It’s never a good idea for wine critics to defend the field of wine criticism against its critics, because they end up sounding whiney and defensive. I got plenty of criticism during my time, and I never took the bait, but Eric Asimov did last week, and he shouldn’t have.
His column, which ran in the Wednesday New York Times on July 18, was a rebuttal to what Eric called an “attack on wine critics” that appeared on the liberal news and opinion website, Vox. The Vox article argued several points, all of which undermine the importance of wine critics like Eric (and me, when I was working). The most important is this: “community wine reviews,” like CellarTracker’s, are better than, or at least as good as, professionally individual wine reviews (like those of Eric or Jancis Robinson), especially given that CellarTracker is free, whereas Jancis charges $110 a year for her subscription, and to read Eric, you have to subscribe to the New York Times.
(Parenthetically, that’s why I can’t link you to Eric’s column. The Times’ firewall is very effective! But if you Google “every few years, an article” Asimov, you’ll find in second place an Untitled link to a PDF of it.)
The Vox premise is harmless enough. All it’s saying is that crowdsourced wine reviews tend to correlate very closely with individual reviews, which objectively is true, according to Vox’s data. But Eric took the finding personally. “Pitchforks Are Out, Again, for Wine Critics” he, or his editor, headlined his column, letting you know, even before you read the first sentence, just what Eric’s going to say about those wielding the “pitchforks.”
He resorts to an ad hominem argument in blasting the study Vox cited, calling it “dense [and] statistics-heavy,” as though the fact that a study contains numbers and tables somehow makes it suspect, which of course isn’t true. He attacks, too, a video that accompanied the Vox article which showed Vox employees blind-tasting wines. “While they were able to identify the most expensive bottles with some consistency, they far preferred the cheaper ones,” Eric wrote, adding, “The conclusion: ‘Expensive wine is for suckers.’” This is a conclusion that rankles Eric a great deal.
But to me, the most shocking part of Eric’s column lies in his statement that “It’s not surprising to see this [sort of attack on critics] again, at a time when knowledge and expertise have been dismissed at the highest levels…”. You know exactly whom Eric’s not-so-subtle remark is directed at: Donald J. Trump and his legions of fact-free followers.
I defer to no one in my condemnation of and contempt for Trump and Trumpism and its war against scientific and historic fact. Readers of my blog know that I’ve warned about this dangerous know-nothingism for a long time. But to equate questioning the value of wine critics with attacks on the science of global warming is hyperbolic to the extreme. It’s a desperate resort to the emotions of the Times’ readers: Eric knows that the vast majority of them loathe Trump’s war on “knowledge and expertise,” and he seems to be trying to convince them to turn against critics of wine critics, as well.
It’s a positively Trumpian move.
Let me give my judgment, after tasting hundreds of thousands of wines professionally, at the highest levels of the industry, for twenty-five years. First, critics don’t agree amongst themselves. That should tell you something. Secondly, inexpensive wine can be as good as expensive wine. I need to parse this sentence, because it’s complicated. First, “inexpensive” and “expensive” are obviously relative terms. Second, when I say “good,” that also is a relative word: “goodness” in wine (as in films) is strictly in the eye of the beholder. You might love that $11 bottle of Croatian white wine. Jancis or Eric (or I) might hate it. That doesn’t make your taste any less authentic than theirs’, which is the whole point of the Vox article. Eric, who has devoted a lifetime to the knowledge and understanding of wine, deservedly wants to be acknowledged; when his “knowledge and expertise” are dismissed so lightly, he becomes affronted—as well he might.
But we’re not concerned here with Eric’s feelings. We’re concerned with the best approach for consumers to take, who are overwhelmed with the mysteries of wine. Eric suggests that the smart consumer will turn to a professional like him for the best advice. But the Vox article says definitively that crowd-sourced reviews are at least as correct, or right, or spot-on (whatever word you like) as the reviews of a single professional. And I simply can’t disagree with that. It’s true; it’s a fact; it makes sense, and there’s no getting around it.
This isn’t to say that wine critics don’t provide a very valuable service. If you find a critic whose tastes align with yours (no easy task), then you should feel free to follow that critic. Critics have the additional benefit that, because of their knowledge and expertise, they’re a delight to read. I love reading good wine critics (including Eric), because they write so well, and they’re able to put a wine into context, beyond their mere hedonistic review. (My favorite current writer is Benjamin Lewin.) Wine is complicated, elusive, the product of the marriage of history, geography, grape and fermentation science, human artistry, climate, entrepreneurial business and marketing and so on; a good writer, like Eric, captures these complexities for us and educates us about the wine, which makes its consumption all the more enjoyable.
So I’m certainly not dissing wine critics! But I am saying that to write a whiney, defensive tome like Eric did is not in his best interests, or those of knowledgeable wine criticism. Very few people read the Vox article because very few people read Vox. Eric’s position atop the heap in American wine writing is unchallenged. He shouldn’t have wasted his time.