Wine critic-bashing, again
The blogger at Wine Cast (his name is Tim) had a short but provocative post yesterday, titled Course Correction. Seems he’s been reading a new book, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, by a fellow named Neal I. Rosenthal, who seems to be the New York-based owner of Rosenthal Wine Merchant (I get this from Google). Now, I don’t know anything about Rosenthal’s book beyond what Tim wrote, but he (Tim) did say Rosenthal “attack[s]…wine ratings.” Tim also includes this excerpt from the book that pinpoints Rosenthal’s attitude toward most modern wine writing:
“There is little journalism, which is to say fact findings and reporting, and virtually no effective prose; there is, however, a series of judgments backed by a sadly limited descriptive vocabulary and powered by precise scores.”
Let’s break this down.
- “There is little journalism” Well, in a 25- or 30-word wine review there’s not much room for classic journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how, how much, and so on. However, wine magazines — Wine Enthusiast and every other reputable publication I know of — also have articles into which a great deal of journalistic effort, fact finding and reporting are invested.
- “no effective prose” Says who? The wine writers I know pride themselves on being wordsmiths. True, the average wine review isn’t about to compete with a Basho haiku, but that’s not the point.
- “a series of judgments” True enough! Wine reviewing is judgment. Judgment is not a dirty word. Its synonyms are discernment, appraisal and determination. Judgment is what wine writers do.
- “sadly limited descriptive vocabulary” This is a statement of Rosenthal’s I agree with. We wine writers, as a collective community, do lack a standardized idiom for describing wine smells and tastes. To some extent this is because the English language itself is deficient in olfactory and gustatory descriptors — as opposed to visual and auditory descriptors. I suppose somebody could try to develop a standard vocabulary of tasting (and some people have; Linda Bisson’s Aroma Wheel, for instance), but it’s highly unlikely the entire community of tasters is ever going to adopt a universal language.
- “powered by precise scores” Not all critics use scores. I do, and, yes, they are precise. But I’ve always advised readers (and I can’t imagine any critic, or M.W. for that matter, not agreeing) that a score is an impression of a particular wine at a particular moment in time and one, moreover, that can be different at another time.
Anyhow, I don’t imagine that we wine critics will ever find ourselves anywhere but in the middle of the bull’s eye. I’ve learned to be comfortable there.
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