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.