El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz

Last week I argued that the purpose of wine criticism is not primarily to aid purchasing decisions, but I left undecided what the primary purpose is. In this post I argue that wine criticism is primarily about appreciation. On the way to that conclusion I consider the most prominent views of the aims of art criticism because they are directly applicable to wine.

One of the more plausible views of the purpose of art criticism is that art critics are trying to shape our perceptions–how we view a painting or hear a musical work. Philosopher Arnold Isenberg articulated the canonical defense of this view in the mid-20th Century, arguing that when a critic praises the figures in El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz for their “wavelike contour”, that description is causing the reader to perceive something in the painting that the critic admires. The accuracy of the description is not of primary concern; what matters is that the reader’s perceptions have been properly directed toward the feature the critic wants her readers to experience.

This view of art criticism can be directly applied to wine reviews. When a critic favorably evaluates a wine because of its “richly evocative aromas of tar and dried roses which is typical of the best wines of this type”, she is directing our attention to those features of the wine that she wants us to experience. We might not perceive precisely the same flavors and aromas as the critic. But nevertheless, when the description succeeds, we perceive what she considers essential in appreciating the wine. The aim is not a true description so much as an attempt to properly direct attention.

This seems to me to be on the right track. Given that wine is a vague object, one of the virtues of communicating about wine is that other people may perceive something that I might miss. This is certainly the case when a critic has vast experience tasting wines of the relevant type and a finely honed capacity for discernment. This capacity to direct attention is one of the virtues of successful wine reviews. But the problem with this as a full account of the purpose of wine reviews is that it applies only to people currently experiencing the wine or who can remember clearly its flavor profile. As I noted last week, many wine reviews are of wines we can never acquire, and Isenberg’s theory would not apply at all in these cases.

Isenberg writes that “reading criticism, otherwise than in the presence, or with direct recollection, of the objects discussed is a blank and senseless employment”. It is not obvious that that is true. Reading descriptions of old vintages of Bordeaux premier crus is hardly “blank and senseless” however much it may pale in comparison to actually tasting them.

More recently Noel Carroll in his book On Criticism asserts that “evaluation is an essential feature of criticism. If a piece of discourse lacks explicit or implicit evaluation, it would not qualify as criticism”. Furthermore, he claims, critics must supply good reasons for their evaluations, not merely a verdict. It is the evaluation that distinguishes criticism from other forms of writing that employ description or analysis.

I am perhaps displaying a philosophical prejudice in asserting that wine reviews that give a verdict without an explanation are less than useless. Be that as it may, I agree with Carroll that a proper review of anything ought to supply reasons. But Carroll’s view doesn’t  address the question of what the purpose of the evaluation is. If it isn’t to influence a purchase what is its aim? Why are we concerned with the critics reasons? Furthermore, I have reservations about the claim that criticism must involve evaluation. Wine writers often describe a positive aesthetic experience without objectively assessing the wine or supplying an ultimate verdict.

This is because the primary aim of wine criticism is appreciation not evaluation.

How do we mark the difference between appreciation and evaluation? It seems to me they have different goals. The goal of appreciation is to savor what is there in the object and to discover the various kinds of experiences available to someone who is fully open to and attuned to the object. These experiences would include knowing the meaning and significance of the object as well as savoring its sensory properties. By contrast, the goal of evaluation is to render a verdict and assign a ranking and thus must focus on properties of a work that can be specified and articulated as markers of quality. Appreciation is open to all the properties of an object even if they have little to do with quality.

The goal of the wine critic then is to aid in the appreciation of a wine by revealing what is there to be appreciated. This might involve pointing out those properties that figure in an evaluation. Thus wine criticism often includes giving advice about purchases and investments. It also includes directing a reader’s attention to those properties that are there to be savored when the wine is in front of her. Thus it incorporates Isenberg’s point about the importance of aiding perception. But wine criticism has a larger goal—to provide an account of the meaning and significance of a wine, its place in the wine community, and the kinds of experiences one can have with it.

For the wine community knowing the meaning and significance of a wine, the kinds of experiences available when drinking it, and especially whether it represents a new trend or flavor experience is important information independently of one’s ability to experience the wine.

It is all part of the main purpose of wine criticism which is to aid appreciation.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily