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The truth isn’t…

[“que es la veritat?” at sagrada famlia]It started off well enough. It started as a discussion of a (to most) arcane bit of cocktail-making technique. It turned into a barrage of sarcasm, curriculum vitae in place of arguments, insults, hurt feelings, and both participants more or less stalking off into the digital ether with a virtual huff.

So goes far too much online discussion, but this instance – with someone I’d called a friend and mentor, and still would were he willing to talk to me – was striking. Not because of the disagreement itself (we’re both stubborn and argumentative types), but because of the form of that disagreement. To elide all but the matter of immediate interest: there was an attempt to test a theory of mixology that ended in doubt being cast on the efficacy of certain other techniques. No problem, right? Just one more inquisitive step on the long road to understanding, no?

No. My interlocutor was having none of it. Science be damned, and in fact the mere notion that there might be reason to question or even test his beloved technique also be damned (or, more accurately ignored: I suggested he draw up a test, since he was so convinced of the inevitability of its result, and the suggestion wasn’t even acknowledged, much less accepted or rejected). My friend was a believer, and could not be gainsaid. Immutable surety was his counter-argument, and when that was questioned, along came the CV. (An impressive one, it must be said. But entirely orthogonal, especially to this mixology-agnostic.)

What struck me so much, especially in the aftermath, wasn’t that we couldn’t agree on the bona fides of the technique, or even whether or not it had been/could be tested by scientific inquiry. It was that we weren’t actually having an argument at all, despite appearances to the contrary. I was primarily interested in the questions, but he was so convinced by the answers (despite a lack of anything other than anecdotal evidence, weighty CV or not) that he was no longer interested in the questions. There was a riptide of hero-worship inherent in my friend’s angry rejection of counter-arguments, even of scientific counter-arguments, that I did not fully understand until the churning waves had receded. No; the matter had been settled, because a bartender – the object of my friend’s intense admiration – had settled it simply by saying so (the form of “saying so” here taking the form of a finished cocktail of, in my friend’s assessment, superior quality). That other practitioners with comparably or even more impressive CVs (than my friend, not the bartender) disagreed with said conclusion was deemed as irrelevant as the potential scientific arguments. The matter was settled, once and for all time, and a man had settled it by saying it was settled, and now another man was attempting to work the same dazzling rhetorical mojo on me. In other words, he was propheteering, if you’ll forgive the coinage.

That is, of course, faith. By no means am I prepared to speak for or against the power, or even the importance, of faith. But there’s a reason that the adjective “blind” so often precedes it. And guarding against that adjectival form – the supplanting of reason with faith – is one of the hardest but most important things to which a student of any subject can aspire. There’s room for belief, and for faith, but there can be no understanding without reason, and where reason and faith are in conflict and a test exists to settle the matter, the test does settle the matter. To believe otherwise is to abandon reason. But, alas…my friend, normally one of the most relentlessly inquisitive people I know, had been attracted by the gravity of, and had thus entered the orbit of, a guru.

Usually, when someone in the wine world starts warning against gurus, an attack on a wine critic (or perhaps wine criticism in general) is about to follow. Or it’s a wine critic issuing a similar warning about the rampant untrustworthiness of retailers and/or sommeliers. None of this is inherently wrong or right – people have self-interests on which they cannot fail to act, even if sub- or unconsciously, and even in the absence of any malicious intent it’s probable for each of these entities to see the others as competitors for mindshare and thus commercial importance. But I’m not talking about critics, retailers, or sommeliers. No, the guru against which I wish to warn is the one responsible for wine itself. In my friend’s case, it was a bartender that was the object of his admiration, but I think the same concern I have over admiration writ extreme applies to practitioners of the oenological art.

Talk to winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of certain practices. Talk to enough winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of absolutely opposed and entirely incompatible practices. The subject might be irrigation, it might be yeast, it might be sulfur, it might be clonal selection, it might be varietal composition, it might be anything, but the conviction will be firm and the defense (whether asked for or not) more or less passionate. But an argument in isolation does not a case make, no matter how convincing or lauded the source. There must be results, too. There must be wines to support the case. When there are, the first opportunity to leave the path of reason presents itself for both creator and consumer, for the widespread belief that “all that matters is what’s in the glass” applies not just to the misguided notion that wine has objective qualitative standards, but also to the equally misguided belief that a wine can settle an argument. As anyone who’s consumed even the best of wines long into the night with friends/acquaintances/enemies knows, after all, the opposite is much more frequently true.

