Monday, April 25, 2011

Wine Critics

In defence of the wine critic

Published: 25 Apr 11
In the introduction to Table Talk – Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2007), UK food critic A.A. Gill writes “people often say, ‘Seeing as you know so much, why don’t you open a restaurant?’ And I always think of Brendan Behan’s famous quote about us. ‘Critics are like eunuchs in the harem – they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.’ Like so much of Behan’s work, that’s smart but not quite right. Critics may well be like eunuchs in a harem who know how it’s done, having seen it done every day, they just don’t fancy it done to them.”

I’ve recently been considering the difference between wine criticism and just about every other form of criticism. The average punter about to make a purchasing decision is quite happy to be influenced by endorsement from an expert in just about all fields of endeavour except wine. With wine, it’s very often a case of “I-don’t-know-much-but-I-know-what-I-like-and-don’t anybody-tell-me-different”.

How to explain this? To some extent, the reason wine criticism is so easily dismissed is because there’s little at stake when it comes to buying a bottle of wine relative to just about anything else. Discover that you’ve chosen a style you don’t like, then simply chug it back and move on. If it’s really not to your taste, toss it down the drain. The financial impact is relatively insignificant.

Let me make two arguments in favour of professional wine criticism. For one thing, it plays a role in “improving the breed”. The constant bickering and infighting among the small group that constitutes South African wine writing is often bemoaned as unduly negative but when we’re not writing about each other and actually writing about wine, it’s no bad thing. The industry and all the players in it get subjected to a level of scrutiny that can only lead to change for the better. By enforcing basic quality standards as well as keeping alive the debate about different styles, the critic plays a crucial role in ensuring the industry constantly improves.

In a less abstract sense, however, the critic serves the needs of both consumer and producer in conveying information. The beauty of fine wine production is that it defies consolidation – the market is completely overtraded and the average consumer has neither the time or the resources to navigate it on his own so must defer to the professional commentator.

From a producer perspective, there is an onus on each of them to find some way to stand out from the crowd. The challenge is to make themselves sufficiently interesting to warrant being communicated about, to differentiate themselves from the competition and ultimately motivate consumers to buy. There are plenty of ways of doing this but at least at the commercial end of the market, ratings and competition success remain hugely important and hence the need for trained palates to pass judgement.

Essentially, the role of critics is to facilitate a happy union between producer and consumer, and perhaps another reason why they might be compared to eunuchs in the harem.

For more by Christian Eedes, visit
Readers Comments

" What utter drivel! To imply that wine writers serve some higher purpose is so self aggrandizing and condescending. They are nothing more than commentators, self appointed advocates shouting their comments from the peanut gallery. That is not to say that their comments have no merit, but ultimately these comments are nothing more than opinion pieces, and their observations no more noteworthy than those of any consumer. As for their contribution to the producer perspective. There is nothing that will get you more noticed than free samples and bribery with perks and benefits. It is no surprise that the big advertisers in all the major publications always get plenty of press, and plenty of high ratings. That is commerce. "

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