07 December 2005

The philosophy of wine criticism

Millions of words have undoubtedly been written on the meaning and practice of criticism, and I have no intent of adding to that din beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, it is worth a few moments to explain what I view to be the philosophical basis of wine criticism, in an attempt to support what will be said elsewhere on its ethics and its practice.

Why criticize?

Because it is in our nature. We are creatures of emotion, and we are creatures of opinion. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked. That we are also creatures of communication seems to me to inevitably lead to the practice of criticism. At every moment of life, we exercise judgment – here, for example, I decide to employ one word over another via a judgment that one is better-suited to my needs – and we communicate that judgment in ways both internal and external. Externally-focused judgment is simply the expression of opinion, and that is the basis of criticism, which is merely a formalization of that inherent human trait.

Why not criticize?

We are creatures of emotion because we are creatures of feeling, and judgment can be difficult when you or your work are its target. Yet this, too, is fundamental – not necessarily to our beings, but to our society – for without judgment there are no standards, and without standards we cannot advance and improve in ways that are meaningful and helpful to us as people. Nonetheless, the most common objection to criticism is that it carries the potential for emotional damage. This is unquestionably true, and an inevitable fact of criticism, but it is not enough to invalidate the practice.

Why critics?

You know the saying: “opinions are like [maligned body part]…everybody’s got one.” This is true. On the other hand, there is also this (frequently attributed to Harlan Ellison, but probably not original to him): “everybody doesn’t have the right to an opinion, everybody has the right to an informed opinion.”

Some will see the latter statement as unduly elitist. They are no doubt correct, from one point of view. Another group will see the former condition as insufficiently rigorous for utility; informational anarchy. They, too, are correct from one point of view. The critic inhabits the world of the latter group, though this may or may not be his audience. It is true that anyone can criticize, but it is not true that anyone can criticize with equal authority, and it is definitely not true that anyone can criticize with equal utility. The uninformed opinion can be emotionally satisfying to its source, but only by accident can it be useful beyond its author. There are several reasons for this.

The informed and authoritative opinion can exclude by the very means of its expression. This is because most fields of criticism have developed their own communicative traditions. The language of wine criticism is rife with terms and modes of expression that are undoubtedly impenetrable to the casual and uninformed reader. This is something the careful critic will consider, though whether or not it informs their work is a personal decision. On the other hand, it virtually guarantees that an uniformed opinion will stand out as such, because the terminology and syntax are unfamiliar.

Adding to this is the issue of context. Authoritative criticism becomes so by its ability to contextualize information and opinion. There is scientific basis for this: when studying the brain activity of wine professionals vs. complete novices in response to the act of tasting wine, the differences found by researchers are not emotive or sensory, but analytical. The expert and the novice “taste” the same things, but the expert has the ability to put those sensory impressions into meaningful language, and they have this ability because of experience and the contextual authority it provides. (This is an extremely positive finding for the wine novice, for it suggests that the majority of differences between them and any given expert are not necessarily matters of inherent sensory skill, but rather of training, and that achieving expert status is a mere matter of learning and practice.) The novice, lacking this contextual ability, can only respond to an object of criticism on a more purely emotive level.

This level of response has, somewhat uncharitably, been called “caveman” criticism. What this means is the basic, gut-level responses of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” that form the foundation of criticism become an end in themselves, and are not expanded upon. The populist and democratic appeal of this notion is undeniable, but of what use is it? Unless caveman number one and caveman number two have identical tastes, or one is willing to subordinate their tastes to the other, nothing of utility is communicated. This is unsatisfactory. A critic must ask, and answer, “why?”

It follows, then, that for a critic to be useful he must communicate judgment and opinion with some measure of authority. This means some measure of academic study (one cannot confuse acidity and tannin and be an effective wine critic), it means broad experience in tasting a variety of wines and wine styles, and it means the ability to separate the objective from the subjective and communicate as much of both as is necessary to support a criticism. It also means accepting and embracing the fundamental nature of bias. Incidentally, none of this invalidates the broad field of amateur criticism; this is not a plea to “leave it to the experts,” but rather a roadmap to improved criticism at all levels.

It also follows that a critic must be effective at communication. An unreadable criticism can be forgiven if delivered in an unfamiliar language, but otherwise is virtually useless. The mode of expression can and should differ – no one style will satisfy every audience – but the true intent of the author must be on display and comprehensible to the consumer of the information. This is much less about spell-checking or grammar than it is about clarity; a work of criticism can be as prosaic and scientific or as metaphorically fanciful as one wishes, but at the end the reader should be able to say, “yes, I know what that critic thought of that wine.”

Why not critics?

Because everybody has their own taste. Critics serve an important function in a world with almost too many options, but can never and should never replace or supersede one’s own judgment. This is why wine writing is such a crucial adjunct to wine criticism; the consumers of criticism must have the opportunity to develop their own analytical and authoritative responses to wine, and pure critics rarely fulfill that role. But beyond critics and writers, there exists an infinitely more crucial source of information: personal experience. A successful critic becomes so by the breadth of their context, and a successful consumer becomes so by similar practice. To use critics effectively, one must taste as widely, as deeply and as analytically as possible in order to properly contextualize the information provided. Paradoxically, this reduces the need for reliance on critics.

This is, in my opinion, not a bad thing.

(Reproduced in its entirety from oenoLogic, the best gosh darn site in its entire zip code.)

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