Consider traveling to a destination. One may take the quickest route, saving time. One may take the easiest route, avoiding inconvenience. One may take the cheapest route, saving money. One may take the most scenic route, gaining more than just the destination along the way. Or one may take an entirely random route, and still arrive at the destination by happy accident. In each case, the desired result – getting to the destination – is achieved. But in each case, the path to that destination is different. It is possible to argue the inherent superiority of one path over another, and those with a strong preference may do so, but they will not be objectively correct…because no matter which choice is made, the destination is still attained. A successful result, then, speaks of a successful path, but not necessarily the successful path. No one who has achieved success via a different path would agree that any path other than their own was the one and only correct path, nor would anyone credit or laud the chosen path of the random arrival. So why should we respond otherwise when it comes to winemaking? In the absence of testable, repeatable evidence for claims, we often have little more to go on than that random traveler’s itinerary, no matter what a given winemaker says.

Winemakers who defend specific practices, even to the extent of decrying alternatives (which is often the case, especially for believers of more idiosyncratic theories), are convinced of the rightness their defense. They can show what they believe to evidence via the wines made with these practices. They may even have actual science to explain the efficacy of those practices, though just as often this is either not the case or the science, properly understood, tells a fuzzier, less certain tale. But while successfully-produced wine is an important component in a convincing-to-others argument, as long as successful alternatives exist it cannot be the answer. It can only be an answer, at best. And in the case of our random arriver, there’s no answer at all, only unaddressed questions.

Perhaps this point can be made more clearly by referencing practices that have, in whole or in part, demonstrably anti-scientific defenses. Biodynamism comes immediately to mind, of course, but it need not bear the entirety of the burden; there’s cosmoculture, crystal energy, divination, tidal forces, astrological calendars, the disallowing of women in the cellar (it happens; don’t ask)…a rich panoramic cornucopia of the semi-sensible to the entirely nutty that is embraced by some winemaker, somewhere, and which may nonetheless be passionately defended as the reason for quality wines thus produced. In the case of biodynamics, in fact, widely practiced, though somewhat less enthusiastically defended, by a large number of very successful winemakers.

Those defenses are interesting, and the open-minded listener should attend to them. How could anyone blindly ignore the thoughts of someone who produces excellence? However, the requirements of an open mind are twofold: it must remain open, but it must not become a sieve. One should not discard reason and intellect because of a few convincing words and a fine glass or two. Moreover, one may fully appreciate the quality of a product while harboring the belief that the person who made it is right, wrong, sensible, or a lunatic on any given subject (and may be differently-situated with regards to a different subject). It is an essential separation of the thing that is made and the person that makes it. One may simultaneously love Huet Vouvray and think biodynamics are a load of hooey, and one may subscribe wholeheartedly to the superiority of biodynamic agriculture while thinking that Benziger’s wines are lousy. Despite what advocates, true believers, and prophets would have you believe, the technique is not the result, nor is the reverse the case, without a proven and repeatable link between the two.

When evidence – hopefully scientific – arrives that shows a given practice to be either supportable or unfounded, one should be prepared to accept that evidence. This is the duty of a critical thinker. Not to fail to question, ever, but to add answers to one’s understanding, the better to ask new questions and thus reignite curiosity. This is especially true if that evidence contradicts one’s previous understanding. That, after all, is how we learn and grow as thinking beings.

[sagrada familia under construction]Some winemakers – through force of personality, the excellence of their wine, or both – can be utterly convincing, especially to those unprepared with an equivalent depth of experience (and that would be most of us, unless we’re eminent winemakers ourselves). It’s all too easy to ally one’s convictions to those of the winemaker in question because what one is hearing “sounds right,” and isn’t the wine just oh-so-good? This is an understandable impulse – we all, at times, need something in which to believe – but it’s important to remember that it’s faith, not intellect, that motivates this impulse. By so choosing, one has abandoned the path of understanding in favor of the path of belief. Even the demands of politesse, in which one may wish to suspend open debate so as to not offend one’s host, can be met as long as critical thinking is only delayed, not abandoned.

