Blind Tasting: Can You Know the Winemaker’s Intent?

In late July, 2018 I received this email from a long time friend and wine lover.  We’ll call him Wayne.

Wayne’s email

Subject:  Evaluating wines based on winemaker’s intent?

Dear Wes:

I have noticed it is common for a wine critic or taster in a wine group to say something like: “I think the winemaker was trying to do A, but instead they’ve done B.”  Or “the winemaker was clearly trying to make a wine like X.” Almost always, the comment about the winemaker’s intent is in the context of their negative evaluation of the wine.

What’s your reaction to people blind tasting wine and then evaluating the wine based on their opinion of the winemaker’s intent?


As a winemaker, does my craft speak for me?

Wes answers:

This is a great question and I’d love permission to publish it in my blog, giving you credit of course.  I also CC’d my own inspiration in literature, Dr. Bill McDonald, from the U of Redlands.

I say it’s a great question because it allows me to bring another of my great passions, literature, into the conversation.

There’s an anecdotal story about Ernest Hemingway, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 (which he donated to the Cuban people).  A journalist asked him about Santiago and strong Christian imagery in Old Man and the Sea.  The anecdote was that Hemingway dismissed the question, saying, “Santiago?  Christ?  Yeah, I can see that.”  Later he wrote:  

“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in …. I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

Hemingway’s process reminds me of my own as a winemaker and writer/novelist.  There’s not much difference between crafting a wine with your instincts/frame of reference and allowing the muse to wash over you and almost unconsciously produce a piece of literature that is layered and complex.

Like a concert pianist or a sniper, we must practice or we suck.  Like an artist we must struggle and starve.  And then, after all the tribulations and hardships, after rejections and writer’s block, after frost and Brett infections , late fruit deliveries, broken destemmers, and working ridiculous hours in the winery or at the keyboard–something clicks and we become crafty and instinctual.

Then there’s the subject of intent.  Once we are in the ‘zone’, that professionalism and greatness earned in the trenches, our intent is driven by our successes and failures, the great and terrible wines we have made and drunk, a nagging whisper for elevated ripeness from the ghost of a kingmaker critic, a stronger whisper to make the wine WE want to drink, but in the end the decisions and the wines have to be made, the winery has to be cleaned and we need to get a little sleep.

Add to the discussion the array of technology at our disposal–to remove unwanted microbes, add or remove tannins, acid, sugar, richness, oak, color, fruit character.  The post-modern process of winemaking has become inescapably intentional.

I also believe saying that the “winemaker intended A, but produced B” is self-important criticism, a logical fallacy, an appeal to their own authority when it would be the winemaker’s craft in the glass that is the final authority, just as the text is the final authority in intrinsic literary theory.

E.B. White is my savior in these moments, and I recall clearly my professors channeling his spirit by pounding the desk and exclaiming:  “OMIT UNNECESSARY WORDS!”  Professor White was infamous for those words, commonly followed by, “…if you want your style to emerge as a writer.”

How does that apply to wine?  The core of your style as a writer is the ‘kernal meaning’, denuded of flowery adjectives and fluff (except for masters like Faulkner, Henry James and Durrell who need a few extra words to properly work their incantations).  

(I must digress by inserting this germane quote I just found, ‘ten-dollar’ words being analogous to winemaking bells and whistles and unadorned prose being equal to a ‘vineyard-driven wine, precise but soulful’, and that winemakers have access to all the technology and flash, but are not beholden stylistically):

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), the 1954 Nobel laureate for literature, defended his concise style against a charge by William Faulkner that he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”[19] Hemingway responded by saying, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”[20]

The ‘kernal meaning’ of a wine is its vineyard source(s), and I believe the light-handed but deeply-involved craft perspective makes both the best prose and pinot.  (And to continue the ‘flowery’ analogy/exception, there are vineyards like Montrachet and Cannubi  that can soak up 100% new French Oak like Lawrence Durrell can spit out an aphorism.)

In the end, I agree with Papa:  “Make the wine good and true enough and it means many things.”

Fiction, arguably, is more real than reality because fiction is physical words on paper that never change.  Wine is a fiction of sorts by the same definition–it is the same wine, but different in each consumer’s experience.  But, to punctuate my point definitively, there is no difference between the winemaker’s intent and the wine in the glass.

Note:  After writing this I did consider how my opinion changes when wines are tasted with full knowledge of the vintage, vineyard and winemaker.  This would be analogous to Extrinsic Literary Theory, where historic and even psychological inferences about the author are used to further understand the writer’s craft, character and plot.  There is also ‘reader-response’ literary criticism, which would suit the tasters that think they can second-guess the winemaker’s chops—that the experience of reading the novel, and our personal interpretation, is paramount in the experience of literature.

Afterword for those who wish to venture further down the Literature/Wine Intentionality rabbit hole:

Dr. Bill McDonald, University of Redlands/Johnston College replied with amazing depth and wisdom.  Please enjoy his commentary below:

Dr. McDonald Wrote:


Some thoughts—actually a lot of thoughts— about your entertaining and thoughtful piece on blind tasting and intention.  Would it work if you created a more “balanced”—the Magic Wine Word, yes?—schema between minimal and maximal, Hemingway/Carver and Faulkner/Durrell?  Montrachet gets a nod in the piece, but you might allow it a little more space as a legitimate way of proceeding in the cellar, even though it’s not your way?   After all, Carver’s first draft sentences were long and rambling until his editor, Gordin Lish, threw out two thirds of them and invented Carver as a modernist!  And as for Papa: read those long, rambling sentences connected by “ands” and you’ll see that he’s not quite as forbearing and minimalist as he (and especially his fans) sometimes claim.  As it is, you’re stopping several times to acknowledge the more richer, prolix stylists (Henry James!); why not make them more equal players in an overall model—without, of course, implying an endorsement?

