I can’t honestly say that I’d like to play devil’s advocate to Evan Dawson’s argument in “The Money of Color.” A devil’s advocate is properly someone who argues a point with which they disagree, and I stand wholeheartedly in agreement with my argument against “The Money of Color.”

Wine is by its very nature both sensual and subjective, as are all things that appeal principally to the senses. A painting may be in perfect proportion, but still not appealing to the eye. A painting may be appealing to one person’s eye but not another’s. My best friend loves pad thai, and I think it tastes like dog food. A bottle of Washington Syrah that I shared amongst friends last week made half of the room swoon with pleasure and the other half swoon with disgust. Everyone’s senses are a bit different.

To what senses does wine appeal? First and foremost smell and taste, certainly, but does wine not also please the eye and even the ear? Some folks avoid screw caps because they enjoy the sound of a natural cork being pulled from a bottle; for them, the sensual pleasure of that sound outweighs the risk of a corked wine. The sound of wine being poured into your favorite wine glasses, the chime of glasses raised in a toast…these, too, are part of the experience of drinking. For me – and, dare I say, for most people, visual appeal lies midway between smell/taste and sound in importance vis-à-vis wine. I enjoy the liquid glow – be it straw, garnet, or vermillion – of a full glass held up to candlelight. Wine is pretty.

A crucial and heartbreaking scene in the movie ”Bottleshock” depicts Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena sitting in his cellar amongst bottles of carefully tended Chardonnay which have, mysteriously, turned from the expected pale gold to a disgusting shade of brown. The wine still tastes as magnificent as it ever has, but the color is off. No matter how wonderful it tastes, Mr. Barrett knows that a brown Chardonnay will never sell. He weeps as he pours bottle after bottle on the ground in anguish.

One of my little-girl science books, teaching about the senses, suggested using food coloring to dye foods like cauliflower and pancakes unnatural shades of blue or purple or green. Did the food taste different in its colored guises? Strictly speaking, no. Was it as appealing? Emphatically no. Any good cook knows that a meal provokes far more pleasure arranged attractively and with a balance of form and color than when its elements are piled up with no attention to presentation. Wine is no different. Color, if subordinate to aroma and flavor, is important to the enjoyment of wine. In fact, I’d say that about 15% of my enjoyment of wine is visual. Is that perhaps why James Suckling awards 15 of his 100 points in judging a wine to its color?

Ample ways of objectively measuring wine quality exist. Analytical chemists have produced “electric noses” and “electric tongues” that quantify various compounds that contribute to wine aroma and flavor, and spectrophotometers can objectively measure wine color. Should wine reviews replace their qualitative notes with the very quantitative, objective data of an electric nose and tongue? Lists of anthocyanins and sulfides in milligrams or milliequivalents instead of comments about fruit and flowers? Even though quantitative analyses are informative to a properly educated observer (setting aside how many wine consumers are willing or able to become so properly educated), but I doubt that those long lists of numbers would be of much help in making purchase decisions. The output of a spectrophotometer – a set of numbers – tells you very little about how a wine will look in your glass.

And what if some reviewers prefer opaque or dark-colored (red) wines? Many (of the same) reviewers are also well known for their preference for wines that are big, fruit-forward, alcoholic—opaque in flavor, if you will. Consumers may not agree, but can still glean useful information from a descriptive review. If you prefer limpid, transparent reds, you might seek out those Cabernets of which an opaque-loving reviewer thought less highly. And if your enjoyment of wine is entirely unrelated to color, then disregard the color-related portion of a review.

Though I disagree with asking reviewers to ignore color, asking reviewers to judge color in good or at least consistent lighting is another matter entirely. Most wines look unappetizingly brown if held against the background of a darkly paneled wall in dim firelight. Similarly, all wine seems vinegary and putrid when tasted immediately after brushing one’s teeth. We expect that reviewers take reasonable precautions against masking or marring a wine’s flavor by avoiding toothpaste, tobacco, and such prior to tasting. It is equally reasonable to expect that judgment of wine color will take place in neutral lighting above a white background, or at least as close to this ideal as reasonably possible. On the other hand, using a Diamond Color Grading lamp or other such thing is not unreasonable; it is unnecessary. After all, while serious wine tasting should ideally occur in an environment free of extraneous odors and distractions, it doesn’t occur exclusively in professional sensory testing booths. Wine tasting is subjective, wine tasting is imperfect, and wine tasting is therefore blessedly accessible even to amateurs without expensive equipment or highfalutin intentions.

Mr. Dawson may derive no pleasure from the appearance of the wine he enjoys. If so, I suggest that he purchase a set of perfectly opaque, black wine glasses and, perhaps, try accompanying his so-cloaked libation with a plate of blue-tinted cauliflower. I, for one, will continue to delight in viewing my world through rosé-, or white-, or red-filled glasses. À chacun son goȗt, et à chacun son couleur.

About The Author

Science Writer

Erika Szymanski studies wine science dissemination at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. She holds Masters degrees in both microbiology and English rhetoric and composition and wants, someday, to help improve the structures through which scientists communicate with each other, industry, and the world. Erika was named 2012 Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year for her work on Palate Press.