The alternative, however, is how one participant went wrong* in the midst of the argument referenced at the beginning of this essay: the transformation of a personal faith into the means by which others are to be convinced of that faith. It goes wrong because one is not mounting a defense based on evidence available to anyone’s review, but rather asking others to share their faith through no more than an inevitably personal testimony…proselytizing rather than informing. For any who are themselves searching for a faith in which to share, that method of argumentation has efficacy. It works for religions, after all. For those who are not, it is utterly useless, and may even become offensive if pursued with enough vigor.

*The other participant – me – went wrong by not understanding this soon enough, and so snarking and sarcasm-ing my way into a debating stance in which my opposite number took angry offense. This was insensitive on my part, for which I can only mouth this defense: I was not prepared for irrationality from this particular person. Were a rewind button available, I’d conduct myself differently. This, by the way, is not to suggest that I don’t mean everything I just wrote about the dangers of gurus and belief over reason. I do. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider the entire mess someone else’s fault. I don’t.

For as we all know, it is easy for those immersed in belief to become so convinced of their rightness that the dissemination of that belief becomes as important as the belief itself, no matter how aggressive one must be to achieve that dissemination. Inquiry is no longer ignored, it is attacked. Dissension is no longer an unshared viewpoint, it’s a wrong that must be righted. The discourse devolves, and warring camps develop. On one side, one belief. On the other, another belief. And standing in between, suffering under rhetorical artillery from both sides, are those who would, retaining their intellectual curiosity, ask questions of both.

Obviously, this sort of “debate” does not lead to understanding, but rather hurt feelings and the general entropic decline of civility. Further, no one is convinced of anything in such a debate, except perhaps of the intransigence and unreliable intellect of those whose faith cannot be shaken by reason. This is also a danger, for it remains important to listen to those with whom one disagrees, and this sort of discourse breeds unwillingness to lend an ear. Deaf faith is no more admirable than the blind version.

It would perhaps be better, regarding most controversial winemaking issues, for there to be an inherent skepticism of anyone who utters any form of “this must be” or uses even the slipperiest version of “because I” (in which that pronoun is laden with self-importance) “say so” as a defense for a position. The more convincingly-argued a position on a controversial issue, the more suspicion should be applied as a buffer, unless and until scientific rigor follows on its heels. Winemakers are not required to adhere to any given philosophy (most don’t, and even many of those that do can be wavering and selective in their faith), but if they do, it does not follow that consumers are required to join that adhesion, even if they enjoy the wines thus produced.

Am I over-intellectualizing wine by insisting, over and over again, on the primacy of science over belief? Yes and no. After all, I am one who claims that wine is (or at least can be) about a lot more than just chemistry, to which a relentless and complete application of scientific rigor would reduce it. To this hypothetical charge, I would respond that I don’t believe embracing other fields of inquiry regarding the creation or appreciation of wine affects scientific inquiry one whit; one may romanticize, emotionalize, wax literate, or engage in whatever else inspires and derives from one’s passion for wine without negating a single datum. One may even choose to ignore science in its entirety, feeling that it interferes with a (perhaps) more appealing emotional response. But apathy is not the same as negation, and all the unscientific romanticism in the world does not invalidate the science, whether a given person chooses to engage with it or not. These responses and modes of interaction can coexist without conflict, because they do not address each other in the same language. When they attempt to do so, things often go ill.

For wines do, after all, make their own sort of argument for themselves. But it is an argument, not a conclusion, and wine’s responses to even the most careful questioning are ambiguous at best…suggestions rather than definitions, innuendos rather than proofs. Wine is difficult, confusing, contradictory, and yet wonderful not just despite, but in fact because of those difficulties. Wine is not about easy answers. Those who would attempt to convince you otherwise are not acting in their, or your, best interests.

The I in wine

[merchant sculpture, venice]Does arrogance go hand-in-hand with professional criticism?

In response to my recent musings on Robert Parker and his anti-engagement style of online discourse, one of the nicest wine-loving folk I know wrote, after several paragraphs of worthy comment, this rather provocative coda:

Thin skin is a tough play in the wine critic game. Arrogance, even worse.

The latter characterization is something I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years. Because it must be said, almost every professional (which I’m defining as paid) wine critic I’ve ever met has a discernable arrogance. Including, though it hardly needs to be reiterated for anyone who knows me, myself.

Now, it’s true that some handle their arrogance better than others. The most successful seem to employ one of two techniques: a passionate humility in their non-critical life, or an equal measure of self-deprecation that usually, but not always, takes the form of humor. I wouldn’t argue that most critics are off-puttingly arrogant, though some certainly are…but still, the character is there in virtually everyone who plies the trade.

