Heady discussions about the role of the wine critic may strike many people as navel gazing. Yet one issue has bubbled up on social media and blogs repeatedly in the last few months: Should wine critics allow their personal preferences to color their critical views? Or should they remain neutral on questions regarding a wine’s style, regardless of how they feel about it?
I find this issue fascinating, and before you dismiss me as one more self-absorbed wine writer, let me say that I think these are important questions for anybody who cares about wine. How you answer them shapes how you think about wine, your attitude toward its aesthetic potential and, indeed, what you expect from critics.
Let me not keep you in suspense: I believe a critic’s point of view is crucial. My job is not to act as an impartial arbiter of bottles, but as a guide, leading readers on a quest to explore what is most beautiful, fascinating, distinctive, curious, delicious and moving in wine. I hope to inspire curiosity, promote ease and comfort with wine, and provoke discussion and debate. Ultimately my aim is to eliminate the need for wine critics (at least in a utopian sense) by helping consumers become their own best authorities.
This requires me to view various styles of wine critically, which, emphatically, is not a question of simply promoting what I like and attacking what I dislike. In a recent column on Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons from the 2011 vintage, I made it clear that I was not a fan of opulent, powerfully fruity blockbuster wines, an opinion based on personal experience and aesthetic ideals. I would like to think it was well reasoned and thoughtful, and that I was exercising critical judgment rather than simply lashing out at something I personally don’t enjoy.
I wouldn’t expect everybody to agree with me, least of all other wine critics. They may argue strongly in favor of a style that I find repugnant, and back it up with their own set of reasons. That, too, is critical judgment.
Other wine writers, especially those from Wine Spectator, the popular consumer publication, think differently. They believe that wine critics must overcome their personal preferences and assess quality, regardless of style.
“Wine writers should curate, not pontificate,” James Molesworth, a Spectator critic, tweeted last fall. He amplified his views in an email to me.
“I feel it’s important to subjugate personal preference,” he wrote. “One can never eliminate it, but it should not be the determining factor. We, as wine critics, need to be able to identify, appreciate and describe a wide range of styles for consumers, and then identify the wines that are good and bad examples of their respective styles. Based on this approach, the consumer can then make a truly informed decision based on their own tastes.”
I understand his position, but I believe critics must make stylistic judgments as well, based on ideas of what fundamentally constitutes beauty, balance and interest in wine, rather than whimsical likes and dislikes. The idea is to present a worldview of wine, rather than a set of options. The public can then accept or reject a well-thought-out set of opinions, rather than defining quality itself with its buying decisions. Yet a significant number of people in and out of the wine trade believe that great sales legitimize any style.
Justification by popularity may make sense as a business plan, but the aesthetic consequences are appalling. In what other field would critics temper their judgment by examining commercial sales? That people buy millions of fast-food burgers every day would hardly soften a food critic’s judgment of their quality and value.
I call this wine populism. As in political populism, it’s appealing to people’s prejudices rather than debating merits straightforwardly. Does it make me a snob to suggest that wines like Yellow Tail, an Australian brand that produces chardonnay and shiraz by the millions of cases annually, do not belong in the same category as small-production wines from historic vineyards? Most Yellow Tail drinkers will continue to enjoy it regardless of what I say, and that’s fine. But a tiny percentage may find greater pleasure by being inspired to try something new and different. If you like plush, opulent Napa cabernets, I’ll never tell you that you shouldn’t. But I will try to explain why I prefer leaner, more restrained Napa cabernets. Maybe you’ll like one, too.
A critic’s job is not to validate the choices of consumers. If anything, it’s to make them question their assumptions. You may drink a wine without ever wondering what it is you like about it. Such uncritical drinking is fine; nobody is obliged to give wine a second thought. But if a negative assessment of that style of wine actually causes you to consider all the things you like about it, your experience of that wine may be broader and deeper.
Consumers may find wine intimidating. I believe critics can calm fears by avoiding jargon, perfectionism and the suggestion that wine exists on some sort of elevated plane, available only to those who have specialized knowledge.
Yet reassurance should never come at the expense of pandering. People don’t need the sort of hand-holding suggested by terms like “starter wines,” “gateway wines” and other industry rationalizations for fifth-rate products. Nor do they need critics to refrain from strong points of view, provided they are based on thoughtful, well-reasoned opinions rather than grudges or unexplored motivations.
The notion of “objectivity” seems attractive, connoting freedom from bias. But in writing about wine, it’s ultimately a sham. It’s not possible to eliminate all matters of context, personal experience, extrapolation and aesthetic ideals. These are, in fact, what constitute judgment. What’s wanted in the end is not some sort of imagined neutrality, but fairness, openness and honesty.