How to answer the question: is this good wine?

How do you decide whether something is good? Wine is a loaded subject, so let’s take a steak. If you’re looking for calories, steak is good: it has lots of them. If you’re looking for nutrients and specifically for protein, or for vitamin B12, it’s also good. If you’re looking for nutrients and trying to avoid fat, it’s bad. If you’re making a decision based on function, and you’re a nursing mother, maybe it’s good because you need the iron and those B vitamins. If you’re looking to support an environmental ideology, it’s good or bad depending on where the steak came from. If you’re making a meal for guests, it’s good or bad depending on whether the steak is the right degree of special for the occasion and whether it will communicate the right message to people you’re trying to impress. It may be bad to eat because you can’t afford it. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or observe a Hindu diet, it’s not good to eat because it isn’t food; end of story.

You can’t just call the steak “good” or “bad.” In general, this is a thing we recognize. I really like the – now regrettably old-fashioned – idea of “household management.” Good household managers adeptly maneuver amongst these value registers* to make “good” choices for their household constituency, balancing a budget and good care for people and personal or family values and time and a dozen other things. Household management shouldn’t be put down. It’s a complex bunch of skills, as might be observed by the number of start-ups Silicon Valley-types create to help the average person with disposable income not have to learn them.

People increasingly outsource those decisions. A lot of us really want someone else to tell us whether something is good to eat! Making all of those decisions is hard work, and it’s far simpler to have someone else tell you what to do. So, combined with a lot of insecurity about weight and health and the health of the planet, we have Atkins and Weil and and Michael Pollan and Slow Food and (the new, hip, engaging and interactive and multicultural replacement for the old stodgy American food pyramid). In the Netherlands, “healthier” packaged foods can carry little stickers with a phrase that means “I choose consciously” because the government wants to tell you what to eat without actually telling you what to eat.

Why could the household manager balance all of those many different values? First, if we’re talking about the old-fashioned house or farm wife, it was a big part of her full-time job. Second, she had fewer options. “What should I make for dinner?” For her, cultural constraints would define what “dinner” could be; for me, I might be German and Irish and Polish but I’m far more likely to think about Vietnamese or Greek for dinner or, more likely, combining a bunch of food traditions. I have way more options. She had ingredients limited by season and location; I can get most things most of the time. She had a limited number of dishes she learned from relatives and friends; I can access an infinite number of recipes on the internet. She may have felt some social pressure to make familiar things; I feel social pressure to make unfamiliar things and to keep experimenting and learning.

And she had fewer options in the store. “Let’s have ham for dinner.” “Which ham?” I can buy the cheap ham or the expensive ham, or I can buy Mr. MacDougal’s ham or Mr. Clyde’s ham (and we’re Irish, so I buy MacDougal’s ham because we know the MacDougals). Or we raise hogs so I’m going to pull a ham out of storage.

“Let’s have wine with dinner.” “Which wine?” The store (or stores, the six or seven different stores, at least, that you could visit on your way home) offers infinite options. Spending more money doesn’t get me better wine. I don’t buy German wine because I’m German. I can’t choose from “everyday,” “nice,” and “company’s coming” wine. (I do in fact choose MacDougal’s wine because I know MacDougal, but I’m in a bit of a privileged position on that one. And, yes, I realize that contemporary wine marketing is in part about making sure that the consumer has “met” MacDougal.)

I have a whole lot fewer cultural constraints, and I have a whole lot more options, so I have to become a wine expert. I have to become a household manager who specializes in wine. Fine, if I’m employed by some very rich person for exactly that purpose. Awkward if I have a full-time job and a few other hobbies and a kid or a dog or no dishwasher. Or, I have to outsource my value-making decisions to someone else. I have to get someone else to tell me: is this a good wine?

Here’s where I mix my own value registers. Thinking about how we value food in many different ways comes from a talk Annemarie Mol** gave at the University of Otago yesterday. Dr. Mol is a very, very well-known scholar from the Netherlands. Her PhD is in philosophy, and she’s a professor of anthropology, and her work is used a lot in science studies and sociology, and what all of that means is that she’s the kind of creative thinker who asks new questions and doesn’t fit well into the usual academic boxes.

But what she said about how we value food dovetails with the conversation the Wine Curmudgeon has provoked about how wine quality and wine price and wine value have become separated in ways that make his beat of finding and reviewing good, cheap wines increasingly hard. I, and some of the other folks who replied to the WC’s rant, think that good cheap wines are still plentiful but that finding them requires an increasing investment in time and education. We’re compelled to learn more and new ways of valuing things because “is this a good wine?” isn’t a question we can answer easily by looking at a price tag or a label or even a wine review, thanks to the incestuous relationship between wine writing and wine marketing.

