Tim James: The tyranny of “the best”

By , 27 June 2023



Splitting hairs.

As my age advances, I find that some things get simpler, some more complex and nuanced. And with other questions I’m not sure if they’re easier or more difficult to answer – sometimes both. The concept of “the best”, in relation to things like wine, is one of these. I find it easier to say now that it is a sometimes tyrannous (exercising unjust and arbitrary power) and misplaced concept, and yet I still want to defend it from a post-modern “whatever” shrug of the shoulders, because discriminating about value is always something to encourage.

Defence first. I remember many years ago feeling angry with a quite important wine producer who (despite clearly wanting to make his own wines “better”) insisted that there is no such thing as “the best wine”. The best wine, he would say, is the one that you like most. One can see the point, but it is a rather silly point. I do, in fact, think that there are some criteria that most people agree on when it comes to quality – even if they often disagree on identifying them in a particular wine, and even though criteria and values are socially defined and therefore change over time and space. But, mostly, serious wine lovers and critics agree that such things as balance, harmony, finesse, intensity, freshness, reflectiveness of terroir, need to be taken into account as matters of quality and can be debated.

I would further argue that, as in most fields of human endeavour, practice, experience, awareness of a range of possibilities, close attention, etc can make a taster more qualified to pass a judgement that is closer to being valid and valuable. A considered, defencible judgement, that is, rather than a mere opinion. This quaint old-fashioned view is doubtless anathema to all the influencers and others that vomit forth their opinions online and imagine that such opinions should carry the same weight as those of what we might call “experts”. Though obviously I do not dispute the right of anyone to have their own tastes and preferences, including experts.

Ranking of wines in terms of quality would see to follow logically from such considerations. Yet I have always felt some resistance to competitions (especially the blind ones) and the idea of claiming to reward tiny discriminations of quality. And the usefulness of pronouncing a wine as worthy of 98 points instead of 96 or 97. (So I prefer the Top Ten idea, as espoused locally for the prime pinotage award.) This listing, this competitiveness is pervasive in our culture and can miss the point of what things are. I came across something relevant, for example, in an essay by the fine scientist and educator Richard Dawkins: “What matters”, he wrote, is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today’s assessment-mad exam culture.”

It’s a ranking-mad culture generally, with, in every field, a few winners, a few near-winners, and large numbers of losers. Reflecting, I suppose, what happens to people in the economic sphere.

As for wine and my own drinking life, I find myself getting more radical about all this now. Increasingly, I find myself applying a fairly simple model of yes or no. Yes, I want to drink this; no, life is too short and I’ll rather find another bottle. I do want to appreciate nuances, yes, and understand the full story of a fine wine, and it is wonderful to drink really good stuff. But, crucially, it is also often good to drink a wine that, in scoring terms, comes much further down the list. The drinking context is often very relevant.

Perhaps tasters more serious than I am are always on the alert, but I don’t even always notice the refinements (and am damned if I should, in those situations, pay a great deal of money for wine that has them). Subtle discriminations matter most – and are most discernible – when the wines are tasted next to each other, effectively in competition with each other. How much does it matter when you have one of them for dinner, or are sitting chatting with friends. I find that it really doesn’t. Unless the dinner is a pretty boring one – or the friends are. You won’t be conscious of those minuscule nuances that – one day, but perhaps not the next – you will have found more compelling.

Chenin blanc is a good example in South Africa. Let’s say that a large handful of chenins are widely recognised as “the best”. We’d all more or less agree on the top 10 or 20, probably; but whether we should really be arguing about an internal ranking of them is far from certain. They mostly cost a lot of money, and, if you can afford to, as a serious but not ridiculously rich wine lover you would probably want to have a bottle or two of such wines for special occasions. But how genuinely confident are you that, over a happy dinner with good friends and good food, you would notice if someone slipped in a bottle of a slightly “inferior” chenin say that probably doesn’t quite make it into the top handful, or even one of a bigger handful of other chenins of (to me) “yes” or even “yes, yes”’ quality? Or even from the next rung downwards – the rather large number of chenins costing just a few hundred rands?

What I’m suggesting is that we fetishise this category of “the best” and too easily let it run our imaginations and even our purchasing habits (if we can afford to). It brings anxiety to us, and a rather absurd range of prices that doesn’t reflect more important aspects of wine reality than tiny score differences (which are seldom uncontroversial anyway). The urge to rank, to force a ranking even where it is pretty well obviously absurd to do so, is something we should try to break away from.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    John Weaver | 30 June 2023

    Yes, yes, and yes. A good example is 10 bubblies tasted blind, relatively easy to choose the “best” and the least liked. Open any of them on one’s deck overlooking the sea with friends, and it will be the best.

    Greg Landman | 29 June 2023

    So well written as usual..a pleasure to read. The urge to measure and quantify is as old as Cain and Abel, one of the essential human traits

    Christian Eedes | 27 June 2023

    Hi Tim, Great article – how to make space for that time of the lunch or dinner when you start opening the very best in your cellar long after anybody is able to appreciate them in a clear-headed way and yet there’s still a residual impression of excellence the day after?

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