What Wine Criticism Could Be
Ben Ratliff is the Jazz Critic for the New York Times. If you look at his self-written bio at the Times he serves up what I've always thought would be a thrilling approach to wine criticism:
"Music criticism can be both reporting and conjuring. It’s not just opinion. It’s not just an answer to the question of what something sounded like and who played it. It can also address what music might mean with its abstract gestures and tonal masses and shudders and silences, what shape it takes in your memory and understanding, and in some way, what it’s for."
So, what if a probing, introspective, considerate wine critic saw things like Ben sees music criticism. What if a wine critic understood their job this way:
"Wine criticism can be both reporting and conjuring. It's not just opinion. It's not just an answer to the question of what a wine tasted like and who made it. It can also address what wine might mean with its sensual textures, complex (or not so complex) aromas and sources and its historic pedigree, what shape it takes in your memory and understanding, and in some way, what the wine is for."
Ben knows jazz! He knows its history, politics and cultural significance for numerous groups and movements. He is an expert. I think it's this kind of expertise that allows him to pursue his definition of what a music critic can be and do and I think that same kind of experiential, historical and anthropological expertise would be necessary to take on the ambitious task of both reporting and conjuring as a wine critic.
It's true that wine is not jazz. Wine most often has a much more utilitarian purpose. Still, I'm always struck by the idea that wine criticism can be much more than what it tends to be. I've always thought that there is room for probing, intellectual, entertaining and high brow investigations of a single wine, if not many wines.
I couldn't help not thinking about this possibility when I read through Ratliff's review of “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology" in last Sunday's Times. The occasion of the Smithsonian releasing a new anthology gives Ratliff the opportunity to consider the "historiography" of Anthologies. He makes the point that the creation of an anthology is a highly creative process, if not political. And playing out this line of thinking, Ratliff ends his review of this new collection by explaining:
"If ever there was a place for style to follow subject, for form to follow function, this is the place. A jazz anthology has got to have spark and tension and originality. In order for jazz to feel like an open subject, we need more challenging suppositions about it, whether they translate as pluralistic or exclusive."
The complexities, styles, movements, history, controversies and personalities that make up the world of wine convince me that a superbly sympathetic and knowledgeable wine critic could easily use the metaphor of an anthology to explore current trends in wine. Beyond that, a wine critic concerned with both reporting and conjuring might go beyond waiting for the new release to arrive at and set out to explore subjects like cycles, rhythms and seasons and their effect upon us personally through the prism of wines young and old.
Wine has always served to inspire more than just attention to the details of aroma and flavor in drinkers. Wine does lubricate the mind. I think too, that in the hands of a knowledgeable, experienced and thoughtful critic, wine criticism could be something much bolder and much more considerate of the times and places and people that the drink has lubricated. This is asking a lot.
But if you read Ratliff's review of the new Smithsonian jazz anthology, you'll discover the kind of criticism that I think, once employed by a wine writer, would elevate them to a different level the wine critic.
Good post, Tom. I think the wine writer/blogger that most closely approximates what you’re talking about is Fredric Koeppel. He brings together actual tasting notes, historical context, technical data on the wine, and the sensations evoked by the wine and the occasion better than anyone I’m reading on a regular basis.
But, Tom…. we all hear different things when a piece of music is played. One man’s C sharp is another’s A flat…..Who needs Ratliff’s elitist references to “tonal masses and shudders and silences”. He of the ivory tower of musicology! So scientific! So falsely objective! What good is that to the common man? Bah! Hokum. Music is magic! I will not have someone tell me what I hear
I will absolutely second Scott’s comment. I’m a big fan of Mr. Koeppel’s blog, found here:
As for your post Mr. Wark, I also second this. It would be a more entertaining way to received wine information, instead of; “I’m 92 points on that…”
Mr. Ratcliff, like wine critics, does not presume to deliver the facts. He presumes to deliver his impressions, just as wine critics attempt.
Further, that one critics exploration of a piece of music or a bottle of wine (or a collection of either) may seem elitist to one person, yet insightful to another, is more proof that genuine and honestly delivered professional criticism is an exercise in entertaining analysis of a personal sort, not an exercise in objective mathematics as you seem to suggest critics want us to believe.
There are all times of wine criticism and music criticism and literature and movie criticism. Some will appeal to the common man. Some will appeal to those seeking a more high brow or intellectual approach. There is room for both, don’t you think?
Tom, to your last question:
Judging by the frequent visceral response to any public assertion that wine assessment and a metric of quality can be objective and rooted in a pre-determined rubric, the answer is “NO”.
