First Principles

It obviously has taken me a while to start a blog.  Friends have encouraged me to do so for years, but I’ve resisted.  Why the turnaround? Blogs have proliferated, not least in wine, and as they have, I’ve continued to be astounded at those who, supported by nothing but passion about wine, have established blogs and pontificate on any vinous (even non-vinous) subject of their choosing.   I applaud the multiplicity of voices, first, because some of them make me think, and, as I note below, I hope that some of these voices encourage more people to drink wine.

But I’m a different animal from many bloggers.  It took me a long time to determine that I had something to say, something different and worth presenting in the public sphere.  I’m also different because I believe in and respect expertise.  While there may be something to be learned from critics armed more with passion than anything else, my wine criticism requires more.  This is not to suggest that I lack passion – I doubt there’s anyone more passionate than myself in the wine trade.  Indeed, most of us in the wine trade are passionate about wine – that’s our stock in trade.  But wine – fine, interesting wine as I discuss below – is complicated.  Passion is not enough: it takes focus, skill, experience, and an underlying analytical acumen and intelligence to understand and embrace not just wines you might love, but wines you may respect (objectively) but not like (subjectively).    Indeed, there is a bit of a paradox, or at minimum, an irony here: I am passionately striving to be disinterested, and, at times, dispassionate. (I will not pretend not to have “prejudices” in the Gadamerian (hermeneutical) sense; we all have them; the point is to understand them, to see how they influence our thinking, and to try to look beyond them.

Thus, these are the parameters that inform my wine tasting and writing.

I love wine, many kinds of wine, but not all wines.   I approach every wine openly, wanting to love it; I want it to seduce me, to persuade me to love it.  I don’t have a financial investment in any wine. But, as a member of the wine trade, I do want more people to drink wine.  But I actually don’t care what wine they drink, just as I can’t expect everyone to love Mahler or Rush.  Nor do I want everyone to like the same thing:  the heterogeneity of wine types and styles is a key element of keeping wine exciting.  Personally, I drink rather widely and enjoy the variety.

I am a Master of Wine.  So what? I had been tasting and analyzing wines for many years, but it was not until I pursued the MW that I learned how to taste wine professionally, which means learning how to deconstruct a wine and taste it objectively and analytically, as contrasted with the subjective, hedonistic enjoyment of the wine.  Equally important, developing this skill set is critical to for discussing a wine in a manner that goes beyond the subjective perspective.  There is no meaningful, engaged dialogue if people, with no shared standards or terms, are simply communicating their subjective experiences, talking at someone rather than with them.

I think it crucial to analyze a wine as objectively as possible, considering the balance of acidity/alcohol/sweetness/fruit concentration/tannin in the wine, as well as the general categories of flavor complexity and intensity.  This analysis is wholly separate from whether I subjectively like or dislike the wine.

Subjectively, are their wines I prefer? Of course.  I prefer wines of balance, meaning their structural elements are in alignment.  Wines of dynamism, meaning wines with an inner energy that talk to me, be it in my mouth as I drink it or during the course of a bottle as it evolves.  Wines of personality, meaning that they have something to say, most importantly of the place and time they are grown, but probably also of those who have shepherded it to bottle.  I could say wines of quality, but what does that mean? This needs to be parsed into two different sub-categories: vins de soif, wines that may have only moderate complexity and little concentration, but still reflect their origins; it’s just that are balanced and ready to drink upon release.  Then there are the fine wines, wines with balance, energy, personality and complexity, but also the concentration (fruit) and structure (alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness) to sustain continued development in bottle.  Hugh Johnson defines them as “wines worth talking about.”  And why is that? Because the wines actually talk to us: the best fine wines carry on a conversation, with information of their origins, the year in which they are grown, how they may age or have aged, and so on.  They are decidedly not the same every time, and the top wines will evolve and become more harmonious and more nuanced with time.

