The Role of the Wine Critic

I sat back in my chair. Somewhat stunned. I had just read what amounted to a "hit piece" on a few wineries by a wine critic. The gist of the article was, "these guys just don’t cut the mustard". Being the sensitive type I had to wonder what the point is of raking these wineries over the coals. It’s a question that could only be answered if I knew the inner workings of the wine critic’s mind. Who knew how deep the reasons went.

But it also leads to an even better question: What is the Role of the Wine Critic/Reviewer?

This is not the simple question it seems. It’s just too easy to suggest the role of the wine critic is to pass judgment. It might help get to the bottom of the issue by looking at what others have said about critics in general

"What I ask of a critic is that he usefully show the impact on his own consciousness of another’s artistic power."

"The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but
it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were
spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism.
But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art
live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of
art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent
enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce."


“The critic is not a straw-poll merchant, a tipster or a second-guesser of audience taste, simply an individual paid to record his or her reaction. Throughout history this has been a source of creative tension between artists and critics.”

"”I love criticism just as long as it’s unqualified praise.”


It’s important to note that all those speaking of critics and criticism above were referring to criticism of the arts. Wine is different in a number ways. In the first place, the wine critic evaluates with senses the art, book or movie critic will never use to make an evaluation: the nose and palate. Another difference is that wine plays a quasi-utilitarian role in our lives. It quenches our thirst. A book or movie, no matter how much we yearn for a good one, does not do this. A wine review is almost always a very short affair, usually no more than a few sentences.

Finally, consider this: The full time wine critic will probably write more reviews in a year than other types of critics will undertake in their lifetime. Does this speak to the importance of wine versus the importance of, say, a book or play or movie or dance recital?

Clearly the role of the wine critic is as varied as the wine critics’ own varied views of their roles. The critic/reviewer that spurred this post clearly sees themselves as a prod. Unless they are simply mean spirited, and I don’t think they  are, the only reason to write a scathing set of reviews is to prod the object of their reviews into doing better winemaking. The need of the consumer is clearly secondary to their goal.

But this brings us to the heart of the matter of the wine critic’s role today. It clearly is defined by their responsibility to the consumer.

In the case of nearly every wine critic I know, they would say they are acting as a consumer advocate, guiding consumers through a sea of bottles and pointing them toward the good stuff and, sometimes, make a point of telling them which is the "bad stuff". Inherent in this effort is passing judgment. This should go without saying.

It’s this rather limited mission of the wine critic that surely leads them to write reviews usually of only a few sentences which in turn allows them to churn out 100s of reviews each year. It also happens to be a fairly dismal definition of criticism. And it certainly isn’t a role that elevates the wine critic to the level at which Mencken and Kazin expect them to reside. Yet it appears that by churning out 100s of short reviews each year, wine critics achieves what is expected of them: identifying wines that taste good.

Yet, consider that most professional critics utilize one or two of their senses to take in the object of their review. The music reviewer (different from the concert reviewer) uses only their ears. the book reviewer uses only their eyes. The drama critic uses both eyes and ears. But consider the wine critic. They must use their eyes, nose, and mouth. This broader array of input should argue for something that has potentially more girth when the filtering is done and the writing begins.

Unfortunately, most wine reviews fall short when it comes to bringing all this input through the most important filter: the brain. It’s as though wine critics operate on a sort of simple word association principle whereby the first adjective that comes to their mind upon seeing, smelling or tasting a wine is quickly jotted down on paper and with that, the review is finished.

This works quite well if your goal is to simply describe what is in front of you with a little added judgment of whether there is "too much" of this or "too little" of that.

What’s missing from most wine reviews is what’s essential to good criticism: The meaning…of the wine.

This sounds a little silly, I’ll grant you. It sounds particularly silly if you understand wine as something that is there to help get the steak, fois gras or pasta to go down in a slightly enhanced fashion. And this is in fact the role of wine in most people’s life. But, since we are talking about criticism, a celebrated and ancient form of literature that, at its best, has the ability to connect laymen to the spiritual and intellectual secrets inside the artist’s mind, then it might do to consider exactly what a serious wine critic can do and what they might have the potential to produce for both readers and drinkers alike.

