Like Moths to a Flame

moths to a flame

We really should not allow journalists to write philosophy. In the Napa Valley Register their wine columnist Allen Balik pontificates on the nature of greatness in wine. After complaining that the word “great” is overused (no doubt) and much rumination on how greatness can’t be measured or quantified (indeed) he spins out this pearl of wisdom:

True greatness cannot be expressed by a high price tag or a critic’s score but rather must be based on our own experience and impression of what is exhibited in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.

So greatness simply means “what I like”. Talk about overusing a word, if “greatness” means “what I like” we could just get rid of the word “great” and replace it with “yum”.

Among the many meanings of “great” suggested by Merriam Webster are “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness”, “eminent or distinguished”, “principle or main”, “markedly superior in character or quality”, etc.

Nowhere in MW’s careful specification of uses for “great” does “what I like” appear.

I too would not want to define “greatness” in wine in terms of scores arrived at by a consensus of critics, if only because scores might indicate greatness but don’t tell us what it is about the wine that is great. But at least a wine highly rated by most critics has achieved something “remarkable in magnitude”, distinguished and “markedly superior in quality”.  Whether I or anyone else happens to like the wine is immaterial. There are many highly scored wines I find disappointing. But that doesn’t diminish their achievement. My subjective impressions are not the measure of all things.

I recently tried to define greatness in wine as a function of depth, mystery, and resonance, properties which I think are discernible in great wines. Whether that account succeeds or not is not for me to judge but surely we can do better than “what I like”.

Why are otherwise intelligent people attracted to subjectivism like moths to a flame?


  1. Your bold, provocative claim deserves a response. Should journalists be prohibited from writing about philosophical themes and concepts (“not allowed to write philosophy” as you put it)? This is not a simple matter, especially considering the fact

    that many first-rate journalists have written about philosophy in a highly impressive manner (although it was probably not wine-related). But, before pontificating about this topic and settling the issue, let’s consider a few basic points.

    1. Arguably, Allen Balik is not really a journalist–at least not in the full sense of that term. Writing a small bi-weekly column for a local newspaper does not necessarily qualify Balik as a journalist. And, in fact, a cursory glance at his background details indicate no professional or technical training in journalism or a well-developed career in the field. In fact, he describes himself as a wine enthusiast, collector, consultant and educator. He also boasts 35+ years of marketing and brand development. He is also in-demand host for wine cruises (American Dream Vacations, Celebrity Cruises). You have been far too charitable in calling Balik a journalist.

    2. Secondly, keep in mind that Balik’s “pontificating” about great wines is a mere 10+ paragraphs. This is a blurb and by no stretch of the imagination does it constitute “writing” philosophy. Philosophy involves depth, rigor, and trenchant analysis, which typically entails the construction of careful, detailed arguments, exploring potential weaknesses and counter-arguments that threaten one’s central claim. Balik is certainly engaging in a universal activity–however brief snd superficial –that is philosophical in spirit; that is, he is exploring standards, criteria, necessary and sufficient order to define what makes a wine great. (Sadly, as you point out, he makes little headway, advancing the feeble theory known as a “boo-hooray” version of subjectivism without supporting his claim.)

    3. I suspect your central–we should not allow journalists to write philosophy–was not meant to be so categorical. At the risk of over-speculating, I suspect what you really wanted to say was this: bad journalists untutored in philosophical topics and themes have no business sharing their views with the general public because such “pontification” invariably leads the defense of the indefensible.

    By the way, you finished your blog with a formidable philosophical question. Why are intelligent people attracted to subjectivism? What is the answer? I am dying to know.

  2. post-script:

    For a refreshingly open-minded, substantive, and in-depth look at the connection between philosophy and journalism, check out these two links: (Chronicle of Higher Ed) (APA Blog)

    The second piece is an interview and explores your concern about journalists writing philosophy.

    These two pieces may allow you to better cope with those pesky, untutored journalists.

    in the meantime, knock em dead!

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