Asimov versus Rowe: scores and frozen moments

I’ve been reading words about wine judging by and about Eric Asimov in the latest issue of World of Fine Wine, and they make a fine contrast to the recent public whingeing of KWW’s chief winemaker about Platter (I thought that Australians ascribed whingeing to the Brits rather than indulging in it themselves?).

asimovAsimov, wine critic of the New York Times, features large in this WFW (the only really good wine magazine that I know). First, he writes a sympathetic obituary for his predecessor at the NYT, Frank Prial, who died last November. Prial, he sympathetically indicates, was very different from today’s typical wine journalist and critic – in ways that make me, certainly, react with great pleasure:

“For Prial, describing aromas and flavours was the least interesting thing about wine. He wote about wine through its history, politics, and economics; its joys and pretensions; and most of all, its people.”

There’s also in WFW a review of Asimov’s recent book, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, which I intend to acquire ASAP. (I spent some time with Asimov and a few others in my visit to Jerez last year, but scarcely scratched the surface of acquaintance: I’m not greatly outgoing, and he was either shy, uninterested or disdainful.)

The reviewer quotes from a chapter entitled “The tyranny of the tasting note” and wrote, to my mind accurately, about those “recitations of the supermarket fruit aisle” which “have become the primary tool for communicating about wine even as they manage to communicate almost nothing that anybody cares about”. He quotes Asimov:

“Can you imagine an art critic discussing a masterpiece merely by listing the various shades of paint observed on the canvas? What bearing would that list of colors have on understanding and absorbing the entirety of that piece of art?”

The reviewer (Keith Levenberg) continues to relate Asimov’s grievances against the 100-point scoring system, and his “critique of blind or massed tastings”, including the point that professionals have mostly “elected to evaulate wines in a context totally different from the context in which they will ultimately be appreciated by those who actually drink the stuff”.

In his own short article in WFW, Asimov, addressing the “anxiety” of many ordinary wine-drinkers, and praising good “ordinary” wines, again attacks scoring:

“For those who ought to know better, scores convey the notion that a good wine, with a long, convoluted, and individual journey ahead, can be defined by one frozen moment.”

Scores and frozen moments are the absolute essence, of course, of all wine judging, not excluding the way most of the Platter judges approach their task. The “massed tastings” that Asimov criticises bring in something else, of course – the extraordinary idea of considering it feasible to assess a hundred or two hundred wines piled on top of one another within a few hours – wines sniffed, swirled and spat and judged in, essentially, the space of a moment or two.

Some day, if wine is ever to regain a place of real honour in the world, we’ll look back at these big competitions and shake our heads in unbelief.

It’s not the “blindness” that’s at fault – blind tasting can perform an inestimable and irreplaceably useful function at times – it’s the basic absurdity of the task of tasting so many wines in a short period that makes virtually all competitions ridiculous and accounts for the demonstrable general arbitrariness and contradictoriness of their results.

Richard-RoweAnd so to Richard Rowe of KWV who responded on to the announcement of the change of ownership of the Platter Guide (with which I am of course pretty heavily involved, but please note I’m writing here absolutely on my own behalf). Let’s forgive Richard (that’s him in the pic, bearing trophies) his weird English (though surely KWV could afford someone to proofread his words) as he writes:

“As a long standing exhibitor to this guide we have clearly identified that the reviews we receive for our wines is well out of step with national and international wine competitions. We believe the fundamental issue here is that the evaluations are sighted and individual tasters introduce their own biases.”

He doesn’t indicate why Platter judges should be biassed against KWV. (In the present case the judge was Angela Lloyd who I know has been immensely enthusiastic about the progress made at KWV since Rowe took over.) Perhaps Rowe thinks that Platter is biassed against big, corporate producers – in which case he should consider the progressive evolution of scores achieved in Platter by the top Nederburg wines over the last decade as they have improved under the direction of Razvan Macici. The problem is not KWV, Richard, the problem is that your wines, while improving, have still got a way to go in being more interesting than competent.

A way to go, whatever might be said by judges at the vast array of competitions that KWV can afford to enter around the world. It’s well known by marketers that if you can afford to enter a lot of competitions you are bound to do well in some of them (and badly in others: it’s pretty much a roulette wheel chance), and those are the ones you publicise – and lambaste Platter with.

Not that the Platter ratings are by any means unkind. (Personally, I believe that the ratings for the top KWV ranges, Mentors and Cathedral Cellars, are over-generous, if anything.)

I tried looking up some of KWV’s competition successes in recent years (from Johannesburg to Vietnam), but gave up after a while. They didn’t seem to me very spectacular – certainly when compared with getting at least four stars in the most recent Platter for most of the Mentors and Cathedral Cellar ranges. But, anyway, I would be willing to take a bet with Richard Rowe that if he lists every competition result achieved by these wines in the last two years, including those that achieved no medals at all, and averages them out, the overall achievement would not be greater than they achieved in Platter. If he proves me wrong, I will publicly apologise for finding his whingeing both self-demeaning and wrongheaded.

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