As i write this, the Brazilian national soccer team is competing in the Confederations Cup in South Africa. The results are not hugely important, but the team selection is revealing: Blessed with a rich soccer culture and some of the most talented attacking players, the Brazilian coach Dunga has decided to leave out some of his biggest stars.
Pelé, one of the heroes of the 1970 World Cup-winning Brazil side widely considered the greatest team ever assembled, is contemptuous of the current formation. In his opinion, the central midfield that constitutes the heart of the side is "bureaucratic." And it is deliberately so. The 2006 World Cup was a fiasco for a much-fancied Brazilian team. Fielding a "magic quartet" of the greatest forwards of their generation, the side was a romantic throwback to the illustrious Brazilian teams of the 20th century. Sadly, it was also top-heavy and unbalanced, eventually to be bundled out of the competition in the quarter finals; the whole was considerably less than the sum of its parts. So now Dunga has rationed his attacking options and packs the midfield with capable journeymen.Not only have the results so far vindicated his decision, but the better-balanced side is more attractive to watch.
Following professional sport is not entirely dissimilar to the joys of drinking wine. Both can be approached as aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual experiences. The flash of inspiration from a great athlete sparks the imagination just as surely as a sublime grand cru. Our era of wine competitions and points-driven reviews also makes scoring an abiding concern both on the playing field and in the cellar.
Whatever our sensible reservations about the use of numerical scores in wine criticism, it has long bemused me that we assess wines as discreet entities, and yet, away from the sterility of the tasting room, we consume and enjoy them as part of a wider experience that includes the food and context. In effect, we are judging a team game on the attributes of the players as individuals.
Of course, the conceit of the wine professional is that an intuition developed through years of tasting experience gives the ability to accurately predict how a wine will behave at table, based upon a fleeting encounter with a gawkily adolescent sample; it is the role of vinous talent scout, ever looking for the Next Big Thing. Any sports team has the same problem, and at the elite level a team will have a scouting network scouring the lower rungs of the game for prospective stars. With astronomical sums of money involved, successfully nurturing future big names can allow a team of limited financial resources to hold their own against spendthrift opposition. The problem is identifying the talent in the first place: What criteria will predict success in the big leagues?
No game generates statistics to quite the same extent as baseball. America's national pastime has always had a folklore rich in data, but over the past 30 years it has been witness to a statistical revolution. Since the late 1970s, baseball writer Bill James has created sabermetrics (named for SA BR-the Society for American Baseball Research), based upon detailed statistical analysis of the game. The sabermetric approach came to wide popular attention through the success in the late 1990s of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane at creating a winning side on a tiny budget.
James had realized, and Beane was to demonstrate to the world, that the skills valued by the scouts and heavily rewarded by the market were not relevant to winning games of baseball. Contrary to a century of accumulated wisdom, the graceful natural athletes the market valued were of little use unless they were also disciplined hitters; good fielding was grossly overvalued, so Beane's sides were frequently comically inept; the market overpriced pitchers with a hard-thrown fastball, so Beane systematically traded his leading pitchers to more affluent teams, making a handsome profit in the process. And still Oakland won. Through a more thorough understanding of each element of the game, they could exploit the inefficiency of the market.
Such inefficiencies abound in gastronomy. I am not advocating that we assign precise numerical values to the pleasure each component of the meal will give us (though if you try, you will realize the importance of humble table salt). Nor is this an assault on richly oaked fruit-bombs, since even the most austerely Europhile of palates will rate more concentrated wines more highly, and we do not yet live in the world of the 100-point Riesling Kabinett. I would also accept that, at least to some extent, the exploitation of market inefficiency is already an established drinking strategy; what else is the appreciation of unfashionable vintages and unknown regions? But on a wider scale, those serious-minded styles of wines that rate most highly do not necessarily fit seamlessly into a culinary context. It is a problem exacerbated by the heat of the summer, when delicacy, lightness, and soft extraction are positive virtues in reds as well as whites. In a heat wave, the bright and frothy charms of chilled Lambrusco are undeniable with some fatty pork; the wine makes no claim to profundity, but as a total-meal-ratherthan- single-sample critic, I would reward the meal with a higher score than the same food served with a Super- Tuscan. Unassuming team players are as valuable at table as on the sports field.