02 March 2008

The hobgoblin of little minds

“Another wine that I underrated (probably because of my generally conservative nature regarding new estates, and I had only tasted one previous vintage from this one) […]”Robert M. Parker, Jr., The Hedonist’s Gazette

“Neither price nor the reputation of the producer/grower affect the rating in any manner.”Robert M. Parker, Jr., an explanation of his methods

The world’s most powerful critic caught in a contradiction. Is it a backhanded admission of error? Or is it blatant hypocrisy?

How about none of the above?

Parker hasn’t (yet) responded to this contradiction, revealed on his own online forum, and the resulting thread has spun off in a predictable way: an exceedingly arbitrary debate about the pros and cons of blind tasting. While that’s certainly an interesting topic, it’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. Instead, I’m here to defend Parker. At least, after a fashion.

Every critic eventually contradicts himself. Computers, if programmed correctly, are perfectly consistent. People are not, and probably can’t be. Critics will practice regular inconsistency when it comes to individual wines, and while there are always a worshipful few who can’t seem to grasp the subjective and ever-changing nature of criticism, most rational people understand that this is simply the way wine interacts with the taster. Wine is a (more or less) natural product that can be different from bottle to bottle, taste to taste, and time to time.

However, when it comes to statements about the very nature of criticism – as described in the above-linked statement of Parker’s methodology, for example – people seem much less forgiving of inconsistency, and resort to imposing ever more rigid strictures on the critic’s methodology (e.g. “all wines must be tasted double-blind”). Or they’re forced into impossible and indefensible rhetorical acrobatics in an effort to explain away the inconsistency (it’s those worshipful few again, causing problems). The fact is, there’s no way to reconcile the two statements quoted above. Parker is mistaken (or, if one feels they can read his mind and his motivations, lying) in one of the two. In the absence of further clarification from him, it’s up to the concerned reader to decide which is his true position.

Of course, there is a way that they can both be correct, and that’s if they’re applied consecutively, rather than simultaneously. Parker might well be considering reputation when he evaluates some wines, and ignoring it when he evaluates others.* Certainly, it would be a natural human inclination, and despite Parker’s allegedly superhuman tasting abilities, he’s still just a human being, with all the normal flaws inherent in the species. Just like the rest of us.

For those who demand absolutes from their critics, this is an irreconcilable inconsistency. And they’re welcome to move on to whichever critics they find to be reliably inerrant, since Parker must now be excluded from that set. But I would like to suggest that the problem is not whether Parker is being inconsistent or not, and only partially that some people don’t actually understand the practice of criticism, but rather that he, himself, has fallen into an absolutist trap of his own construction.

Who makes a bigger deal about their methods and ethics than any other major wine critic? Parker, of course. From this position, he issues far-too-frequent attacks on other critics, and at times amateurs; a habit that is, by far, his most distasteful characteristic. (To be fair, he is frequently the victim of similar attacks, though that doesn’t excuse them on either side.) By doing so, he obviously opens himself up to attacks based on inconsistencies like the one above. But he wouldn’t have to defend such obvious inconsistencies if he didn’t take such an absolutist line. By saying “I do this, and only this,” and then being seen to be doing the opposite, he makes a mockery of the rigid methodological code he so loudly trumpets.

The solution, of course, is to take on a more liberal view of the possible ethical and methodological approaches to criticism. This is not to say that one should abandon all ethical codes – to be sure, there are critics who think that Parker isn’t strict enough – but simply to suggest that basing one’s reputation on ethics and methods rather than the results is fundamentally misguided. People may listen to Parker’s (or any other critic’s) ethical pronouncements, but his power and reputation are due to consumers’ trust in his results (that is, his wine evaluations). Using those ethics and methods to heap abuse on other critics is unseemly on the face of it, but more so when it turns out that the source of the abuse doesn’t even follow his own advice.

Parker shouldn’t be criticized for contradicting himself. And he wouldn’t be, did he not so gleefully wrap himself in the shield of absolutism when it comes to his methods. Since the “don’t contradict yourself” solution is generally unavailable to humans (including Parker), that leaves only the other option. An option he – and all critics – would do well to consider.

* Parker’s statement about price and reputation is, of course, meant as a direct attack on critics who could do 75% of their work without actually tasting the wines; critics for whom label and reputation mean nearly everything. Those critics exist (though as a smaller percentage of total critics than they did when Parker started…and he can probably take a large portion of the credit for that), and they’re a plague on the calling. Certainly, the number of unheralded wines that have nonetheless been heralded by Parker over the years suggests that he has not, as a rule, been unduly restrained by his own doubts when it comes to a young, untested brand.

No comments: