The Blogger and The Critic’s Golden Tastebuds

When I was a kid, I didn’t have a television, but whenever I got the chance at a friend’s or neighbors house, I loved to watch Looney Toons. In particular, I loved the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. They were amazing in their ability to make you laugh with absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. It was the strangest thing when one day they actually had the first episode where Wiley talked. Initially I was shocked and outraged. But then he uttered what is still one of my favorite lines ever: “Allow me to introduce myself. Wile E. Coyote, SUPER Genius!.

Now just imagine if I started every wine review with something like that!

This week, one of my favorite wine writers, Matt Kramer has an article in the NY Sun on this very topic — the fact that increasingly some of the big wine critics are underlining their authority not with experience or eloquence, but with claims of being supertasters.

For those who haven’t heard of it, or who can’t be bothered to click that link I just provided, supertasters have more tastebuds than your average human or coyote, which gives them a greater sensory range for perceiving various flavors. They also tend to be overly sensitive to some flavors, especially bitter ones (like broccoli). About 20 to 25% of the population are supertasters.

Kramer proceeds to rightfully skewer the increasing frequency with which critics seem to be justifying their authority using the “superior physiological gifts” argument, but in the process of unsheathing his quill, he offers up an astonishing reason why some of the established critics might be prompted to make such claims.

“Wine critics have lately come up against new competition. Previously, it was a matter of who got published. Today, A.J. Liebling’s famous dictum that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” generates a new kind of freedom: the ability to run for wine office without the nomination of an established publishing party.

The line between amateurs and professionals in wine tasting is increasingly erased with today’s every-man-a-king proliferation of wine blogs (a number of which are proffered by queenly women, it should be noted).

Consequently, professionals’ desire of being seen as superior in literal matters of taste has become more pressing.”

This is, of course, not so astonishing on the face of things. Most critics are no doubt aware of what’s happening on sites like this one. But it’s quite surprising to read Kramer implying that they see blogs in a competitive light, especially to the point that they might need to justify their own authority.

But then again, there are certainly signs that the mainstream establishment feels, if not threatened, then certainly in danger of falling behind the times. The major publications are starting their own blogs (Wine spectator, USA Today, NY Times), and those who are not have suddenly started allowing their readers to comment on their online news stories (Decanter).

Perhaps most telling is this fact: Most of the major food publications in the United States have published articles guiding their readers to the best wine blogs (and food blogs) on the Internet, yet not a single major wine magazine has published anything about any of the nearly 300 wine blogs in existence for their readership. For all intents and purposes, they might as well not exist. They haven’t even referenced the phenomenon — and this article by Kramer doesn’t count because it was published in a newspaper.

While that may not quite have the smell of fear, it certainly does have the smell of confusion. I’m not trying to beat my chest here, but I marvel at the fact that Kramer might be on to something.

In any case, his article is not about blogs striking fear into the heart of the establishment, really. It’s an examination of where any critic grounds their legitimacy and authority. The only place it makes sense to do so, as Kramer points out, is in knowledge and experience. Physiological attributes do not imply expertise. This, he correctly points out, “is about as plausible as a film critic asserting superiority because of unusual light sensitivity.”

Read the full article.