Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pendock Paradox: What If Perfumes Were Wine?

I recently linked to a piece by South African wine commentator Neil Pendock about the cologne-wearing habits of his country’s vintners. In doing so I called him as “a bit of a perfume head,” a characterization he promptly accepted. He then revealed the true depths of his ‘fume headedness by posting his review of Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez which had been submitted to, but never published by, the Sunday Times of London.

Pendock’s take on Perfumes is interesting for several reasons. First, it is written by a professional sensory expert rather than a novelist or amateur enthusiast. Second, it offers both positive and negative assessments. Third, it raises some questions that perfume bloggers would do well to ponder.

Here’s how Pendock begins:
The flyleaf blurb claims this “stylish book will do for scent what Robert Parker’s books have done for wine.” Let’s hope not! Perfume is far too serious to be hijacked by snobs, inside-traders, train-spotters and anoraks addressing their own insecurity issues by promoting scent as a pseudo-scientific pursuit with perfumes scored on a 100 point scale; under 90 and you can’t sell it, over 90 and it’s unaffordable. 

Perfumes are for The People . . .
Right on, brother.

Pendock notes “the contradiction at the heart of this book.” Tania Sanchez says perfume is an art, not a science, but she then goes on
to rate 1500 fragrances from one star (translation: “awful”) to five (“masterpiece”). Cue gales of hilarity from artists, curators and collectors on the impudence of awarding artworks a star rating.
Pendock’s interest is not in chin-stroking ruminations about Art versus Science. Rather, as someone who makes rational, consistent, and defensible sensory evaluations on a daily basis, he has a practical bone to pick:
The problem comes with consistent aesthetic criteria. Take Amarige by Givenchy for example. Rated one star and immediately contradicted by the comment “we nearly gave it four stars: the soapy-green tobacco-tuberose accord… is unmissable, unmistakable, and unforgettable. However, it is also truly loathsome.” Are beauty and the beast really such near neighbours?
Lyrical perfume reviews may be fun to read, but the more flamboyant the description the less likely it is to be anchored to well-defined and consistently applied criteria.

Pendock is no dry pedant. He enjoys and quotes Turin’s “bitchy comments” and “vicious ad hominem” attacks—but finds Sanchez “less dazzling” and some of her insights “truly cringeworthy.” Does this matter? To some extent, yes:
Having two authors of different literary style on board highlights a grating unevenness in the text and presumably of assessment–a problem common in multi-author wine guides.
In a magnificently bitchy backhanded compliment of his own, Pendock calls Perfumes “a five star masterpiece of lifestyle literature.”

Pendock compares the reviews in Perfumes with those of wine writers. One thing they have in common is a love of hyperbole. A striking difference is that the wine fraternity plays “the ball rather than the man”, i.e., saves its commentary for the juice not the fellow who produced it. This is worth a moment’s reflection.

The Turin/Burr school of criticism revels in playing the man—calling out the perfumers, the corporations, and the celebrity names associated with the fragrance under consideration. The results are personal, sometimes viciously so, sometimes embarrassingly so—as in Burr’s loving tongue baths of Jean-Claude Ellena. Imagine reading a wine review that ricocheted so wildly from perception (“a brambly green note in the cabernet”) to personality (“Robert Mondavi’s impulsive and ego-inflamed attempt to replicate his Napa achievement in the Central Valley”). It’s a juice review folks, why not stick to the juice? You’ll drink the cabernet or wear the perfume—you’re not going to date the guy who made it.

In presenting his unpublished review, Pendock notes that
I also e-mailed Luca and Tania, asking them whether they rated perfumes blind or sighted. No response, either. The dome of silence descends.
This throwaway line stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ve done a lot of benchmark and comparison testing of perfume with consumers and almost all of it was conducted blind. That is, the consumer was not told the name of any of the fragrances. Why? Because knowing brand names introduces expectation unrelated to the sensory character of the perfumes. It needlessly biases the results away from the juice.

A wine taster gets around these issues by placing the bottles in numbered paper bags to disguise their identity. He may know that the latest Mondavi or Francis Ford Coppola cabernet are among them, but his tasting notes are based on the juice alone. This self-enforced objectivity is a powerful reason why we have confidence in a reviewer’s opinion.

How hard would it be for Turin/Sanchez to blind the samples for each other? Not very. Do they do it? As Pendock says about their non-response, “The dome of silence descends.” And after all if your schtick is bitchy, why go blind? Easier to find the jugular with eyes wide open.

If the sophisticated amateurs of the blogosphere want to take their reviews to the next level they’d be well advised to leave the bitchiness to Turin, invest in a few brown paper bags, and use a simple and reliable set of dimensions to rate their impressions. Readers appreciate reviews that are more about the juice and less about the reviewer’s narcissism.


Neil Pendock said...

After posting my review, I received an e-mail from Luca Turin "I saw in your article that you mentioned I never answered your email, so let me do so with a belated apology. No, we did not smell perfumes blind."

