Who would be the ideal wine critic? A specialist or a generalist?

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Who would be the ideal wine critic? A specialist or a generalist?

ideal wine taster

The wine world is big. Properly big. I’ve been travelling it now for quite a few years, and since 2008 as a full-time wine writer. There are still so many places I’ve yet to get to grips with, and a few famous regions that I haven’t visited at all. For example, I’ve only spent one day in Piemonte and that was giving a talk. And I’ve never been to Madeira. Or Ribera del Duero. There’s a lengthy list of regions that I really should spend more time in, but have only visited once.

And even in those regions that I have some level of expertise in and have visited a few times, there’s still a lot for me to learn. So this is the reason behind the question: who would be the best wine critic? A specialist (someone who lives in a particular wine region or who visits all the time), or a generalist (someone with a global context, but who doesn’t have quite the same on the ground knowledge)? It’s an important question. Here are some thoughts.

Smart and good is better than knowledgeable, but the two coupled together is a winning combination. I’d choose to read work by somebody who can write well and clearly has a good palate, over someone who can’t write or taste terribly well but has fabulous in depth knowledge. Experience is good, but only when coupled with ability.

If you are a magazine editor and you wanted to commission a writer on a certain country, whether or not you chose a specialist or generalist would depend on what you are asking them to do. For news: smart local on the ground. For a more in-depth assessment, I’d want someone – local or not – who had the context to be able to produce an authoritative story.

As I develop in my career, do I keep on visiting lots of different regions or should I choose to focus on a few and go deep? This is looking at it from the other way round; from the perspective of the writer rather than the reader. The answer here is that there isn’t much work for generalists, unless you are pretty well known. You need a niche to establish yourself in, yet without context you’ll probably be a less effective writer.

It’s only when you’ve visited a region that you can really make sense of the wines. This context really helps – or, at least, that’s been my experience. Context is vital in wine tasting. There’s a richness to wine that is only really revealed when we have some knowledge and understanding of what we are tasting. I think this applies whether you are tasting as a professional, or simply for pleasure. Walk the vines, and then drink the wine. It’s an amazing combination.

This is because wine appreciation and the ability to evaluate wines critically is not something people can do innately. You could never get a naive taster and present them with wine, and expect them to be able to say anything useful about the wine. If you compare the way experts and novices taste, the novice interrogates the liquid in the glass in front of them and looks at its sensory properties. The expert uses knowledge and experience and combines this with the sensory properties of the wine, and tries not to let the cognitive overshadow the sensory. The two approaches are quite different.

Learning about wine and making judgements of quality is not something we do alone. Aesthetic judgements about wine are determined not by the individual taster, but by a community of judgement. We learn about wine together. We talk about wine and make judgements together. We are part of a wider aesthetic community, and the validity of our judgements is determined by how others in our particular community would regard them. I can challenge the conventions or widely held opinions within this aesthetic community that I work in, but only from the inside – from already being grounded in that community. For example, I can suggest that Château X is underperforming and the wines aren’t as good as they used to be, but I will lose credibility if I say that all Bordeaux wines are rubbish. And the judgements we make as individual members of this system are not purely personal. Were I to make the same statement about Château X, it wouldn’t just be personal, but normative: I’d be suggesting that I would expect others, given a sound palate, to feel the same way.

So this leads me back to the generalist versus specialist debate. Because we are part of an aesthetic community – wine appreciation isn’t innate, but it is something we learn to do together – an ideal critic is someone who has strong roots in that aesthetic community. By visiting wine regions worldwide and tasting broadly, a writer or critic builds up an extremely valuable context. If I am reading about Central Otago Pinot Noir, for example, the views of a Queenstown resident who spends every weekend visiting wineries in the region and who has a deep cellar would be extremely valuable. But they’d be much more valuable if this individual also knows Burgundy, has visited Oregon and northern California and other Pinot Noir hotspots, and who from time to time gets to benchmark her palate with the classics.

Of course, there is not just one aesthetic system for wine. There is a sort of core aesthetic system, but slightly different versions. For example, a Brit brought up in the classic fine wine trade will be operating in a different system to an American collector whose cellar is full of Napa Valley Cabs. The natural wine movement could probably be regarded as a different aesthetic system with even less overlap with the classical fine wine scene. But overall, commentary on wine is only really interesting from within the community of judgement, otherwise it is simply autobiography: ‘I like this wine but not this one.’

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think someone with great specialist, in-depth knowledge is of much use as a critic unless they have sound context to ground their judgements in. Generalists with some specialist knowledge trump the true specialists. Experience with one genre of wines needs to be grounded in broader experience, including benchmarking. If you are a wine competition, by all means have specialists taste their own region of expertise, but don’t – for example – have the Portuguese wines tasted solely by Portuguese experts who lack in depth general knowledge of other wines.

It’s because of this community of judgement that forms an aesthetic system that I think the ideal critic is a generalist who can taste and write well, and who has a degree of specialist knowledge.

3 Comments on Who would be the ideal wine critic? A specialist or a generalist?
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

3 thoughts on “Who would be the ideal wine critic? A specialist or a generalist?

  1. A good post Jamie, as always, but I think your conclusion is flawed and it feels slightly biased towards the generalist approach. I think this because I note you have created a new category of critics, the “generalists with some specialist knowledge”, to support your conclusion that generalists apparently “trump the true specialists”. You cut the generalists slack in doing that, according them a bit of extra talent, but you don’t do that with the specialists.

    First, who are these generalists with specialist knowledge? And how much knowledge do they need in their specialist area, other than “some”, to rise above being merely a specialist? Would visiting the region annually be enough to have specialist knowledge? Going to the primeurs and the annual Burgundy tastings in London surely doesn’t count. Do these people really exist?

    Second, returning to the cutting slack, we have only “true specialists”? By this do you mean critics who know one region intimately, but nothing else at all about other regions? That seems an unlikely scenario. Specialists gravitate to a specialist subject over time, after a general approach in the beginning. I think most specialists will have general knowledge, but how many of the big-name generalists really have a specialist subject?

    It’s interesting that you applied these thoughts to wine competitions, because it is possible to make a plea which is the polar opposite to yours. Please let’s have the Portuguese wines judged by a specialist who visits regularly, and knows the different DOCs inside-out, rather than generalists who lack in-depth knowledge of the wines and have only irrelevant external benchmarks for the regions.

  2. I think Chris hit the nail on the head with this:

    “Specialists gravitate to a specialist subject over time, after a general approach in the beginning. I think most specialists will have general knowledge, but how many of the big-name generalists really have a specialist subject?”

    A truly good specialist needs an extensive knowledge of world wines. Without that knowledge, a provincial attitude is inevitable. I tasted in wine groups, at tastings, and at the dinner table for 30 years before specializing in NY Finger Lakes wine. The knowledge I gained before specializing is indispensable.

  3. Interesting post and great comments.

    It’s a very good question: Who “should” get to judge wine competitions? I suppose in part it depends what you’re going to do with the results. If it’s aimed at promoting let’s say high-end Portuguese wines to specialist importers and top restaurants, then absolutely I would want the panel dominated by people who know their stuff. The implication being that the field is so complex, that the taste for these wine-styles must be acquired first before each wine can really truly be understood in context and thus promoted properly.

    But if the competition is “just” aimed at slapping a few medals on bottles in a UK supermarket, then I think it would be valid to have a panel along the lines of 2 locals, 1 specialist foreigner, a couple of generalist foreigners and say 2 non-trade wine-enthusiasts. This less-strict panel makeup ought to give a more consumer-useful result and help the region to see where they truly lie.

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