Ever since I started blogging (two years this May!), some people have painted me out to be some kind of dinosaur who’s afraid that my world — that of the old-fashioned, top-down, print-based wine critic — is fast disappearing.
Trying to defend a system whose time has come, they say. Refusing to recognize that ordinary consumers no longer want or need “experts” to tell them about anything. And whenever I rise to my defense (and the defense of wine critics in general), I’m answered with something like this: “You’re just an industry gatekeeper, pushing back out of fear against the new world wherein every wine drinker is entitled to his own opinion.”
That’s how the well-known M.W., Tim Hanni, has been putting it, mostly lately in this article, in today’s online Guardian, out of England. Tim once again criticizes the “snobbery” and “prejudice” of those of us who dare to make wine suggestions and recommendations, a sin he believes “costs the wine industry billions of dollars a year” (for some undefined reason). Along the way, he also “debunks” one of wine’s most cherished assumptions: that certain wines and foods pair well together while others don’t. “’Matching’ wine and food is lazily unchallenged bunk,” the Guardian writer paraphrases Tim as saying. And, a little later: “For years, Hanni taught that wine had unassailable, objective absolutes; that certain foods are best eaten with certain wines – oysters with muscadet, say, or chablis.” There followed for Tim, in the mid-1990s, “an epiphany or a nervous breakdown” that made him reconsider “everything he had formerly believed.”
Well, I’m not big on epiphanies, although I’ve had my share of surprises that have made me reconsider lots of things. But I can’t imagine anything that would make Zinfandel taste good with oysters. Or a big, oaky Cabernet Sauvignon. Can you? Uggh.
Sure, it feels great to reassure people that they can drink anything they want with any food. People love reading that. It frees them from the very real tyranny that too often surrounds the wine-drinking experience. Tim argues that his mission in life is to liberate consumers from formulae, including pairings that are very old and well-understood. It’s what he calls “this profoundly modern, compellingly individualist approach,” which stands in utter contrast to tradition. And what better time to trash tradition than today, when everything we’ve known for so long seems to be coming undone?
I don’t agree with Tim’s premise, though. He can call me a dinosaur, an industry gatekeeper pushing back furiously against the onslaught of change. But none of that changes the truth. A winetaster can learn to understand and talk about wine. The longer you study it, the better you get. A wine critic who tastes his way through thousands of wines a year is in a better position to make judgments than the ordinary consumer. Food and wine pairings are not arbitrary.
Look, if you want to drink Harlan Estate with your oysters, be my guest. Not gonna lose any sleep over that one! If you want to say that all wine critics are full of it, go right ahead! Sticks and stones and all that. If you want to take the view that everybody’s palate is equal, feel free. I’m not gonna argue with you. If you tell people not to worry so much about wine, I’ll be right there beside you. In fact, I’ll say it now: People! Don’t worry so much about wine!
Still, having said that, I do think there’s a movement afoot in America driven by the “de-mystification” crowd who hope to make a living by doing that professional “de-mystifying” the public so deserves. Ironic that the people leading that movement are former critics and “snobs” themselves. Like Twelve-Steppers, they claim to have “seen the light” or “seen the error of their ways” (or, in Tim’ case, to have had “an epiphany”). But I’ll tell you the truth: Anybody who says their goal in life is to make simple what we wine critics over-analyze is giving you a simplistic explanation and one moreover you should take with a grain of salt. Beware the demystification industry. It’s not as pure and disinterested as you might think.