What Is the Purpose of Wine Criticism?

by Dwight Furrow

Although wine writing takes diverse forms, wine evaluation is a persistent theme of much wine writing. When particular wines, wineries or vintages are under discussion, at some point the writer will typically turn to assessing wine quality. The major publications devoted to wine include tasting notes that not only describe a wine but indicate its quality, often with the help of a numerical score, and most wine blogs and online wine magazines include a wine evaluation component that is central to their mission.

But if, as readers, we are to make a judgment about whether an evaluation is legitimate or not we must know what its purpose is. What are these evaluations aiming to achieve? Is wine criticism similar to film, book, or art criticism? Or is it more akin to the evaluation of consumer products? The practice of using a numerical score to indicate quality is controversial and much has been written about it. But an assessment of that practice depends on answering this question about the goal or goals of wine criticism.

I suspect the most popularly held view is that the goal of wine criticism is to help consumers make purchases or decide which wine to experience. Positive evaluations are used by winery PR departments to help sell wine. Wine shops use “shelf talkers” which include some evaluative language to guide consumers toward a decision about what to buy. The alleged purpose of wine scores is to give consumers, who may not be well versed in the arcane language of wine evaluation, an easy way of judging whether they will enjoy the wine or not. Many wine evaluations include reference to the wine’s price and the degree to which it provides value. In fact, investors’ decisions about which wines or wine futures to purchase for long term investment depend almost entirely on critical judgments about the quality of individual wines or vintages. All of this supports the view that wine criticism is about purchasing decisions.

It’s worth noting that Monroe Beardsley, one of the most prominent 20th Century philosophers writing on aesthetics, thought that the primary aim of criticism is to guide readers in making decisions about which music, books, films or paintings to experience. So this view has a reliable philosophical pedigree.

No doubt reviews are used to make purchasing decisions. The question is whether this is the primary or constitutive aim of a wine review. In other words, is the practice of providing consumers information to shape their purchases part of the essential nature of wine reviews or are they serving some alternative or larger purpose?

Despite Beardsley’s argument, the claim that the goal of criticism in general is to aid purchasing decisions is not a particularly plausible view of much evaluative writing about books, film, or art. A good deal of critical evaluation of these items is aimed at the scholarly research of academics or contributes to a larger discourse about the norms, critical standards, available styles and genres, or future direction of the aesthetic communities that form around these objects. To reduce all of this communal discourse to “purchasing decisions” is to miss the importance of critical discourse to various aesthetic communities.

Similarly, I think it’s implausible to think purchasing decisions are the primary function of wine reviews. If that is their primary function why are there few negative reviews? At best, wines are dinged for failing to meet expectations because of a bad vintage, but we seldom see reviews about wines being aesthetic failures. Surely directing people away from a bad purchase is as important as directing them toward a good one. Consumer reviews of other products can often be quite scathing but we don’t see that so much in wine.

Secondly, with the exception of the brief tasting notes in publications such as Wine Spectator, many wine reviews provide context for their evaluation, pointing out similarities and differences compared to other wines in its comparison class, noting factors regarding wine making and viticulture that influence the wine, and discussing the history of the winery and its story. In other words, such reviews seem designed to enhance the meaningfulness of the experience of tasting the wine. It’s true that enhancing meaning might influence someone’s decision about what to buy. But this kind of information also enhances the experience while enjoying the wine and can be useful after the experience as well, cementing one’s memory of the experience and providing knowledge of its significance. For reviews that provide context, there is no reason to privilege the purchase decision as the primary target of the review. (Just a personal anecdote: I almost never read wine reviews prior to purchasing. I don’t need them for that purpose. I do read them after tasting the wine and taking my notes in order to learn more about what I’m tasting. But also I like to check my impressions against others who have tasted the wine because it teaches me something about my own palate and preferences.)

Finally, many wine reviews are of wines that no ordinary mortal can afford or are not available because they are fully allocated upon release. This is perhaps the most salient counter-example to the notion that wine reviews are primarily about purchasing decisions. If wines are fully allocated or to be delivered only to wine club members they are already purchased, which rules out their having that sort of influence. Yet tasting notes are usually included in shipments of such wines. Thus, they must be serving some other purpose.

