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Why wine criticism isn’t as important as film criticism

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If I had written about wine bloggers the way Armond White wrote about film critics, there would be armed militias of bloggers marching on my house, carrying pitchforks, packing lead, and hoisting “Wanted!” posters showing my face in the crosshairs. (And thanks to commenter Tom Merle, who brought this to my attention.)

White, a film critic who is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, delivered an absolutely scathing jeremiad against today’s film critics, whom he accuses of allowing “the dignity and significance of film criticism” to “decline.” White alleges that “film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system.” Critics nowadays are not exemplars of “the profession of film criticism,” they are “adjuncts to advertising.”

White doesn’t stop there. The Internet, and blogs in particular, receive direct blows. He accuses the Internet of fostering “Babel-like chaos,” and, “in the current war between print and electronic media…the Internet’s free-for-all” has led to a “deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism.”

Whew!

White’s fusillade was a big deal. When he gave his remarks, in the audience were Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Mo’Nique, Kathryn Bigelow and others, with enough Oscars between them (past and to come) to fill a truck.

Now, if you wanted, you could substitute the word “wine” for the word “film” in White’s speech, and what you’d get would be an older wine writer’s blast at a younger generation of wine bloggers whom he deemed totally incompetent. Try it yourself. Here are some sample phrases in which I made the substitution:

-The Internet has helped derange the concept of wine criticism.
– Younger wine critics are hostile to the idea of learning, reflection, and personal (rather than herd-mentality) expression.
– Disrespect for expertise and personal response in wine criticism comes down to a vulgar, if not simply craven, attack on intelligence, taste, and individual preference.

Bloggers! I am not saying these things! So put down your pitchforks and, please, don’t be stalking me here in Oakland (which is not a city you want to come to anyway if you have hate in your heart). I’m just saying that, even if I thought these things, I’d be scared to say them. Y’all are a pretty ornery bunch, and I’m not gonna shove a stick into that hornet’s nest. But the essence of White’s screed is for self-awareness. Every wine writer nowadays, whether blogger or newspaper columnist, should ask herself: Am I an unwitting publicist for the winery, or am I an intrepid journalist?

But back to the title of this blog. Underlying the force of White’s argument is his assumption, which I think is correct, that because film is such an important part of America’s cultural self-identity, therefore film criticism is fundamentally important in itself. That’s what enables White to speak in such apocalyptic political, moral and historical terms as he does.

Wine criticism, on the other hand, is just, well, wine writing. It can never be as important as film criticism, because wine will never be as important as film in our self-consciousness of who we are. Wouldn’t it be cool if a new release of a wine had everybody talking? But that won’t happen. Even “New Coke” had more conversation than any wine ever will. No bottle of wine will ever be a “Citizen Kane,” with people talking about it 60 years later. Still, entre nous, our conversations about wine empower and inspire us.

  1. One thought that went through my mind during the Wine Writers Symposium was “if these folks [meaning the wineries] think we’re an adjunct to their business, they’re WAY off base…”

    In other words, it applies to wine writing generally, not just on-line writing.

  2. Dude, we are an “adjunct” to wineries, depending on how you define “adjunct.” I mean, we’re all in the same industry, trying to support it. It’s in the writers’ interests that wineries succeed. That doesn’t mean we stretch the truth, or give praise where it’s not due, or act like the winery’s PR department. But wineries depend on writers to tell their stories, and on that basis, we are adjuncts.

  3. Personal computers, since the 80s, increased exponentially our information processing capacity and allowed new forms of studying and transforming data into information, which we describe as “computer intensive”.
    In this way it is not necessary to use a closed formula to explain/describe the behavior of the object/system under study. You can crunch or simulate data with no previous understanding of its behavior and, hence, don’t need to make any “a priori” assumptions.
    This is what differentiates a quantitative from an analytical method.
    The internet, since the 90s, arranged and put together an enormous amount of diffuse information that was only available to experts, and disclosed it online to lay people.
    The consequence of the two processes described above is that today, anyone can become an expert on any subject of interest: there is availability of data, free-information and cheap PCs with huge processing capacity. As a result, knowledge became disseminated, and “expert opinion” is losing importance.
    But instead of being “hostile to the idea of learning, reflection, and personal (rather than herd-mentality) expression”, this new paradigm greatly empowers consumers to express their “intelligence, taste, and individual preference”.

  4. Peter, everything you say seems true. But when I read White’s complaint, that seems true, too. It’s hard sometimes to know what’s right and what’s wrong in these debates over public empowerment, democratic expression of views, etc. I guess it’s not a simple black and white kind of thing.

