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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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.