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The role
of the critic
an untimely assessment

By |  October 1 2015

The unwieldy diversity and confusing complexity of wines available to consumers compounds rather than alleviates a cacophony of variously well- or ill-informed, catholic or partisan voices, raising bewilderment or disorientation to another power. The surfeit of signals is scintillating-a boon, even, provided one can filter out noise. But whence the filter? The most effective, ultimately most user-friendly critic or journalist will be one who can orient his or her reader in the world of wine through a synoptic, perspicuous presentation, so as to stop consumers’ heads from spinning.

It’s often averred that the sheer diversity and abundance of wine preclude any critic or serious student remaining a generalist with useful opinions about and/or an educated taste for all manner of wines, and that the future properly lies with writers who specialize in one or two classic regions or a few related wine types. But precisely on account of the easily bewildering array of choices available and of wine lovers’ desire to compare among, not just within, categories, generalists are essential. (1) Many critics-luckily for their marketability, as well as for wine lovers-combine wide familiarity and a synoptic view with specialized, intimate, and topical knowledge of selected wine regions or styles.

The late US merchant and (albeit reluctant) philosopher of wine Joe Dressner admonished enophiles: "[Don’t] get sucked into th[e] whirlwind of tasting frenzy, thinking that [you] are somehow coming closer to learning something about wine. Why not just sit down with one great bottle. Learn everything you can about the region and producer. Go visit them on a vacation. Immerse yourself. Learn to enjoy wine." (2) There’s much to be said for this advice. And it’s heartening to see that-quite aside from the proliferation of specialized wine blogs, journals, and websites-the genre of extended profiles of individual wines is enjoying a flowering. An adept critic’s comprehensive reports stuffed with tasting notes can, if properly executed, serve as a map of the territory in question; though to be sure, this can also challenge a reader’s attention span. Jacqueline Friedrich, in her new books on the Loire, has given a name to accounts that follow a wine’s evolution for hours and days: "slow tasting notes." (3) In demanding slow reading as well, such notes defy cyber trends, perhaps as an antidote to the frenzy and disorganization that can too often result from well-meaning attempts by budding wine enthusiasts to acquire and verbalize as many disparate taste impressions as possible, rather than to adopt a plan and, as Terry Theise likes to put it, "hone one’s palate." (4)

Exposure

Consider our interaction with the Internet every time we employ a search engine-that portal through which humans today acquire so much of their information, including about wine. "Tell me more about yourself, and I’ll tell you where you want to go," is the implicit assumption underlying a system that-in its Web 3.0 metamorphosis-threatens to spin for each of us a bright and cozy cocoon from which we may never break free, nor wish to. Knowing our likes and dislikes and the primitive signs-the search words and clicks-through which we express or reveal them has become a means for screening-out cognitive or aesthetic dissonance. (5)

Happily, love of adventure, exploration, and novelty has not been killed off entirely by old and new media’s swaddling and sequestering. There is still business to be done in challenging and expanding tastes and opinions, and a special sort of satisfaction to be derived by consumers (of information or wine) from persevering in the face of initial incomprehension, unease, or disconcertment. A critic must be able to convince his or her readers not only to indulge in experiences they might otherwise be disinclined to have but also, on occasion, to take a second look at the object in question (vinous or otherwise) on account of what he or she wrote about it, thereby to expand their tastes. Think, for example, of how one can be influenced by somebody else’s enthusiasm for a piece of music, which one in consequence comes to appreciate (an analogy to be revisited below). (6)

The relationship between a critic (or for that matter, a serious wine merchant, as opposed to a mere order-taker) and his or her audience is akin to that between a wine grower and his or her terroir, in that each tests the other. (7)

A critic has failed if the audience does not take pleasure in most of the wines he or she recommends. But a consumer who never ventures beyond his or her comfort zone is sadly neglecting pleasurable opportunities, as well as the exercise of his or her imagination, and a good critic combats that neglect, challenging in the course of guiding his or her readers’ preferences. It’s not enough for a wine lover to trust the judgments of a critic or merchant because these are in agreement with his or her own. The consumer sometimes needs to ask about the critic and a given wine, "What is it that Schildknecht sees in this?" and to attempt a recalibration or revaluation while retaining the self-confidence ultimately to disagree with even the most renowned or influential critic.

These circumstances favor the generalist (as characterized earlier) who can enthusiastically and knowledgeably recommend wines from a wide and diverse range of growing regions, grapes, and styles. The degree to which the Internet or new media offer the platform or mechanism by which these recommendations are disseminated primarily influences the degree to which and speed with which they reach their intended audience. The singularly successful Gary Vaynerchuk aptly fits this general model in his dual role as critic and merchant, waxing convincingly enthusiastic (or critical) about the widest possible range of wines. But it is scarcely coincidental that the increased importance of the Internet has brought a corresponding risk of showmanship trumping seriousness, and of Balkanization or "echo chamber" effects inimical in the aim of exposing an audience to variety and to challenge, whether in wine or other arts or ideas. And these are tendencies against which a responsible critic must guard, for the sake of wine lovers and wine itself.

Information

The critic or journalist has a responsibility to inform. In what’s called (usually without irony) the "information age," one might expect such responsibility to be enhanced. If so, one would be disappointed. "Challenged" would be a better description-and perhaps that is too mild a word- for what’s happened to the work of the journalist and the sense of responsibility that accrues to it.

Just as in news coverage generally, much of what one reads and hears about wine today is parasitic on the field work and direct experience of a diminishing number of often beleaguered individuals. To be sure, armed only with a corkscrew, a glass, and a small subset of the world’s wines, it is possible to offer insights and generate a market for one’s recommendations. And writing about wine writers or metacriticism is not without occasional merit. (Perhaps this piece is a case in point.) Still, the travel and tasting experience required to achieve genuine insights and topicality in matters vinous has a high price, not least in an era when some of the world’s iconic, benchmark wines-most notably those of Bordeaux’s classified châteaux-are now beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. (8) This is not to belittle the wonderful insights that can be gleaned from blogs of tasters who- whether due to their connections to the trade, their domestic proximity to the wine regions about which they write, or their independent financial means-are able to report from the field. But these are still the minority among today’s vast, often cacophonous chorus of would-be wine authorities.

No sensory experience authenticates itself. Questions of authenticity in wine require that reference be made to the person who grew it, the methods used in its production, the place where it grew, or other factors extrinsic to the sensory experience of what’s in the glass. It’s true that good human interest and terroir tales can enhance the enjoyment of wine, however tenuous may be their ties to reality. But there is arguably a deep connection between passionate pursuit by increasingly many consumers of artisanal and ostensibly authentic wines (and food)-a pursuit demanding that people literally share wine and break bread together-and a craving for well-informed, reality-based opinion articulately and entertainingly expressed. To substitute a diet of Twitter, tabloids, talk shows, and social-networking sites for literature, journalism, and warm-bodied intellectual engagement is to risk being sucked into a vicious downward spiral of selfreference, short-sightedness, and stupor. If the medium truly is the message, heaven help us! And even if it’s not, an unprecedented potential for message distortion goes hand in hand with the disseminative power of today’s new media.

The explosive growth of "free information" via the Web may harbor the seeds of self-debasement, because what we really have-and not merely in the realm of wine-is an explosion of statements alleged to have informational value. Their authenticity, like that of a wine, can only be established, as it were, from the outside, so that the more factoids accumulate, the more in need consumers will be of some means to distinguish what’s genuine, and the more reliant they will be on those sources and critics-whose numbers may or may not increase-who are able and willing to do the homework and field work while remaining free from conflicting interests. Granted, when one considers the degree of deception and of pathetic and willful ignorance that nowadays prevails in public discourse on matters that most of us consider far more important than the taste or choice of wine, one is forced to recognize that waiting for Nature (who always bats last) to administer her falsifying censure can seem like waiting for Godot. But precisely for that reason, those who believe in fact-finding and self-criticism in the service of veracity can ill afford to be timid and must scrutinize not only message but messenger (a scrutiny not to be confused with ad hominem circumvention of argument).

Assessment

Wine critics’ qualitative assessments are the focus of greatest consumer attention, and given that one seeks out critics as guides to choice, this situation is doubtless inevitable. (That this attention should predominantly take the form of an obsession with scores, perhaps less so.) Without getting bogged down in yet one more discussion of "scoring wines," suffice it to suggest that as long as critics are going to use numerical grades at all, these might as well be used to advocate (or caution), as a way of succinctly and emphatically pointing to a given wine and saying, "You ought to try this; wait until you do-it’s this good" and then referring readers to the verbal account of how distinctly delicious it tastes, which the Arabic numerals in question serve merely to underscore. (Of course, readers might benefit, too, from a critic’s informed speculation about how the wine came to taste as it does, what uses at table might specially suit it, or what future in bottle awaits it.) Critics might as well not just accept but relish the fact that these scores are going to be used by consumers to satisfy their wish to compare wine quality across styles, grapes, appellations, and so on. Anyway, attempts to specify classes of comparison or peer groups run afoul of the countless classes to which any wine belongs. And to explicitly indicate the class one deems relevant would-if possible at all-demand an incapacitatingly bewildering indexing of scores.

Even granting scores this much significance as shorthand proxies and means of ranking preference, they are not only parasitic on, and subservient to, a critic’s verbal description and recommendation but are also meaningful only when indexed to the critic in question. Most seasoned wine lovers probably accept this degree of relativity as a matter of course. But one is still constantly amazed by intelligent individuals who have obviously not thought much about the matter and imagine that "this wine scored 90 points" means it met some widely accepted wine-industry standard. If these people pay much attention at all, though, to the vast and burgeoning number of online sources for wine ratings, then they are soon going to be disabused of that impression. They’re going to realize that eight, or ten, or 100 different publishers of tasting notes are not subscribing to the same standards or tapping into a common pool of points. Furthermore, scoring practices can change over time. And not only can "grade inflation" generate an unintended impression on the part of a critic; it also erodes over time the number of distinctions (barring decimals!) that can be made in one’s ranking. After all, grade inflation has an upper bound (100 = "perfect") and although 100, or perhaps even 50, pigeon holes might be so generous as to challenge our ability to distinguish preferences in practice, for a scant dozen or so pigeon holes to remain in play would surely present the critic with no less a challenge.

Indexing returns us to the theme of mutual testing mooted above in trying to explain the critic’s duty to expose wine lovers to unfamiliar and perhaps initially strange vinous experiences. It’s natural to calibrate one’s appreciation of a critic based on the degree to which one finds oneself liking the wines that critic recommends. Yet one ought to be willing of a critic’s assessment. A critic arguably maximizes both his or her usefulness to a general readership and the extent of guidance and insight offered that readership, to the degree that he or she remains stylistically catholic, sympathetic to myriad sorts of wine and respectful of craftsmanship in the service of a wide range of aesthetic ends.

There are some terrific tasters and writers out there who, in their work as critics, exhibit relatively narrow stylistic affinities and/or who essentially treat a litany of vinous characteristics (which could include alcohol higher than x%; evidence of new wood; penetratingly high acidity; aromas traceable to specific yeast cultures; raisined fruit flavors; herbacity; bacteriological influences; and oxidation in wines of types that "aren’t supposed to" exhibit it…) as touchstones for disqualifying a wine from recommendation. Such critics will serve well only those tasters who share their stylistic predilections and/or bêtes noires and won’t very effectively advocate for the exploration by wine lovers of myriad styles, or at least of styles with which those readers might be unfamiliar. After all, if you as a wine lover read a critic casting aspersions on the wines you are enjoying, the natural tendency will be to look elsewhere for guidance rather than to say, "I ought to try some of the wines on which this critic’s so bullish."