  5. Film criticism as with literary criticism is an intellectual exercise requiring the capacity to understand the complexities of life as well as the modes of presentation in the various media.

    The criticism of wine is a completely different and simpler experience. While wine tasting has an experiential component (or phenomenological dimension as Randall Grahm put it last night at a talk about his new book), which accounts for much of variation in evaluation, it involves the senses not the intellect.

    Back stories about vintners and the history of a particular winery do engage the mind and add much to our appreciation of this beverage over, say, “new coke”.

    But the actual enjoyment of the juice vis a vis the enjoyment of a flick is limited to physiological responses of the palette and the nose. The smell and taste may trigger memories or associations, but these are side bars.

    The wine writer/critic, IMO, should focus on the larger topics of the wine biz, an important function, and let the users, the “fanboys” as White calls them, relay the results of their tastings over time, relying on the power of the Internet that Peter refers to.

    So, Steve (and Charlie), I wanted to use the occasion of the publication of the essay on Film criticism, to make this distinction yet one more time.

  6. The point of Mr. White commentary is being lost. He says, and I agree, that informed opinion, based on years of experience and a practiced eye still have more value than an informed consumer opinion.

    And, frankly, when I started writing, I was a very well-informed consumer. I belonged to tasting groups, spent lots of time in the field with folks like Joe Swan, David Bennion, Barney Rhodes, Laurie Wood, etc, had quantities of the wines that only the geeks could get, etc.

    BUT (caps inteneded), when I started to write professionally, I discovered how much more I did not know. And, today, thirty years later, I am still seeing my knowledge base grow by leaps and bounds as the industry grows, changes, expands, innovates.

    White recognizes that a broad and layered knowledge base and the ability to bring it to bear is essential to having an informed opinion. Regardless of how much knowledge is now available via the Internet, it takes time and experience to be able to use that knowledge fully. That is what he is about.

    As for our being adjuncts to the wine biz, well, I don’t see the need to characterize independent writers as anything other than independent writers. And the more independent the better.

  7. Mark Osmun says:

    My only objection to Peter’s observation (“The consequence of (the internet) is that today, anyone can become an expert on any subject of interest”) is that the “information” on the internet includes an enormous amount of false information, or information that is out of context or incomplete and leads to false conclusions. The internet therefore does not make experts out of lay people or even provide us with a reliable education regardless of the subject. Instead, the old saw that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is now even more applicable. Regarding the modern world and its increasingly detailed and complex technology I would have to agree with James Burke’s quote: “Never have so many known so little about so much.”

  8. I don’t know Peter; this is not a personal attack. I just have a very different opinion than he expresses in his comment.

    I have done a great deal of work with non-parametric statistics in my career, and the idea that one can just put a bunch of numbers in a PC (or a Cray) and have it crank away to produce “information” is patently false. Sure the hardware can find the maximum spread of a huge data set and rotate the component axes in a way that was simply unapproachable before computers, but it takes a serious application of wetware to turn that properly arranged data into information.

    There is no substitute for the full scientific method: conjecture, hypothesis, falsifiabe experimentation, observation, conclusion. The first three steps absolutely require a priori assumptions to be made, and those have to be made on a foundation of deep understanding of the subject under study. Quantitative methods are tools to be used in service to scholarly analysis, not a substitute.

    I also take issue with the idea that the internet allows “anyone to become an expert on any subject of interest.” That sentiment is the very definition of the debasement of the value of learning and reflection in our society. I call it the “Joe the Plumber Phenomenon.” What an expert in politics and economic policy he turned out to be! I would bet his use of the internet in forming his opinions was extensive.

    I argue that knowledge earned through the hard work of scholarship, learning earned through the hard work of experience, and independent personal reflection on that knowledge and learning, is absolutely necessary for one to ever get beyond clubhouse amateurism, avoid the herd mentality, and rise above the role of unwitting publicist.

  9. “I argue that knowledge earned through the hard work of scholarship, learning earned through the hard work of experience, and independent personal reflection on that knowledge and learning, is absolutely necessary for one to ever get beyond clubhouse amateurism, avoid the herd mentality, and rise above the role of unwitting publicist.”

    Ok -that is the best thing I’ve read all week!

  10. Steve, you think more about bloggers than any blogger I ever met.

  11. To Peter O’Connor:

    Information is NOT knowledge, but it can easily be mistaken for it, as you do with your analysis of the PC/Internet, and which is exactly what’s wrong with your analysis.

