Toward a Rebirth of Wine Criticism

wine evaluation 5This meditation on the fate of wine criticism by former Vinous wine critic Jason Wilson takes us through a brief, recent history of commentary on the death of the critic , pointing out the false guideposts along the way:

  • The retirement of Robert Parker Jr. signals the death of wine criticism. (It didn’t)
  • No one cares about wine scores or expert opinion anymore (Utter nonsense. They still move bottles)
  • The new critics and influencers, “celebrity sommeliers, the social media personalities, the natural wine evangelists” can rescue wine criticism. (They won’t, it’s a different genre)
  • Recent developments—the “clean wine” fraud, corporate co-opting of natural wine and sustainability, sommelier scandals, terroir deniers—point to the continued need for good criticism (absolutely right)

He makes one mistake:

And I wish we’ve reached a place in our culture where — like film or music or art — scores are unnecessary, and we can discuss wine with more nuance and understanding.

That would be news to Metacritic, Goodreads, and other high traffic review sites for music, film and books all of which use scores to report evaluations.

But he mostly hits the nail on the head:

Or at least what needed to die was the methodology used by everyone from Wine Spectator to Vinous to Wine Enthusiast to James Suckling to every wannabe newsletter critic: blind tasting hundreds of wines, spitting, scribbling tasting notes, assessing a score on the 100-point scale.

As a member of that guild, Wilson experienced the absurdity of this methodology and resigned from Vinous.

His solution for what to do about wine criticism is also right on point. I, of course, would think so since I devoted a significant portion of Beauty and the Yeast to arguing this very point. Quoting the art critic Morgan Meis, Wilson writes :

“In this theory of criticism,” Meis writes, “we don’t need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.”

Meis (and Wilson) are absolutely correct. The goal of criticism is not to tell you what you should like. It is to help you understand what you like (or dislike) and why. Appreciation is the goal, criticism a means to that goal. The best wine critics tell you what it’s like to experience the wine and how one might respond to it. The critic’s preferences may be interesting to know but are not the most important part of the review.

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