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Into the tall weeds of the critic: Kramer and being “captious”



If Matt Kramer thinks that wine drinkers become “captious” (hypercritically argumentative) when comparing notes, he should overhear some of the conversations in California between Hillary people and Bernie people!

That is captiousness on steroids!

Matt rolled out that rarely used word, “captious,” in his Drinking Out Loud op-ed piece, in the June 7 online Wine Spectator. He spells out his view of the critic’s duty: They should not be captious, not just a weighing and sifting, but also a willing availability to others’ views, to perspectives different from your own. Above all, being a critic means thinking not of your own needs but that of your readers or listeners. Simply put, you exist to serve, not merely to opine.”

This is largely true, but it does tend to under-value, IMHO, the “opining” nature of the critic’s role. We critics (I still consider myself one) are critics by virtue of an expertise we have developed over the course of years of tasting and studying. I like the democratic [small “d”] nature of Matt’s definition, which has a Kumbaya-like can’t-we-all-get-along hippieness: calm heads prevailing, sharing views and opinions, not insisting on one’s own point of view. But, let’s face it, if a “critic” is “critiquing” a wine, he is telling the world (or, at least, his readers) that he knows what’s going on with the wine, and if they don’t agree with him, well, they’re entitled to their own opinion—but they’re wrong!

I mean, that is the essence of criticism, isn’t it? Matt no doubt has been to unpleasant situations where pompous idiots who think they know about wine get all angry and bullying; “they always denigrate; they always polarize,” he writes. Yes, we’ve all known them. I can see them coming from a mile away, and generally will go out of my way to avoid them, because who needs some useless and draining argument about whether a wine is reduced, or how many hectares the DRC has? Not me, especially in a social setting. But these are not “critics.” They’re poseurs.

I don’t think that being a critic, with self-confidence and strongly-held views, means that you “never [have] any humor, never even any false modesty.” When I pronounce on a wine, I honestly believe what I’m saying, because I wouldn’t say anything about a wine unless I’d thoroughly tasted it and thought carefully about it. I am, of course, happy to listen to other people’s views, if they also have thoroughly tasted the wine and thought carefully about it. And I do have an open-enough mind that I can be persuaded by a compelling argument.

For example, in my tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs the other day, as I wrote, I initially did not pick up on bretty smells in one of the wines. But after everyone else in my tasting group did, I went back to the wine and, lo and behold, there it was. How could I have missed it the first time around?

Okay, so you could argue that I let myself get influenced by peer pressure, because I didn’t want to be the outlier in the group. But that discounts the many, many times when I was happy to be the outlier. You have to be willing to be the outlier in the critic’s game: herd instincts need not apply. This illustrates the point Matt is trying to make: That even if you’re a great taster, you have to listen to the views of qualified others. We all have blind spots.

One thing Matt is entirely correct about—and this reflects his magazine background—is that “being a critic means thinking not of your own needs but that of your readers or listeners.” This point comes up a lot. When you come from a magazine background, as I do, you are always, constantly thinking of the end-user of your review, the customer. That man or woman who buys that glass or bottle of wine-they’re the ones who make the entire world go round. Without their money, none of us would have jobs.

This message was drummed into me early in my wine magazine-writing career, and it exists undimmed to this day. I write, or speak, for that end-user, the consumer. I don’t write or speak because I enjoy it (although I do), or to hear myself pontificate, but for one reason only: to help that consumer see things the way I see them. In that way—and in this intensely political election season, I guess I’m thinking politically—critics are rather like politicians running for office. You have to talk, talk, talk to convince people to listen to you and believe in your views. It is helpful if you’re already a well-known critic who’s established a certain degree of credibility. I think I was, and so I could commit my reviews to words, and know that they would largely be accepted because I had established that basis of trust with my readers. This is why beginning critics have a harder time of it: without reputations or much of a resume, they have a steeper hill to climb to establish credibility. Of course, everyone has to start someplace. That’s important to keep in mind; it helps you with that “modesty” Matt wrote about.

