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2002

To measure pleasure...
The notion that pleasure can be bought is simplistic and misleading, but nevertheless pervasive in this consumer age. It derives from the concept that pleasure is somehow intrinsic to, rather than enabled by, the object about to be enjoyed. What price lying in bed listening to the dawn chorus while the pink rays of the dawn sun sneak over the hill and through the window? What did you have to pay? To me, art in any of its forms is an 'enabler' and the aesthetic experience should be viewed in the phenomenological sense - as residing in the relationship between the viewed and the viewer, and dependent on its completeness. So what is this price we pay for the objects of our pleasure - this buying process, so symptomatic of our modern day consumer society? As I see it, price is generated by a number of people having to compete for the opportunity of having a particular experience. If you have paid $150 for a bottle of wine, there is no guarantee you will be transported to another layer of heaven. Likewise, if someone reports that another bottle of the same wine was heavenly on a previous occasion, prepare for possible disappointments - the observer involved in the experience has changed. If Robert Parker had analysed this wine, scored it 98/100 and you therefore paid $150 for a bottle, the correlation between price and enjoyment would be even less likely. Why? Because a crude analytical system has been applied: sensations have been converted to numbers, and these numbers are even more approximate to the 'pleasurable situation' you hoped to be duplicating.
Scoring wine, e.g. marking it out of 20, is a powerful tool for winemakers... two wines made from the same fruit but in differing fashions will differ, frequently subtly, but the winemaker can score each according to a formalised system, attributing given amounts to colour and condition, the nose, structure and flavours, and conclude which it is that he thinks is best, based on scores. The system works so well here because most of each wine is the same and the differences are narrow, easily identified and assessed by means of comparison. But... imagine a learned colleague coming to you and saying (with a serious look on his face), ‘I want you to sit on a panel and tell me which of the fruit in this bowl will be the best - for when it is ripe (!). Score them please. You then look at the fruit and say "Are you crazy?" How can I objectively compare apples with oranges, with figs and quinces? And what is worse, how can I reliably work out what they will taste like at their different ripening dates and then compare them? I guess some conclusions may be possible, but there can clearly be no definitive answer to the question.
Nevertheless, wine judges do something very similar. They are faced with an array of hundreds of wines (at least there is the same varietal for any one sitting) but the wines will still differ in many sensory details. The judge cannot go through the row and say, ‘I like, I dont like, I like a lot, and so on. He has to have a formalised system which makes the judgement for him - ranking the wines in an artificial order dependent on the formal rules of the system. This is not as silly as it sounds: it is probably the only way to rank a large number of wines and it should work quite well for those who read and follow the ranking, provided they are also tasting according to the same concepts and similar conditions with a similar array of wines. However, our judges perceptions will have been modified by the continual tasting of the array of wines, and if he drinks just one of them with his dinner at some other time, his perception is likely to be different (although his broad view of whether it is a good wine might well be vindicated).
Returning to Robert Parker: if he is not truly rigorous about his numerical scoring and he has reflected on this wine, asking himself whether he really enjoyed it (in circumstances where his palate has not been dulled), and he has tempered the score according to this, maybe the problem is ameliorated.
To understand pleasure...
