Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.

The 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition was last weekend. You can read all about it here.

The SFWSC is the creation of Anthony Dias Blue (who kind of looks like me) and F. Paul Pacult (who doesn't). They're both knock-around guys who essentially do what I do (drink stuff and write about it), so I genuinely admire their entrepreneurship.

But anybody who has read my book knows how I feel about ratings, and competitions have the same problems, although I do participate as a judge in the WHISKY Magazine World Whiskey Awards and other competitions they do, and I judged for Bill Owens at last year's American Distilling Institute (ADI) whiskey competition.

The problem is that it's all so subjective and often, no matter how they try to arrange the categories, you are comparing apples to oranges. Even when the styles are close, you still have the problem that what I like may not be what you like.

To pretend that the subjective opinions of a group of people, even of experts, can be averaged out and thereby made objective is, what? Delusional?

I learned a lot from Jim Murray when we did the ADI judging together. He is very good at identifying off flavors that indicate a flaw in the manufacture, especially useful when judging the efforts of micro-distillers. I felt our process was as good and fair as we could make it -- everything was judged blind, of course -- but there are always unintended consequences and, at the end of the day, it seems like picking a winner at random wouldn't be much less meaningful.

I feel sorry for someone like Rick Wasmund, who is very innovative, but in a rank of more ordinary spirits his stuff tastes odd and not necessarily in a good way. How do you judge something that is unique?

I noticed once during a WHISKY mag judging that when you taste a lot of different whiskeys, something that tastes a little different (though not as different as Wasmund's) will stick out and get extra points, but does that really make it the best?

Yet we live in a world of top ten lists and the centerpiece of most lifestyle journalism is the quest for the best burger or the best pizza, and when such accolades are awarded, the places that receive them get a big spike in business. Many people believe in the myth of "the best," and indulge in the shortcut of letting someone else tell them what it is.

The other night on television, I saw a story about a pizza joint in Brooklyn that frequently tops the "best of" lists. It has a line down the block all day every day. Good for them, but can any pizza be so much better than every other pizza (and just try to imagine how many pizza joints there are in New York City) that you would stand in line for it? To me, the answer is an unequivocal no.

Another of life's many mysteries.


DeborahParkerWong said...

Out of the frying pan and in to the fire.

While I agree with you in principle, Chuck, I've spent the last several years assessing wine and spirits using a rigorous methodology that works to level the playing field and make for more objective evaluations overall. In the course of my work, understanding a producer's intention is a large part of assessing a product's appeal and commercial viability but when it comes to blind tasting, each product has to be evaluated based on its own merit and then be left to fare as it will in the final decision making.

It's a tough job but someone has to decide what's on the menu.

Deborah Parker Wong

Max Watman said...

Was it Grimaldi's? I'd wait on line for Grimaldi's pizza. But when you come to New York, we'll go at 3 pm on a Tuesday . . . the line will be short.