do you want from a
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
- 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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