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Questions About The Absolutist Attitude of The Wine Critic

By Stephen Eliot

There has been a good deal of discussion of late about the role and responsibility of a wine critic, ranging from how an individual writer’s locale and familiarity with winemakers might influence their judgment to whether or not objectivity should or could be a concern. The latter, in particular seems to have struck a nerve among many observers, and I must admit the idea that a critic’s personal preferences should have no place in what he or she writes strikes me as little more than a dead-end scholastic debate.

Wine writers and critics of all kinds are in the business of opinion, nothing more and nothing less, and, while an open mind is much to be praised, subjectivity is the force that drives judgment. And, when it comes to fine wines, we all have our own views about what is desirable and how success is to be measured.

As is well known to everyone who pays any attention at all to what wine writers have to say, a good many folks have taken issue with Robert Parker’s advocacy of flamboyant wines that trade on ripeness and richness. I wonder, however, if there are not significant new voices beginning to question the new champions of so-called “restraint” and “nuance.”

The source of my musings is a short piece by Eric Asimov in last Sunday’s New York Times that, to me, has a certain air of defensiveness. Entitled “A Wine Critic’s Realm Isn’t a Democracy”, it is an articulate expression of Mr. Asimov’s views that personal preferences are not only unavoidable, they are, in fact, the very thing that must govern what a critic has to say.

He writes that “A critic’s job is not to validate the choices of consumers. If anything, it’s to make them question their assumptions.” Later, he follows with “the notion of “objectivity” seems attractive, connoting freedom from bias. But in writing about wine, it’s ultimately a sham. It’s not possible to eliminate all matters of context, personal experience, extrapolation and aesthetic ideals. What’s wanted in the end is not some sort of imagined neutrality, but fairness, openness and honesty.”

Now, while I might suggest that “fairness” is a pretty subjective concept in itself, I cannot argue with his basic idea that a writer worth his or her salt must “to their own selves be true”. That, however, cannot guarantee success; that will be determined by their readers.

I do not care how articulate or how well-reasoned a critic’s observations may be, it ultimately comes down to audience as the arbiter, and I confess to real discomfort with the article’s title and general tone that “democracy” has no place in a wine writer’s work. Do the readers have no vote?

Mr. Asimov receives regular paychecks from a publication whose revenues derive from advertising and subscribers, and if what he has to say sufficiently alienates either, I suspect that they will stop. Ultimately, his “personal preferences” and those of any writer are themselves open to judgment from those who they serve.

At one point, he claims that “ultimately my aim is to eliminate the need for wine critics (at least in a utopian sense) by helping consumers become their own best authorities.” However “open and honest” a he may be and however noble he envisions his motives to be, if the reader is not served, they are likely to question his “assumptions”, and he may, at least as far as one wine critic is concerned, get his wish sooner than later.

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by Kurt Burris
Posted on:4/24/2014 11:34:08 AM

I actually agree with Mr' Asimov's general points.  I use most critic's comments as one data point in my personal, and somewhat random, algorithm that drives my wine purchases.  I quit paying attention to Parker reviews when I realized we had different tastes, and that I couldn't afford a lot the wines he reviewed.  On the oher hand, anytime I have seen a "2 puff" wine for under $20 I jump, and have never been disappointed.

The Wine Critic
by Bill Eyer
Posted on:4/24/2014 5:15:28 PM

I too, have become a wine writer, commentator and opinion maker; I maintain a wine-blog and have two other writers, who also dialogue about wine and other related subjects with our readers. My blog is called the Cuvée Corner Wine Blog. You can Google it, if you like, we're easily found. 


You said, "Wine writers and critics of all kinds are in the business of opinion, nothing more and nothing less"  I have to agree with you, I’m and so are my other two writers very opinionated about the wines and or events we write about and share with our readers. 

I also finally find some agreement with Mr. Asimov in his statement where he said, "personal preferences are not only unavoidable, they are, in fact, the very thing that must govern what a critic has to say."

Exactly, my personal preferences guide my through each and every article I pen and I've done so without one bit of regret or remorse. My team and I are always honest with our readers, and they must like that 'frankness' because they seem to always come back for more. 

Great article, cheers!



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