The Art of Wine Criticism and Robert Hughes
I have in the past defended and lauded the wine critic and wine criticism, be it in the form of reviews or prose. Like most other forms of professional criticism, wine criticism I think is an act of reverence. When it is done at its best, it is a work of art. I'm reminded of the vital role of the critic upon learning of the death of the great art critic, Robert Hughes.
Hughes brought art criticism to the mainstream as the in-house art critic for Time Magazine. However, this was hardly his only gig. Hughes had numerous interests and we learned about them all through his various writings. What distinguished Hughes for many, however, was his take-no-prisoners, agressive form of opinion and criticism. Upon the untimely death of the art world's darling Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hughes wrote a not-so-well received essay entitled, "Requiem for a Featherweight" in which he said of Basquiat: "Far from being the Charlie Parker of SoHo (as his promoters claimed) he became its Jessica Savitch".
"It was a tale of a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art-world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, critics and, not least, himself. This was partly because Basquiat was black; the otherwise monochrome Late American Art Industry felt a need to refresh itself with a touch of the “primitive.” Far better black artists than Basquiat, such as the sculptor Martin Puryear, did not have to contend with this kind of boom-and-bust success. Its very nature forced Basquiat to repeat himself without a chance of development."
Some of you will know the work of Basquiat and disagree with the assessment of Robert Hughes. But what is undeniable is the way Hughes was willing not only to assess the talent of an artist but also the context in which that talent was appreciated and promoted. This willingness by Hughes is part of what made him a great art critic and a tendency that the greatest wine critics also possess.
Wine producers rarely say nice things about wine reviewers and wine critics. And those winemakers that are regularly lauded by wine critics and wine reviewers rarely say anything.
The great wine critics among us are those that not only assess the product, but also assess the context in which they are produced and space in which the products strive to be a part of. They understand the history of wine and its evolution of styles. And when a great wine critic undermines the importance or position of a wine with a poor review or lifts up a wine with a glowing assessment, it is almost always done in the context of well stated warrant for their opinions and principles.
No one is ever required to agree with a wine critics opinions in the same way they are never required to like a wine no matter how much one or another wine critic might like it. But, I would argue that an honest observer is required to appreciate the honesty with which great wine critics approach their subject matter.
Great critics in any field are few and far between. Most simply take account of an object in its momentary state, listing its benefits, drawbacks and state of being. This is so of wine. We are however luckily to have great wine critics among us that possess a deep understanding of wine's history, producers, terroirs, trends and who can place a wine or a producer in larger contexts beyond the bottle. Robert Parker, Jr., Matt Kramer, Dan Berger, Alice Feiring, Gerald Asher and Eric Asimov are among them.
Still, what I think would be very good for wine in general would be a "Robert Hughes of Wine", someone who regularly assesses the world of wine for a very broad audience in a publication that, like Time Magazine, reaches well beyond wine geeks. What a boost this person could give wine. Yet, we don't have such critic here in America. Even the New Yorker, home of some of America's greatest professional critics, has no regular or even semi-regular critic of wine.
Robert Hughes will be missed even as we are missing a popularizer of American wine criticism.