With respect, that last question of mine was rhetorical and can only be answered honestly in the affirmative.
Jazz performance is an interesting comparison with writing about wine. I found a mention of NY jazz critic Ratliff in a discography of the works of Hall Overton, a mid 20th century college professor of music who also recorded abstract jazz compositions of his own, as well as working on assignments like arranging small jazz orchestra shows by Thelonius Monk.
Here are some of the places to read about professor Overton:
and the discography site:
Jazz is one of those endeavors best understood by immersion and improvisation; at least, in my own personal experience. I think the wine writing analogy is a good one. There are many purposes and ways to write about these dissimilar topics. New York was the equivalent of a jazz AVA in the 50s and 60s.
I find this fascinating – and a worthwhile comparison. Coming from a design background, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if wine writers were more like architectural critics, who talk about context and how a building fits in that context, and the development of the architect.
It makes me think that not just wine writers/critics but the system and the public are small minded not to include and demand an understanding of wines in the context of origin, the continuum of wines from a producer etc. This may be internalized now, but wouldn’t it be better if it was made explicit?
Tom: So forgive me if I’m taking this wrong — are you saying that all today’s wine critics save the one that somebody else mentioned in the comments are not writing anything interesting?
No. It’s not a zero sum game. There are critics that just review wines and who do so in only a few words. But they are great at it. I love reading them. There are some that write strident opinion pieces and are great at it and I love reading them. Some writers focus on doing straight reportage. And I like reading the better ones. What you don’t see much of is the heady, analytical, interpretive wine criticism. That’s what I’m thinking about in this post.
I love wine and I can’t deny that I’ve been moved by wine. And there’s much that can be said about wine as a facet of culture. But we risk being unfair to wine — freighting it with too much meaning and removing it too far from its natural, humble place – if we treat it, like music, as art. Hell, sometimes I think we’re being unfair to art by treating it too much like art.
I don’t know who you are, Pete, but I love you already.
Aesthetic criticism is inherently flawed, mainly because it’s one person’s opinion, and so, it’s seemingly futile to try to pin down the best way for that person to impart his or her personal opinion.
When it comes to wine specifically, aesthetic criticism exceeds being simply flawed because, as you say, “freighting it with too much meaning…”
Scott & Jeff, thank you for the kind endorsement.
Despite the fact that I have been writing about, reviewing and critiquing wine for almost 27 years, I agree with Pete that we can impose too much meaning or significance to wine, which is, after all, a beverage that begins as an agricultural product. On the other hand, few beverages can attain the character and nobility that the greatest wines sometimes achieve, and to describe or evaluate or place those wines in a historical, geographical and cultural context each writer must come up with his or her own method in terms of intent, vocabulary, sentiment and taxonomy. I do not agree, Thomas, that because aesthetic criticism is one person’s opinion that it is inherently flawed; I mean that’s not a flaw, just the nature of the endeavor that must be clearly understood by readers. The criticism is best, as Mr. Wark addresses in his assessment of Ben Ratliff’s writing on jazz, which builds on years of knowledge, experience, well-developed intuition, expressive skills and, dare I say, love. These virtues form the basis of true objectivity in the critic and the trust of his or her readers.
As a jazz lover before I waa a wine lover, I would disagree, at least a little, with my friend Mr. Wark.
Jazz is ethereal. It touches one’s soul. It transports us and carries us to new places. There are wines that do that for me, but they are few and far between. Listening to Monk or Miles or Trane requires that I close my eyes, let my mind go free and live within the music. Even the best wines in my experience have never held my attention the way Monk does when he plays Nellie My Dear or Diz plays Night in Tunisia.
I like wine. Hell, I love wine. I have made a decent living for years writing about wine, but the writings of Fred Koeppel and Gerald Asher, as good as they are, do not delve as far into the heart of the “art” as a good critique of a great solo or a brilliant building.
And, by the way, we are talking about the best writing about the best examples of those other art forms. I do think Mr. Asher has come as close to the standard you have enunciated as anyone, and he did it by writing not about wines, per se, but about how the wine or wines of a given producer came to be.
We could use more of that kind of writing, but it is a very different kind of writing from that which most wine critics deliver. Among the obvious reasons are that I and my brethren review thousands and thousands of wines per year. I dont think that I or Steve Heimoff or Jim Laube or Antonio Galloni are going to satisfy your desires, Tom. Sadly, you are asking for something that wine criticism can rarely deliver.
Wonder of wonder: we agree, except that the title of the Monk tune is Ruby My Dear…and take it from this pianist; Monk is a bitch to replicate!
