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Can a critic be really great if they don't make wine ?


Don Giovanni
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That's a really interesting question...

I think that there's a issue with wine (and other things) that doesn't pop up as much for food critics in that - not everybody is a winemaker every day. Most people make food every day - from one level to another (from microwave to haute cuisine).

However, a very small percentage of people make wine.

While wine critics should obviously be well versed in winemaking techniques to reach the height of their profession - it's not like they're adjusting sulfite/TA/pH or choosing yeast/bacteria strains to use regularly. It's much more likely that they're salting their food or choosing between sauteeing and braising on a daily basis.

I would bet that many critics can't explicitly explain why a wine is unsatisfactory - to a winemaker's satisfaction. Subjectivity is a big issue here. If a wine doesn't taste good to a critic, but it tastes great to the winemaker - and the critic can't explain in winemaker's lingo why they don't like it - then what use is it to the winemaker? He still believes he's making the wine he wants to. Obviously, the winemaker can be wrong as well - but if the critic can't identify that this yeast did this, or the sulphite management was crap, or the Total Acidity was too low - there isn't a lot to go on.

That said, the winemaker should be ready to decipher the comments of the uninitiated - way more often than not, they're the customers.

I guess it comes down to - if the winemaker has a clear vision - he needs to follow his vision. If his vision isn't working (sales), then he needs to figure out what somewhat cryptic feedback is telling him.

In either case, I believe a really great critic probably needs to be pretty darn familiar with the winemaking process - but since that's gonna be relatively few people - you still need to listen to critics of all shapes and sizes.

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Just to start, one major issue with wine "criticism" is that in reality the overwhelming majority of human beings can't consistently gauge taste. Controlled studies have been done where the same judges blind tasted the same wines repeatedly and there was a very high degree of variability in their grading from tasting to tasting. Different tasters find wildly different flavors in the same wine. We need to understand that there are serious limits to the objectivity of wine grading and criticism. That's not an inherently bad thing.

Should only winemakers critique wine? No. Just because you can turn your grapes into good wine, doesn't mean that you can be useful to the general public in commenting on wine. It's entirely possible to know how to make great wine, but not have the verbal skills to communicate about it. You may be brilliant with bold red grapes, but not have the vaguest idea of what makes a great subtle, mineral white.

I'm an architect, and I can usually tell when a discussion of architecture is written by a practicing architect, or an art/architectural historian or a general "critic." Each group comes at the field from a different perspective, with different limitations and interests. Ideally, we need all of them (and "just plain folks") contributing to our understanding of the field.

To me, the most interesting issue you're raised is the role of wine makers in wine review. I'd like to see a lot more, I think it could be really useful to have winemakers' perspectives along side, oh say, a self-trained former lawyer - not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular... One issue, though, would be personal bias. Like all wine review, I'd like to know that the person reviewing the wine really knew very little about who/where/when the wine came from, so you're getting someone's feedback on what's in the glass.

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