The Left Coast Nose said...

Avery, this is a very interesting posting, one that warrants a fuller conversation, which I’ll take your invitation to continue here:

At the heart of this posting you are fundamentally asking: what does a reviewer do, and how/if/can we rate how well s/he does it? In a nutshell, I’m here to argue that we that the business of reviewing is always subjective, and here’s why:

A) Parker is an interesting reviewer to discuss because, he is, of course, so hugely influential, with the power to make winemakers either very rich or damn them to obscurity. He’s achieved this critical clout by pioneering methods for removing bias from wine tastings, his refined palate and his reputed olfactory/gustatory/experiential memory of over 100,000 wines. However, all that doesn’t put him any closer to a “well-defined and consistently applied criteria” than “What Robert Parker likes is what Robert Parker likes.”

And while it is worth noting that while a maker of French Bordeaux, California Cabernets, and Rhone Valley wines must hang on his every word, Parker was pretty much laughed out the business of reviewing French Burgundies. So even the almighty Parker has limits as a tastemaker. The wine community has reached a consensus that his opinion is valuable (within his specialties), but his power as a make-or-break wine reviewer is collective, not objective. (We haven’t made a machine to tell us what we like—not yet, anyway.)

For the purchaser of wine, if you like what Parker likes, well then, you are going to pay more for wine both you and he find tasty. However, if your sensibilities don’t align with his, all those 100 point ratings are useless to you, other than saving you a bunch of bucks. No matter how "objective" or "subjective" the reviewer, if you don’t have some alignment with his/her sensibilities, then their rating (“90 points;” “five stars out of five”) is of limited usefulness.

B) If there is no guarantee that one’s sensibility is in agreement with a critic, then what else does the reviewer have to offer his/her reader? A reason to try what s/he likes: out of the vast raft of movies to see, restaurants to patronize, wines to drink, or perfumes to sniff, why this one, rather than that one? Not just that you like it--what is the edge, the story, the hook?

Here’s a pop quiz:
To those who are new to mid-20th century classics—if you could only pick one to try, which one would it be?

a) Diorella
b) Diorling
c) Diorissimo
d) Dioressence

The correct answer is a) Diorella. That is because Brother Burr writes that it smells like “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste.” And while I’ve read plenty on the other Diors, what they smell “like”, I can’t say.

You don’t have to agree that you smell mint paste+ fur coat too (which I don’t); and, you don’t have to like it (but I do). But his description, his connotations do make Diorella the one I want to know better.

(To be continued...)

The Left Coast Nose said...

C) I appreciate the idea of smelling perfumes blind—but how you do that, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps send theperfumedcourt $100 a month and tell them to send random stuff marked only “A” and “B” with a key to connect the vials to the names after you’ve tried them.

But while wine is often tasted blind, for the average consumer, the name, vintage, memories, etc., will always be powerful elements making (subjective) contributions to one’s enjoyment. (Just ask Margaux Hemingway who was famously made after her parents finished a particularly good Chateau Margaux.) After all, there are no good wines, just good bottles, the saying goes.

That said, as an amateur reviewer, I do try to set on one side what I smell and on the other what I know about a scent before I smell it. An imperfect system, yes, but at least it’s a conscious one.

What I like about reviewing perfume is the opportunity to make those connotations, those connections—some imposed upon me by the perfume maker, others by my own experiences.

Another quiz: which would you rather smell: a) “LadyBoy,” or b) “Sandalwood”? Which would you rather read/write about?

D) You can’t hope to like everything a critic likes; you can’t hope to make every connection that a reviewer connects. But you can enjoy the writing (subjectively). I understand your call for less “personality” or ego or snark or whatever in perfume reviews: you would like to see perfume reviews, in general, be more “objective.” However, it is noteworthy, and I say this not as an insult or an accusation, that one of the things that makes your own site worth reading is your strong voice—you are quite the snarkasaurus yourself, you know.

But yes, I take your point—how do you like your perfume reviews? “Fume porn”? Snark-fests? Straight up? Maybe there’s room enough on the Interwebs for everybody. Here’s hoping there are enough reviewers, and enough readers, to go around.


Marlene said...

If even physics is subject to an observer effect, why not perfume reviews? There is no way to rid any kind of review of subjectivity, as others have pointed out, so instead why not recognize and appreciate the varying notes and accords (I apologize for the language) and see the field as basically discursive. When art is reviewed, it is reviewed as a work or group of works by this or that individual, for example, Monet, Kahlo, Picasso, etc. The artist is seen as intrinsically valuable to what is being reviewed; his "signature" or "style" or "presence" is an inherent part of the piece (I realize there are exceptions to every rule but would argue for the overarching point of view here.). In time, he or she builds up an oeuvre and new works are reviewed in comparison to that oeuvre in terms of whether they break out of the mold, elaborate it, or lie stagnant within it. Why not treat perfume and its reviews in a similar way. Luca Turin's insults were just that - insults, not measured, well thought out commentaries or sensual attunements to the perfumes he was evaluating. Most readers are able to see this fact and find it either humorous, offensive, immature, or the rantings of a narcissist. Some consensual validity is able to be reached about his affronts. In this way, the wider readership is able to apply some criteria to a review.

