Jay Rayner on the aesthetics of wine

The dangers of commenting outside your sphere of expertise were illustrated last week in a couple of tweets from food expert and restaurant critic Jay Rayner.

Ok, my personal taste is for wine that doesn’t taste of sweaty pig anus and mouldering grass clippings. I know. Picky, picky, picky.

a) I’ve had repeated lecturers (natural wine bores do go on) and b) what other point is there to wine than it tasting nice?

From my perspective, Rayner’s comments on natural wine are fine. They’re his opinions and I understand that many folk don’t like some of the more extreme natural wines, just as many folk struggle with extreme cheeses. He’s a smart guy, and a very good writer. So I’m not going to try to persuade him that there are lots of good natural wines out there that don’t taste weird or bad, because he’s not really interested.

But would dispute the very silly statement that he makes about the point of wine. This was not his finest moment on Twitter.

  • So is the only point of food that it should taste good?
  • Is the only point of art that it should look good?
  • Is the only point of music that it should sound good?
  • Is the only point of sex that it should feel good?

Rayner is a food critic. He writes for national newspapers. He clearly believes that his expert judgements should be, to a degree, normative. That is, they should apply to most if not all people: his readers may not all agree with him, but where he makes statements about the quality of food, he isn’t simply being autobiographical, saying that this is his experience and it applies only to him.

Yet for wine, Rayner is implying that there’s nothing more to it than simple hedonics. If you like a wine you are drinking, this is for you a good wine. There’s nothing more to wine appreciation than the simple question: do you like it?

It’s entirely appropriate for people to decide whether or not they like something. We all do this all the time. But it’s foolish and ignorant for someone to say that there’s nothing more to food, or wine, or art, or music than whether or not they happen to like it.

With food, the hedonic approach ignores the reality that most of the tastes we cherish are acquired ones. We learn to like things, and knowledge can enhance enjoyment. When I first tasted strong cheese or beer or dry wine I didn’t like them. Now I love them.

Rayner’s stance on wine makes me think of a person visiting the Tate Modern and dismissing the art there as nonsense, because they don’t like it. ‘I’d rather see pictures that actually look like things. Give me pictures that are pretty, like Constable, or Monet, or – at a stretch – Turner.’

He’s behaving like someone visiting to a high-end cheese shop and rejecting the strongly flavoured goat and ewes’ milk cheeses. ‘Don’t give me all those stinky cheeses. I’ll stick with cheese that actually tastes nice, like mild cheddar or gouda.’

The world of wine is a complex and interesting one. It’s one of the most thrilling areas of gastronomy. But to an outsider it looks too complex and geeky, and people who care about it (like me) run the danger of looking like over-sincere losers. And the occasional friction between various aesthetic systems, such as classical fine wine and the natural wine movement, looks like silliness to those taking a superficial glance in. After all, who cares? Wine should just taste nice, shouldn’t it? Don’t take it too seriously.

A deeper issue here is that of ego. We often think that we are at the centre of the world, and that our particular interests and fields of expertise are the most significant and important. And then, when we look at another field of expertise, it can all seem a bit too involved; a bit silly and inconsequential. How could someone possibly care so much about coffee? Or baking?

Being an important media figure can lead people to believe that their opinions are similarly important, and their judgements are better than those who don’t have the same level of minor celebrity. We should be careful when we step outside our field of expertise.

3 comments to Jay Rayner on the aesthetics of wine

  • Damien

    I think you’ve jumped the gun on this one Jamie.

    Rayner was commenting specifically on a restaurant that had great food, but a solely quirky natural wine list that left little room for those that didn’t want to drink such leftfield wines. He therefore thought that was an error on their part.

    He’s not commenting in as wide as context as you’re suggesting (perils of relying upon Twitter rather than looking at the bigger picture perhaps; remind you of Trump perhaps?).

    And what’s all this thing where people who love natural wine love to compare with weird cheese?! I know Doug Wregg of Les Caves is fond of such comparisons, but it’s really so bizarre natural (or “authentic”) wine Aficionados should really come up with something more original.

    Bit like Jay Rayner and his opinions on “natural” wines in fact.

  • Rob

    Jamie
    I think Jay is half right, and you two aren’t far apart. The way I see it is there are two questions to answer about the aesthetics of any wine:
    1) Do I like it? (Easy. Hedonic. Can’t be wrong.)
    2) Why? (Harder. Aesthetic language required. We can all sound geeky when we try! Just as any critic does – good ones somehow manage with authenticity, humility, brevity and/or humour.)
    To be fair, he’s answered both questions, but he seems to have generalised to the whole wine list (or all natural wines) which he clearly hasn’t tasted. I think it is unwise to generalise about any wine without tasting it.
    I like many natural wines, but I do always ask the somm if the wine is bretty or oxidised before I order, because I don’t see the point in tasting those influences any more than tasting a Chardonnay that’s been in new oak for 2 years.
    Cheers, Rob

  • Simon

    Jamie hasn’t jumped the gun on this one Damien. It’s not the first time Jay Rayner has droned on about natural wines. See here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/04/john-doe-restaurant-review-jay-rayner
    and here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/nov/11/restaurant-review-green-man-and-french-horn-london

    Frankly, who cares if he’s entitled to his opinion? Bashing natural wine is a tired and tedious argument, in this instance made without a trace of wit, inventiveness or insight. Rayner brings absolutely nothing new to the table beyond the same old 19th hole wine bore bloviating. Emperor’s new clothes, overpriced, marketing gimmick… yawn.

    I suppose this stuff goes down well with his friends, who must think he’s a maverick, cutting through the bull and telling it like it is. Sadly, it actually marks him out as terribly middle-aged and reactionary, and exposes his limitations as a writer.

    Time to move on.

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