A Fascinating Cri De Coeur Over Wine
I've been wondering about this really fascinating question ever since reading this comment by MW Tim Atkin, made at the opening of Fine Wine 2010 in Spain in April and published in Wine Business Monthly:
"Critics who judge wines without visiting the country they come from are insane and insulting….Our interpretation of fine wine regions and grape
varieties has barely evolved in the last 100 years despite the increase
in quality worldwide….The journalists who do write about wine
should base their opinions on research, not just samples. Visit the
regions: it’s not just about the liquid in the bottle.”
That's pretty forceful opinion ("insane and insulting")
To round out his meaning, Atkin stood before the audience of wine folk and said:
"What worries me about wine writers today is the absence of context," Atkin said. "The idea that a wine remembers where it comes from is all but overlooked, particularly by American journalists. They think it's enough to taste the wine in the bottle. I couldn't believe that Robert Parker only made his first trip to Spain last year."
What I'm most interested in, in all this, is the fact that while we know a wine critic CAN judge a wine without ever having set foot in the country or region in which it was produced and while we know that a wine critic CAN do a very good and useful and erudite job of critiquing the wine, and while we know Mr. Atkins knows this is all possible, he nonetheless stands in front of many very knowledgeable wine industry people and tells them the opposite. In fact, he tells them that to do the things we know for a fact CAN be done and done well is to be to "both insane and insulting".
THAT is really interesting!
I don't know Tim Atkin, but after having read that, I sure want to. I love those folks willing to stand up and make an emotional plea for an industry-wide return to a pre-globalism mindset. I love a powerful call for magical provincialism that feels good. And the fact that Atkin is willing to do this by accusing the most important wine critique the world has ever known, the person who delivered wine critics from their own special corner of oblivion, is particularly bold and revealing of a solid and righteous constitution.
I definitely want to meet Tim Atkin.
One of the reasons I want to meet him is to get a better sense of what is at the bottom his cri de coeur. It has to be something more than the now passe anti-American theme that has run through circles of English wine professionalism for the past 30 years and which has of late been piggy backed on anti-globalism themes. And it has to be more than a vestige of English paternalism that has always been a part of the wine trade on that Island that really did invent the modern wine trade.
A colleague of mine suggests that Atkin's emotional outburst is really just a follow up to Jonathan Nossiter's similar outburst in "Mondovino", which itself was a completely uninformed piece of media that mistook the prominent and distorting qualities of the unique American Three Tier System for a problem with Parker's power.
Another colleague suggested that Atkin and other English writers that remember the good old days, as well as a number of second and third tier wine critics here in the U.S., all detest and envy Robert Parker for being, really, the only important tastemaker on the planet and that it is from this situation that much of the Atkins-like analysis and outcry originates.
I'm not sure about that.
Here's what I'm taking away from this right now: It's time for those who really LOVE and I mean LOVE the diversity of wine across the globe, and who are willing to pursue the small and artisan wines as well as pay for them, stop worrying about a globalized taste and about investment wines that live or die on one critic's voice. These wines and these markets exist, they please many people, they fill a need,and they are real. Embrace them and understand them. They are a legitimate part of the global wine industry.
Further, admit that one man, because of his ingenuity, skill, forcefulness and hard work, is the most important wine critic in the world and will be so for quite some time.
Further, admit that in a world of instant communication, with access to endless amounts of information, and where the ability to access culture remotely really does exist, it looks a little silly—or at least "fantastical"—to suggest a wine can't be judged or critiqued unless we have walked its vineyard and surrounding environs. This sounds more like trying to discredit folks for the sake of discrediting them, than any particular pursuit of truth.
Further, appreciate that wine educators and professionals and media need to understand that we all have different audiences, different influence, and different purposes. When we insist that an entire industry come around to our way of thinking where taste and terroir is concerned, we only come off looking like whiners.
Finally, rejoice in the fact that despite all this talk of globalization and tastemaking critics of extraordinary power, never have wine lovers and the wine trade lived in a time where the diversity of wine and wine styles was so great. The majority of juice may be bland and placeless, but the majority of wines are produced from small, idiosyncratic producers from across the globe.