The problem is cultural, arising from the implicit modern philosophy/fallacy of ‘scientism'. The assumption underlying this philosophical outlook is: 'if anything truly exists it must be quantifiable'. The implication of this is, of course, that it is the wine alone which is important for the drinking experience and that the data/experience derived from this wine is therefore equally valuable for everyone. Science has created one of the most powerful materialistic philosophies the world has seen and scientific results are normally accepted as 'proven' because they can generally be validated by further measurement or usefulness. However, I do believe that all scientific and quasi-scientific conclusions depend on unstated assumptions, and that careful wording of any scientific conclusions could/should include the phrase: 'Only if my assumption that all important considerations to this question are measurable (and measured) can my conclusions be strictly correct'. Karl Popper has written tomes on the philosophy of science and he says, "Both precision and certainty are false ideals. They are impossible to attain, and therefore dangerously misleading if they are uncritically accepted as guides. The quest for precision is analogous to the quest for certainty, and both should be abandoned... one should never try to be more precise than the problem situation demands... Every increase in clarity is of intellectual value in itself; an increase in precision or exactness has only a pragmatic value as a means to some definite end - where the end is usually an increase in testability or criticisability demanded by the problem situation (which for example may demand that we distinguish between two competing theories which lead to predictions that can be distinguished only if we increase the precision of our measurements)". (Unended Quest: an intellectual autobiography London: Fontana Collins, 1976, p24)
Consider the fundamental and beautiful experiences that are not measurable - how you felt at dawn, lying in bed and watching the sun rise; love (it is important to distinguish between what you feel and the behavioural effects of that feeling); the difference between your favourite colour as opposed to its measurable wavelength; is the rainbow adequately described by the angle of refraction (42º) required to produce it? Robert Dessaix takes it even further: ‘We've been spiritually de-schooled by the kind of world we live in and the kind of values now dominant in American culture in particular. Much of this schooling is about achievement, getting a high score in your life; it is about efficiency, about power... it's important not to know everything if you want to have wonder... But the development of the faculty for wonder must happen when you refuse to be talked at all the time - from television, mobile phones, other people.' (Throw Away the Scorecard interview by Nick Barnett reported in The Dominion 23 Sept. 2001.)
In philosophical terms, it is my own view that this spritual de-schooling reflects on the human condition - our intellectual tendency to alienate ourselves from reality. Whether in politics, religion, art etc, we have this urge to create intellectual models to further our understanding of reality, but then we turn the situation upside down and assume that if reality does not conform to our theories, we cannot believe in the reality or we just ignore it... or whatever. We start to believe our intellectual theories represent the scope of our experience, rather than accept they are just an a posteriori description. Intellectual models are very limited: they can be useful as predictive or theoretical tools but they do tend to blinker the perception of those who use them. When tasting wine for pleasure, it is important to respond with the whole body, not to filter or be selective about the experience through the intellectual concepts used for scoring, etc. This problem has been explored in phenomenology and in the concept of alienation by philosophers such as Hegel (Phenomenology), through Marx (the Paris Manuscripts) and on to the 20th century via that wonderful phenomenological philosopher Kierkegaard.
To remember pleasure...
For me the alternative is to replace science with poetry. Not the rhyme, but the subtlety and complexity of expression, the innuendo and evocativeness which the scale of 1-10 can never express. Let's not try to be too analytical: hang on to that whole body experience; explore and wonder at what we find rather than analyse according to criteria and their limitations. Pleasure is a function of the human spirit, very rarely just of the mind. My favourite wine writers are people like Hugh Johnson of 30 years ago who managed to evoke the mystique and the magic, the pleasure and the purpose. My least favoured are those who arise from faceless panels, average the scores of bagged wines, and make pronouncements on the ‘winners' and the ‘losers'. In the words of Robert Dessaix: ‘And for wonder to happen you must bring something with you when you see the rainbow, or a painting or a football crowd. And, broadly speaking that thing is culture: some reading, some music, a context...' (from the interview by Nick Barnett, referred to above.)
Having said all this, I must affirm that I do enjoy structured winetastings and scoring wines - somewhat in the same way I do a good game of scrabble. As a winemaker, I appreciate that scoring variations of the same wine is a powerful and helpful analytical tool. And I have to admit to taking notice of the scores given by my favourite wine writers, whose palates seem most similar to my own.
But in the end what would I like to see in wine journalism? Definitely more of an emphasis on evocative prose as it relates to the observations of the taster, even indicating how other people may respond to the wine, if appropriate. As far as scoring is concerned: if you must, I would prefer only a very coarse quantitative system, such as a five-star system, which can indicate how the writer responds to the wine, and also how others respond to it. Thus an excellent wine which is not quite in the style the writer personally prefers but which he knows others may legitimately respond to well could be recorded as ****(*) (the brackets indicating optional views) or ****-***** (with the writers views coming first).

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