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Friday, September 28, 2012

Wine critic vs. wine writer (which is more important?)

A few recent posts by W. Blake Gray got me thinking about the difference between wine critics and wine writers. Wine critiquing and wine writing are two different activities that are often confused as the same thing. Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for the Washington Post, eloquently explained that "the writer tells wine's story in a way that hopefully gets the reader thirsty, while the critic can tell the reader which wines are worth buying." This isn't to say that they are mutually exclusive, and in fact most wine critics will claim they do both. But can someone do both at the same time? To paraphrase McIntyre, critical analysis of wine (i.e., blind tasting) takes wine out of its context, but for wine writers context is the story.

Writers want to paint a broad and colorful image of where the wine comes from, who makes it and other intangibles you won't find inside the bottle. To storytellers, like New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, wine enjoyment is based just as much on the "the people who make the wines, the land and the centuries of history" as the juice that is in the bottle. In his column yesterday, Asimov claimed that, broadly speaking, Bordeaux is one of the world's greatest wines because of the complex geography, the storied past and people behind the luxury brands and the bourgeois winemakers alike. Knowing the story of a wine is important. It is also important for many wineries to rationalize the prices they charge. A string of ideal vintages have led to the top Bordeaux estates charging hundreds if not thousands of dollars per bottle. The First Growths are not exactly scarce, as equally overpriced Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate actually are. The First Growths each produce somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 cases of wine annually. Their counterparts in California produce between 500 and 1,000 cases each year. This miniscule production adds to the Californians mythical status and makes telling their story all the more compelling. But do consumers want to drink history and rarity? Some certainly do.

But does what's in the bottle matter more? This is where the critic attempts to explore wine purely on quality. Blind tasting is often used, sometimes more effectively than others, to exclude the bias of story. Price, history and pedigree should have no bearing on how your palate perceives a wine (now you brain may try trick your palate). An exceptionally-made wine from Colorado should be able to provide the same hedonistic qualities as Screaming Eagle or Ch√Ęteau Lafite Rothschild. A perfectly made seyval blanc should be able to please the palate just as much as a $250 sauvignon blanc. But, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand there is more to wine than just fermented grapes. Would you buy a DeLorean for its intrinsic quality or its history?

One of the things I love about wine is that it is geography in a bottle. Not just physical geography (e.g., the climate, the geology), but cultural geography. Cultural geography encompasses the people, the history and the methods responsible for a wine. Would you find as much enjoyment in wine if you were drinking the world's best wine, but had no clue as to its origin? What if you could hold the same bottle in your hand but not taste it? Which information is most important to you? Do you want to know the story or do you only want great juice? Can the same information be communicated by one person? Can it be done at the same time? I really want to hear what people think about this apparent communication dichotomy.

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