Within this context, it is important to distinguish between ‘beverage wine’ from ‘fine wine.’  What does this mean? There are three kinds of wines along the “beverage wines” continuum.  The term is usually directed toward wines produced by large companies to fit a certain flavor profile.  These wines are intentionally “crafted” or “designed” by a person or committee.  These wines are designed to be the same every time you buy a bottle.  Beverage wine, or what one might call “mass market wine,” offers an introduction to the genre.  It can be is useful for some as the quaffer they prefer; they will never graduate to anything else.  It is also good as an outlet for the surplus of grapes planted world-wide.  They may not be exciting, but they are comfortable, predictable and safe for many people, whether they are inexpensive, or not.  I may not enjoy them, but they allow more people to feel comfortable ordering and drinking some wine.  A second type of “beverage wine” is what the French call a vin de soif, which is essentially a beverage wine usually produced by a low-budget winegrower.  It is a simple wine, not expensive; we might think of it as a “picnic wine.”  The fewer words written about it, the better – its intent was to be enjoyed, not analyzed to death.  It probably has as much to say about its origins as a mass-market wine, with the same level of complexity; its main difference is vintage variability.
These first two sorts of beverage wines tend to be inexpensive.  But I believe there also are beverage wines that aspire to be fine wines; one might call them “designer wines.”  The winemaking committee in this instance may include the winemaking consultant using fancy technology such as a spinning cone to develop the wine’s “sweet spot” for developing the proper balance points for alcohol.  I do not deny that these wines may be harmonious, and to many people utterly delicious, but the level of human intervention pushes these wines into the parallel world, if the high end, of “beverage wine.”

Thus one can think about wines as existing along two parallel continuums.  What distinguishes the two worlds is the technology involved to achieve the final result.

Vins de Soif ——————————————Fine Wine

Mass-Market Wines ————- High-End Designer Wines

I don’t have an ideology influencing how I read or drink a wine.  I don’t adhere to a specific ideology, be it natural, organic, authentic, traditional, or ‘the modern tradition.’  Frankly, all wines are manipulated.  I won’t say I don’t fully care how the wine is made – I don’t support practices that are environmentally destructive (full disclosure: yes, I drive a car, but I’ve chosen to live in cities because I prefer public transport).  But I think this topic is more complicated than many people believe.   Moreover,  Also, subjectively, I tend not to like wines that appear glossy, as if they were extensively manipulated in the winery.  (As I said, all wines are manipulated, so this comes down to a matter of degree.)  But what I do care about is the final product, because that’s what grabbed my attention in the 1st place, and happily, often enough, still does.  In that final product, I am looking for something that is subjectively delicious and, more often than not, intellectually provocative or challenging.  This latter tends to come from wines that convey personality, as discussed above; they have something to say, whether they are delightful and refreshing expressions of a place, or more profound.

Analyzing wine critically, according to an internalized paradigm, does not necessarily mean that all wines are held to a narrow standard, leading one to automatically reject wines having characteristics considered to be flaws.  Moreover, not all MWs agree on what is (or what is not) a flaw.  For example, I can tolerate a bit of brettanomyces in a wine, provided it is in balance with the wine’s fruit concentration.  I have an MW friend who disagrees entirely, finding any trace of brett whatsoever to render the wine flawed and undrinkable.  (I am sympathetic to his view, however, as the level of brett in wine is not likely to be static, and I’ve been disappointed with wines I’ve stored, only to find, upon opening, that over time, as the fruit has faded, the brett cloud has grown to obscure the wine’s underlying character.)

I endeavor, in my own notes, to capture what I view as a wine’s dynamic, five-dimensional palate expression.  The first dimension addresses the wine’s attack and flow back on the palate.  The second dimension considers the wine’s breadth across the palate, horizontally, and includes the notion of whether the wine offers full palate coverage. The third dimension involves the wine’s texture and depth on the palate, its vertical bloom in the mouth (this latter can be aided or overwhelmed by volatile acidity.) The fourth dimension is temporal: As such, I relate how the wine expresses itself temporally – how it evolves as I taste it (or as it opens out).  Depending on the wine, this may how the three other dimensions of wine express themselves in time.  And then there is the fifth dimension, that of energy. Wines have relative rates of dynamism and and inner energy (often driven by acidity) that vault some wines over others with no pulse.

Most of the time I’m not going to score wines.  I resist numbers largely because I’m reluctant, say, to decide whether I think Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is 97 points, while the 6th should only get 96.  I feel the same applies to wines.   As a general quality marker, I’m willing to rate (roughly) from 1-5, with 3 being good, 4 being very good, and 5 being exceptional.  A plus or a minus suggests that the wine is a good or poor value for the money.  But it will be the rare occasion I use numerical scores, preferring the imprecise precision language gives us.

