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01.08.2006

Who is YOUR wine critic?

Who needs wine critics anyway? I've finally caught up on some of my blog reading and I was thrilled to find a fabulous series of posts on fellow blogger Tom Wark's Fermentation where he takes up the question.

There are some people out there (especially lawyers) who wish Shakespeare's immortal words had actually been "First thing we do, let's kill all the wine critics...." Tom was prompted to his thoughts on the role of a wine critic by a very interesting editorial in the International Herald Tribune by Tom Standage. Standage traces out some unusual aspects of the history of wine in an attempt to elucidate at what point and why some wines were considered better than others. Essentially Standage posits that classification/scoring/distinctions for wine arose as a byproduct of the need for which wine was drunk to convey some sense of status or social standing of the imbiber. Therefore wines became subdivided into those that were fit for kings and those that were not, etc. etc. Standage then goes on to make the claim that today's critics merely perpetuate the same status based classification which is responsible for various ills, including anxiety over ordering the "right wine" at dinner, stress about what wines are appropriate gifts, and of course, the tendency of people to buy wines that score high rather than wines that they like.

Standage ends his little essay with the following advice:

"...the idea that wines can be ranked with scientific precision is absurd....So put not your faith in wine rankings imposed from on high by god-like critics. There are no right or wrong answers; the only score that matters is your own taste. And the best bottles are often those served in a convivial atmosphere among family and friends - something that no ranking system, ancient or modern, can quantify."

On the one hand that's a warming sentiment, and one that I can heartily agree with, inasmuch as it makes clear that wine criticism is not a science by any stretch of the imagination, and that everyone should drink what they like no matter what the critics say. On the other hand, as Tom Wark so clearly points out, Standage seems to be dismissing the role of the critic entirely, or if he's not, he is certainly failing to point out that wine critics, like any other critics out there, provide an incredibly valuable set of services to the public.

Wark does a good job describing why it is very useful, and even important for those who are really interested in learning about wine, to find a critic whose palate matches your own. Surprisingly, Wark received a number of strident, even vituperative e-mail responses to that suggestion, which caused him to post an excellent follow up to his original thoughts.

In his "Defense of The Wine Critic" Wark makes a number of good points in the favor of criticism of all kinds: critics tend to know more than most consumers about the subject they cover; critics spend a lot more time than consumers thinking about and experiencing their subjects and can therefore offer more informed and more powerful assessments of what is good and what is not, and critics help provide direction in a world filled with an ever-increasing number of choices and complexity.

All of these are correct, and in my mind can be boiled down to the simple statement: critics do their work so that you don't have to. Most people don't have the time, energy, money, patience, or desire to taste through every wine on the shelf of their local grocery store. They just want to know which one they'll enjoy most for their ten bucks. As Wark points out, it's not that hard to experiment just a little in order to find a critic who tends to point you in the right direction most of the time, and the time and energy saved by finding someone who you trust to make recommendations about wine (or movies, or restaurants) can be used for things that you care an awful lot more about.

Critics, like any sort of professional whom we employ, help us because they are competent in areas that we are not. I don't want to learn about accounting and I want my taxes to be done right, so I hire a CPA. I don't want to go to beauty school and I don't trust myself with pair of scissors so I let someone else cut my hair. This isn't to say that I couldn't do either if I set my mind to it, but, you know, I'd rather not.

It's all fine and dandy to criticize the critics, even to bemoan the amount of power they seem to have in the marketplace, but to imply that they aren't needed is myopic to the point of idiocy. Vinography is a perfect example of why. I didn't set out with a goal of becoming a voice of authority on wine, I set out to write about wine and restaurants in a way that I wanted to read. I've never done any advertising. I've never put myself out there as a voice of authority. The fact that two years later, thousands of people each day are paying attention to what I say proves that people are out there looking for advice and opinion. Critics or any opinion leaders, at the end of the day, are emergent properties of our human society -- they don't create themselves, they are created by the will of the people. For this reason, they will always exist, and they will always be valuable.

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