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In defense of wonkery

By |  December 4 2012

So it was with some surprise that I discovered that the paper’s restaurant critic, Steve Cuozzo, had devoted a column to a scathing attack upon restaurants with wine lists that are "100 percent inscrutable," to the extent that they make choosing wine an ordeal. Cuozzo bemoaned Greek restaurants with the temerity exclusively to serve Greek wines, but he saved particular ire for the wine list at a new opening, Reynards in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His principal objection? The all-French wine list left him completely stumped: Where was the "nice, affordable Bordeaux" to go with his chicken and summer greens?

There is a distinct whiff of the silly season about some of Cuozzo’s manufactured outrage — late July is never the busiest time of the year for new restaurant openings — and he was swiftly rebutted. In the New York Times Eric Asimov rallied to the defense of wine list diversity, and Tyler Coleman started a thread on his Dr Vino blog to "Help Steve Cuozzo navigate a wine list." The reaction was best summed up by Lee Campbell, Reynards’ wine director. Speaking on sommelier Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That podcast, she characterized Cuozzo as "like the old curmudgeon who doesn’t get where progress is going."

Cuozzo promptly spat back with another column threatening full-scale culture war, since he had "inadvertently aroused the slumbering dragon of politically tainted, anti-mainstream wine wonkery." But the whole affair has the hallmarks of a brief summer squall.

By the time you read this, the dog days will be over and there will be new restaurants to review. I was tempted to ignore the story myself; I have not eaten at Reynards and it felt like a family matter within the New York City restaurant scene. The Reynards wine list, however, is readily available online, and I was curious to see the collection of natural horrors that might trigger such venom. The list is excellent, but I was sadly disappointed. Yes, there are some self-consciously natural wines, but it is hardly the rogues’ gallery we were led to believe. For a list of French regional wines, it is barely even esoteric; the likes of Huet Vouvray and Tempier Bandol Rosé are mainstream benchmarks for their appellations. That Cuozzo "didn’t recognize a single bottle" is a shocking admission of ignorance.

Perhaps we should expect no better from a newspaper critic? With most publications, the critic’s job is not to understand the restaurant as an idea, but to put together some entertaining prose and recommend some places to eat. Newspaper reviewing is about the holistic experience, rather than the contents of the meal itself, so is steadfastly not the realm of the specialist.

I have myself encountered editors anxious to ensure that their reviewers are not so thoroughly expert that they alienate their audience. The same phenomenon can be seen more clearly in sports journalism, where mainstream accounts dwell upon the readily relatable experience of the fan in the stands rather than the complicated decisions of trained athletes and their coaches. The visceral experience matters more than understanding the causes of things. From this perspective, results are a simple test of character, and slumps are down to mysterious variations in form.

Sport, wine lists, and menus are all human creations, but we have returned to the mentality of trial by combat. The sports result — or the quality of the restaurant — is a divine judgment, and virtue lies in character, not in skill.

The banal clichés of the post-match interview — "giving 110 percent" and "they just wanted it more" — disguise the sophisticated and highlysystematized tactical and technical artifice that underpins all sport at the highest level. In a world of revealed truths, expertise on the part of the commentator is not strictly necessary.

The problem becomes that suggestions of where to eat and what to drink, while certainly useful, are an inherently limited form of knowledge. Knowing where to buy the best bagel in New York City is only useful to me the next time I am in town. But understanding why these are the best bagels is useful to me wherever I might live; it is just that understanding why requires a measure of technical engagement.

There does remain one instance where I would prefer to put my fate in the hands of amateur judges of character. Jury trial, however imperfect, remains the best protection against prosecutorial malfeasance. Should I ever stand in the dock, I would rely upon the jury of my peers to assess the character of each witness to arrive at their verdict. But juries have help. Or rather, in an adversarial system they have two competing sets of helpers. With the appropriate assistance, anybody can understand the vagaries of corporate fraud, just as anyone can understand the wines of the Jura or the importance of an extra player in midfield. The role of the trial lawyer is nothing more than that of a professional explainer of the complicated and the technical to a lay audience; they mediate wonkery. And in that respect they are exactly the same as any good sommelier.

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