  12. John, non-parametric statistics implies by definition that you’re not making “a priori” assumptions about the PROBABILITY DISTRIBUTION of the data you´re dealing with. The same is true for “computer intensive” methods like Monte-Carlo simulation or even Neural Nets, which are not guided by the degree of statistical adherence, but by a very flexible concept of numerical validation; precisely because YOU DON’T KNOW (and don’t pretend to know) how the data behaves.
    But you must, obviously, know how to formulate the problem, and how to pick and process the right inputs.
    Actually, everything you wrote only makes sense in a parametric (analytical) statistics context. It is also pretty much common scientific knowledge these days that you can’t apply Popper’s “falsifiable experimentation” on complex, emergent systems, that you cannot explain the behavior. And this is precisely the case with non-parametric data.
    The very strength of the idea of computational intensive methods lies in the use of no, or the minimum necessary, “a priori” assumptions.
    Concerning the affirmation that “information on the internet includes an enormous amount of false information”; and that true knowledge can only be “earned through the hard work of scholarship”, I must say that although I spent, and still spend, a great deal of my time at college, I believe it is about time we all stop behaving like scholastic medieval monks.

  13. Tom, I’d agree with you for the following reason: blogging has taken off like lightning and I’m interested in it from a historical and cultural perspective, as much as anything else. Where is blogging going? What happens when blogging meets traditional journalism? Do the traditional journalistic standards still apply? If not, why not? And what are blogging’s new standards? Are there any? What makes a blog credible? Does a blog need credibility? Can blogs make money? Can they do so ethically? These are just some of the things I think about. It’s an intellectual fascination.

  14. Steve, you are right. consumers love the movies and they always will. Film is a mechinism to escape our world and wine is on a different level, depending how much of it you drink(smile). But the adjuct thing is true, but for me and you, because I read your reviews, “our truth” about a wine is what readers get. If it helps the wineries, good. But consumers want what I call “straight talk” before they spend money on wine in this trying economy.

  15. To Thomas Pellechia:
    I never said information = knowledge.
    And your attempt to “falsify” my PC/Internet analysis is not very convincing either. It is only your opinion.
    In fact, there are several academic papers written on this (PC/Internet/Information/Knowledge) very subject. Do you want some sources?

  16. Peter

    Here is the section of your comment that bothers me:

    “The consequence of the two processes described above is that today, anyone can become an expert on any subject of interest: there is availability of data, free-information and cheap PCs with huge processing capacity. As a result, knowledge became disseminated, and “expert opinion” is losing importance.”

    If by “consequence” you mean to cast dispersion via facetiousness, then we agree. If by “consequence” you are using the word as a natural, logical progression and thereby a positive (re, knowledge) then I disagree, and that’s how I read it.

  17. Oops, I meant to say, “cast aspersion…”

  18. I am lost here. Are you defending Plato’s idea (John Kelly’s point of view) that “gaining knowledge is a process that involves a teacher, a pupil, and a social situation shared by both”?
    This theoretical approach is, in the words of Paul Feyerabend (Farewell to Reason; 1987), “conceited, superficial and incomplete, because it takes for granted that only intellectuals have worthwhile ideas. Fortunately, there are now scientists who have changed their views of knowledge accordingly. As they see it, research is not a privilege of special groups, and knowledge [is] not a measure of human excellence. Knowledge is a local commodity designed to satisfy local needs and to solve local problems”.
    According to Shapiro and Varian (Information Rules; 1999) information is “essentially, anything that can be digitized – encoded as a stream of bits. Technology infrastructure is to information as a bottle is to the wine: it is the packaging that allows the information to be delivered to end consumers. Improved information infrastructure has vastly increased our ability to store, retrieve, sort, filter, and distribute information, thereby greatly enhancing the value of the information itself”.
    The next step to knowledge acquisition lies within the concept of virtual networks (The Web): “the value of connecting to a network goes up as the square of the number of users” (Metcalfe). And this positive network externality (the bigger the better) gives rise to positive feedback and reduces uncertainty.
    Large virtual networks, unlike mechanistic Newtonian systems, behave essentially as large parallel processing computers providing, storing, ordering and listing information so that the end consumer can browse, process, arrange, classify and order it, aiming at acquiring knowledge or not; since “all cognition, be it theoretical or practical, has subjective universal validity”. (Kant)
    So, I still believe that as long as knowledge becomes disseminated, “expert opinion” will continue to lose its importance.

  19. Peter, if I follow your reasoning correctly, then I have to disagree with you. As long as humans are individuals, “expert opinion” will maintain its influence. Perhaps someday in the far distant future, humankind will just be a connected network of brains, and “we” will reach conclusions collectively, in a neural example of the perfect democracy. Until then, people will be confused about all the choices out there, and will turn to trusted advisors for guidance.