So another great, thought-provoking column from the inimitable Matt Kramer!

  1. Kurt Burris says:

    If I get my etymology correct, the root of critic is the same as critical and criticism. If one reviews wines without being critical (when deserved) you are just writing shelf talkers.

  2. I go back to this quote from 2015: “What we need more of now….are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics – perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.”….Mike Steinberger. In other words, you can’t credibly serve without opining.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (February 10, 2016, Page Unknown):

    “Everyone’s a Critic”

    Book review by Williard Spiegelman
    [Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University.]


    By A.O. Scott
    (Penguin Press, 277 pages, $28)

    “… the three things that all good criticism must accomplish: to describe, to analyze and to evaluate the matter at hand. Whether that matter is a book, a play, a movie, a ballet, an art exhibit, a rock concert or an opera, the goal is always the same. The critic informs about the work and helps us decide whether we should experience it for ourselves. He is our guide before we venture into the fray — and perhaps our whipping boy after.”

    And who is A.O. Scott? A film critic for the New York Times, whose book

    “… investigates the nature of the critical act; the relationship of a critic to his public; the history of criticism; the inevitable fact of being wrong at least some of the time (history overturns many a judgment); and the new models of publication and review-making in our democratic Internet age.”

  4. With the rise of the Internet, being”hypercritical” is our egalitarian right! Especially in wine! Although some of us are “more equal than others”.

    Captious opinion goes beyond the facts, it’s about belief, religion for some. I know some winemakers who refuse to drink other winemaker’s wine! Talk about stubborn.

    Because today, everyone is a critic. And everyone I know, except for me seems to have a fantasy baseball team. We all have access to expert tools or quasi-expert (Or access in the wine world) tools at our fingertips, that no one but experts had 30 years ago, in both wine and baseball. Cellar Tracker, a wine auction site, Yahoo Sports, what’s the difference in the eyes of the fan?

    You’ve written about this before, the egalitarian nature of the wine conversation. Everyone now has a voice, informed or otherwise. Peer groups define the conversation and being a loud, outspoken outlier with a large amount of followers is how you get noticed in the cacophony of wine voices on the Internet.

    Pinot and Chard needed a voice, so start a captious group of so-called outliers (IPOB) with loud voices and construct a villain in well-known critics to contrast your organization against the ‘so-called’ critics in order to attract attention to yourself. IPOB had no blind spots because they had a mutual admiration society of cool kids, with voices that were as loud and polarizing as any, more rightly called, In Pursuit Of a Belief. Sure, they had followers, somms in big cities and devout believers in blogs and some food and wine writers.

    But as you Steve, or Kramer, or Parker or Laube realize, you have a wider audience. You have experience. You have a responsibility outside of yourself. All of you have over 30 years doing what you do. Your audience dictates your longevity, you’re all still relevant. Each of you have influence over your audience and vice versa. It’s symbiotic. It’s successful. The struggle to be relevant never ends. To say that IPOB founded in 2011 has influenced the conversation, is a maybe at best, but real influence lasts decades. I’d stake that the conversation has been influenced more by Flash Resellers since 2011 (a real measure of where the market has moved in cold dollars and cents) than a spirited non-profit group that will lock its doors this year.

    There was only one (singular) IPOB. There are dozens of Flash Resellers. Tell me who has more influence without being captious?

    A Flash Reseller has no opinion, it’s objective, it is the exact opposite of a hypercritical polarizing non-profit trade group. A flash reseller has one goal, sell wine! They have global influence. A regular voice, use any critic to their advantage, use egalitarianism to their advantage, use any winery to their advantage. They are in the business of profits through their subscribership, similar to a wine magazine critic catering to their audience. Flash resellers will sell IPOB wine as quickly as Parker rated wine; their only bias is what gets results.

    Influence without be captious.

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