The catholic generalist and his or her open-minded audience are apt to continue to find point scores a useful tool for indicating quality across a wide stylistic range and encouraging vinous exploration beyond familiar bounds. But to convey some sense of a wine’s style can only-however imperfectly-be done in words (or perhaps in a parallel artistic medium). Yet words can, in their own frustrating way, inhibit our recollection or recommendation of and insight into the taste of wine. (9) In the same thoughtful piece already once quoted, Joe Dressner wisely warned of the danger lest "we taste and drink [a] wine [not] for what it is, but for what it approximates in wine tasting lexicon." (And why not candidly confess that in many instances we could substitute "jargon" for the last word of that admonition?) The critic should use all of the imperfect tools at his or her disposal, while exercising- and sharing with readers-the self-criticism appropriate to putting the uses and limitations of those tools into context. Sometimes, a taster’s reaction to a certain wine or style of wine is, "I just don’t get it." One can draw analogies here to music appreciation (provided one doesn’t push them too far). Many of us will have had the experience that a wine or type of wine that initially didn’t speak to us-or perhaps even resembled William James’s proverbial "buzzing, blooming confusion" (10) -later came to make sense to us and, in the process, "became" delicious. No attempt will be made here (and the author is ill equipped) to explore or explain the psychological and aesthetic issues involved in discussing this sort of experience. But suffice it to say that a critic who is catholic in his or her appreciations stands a better chance of fulfilling what pianist and philosopher of music Charles Rosen has described as "the task of the critic": "to tell people the way to listen to music so that they get more pleasure out of it through enhanced understanding. [Because b]asically, there is no difference between understanding and pleasure. If you listen to a piece of music and it makes sense to you, then you generally like it." (11) This "making sense of" brings together all of the elements previously highlighted: the means of exposing consumers to different sorts of wines; of orienting them amid multiplicity; offering insightful information; and, by assessing quality, insisting on the fact that some wines are simply better (not just better for this or that purpose) than others.

Crowds and clouds

The Internet allows us to conceive of the role of criticism assigned to other than a human agent. Can the wisdom of crowds or the analysis-eluding coordination of clouds point the way toward a world in which the role of individual critics is assumed-and even more effectively fulfilled-by the accumulation of myriad impressions and assertions?

Before attempting to address that question, it’s important to distinguish it from a categorically different one with which it is often confused-namely, whether, or to what degree, powerful individual wine critics will be replaced by legions of people empowered by the Internet, each perhaps commanding authority or allegiance among a range of consumers. That question is certainly intriguing, even worth addressing, if ultimately inscrutably hostage to chance and history. The question addressed here as one of crowds and clouds is rather whether, in future, wine lovers may have no need to scrutinize the opinion of any specific human agent but will instead consider whatever consensus has precipitated from the accumulation of individual opinions. The prospects for this are dim even on conceptual and epistemological-not to mention psychological and methodological-grounds. Given that our language often seems ill equipped to pin aromas, flavors, and textures, not to mention styles, to a conceptual corkboard, what is one to make of the swarm of words generated by dozens or hundreds of tasting notes? One could certainly pick out the common adjectives. But the net result will almost surely prove far less evocative than the note crafted by any individual. Indeed, to the extent that assertions or adjectival assignments made by different people regarding one and the same wine conflict, the net result would appear muddied gray or nugatory. Comparing the differing opinions of several critics seriatim can be insightful, but that is not the same as imagining that one can distill a consensus from myriad opinions, leaving aside whether they are those of professionals or are well informed. Detach a tasting note from the context of point of view and it loses the lion’s share of its significance. And only individuals (or by extension, what they author) can have a point of view, not to mention be possessed of palates.

As for scores, that to invest them with significance demands reference to tasting notes and indexing to agents has already been pointed out. Granted that scoring wine at all risks implying some sort of common denominator and an assumption that, if insisted on too explicitly or taken to extreme, reduces to absurdity. The further presumption that a common denominator could be posited that would make sense of averaging quantified assessments from myriad tasters is like imagining that averaging the distance between two points as expressed in kilometers, miles, leagues, and furlongs results in a meaningful-much less, useful-measurement. When it comes to accumulating information over and beyond sensory testimony or ratings, the tempting wiki-faith that the Web’s welter of information will cohere and congeal into ever more useful and accurate tales has yet to acquire a theoretical underpinning even as plausible as that underlying a fundamentalist account of the market’s hidden hand. What’s more-as Steve Jones has wryly but profoundly argued-the accretion of "hits," citations, and "impact factors" on which Web-based significance (and academic career-building) depends are no way to test theories or gauge scientific significance and would, for example, practically have guaranteed that "[i]n today’s spuriously objective world, almost nobody would have bothered to read the [seminal] Darwin-Wallace paper, and it might have been lost to history," whereas Darwin’s "entirely erroneous theories about inheritance" defended in the-then as now-dominantly cited journal Nature would have assured that today "he would be damned for being one of the many biologists [t]o have been entirely wrong about genetics, rather than feted for being the one who was almost entirely right about how life emerged." (12)