Why? Well, I think there are actually two different questions therein. First: is arrogance an essential part of being a critic? And second: does being a critic make one arrogant (or increase that quality, if it already exists)?

I’m afraid I believe the answer to both is yes. Everyone has an opinion, but a paid critic is compensated for theirs under an assumption that others will subordinate their opinions to the critic’s. Otherwise, what market would there be for a critic’s opinions? The critic will succeed or fail based on the perceived value of that subordination (or, sometimes, just because the critic is an unusually entertaining communicator), but the basic fact of a critic’s professional existence is one that puts their judgment “above” that of others. Moreover, to even want to be placed in such a position in the first place betrays a core confidence that one’s opinions can be judged more worthy than others’. The cognitive leap from that to the definition of arrogance looks a lot like standing still.

And if that arrogance somehow isn’t there to begin with, the process of criticism seems to bring it out. Anyone who’s been a fan of the most successful bloggers as they’ve risen from obscurity to compensated fame can see the process at work. Exploration becomes knowledge. Knowledge becomes authority. Argument for the sake of knowledge acquisition becomes argument from authority. Questions become statements. Statements become accusations. What was independent becomes establishment. None of this makes the blogger less successful – in fact, it seems to escalate fame, which is a phenomenon I’m not going to explore here – but it does affect their interactions with their audience.

The only defense is self-examination. Constant, relentless, and even harsh self-examination. Without it, there can be no mitigation. And without mitigation, trouble inevitably ensues. Oh, I could tell embarrassing stories about that

(Another time.)

One caveat: I’d argue for a separation between arrogance as a character trait vs. arrogance as a way of dealing with the rest of the world. They often go hand-in-hand, but they don’t have to. Someone may state their opinions in a voice of unimpeachable authority (earned or not), but they don’t have to be a bastard about it. Staying on one side of that line seems to me to be the key difference between tolerable arrogance and insufferable arrogance.

Unfortunately, the immediacy of the internet brings out the worst in many inherently arrogant types. There’s no time for self-examination when someone is wrong, after all. Many critics have the self-awareness (often coupled with a lack of time, which can be very helpful in this regard) to use the internet in what I’d call “safe” ways – one-to-many communication, like blogs – rather than as a participant in opinionated free-for-alls, like online wine fora.

And those that don’t? Well, sooner or later they get into a lot of trouble. And they behave very, very badly at times. I could undoubtedly fill the next few hours with stories from my own past, but let’s leave lower-tier critics out of this for the moment, and head right to the top. Guess who?

Oh my….in their blind tasting of 2004 (I have no affiliation other than one tasting I do for Howard and Bob each year,but like the professionalism of their tastings)……another “evil” wine blew away the competition…and very noteworthy ones at that….that anti-“terroir” “transparency” creation…..Lascombes looks to have had a sure-fired great showing….of course let me say it before The Usual Suspects chime in….it won’t last…won’t improve…just a terribly bad wine that people actually like to drink and makes friends for all of Bordeaux…that a do…

Now, I could be as snarky as usual and wonder how someone who is paid for their words can be so persistently incoherent, but then again we could all use an editor from time to time.

I could also spend a while explaining the background of this quoted post, but there’s probably no need. The intent should be clear even if one has no idea of the details. What makes it worse is that it was a thread-starter. Given the identity of the critic who posted it, everyone on that forum is going to click on the thread to read it. And then…what? What contribution is being made here? None. It’s not even an argument. It’s finger-pointing (mostly the middle one) in text form, for no reason other than to – yet again – mock unnamed interlocutors.

Is arrogance to blame here? Well, that’s part of it, yes. There is an obvious implication in this and so many other posts from the same source that what’s most important is not that his criticisms be useful or even right, but that they be acknowledged as right. However, to me, that isn’t arrogance. That’s an inexplicable inferiority complex covered up with arrogance, unfiltered by what my commenter referred to as “thin skin.” And it remains unworthy of the critic in question.

Look, I don’t want to turn this post – and especially not this blog – into a bash-fest over one particular critic. We all have our faults, and some of us put them on display a little more frequently than we’d like. But here’s a plea meant for all of us who do any sort of criticism: remember what’s actually “important” about what we do. It’s the work. Not us.