Wine Critics, Norms, and Tasting the New

wine criticism 3Wine critics at major wine publications have vast experience tasting wines and many have a deep knowledge of the regions they write about. Thus, their opinion is always worth considering when deciding which wines to experience. No doubt, they have preferences that inevitably shape their judgements, but they do a reasonably good job of making general assessments of wine quality and establishing a rough consensus about the relative value of the wines they assess. Of course, there is no guarantee that an individual consumer will like a wine they recommend. The idiosyncrasies of taste make that sort of guarantee impossible. But the job of the critic is not to endorse a consumer’s preferences but to uphold critical standards. There is no reason to think they are systematically unreliable despite worries about financial influence and personal relationships sometimes biasing their judgments.

But there is a source of systematic bias that afflicts wine professionals that has to do with how they are trained. Everyone in the wine industry is trained to assess wines based on norms. We learn what a Right Bank Bordeaux or a Barossa Valley Shiraz should taste like. We learn the range of aromas we should expect from a Pinot Noir or Riesling and learn what lees stirring or barrel ageing in new oak typically does to a wine.

But what about wines that don’t fit the norms or fall outside the categories we use to assess wine? Wines that violate norms are unlikely to receive positive evaluations because there are no established criteria for assessing them. Comparisons are hard to make when it’s unclear what the basis for the comparison is. Of course, the critic when faced with a non-normative wine can fall back on whether they like the wine or not. But professional criticism should rise above mere preference. Remember, the job of the critic is to uphold critical standards. How is that to be accomplished when the standard is not clearly relevant?

This is increasingly a worry in a world in which climates are rapidly changing, regions are planting new varietals, and winemakers are increasingly experimenting to gain an edge in a competitive market. Is wine criticism a force for stagnation and inertia?

The solution to this systematic bias toward conservativism is to be more open and welcoming toward differences. Critics should see their role as one that includes discovering what’s innovative and inventing categories and standards to assess that innovation. Perhaps the ability to forget what you know and forge new ways of understanding wine may be the most important ability for a wine critic in a word of accelerating change.

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