What’s more-as one discovers not simply from a few unfortunate experiences with wine forums but in the wider functioning of search engines and of Web interactions-it is devilishly difficult to prevent consensus or statistical aggregation from being distorted or manipulated, such as when fake ratings are submitted on behalf of an interested party, or in the pursuit of creating an illusionary consensus on matters of taste, while in reality intended to serve some personal, commercial, or political end. (13)

Just as the background, personality traits, and methods of wine growers are not only interesting in themselves but help us understand and appreciate their wines, so the context in which, and principles by which, the journalist or critic operates are crucial to the reader’s comprehension, appreciation, and assessment of that story. Absent the individual agent as author, and there is no means to interpret the resulting consensus. And in a world in which more and more "facts" and "opinions" are accessible via the Internet virtually cost-free, with solid facts and well-grounded opinions correspondingly increasingly difficult to recognize, much less assess, a clear understanding of an author’s background and principles has never been more important. In gradual recognition of this, ferreting out possible conflicts of interest and sensing possible biases will have to become routine for serious wine lovers, as well as for the critics they will be scrutinizing. (14)

We’re stuck with individual human agents as critics- though how few or many, and with how much influence, only time can tell. We’re stuck with the limitations of language and quite possibly with scores (though perhaps not with how they are at present popularly misunderstood or overemphasized). And fortunately, it’s hard to foresee a world in which beverages rendered from other than grapes are marketed as "the same" wines we enjoy today, or in which the taste of any one of them-however rare it might be now -can be replicated. (15) Were that to happen, not just wine critics but terroir, vintage, and Vitis vinifera would become, whether gloriously or ignominiously, irrelevant.

Notes

1. See also my "Generalists and Specialists," WFW 32 (2011), p.52.

2. Joe Dressner, "Wine Tasting," June 8, 2005, www.datamantic. com/joedressner/?1674

3. Jacqueline Friedrich, Earthly Delights from the Garden of France: Wines of the Loire, Volume 1, self-published (2011); www.lulu.com

4. T erry Theise, Reading Between the Wines, University of California Press (2011), p.15ff.

5. F urther ruminations on this theme can be found in my "Wine, Webs, and Wonder," WFW 33 (2011), p.30.

6. See also my "The Face of Wine," WFW 12 (2006), pp.74-79.

7. F or further explication of the terroir analogy, consult "Rose on the Rocks: What Terroir’s Not," WFW 9 (2005), pp.27-30.

8. See also "Paying a Price for High Prices," WFW 34 (2011), p.30.

9. See also "The Face of Wine," WFW 14 (2006), pp.126-31; and JW Schooler and TY Engstler-Schooler, "Verbal Overshadowing of Visual Memories: Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid," Cognitive Psychology 22 (1990), pp.36-71.

10. William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), p.488.

11. N icholas Wroe, "Charles Rosen: A Life in Music," The Guardian, April 8, 2011, www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/apr/09/charlesrosen- pianist-chopin-life

12. "How a New Darwin Could Get Lost in the Net," The Daily Telegraph, July 20, 2009, www.telegraph.co.uk/science/steve-jones/5872798/ How-a-new-Darwin-could-get-lost-in-the-net.html

13. See, for example, Michael Steinberger, "Cherries, Berries, and a Hint of Fraud: Are Fake Wine Reviews a Growing Concern?" Wine Diarist, August 24, 2011, http://winediarist.com/cherries-berriesand- a-hint-of-fraud-are-fake-wine-reviews-a-growing-concern

14. See also "Ethics Matters" in WFW 26 (2009), pp.26-27.

15. A lthough OM Skilleås and D Burnham’s imaginary scenario in "Wine 2030: Future Perfect?" WFW 32 (2011), pp.88-95 is well worth reading. Such considerations also figure in my "Authenticity in Wine: Playing by the Rules," WFW 12 (2006), pp.74-79.

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