When I learn a new word I like to give credit where credit is due. Thomas Vaterlaus, editor of the European wine monthly Vinum, tells a story in which the cultural prejudices of German-speaking and French-speaking judges at a Swiss wine competition leads to some awkward and unbalanced results. He cites one example in which each side exhibits a completely opposite and overwhelming preference for one wine to the detriment of the other’s choice: a räuschling from Zürich and a sylvaner from Valais. He attributes the difference in preference to röstigraben—roughly translated as the potato gap—or the cultural barrier between the two groups. Of course, provincial rivalries are nothing new but I never thought of them influencing the objective evaluation of wine tasted blind.
This got me to thinking about panel or consensus tastings. While there is nothing inherently wrong with consensus, Swiss politics notwithstanding, it generally leads to boring results. This is especially true with wine competitions and restaurant ratings on Yelp. A consensus panel tends to bring the winners and losers closer to the middle. Virtuous and truly ground-breaking individuality can be freighted with descriptors like “weird” and “atypical” while crushing mediocrity can be rewarded with monikers like “unique” and “special.” No one is well served except, perhaps, the mediocre entry with just enough RS and botrytis to be thought “interesting.”
Now take your wine tyrants (name-calling for effect)—Robert Parker, Michel Bettane, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, Antonio Galloni, etc.—there is no discernible röstigraben in their midst, just good old-fashioned opinion. They stand on their own two feet, blaze their own trail, and if you don’t like their opinions then keep your 80CHF subscription fee and buy yourself a box of Mondial du Chasselas gold medal winners.
The other point made by Mr. Vaterlaus—that both sides are better at objective analysis ten years into the competition—speaks to the strides made within the Swiss wine community and its standing in a global context. It’s axiomatic: you can’t know the world of wine if you don’t know what’s at your door. Panel members without a worldview are like guests on a game show—ask them the right question and you might get the right answer. If you are on a merlot panel then you better know examples from Pomerol, Friuli, Slovenia, South Africa, California, Washington, South America, Australia and Ticino. If you don’t, then you’re just guessing and the results will speak for themselves.
To be totally transparent, I have served on many panels (it takes a lot of work to taste through mediocre wine); some were professionally run and others were not. Even the best, in my opinion, came with dumbed-down results of one sort or another. Mr. Vaterlaus makes a really good point or two but sometimes with consensus panels the shortcomings are not just about röstigraben.
How to make rösti: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIAkxh7cn3g