Rating Wine: Who Should Do It?
I received the following email today:
"Tom, wonderful blog. But I don’t understand why you don’t review wines. You seem to have lots of wine experience. Why not give us a few reviews to chew (sip?) on?"
Frankly, I’ve always been one of those people who respect critics. Theater, art, movie, wine, critics of all sorts. There is a special brand of critics that make a profession out of understanding the discipline they review and critique. They understand the history of the art. They understand the techniques involved. They’ve spent years studying both and then developing an personal and subjective lens they use with their knowledge of the art to finally judge it. The best critics are able to put a piece of art in a cultural and historical context.
These are the best critics and they are few and far between in all types of art…including wine.
I’m not one of those people. And one thing we don’t need, in my opinion, is one more person with only a modicum of experience, telling others what is good or bad, what is worthy or unworthy to drink, what is well made or poorly made.
If you’ve been drinking wine for only five years, I really don’t want to read your review of ANY wine.
If you don’t have a history tasting and studying the wines from every wine region of the world, I just don’t care what your critical opinion is of that Zinfandel you had the other night.
If you’ve never tasted the balanced table wines from California made in the 1980s, I really can’t take your review of the latest 15% alcohol, high pH generic $50 Cab very seriously.
Critics of all sorts are often derided by readers. They are accused of only being critics because they are incapable of being "doers". This is a misunderstanding of the art, but it is, unfortunately, an opinion that becomes more and more appropriate when you have a proliferation of "critics" who have no business critiquing due to lack of experience and lack of knowledge.
But, since this is a wine blog, the obvious questions is, what qualities do, or should, the best wine critics possess?
1. Tasting Experience
I’m talking about deep and broad experience. This is the only thing that can develop in them the kind of palate memory that allows them to judge if a wine tastes like what it presumes to be which allows them to warn their readers or at least give their readers some context
2. Winemaking Knowledge
Along with progress and changes in the vineyard, winemaking is responsible for the final character of the wine. A good critic should be able to articulate what winemaking, or viticultural, techniques were the likely culprit in a wine that, say, is prunny, or overly vanilla in character, or is flabby and fat, or seems exceedingly bright. Again, this gets back to context. The competent wine critics provides readers with context.
3. An Intimacy with Industry Trends
There is no way around this. A great critic is able to understands the trends in the wine industry that play a role in creating that well-structured, brightly fruited Chardonnay with relatively low alcohol and higher than normal acid levels. Is this Chardonnay rare? Or is more common today than it was only a few days ago? The critic should know and they should know why.
4. An Opinionated Palate.
There is nothing more boring than a critic with no opinion. It turns out that everyone likes some wines better than others, but some don’t let us know what those wines are. They don’t display and defend their preference. Have you ever read a diatribe about a terrible wine? I love them. I love them because they are interesting and illuminating and thought provoking. If a critic doesn’t provoke you to think, they just aren’t doing their job.
It’s somewhat presumptuous to lay down the necessary prerequisites for being a competent critic. I know this. I’m interested in this because we have so many amateur wine critics among us now who possess none of these criteria. More importantly, critics are very important in the artistic direction that winemaking takes, just as the critic is important for the direction that cinema, music, fine arts and other arts take.
We should be able to trust that those evaluating wine know of what they speak. Since there are many others out there far more able than I in that regard, this is why I don’t offer reviews on FERMENTATIONS.