Dan Berger On Wine: Meaningless Numbers
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Dan Berger On Wine: Meaningless Numbers

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Fifty years ago, thinking people read newspapers, books and magazines and few spoke of video games, hand-eye coordination skills, or staring endlessly at computer screens.

Times change, and so do we. Electronics rule. Reading is challenged. This was the subject of a cogent column last week by The Washington Post’s brilliant columnist George Will that touched on the subject of reading printed words deeply and how readers draw conclusions from what’s read.

The column was not about reading as much as it was about how we now view the reading process. Will spoke to the issue of binge reading, which may actually be a thing once again with stay-home stratagems now operative in many places.

Will’s article got me thinking about that vast wasteland of idiot-box talking-head faux-factoids and pundit-generated non-conclusions. Thinking for oneself these days seems optional. In his column, Will suggests that we “mute Netflix long enough to read Adam Garfinkle’s “The Erosion of Deep Literacy,” in National Affairs.” (www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-erosion-of-deep-literac)

Garfinkle writes at one point that “two-dimensional representations on a screen do not match the sensory richness of direct, unmediated experiences…” on the printed page.

He says “deep reading” allows us to become engaged with “an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows is a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight.”

I was immediately struck by the way this works with fine wine, and with the entire process that’s embedded in the justification for the entire 100-point scoring “system” that has been so widely used to rate wine. And which derides the entire art form.

Garfinkle argues that reading on a screen differs radically from reading on a page of paper; that using an electronic gadget can lead to “attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning.”

From the start four decades ago, the use of what looks like math to evaluate a wine rankled me, a former math major. I couldn’t fathom how a score was meaningful or benefited the wine or the winery (sales). But using raw numbers ignores the land on which the grapes grew. It ignores the winemaker and any philosophical issues. It ignores the vintage and what happened that growing year.

Every fine wine is multidimensional and each wine, indeed each bottle, ought to be viewed as its own individual, unique experience.

A single number does one thing: it makes speaking of a wine easy. Indeed, ease of use seems to be the only validation for employing numbers to rate wine. A 100? Someone thinks it’s good.

Numbers thus act as a soporific, obliterating any need for potential buyers to think critically. Thus numbers become the ultimate short-hand. And they do an injustice to all wines, and to any wine lover with a brain that he or she might like to exercise.

As I read the Garfinkle article, I thought of substituting wine for reading: “The two-dimensional representation does not match the sensory richness of direct, unmediated experiences…”

A rating number is someone else’s opinion (it’s not a fact) of a wine’s relationship to theoretical perfection. But how does that reviewer define perfection? A wine getting 94 is six points off perfection, but which six points, specifically, is it missing?

As for perfection itself, what parameters must be at play? Varietalness? Terroir? Structure? Are we ever told? Or is this “system” just a visceral sort of thing? So much for the precision implied by using what looks like a mathematical conclusion.

My math background tells me the 100-point scheme is not a system at all. Systems call for rules. This is a subjective, random view. The rating number is but a point on a plane, and calls for no added thinking. But wine is a three- (or even four-) dimensional work of art.

In his column, Will writes that the way we think is always evolving: “The brain is continuously rewiring itself in response to changing stimuli,” and he quotes Garfinkle, “More items vie for our attention in a given hour.”

It’s no wonder that the 100-point schema is so widely used. It saves time and eliminates the need to find out anything specific about a wine.

A clerk, trying to sell you a Merlot you never heard of and is pricier than your budget justifies, says, “It got a 95.” And you, still facing an hour of traffic, must make a decision based on a number generated by someone else a year ago!

If you had time, you could ask, “What does it compare with? Right bank? Umbria? Russian River Valley?” But that calls for thinking.

Says Garfinkle: “… if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – ‘cognitive patience’ (in the words of another author) on a complex problem – you cannot effectively think about it.”

Few people muse about the subtle intricacies in a wine. Without some deep thinking, especially over a bit of time, the average person’s reaction to it is replaced by a primitive response.

A solitary, immutable number imposed on a wine precludes the need to think about it at all. How convenient is it that that decision has already been made for all of us!

Evaluating a wine without using any parameters is like evaluating a car without turning on the engine. “Nice dashboard arrangement, wide windshield, nice placement of rear-view mirrors – and it’s really quiet.”

Is it too much to ask wine reviewers to include in all high reviews (say 95+) of varietal wines at least a mention of how each wine displays varietal character? Or terroir? Or vintage character?

Or are bombastic adjectives sufficient to describe a high-scoring wine? What sort of consumer introspection is likely when another person’s description says nothing about the wine other than that reviewer’s reaction to it?

About 20 years ago, after a self-anointed wine authority had given 100 points to a particular 1989 Bordeaux, I had a chat with a savvy, respected southern California wine merchant who had just gotten a few bottles of it.

“What do you think of it?” I asked him.

He replied with a wince: “It’s OK. Besides, no one cares what I think. The 100 speaks for itself.”

Wine of the Week

2018 Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16)

Today is Sauvignon Blanc Day worldwide, a day to celebrate one of the world’s finest and most distinctive wines. This respected project has been turning out a string of exceptional wines for a decade, and despite the flood of very good $12-$15 SBs from New Zealand, this one is among my favorites. Not only does it have the characteristic gooseberry/tropical/floral aroma, but it has a better mid-palate structure than most others and a slightly drier finish.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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