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.