In Defense of the Wine Critic

Yesterday I posted on the idea that wine critics are important. That they serve a purpose. Well, I get mail and comments on a regular basis in response to what serves as editorial here and this post was no exception. Interestingly, I got more mail in response to this post than there were comments. And almost all the mail was negative…that is, those writing had really very few nice things to say about the wine critic and their value to society. Here’s one of my favorites:

"Jesus, Tom. How much are you paid by Parker and the Spectator to push their swill on us. These people make a living on insecurity and nothing more. Their opinion of wine is no more important than that of the drunk in the street. We all  have our own tastes our own tastes are just as valid as he critics."

Here’s another example:

"Wouldn’t it be easier…and a whole lot more authentic…for us wine drinkers to just buy something, decide if we like it, then move on? I’ve found critics to be a waste of time and maybe even detrimental to the consumer. They’ve pushed the idea that wine is a number and a simple bowl of flavors. They’ve made wine more difficult to appreciate."

For the record, no, I don’t get paid by the critics to defend them.

However, critics do deserve defending.

Let’s start with the very idea of criticism. But let’s first define the word. "Criticism" should be understood as an assessment, not "you suck" finger pointing. The critic is assessing something. This is a pretty important distinction. The latter usually has little of value to offer. The former is an exploration.

The very best critics truly love the object of their criticism. Movie, music, art, book, food and wine critics find themselves in the business of assessing something they truly love, something with which they have a intimate connection. You could argue, and and am, that criticism is one person’s attempt to improve the object of their affection. By praising or criticizing a movie or a piece of music they are asking the artist and those in the artist’s field to take note: someone is watching.

So what is the difference between the critic and the consumer? Education.

The best critics are far more aware of what led to the object of their critique than the average consumer. For example, the best wine critics can explain to their readers what makes this California Cabernet Sauvignon outside the mainstream, how it relates to Cabernets produced in the past, what techniques were employed to produce it and, often, what motivation the winemaker had in creating such a Cabernet.

But let’s be honest, these kind of critics, these learned, well-educated critics are few and far between. But then so is good criticism. However, a well-rendered critique of a movie or wine or book can often be more satisfying and more educational than the object of the critique when it is consumed or experienced without any middle man.

Yet today, wine criticism is mostly utilitarian. It is usually offered as advice: "Drink this, don’t drink that." It has been suggested that we really don’t need this kind of writing, that our own palates are the best source of this information. Others have suggested that rather than listening to someone recommend or critique a wine who has no knowledge of your own palate is of little value. It is suggested that you find a retailer who you can go to directly, who you can look in the face and tell them what you like so they can serve you directly.

This is a fine idea, but I fail to see the difference between the retailing critic and the critic in print…other than there is a different motivation at work that has to do with sales. This is not to say that good retailers won’t serve this purpose well. I know a number of them that serve this purpose for me.

Yet consider the person who really enjoys wine, likes exploring different types, likes steeping themselves in it’s lore and wants to learn. How is the critic not good for them? Perhaps they have a budget of $100 a month they are willing to spend on wine and their wine education. Certainly under these circumstances a wine critic who suggests they try a particular Mendoza Malbec because it represents that region’s distinctive style of Malbec or that they try an unwooded California Chardonnay because it represents the antitheses of mainstream California Chardonnay becomes a useful source for the wine lover.

Today grocery stores alone are often filled with hundreds of different wines from numerous regions ad of an array of varieties. Which one deserves your cash? Yes you could ask the retailer or your friend for a recommendation. Or, you could seek out advice from someone whose world revolves around wine, someone who has tasted widely, someone who has undertaken to educate themselves in wine history and winemaking: The critic.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, the key is to find a critic who tends to recommend wines that you like and I offered a solution to finding such a person. It’s not hard to do.

I think the mistake people make who denigrate the critic and ask that consumers simply use their own palate results from a certain discontent many people harbor for opinionated people with power. Many critics do indeed have power. When that power is applied to a product that purely of subjective quality we start to ask, "what do they know?" Well, the best critics focusing their lenses on any artistic field often know a lot. And they can educate us, if we are willing to be educated.

The critics is a most important part of the world of wine as they are to film, music, food and other artistic fields. And we, the consumer, are just like them. We make judgments. The difference is they have the cajones to ask others to consider their judgments. This kind of moxie alone seems to demand we appreciate them.

Posted In: Rating Wine


3 Responses

  1. allan - December 27, 2005

    Excellent post. While I agree that some critics have too much power, a good critic is important. If you know what their tastes are, and how they relate to yours, a good critic can be very helpful.
    The trick is to read critics intelligently.

  2. Fredric Koeppel - December 29, 2005

    Hi, Tom, thank you for your thoughtful defense of critics and the job of criticism (and for your kind endorsement of my website). I not only write about wine, but for the newspaper where I work, I write about and review books and visual art, and I have reviewed restaurants for 18 years. My attempt is always to give a reader of my reviews and columns and the website a sense of what the object is like, how I reacted to it and felt about it and whatever background would be helpful to a person experiencing the same thing. In reviewing wine (the real subject here), I try as much as possible to let readers know where the grapes and the wine came from, how the wine was made and occasionally the personalities behind it. I don’t want consumers to try wines in a vacuum; in a review, the educational aspect, however brief, is as important as the sensual element. Of course, as one of your correspondents asserts, personal taste is the bottom line; some people like big, full-bodied, full-flavored red wines and others don’t. But experience, education and guidance can expand the “bottom line” and lead consumers into areas they might not have tried without some urging. I have my opinions and biases too, naturally, and those must necessarily be reflected in my reviews and commentary. But the primary reason I write about wine is to convey a love of wine and my belief that wine should be as carefully crafted as possible no matter what price range it falls within. That’s what consumers deserve. The critic’s job should never be to destroy reputations or to elevate the mediocre or to seek power for itself or, finally, to exercise opinion arbitrarily; the critic’s job is to inform and educate, to castigate when necessary and praise when possible.

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