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  • Hmm. I fear a good portion of this piece is focused on a man made of only so much straw.

    See, I get wonderful, very real pleasure from the color of many wines. It’s only natural to get excited by wine’s color. I never said, or frankly implied, “Looking at a wine’s color just doesn’t do it for me.”

    Instead, the question is, should it matter to reviewers and critics? And clearly my position is that it matters too much. Far, far too much.

    Here’s the trap that Ms. Szymanski falls into. Winemakers know that consumers like her and critics like Mr. Suckling are enraptured by color, so much so that they allow it to affect their overall evaluation of the wine. So what can winemakers do? They can manipulate color with ease, cranking it up if necessary in a variety of ways. Some of these ways are what most would find no issue with; other ways are clearly manipulative not only of color, but of other aspects of the wine.

    And why would winemakers choose to change the color, even if it means affecting other aspects of the wine? Because they know that something so superficial as color can mesmerize.

    So if Ms. Szymanski and others want to place color so high up on the scale of importance, they ought to spend more time inquiring as to how a wine’s color got that way. But you rarely hear that question asked.

    Regarding color lamps, that part of the piece was supposed to lead readers to this conclusion: It’s the only way to truly see color consistently, but isn’t it a little over-the-top? And if it’s over-the-top, what does that say about our obsession with color?

    To put it more simply, color can be beautiful. That’s nice. I had a friend in college who only wanted to date the hottest girls on campus. Intelligence and maturity mattered nothing. He had plenty of success with that. But do you think I wanted to spend much time with these girls, talking, playing cards, having coffee? That would have led to madness. And little wonder that he grew tired of this pursuit. Pretty as they were, they were often superficial, and it was what was underneath that counted so much more.

    • Mr. Dawson, I have no desire to make this a personal he-said, she-said argument, but I think that it is you who have missed my point.

      Color, as you admit, gives pleasure and is therefore, per my rationale, the proper subject of wine reviewers: reviews generally reflect upon the ability of a wine to give pleasure. I don’t think nor do I suggest in this piece that wine color is of superordinate importance above aroma and taste. Color is important, not most important or all important. As I’ve said, I might relate 10-15% of my enjoyment of a wine to the way it looks.

      You note that winemakers can alter color to the detriment of other factors. Winemakers can contrivingly alter elements of aroma and taste as well as color. I doubt that many good winemakers scrap aroma and flavor for the sake of good color, and I see nothing wrong with attending to color simultaneous with those other factors. I’m not supporting Mega Purple any more than spinning cone dealcoholization or deacidification or ameliorization, but so it goes.

      Finally, your college friend who sought beauty and nothing else was obviously missing a lot. But I have to ask: did you and the rest of your guy friends suggest that he ignore girls’ looks completely — and did you and your guy friends do the same? Probably not, and nor should you. One of my guy friends tells me that his father sat him down as a young man and lectured him on what to look for in a life partner — a kind heart, cheerful spirit, positive attitude, diligent work ethic — and concluded by suggesting that good looks were a benefit, too; after all, you’ll be looking at each other a lot over the dinner table.

      I feel the same way about wine. Other attributes come first, but good looks are still a good thing. After all, I’ll be looking at that glass a lot over the dinner table.

      • Indeed looks matter in a life partner. But I think we can carry an analogy too far. I apologize for that one.

        As you say, winemakers can alter aroma and flavor in many ways. So I’ll posit something here: If you’re the type of consumer, as I am, that prefers a wine to show its sense of place, you’re less likely to get too wrapped up in a wine’s color. If you just want pleasure from wine, and less of the intellectual experience, then color is more likely to be of value to you.

        See, I’m bothered when winemakers do a lot to alter aroma and flavor. Same with color. I’m not a natural wine militant, but sense of place matters. I don’t demand pleasure from wine. I want it to convey a sense of place. When I’ve been there, the wine speaks to me on many levels. If I were out for pleasure, I’d eat brownies all day long. But wine is an intellectual pursuit, filled with context and history. I prefer, say, a Beauj that’s less pleasurable (in common terms) than an overoaked massive red from pick-your-favorite-region.

        And so color becomes a sidelight. I admire it when it catches my eye. I remark on it. But I know it’s not more than the veneer, the opening note in an opera.

        Certainly, though, we can agree to disagree. That’s another part of the beauty of wine.

      • Oh, and regarding reviewers: I should hope they’re not assessing a wine’s ability to give pleasure instead of other factors. I want a reviewer to assess a wine’s ability to convey its place, imperfections and all. And here’s another difference: You would drink a wine and evaluate it based on its pleasurability at that moment. A reviewer would drink the same wine and decide how it shows now, and how it is likely to show in the future based on track record, experience, etc. Critics and consumers are not tasting and drinking wine with the same factors in mind. Nor should they.

        But when the top critics gush over opaqueness, on and on and on, it’s no wonder the average consumer starts to think that’s a key factor of a wine’s awesomeness. And it’s just not.