A long-ago story on Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino blog about tasting Argentinean wines with a critic from The Wine Advocate is more a little horrifying, and has me thinking. And, it seems, ranting. So what else is new? A better question: how did I miss this when it was first posted? I don’t know the answer to the latter, but the recent publication of the notes in question brought the story to my attention….and so, better late than never, right?
There’s been some hand-wringing in the wine consumer sector over Dr. Jay Miller’s work in The Wine Advocate, mostly due to his very high scores and sometimes breathtaking aging predictions. I’m not so much interested in that argument, because a critic can do whatever he or she wants in this regard. For me, he’s overly enthusiastic and prone to wild-eyed guesses that only blind optimism can justify, but so what? I’m sure he’d argue I’m far too critical, and who’s to say who’s right? Criticism is subjective, and will always remain so.
However, I have a number of more fundamental reactions to the piece in question:
1) “The setting was actually the Argentine Consulate in midtown Manhattan.” (Dr. Vino)
I don’t think it’s necessary for a critic to go to “the source” (the wines’ place of origin) just to render a judgment. The reason to go is to learn, which helps place wines in their cruicial contexts, and since this is a somewhat groundbreaking expansion of Argentinean coverage in (arguably) the most important publication in the field of fine wine criticism1, I’d like to have seen Miller visit Argentina along the way. His boss Robert Parker came under criticism in the past for doing report after report on Australia (and, if I remember correctly, Spain) without having visited either, though I believe that has changed.2
The counter-argument, which I’m sure many would make, is that all that matters is the wine itself, and that visiting only leads to psychological entanglements to fight off at the time of tasting, distractions that allegedly get in the way of critical truth-telling. But an ethically serious critic doesn’t deal with such facile definitions of objectivity (and in any case, the PR agents that were present would have been far more interfering than winemakers, who are generally far less intrusive), and from an organoleptic standpoint one simply cannot deal with wildly different expressions of grape, terroir, and winemaking as if they were all one. They’re not. A Paso Robles syrah is and always will be different than an Hermitage, and for a critic to pretend that they’re applying the same critical standards to each is willfully misleading.
So did Miller visit Argentina? Well…
2) “This tasting was just one aspect of my Argentina review which will ultimately involve a trip to Mendoza to taste at wineries.” (Jay Miller, in the comments)
“Miller has never visited Argentina (at least on official wine tasting business) but expects to early next year.” (Victor Honoré, in response)
The article has already appeared. So someone is lying. (Or, to be charitable, circumstances may have intervened that prevented a planned trip…but in that case, it would benefit Miller to say so in the same string of comments, lest people be led to the uncharitable conclusion.)
3) Dr. Vino is surprised that the tasting wasn’t organized by variety and style; Miller conducted the tasting by producer, apparently following the lead of the agents who set up the tasting in the first place. There are merits to both sides, and in large format tastings I prefer Miller’s approach here, though for a different reason: it helps combat palate familiarity, which I view as a debilitating component of palate fatigue. However – and this is important – I don’t rate wines. If one is tasting to rate, and thus tasting “competitively,” there’s something to be said for tasting in peer groups, and for not having to artificially attempt to adjust one’s reactions to, say, a sauvignon blanc tasted after a chardonnay and another tasted after a merlot. There’s concurrence on this point in the comments, from Dr. Debs of the Good Wine Under $20 blog (“I have to say that I don’t mind tasting by producer, because I find I have less palate fatigue that way. But–and its a huge but–I don’t claim to be objective, or assign points to things. If I were, I would taste by varietal [sic], so as to be able to make sure the syrah I just gave an 95 to was actually in some way/shape/form better than the one I gave a 90 to just a few minutes ago. How do you keep your standards consistent. When I grade student essay exams, I read all the answers to one question and grade them, then the next question and grade them. Makes sense, keeps me honest, comparative, and focused.”)
In any case, we’re not done with the issue of palate fatigue. Stay tuned.
