Two Kinds of Wine Criticism

wine criticismIn wine evaluation it seems there are two kinds of judgments that often get confused. In one sort of judgment there is some actual property of the wine that is sufficient to justify a claim that the wine has some merit because the having of that property satisfies a norm. A Pinot Noir from Burgundy might have an elegant finish or a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa might have great concentration and thus is a good example of Burgundian Pinot Noir or Napa Cabernet. The judgment is justified because there is a well established norm about Burgundian Pinot Noir and Napa Cabs. This sort of judgment is at the heart of professional wine criticism. When learning to evaluate wines in wine certification programs you are essentially learning the norms of wine tasting. In these cases it’s appropriate to say that the wine itself has the value asserted of it and that the judgment is reasonably objective.

But there is another sort of judgment that is not guided by norms, or at least not norms alone, but is filtered through the personal tastes and sensibility of the taster. In this case the actual properties of the wine—the elegance of the Pinot Noir or the concentration of the Cabernet—are not sufficient to justify a judgment that the wine has merit. We might call these judgments of appreciation.  Thus, one might grant that the Napa Cabernet is concentrated but the wine doesn’t speak to you. It’s a good example of its type but you don’t find it compelling. In this sort of judgment, the value is not in the wine but is in the ascription of value on the part of the taster.

There are cases in which we can acknowledge the value of a wine but we don’t enjoy it or acknowledge the deficiencies of a wine yet still enjoy it because of some personal association.

The question is what we want out of wine criticism. Surely in some professional contexts, for instance in judging wine in competitions, or assessing purchases for a retail store, only norm-guided judgments are appropriate. But in other contexts such as reviewing wines for a newsletter or blog it’s the appreciative judgment that may be interesting. In some criticism—and this is true of books, film, music, and theatre criticism—it’s the critic’s distinctive point of view that has value. We don’t expect film or music criticism to simply articulate norms. Neither should we always expect that of wine criticism.

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