Judgments, competitions, ratings, and price tags — all are factors appearing to rank wines based on quality. However, ask one person (or even expert) for his or her assessment, and it may vary quite widely from another’s. At Fullerton Wines, we’ve had a wine ranked 85 by one professional reviewer, and 91 with another. For another wine, 89 with one reviewer, and 95 with another. We also see this range of assessments play out with guests and club members in our tasting room. What are we all to make of this conflicting information? Can quality actually be objectively assessed in a wine?
Wine is undeniably a complex drink, a tapestry of history, site, climate, varietal(s), vintage, winemaking, experience, and storytelling. A single varietal can express itself quite differently in one location compared to another. And this single factor only accounts for one fraction of the wine’s essence. Then we have the other half of the equation — human subjectivity. Some like their wines fruit-forward and slightly sweet, while others prefer them bone-dry and racy. Some earthy, complex, and even funky, while others seek plushness and density. Most professional reviewers attempt to push aside subjectivity by “norming” their palates with peers. Great reviewers must understand what to expect from specific regions and varietals, and how the quality meter toggles for the varietal and/or region. While a single person can assess if they like a wine, an honest reviewer cannot judge a wine without the context of that wine’s style, profile, and history. After honing their palates, most experts attempt to eliminate subjectivity by tasting blind, which limits the amount of information known before making a judgment. Despite all of this effort and experience, ratings still vary from reviewer to reviewer, as highlighted earlier.
Most wine drinkers drink in less sterile environments filled with friends, family, and often food. Some will know parts of the wine’s story, but most will raise the glass knowing little to nothing about the wine. The judgment made at the time, if any, may be a simple “yep, I like this one” or a “meh, drinkable and forgettable.”
So does quality exist? Absolutely. Just as a hamburger from a national fast food chain varies in quality when compared to a house-ground burger made by a farm-to-table fine-dining establishment, wines also vary in quality. This fact does not always translate, however, to a preference for the highest quality examples. Our moods and needs sway like wind, and our overarching preferences are built on the strands of experience we accrue over our lives. Our journey and the smells, tastes, and experiences we’ve amassed, act as filters as we assess our current moment.
And quality can never be severed from subjectivity, despite our best efforts. Our judgments are fraught with human limitations. Despite this fact, caring about quality — about tasting, experiencing, and judging — leads to a level of focus that adds nuance and joy to our lives. We encourage your judgments, for through this act we learn and experience our world. We’ll raise a glass to that any day.