By: Our Correspondent

Can it be that the
educated palate isn’t educated at all? Is this an oenological
dirty little secret? A four-year study in the United States, made
public last week, showed that only 10 percent of wine judges were
consistently able to give the same wine the same rating twice, to
wines sampled multiple times in blind tastings.

To use the adage, “A
little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, it is one thing to be
well-versed in wine and another to have a trained palate with level
of skill and experience to consistently and accurately analyze wine.
The conundrum exposed by the study brings to light the flaws of wine
shows and the credulous trust that consumers place in ‘experts’,
whereas they would perhaps be better off having more confidence in
their own palates.

Every wine writer or
industry professional must grapple with scoring at some point,
discomfortingly critical as it is to one’s reputation and
possibly the only way to establish credibility. Personally, I have a
love-hate relationship with scoring. As tempting as it is to gloat in
the power of assigning numbers, I continue to be ambivalent. In Asia
a growing caste of wine drinkers are obsessed with scores, along with
wine merchants and marketers who seek to sell wine through the
blatant exploitation of ratings. Even more worrying is that the
average Asian wine drinker is oblivious to the issues, new to
western-style wine and reared on the 100-point scoring system.

This epidemic stems
from the United States where such individuals are otherwise known as
‘score whores’ — wine snobs – according to a
Master of Wine friend who recently visited the US and was amazed at
the American devotion to wine scores, largely because of publications
like the Wine Spectator, and the omnipotent Robert Parker, who after
all invented the 100-point scoring system.

I have utmost respect
and admiration for Parker. Clearly, he has an extraordinary palate
matched by an exhaustive knowledge of wine. Actually, I get more out
of his tasting notes than the scores. However, that doesn’t
mean I agree with him at all times. I am most certainly not impressed
by formulaic wines that are blatantly fashioned to please the Parker
palate and there is evidence that consumers in the US are also tiring
of his preferences, particularly syrupy, overblown Barossa Valley and
McLaren Vale shiraz. I remain skeptical of his methodology of
determining that a wine should only be given 89 points, just a mere
one point short of that magical 90 points.

But a few years ago
when I was emceeing an options tasting — the entertaining if not
masochistic sport of identifying masked wines guided by multi-choice
questions, one of the participants announced, in an irritating
manner, that she and her husband only drank wines rated 95 points and
above. Blind tastings are merciless to wine snobs and our
self-proclaimed connoisseur humiliated herself with an unequivocal
preference for a non-rated, humble Portuguese red (HK$240 per bottle)
over a celebrated 1998 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, rated 97 points
by Parker and valued at more than HK$3,000 at the time. Another
recent wine experience highlighting human behavioral inadequacy and
its relation to wine was when I attended a luncheon hosted by the
celebrated Château Haut-Brion to taste several wines. The woman
sitting next to me kept badgering me on which wine I liked the most,
and didn’t understand my answer: “All of them!” She
missed the point that the 2004 Château Laville Haut-Brion Blanc
was as enjoyable as the 2005 Château Haut-Brion Blanc, although
completely different in style or vintage expression. Ditto for the
1998 Château La Mission Haut-Brion or the 1995 Château
Haut-Brion. I’d be damned if I was going to be intimidated by
this captious group.

What is it with humans
that we always have to be contentiously comparative when there is
more than one wine served or become super critical when there are
extraordinarily expensive bottles involved? It would be naive to
suggest that we could do without personal opinions or ratings
altogether. But wine drinkers need to move away from the herd
mentality and simply become more reliant on their own tastes.

Scores aside, the
predictable question wine writers are always asked is, “What is
your favorite wine?” To which I reply, “The wine I
haven’t tried yet.” I gain the most pleasure in
discovering new taste sensations. My palate for food and wine is
greatly influenced by my mood and by different cuisines, although
inevitably, there are certain flavors, varieties and regions I enjoy
more than others.

The very notion of
drinking one type or style of wine continuously escapes me
completely. And yet, seemingly the exact opposite is happening to
wine consumers’ palates; they are being dictated by scores or
powerful critics and corralled by herd mentality and slaves of
fashion, naively ensnared in vinous mediocrity. The situation is not
helped by the plethora of pedestrian emails in circulation from wine
merchants, the contents almost entirely reproductions of scores and
tasting notes — little wonder that consumers are becoming lazier and
coerced by scores.

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The embellishing of
every point above 90 is rampant. Anything above 95 is money in the
bank for vintners, although a perfect 100 is more likely to cause a
massive headache for the distributor and is a milestone that haunts
producers for the rest of their days.

It is not that I am
questioning the competence of those who choose to score or rate
wines. On the contrary, there are many writers, critics, winemakers,
wine and hospitality industry professionals with encyclopedic
knowledge and seriously sharp palates who can dissect and assess a
wine with the precision and thoroughness of a forensic scientist
performing an autopsy. But it is crucial to keep in mind that
individual scores are highly subjective and that you need to
synchronize the personality and particular tastes or track record of
the critic with your own likes or dislikes.

Where scores are a
result of a tasting panel, we encounter one of the most serious flaws
associated with numerical ratings. The permutations in calculating
the mean score are highly manipulative, and like any statistic, the
range or difference between the largest and smallest value alters the
outcome significantly. Panel tasting outcomes can also be greatly
obscured by invited guest judges, particularly international ones, as
it invariably takes time to acclimatize palates and their scores can
be wildly divergent from the locals.

There is also a
tendency to assess wine at the tasting bench and in exhaustive
batches. The method lacks soul, and there is the unavoidable element
of comparisons that are often unjust. There is also the question of
the taster’s methodology or philosophy and whether he or she is
assessing the wine in context of the region’s known
characteristics or an accepted style, or have an all-encompassing
qualitative view.

This issue is
controversial, with some critics having to defend their assessments.
James Halliday, arguably Australia’s most respected wine
critic, scored a pinot noir rosé 94 points out of 100 points,
in my opinion, rightly so. But how could a simple rosé be
scored only three points away from Penfold’s Grange,
Australia’s icon, which scored 97 points, the highest level in
the 2008 Australian Wine Companion?

Technical issues aside,
the main flaw in clinically rating wines is that there is no
accounting for the flavor and enhancing influences of food, mood or
your state of mind at the time of drinking — all of which
profoundly affect your opinion. I can think of endless personal
experiences that demonstrate this. It is one thing to travel the
hills of the Languedoc, where Roman generals chose to retire
among the joie de vivre cultures of Catalonia and France, to
luxuriate in jovial hospitality on an impeccably radiant Provincial
afternoon, and quite another to sample wines on a miserable wet
afternoon in a warehouse. In the Languedoc, I could be compelled to
score a wine a perfect 100 points.

I recall a bittersweet
experience of running a small business when I discovered that my
administration manager, who had impressed the entire wine community
with his unrivalled knowledge of old and rare wines, was enjoying his
research at my expense. After he was turfed out, we unearthed a
magnum of 1949 Comte de Vogue, `Le Musigny’ Vielles Vignes
Grand Cru red Burgundy, which would be served in thimbles if at a
formal wine dinner. In an act of decadence, I decided to share the
wine with three devoted drinking comrades. We were in nirvana as we
toasted both the fired executive’s exodus and expertise,
immersing ourselves in our gluttony and the captivating sweet perfume
and evocative secondary aromas of antique woods, wild mushrooms,
truffles and earthy minerals. It remains my benchmark for an aged
pinot noir to this day. As for a score, I would rate it 200 points
out 100 points.

Price/quality rapport
is perilously subjective and clearly linked to disposable income,
perhaps the overriding factor in categorizing wine,
period. Invariably there are discernable reference points to
make a judgment whether a wine is over-delivering, or
under-delivering for that matter, at its price point. Moreover, a
tangible appreciation and anecdotal corroboration among informed wine
drinkers that often set wines apart and naturally invokes the laws of
supply and demand.

I suspect that many
Asians, regardless of their wealth, appreciate good value or, even
better, a bargain. The greatest value and bargains in today’s
highly competitive world of wine is the mid-ground, where passionate,
dedicated owner-operators are trying harder than ever to
gain recognition and an edge. When it comes to magazines
publishing ratings or using regional or comparative tastings as
features, I personally believe the star-rating system is the most
just, even ethical method. It might not be as glamorous or
attention-grabbing as the 100-point scale but it is not as
controversial, placing a wine in a category or range of points that
allows for the shortfalls of panel tastings yet, at the same time
giving a clear enough indication of quality.

This method is used by
the highly respected magazine Decanter and by the world doyen of wine
writers, Hugh Johnson. Johnson, I believe, is even more correct, and
perhaps diplomatic, in focusing his star rating on the vineyard
itself rather than individual wines. As you become more familiar with
wine and begin travelling the wine regions of the world, you come to
realize it is the producer that is paramount, and ratings or even
vintages have less relevance. Assessing any wine is only a snapshot
of a ‘living thing’ that undergoes a delicate, continuous
transformation of chemistry and integration of organisms.

Life is filling in time
between meals… and a meal without wine could only be
breakfast.