The Makings of a Great Wine Critic Are in the Past
It was Antonio Galloni’s announced departure from the Wine Advocate yesterday that raised the question, “what makes for a good wine critic”? The question arose from the fact that with Mr. Galloni’s departure, the venerable Wine Advocate again needs a new California Reviewer.
I offered the following recipe for a good wine critic when I responded to a colleague and told him that the Wine Advocate is looking for “someone who knows CA up and down as well as its history, someone who can taste a huge number of wines annually, someone who can write really well and someone with the kind of gravitas that will result in respect from the industry and consumers.”
The absolutely critical ingredient in this recipe is easy to pass over: Someone that knows the history of California wine.
The possession of historical knowledge may in fact be the most important ingredient informing great wine critics. Without knowledge of what was, it is simply impossible to put any wine—no matter what its aromatic or flavor characteristics—in its proper context, which is the foundation for any good critical review of literature, music, film, architecture, art…and wine.
In a recent piece about this very subject, wine writer, wine blogger, wine critic and wine historian Steve Heimoff made this very point about the impact of a proper historical education:
“I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine.”
Today’s average reviews of wine don’t often allude to a context or perspective that falls outside simple categorization and delves into the “what”, “where”, “when” and “why” that only a historical view can offer. The format of today’s wine reviews tend to be truncated and bound to strings of flavor descriptors. This is useful to many—to most readers really. But it’s not the kind of serious criticism (or reviewing) that gives criticism a good name.
A Napa Valley French Colombard might deliver refreshing notes of lemon zest, pear and lime notes with moderately crisp acidity a slight finish. One could write this and be done with it. But the critic hasn’t really touched the important part of the surface. What would make this rare wine a more enticing choice is the knowledge that Napa Valley French Colombard is indeed a rare wine when at an earlier time it was not rare at all but a fairly commonly planted variety in the Valley’s vineyards, played a key role in producing wines that helped put the Valley on the map but was supplanted in the region’s vineyards by issues of changing American tastes, grape prices and more. No matter what the critic wrote in the service of describing the aroma and flavor of this wine would likely help move it off the shelf as quickly in comparison to writing about what makes the wine a rarity today.
Context and perspective is everything in the realm of criticism. Nothing matters more if the goal is to make a contribution to the genre, be it literary, art, film, music, architecture, food or wine criticism.
The art of wine criticism seems to me to be viewed as nothing of the sort today. Today, wine reviews and the wine critic are understood by most as simple utilitarian tools wielded by jotters, not writers.
And today, “Short and Sweet” is the order of the day, an approach that serves a deficit in attention skills of the average person. A short, sweet, review laden with descriptors seems to be what folks want and need today. History is neither short, nor sweet. Still, I believe that in the realm of wine reviews, the needs of today’s “move along” generation can be satisfied and at the same time perspective and context can be delivered. It’s harder to do and requires an excellent kind of pen. But I think it can be done. What prevents an 90-word wine review from including allusions to or explicit reference to the context of a wine?
“Derivative of that style of wine that once informed early Napa winemakers….”
“Set at the bleeding edge of a relatively newer trend of letting fruit talk first…”
“Harkening back to his education under the great Sonoma Winemaker Mr. Smith, this Pinot…”
“A throwback to when Napa Cabernet merely hoped to be understood in a Right Bank Bordeaux context…”
Just a little history, just a modicum of perspective, merely a trifle of context can produce a wine review of a different sort that I think today’s readers of wine reviews deserve more than ever. It’s knowledge of history that is required to accomplish this. And Steve Heimoff is right. It is his understanding of the history of California wine that serves as the most critical foundation for his work as a critic. It will be the critical element informing the new California critic for the Wine Advocate if that person-to-be-named-later is great or seeks to be great.