There is in fact "meaning" in every wine. But more important, every wine represents an idea in a winemaker’s mind. What is that idea? Where did it come from? How well was it articulated in the wine? Is there a connection between this idea and the popular culture that surrounds the winemaker? Could the idea that we glimpse in tasting the wine have been better told if the winemaker used different tools to express it? The questions that can be provoked by a wine are, if the critic is open to venturing outside the limiting model we have of wine reviewing, limitless.

I’m arguing for a form of wine criticism that tells the whole story. For a review that enlightens me as well as makes me a more informed consumer. For something that at least strives to be literature.

It’s unlikely that there is any significant demand for this kind of wine criticism. Yet how much demand is there for reviews of ballet recitals? How much demand is there among the general population even for art criticism? Not nearly as much as there is for reviews of Tom Cruise’s marriage. Yet, reviews of these things are written and often come with real insight and thought-provokingideas. And they are read by aficionados.

The main difference between those who write reviews of dance, fine art, and drama and those who write review of wine is their view of the subject matter. Wine critics don’t view the object of their judgment to be art. This is what prevents us from reading wine review that might be called "literature".

The wine critic who thrashed a few wineries in print for not making good wine would have been justified in doing so, I think, if they only had some way to connect the failure they saw to a bigger, more important, even more engaging, idea. To suggest that some wineries fail from time to time is not the kind of revelation that rises to the level of interesting. What I want to know is why did they fail? What led them to failure? Is redemption possible? What’s at stake due to their failure. What does it mean if the wineries in question believe that they in fact have succeeded wildly rather than failed, as the critic states so emphatically?

Beyond drinking wine, the only way to experience it is to read about it. This make the critic/reviewer a very important person with a very important role to play. I’ll keep looking for those that step up and tell the whole story, who seek to inspire me as well as guide me down the right aisle.

16 Responses

  1. John - July 19, 2006

    Just excellent. I have to say you have most eloquently and succinctly captured the very essence of your subject.
    Your prose exhibits the finesse of the finest.
    When once asked: “I was wondering Michel, how you would you define a great wine?” Michel Bettane replied, “a great wine is a wine that will give your a lot of emotion –
    Tom, your pen, as “reviews” and great wines should, evokes emotion.

  2. tom - July 19, 2006

    Thanks for your kind comments but I suspect your praise is too lofty.
    The Bettane quote is a good one. I suspect he would also say that a wine that delivers a lot of emotion is a wine that also would inspire a fine tale.

  3. Tish - July 20, 2006

    Excellent piece, Tom. My take is that wine criticism of specfic wines is inevitably futile; just too many variables — taste percetption, preferences, context, etc. One exception: whose tasting notes are like impressionist paintings. I think the best we literary-minded wine lovers can hope for is evocative wine writing of various sorts. Question: can you reveal the piece you read that first prompted your post? Was it in print or online only? -Tish

  4. Mark Storer - July 20, 2006

    I echo previous comments, this was an excellent piece. I struggle with this issue because I am guilty of doing just what you accuse critics of–for all I know, it was a piece I wrote you are criticizing. But that would be flattering myself…
    I think there are more than just the wine variables here as well. A lot of it depends on what the editor wants. I remember one editor saying to me something like, “no one really cares about what you think the wine tastes like. They want to know if you thought it was good or bad…” Confused, I carried on writing more about other aspects of the wine.
    Bainbridge reviews wines on his blog pretty well–and I appreciate that. I drink a good amount of wine, but I don’t think I drink enough to post frequent reviews about what’s good and what isn’t.
    And…as a writer and English teacher, I concur that there could be better literary quality…but I would first ask–what does the editor demand?

