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What do you want from a wine critic?

Lots of people write about wine. Too many, probably. So who should you listen to? Let's put this a little differently what are the criteria we should look for in an ideal critic?

  • Honesty. Goes without saying, really. You don't want a critic who isn't calling it as they see it. Clearly, financial motivation like being paid for a review is fatal to wine criticism. Fortunately, this sort of activity is rare in the wine circles I frequent. There's a more subtle bias, though, which comes when the writer forgets who they are writing for. When a critic reviews wines, she or he must put aside any personal relationship with the producer, or fond memories of nice visits and lunches, or even just normal human traits such as a desire not to upset peoples' feelings.
  • Ability to taste well. Our senses of taste and smell aren't all that precise. And people differ in their ability to perceive certain flavours and smells. For example, around a third of tasters aren't very good at detecting bitterness. You want your critic to have a good sense of taste and smell that is consistent and reliable. In this sense, were thinking of the biological ability of the critic, just as we might the physical prowess of an athlete.
  • A good palate. The biological ability to detect flavours and smells is just part of the equation. Great critics will also have a good palate that is able to discriminate well between good and bad bottles. This is in part a matter of 'good taste': I want a critic who can guide me to interesting wines that I'll enjoy. This is where there's a bit of a distinction between wine writers and wine critics. Critics stand or fall by their palates. Writers can still succeed even if they haven't got great palates: it happens. There are well known critics who can't write; there are well known tasters with dodgy palates.
  • Bravery. Critics have to have the guts to say unpopular things. There's no place for critics who are overly respectful of reputations, or who are too afraid to go out on a limb and be the first to review new producers.
  • Experience. If you want to be a useful critic, you need broad, deep experience of wine. I'd much rather listen to a critic who can put the wines they are tasting into a broader context. As an example, I often find reviews of Australian wines written by people who just know Australian wine a bit hollow; I also find reviews of Australian wines by people who never drink Australian wine to be hollow. 
  • An open mind. I don't much like reading peoples' prejudices about wines they are tasting.
  • Intelligence. Critics need to be able to make intelligent calls about the wines they are tasting this requires marshalling lots of different bits of information gathered from different bits of the brain and then fusing this all together to reach a sensible conclusion.
  • Curiosity. A good critic will always be looking for something new, without falling into the trap of mistaking novelty for innovation. They will also avoid being obsessed with the strange, the obscure and the weird at the cost of ignoring the classics.  

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