A beautiful context

The thing about beauty is that it exists entirely in the eye of the beholder. Beauty – or the perception thereof – may be affected by outside influences, but at the end of the day, the wine I adore and crave may do absolutely nothing for another.

So where does beauty lie? And can we categorically define what it is that makes a wine good, without resorting to the catch-all of it ‘not being faulty’?

Well, probably not. Because our palates differ – which in and of itself is a wonderful thing. A thing which keeps the diversity of our industry alive.  And our imbibing history affects the wines we choose.  A friend drinks a super-cheap cab merlot.  Little more than ribena to me, but he enjoys it.  He drinks for the familiarity, and the lack of a challenge.  He drinks to simply enjoy the bottle on which he has opted to spend his hard-earned cash.  And he despairs of me, and the wines I open in order to broaden a mind which simply wants the same super-cheap cab merlot. He cares not a whit for palate structure, and balanced acid, and he could not define a tannin if you paid him.

And yet… To him, his wine is good. Beautiful, even. Because it does what he asks of it. It is not, to me a particularly good wine, but it is not faulty. And it makes him happy.

Or there is the producer who see glory in brett-affected wines.  Phenomenally affected wines. He sees no fault there, merely a type of beauty.  Personally, I like a little bretty note here and there.  Although I would prefer to taste more than candy bananas and bandaids in my glass.  Key word here?  ‘Personally’.

So, where do the bloggers, reviewers, critics and writers sit in this equation? Are they writing for the handful who care more than my friend? For the percentage who wish to learn? For the wine trade?  They write to inform.  To hopefully tempt a buyer into something new or different.  Their palates are far, far better than mine, and they assess, critique and post comments on the value and beauty of wines.

But if we were to remove that percentage encompassing the trade, and the avid few, where does that leave the value of the words typed, and the wine exalted?

Well, kind of in the lap of Miranda Priestly, really.

That scene in The Devil Wears Prada – where the Hathaway character sneers at the designs or colours which look so very similar to her untrained eye? And then the Devil herself describes how the exponents of high fashion, and their decisions, will one day trickle down into the bargain bin at a broadly commercial store where the Hathaway bird has bought her blue polyester sweater.

And so it is with wine. The decisions made to review certain wines, to extol the virtues of Vermentino this summer in the hope that next, there might be a broader appreciation of the wine, whether it be as a commercial prospect, or as a niche, ’boutique’ number at twice the price. To bewail lacklustre styles in the hope that some of us on the production side might pay attention, and think about ways to improve, to avoid the chastisement, when working in the winery next.  To get people thinking. To familiarise the punter with the styles, and what they might expect, whether they choose to pick up a bottle or not. To make the producer think twice about styles, perhaps, or to disregard, and continue doing what we do best, writers be damned.  Either way, there is a degree of impact, a trickle-down effect, and ongoing context.

But. And there is always a but. Could we have a little perspective for the punter? A little caveat – that this is my palate, and this suited me. This works for these reasons, but may not work for you. I see it on occasion, but – and I may well be alone here – perhaps we need to just cop to the fact that what we each love, may not work for everyone?

We assess wines in context, as people. This is the reason behind wine tourism and wine events. That chance to tell the story, elate a buyer, and introduce them to something new. What I love today, with friends, and food, and sunshine, may well not be as enthralling tomorrow alone with peanuts. Or it may be better.

There is ever discussion about the assessment of wine – judge the wine, not the vintage has been a favourite of late on twitter. Which is true. Most of us producers would prefer our wines judged blind, without influence of label or preconception attached. A pure assessment. Or, relatively pure, anyway. Do we then have our eight dollar cheapie – as loved by my friend – judged next to a hundred dollar plus benchmark wine? And just hope?

Well, no. We don’t. We submit wines for assessment by people we judge to be smart enough to assess the wine in context. And then we cross our fingers…

Simply put, beauty has a context. And is no lesser, nor greater for the context in which it sits. But perhaps we should note that the cheaper wines have their origins in some of the icons of our industry. And perhaps, if you have chance to taste these icons, appreciate that the context there has led to your eight dollar cheapie.  And many of the steps in between.

A glass tonight is merely part of the picture. But for some of us, that glass is the only beauty needed.  For others, the context itself is the beauty…