3) “At one point [Dr. Vino] lamented the quantity of wines and [Miller] replied “well when you’ve been working for Bob Parker for 25 years, you’re used to it. He did not offer in what capacity this was although he only started as a critic last fall.” (Dr. Vino)
That Miller has written for and tasted with Parker for a very long time is not a secret, though his official and public position as a critic for The Wine Advocate is a fairly new one. But it’s a secret that is not as open as I suspect it should have been, and has caused a lot of speculation over the years. Parker went to some lengths to reinforce this point after he hired Miller, but it’s a little strange how much in the realm of rumor and whisper this relationship was in the days previous to that announcement. I, for instance, constantly heard it in the context of Parker owing his entire palate to Miller (on which I should note: even if it was true at one point, and while I have no way of knowing I kind of doubt it, Parker has long been his own man, and so it’s neither true nor relevant now).3
4) “But I report on this since I had little idea about the specifics of how tastings happen at the influential Wine Advocate. I didn’t know they were organized by producers or their agents. I didn’t know they were not tasted blind and were tasted by winery, not style. And I was surprised at how we basically had no discussion about the wines themselves, essentially having our own separate, parallel tastings. Maybe that’s because he didn’t know me but it could also be that it’s uncomfortable to talk about the wines in presence of the third party PR person, even if she did repeatedly ask for Miller’s instant evaluation.” (Dr. Vino)
It’s important to not generalize here. Different critics at The Wine Advocate take different approaches. It’s also important to highlight the non-blind nature of some of that publication’s tastings, because I think many consumers are misled on this point.4
I’m surprised that Dr. Vino didn’t know how many of The Wine Advocate’s tastings were arranged by interested third parties. One famous and highly-invested Bordeaux consultant set up tastings in that region for Parker for years (and may still do so; I’m out of touch with practices there), without major public objection…though I’d note that this is not a subject that is often discussed, and probably equally unknown among the general public. And were this knowledge more widespread, I think many would object more strongly. This is inevitable blowback from making great issue of one’s objectivity and ethics vs. other critics, because there is always something that can be called into question by consumers who have an overly idealistic and unrealistic expectation of what is meant by “independence.” (See, for example, the comments to the original post: “Wow. So we’re left to assume that Parker doesn’t taste blind, either. Sounds really objective…” and “that is absolutely fascinating. and scary. [...] at least the spectator claims that it does at least the first round of its tastings blind.”)
As for discussions, I’m on Miller’s side here. One of the things I hate most when tasting wine professionally is to be asked – by fellow tasters, by uninvolved consumers, but most of all by interested parties in the production and trade realms – what I think of the wines. First, I think that discussion leads to the integration of reactions other than one’s own, and a consumer of Miller’s or Dr. Vino’s (or Iverson’s) tasting notes is not looking or paying for consensus involving any other party. Second, the opinion is evident in the final result (the publication); this isn’t physics where showing one’s work is important or valuable, except in assessing the critic…and that’s something that’s not easily done during the tasting process. Third, and perhaps most importantly, talking wastes time. It’s important to remember that, for a professional critic, this is work, not a social wine occasion. I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Vino doesn’t know all of that, only that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find it exemplified in this particular tasting.
5) Finally, and most dismayingly, there is a rather shocking bit of head-in-the-sand denial on Miller’s part regarding the important issue of palate fatigue.
“The palate fatigue argument, frankly, is total hogwash. The principal difficulty for amateurs is maintaining concentration, mental fatigue, not physical fatigue. Someone mentioned doing no more than 12 wines; that’s 30 minutes work. You taste, you spit, you write a note, taste again, spit, add (or not to your note) and on to the next wine. When you’ve had practice doing this, it’s simply not difficult.” (Miller)
Shorter Miller: it’s what I do, therefore it must be immutable law. And if you can’t do it, you’re not at my level.