The fact that the nature of the endeavor of aesthetic criticism is one person’s opinion is exactly why I believe it is a flawed endeavor. The flaw is not in the opinion; it’s in the value being placed on that opinion.
Having said that, I know that you know how much I value knowledge and experience, without which I consider an opinion to be mainly noise, whether or not the writing is good, although good writing is a plus.
Sorry, a slip: of course, your name is Fredric.
It’s nice to see the jazz appreciation, and the jazz critic impressions. One of the things I think good critics of wine might do is to go beyond the judge organoleptic analysis scoring system; that is, I believe some wine writers actually consume the wine they write about. It is difficult to capture much more than Mr. Olken has in his praise of jazz; I would add, as a composer, that playing the genre is a wonderful experience, as well. I think Tom W has made a worthy juxtaposition of these two fields, which often require both intellect and creativity.
Charlie and John,
Would you agree that a music critic who has absolutely no grounding (whether study or experience) in music wouldn’t make much sense?
I mean, if you are going to criticize Monk’s music, you might need to know the difference between a triad and a 13th, and not just the fingering, but also the tonality of them.
You see, John, it does take technical knowledge to really “know” something.
I’ve always thought that a wine critic that could step up and provide real in depth, culturally-relevant, insightful and probing criticism must AT least have a strong grounding in the technology of wine, not to mention significant tasting experience.
However, I also assume they would need other tools too. Such as an understanding of cultural and social trends over time, an appreciation for the various movements that have overtaken other artistic endeavors, a deep historical understanding of wine, an understanding of the marketplace and business of wine.
That’s not to say that a critic that focuses primarily on evaluating the taste, aroma, texture and value of a wine isn’t getting a job done. In fact, this kind of criticism probably has vastly more general value than the kind of wine criticism I’m imagining. However, to carry out this kind of criticism, one needn’t have those qualities I list above.
I fully agree with your final points.
It’s your last paragraph that the market (consumers) seem to accept more so than the descriptions set forth in your first and second paragraphs, which is not surprising. I view it as an extension of the anti-intellectualism thread that runs through American culture: to know more is to invite scorn.
I suppose the trick is to know more but find a way not to make it obvious…and write well, too.
I’m not sure this desire for utilitarian wine reviews is primarily a matter of anti-intellectualism, which I recognize to as a thread running through our culture. I think its more a matter of the vast majority of people not caring all that much about wine, while there is a sector of the marketplace that simply wants guidance on what to buy and the utilitarian review provides that.
I think there is a small niche for the kind of probing, analytical wine critic I”m thinking about, just as I’m sure the niche for the kind of analytical jazz critic that Ratliff often exhibits is far smaller than the readership of the Times.
Who might subsidize this kind of searching, analytical wine criticism to put it in from of a wider audience, I wonder?
“Who might subsidize this kind of searching, analytical wine criticism to put it in from of a wider audience, I wonder?”
Perhaps, but even if the HP did run these kinds of piece, I don’t think it’s the right place for them.
I think they belong in World of Fine Wine to begin with.
thank you. i love to read this type of information posts. again thank you…
I was kidding with Huffpo. Just thinking about how much (little) that outfit values good writing.
Yes, World of Fine Wine is a candidate, but I wonder over the size of its audience and its viability.
Oh, kiralik, no one will bite.
I agree that there are varieties of understanding, as Tom P and Tom W mention. I also think, compositionally, that playing a 9th, 10th, and getting to the forms of 11th, all fit over a basic major triad, and if the complete triad is played, if, indeed, the key is major, nears the threshold of what distinguishes jazz from more ordinary harmonic theory. In a way, jazz was born, like, for example, cubist art or pointillism, because classical forms were outmoded in the face of many kinds of modern milieu. There was much brash criticism of jazz as a genre early its development, as a bankrupt and too ordinary attempt to transcend norms.
Yet, the musical medium expanded and accepted jazz as a valid metaphor; and modern enologic and viticultural techniques added much to the millenias’ corpus of knowledge of how to produce good wine.
One of the interesting things to do, occasionally, is to read some of the biographical information about the best winemakers; and, evidently, wine critics. There is character illuminating winemaking styles. I think the perspicacious sort of writing Ratliff does can have a mirror image in the wine writing world. But I think Mr. Olken’s simple summary about what makes jazz special condenses some of the genius necessary into a few short sentences very well.
this is an interesting take on wine critquing. You brought up a great POV that i belive could really be applied to almost any service or niche.
Can you send me your mailing address? We have a wine aerator that we’d like to send you to review.