Critiquing the wine critics: what role should personal preference play?

We really loved Eric Asimov's column this week in the New York Times, "A Wine Critic’s Realm Isn’t a Democracy."

"Should wine critics allow their personal preferences to color their critical views?" asks Eric. "Or should they remain neutral on questions regarding a wine’s style, regardless of how they feel about it?"

The piece, inspired by a recent trans-Atlantic social media discussion on the subject among high-profile wine writers, doesn't hold back when it comes to criticizing those who believe the wine writer's role should be driven by objectivity.

"I believe a critic’s point of view is crucial," writes Eric. "My job is not to act as an impartial arbiter of bottles, but as a guide, leading readers on a quest to explore what is most beautiful, fascinating, distinctive, curious, delicious and moving in wine. I hope to inspire curiosity, promote ease and comfort with wine, and provoke discussion and debate."

However polite and diplomatic Eric may be, his observations and affirmations strike at the core of a heated debate that has been going on for many years now.

As wine enthusiasm, appreciation, and connoisseurship have grown over the last two decades in the U.S., so has the popularity of the 100-point scoring system that was initially developed by Robert Parker, Jr. of Wine Advocate and then later adopted by the editors of Wine Spectator and scores of other publications as well as citizen wine bloggers.

And the points phenomenon has made a significant impact on the way wine is marketed and sold in this country. Some would even go as far to say that the point system wields remarkable influence over the way wines are made — here and abroad.

As the wine industry saying goes, if a wine scores less than 90 points, you can't sell it; if it scores more than 90 points, you can't find it on the shelves.

Take, for example, my cousin Marty. He's in his mid-60s, a lifelong civil rights activist, a law professor, and certified bon vivant. He loves eating and drinking well and has the financial means to eat out in fine dining establishments on a regular basis.

And he, like many of his peers, takes a copy of his favorite point-based wine magazine to the local wine shop and selects bottles — Rhône is his favorite category — using the scores as the sole criterion for his purchases.

And the fact of the matter is that Marty — a sensible and sensitive person, who knows and loves fine dining and fine wines — is perfectly content with his approach to wine buying. It works great for him. Amen... so be it.

But beyond the ministry of the wine writer, as it were, in other words, the mission and responsibility of the wine writer, I believe that it's not a question of subjectivity or objectivity in evaluating and reviewing the wines. No, the real heart of the matter is that wine writing by its very nature, and no matter how scientific or technical it may be, is intrinsically subjective.

And as much as I respect and admire some of the writers who use a point-based system (Antonio Galloni is my favorite among them), I believe that even they would be hard-pressed to defend the notion that they are truly impersonal in their work.

I'll spare you the post-modern critical theory lecture on the nature of subjectivity in discourse. Common sense is enough to reveal that any wine writer, when tasting a given wine on a given day, is expressing a very personal experience. This becomes even more obvious when you consider the fact that wine changes from day to day in part because of its evolution and in part because of how it has been handled and the climatic conditions in which it has been poured.

The thing that makes wine so special — at least in my view — is that it is a deeply personal experience. And when those personal experiences align ("I love that wine, too!"), wine becomes a catalyst in human interaction — all too human interaction.

Click here to read Eric's excellent article and to read the blog post that inspired it.

—Jeremy Parzen
Follow Jeremy @DoBianchi.