  5. tom - July 20, 2006

    Your point about the editor is an excellent one. In most cases they are the boss and they are likely to know the audience best. In fact, I’d argue that the kind of wine criticism that is common today is in fact what readers and drinkers “want”. However, I dont’ think the reader and drinker has been exposed nearly as much a they could be to examples of wine criticism as literature in the way that readers, movie goers and music lovers often are.

  6. genevelyn - July 20, 2006

    Sometimes we don’t know what we want until we get it(or don’t). Sometimes we don’t know how a bit of information will fit into our lives until much later. I studied Russian. I was a lackluster student, but later I used the language to see a lot of concerts. How is another story.
    My point is that I too would like to see wine reviews possessing the range of the Grand Canyon. Something that connects with the imagination. I think maybe Edgar A. Poe felt this way when writing the “Tell-Tale Heart” before the demand for mysteries.

  7. jeff stai - July 21, 2006

    hi Tom – Thanks for the excellent essay!
    One thing that occurs to me is that most other critical writing is often concerned with a body of work – an exhibition of paintings or sculptures, an opera full of different songs and movements, a host of dishes at a restaurant. Imagine if an opera critic had to write about each song or movement separately over a five year period.
    It is certainly possible that a single painting can evoke great emotion and meaning and by itself inspire great critical writing. So can a great wine, but these are the exceptions and not the rule.
    Perhaps if wine criticism dealt with a body of work – a vintage, a vertical, a vineyard – we would see a more literary treatment. On the other hand, the task is more daunting because a wine changes a lot more in five years than does a painting!

  8. Fredric Koeppel - July 21, 2006

    Hi, Tom, thanks for a provocative essay on wine reviewing and criticism. If I may bring my experience as a wine reviewer/critic/writer AND as a book reviewer and art critic who has also written about and reviewed theater, dance and classical music, perhaps I can offer some useful perspectivea. First, there is the nature of wine itself, which is, at every level of simplicity or complexity and expense, a beverage intended for immediate or eventual consumption, usually (one hopes) with food. Therein (second)lie its intellectual and psychological and emotional limitations; even the best wine, rhapsodize about it as we may, intellectually, psychologically and emotionally (and we have all gotten downright emotional about a few wines in our lifetimes) is not a novel by Proust or a symphony by Beethoven or a painting by Degas. As complicated as great wines can be and as much as we approach and enjoy them with awe, they don’t possess the HUMAN complexity that great art does. And yet (third), it would help the general tone of writing about wine if wine in all its sensual and economic implications were seen from the standpoint of the humanities; it would certainly help the wine industries of the world’s wine-making regions if writers would take the stand that the growing of grapes and the making (or manufacturing) and certainly the marketing of wine should be approached from a broad cultural viewpoint. In 22 years of writing about wine, I have written reviews of thousands of wines, yet the most satisfaction I receive is when I write an article or essay about some aspect of a grape, a region, a producer, some feature of the industy, even a food and wine pairing, all of which can go beyond mere reviewing to passing the tests of interest, education, personal opinion and passion. And as much as consumers want advice about what specific wines are like and what to buy or not to buy, the most response I have gotten both as a print journalist and now on the Internet, is to that kind of story.

  9. genevelyn - July 21, 2006

    My opinion, with respect, to those who think wine is simpler than a symphony, novel or painting…….
    What if Proust peeked out from under his blanket, smelled cookies and thought, “ Madeleines” (and wrote…. July 21st , Today we baked cookies.) What if Van Gogh looked out his window and said, “Those sunflowers are brilliant!” (….and painted a quick little sketch of them on a napkin)? Both of these works of art have the same genesis—something made those guys think and want to create something overwhelming. The art was an exorcism of a demon planted in their head by a smell, a sight.
    Wine is like this. I’ve smelled wine that knocked me into an adolescent hemisphere. I’ve tasted wine that made me feel smarter for the experience. Handicraft is dying in the world, yet we have 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation winemakers fermenting the juice from vines that have been grown on the bones of wildebeests. Wine is a story. A story much broader than tasting notes that sound like they have been pulled from the UC Davis tasting wheel. No, wine is not a novel–but it can be interpreted and made into one. Any wine can—not all novels are masterpieces.
    I’m a writer. For me, wine is a prism of tales to tell. Not every tale is Faulkner. There is a lot of pulp fiction, but I like that too. Minimally, each bottle has historical, geographical, sociological and sensory aspects and drinking a glass of it is how they manifest. I wish Hemmingway had been a wine writer. He could tell a story in six words.