I’ll add a story to your excellent Papa account of what’s intended and what’s not.  T.S. Eliot was teaching course in which a brave student, with trembling hand, read a paper interpreting one of his poems —I think it was “The Waste Land” but it may have been one of the Quartets.  When he finished, he asked TSE if that was what he meant…. Pause…   “It is now,” replied the poet.

Here’s a few lit-based mind-teasers on the subject that might prove useful some day. The ties to winemaking aren’t as immediate, but maybe…

  • WHEN did the intention take place: in the field/first draft; after fellow taster/editor’s comments, etc.  Is intention a one-time thing — a singularity — or does it evolve with the work?  Intention may be where things begin—though accident can also be a promising start—but the results include quite a few other ingredients.
  • Elaborating a point you made, texts carry meaning authors aren’t aware of (as does our conversation: “I didn’t mean to offend you by using the word “babes” or “old guy”). We ALWAYS read between the lines: if you just read the lines, you don’t get it.  “Reading against the grain” is a virtue.  So sometimes an author’s stated design/intention may be enlightening; sometimes way too blunt/reductive and distracting.  Intentions are all over the place: there’s no general rule about how they work.
  • Walter Benn Michaels’ and Steven Knapp’s argument in”Against Theory” that an author’s intended meaning is identical with the text’s meaning, so that one cannnot in fact derive the text’s meaning from the author’s intentions or vice versa.  “Achieved Intention”: ditto vino?
  • If you read a writer’s nasty crack about a friend in her journal, and then find a character in her novel that resembles that friend who’s treated badly, what status does the diary entry have?  Definitive?  A feeling of a single day in 20 years of friendship? The text is a free-for-all once it is published and the author can no longer constrain interpretation to her originally envisaged meanings or messages.
  • Writer Peggy Phelan, on acting in her own play (from the “Narrative” discussion group): somehow in the process of rehearsal, I “forgot” that I had been the author.  It had become for me a very different text than the one i had written.  This is not a note about the various amnesias to which I am subject. Rather it is a note about how intentions change—and perhaps especially between the time of composition and the time of reception. That is, it is one thing to write “Heart of Darkness” and it is another to be “the author” of “Heart of Darkness” reflecting on what was “meant” in and by the composition of “Heart of Darkness.” PHELAN’S CAPS: CONRAD, AFTER HAVING WRITTEN IT, BECOMES A READER OF “HEART OF DARKNESS.”  THE AUTHOR (WINEMAKER) IS PERHAPS A BETTER READER (TASTER) THAN US, BUT NONETHELESS A READER (TASTER).  This is important I think – -not only because intentions can never be adequately re-assessed, but also because what makes “Heart of Darkness” great is precisely all that exceeds things like intention.  It is an encounter with unknowingness, for both the reader and the writer.
  • But WITHOUT intention, do we deny the artist her voice?  Depoliticize her writing?  Take away its moral fervor in aestheticism.  Can aestheticism and ideology be resolved?  Wendy Lesser: The creator must have intentions for the artwork to be made, to succeed, but they will never be identical to the viewer’s experience of the artwork.
  • Intention and our history as readers (as people): if your father was an alcoholic, the you’re going to read a novel about an alcoholic differently….  Ditto wine?  Can intention and reception be easily separated — how else do we perceive intention??  Does removing the authority of the author simply make a space for the authority of then reader — or esp. the professional reader?  This connects to the finish of your piece: the intrinsic/extrinsic binary of your college days has pretty much broken down over the last generation of cultural criticism: more if you’re keen.
  • Wittgenstein on influence (not quite the same, but connected to your topic): If we knew a man who lived for many years on bacon and potatoes we should immed see the absurdity of saying that this part of him came from the bacon, and this from potatoes: yet we do this with people’s artistic/intellectual nourishment.  Creative artists want their work to be seen whole, and to have responsibility for it: THEY made it/controlled it.
  • From 5/2015, 681, PMLA piece by Joshua Gang : arguing for “weak intentionality” (clearly no one-on-one match of writer’s intention and the finished product).
  1. No one doubts that we perceive intentions when we read.  If that weren’t so, there wouldn’t be a critical prohibition against them!
  2. We don’t read lit texts as “unintentional”.  We think authors have intentions and agency.
  3. So, how do we properly think about the intentions we do perceive: we acknow. that they could be wrong, or inseparable from unintended work, but these mitigating factors aren’t absolute obstacles: ALL forms of communication struggle with other minds or mediated agencies.
  4. Great Example: the final sentence of Beckett’s “Watt” (1953, p. 214): “No symbols where none intended.” This dangles B’s intentions in front of us, but doesn’t give us access to them.  So we can only react by recognizing intention as a relevant category if if specific intentions can’t be deduced.  Bur deciding that intention is irrelevant isn’t an option.
  5. So the category of intention remains essential even when particular intentions are doubted, mitigated, or unknown.  Intention is an inherent aspect of language.  Cavell, “Must we Mean What we Say” (1969): “the category of intention is as inescapable in speaking of objects of art as in speaking of what humans say or do; without it we would not understand what they are.”  (198)   We need to acknow. that intentions are not purely private experiences, and we perceive others’ intentions all the time.”

Special thanks to ‘Wayne’ for starting this amazing conversation, and to Dr. McDonald for reminding me I can always go deeper in my research and be more considerate and intellectual in my composition.