I resist our culture of instant commentary.  I would rather consider a topic over time and write a thoughtful, logical evaluation of its nature or implications, rather than rush to be the first with a scoop or a review.  My aim is to offer, ironically, if not a dispassionate, then at least a disinterested perspective on a topic even if I ultimately plump for a particular point of view.

I would also like to stake my claim – pyrrhically, perhaps – for civility in this forum.  I know it is possible.  Wine writing, wine tasting is not a zero-sum game, and we need not prove our own worth by denigrating others or positions with which we do not agree.   I encourage constructive discussion and exchange of ideas, provided it is done respectfully.  So please, save your snarky comments for another forum.  I hope instead you will take the thoughts expressed here in the spirit in which they were intended — an open spirit of thoughtful, analytical exploration and inquiry.

14 Responses to First Principles

  1. Fantastic work Lisa! It is great to have someone that I like and that I can recommend as a reliable source to my friends and followers on the “blogsphere”. As amazing as it seems (with thousands of wine blogs out there), there’s still a lot of need for “an open spirit of thoughtful, analytical exploration and inquiry.”

    I especially liked your “First Principles”. Very well written paragraphs… But, for me, even more important than how you say it (I wish I had this gift!), is what you said. I was seduced… and I have no doubt that many other wine lovers will be as well.

    All the best,

  2. Well said Lisa! Leave the Brett ‘in the field’ so to speak; don’t bring it into the bottle

  3. Allen says:

    Well put,indeed. I like the approach you take when tasting wine. You have to clear your mind of any preconceived notions to accurately dissect a wine. I also like the idea of respecting a wine, regardless if it is a style you prefer or not.

    I, too, hung on to every word you wrote. Keep up the good work. Kudos!

  4. I agree with you 100% on the concept of a wine’s energy. It’s sometimes difficult to discuss this without feeling that I’m out in the ozone, because this energy is conceptual, non-scientific and subjectively perceived. But it is often the determining factor between a wine I want to drink and a wine I don’t.

    May your ideas develop a huge following!

  5. Very interesting thoughts. Thank you!

  6. Lizzy says:

    I absolutely agree with your thoughts. This post could -would? – be the “wine writing/blogging manifesto”.

  7. Mary Bailey says:

    I am doing a dance as I read this thoughtful, interesting, considered essay. Thank you! And yes, love your use of “dynamism.” I have been using the word tension to describe this energy, or interplay, in wine but I think your description is more fluid and all encompassing.
    I’m a fan.
    Best regards
    Mary Bailey, ISG sommelier, WSET instructor

    • granikmw says:

      Mary, I’m sorry for the delay in my reply. I am so pleased and gratified by your response. Tension, in my view, is very different than dynamism, though no less apparent in certain wines. Tension, to me, relates to a tight, constricted element one feels on the palate – no less than one feels a “dynamism.” But dynamic wines pulsate. Wines with tension may pulsate, too, but there is a firmness, a taut rope, a constriction. Tension pulls in. Dynamism vibrates. They are not opposites, and can actually live together in the same wine. Writing about this, my notion is that it is younger wines that have tension; a wine of any age can be dynamic.

  8. Sheri Morano MW says:

    Beautifully written, Lisa! I love your description of the 5 dimensions…couldn’t agree more. Can’t wait to read more.


  9. Juliet Bruce Jones MW says:

    I much enjoyed your post Lisa. In particular your 5 dimensions and your paragraph on your love of wine and its diversity. Wine with a pulse …. love it!
    Look forward to reading more.
    Best wishes

  10. Patrick McAteer says:

    Lisa, I loved it. Very clear and provoking. Please write more soon

  11. Lisa, how nice to have the concept of civility as well as thoughtfulness introduced into the discussion of wine. Wine speaks most to us when it tells us about ourselves and I look forward to your comments provoking more inner dialogues in the future.

  12. Well put, Lisa. Long time no speak. I think your “beverage wines” and “fine wines” definitions are well articulated, and you lodge one of the only credible defenses I’ve seen of why expensive wine is worth paying for.

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