I’m about to embark on a series of posts about wine criticism—what its aim is, what it takes to be good at it, and the kinds of analyses of wine that are most relevant for the critic to perform. I’m especially interested in the role of imagination or creativity, if any, in the practice of wine criticism.
But before discussing those issues we have to discuss wine appreciation. Wine criticism is not just loosely related to wine appreciation; in my view the purpose of wine criticism is to aid appreciation and thus we need an account of what it means to appreciate a wine. No doubt wine critics engage in a variety of activities. Sometimes they guide their reader’s perceptions getting them to taste something they otherwise might have missed. Critics almost always evaluate wines by saying whether they are good or bad, often in order to advise readers about which wines they should purchase or seek to experience. Critics explain winemaking and viticultural practices, feature winemakers and explain how their inspiration or approach to winemaking influences their wines. They discuss the quality of vintages, the characteristics of varietals and wine regions, and describe their own reactions to a wine.
The most plausible goal that ties all these activities together is that the critic aims to help her readers appreciate the wines about which she writes. (See this post that explains why the main purpose of wine criticism is not only to aid in purchase decisions)
There are three counter examples to this claim that the main purpose of wine criticism is to aid in appreciation:
1. Some critics aim to influence investors who may never drink the wines under discussion but buy them hoping their price will increase. But this is true of a very small number of critics and only a fraction of the wines they taste and write about. It is too limited to be a fundamental, general aim of wine criticism.
2. Some wines that critics write about are unavailable to their readers and thus cannot be appreciated. But, as I will argue, the principle way critics contribute to appreciation is to point to features of the wine that are available to be appreciated if the reader were to drink them. The critic has no way of knowing what her readers have access to. Her focus is on the wine, not the contingent circumstances of the reader. Only when a vintage is completely sold out would a wine be in principle unavailable. Yet, even in this case, writing about the wine can aid appreciation. Writing about wines of the past supplies context for wines we drink today. Although writing about a wine that is no longer available may not aid in appreciating that wine, it aids in appreciating similar wines that are still available by reinforcing judgments about a particular vintage, wine tradition, winery style, etc.
3. Many examples of criticism are negative reviews that give readers reasons to avoid a wine. But negative reviews can aid appreciation. Finding pleasure in something is only one way of appreciating it. It makes perfect sense to say “I appreciate the danger I’m in”, a context unlikely to be pleasurable. “Appreciation” often means to recognize the significance of something independent of any pleasure it might produce. Thus, it makes sense to say “I appreciate the lack of balance in this wine”. The wine may not give pleasure but if its flaws are noteworthy pointing them out is part of appreciating the wine. Acquiring knowledge about something is an element of appreciation and negative reviews contribute to knowledge about a wine.
Stay tuned for more on what counts as appreciation.
For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily