Critics play an incredibly significant role in the wine industry. Some consumers follow critics’ recommendations almost exclusively, and many more at least take into account what critics have to say about a wine before choosing to buy it. Then there are those little medals on bottles, normally from wine shows, which are extremely influential, particularly at low to mid price points (i.e. the vast majority of wine sold). From the point of view of producers these things are sales tools. High scores from critics and/or medals from wine shows translate directly into sales. And it makes sense that they should - if you are standing in front of a wall of wine bottles in a supermarket or wine store it seems quite reasonable that medals are used to guide your choice.
(Although – pay attention to what is on that sticker. There are bottles out there with “medals” on them that are nothing more than shiny, round stickers designed to attract the consumer who will assume that if a wine has a medal then it must be good. Some of these stickers have no association whatsoever with wine shows or any other type of critical review - they are purely a cynical marketing tactic.)
But wait, why do we take so much notice of what someone else thinks when it comes to wine? What about the subjectivity of taste? If I dislike a wine that an expert rates highly, is my taste wrong? Or does knowing more mean that I can appreciate wine more fully? Can I be helped to see or understand some things in a wine that I didn’t initially notice? Does one person’s concept of beauty hold any more value than someone else’s, regardless (or because) of their respective levels of knowledge?
Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, there is a lot of wank in the wine world. There are a lot of egos, a lot of claims made, and a lot of rubbish spoken. But there are also some of the most down to earth people imaginable, people who have phenomenal knowledge and skill, a genuine love for wine and a strong sense of humility to go with it. These people are happy to share what they think, and explain why they think it, without the aim of convincing you that their appraisal of wine is the gospel.
The critics who write or talk about wine as if their word is the final judgment bug the bijiminy out of me. No one person’s word is final. This is easily shown by the disparate appraisals various (well-respected) critics often give the same wine.
The “absolute judgment” attitude is also especially unhelpful for people who are new to wine. When new to any subject area, most people are easily intimidated by another’s confident pronouncements, and less likely to offer their own opinions, and to contribute and interact - which is normally how we learn the most effectively and gain the greatest benefit.
Let’s talk more about the subjectivity of taste. It’s tempting to say that if you enjoy the taste of a wine (whoever you might be, whatever your skill level and experience in tasting), then it’s a ‘Good Wine’, at least for you. It’s the non-judgmental approach, like saying that I don’t think any less of you just because you don’t love oysters like I do; I don’t think your opinion is worth any less than mine on the matter of whether they taste “good” or not. This seems like a sensible, morally healthy approach, and useful for less confident tasters to be told that their opinion of a wine (or oysters) has value.
However, appreciating wine is more complex than appreciating oysters. For example, there are questions of how the wine will age - with extra years in bottle or even just a little time in a glass, how the vintage and particular producer’s winemaking style might also affect development, or whether that overt oak character will eventually meld with the fruit flavours in the wine so it becomes a more coherent whole. Also, will it go well, or even be improved by pairing it with food, and does the wine have good typicity of variety and/or region? These questions take a good deal of prior knowledge to answer, or at least to take an educated guess at.
Now, some will say - who cares? They simply want to drink wine without thinking so hard about these types of things. And while of course that is a legitimate attitude, it is probably confined to those who aren’t particularly interested in wine as a topic past consuming it. Fine. But let’s leave those people to their Yellow Tail (no judgment, I promise…) and ignore them for now. For those who become fascinated by wine, the questions mentioned are only part of the enormous and seemingly never-ending subject matter, and only add to the richness of the experience of drinking wine.
Critics spend their careers learning about wine, as well as tasting and improving their palates. Often their general knowledge is immense. This puts them in a fantastic position to help improve everyone else’s experience.
But too often a critic’s role is seen as simply deciding if a wine is “good” or not. I think that a lot more consumers need to understand the limits of the value of critics’ recommendations. A good thing to keep in mind is that, almost certainly, one’s preferences will coincide with the preferences of some critics, and not at all with others. Finding the critics you gel with takes some time and effort (by which I mean drinking wine, so not really so bad), but once found, these opinions take on infinitely more value for the individual consumer than those of other critics. It is exactly the same principle whether you are comparing reviews from famous writers or taking advice from different staff members at your local wine store, or even recommendations from other wine-loving friends.
Always remember that even the most knowledgeable people will never know everything there is to know about wine. It is simply too vast a subject with too many variables and intricacies - from flora to fauna, soil to climate, the hands of men and women, all contributing to greater or lesser degrees and over differing periods of time. These things combined make for a product that can be infinitely varied, truly unique. With an element of subjectivism to the appreciation of it you have a recipe for something that starts to sound like art. Thomas Merton said that art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. That’s a wonderfully subjective experience, and it seems to me a perfect reason to love wine even more, regardless of what a critic says.
Words by: Karl Coombes