‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” That line, from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, serves as part of the epigraph for Peter May’s crime novel The Critic. The novel — which tells the story of retired forensics expert Enzo Macleod’s attempt to unravel the mystery of a murdered wine critic — isn’t quite as dark as the epigraph might suggest. But the line does at least hint at this profound truth: when May set about to research the book, he looked long into the wine world — about four or five months’ worth. In return, the wine world looked long into him and ruined him for cheap plonk forever. “I used to kind of go along the supermarket shelf and pick up the cheapest bottle,” recalls May. “Now, my taste has changed completely. I can’t drink the cheap wines I used to drink, sadly. It costs me a lot more to maintain my wine habit.”
As May explains it, it wasn’t just a matter of downing a few bottles of Chateau Petrus and deciding it was time to start treating himself. Rather, “I decided to set the novel in the wine industry, and there were many aspects of the industry that I found interesting” — the winemaking process, the politics and power of critical opinion, etc. “I wanted to construct a story that absorbed all of that into it, so that people would be introduced to the whole world of wine in that kind of natural way.”
Wine analysis is one of those things that gets absorbed into the story line, and to help himself understand the job, May enrolled in a wine-tasting course at the Maison du Vin in Gaillac, where the novel is set. “They start you off on the smelling process; they provide you with these little bottles of clear liquid, each with a particular scent. The first thing you have to do is identify those scents. Through that process, I discovered that sommeliers develop, through experience, this great database of smells and tastes in their minds that they’re able to draw on in a way that us ordinary mortals can’t.” (He’s not kidding — in the book, a character cites research showing that experienced tasters use additional parts of the brain when tasting, parts “almost certainly containing database material.”)
But even ordinary mortals begin to identify and classify and discern. And now, says May, “It’s hard to drink a wine without going through the process — the smell of it, the color of it, the taste of it. When I went back to the cheap wines and went through that process, I realized just how inferior they really were. It was almost overnight — I had to change my drinking habits and go for better wine.”
As I mentioned, May’s hero is a forensics expert, and May clearly delights in the hard-science approach that Macleod takes. It’s an approach, however, that must be guided by something approaching intuitive insight. He deals with the dead, but also with the living. So while he’s happy to analyze a wine in order to crack a critic’s coded tasting notes, he also needs to consider the role and status of a critic in the general economy of wine. The critic possesses that crucial database of experience, yes. So there is an element of authority in what he says. But as Macleod learns, one man’s palate is not another’s. In an effort to crack the code, he brings the reviewed wines to another master taster, a Frenchman. “I can’t make any promises,” warns taster number two. “His tastes and mine were somewhat different.” The authority doesn’t come so much from objectivity as from general agreement on matters of taste. As the deceased critic’s daughter puts it, “What else is a critic going to do but say what it is he likes and what he doesn’t? A lot of people followed my father’s recommendations and found they agreed with him. That’s why he was so successful.”
Of course, another, more direct word for “general agreement” might be “popularity.” And when someone’s tastes become popular, then it’s no surprise to see producers attempting to craft wines to suit that person’s taste. Macleod’s investigations lead him across the pond to California, where he enlists the services of a man who has wine down to a science — and nothing but a science. “I had dinner with a client the other week,” says the scientist. “He produced a bottle of his best wine. I told him I would be really interested to taste it. I’d only ever tried it on my computer screen…Wines are hard to taste in the early days, but I can measure the key compounds and can make a quality judgment from the facts and figures in my database. We can make virtual blends between barrels…These wine critics…Petty, Parker, and the rest. They’re so goddamned predictable. I say to them, this is what you like? Okay, this is what I’ll make. In a blind tasting, I’ll predict nine times out of ten the score they’re going to give.”
The scientist is based on Leo McCloskey of Sonoma’s Enologix, whom May visited during his research phase. “He’s a very interesting guy. As it happened, I brought along a friend of mine, a Californian lady who is co-owner of a vineyard in Santa Lucia. Parker rates her wines very highly — 95 or 96 points. She was very skeptical about his methods. I think she was opposed to his whole approach — the fact that he was doing virtual blends of the wines on his computer. My friend is an absolute traditionalist, and to her, this was absolutely abhorrent. To her, the talent of the winemaker is in the blending of the wines, and that’s a question of taste and experience and not anything you could possibly do on a computer. But McCloskey has been very successful. I just sat back and let them go at one another, and I got a huge amount of really useful information from the arguments on both sides.” Without implying or suggesting anything about the particular real-life parties involved, a body could almost imagine a second wine-related murder mystery — the artisan winemaker vs. the techno-happy manipulator, art vs. science, vision vs. marketability…Might be worth looking into.