I argued recently that the job of the wine critic is to help readers appreciate a wine by communicating the properties and appropriate responses to those properties that a wine makes available, as well as reasons for why those responses are appropriate. The critic’s aim is not just to describe the wine but to enable the reader to understand that these properties are worthy of their attention and invite a response, whether positive or negative.
Given this definition of wine criticism, a good critic must possess several abilities.
She first of all must be articulate, getting readers to grasp without too much difficulty what kinds of appropriate responses one can have to a wine as well as the reasons for those responses if they aren’t clear. Thus, she must also be a good judge of what her readers need to know. Conveying one’s admiration for a wine or some feature of the wine isn’t sufficient. The reader may need to know what the reasons for admiring it are. She may need to be persuaded that a fact obtains or that it is a reason to judge the wine favorably so she can see that for herself. Thus, a good critic must be a good judge of how to communicate what the reader needs to know—choosing words not only to inform but to guide the reader’s perceptions.
Of course in order to accomplish all of this, the critic must be more knowledgeable and more perceptive than her readers. If the job of the critic is to aid appreciation, she must provide a perspective that the reader couldn’t easily acquire on her own. Being more knowledgeable makes the critic at least potentially more aware of what the reader is unlikely to know, although this requires some empathy on the part of the critic. Relating to the reader how a wine is made can make her aware of why a particular wine is a dramatic departure from how things are normally done. The fact that a wine violates a norm is a reason to take an interest in it. These are the kinds of facts that a critic must be able to provide the reader. All this is in addition to the need for the critic to be aware of features of a wine that readers are likely to miss, especially as it compares to other wines of its type. Noting how a particular flavor profile is closer to a more traditional style of winemaking may get readers to focus on a feature they otherwise would have missed. Knowledge and perceptiveness are intimately related in wine criticism and appreciation.
Being articulate, knowledgeable and perceptive are all about getting the reader to become more aware of features of the wine she might not have been aware of had she not been acquainted with the critic’s work.
But getting the reader to appropriately respond in a way she is unlikely to without the criticism is also part of the job of the critic. And that means she must be a good judge of the kinds of appreciative responses that one can appropriately have to a wine, whether they be approving or disapproving.
This task involves two additional abilities:
(1) A good critic must be able to have a particular response herself, especially if it is a response an ordinary taster would not typically have. A critic may be particularly impressed by a feature of a wine and find it deeply moving, a response that is unlikely to be available to someone less aware of the range of appreciative responses that a wine makes available and their significance. For instance, a critic with a comprehensive understanding of what a vineyard is capable of may find a particular vintage remarkable (or disappointing), a response unavailable to someone unfamiliar with many vintages from that vineyard.
(2) In addition, a good critic must be good at thinking of appropriate responses, even if she doesn’t have those responses herself. Critics must taste wines in various styles some of which may not be to her liking. Yet, she must be able to judge what an appropriate response would be for someone else who does like that style. This is an especially important ability for a critic to have. Most critics write for a large audience with diverse tastes and preferences. A critic must be able to think of how people with a broad array of preferences will respond to a wine.
All of this raises questions about whether we should prefer critics who share our taste preferences. Don’t we learn more from critics whose range of responses fall well outside our own?
Below are the other posts in this series.
The primary purpose of wine criticism is to aid in appreciation. Thus, to provide an account of how wine criticism performs that function I provide an account of wine appreciation.
In order to appreciate a wine two conditions must obtain:
(1) Tasting the wine or accurately imagining it based on reliable perceptions of a component or stage of the wine; (for more detail see this post)
and (2) Responding appropriately to the wine. (See this post and this post for more details on appropriate response).
Thus the job of a wine critic is to help readers appreciate a wine by communicating the properties and appropriate responses to those properties that a wine makes available, as well as reasons for why those responses are appropriate.