May 07: I have often said that there are no wine experts yet in India and that one lifetime is not enough to know everything about wine but it is heartening to know that Jancis Robinson MW who is moons ahead in terms of wine knowledge, tasting experience and expertise, is modest enough to air my views in public after over 40 years of full-time extensive wine tasting, writing books like Oxford Companion and lecturing globally about various aspects of wine, says Subhash Arora
With barely 20 years of experience in wine and that too very extensively, with around 150 foreign travels during these years, visiting hundreds of wineries and tasting around 25,000 wines including thousands at the 59 international wine competitions as a judge, I could claim to know a lot about wines and declare myself an expert but only I know how puerile that would be. The world of wine is so vast and never-ending that to master it totally or even a specific part of it is a Herculean task that takes decades of experience even for the likes of Jancis Robinson MW.
Let’s move over to London and see what Jancis Robinson MW, undisputed Wine Dame of England and perhaps the most knowledge woman on wine, had to say about her knowledge of wine and being a wine expert, in her blog on 5 September, 2015 and still stands by it.
She says and I quote her, ‘Only once in my life did I ever think I knew everything there was to be known about wine. In 1978, two years after beginning them, I finished the WSET Diploma. I was the top student of my year and reckoned that with a WSET Diploma under my belt, I was now a fully fledged wine expert. The succeeding years have taught me just how much there still is to learn. I feel as though I discover something new about wine every day.’ As a contrast, I have seen many people in India claiming to be wine experts after finishing the WSET-1, some even claiming to be sommeliers!
‘As someone celebrating her fortieth year writing about wine by publishing the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, a million-word book consulted religiously by wine students the world over, I am considered by many as a wine expert. (I can unabashedly admit that a significant amount of my basic theoretical wine knowledge derives from the book that I used to devour for hours every day in the 1990s).
‘But having been a reasonably well-known wine writer for so long, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti) social media. In the last decade or two of the twentieth century, when it took more than a nanosecond to communicate, the most successful wine writers around the globe were considered near-oracular,’ says Jancis with humility and modesty, a trait not all Masters of Wine generally seem to possess.
Internet Wine Experts
She went on to say, ‘but in the twenty-first century the internet and now, particularly, the smartphones have changed everything. Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations concurrently – not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant. Vivino, Wine-searcher.com and Cellar Tracker seem to have produced ‘instant wine experts.’
‘Just as on the plethora of user-review sites such as Trip Advisor, Green Tomatoes and Porch, they are encouraged to share their comments and ratings on multiple wine blogs and websites. Backed by the power of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest, screens not books or newsletters now provide the world's wine lovers with easy ways to make buying decisions,’ she says.
On the eve of publishing her 2015 edition of the new Oxford Companion she said she spent two intensive years, in conjunction with nearly 200 contributors around the globe, updating the old entries and adding 300 new ones. When the first and second editions came out in 1994 and 1999, much of the information in the Companion was unique; it certainly did not exist in a single source. But nowadays anyone can look up the headwords of our entries on Wikipedia,’ she says, adding,’ I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention.’
Unlike Robert Parker, Jancis does not believe there is only one 'correct' objective judgement to be made about each wine- my feeling exactly. There can be differences between different bottles of the same wine, some due to storage conditions. In fact, I believe no two wine bottles can be exactly alike due to various factors, one of them being the cork. She has always argued that wine tasting is subjective and so dependent on individual sensory equipment – however reliable professionals may be.
‘Individuals vary enormously in their sensitivity to the different compounds responsible for them. Some professionals are unable to pick out which wines are corked, spoilt by cork taint, because they are insensitive to TCA, the compound responsible for the taint. Similarly, we all vary in the number of taste buds we are able to deploy in the tasting process.’
Tasting is physically tiring, particularly if, like me, you feel obliged to deliver to your readers as many tasting notes as possible. Thus I often find myself tasting up to 100 wines a day. (that means she tastes more in a year than I have tasted in my life-and she has been doing it for over 40 years!) Obviously, while tasting, we spit out every drop of wine tasted. Contrary to common belief tasting is done on the palate and not the throat; one of my MW friends, John Salvi MW is an excellent taster and a teetotaller.
Star Anise and Oolong tea in flavour
Interestingly, an Australian taste scientist Professor David Laing demonstrated back in 1989 that humans have great difficulty in identifying more than four different flavours in a single liquid. And when in 1996 he tried a similar experiment on experts who smell and taste for a living, they were better than amateur tasters at identifying mixtures of two and three components but did no better when it came to four.
If some of you can really identify grilled watermelon, star anise, black raspberry, fennel seed, oolong tea, gardenia, sandalwood, mandarin orange, rose petal and fresh thyme in a single wine, I take my hat off to them, as Jancis says she would. But she feels that in this crowded arena of opinion where we are all trying to make ourselves heard, an increasing number of wine reviews are written for producers and retailers to quote rather than with the prime purpose of helping the consumer make buying decisions. In fact I know of a couple of wine professionals who make a living out of writing Tasting notes for producers and marketers.
She does not believe in revisiting and amplifying tasting notes after tasting the wine, by her own admission in this Blog. She favours the stream of consciousness approach rather than the polished short essay. It is all too easy for readers and tasters to criticise the critics in online comments that will be read by as many people as the original judgement.
You my wine friend can decide for yourself if you are a wine expert or you know of one in India. I am happy doing what I am doing and would say.... Jai Ho!!