Dr. Mol and the Wine Curmudgeon are both good writers, for different reasons. Knowing that requires a lot of education. So how to answer the question? How to decide “is this good wine?” We have some options:

  1. Take the time and effort to educate yourself. Become a good household manager. (This is what the wine world in general tells us.)
  2. Limit your choices. Decide that you want to learn only about Oregon pinot noir, or that you’re German and therefore you’re going to drink German wine, or that you only drink cheap wine and that’s just fine. (Another thing the wine world in general recommends.)
  3. Be okay with moving amongst different value registers. Let yourself say, “this is a good wine for today” without feeling like it needs to be a rule or the One Right Thing. (Kudos to the numerous wine writers championing this way of drinking.)

I actually don’t have an answer. On the one hand, it’s just wine. It’s just a steak. On the other hand, yes, our choices have consequences. Maybe making “the right” decision shouldn’t fall entirely on our heads – maybe someone else should be making all of this easier for us, and plenty of people are trying. But I think the bigger question, whether you’re memorizing the complete works of Jancis Robinson or looking for organic labels or picking up something with a critter on the label, might be: “is this a good way to live?”




*To use the technical term. Switching or moving amongst registers is how someone like Dr. Mol would talk about what the household manager does to think about whether the steak is good to eat.

**Mol may be a highfalutin academic, but she’s one of those rare few amongst that breed whose writing is fun to read. If you’re interested in how we make values happen in healthcare, or in patient choice, or how we make decisions about food or taking care of people, and you like reading non-fiction, look her up.

Three observations on winning a Born Digital Wine Award

**NOTE: The Born Digital website and social media announcements mistakenly cited my shortlisted Palate Press piece, rather than my shortlisted blog post, as the winner of its category, incorrect news which I initially repeated here. Having learned of the mix-up, I’ve changed the post to reflect the correct winner

I’ve won the “Investigative/Journalistic” category for the 2015 Born Digital Wine Awards. This is delightful. The awards recognize individual pieces of writing, and two of mine made the finalists list: a post here on replicating a 1500 year-old wine, and a piece at Palate Press on whether “hand-picked” is better. The blog post on ancient wine won its category.

It’s always difficult to know how to respond to such things, but I have these three things to say.

  1. I’m delighted to be, among the three winners of the writing awards, the one person who isn’t a well-established man. Nothing categorically wrong with well-established men, and Mr. Simon Woolf and Mr. Alder Yarrow are particularly fine examples, but I’m pleased to be able to represent one of the other sides of the wine writing situation.
  2. I’m delighted to have won a category labeled “investigative/journalistic,” whose original submission criteria noted that it was for “objective” writing. I’m anything but “objective,” and while I certainly investigate things I’m absolutely not a journalist. If winning this category does anything to help observe that we’re always getting our information from subjective communication by people who have a perspective on their topic, that’s a bonus. And if it helps the Born Digital people rename their categories for next year, I’ll call it a double-bonus.
  3. I feel as though I need to observe that, even though the Born Digital folk made a real effort to include writers in non-English languages and to provide translation services, all of the winners and runners up are American and British native English-speaking writers with the sole exception of a French writer, Pauline Versace, who tied for third place in the advertising/tourism category. I don’t think that this is an accident, or a conspiracy, or an indication that American and British wine writers are the best wine writers. I think it points to a problem with translation, and perhaps an imbalance in how the awards were marketed and the submissions they received. But on the translation problem, if I’m an English-speaking judge reading pieces written originally in English and pieces translated from Portuguese or French or Spanish or Italian, the translated pieces probably won’t seem as fluid or as well-written. Writing in Italian versus English isn’t just about understanding one language versus the other. “Good writing” means different things in different languages. Audience expectations are different, idioms are different, the beauty in the sound and shape of how words fit together changes. The wine writing world is still largely about British men (plus Ms. Robinson, of course), with an increasing influx of American men. There are lots and lots of women wine writers, and wine writers from other countries, but most of them don’t get much attention. That’s partially because most of them aren’t very good, but neither are most of the men; it’s a matter of who’s in the well-established group that got into this business early, did well, and made a name for themselves. The well-established group is shifting, slowly, but in the meantime it seems almost inevitable that these sorts of contests will be mostly a celebration of English. A shame.

Born Digital Awards shortlist

I’ve been doubly short-listed for the 2015 Born Digital Wine Awards, for a post on this blog on how to replicate a 1500 year-old wine and a piece at Palate Press on whether “hand-picked” on the label means better wine inside the bottle. The blog post may be one of the better things I’ve written: it’s silly, but perhaps it gets its point across, and (unusually for me, I know) it’s a quick read. The Palate Press piece isn’t as entertaining, but the topic is important. We glean so many of our assumptions about wine from the way it’s marketed, and so it’s easy to end up thinking things that don’t always hold water if you look at them more closely.

Thanks to the Born Digital folk for their support, and congratulations to the other finalists. It’s an excellent list, and a real pleasure to be in such good company. And while I’m still working to understand (and read through the extensive website of) the main sponsoring organization, Wine in Moderation, I certainly appreciate the sentiment.