I am not in the industry. I am a clinical psychologist in private practice and a lover of scent in all its forms. I read reviews and enjoy them, especially when they are not blind.

Ambrosia said...

What a fascinating concept! I can't stand most perfume reviews. Being a professional perfumes myself, I know how little they have to do with the actual scent and how rarely they actually even get close to describing the perfumes they are written about.
(And don't even get me started on modern perfume advertisments claiming ingredients such as rose and violet in concoctions which have never even come near the actual flowers themselves...)
I'd love to hear your review of my perfumes, which would definitely be a blind test as my little company isn't very famous or french ...
Would you like me to send you some samples? if so email me your physical address!


Ambrosia said...

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

What if perfume were wine...well they are not!
I am very fond of Luca and Tania and even thou I do not share their opinions in many of their fragrances reviews or tastes, Luca did what many would dream of doing: he made people want to know about perfume, he made people want to read about them, write about them. He opened a new door for everyone.
Once you buy THEIR book, you expect to hear from THEM, what THEY feel about this or that perfume. As subjective and as bitchy as they can be.
Blind samples? What for? The product is not just the juice itself. it is the bottle, the package, the idea, the concept, the face and the juice.
Nobody expects Luca or Tania to recognize fragrances like trained monkeys. Nobody is giving Luca and Tania a grade or their skills on recognizing this or that perfume.
One does not wish to have a book full of technical contents but to read what THEY feel when THEY smell this or that fragrance. It is a teaser to take your butt off the chair and go to the next perfume store to check what YOU feel about the fragrance. if you agree with them or not. The idea is to go smell it and make your own review.
About his skills, Luca does not need to prove he knows what he smells. we all know he does!
besides, just for you all know, once my husbbie worked as a bar tender and gave a famous wine critic a wine Y saying it was X brand (and it was not), the guy did not notice. When my husband confronted him and his skills, he said he had a cold.
So, I think that wine critics or commentators should stick to wine. Otherwise they will also start teaching about the sense of smell instead of Drs. Like Avery Gilbert....

Anonymous said...

I think we all agree that that 'Perfumes, the A-Z Guide' is far from the be all and end all of perfume reviews and should be taken with a salt mine sized grain of salt. I admit to owning this book and read it purely for the snarky comments.

Their introduction exhorts their readers to 'believe your nose only' and they claim to smell/review all fragrances blindly, thus supposedly practicing what they preach.

I, however, would like to call bullshit on that. I am only a hundred or so pages in, but there is no logical explanation for the frequent {and nauseating} tongue baths lavished upon a certain trio of perfumers. If one were, for example, to look at various painters or architects, I would posit that not every single one of their paintings or buildings was a home run.

Witness what Gehry did to his house:

Throwing a chain link fence on top of your house - really ??

While I hold that trio in great regard - they ARE incredibly talented perfumers - there is just no way EVERY SINGLE fragrance they ever created was worthy of 3+ stars. Thus far, LT begs to differ.

LT also seems to have an odd fascination/obsession with Yohji Homme ... repeatedly calling other fragrances derivative thereof. Bourdon's Coolwater ... I wholeheartedly agree - that fragrance was mind-blowingly original and DID spawn countless knock-offs/twists. But Yohji Homme? Can't say I've ever heard of it. And it's been discontinued. Was Coolwater ever discontinued ? I rest my case.

The book is also somewhat narcissistic ... " while living in Paris"," while vacationing in Corsica", this fragrance reminds me of "my stepfathers 1954 Bentley Type R" blah blah blah.

Avery Gilbert said...


"Somewhat narcissistic." Heh.

I got a similar impression second-hand reading Burr's worshipful account of Turin. From my review:

Burr portrays Turin as a Goethe-like polymath, a brilliant, intellectually restless,
self-educated aesthete. He has a doctorate in physiology but “picked up chemistry on his own”, along with physics. He’s held appointments at research institutes
in France, Russia, the USA and England. Turin is a vivid conversationalist, capable of invoking the Situationists, Noël Coward and Wagner in an anecdote about why he disliked elementary school. We learn that Turin is a sharp dresser and vain about his appearance. He bores easily. His favorite Sauternes is the 1981 Château Lamothe Despujols.

The whole thing is here.

~x~ said...

i love the weirdness of luca turin.
he was the first figure i was confronted with in this world.
he's like moby in the music world.
i find him fascinating in his ability to be opinionated in a not relevant way.
and i love that he is central to so much discussion.