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."
H L MENCKEN
“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.”
THE DIFFRENCE BETWEEN WINE & MOVIE CRITICS
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.
THE LIMITED ROLE OF THE WINE CRITIC
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.
THE MEANING OF THE WINE
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.
WINE CRITICISM AS LITERATURE
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.