Seeing the funny side of wine reviewing
It’s been nearly 4 years since I posted this gag video on my blog. I remember some of my friends telling me, “You can’t do that!” They thought it was demeaning for a professional wine critic to poke fun of himself and of the whole system of wine reviewing. However, I thought then, and still do, that we shouldn’t take much of anything in this world too seriously. If you can’t see the lighter side of things, then you’re wearing blinders.
The truth is, if I didn’t take wine tasting as seriously as I do, I couldn’t have made this video. Every time I issue a score, I completely understand it’s impacting somebody’s life. If it’s a good score, the winemaker will be happy and use it to sell cases. If it’s a bad score, it can hurt the winemaker economically. That’s the main reason to take the job seriously.
Another is because people read my reviews and believe them. I have therefore a responsibility to the public for my reviews to be as honest, accurate and transparent as they can be. There’s a bond of trust between a wine critic and his or her readers–a bond that must never be disrespected or violated.
I’m sure I could list other reasons for taking my job seriously, but the rationale of this post is to point out the lighthearted side of what I do. Wine reviewing is probably the easiest thing in the whole world to make fun of. It’s pretentious (or so the criticism says). It’s snobby. It uses elitist words to baffle people and make them feel stupid. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic in that it divides the world into a few “experts” and a lot of ignoramuses. And worst of all, say the critics, wine criticism is fundamentally flawed. It takes what is essentially one person’s opinion and elevates it, in an irrational and fundamentally dishonest way, above everyone else’s opinions, so that it achieves the quasi-religious status of revealed truth.
From a certain point of view, all of these critiques have some validity. Especially in a nation like America, where we like to believe that we’re all equal (whether it’s true or not), wine criticism can come across as the worst form of royalist baloney. And for someone like me, who sincerely believes in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, it is a little odd to find myself in the position of being “an authority.” It has never sat well with me and has always made me uneasy, but I’ve consoled myself with the thought (or maybe it’s a rationalization) that my self-doubt justifies the whole thing, or at least helps me keep things in perspective. I always liked Harry S. Truman, who on many occasions said that the only way he could think of himself as President without going off on some massive ego trip was to remember that he’d been a failed haberdasher. It was a constant reminder that he was no one special, just a guy with a job to do, who took that job seriously.
All this is by way of explaining why I made the video. (Actually, I should tell you that I made the video at the height of the Gary Vaynerchuk craze, and this was plainly satirical given his over the top video mannerisms.) There is a tendency in this country for people to elevate wine critics, especially the more famous ones, to godlike status, as if they can make no mistakes, as if everything they say came straight from the source. That is dangerous, and it seems to me that these same wine critics do little or nothing to dissuade people from lionizing them. I do believe that my wine reviews are authoritative, if for no other reason than that I’ve gotten good at this over the years. I do take reviewing very seriously. I take it humbly, too. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the silly side.