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09.05.2008

Wine Criticism According to W.H. Auden

At the risk of betraying my political leanings and reinforcing recent suggestions that my home city is filled with cocktail party elitists, I have to admit that (apart from wine) by far the best $14 I spend every year is my subscription to Harper's Magazine.

One of my great pleasures in life is sitting down for an uninterrupted session with the "Readings" section of the magazine, which, for those who might be unfamiliar with the publication, is a collection of excerpts, snippits, essays, transcripts, declassified memos, poetry, and all manner of brief things that never fail to delight, inspire, and provoke me, not to mention make me laugh out loud.

I was reading the December 2007 issue this afternoon on the plane (yes, I'm drastically behind due to business demands and fatherhood) when I came across an interesting essay by W.H. Auden, taken from the 1952 French monthly publication "Preuves." Auden covered several topics in his essay "De Droit et de Gauche" but in this segment chiefly discussed the criticism of art.

As I was reading it, I was struck not only by the clarity of his arguments on the subject but also the degree to which they seemed to address the issues of wine criticism.

So if you'll excuse me for going a little highbrow on you, and if the estate of Auden will forgive me lifting his words for my own nefarious purposes, I give you Wine Criticism According to W.H. Auden:

Wine criticism is tradition defending itself against the three armies of the Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that the definition of what is truly great wine may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.

The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness almost infallibly leads critics to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern, and contents himself with being no more than an amateur taster or an historian of wine avoids covering himself ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

Judging a wine is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first a real love of wine, and inclination to praise rather than to blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second a vast experience of all manner of wines and winemaking; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted , of ones own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose idea of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective are more excusable than those, who aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best wine critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to taste and taste again the wine he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the wine attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a wine, cancel any desire you might have to drink it.

Comments (4)

rajiv wrote:
09.06.08 at 9:48 AM

Excellent words! This is precisely why I like to read Vinography over WS, and why I have zero time for the abundance of newspaper/magazine wine critics. Your backround essays positively reek of a love of wine, even when they are critical.

Rich wrote:
09.06.08 at 10:23 AM

Ditto!

Dylan wrote:
09.07.08 at 10:10 AM

"The best wine critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to taste and taste again the wine he discusses..." Just great.

People need critics that can awaken them, not detour them. People require the words of a lover, not an abuser. These are the things a critic should be and the critics that people need. Critics should inspire us to take action and their love for the subject should transfer from their words into our own hearts.

Great article.

09.07.08 at 1:20 PM

Alder does a service to the continual discussion of wine and criticism by citing Auden and his fine interpretation of wine criticism. Interestingly, Michael Broadbent raised the same issue in the current issue of Decanter, noting that he had been dismissed by someone writing on Mark Squires website as a "dinosaur", and wondered if connoisseurship still exists, which brings us back to Auden's observations. Here's a letter I sent to Decanter on the subject:

"Michael Broadbent's column in the September issue raises the important issue of wine connoisseurship and how it differs from mere opinion. Opinions, it has been observed, are like a rather undignified body part; everybody has one (and some are prettier than others). There's no denying that we all have taste preferences, but the essense of connoisseurship is the cultivation of informed opinion, which in turn is based on becoming educated in the subject, acquiring a trained palate which can distinguish one's taste preferences from wine quality and style, and the humility that accepts that one's taste preferences alone cannot be made the basis of any intelligent wine criticism.

An attitude of professionalism, with the focus on empirical attributes of the wine rather than on subjective impressions, has been what I consider the hallmark of Mr. Broadbent's contribution to wine writing for his remarkable fifty year career. His writing style fits his description of a Batard-Montrachet in that column; "an unobtrusive wine which did not seek approbation but quietly exuded class." This style stands in marked contrast to those whose writing is always self-centered and full of rhapsodic adjectives since they lack the knowledge to speak of anything else, likely not having had the patience or humility to actually work in the trade and cultivate such professionalism.

I was inspired to enter the wine trade in 1981 after reading the first edition of Mr. Broadbent's Great Vintage Wine Book. Mr. Broadbent's example of professionalism can be an inspiration for any wine lover anywhere that cultivating connoisseurship is worth the time and trouble."

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