Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Do wine critics really talk bunk?

Not much by way of preamble: if you haven't seen this or this where have you been?

The only point that everyone seems to have missed in the discussion about the need (or not) for wine critics is this:

If you pick up a bottle and, after scanning the front label, immediately check to see what’s on the back label, you have, in that easy gesture, proved the need for wine critics and wine writers.

Because the back label can, in almost every circumstance, stand for wine writing. It tells us how the wine was made and what to expect. It fulfils a desire to know more. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to have a bad word to say about the wine in the bottle. Which is why, perhaps more than ever, wine writers and critics should be asserting themselves.

It’s also worth asking who gains from the demise of the wine writer. Well, without the independent critic, you’re left with getting your information from those in marketing and promotion. Retail outlets that sell bad wine (not simply a synonym for supermarkets) also have no reason to worry.

Another point scored for the humble and down-at-heel wine writer.

Now that we’ve concluded that the wine writer is indeed an indispensable part of the wine world, let’s look at another of the criticisms raised by Hanni and the Guardian – that wine writing is bunk, aimed at fellow wine writers and initiates.

Well, let’s look at the reasons one might have to read tasting notes:

Firstly, there’s the recommendation part – people get wine recommendations for the simple reason that they are looking for something good to buy for dinner this evening. Here, you have to admit that, barring a few helpful terms like ‘fresh’ or ‘big’ or maybe ‘fruity’, most floral wine writing is redundant.

Secondly, we are looking at a rarefied world where wine critics are merely talking to each other in a sort of code, an esoteric mumbo-jumbo that only they and a few initiates can understand. Wine buying on the back of En Primeur comes to mind. Here, indeed, wine writing does not speak to the average man or woman.

But thirdly, we have to admit that some people read wine writing to be entertained. This is the field of wine writing that will become the most important over the next few years. If it has not already done so. It's also the field where points one and two cross over. Some people are already very good at this (and they are mainly online). However, they are in a minority and, more often than not, they are perhaps less independent than they ought to be.

Nonetheless, the future is there. Wine writing can indeed be a snobbish craft – but then so can film and book reviewing. Critics must listen to their readers and try to hit the right note, but in a world which is obsessed with 'cutting the crap', sometimes it's worth remembering that the 'crap' is the entertainment.

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