  10. tom - July 22, 2006

    Wonderfully put, Genevelyn.

  11. tom - July 22, 2006

    You point is very well taken about the character of the art that is wine and the character of art that is Monet or Proust. It’s equally true, however, and as you point out, that there are elements of wine that could inspire a “different kind” of wine review, perhaps a sort of review that does touch on the cultural and do so with “artistic” prose.

  12. 750 mL - July 22, 2006

    You wrote a very lovely piece that I think many of us in the blogosphere can identify with.
    If we want to learn what a wine is trying to say, we have to interact with it. We have to talk back.
    Because of that, I feel very little–if any–obligation to the consumer. I am the consumer.
    The critic and the consumer “advocate” are about as different as the deep sea diver and the guy who skims the water to make sure it’s clean.

  13. Gene -Seattle Wine Blog - July 24, 2006

    Tom – Great, stimulating article. I think that wine is, in fact, very much like art and that wine criticism could be very similar to art criticism. Criticism can be a sound bite or an essay. The late anthropologist, Alfred Gell spelled out one of many theories of art in which he talks about the artist, the prototype, the patron, the object, and the viewer. In the wine world we have the winemaker, the winemaker’s idea or intended meaning,the owner, the wine, and the consumer.
    Like artists, winemakers vary from commercial artists working in a factory of some sort to rare geniuses such as Rembrandt whom my father referred to as having been kissed on the forehead by God.
    The winemaker may have no particular idea or meaning in mind and simply take his cues from Davis science or the marketing department. He may be similar to Kinkade, mass producing something that appeals to the lowest common denominator, guzzying it up with forward fruit and soft velvety tannins, and selling it to those who believe in the emperor’s clothes. On the other hand, he or she may be striving to bring out what she regards as the typicity of a particular varietal or terroir. The winemaker may be just be having fun or trying to give full expression to the grapes. In any event, he/she is more likely than not to leave a wimemaker “signature” on the wine, if it is not made in a factory, or, maybe, even if it is made in a factory. Winemaker, Mike Januik, here in Seattle, is a good example of this signature. Onwners vary from small winemakers producing a few hundred cases to huge corporations producing millions of cases. Owners may want to foster the art of winemaking, make an impression, or garner fame and fortune. Wines can be said to have a certain personality or style, or a wine may lack character. I wish more writers, myself included, paid more attention to the personality of a wine rather than reciting the same stale descriptors over and over. Wine can be like a poster or a reprint, or it can be a masterpiece. Finally, the consumer may simply want a buzz or something to wash down food, or may be seeking a peak aesthetic experience. He may not be interested in the wine at all, but rather be obsessed with collecting, impressing, and displaying power.
    Wine criticism could be approached from any of this perspectives. Just because most consumers want a tip on what wine to bring home tonight doesn’t mean wine critics need to limit themselves the old Davis wine discourse, tasting wheel jargon or mere sound bites.

  14. Finest Wine Racks - February 18, 2007

    Awesome, I have never seen or read anyone who could put forth words so eloquent and so understandable.
    If you truly understand the meaning of the wine, than you cannot really criticize the winery.

  15. Benjamin Saltzman - August 9, 2007

    I arrived at this post almost a year after it was originally written. Thank you for putting this predicament so acutely into words. I have been been thinking about the role of the wine critic a lot lately and stumbled upon this post about a month after starting my own new wineblog/wine-review website that attempts to depart from and deconstruct the traditional methods of review, with which we have become so comfortable.
    In light of the above, I am very interested in hearing what you think about our website, “Wine Reviews at Chateau Petrogasm.”
    All my best,
    Benjamin Saltzman

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