In Defense of Wine Critics

by Dwight Furrow

It’s fashionable to criticize wine critics for a variety of sins: they’re biased, their scores don’t mean anything, and their jargon is unintelligible according to the critics of critics. Shouldn’t we just drink what we like? Who cares what critics think? In fact, whether the object is literature, painting, film, music, or wine, criticism is important for establishing evaluative standards and maintaining a dialogue about what is worth experiencing and why. The following is an account of how wine criticism aids wine appreciation by way of providing an account of wine appreciation.

Wine critics engage in a variety of activities. They evaluate wines by saying whether they are good or bad, often in order to advise readers about which wines they should purchase or seek to experience. Via their tasting notes, they guide their reader’s perceptions of a wine getting them to taste something they otherwise might have missed. Critics explain winemaking and viticultural practices, feature winemakers and explain how their inspiration or approach to winemaking influences their wines. They discuss styles of winemaking, changes in those styles as they occur, and new developments in the wine world. They discuss the quality of vintages, the characteristics of varietals and wine regions, and describe their own reactions to a wine.

The most plausible goal that ties all these activities together is that the critic aims to help her readers appreciate the wines about which she writes. Wine criticism is not just loosely related to wine appreciation; the purpose of wine criticism is to aid appreciation and thus we need an account of what it means to appreciate a wine.

There are of course many ways to appreciate a wine depending on what one is trying to achieve. If you sell wine, you could appreciate a wine because it is a big seller. You might appreciate a wine because it gets you buzzed, because talking about it enables you to impress your friends with your knowledge, or because it greases the wheels of social commerce. You might appreciate a wine because of how it contributes to a meal.

But sometimes we drink wine in order to appreciate the wine itself, to fully experience it with aesthetic attention, to discover all its features. With this form of appreciation, we’re concerned with our own experience of the wine, with enjoyment as its aim. This is the form of appreciation that anchors wine criticism and other kinds of serious communication about wine. Appreciation, in this sense, is not a matter of knowing facts about the wine. You can know that the wine is a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, that it gets high scores from the critics, that it was fermented in amphora and aged in oak barrels that have been blessed by Cistercian monks and made from trees inhabited by wood nymphs. You can even know that its harmony evokes thoughts of divine perfection. You would still not necessarily appreciate it.

A necessary condition for appreciating a wine is to be aware of the wine’s properties via modalities that give reliable access to the wine—taste, smell, and tactile impressions in the mouth. To appreciate a wine you have to taste it. That seems uncontroversial. But it seems to me requiring direct perceptual acquaintance would leave out two cases in which appreciation happens without directly perceiving the finished wine. In some cases, accurately imagining the finished wine can give one an appreciation of it. Winemakers often imagine the finished wine when tasting the grapes in the vineyard or at some earlier stage in the winemaking process. To the extent they imagine it correctly, they have some appreciation of the wine. Critics do as well when they accurately imagine how a young wine will age.  In both these exceptional cases there is perceptual acquaintance of something—the grapes or the young wine—but not direct perception of the object being appreciated. Appreciation is a matter of degree. Accurately imagining a finished wine based on an earlier stage does not give us full appreciation but it nevertheless gives us a degree of appreciation. Thus, I would suggest a necessary condition of appreciating a wine is tasting it or accurately imagining it based on reliable perceptions of a stage of the wine. Imagination can play a role in appreciation only when the person enjoying the appreciation has the experience and background to enable such imagination to be reliable.

However, perceiving the properties of a wine via reliable perceptual mechanisms is not sufficient for appreciation. One can taste a wine and note its properties without appreciating it. Thus, a second necessary condition of appreciating a wine involves responding appropriately to it. One example of perceiving the properties of a wine without appreciating it would be a blind taster performing an analytic tasting by identifying aroma notes or structural components. Blind tasting and noting a wine’s properties is a useful task in evaluating a wine, but it falls short of appreciation to the extent one doesn’t respond to the properties identified. I can note the presence of cassis and vanilla aromas without responding to them. However, if I go beyond noting their presence and highlight the prominence of cassis or the integration of the oak-derived vanilla aromas, then I’m responding to these properties in an appropriate way. Thus, by “responding” I mean assigning some sort of noteworthiness, meaning or significance to the properties perceived. Appreciation requires that kind of response.

However, appreciation does not require responding with approval. Neither does it entail a pleasurable response. Finding the vanilla cloying and excessive is a form of appreciation because I’m not merely tasting the property but responding to it by treating it as noteworthy. This distinction between identifying features of a wine and responding to them will be important in my discussion of the aims of wine criticism. Since, on my view, the purpose of criticism is to aid appreciation, a good critic must not only identify properties of the wine but react to them in an appropriate way.

What then do I mean by “appropriate response”? There are at least 4 types of appropriate responses one can have to a wine. The most common is a perceptual response—appreciating the silkiness of the tannins or the clarity of the aroma notes, for instance. But often our response is cognitive. For example, recognizing that an aroma profile is typical of a region or a distinctive expression of a varietal. That kind of response involves knowledge of wine regions and or varietals. Imagining how the wine might have been different had other vinification methods been used or coming to believe the wine was from a warm vintage are also cognitive activities. Affective or emotional responses are also appropriate—taking delight in or being disgusted by a wine. And finally, we can have motivational responses—being fascinated, charmed, repulsed, or craving a wine.

Some responses to wine involve a complex mix of all four categories. Recognizing that a wine is brooding or expresses joy, is comforting or tense, requires perceptual competence, imaginative comparisons between properties of the wine and emotional states, felt responses to the expressive properties of a wine, and sustained interest in the wine. Except for the kind of perceptual acquaintance noted above, one doesn’t have to have all these responses to appreciate a wine but having them will increase your appreciation.

Having identified what counts as appropriate responses to a wine, I should probably say something about what an inappropriate response would be. These would be examples in which an appropriate response is blocked by errors of judgment. Thus, part of appreciation is responding to a wine for the right reasons. Some inappropriate responses are rather obvious although common. If one’s response to a wine is solely based on its price, snob appeal or marketing materials rather than the wine itself, then these responses are inappropriate. One’s focus on the wine is impeded by failing to properly judge what is relevant.

If your appreciation of a wine is based on the fact it reminds you of long lost weekends at the beach then your focus is on your own responses rather than features of the wine–again, a misjudgment about relevance. Failure to consider the type of wine you’re drinking or facts about the origin of a wine is also inappropriate. Treating the daily porch pounder as if it were a work of art, or vice versa, is inappropriate as is complaining that a rosé lacks tannins or a German Auslese is sweet. Both are intended to be that way. Complaining that Amarone is high in alcohol without noting whether the alcohol is well handled or not is inappropriate. Because of the way it is made, Amarone will always be relatively high in alcohol. What matters is whether the alcohol is too obvious.

These are all cognitive mistakes that inhibit appreciation of a wine. There are also failures of attention. Because the aim of aesthetic attention is to experience as many aesthetically relevant properties of a wine as possible, if our attention to a wine is so one-dimensional that it blocks our attention to other dimensions, our response is likely to be inappropriate. For instance, if we’re attracted only to the superficial, easily accessible aspects of a wine, its power, softness, alcohol content, or ability to refresh, without considering the full range of its properties you haven’t really appreciated the wine. Although we often think of wine appreciation as primarily involving perception, reasoning correctly about a wine is also central to its appreciation.

The critic’s aim is not just to describe the wine but to enable the reader to understand that the properties mentioned are worthy of their attention and invite a response, whether positive or negative. The critic is responding to what is good or bad in a wine and is reporting that the wine moves her in some way and is letting the reader know how she is moved and to what degree, often by interpreting or elucidating features of the wine. Thus, the critic doesn’t simply inform us about facts but about facts that matter and explaining why they matter. For instance, making readers aware that a winery ages wine in amphora might make the wine’s perceived minerality more evident and important; highlighting the herbal notes in a Syrah may get drinkers to recognize the wine’s complexity or relationship to other wines.

As Terry Theise writes in his recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking,”If a wine doesn’t cause us to notice it why are we drinking it?” The critic must convey what’s noticeable about a wine that calls us to respond to it. Thus, the wine critic’s job is to make readers aware of a wine’s features, communicate the kinds of responses available because of those features, and what the reasons are for those responses. A critic could make readers aware of a wine’s features but fail to get them to respond appropriately because having the appropriate response is often up to the reader. The critic’s job is to explain what responses are available. Because the critic’s job is to report what responses are available including her own response, there is an inherent subjectivity involved in wine criticism. Although guarding against biases that prevent responding appropriately to a wine is important, the ultimate goal of the critic is not objectivity but to enable a reader’s responsiveness by using the critic’s own response as a reference point.

Which features of a wine are the most important to mention in a review? Obviously how the wine smells and tastes must be the focus along with any information that might explain why the wine tastes as it does. Most importantly, the critic must convey what’s noticeable about a wine that calls us to respond to it. A list of aroma notes isn’t sufficient. What the reader needs to know is why those aroma notes or textures are worth mentioning.

Which leads me to the most important feature of any wine that appreciation depends on—the degree to which a wine is distinctive. By “distinctive” I mean variation that carries with it value or high quality. For a wine to be distinctive it must be different from its competitors. Variation is the life blood of the culture of wine. What makes Barolo (or Bordeaux, Rioja, etc.) important as a region is that the wines made there are distinctive. There is no other location in the world that makes wine that tastes like Barolo. The top wine regions in the world are recognized as such because their products show significant variation from lesser regions with less distinctive products. Furthermore, within Barolo, the prestige and price of, for instance, Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, is in part a result of the wine being distinctively different from other producers in the region, and particular vineyards are valued because the grapes produce variations that are highly valued.

Wine appreciation also includes an appreciation of vintage variation. Much of the excitement of a new vintage for enthusiasts results from the expectation that each vintage will show distinct characteristics that can be compared and contrasted with earlier vintages. And the process of aging wines is interesting precisely because each bottle ages as an individual and thus can show variations that surprise (or disappoint) when opened.

Without variation as a dominant value, wine would be as uninteresting as orange juice or milk and there would be no reason for the vast number of brands and the price differentials that distinguish them. It is variation that makes wine the cultural icon it has become. Thus, because of the importance of variation, it’s the primary job of the wine critic to track variation and report it to her readers. The ability to recognize and put into words how a wine varies from its competition is the most important ability a wine critic needs to be successful.

That is the most important reason to pay attention to wine criticism.

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