature in general, just as an oblique observation during a reading can open up new insights and give you greater fun. Why shouldn't we tentatively assume that you can communicate wine in such a way that the communication can open up new and greater experiences? That, instead of being a means to a conclusion, analysis and interpretation can be a way of creating insight – and new opnenings.
Extract from 'The Little Wine Taster' (Den Lille Vinsmager) pp. 59-61, © Kuboaa 2012