The State of Damage Control and Wine Criticism
The wine industry is one in which “damage control” is rarely a required skill. Controversy rarely arises. The general public’s attention is rarely focused on industry’s or individuals’ misdeeds—real or imagined. Taking time to learn the art of response to criticism or claims is probably better spent exploring the mysteries of Twitter, proper pumice removal or the circuitous route for permit approvals.
Given this, it’s nice to see a member of the wine industry respond so well to criticism and claims. In this respect I am referring to small kerfuffle that arose over Wine Advocate critic Antonio Galloni’s appearance at an event sponsored by New York retailer Zachys at which every official vintage of Solaia will be tasted. After Dr. Vine (Tyler Colman), an excellent writer, blogger and tenacious reporter, wrote about the upcoming event with Mr. Galloni, some have accused the wine critic of violating journalistic and Wine Advocate ethics, exposing his lack of independence as a critic, being unable to be objective in his reviews and much worse.
These kinds of accusations easily spread. If reported on in the right media, they can become far more than simply a kerfuffle among a small number of wine tradespeople and interested wine geeks. They can damage brands, personal and corporate. The question for the accused goes like this: How damaging is the claim, who is making the claim, should there be a response, and if so what should the response be?
Mr. Galloni has now responded twice to the issues that have arisen from this blog post and subsequent comments. His latest, and I presume likely his last, is his best and serves as instructional as to how to deal with criticism one deems as unfounded or at least off the mark.
Galloni’s remarks are respectful. They present a defense of his ethics and actions. They reflect on the work he has done at the Wine Advocate and he re-iterates his commitment and understanding of his ethical responsibilities, making the case that taking a fee not from a producer, but from the organizers, is nothing that compromises his independence. And he’s correct justified in all his remarks. It’s the way a response to criticism, when a response is delivered, should be made.
This kind of proper and open response from Galloni is a trend. I myself wrote a piece that might be considered critical of Galloni when I analyzed his reviews of California wines and pointed out what appeared to be an overuse of the term “licorice”. Antonio’s response to the post was proper, suitable, respectful and introspective.
There is a great deal of critic bashing that has gone on now in heightened form for quite some time. Folks like Robert Parker, Jim Laube, Steve Heimoff, Mr. Galloni and others that have risen up the critics ladder are most prominently exposed to the heightened criticism. They all, I am sure, recognize it is simply part of the job.
But what I find befuddling is the incoherent objection I see to wine criticism and wine reviewing in general that has arisen of late. There is a sense among some that the very act of passing judgment on a wine is an illegitimate pursuit that serves few if any. This position can’t be sustained via logic, tradition or an analysis of utility. The professional critic, be they observers of music, art, food, or wine, tend in their best incarnations to be devoted to their fields, hungry with a passion for beauty, extraordinarily well educated on their fields, and serve as touchstones for anyone interested in the present context and historical context of their fields. Just as importantly, they serve as guides to those equally interested in music, art, food and wine.
As a profession, wine criticism is a little different. The critic is required no only to observe the item in question, appreciate its place within the genre, have the ability to write instructively and coherently about the product, but also to actually consume the product. This is unusual. The vagaries of the palate are legend, even more so than those of the eyes and ears. The wine critic can not study the words or notes or drawn lines. They must evaluate their subject by experiencing it in a very unique way—they ingest it. This act requires the review do deal not merely with the substance of the wine, but also with the way the wine interacts with the current state of their physical conditions. It is not easy to do well.
Criticism of the critic is itself a well mined genre of the American commentariat, which itself has grown exponentially since the rise of the blogosphere, social media, and electronic communications in general. That’s fine. However, it does mean that professional wine critics will more often find themselves in the position that Mr. Galloni has found himself of late. Whether critics in that position respond with the kind of aplomb that he displayed will be interesting to note. But what I’m looking for are those critics of critics who are able to pose legitimate interpretive challenges; able to offer alternative perspective to a critic’s approach; desiring to further a conversation on the analytical framework that leads to the best, most useful and most inspiring kind of assessment of a wine.
What I tire of is criticism of the critic for the sake of criticizing and tearing down.