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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
03/21/2012
Wednesday Warblings
Critics vs. Sommeliers—The War Comes Out into the Open

By Stephen Eliot

I suppose when I think about, I must admit that there has at times been a certain tension between sommeliers and wine critics, one that has ebbed and flowed over the years. I always thought that it was a good kind of tension, one that worked to keep all parties of the collegial wine profession honest. Call it symbiosis, if you like, but now I am informed that what has been going on for the last 30 years is a war!

A couple of days back, our winewriting comrade, W. Blake Gray, offered his thoughts about sommeliers, critics and the latter-day dynamic between them in an article on Palate Press entitled “The 30-Year War.”* There are some points with which I agree and some with which I do not, but, as I believe good journalism is that which causes the reader to think, I can comfortably recommend the piece. Mr. Gray’s central idea is the notion that wine consumers can gain value in achieving some form of comfort level with those in the profession of choosing and recommending wine. However, the consumer, Gray argues, will find themselves running smack into a simmering thirty-year war that has been going on between sommeliers and critics. And that rather grand assertion has most set me to thinking.

The article casts the battle in very specific terms -- between sommeliers and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator – and does not address the broader critical world that includes smaller, more specialized publications, magazines, newspaper journalism or the unlimited musings of bloggers. Still, the central issue over which the war is being fought is, if I read the piece right, whether low-alcohol/high-acid wines are inherently better than those bolder, more flavorful offerings that emphasize ripeness and unbridled fruit. That, of course, is the debate that seems to claim far more attention than any other in virtually every wine conversation these days, and, if critics and sommeliers are seen as being the two protagonists, most everyone else, be they consumers, retailers or writers, are inevitably forced to declare their allegiance to one side or the other.

I wonder at what happened to the joys of diversity? What happened to the idea of friendly disagreement, of being able to respect another’s taste and preference for style without the need for condescending dismissal of opposing opinion? I have been in this business for a very long time and until recently have always felt very strong fraternal connection with those who shared my passion for wine. Now, I am not so sure.

In my college years, I was a great devotee of Kurt Vonnegut, and I recall his creation of a new lexicon in the brilliant Cat’s Cradle that was meant to explain the workings of the world. One word in particular comes to mind now, that of the “granfalloon”, defined as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist, one whose mutual association is actually meaningless. Vonnegut’s examples include “the Communist Party, the General Electric Company, and any nation, anytime, anywhere." I wonder if the wine profession is now revealing itself to be just that, a “granfalloon.”

Mr. Gray, you may be right. Perhaps there is a war going on. I hope you are wrong. As with most wars, ancient and modern, it is the non-combatants that ultimately suffer the most. If there is, in fact, a war afoot, I fear it is one that will have no winners.

* http://palatepress.com/2012/03/wine/the-30-year-war/


 

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Comments

No Subject
by SUAMW
Posted on:3/22/2012 10:50:07 AM

"Don't spit until you see the whites of their eyes".

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:3/26/2012 5:19:42 PM

 

 

 

 

As you said in your piece:

"I wonder at what happened to the joys of diversity? What happened to the idea of friendly disagreement, of being able to respect another’s taste and preference for style without the need for condescending dismissal of opposing opinion? I have been in this business for a very long time and until recently have always felt very strong fraternal connection with those who shared my passion for wine. Now, I am not so sure."

I am with you completely on this. Back then, it was all of us against the world, trying to create a world where we learned about wine together. Today, we have accomplished that and now have a world of more wines and more people in the industry. This naturally creates groups and sub-groups with more narrow focuses. Those who see a way to bring disparate groups together are hard to find. It is easy to live comfortably within your chosen tribe. Just look at our politics...

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