When wine is mentioned in the news (outside the columns of regularly-featured wine writers) the topic is all too often the unreliability of wine reviews. Wine critics are accused of being influenced by price and are notorious for their inconsistent judgments and cavernous disagreements about the same wine, as in this recent assessment. The implication is that wine is wholly subjective and the very idea of wine expertise should be discarded.
I’ve discussed the objectivity of wine tasting in the past (here, here and here). Some of the criticisms of wine tasting are misleading; others are simply misguided. As wine critic Steve Heimoff argued recently, the fact that there is a subjective dimension to wine tasting does not mean that wine criticism is useless. What we want from the critic is his/her personal opinion, not a scientific analysis.
Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.
Well, neither do wine critics.
Steve is exactly right. But I want to take his point one step further and suggest that, in many contexts, values such as accuracy of description or consistency of judgment are not primary—wine critics are aiming at something else.
The ultimate point of wine reviews, especially the descriptive part of the review, is not to accurately describe the wine. If it were, wine criticism would be an abject failure since critical descriptions of the same wine by different critics can be worlds apart. Instead, what the wine critic is trying to do is get the reader/drinker to taste what the critic is tasting. The critic is using words to call attention to features of the wine that another taster—perhaps less experienced or inattentive—might miss. The purpose is to direct the the reader/taster’s attention, to share an experience.
This conception of critical communication is from an academic paper written many years ago by philosopher Arnold Isenberg who was writing about criticism in the visual arts. In discussing critical remarks about the “wave-like contour” of a line in a painting, Isenberg writes:
Now the critic, besides imparting to us the idea of a wavelike contour, gives us direction for perceiving, and does this by means of the idea he imparts to us, which narrows down the field of possible visual orientations and guides us in discrimination of details, the organization of parts, the grouping of discrete objects into patterns. It is as if we found both an oyster and pearl when we had been looking for a seashell because we had been told it was valuable. It is valuable, but not because it is a seashell….And if communication is a process by which a mental content is transmitted by symbols from one person to another, then we can say that it is a function of criticism to bring about communication at the level of the senses; that is, to induce a sameness of vision, of experienced content. (Original in Philosophical Review, 1949)
Wine criticism has a similar intent. When a wine critic refers to for example “road tar” in a wine, he/she is pointing to a feature that may or may not resemble road tar. But the description is directing our attention to something the critic wants us to taste and is proposing that we call it road tar. Of course, the more precise the description, the more successful the directive is likely to be. The point is not that critics should ignore accuracy. The point is that the reader/drinker is moved to search for and hopefully find something she may have missed, or could not describe, prior to reading the description. The aim is not objectivity, and accuracy is just a means to an end. The goal is to communicate an experience.
Metaphorical descriptions of wine—as sexy, brooding, or flamboyant—or evaluative terms, such as elegant or graceful, are even more useful in getting an audience to focus on relevant features. The fact that another critic might use a different word to direct our attention is largely irrelevant. Since each of us has different tasting histories and different habits of talking about those experiences, which description works best to direct attention will be a matter of individual differences.
If, by pointing to the flamboyant personality of a wine, I get someone else to describe it as lively, I’ve done my job. We have a common referent despite the different meaning. Of course, if she describes that same wine as mute and closed, there is obviously egregious miscommunication.
So critics are not striving for objectivity. We are instead striving for awareness, mutually focused attention, and shared experience.
Wine scores, of course, are a different matter. They don’t attempt to shape our thoughts or experience. Their purpose is to help consumers find a bargain, gain advanced knowledge of quality, or provide marketing points for wineries—a purely commercial rather than aesthetic function.
To be sure, wine scores are useful to consumers but if wine criticism were to reject the tasting note in favor of an exclusive reliance on numerical ranking, the purpose of critical communication would be lost.