From the editors

Scores: the ‘sat nav’ of whisky appreciation

  • I must confess that I pay very little attention to Twitter, much to the despair of the editor, who is a whizz at such methods of (apparent) interaction.

    When I do scan through the folks I follow, the words or retweets of Randall Grahm always give me pause for thought. Grahm is owner/winemaker at California’s Bonny Doon – an erudite, witty, enraged, questing intelligence.

    I’ve loved his wines for years, while his writings (assembled in the must-have Been Doon So Long) are a must-buy for those who are interested in deep musings on terroir, parodies and the surreal.

    Last week this tweet caught my eye: ‘Many of us live in two wine worlds,’ he wrote. ‘The world of attributed meaning (point scores) and the world of real meaning (actually distinctive, original and delicious wine with vinous life-force). We conflate these two worlds at our peril.’

    He was writing in response to a cheeky tweet from wine writer Jamie Goode congratulating him on ‘a Suckling 91’ (a score of 91/100 from wine critic James Suckling) for one of his wines. ‘I can’t keep track of all these scores,’ Goode added. ‘Is he using the 120-point scale yet?’

    It led to a philosophical diversion – this is Grahm, after all – on whether this duality applies to the wine world, or life in general. ‘Absolutely [the latter],’ said Grahm. ‘Virtually all of us (at least those who are conscious) have some version of these two worlds.’

    Intrigued, I dropped him a line. Do we need to exist in both of these worlds, I asked him? Is the world of attributed meaning necessary, or is our conception of quality being skewed because of its dominance?


    Numbers game: But is real meaning to be found in the score given to a particular whisky?

    He wrote back: ‘I think this duality exists in virtually every aspect of life. It often comes down to whether you work to please yourself or to please others. Truly great wine is certainly not appreciated by the general public; ‘successful’ wine has (too) obvious charms.’ Ahh, duality. Trips us up every time.

    The world of wine (especially in the US) has been in thrall to attributed meaning for many years, to the extent that it could be argued that winemakers are creating ‘successful’ (ie high-scoring – and profitable) wines, rather than relying on their own innate talent, or understanding what their location can give them.

    Whisky is not at this stage – yet – but the tension between the two worlds does exist within its confines. While I don’t want to be dragged into a discussion about the efficacy of numbers again (at least for the time being), Grahm’s comments made me wonder how we use them as a navigation aid.

    I grew up in a flat nav world: one of maps, AA guidebooks and doodles on bits of papers with wiggly streets and an occasional landmark (usually a pub) scratched onto it.

    Sat nav allows you to get to your destination by the quickest, most direct means. As someone who hates being late, I can see the advantage of this, but what happens outside the blue line? Sat nav obliterates the side streets, the country lanes, actively discourages you to get lost or rely on chance or intuition and make real discoveries. We march onwards, rather than stumble over things.

    Numbers are the sat nav of appreciation. The world of real meaning is to be found though being gently diverted from the blue line through the numbers. Instead of heading straight for number 90 Whisky Street, take a wander through the weeds on either side.

    Randall Grahm

    Wine wisdom: Randall Grahm believes that most of us live in two worlds of attributed and real meaning

    In Doon so Long, Grahm writes: ‘Wine criticism, despite its best intention, often seems to verge on trivialising the splendor of its subject matter.’ Does it? If it does, it is not deliberate.

    Most writers will always emphasise the importance of the words over the score. Language is slippery, words are a diversion compared to the blunt instrument of the score.

    Language’s vagueness and inability to wholly articulate meaning means it can be seen as a barrier, diverting the reader away from the task at hand; yet, for those of us who want to celebrate the world of real meaning, it is this diversion which is important because it opens up new connections, finds new ways to connect on a personal level.

    That whisky has a lower score? Sure, but the way in which it has been described intrigues me, I think it appeals to my palate, or mood.

    We don’t have time for all of this, we tell ourselves, although we often spend so much time trying to find the quick way that we could have taken the more rewarding, scenic route.

    Tangled by apps, we rely ever more heavily on the world of attributed meaning, to our detriment. Whoever controls the data controls the world – and how have we seen that play itself out in the past few weeks.

    I’m not saying that marking wine or whisky is as serious as undermining democracy, but the same underlying principle is there. In a data-based world we become slaves to the number, but whisky, wine, pleasure itself cannot be measured by ones and zeroes.

    It isn’t digital but analogue, existing in the real world with all of its messiness and perversity. It comes down to trusting our own palate, working out our own routes through the maze, speaking with guides and passers-by as we wander.

    Welcome to the world of real meaning.

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