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Dog Days (July 23, 2010)

I was watching Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on television earlier this year. It was the New York finals, where a lone judge picked "The Best of Show." All the competing dogs were magnificent. The seven finalists included a puli, a whippet, a ridiculous white toy poodle that looked like a four-legged powder puff, a French bulldog, a brittany, a Doberman pinscher and the ultimate winner, a black Scottish terrier named Sadie.

I was curious as to how the earlier judges had whittled down the 2,500 entries representing 173 breeds to these seven animals and why Sadie came out as top dog.

All the show dogs looked great to me, but the judge was searching for attributes that I had no expertise in assessing – how the dogs stood and how they moved – as well as noting their physique and their personality.

Watching the program, it occurred to me that the same process is involved with judging wines. Wine writers, like dog show judges, are looking for characteristics in a wine that conform to a mental model as to what the wine should look, smell and taste like. In Ulysses, James Joyce writes, "Horseness is the whatness of allhorse." This Aristotelian concept of the quintessential nature of a horse is what the serious student of wine brings to bear when judging a given wine, simply by asking the question, Is the wine varietally correct and does it conform to your expectations of how that particular variety performs in a specific terroir?

One's personal taste in wines is, of course, subjective. You may not enjoy the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinotage, for example, so you avoid them. But within the category of Sauvignons and Pinotages there are the good, the bad and the ugly. The question is, how do you determine objectively if a specific wine is good or not, even if you wouldn't order it in a restaurant?

First of all, the wine has to be "well-made." This is a broad descriptor which has more to do with negative concepts: is the wine is free from flaws? Is its colour true; is its nose clean? Are the flavours agreeable and is the finish long? When you order a wine in a restaurant you are about to make a financial contract with the management and it's in your best interest to make sure that the bottle in question is sound before you commit to forking out for it. That's why the waiter pours you a taste. Your first response is to look for faults. Are there foreign bodies floating around in it? Does it smell like your son's hockey bag? Does it taste like lemon juice with a splash of vodka? Once you have determined that the colour, bouquet and taste are satisfactory, then you can start praising its virtues.

But when you have to write professionally about a wine you must deconstruct it, breaking down its components and then seeing how and if they come together. The ultimate virtue of a wine is balance – the harmony of fruit, acidity, alcohol, tannins and (if barrel-fermented or barrel-aged) oak. The greatest compliment I can pay a wine is to say that it's seamless. All of its parts work together. The next point of praise is length, how long the flavour lasts in the mouth once you've swallowed it. For me, the added marker for quality is if the bouquet and taste of a wine have a floral grace note.

Those winning dogs, the best of their breed, no doubt had the harmony of form and their personality was the floral note that I look for in great wines. But on a purely personal level, none of those canines could hold a candle to my five-year-old Wheaten Terrier – called Pinot the Wonder Dog. And that's where the subjectivity in pets and wines comes in.




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