Embrace the Wine Critic — They Matter
It’s worth pointing out that the wine critic is not, as too many suggest, some self-interested hanger-on simply pushing subjective opinions any one of us could offer. Rather, the dedicated wine critic is a passionate student of wine who has devoted a healthy part of their lives to understanding wine, celebrating wine and prodding those who produce wine.
It’s true that the wine critic can grow cynical and even stiff from their constant exposure to so many wines that come to them so easily, but we ought not to question their continued passion for their chosen subject nor their continued pursuit of education—their own and others. At their best, wine critics expose us all to new ideas, new interpretations of wine, new winemakers, new wines and new trends. They are largely responsible for asking us to question our preconceived notions about wine even when they are not the originator of new ideas. In this way, the wine critic pushes the industry and the form of wine forward in new directions.
To many, the occupation of wine critic appears privileged. But the responsibility of the wine critic is great. The most thoughtful among them understand the nature of wine better than most. They understand how wine is made, the risks it entails, what drives consumer relationships with wine and, of course, what makes some wines great and others not so good. (Hint: it’s not whether you like it or not).
But the most important thing to understand about the professional wine critic is the dedication they throw at their job; a dedication born and sustained by a great passion for the subject. This passion is life-changing for them.
Robert Parker, Jim Laube, Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Eric Asimov, Matt Kramer, Harvey Steiman, Jamie Goode, James Suckling, Stephen Tanzer, Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin, Allan Meadows, Michael Broadbent, Josh Greene, Stuart Pigott, James Halliday, Steve Heimoff, Gerald Asher, Jerrry Mead, Charles Olken. These and other great wine critics saw their lives changed by a passion for wine and in turn have changed other lives, informed the perspectives of others, and helped shape the meaning of “great” in the realm of wine. And they have helped move the practice of winemaking forward.
I’ve been provoked of late to think about the wine critic after reading Jamie Goode’s “Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others” article appearing in VinePair earlier this month. Easily one of the best wine articles of the year, it is a defense of expertise and could apply to any number of disciplines.
Though I don’t agree with everything Goode has written in his article, his general case for the critic in nearly unassailable in my opinion. In the article, Jamie defends what he does: Reviews and writes about wine. I think in the end it is the job of the critic to defend the role of the critic and how they go about it. I’d love to see more wine critics take up the task, look into what they do and what those have done before them, and offer their view on the necessity (or non-necessity) of the wine critic.
It must be said that the greatest innovation in the world of wine criticism over the past 50 years, and the innovation that has garnered the most criticism, is the 100 point rating system. The critics that have deployed this system have been charged with abrogating their responsibility and catering to the lowest common consumer denominator. This view of the critic and the rating scale should be ignored. It fails to appreciate that the critic who applies a score to their review is simply providing additional information to their written review—which has and remains the heart of their evaluation and critique of wine. More importantly, this view is more or less a backlash to the power to motivate consumers that many critics possess. This backlash doesn’t take into account the fact that so many of the critics that utilize the rating scale alongside their review bring as much experience, passion and discernment to the assigning of a rating as they do their review.
Finally, in between the passion-driven wine critic and the casual consumer, lies the latest innovation in wine criticism: the group.
Vivino, Cellar Tracker, Delectable, among others. Here we can find not only an array of individual reviews of a wine but also a group rating. Bringing the voice of the crowd online and accessible to all is an important innovation and has been offered as a replacement for the individual critic. Of course, it can’t be that as it is an entirely different thing from what the critic does, or should do. The consensus of the group almost always moves to the middle.
The best critics I’ve ever read, in any field, always had a point of view, an opinion of what is worth paying attention to; an ideology. These are the critics that lift criticism to an art form. These folks understand the history of their subject. They know the history of criticism in their field. Sometimes they are looking to advance an aesthetic agenda (or even a political agenda) and I appreciate that effort. For me, the great wine critic is one that not only can describe the components of a wine and declare how it fits into the current aesthetic zeitgeist but also go beyond and think about what the wine means, the viability of the context the wine exists within and the purpose of the wine. You don’t see this too often, but then again Gerald Asher isn’t writing anymore.
But, Jamie Goode is. And you should read what he has to say about the critic and wine criticism.