“The quantity of wines that you are able to taste is, indeed, prodigious. Did you follow the interesting series of articles on Slate.com about the science of taste? The author reports on his discussions with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He said it’s impossible to taste dozens of wines in rapid succession and not suffer olfactory fatigue and that anyone who claims otherwise is claiming to ‘defy biology,’ as he put it. Although a critic might think that his sense of smell is still acute after sampling 40 Cabernets, his impressions at that point are being formed less by the nose than by past experience, visual cues (such as the color of the wines), and perhaps also tactile sensations.” (Dr. Vino)
“Sensation and Perception” and “Psychophysics” were part of my academic studies way back when (I got my my [sic] doctorate in 1972 and took that class (or classes) in the late ’60s. While I have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gestation, I learned enough in academia to take findings in this field with a grain of salt. There can be significant differences between theory and practice. There are still, I’m sure, issues involved in presenting stimuli in a consistent way and in the need to use trained observers (and the biases that go into that). Don’t get me wrong, they’re valid fields of study, but in terms of practical application, forget about it.” (Miller, emphasis mine)
Note that he claims authority in this field, his second dalliance with a classic logical fallacy. But then there’s the rather breathtaking statement highlighted in the quote. He notes (see below) that he has not kept up with the science in this field…in fact, his knowledge in this area is almost forty years out of date. That’s forty, not four. But that doesn’t matter to Miller, who claims to know more than the scientists anyway, just because…well, why? Because he’s
Chevy Chase Jay Miller, and they’re not? So, here’s a willful dismissal of science, plus a refusal to even attempt to change one’s personal triumph of belief over evidence. Miller should run for president. Or sub for Stephen Colbert.
“As a wine blogger, I am extremely interested in the research of Wysocki and other experts, much as I am interested in the science associated with wine closure and the science related to organic viticulture. It’s unfortunate that anyone tasting wine on Mr. Miller’s level is willing to ‘have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation.’ As an academic, it is wise to take any findings with a grain of salt; it is not wise to ignore current findings. I will be taking Mr. Miller’s conclusions about wine with more than a grain of salt in future, given his comments here.” (Dr. Debs)
“To Dr. Debs, I can just see myself pouring [sic] through the journals after 35 years (in areas that weren’t even my specialty). My time is much better spent tasting wine. Just out of curiosity, though, I’d be interested in how you think I’d be a better wine critic if I kept up on pyschophysics, olfaction, gustation, etc. As it is, I probably know more about those subjects than 99%5 of those writing about wine. I think you’re just blowing hot air. (Miller)
So, even though he just claimed authority in these subjects in order to “win” the argument, now that he’s been called on that bit of BS he’s moved on to claiming that this field wasn’t his “specialty”. And then he claims more expertise than all but 1% of wine writers (which, I assume, would be the 1% who have, at the very least, read the Slate article, which doesn’t even require being up-to-date on the science behind palate fatigue, only basic literacy). So is Dr. Miller an expert, or not? We don’t expect those whose familiarity with computers ended with vacuum tubes or punched tape to guide us on cutting-edge chip design or the multi-touch interface, do we? In any case, if he can’t be bothered to keep up with the research over a period of forty science-filled years, I think I know what the answer is: he’s no expert, though he might like to play one on the internet when it allows him to attempt bullying legitimate questioners into silence.
But sure, there are indeed better uses for his time. Why read, or learn, or visit Argentina, when he can taste wine with an instrument (his palate) that he apparently doesn’t understand, and spend the rest of his time insulting his audience.
1 I’m exempting Wine Spectator, which is dominant in the broader world of wine, but generally considered less “important” among high-end consumers.
2 A busy critic can’t go everywhere or cover everything. There’s too many wines, and there’s simply not enough time. However, to be as informed as possible about a specific subject, a critic has to visit and taste in situ. A critic owes that to him- or herself, first and foremost, even before their duty to their readers.
3 And yes, I realize this is a sleazy way to bring up the rumor while dismissing it, sort of like what political campaigns do when they want to keep their candidates’ hands clean. I really apologize for doing so, because it’s not my intention to bring the sleaze or even the innuendo, but I think contextualizing the previously-understood (or previously-misunderstood) relationship between Parker and Miller is important in understanding why Miller’s “working for Bob Parker for 25 years” comment will strike many as bothersome, or at least curious.
4 Does it matter? To some people. For me, all that matters is whether or not you trust the critic to be fair (I don’t believe a critic can be objective, at least not in the hair shirt sense that many consumers believe). Whether the wines are tasted blind or not is far less important than a sense of ethics and fairness, and that those senses are perceived by the audience.
5 As if we needed more evidence that 71.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.