The role of wine critics

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Yesterday I began a series of write-ups from the Wine Writers’ Symposium, starting with Jay McInerney’s keynote. This was followed by a panel session with Eric Asmiov, Virginie Boone and Ray Isle, looking at the role of wine critics. Wine critics often like to claim objectivity in their assessments; that they can step aside from their personal opinions. Is it possible for a wine critic to be an advocate of particular styles and types of wines?

‘How is it not possible for a wine critic to be an advocate?’ asks Eric Asimov. ‘We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between a wine writer and a critic.’

He continues: ‘To me, this seems a limited way of thinking about a critic. A critic is someone who makes a judgement. In wine there is this idea that it is bad form to be critical of any one sort of wine, because there are people who appreciate that style. This is condescending to the writer and to the audience.’

Asimov reckons that it’s the wine critic’s job to make judgements, just as it’s the film critic’s job to discriminate among good and bad films. ‘They don’t say it’s a lame comedy that’s terrific for those who like lame comedies. In wine we need to have the freedom to make these sorts of judgements and make the case for why a style is brilliant or doesn’t fulfill the purpose for that sort of wine.’

Ray Isle points out that wine criticism takes in two separate standards. ‘There is consumer advocacy of the sort that Parker represents (and there is a false assumption of objectivity with wine here), and there is aesthetic criticism. Wine brings these together in an uncomfortable connection.’ Isle reckons that the best approach merges the roles of journalist and critic.

Isle doesn’t normally score wines. ‘Mostly I try to write about the story and the people,’ he says. ‘It is different from aesthetic judgement.’

So should critics taste sighted or not? Virginie Boone tastes single blind, because she wants to be free from bias, but Asimov doesn’t like blind tasting. ‘It is another pretension that we are sometimes preserving objectivity by treating wine like a refrigerator. It’s an American notion that this is a level playing field and every wine has a chance. But [blind tasting] ignores the background, the intent, the history of how wines behave, and myriad other information. It is a bit infantilizing to suggest that critics are better off paying no attention to this because they might be influenced.’ He draws a parallel with films and novels. Are we better off not knowing the author or the film director? ‘The public doesn’t have to buy into the idea that without blind tasting you can’t be objective.’

Isle agrees. ‘The notion that you must taste blind or you’ll be influenced is a weird one.’

Another issue facing critics is how useful large peer group tastings are. Do you get useful information from tasting 100 Cabernets in a line over a morning’s work? ‘Over the years I have made an effort to minimize the tasting and maximize the drinking,’ says Asimov. ‘Mass tasting is not a way to understand wine.’ At the New York Times Asimov buys all the wines he writes about. He hasn’t got a set budget.

Isle says that he’d love to write about the wines he loves, but he has to bear in mind the needs of the readers and what wines are accessible to them. ‘Readers want to know what $10 Chardonnay to buy. If I want to write about an 800 case production Canary Islands wine I need a good reason for it.’

Interestingly, Boone, Asimov and Isle are all self-taught, without formal wine education. ‘I’m now much more confident about my writing,’ says Isle. ‘It took me 3-3.5 years into working at Wine & Spirits until I was confident.’ It also took Asimov a few years at the New York Times for him to become confident. ‘I experience a lot of self-doubt,’ he concedes, ‘but I am also confident of my opinions. I am aware that things I say have consequences, so I try to be careful.’

On the future of wine writing? ‘There are plenty of writers,’ says Isle, ‘but as an editor I am always thrilled when I find someone really good. There aren’t enough really good writers.’ He describes finding a good writer as a bit like finding a great unknown wine. Asimov is also positive. ‘There are tremendous opportunities for wine writing. There’s a chance to get to know so many different sets of wines and so many different styles. Interest in wine has gone up. Aside from the practical matter of getting paid, this is an amazing time to be writing about wine.’

And with that statement, he has hit the nail firmly on the head.

8 comments to The role of wine critics: The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers (2)

  • Richard

    And not a word about how wine critics never criticise? Strange – or perhaps not.

    As Isle nearly put it, ‘readers also want to know what $10 Chardonnay NOT to buy…’

  • Christopher Wilton

    Spot on, Richard!

  • william beavington

    That makes no sense – why would anyone bother to write about which $10 Chardonnay NOT to buy – there must be countless, but very few that one SHOULD buuy – logically therefore one would write about the few not the many.

  • Richard

    William, ‘Asimov reckons that it’s the wine critic’s job to make judgements, just as it’s the film critic’s job to discriminate among good and bad films.’

    I don’t see that discrimination when reading wine critics. If you are seeking to elevate the role of wine criticism then it is not enough to merely praise the good.

  • Paul Dove

    Asimov is right – we need wine critics with the courage to actually criticise and call out the duff stuff. Otherwise they’re not wine critics at all. They’re just part of the PR industry.

    But it’s not going to happen when seemingly all wine writers these days rely on pay cheques from the industry they’re supposed to be scrutinising and holding to account. Which wine critic will dare to score a producer’s wine less than 90 points if he or she’s been flown out to the vineyard on an all expenses paid basis?

  • Well said, Paul.

    Despite what Eric may think, we are all swayed. When a wine critic sees a btl of Chateau Latour in front of them, bias sets in, no matter what.

    Most critics are not skilled enough to be good blind wine tasters. Not necessarily a problem, but wine critics should admit that is the real issue, rather than dancing around it.

    If your job is to rate California Cabs, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot taste 100 wines over the course of a few days, in a single blind tasting, and assess them for what they are.

  • william beavington

    Paul – I disagree – maybe Jamie could occasionally be more critical but Jancis Robinson is frequently critical, as just one example. Also, Richard and Paul, I don’t care what “Asimov says” – I make my own opinions based on logic and common sense.

  • william beavington

    Also – what Asimov says about blind tasting is a total nonsense – it’s not a “pretension” it’s the ultimate exercise of objectivity.

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