  20. Steve, my last comment was addressed to Thomas Pellechia.

  21. Steve, you may be right. It might take a long time.

  22. Peter,

    1. Yours is a theoretical argument–a form of knowledge, but a limited one.

    2. In spite of the theoretical, when we talk about wine we aren’t talking solely about knowing intellectually. To pass judgment on a wine takes more than having information about it; it takes assimilation, which is gained through experience, and the experience of wine encompasses the theoretical, the technical, the practical, the sensory, and, not a small matter, the marketing.

    In short: no matter how many computer searches you perform and no matter how much “information” you gather, locally or worldwide, you can’t be a wine expert without experience. That is not so say that people can’t delude themselves, but a few select questions often separates the delusionals from the actuals.

  23. Thomas,
    I’m afraid your argument is tautological. “Experts” were laymen at some point of their lives.
    Wine consumers are free to gain experience and “assimilate” wine whenever they want.

  24. Peter,

    I’m afraid you don’t understand my argument.

  25. Peter–

    You miss the point. Of course, we were all beginners once. But we grew up through hard work and experience, through trial and error, over longer rather than shorter periods, by tasting thousands and thousands of wines in professional settings.

    The average informed punter, which we also were once upon a time, simply does not come with the knowledge that long experience brings. That kind of knowledge is called “wisdom” when properly applied. It may be self-serving to say it, but I have no problem with the notion that the book I just wrote about CA wine was both easier to write and has turned far better than the one I wrote in 1979. I simply know more because I have three-plus decades of professional experience instead of five years of professional experience.

  26. Steve, I swear this is my last comment on this topic.

    Charlie,

    Still a tautology. Wine appreciation involves theoretical knowledge (already available) and practical experience (which can be acquired by any wine lover, with enough time and money), but also, and perhaps most of all, individual taste preference.

  27. Enjoyed the orignal article and comparison of film and wine but wow, it seems like you need a Phd in stats or philosophy to join in the debate following. No wonder so few read wine blogs.

  28. Martin: It’s not always like that. Just lately.

  29. How many here have followed Peter’s argument completely? It strikes me that he has a great deal of specialized knowledge and experience in a particular field. What an elegant — and thorough — refutation of his own position. Makes one wonder if he remembers the images of the Buddhist monk immolating himself in Saigon in 1963.

  30. Martin–

    I humbly disagree with both you and Steve. One only needs some common sense and some old-fashioned learning to be knowledgeable about wine. The rest is just BS. The original editorial tries to make knowledge and the ability to apply it into some kind of intellectually advanced status that is uncommon and uncommonly hard to achieve. I find that to be an exaggeration, especially when applied to wine. It is simply an accumulation of years of attention and the brains to use that knowledge.

    As for Mr. O’Connor, I enjoy his take on things but he has not convinced me or most anyone else here that wine is an equation learned from books.

    So, it is not all that abstruse, arcane, hidden or hoity-toity. It’s just a body of knowledge that can be accumulated by paying attention. At some point, that knowledge, couple with the ability to communicate, becomes sufficinently great to be a writer with a following. It is not easy to get to that point, and there is no shorthand. It cannot be done by reading the Internet. But it is possible–as very large numbers of writers, sommeliers, winemakers and collectors demonstrate.

  31. Oliver Styles says:

    Steve (H),

    I suppose that, in fairness, you should be given right of reply:

    http://www.wine-life.co.uk/blogs/wine-news/2010/03/steve-heimoff-makes-me-lose-control.html

    Regards

    Oliver

  32. So, Oliver, I went to your site. Posted a comment. Got a message that it will appear soon. It is now an hour and no comment has appeared.

    Is this a case of the pot callng the kettle black?

    And what is this business you have stated about it taking two days for Steve to post comments so he can prepare counter-responses? Those of us who frequent this place may not be fond of the Steve’s approval process, but it takes minutes to a few hours, and many of us used to complain that he never commented on the responses to his opinions.

    Finally, at no point do you discuss, in your own blog, the issue being raised by White or commented on by S. Heimoff, and that is the value of expertise in the making of intelligent criticism.

  33. I’ve said before, I try to approve comments as fast as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get them up immediately. I understand the feeling of wanting to see your comment up. After all, I comment on blogs too. The reason I have an approval process is because I get a lot of weird spam, much of it with links, and I don’t want to approve something that could give my computer — or yours — a virus or something like that.

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