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Best Of The Blogs: Can A Critic Be Objective?

Our pick for the best blog of last week is a brief piece penned by Jaime Goode that is more significant for the questions it raises than the answers it provides. And, is often the case with a blog entry that is actually worth reading, it was met by a good many comments that were as thought provoking as the article itself.

Entitled “Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?” Mr. Goode’s article reads like someone thinking out loud and essentially wanders around at the fringe of the larger questions about the possibility of “objectivity” and the inevitable influence of “subjectivity” in the wine critics world.

He says,

It’s a question I haven’t really considered before. I like the idea that a critic can be objective and assess wines for every palate. If you are a big magazine, and give a single critic the remit to rate the wines from one country or region, then you need to spin this angle, and instruct the critic to be even handed to all producers. The critic is, after all, writing for all the readers of a magazine.

Thus you have created the myth of an individual critic as a global arbiter of style.

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

I believe you have to be open-minded, and recognize well made wines in a variety of styles. But only to a point: certain styles of wine are not legitimate. A wine grower needs to produce an intelligent, sensible interpretation of her or his terroir. And for the writer, it’s just not possible to separate out style preferences from doing a proper job as a wine critic.

Now, being someone who has made a living for more than thirty years as a critic, this is territory that I regularly visit, and I suppose that I would have to confess my belief that absolute objectivity is a myth. Its existence in wine criticism presumes that there is but a single, quantifiable set of criteria upon which quality can be judged. I have known a few who religiously believed that such standards exist and that their unique talents to see them were proof of the fact, but they are all now in some other line of employment.

The problem, of course, of accepting the contrary notion that every perception and statement about wine is wholly subjective leaves us burdened with the “eye of the beholder” bromide that disavows any standard of quality other than “if you like it, it is good”. I suspect, however, that any critic who champions such philosophy will in short order have a readership of one. Anyone who seeks out and reads what any critic has to say is by definition looking for guidance and does not want to hear that there is no bad or good, that quality and worth are all relative.

It may be that informed and consistent subjectivity is what validates useful wine criticism, and, while I endorse Jaime’s sentiment that “you have to be open-minded and recognize well made wines in a variety of styles,” I am more than a little uncomfortable with his belief that some wine styles are illegitimate. It is fine to not like this or that style, and to tell me why in however lengthy or succinct way that you choose, but illegitimate? Hmm, seems dangerously objective to me, Jaime.

Whether or not you agree with what Mr. Goode has to say, his blog of April 9 does a good job of intellectual prodding, and both it and the comments that follow are well worth a read.

Read it here:


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