The Burial of Count Orgaz

To continue with the comparison of wine and art criticism, a more plausible view of the purpose of art criticism is that art critics are trying to shape our perceptions, how we view a painting or hear a musical work. Philosopher Arnold Isenberg articulated the canonical defense of this view in the mid-20th Century, arguing that when a critic praises the figures in El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz for their “wavelike contour”, that description is causing the reader to perceive something in the painting that the critic admires. The accuracy of the description is not of primary concern; what matters is that the reader’s perceptions have been properly directed toward the feature the critic wants her readers to experience.

This view of art criticism can be directly applied to wine reviews. When a critic favorably evaluates a wine because of its “richly evocative aromas of tar and dried roses which is typical of the best wines of this type”, she is directing our attention to those features of the wine. We might not perceive precisely the same flavors and aromas as the critic. But nevertheless, when the description succeeds, we perceive what she considers essential to appreciating the wine. The aim is not a true description so much as an attempt to properly direct attention.

This seems to me to be on the right track. Given that wine is a vague object, one of the virtues of communicating about wine is that other people may perceive something that an individual might miss. This is certainly the case when a critic has vast experience tasting wines of the relevant type and a finely honed capacity for discernment. This capacity to direct attention is one of the virtues of wine reviews. But the problem with this as a full account of the purpose of wine reviews is that it applies only to people currently experiencing the wine or who can remember clearly its flavor profile. As I noted above, many reviews are written about wines we can never acquire, and Isenberg’s theory would not apply at all in these cases. Isenberg writes that “reading criticism, otherwise than in the presence, or with direct recollection, of the objects discussed is a blank and senseless employment”. That is not at all obvious. Reading descriptions of old vintages of Bordeaux premier crus is hardly “blank and senseless” however much it may pale in comparison to actually tasting them.

More recently, philosopher Noel Carroll in his book On Criticism asserts that “evaluation is an essential feature of criticism such that if a piece of discourse lacks explicit or implicit evaluation, it would not qualify as criticism”. Furthermore, he claims, critics must supply good reasons for their evaluations, not merely a verdict. It is that evaluation that distinguishes criticism from other forms of writing that employ description or analysis.

I am perhaps displaying a philosophical prejudice in asserting that wine reviews that give a verdict without an explanation are less than useless. Be that as it may, I agree with Carroll that a proper review of anything ought to supply reasons. But that doesn’t address the question of what the purpose of the evaluation is. If it isn’t to influence a purchase what is its aim? Why are we concerned with the critic’s reasons? Furthermore, I have reservations about the claim that criticism must involve evaluation. Wine writers often describe a positive aesthetic experience without objectively assessing the wine or supplying an ultimate verdict. This is because the aim of wine criticism is appreciation not necessarily evaluation.

How do we mark the difference between appreciation and evaluation? It seems to me they have different goals. The goal of appreciation is to savor what is there in the object and to discover the various kinds of experiences available to someone who is fully open to and attuned to the object. These experiences would include knowing the meaning and significance of the object as well as savoring its sensory properties. By contrast, the goal of evaluation is to render a verdict and assign a ranking and thus must focus on properties of a work that can be specified and articulated in advance as markers of quality. Appreciation is open to all the properties of an object even if they have little to do with quality.

The goal of the wine critic then is to aid in the appreciation of a wine by revealing what is there to be appreciated. This might involve pointing out those properties that also figure in an evaluation. Thus, wine criticism often includes giving advice about purchases and investments. It also includes directing a reader’s attention to those properties that are there to be savored when the wine is in front of her. Thus, it incorporates Isenberg’s point about the importance of aiding perception. But wine criticism has a larger goal—to provide an account of the meaning and significance of a wine, its place in the wine community, and the kinds of experiences one can have with it.

Why would this be important for people who do not have the wine in front of them or who cannot purchase the wine and will never experience it? For the wine community, knowing the meaning and significance of a wine, the kinds of experiences available when drinking it, and especially whether it represents a new trend or flavor experience is important information independently of one’s ability to experience the wine. The wine community is an aesthetic community held together by norms, standards of excellence, and especially a shared search for differences, flavor experiences that stand out for their uniqueness or originality. Thus, the job of the critic is in part discovery, a search for gems that deserve recognition. As an aesthetic system, wine appreciation thrives on differentiation. It’s the critic’s job to support that system by giving recognition to those differences. This is why it is essential to have critics with different palates who can expand the community’s capacity to discover difference and supply it with meaning. That reviews can be used for members of the community to decide what to experience is a useful service compatible with the larger aim to enhance appreciation.

For more on the aesthetics of wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution