At a time when wine criticism was in its apparent death rattle, I took a job as a points-scoring wine critic — the exact same job I had railed against a year before in my book. For a well-known publication that charges $140 annually for a subscription, I did the whole old-school critic thing: spent weeks visiting cellars in places like the Loire Valley and the Finger Lakes; tasted and spat hundreds of wines; tapped out endless tasting notes, gave scores:
“Dark, brooding, muscular style. From 40-year-old vines surrounded by a 300-year-old wall. Aged 12 months in 12-hectoliter barrels. The nose is full of dark mineral aromas — asphalt, struck stone, smoke — along with lovely notes of rose. Expansive on the palate, featuring an attractive, rich bloodiness in the mouth, with lots of black fruit and pepper. Very intense on the finish. Incredible wine that walks that thrilling line of rusticity and elegance that can be challenging to achieve with Cabernet Franc. 96.”
You get the idea.
For me, writing tasting notes was a descent into madness.
A critical graveyard
We live in a post-critic world, or so we have been told. In the world of wine, chatter about Death of the Critic had been happening for at least a decade, but picked up intensity once Robert Parker, who dominated wine criticism for almost 40 years, announced his retirement in 2019, only 10 months before the pandemic. “It’s time to re-examine the nature of American wine criticism today,” wrote Eric Asimov, The New York Times’ chief wine critic, in one such post-mortem. “And it’s time to consider a better model that might be more useful to consumers, a system that would empower them to make their own choices rather than tether them endlessly to critics’ bottle-by-bottle reviews.”
Asimov wasn’t alone. Among the many think pieces on Parker’s legacy, most arrived at the conclusion that the idea of the wine critic needed to die. Or at least what needed to die was the methodology used by everyone from Wine Spectator to Vinous to Wine Enthusiast to James Suckling to every wannabe newsletter critic: blind tasting hundreds of wines, spitting, scribbling tasting notes, assessing a score on the 100-point scale. I was one of these people offering my ponderous thoughts on the matter, “Mr. Parker is on the wrong side of history.” I wrote those words, also in The New York Times, right around the time I published “Godforsaken Grapes,” meant to be a rebuke of wine gatekeepers like Robert Parker and his ilk.
The various arguments against wine criticism have always been rather contradictory. On the one hand, critics like Robert Parker had become too powerful, the scores too important to the marketplace. But also, on the other hand: Normal, non-wine-snob consumers supposedly didn’t care about critics scores anymore — everyone’s a critic now, so no one is a critic, amiright? Years before Parker retired, the energy and influence in wine communication and education seemed to have been usurped by the celebrity sommeliers, the social media personalities, and the natural-wine evangelists. Sure, every few months, an old-school critic would belch out a rant against Instagram influencers or natty wine, but who cared what he — always he — had to say? In any case, arguing about wine criticism became the proverbial bald man fighting over a comb.
When this bald man descended into the madness of wine criticism, I’d stay up late into the night, shuffling the same two dozen descriptors into various combinations, like word puzzle magnets on the fridge. Let’s be honest: How many ways can you describe 200 Cabernet Francs from the same region? Sometimes, through the intense mindfulness of tasting, I felt as though I’d achieved some oddly perfect letting go of attachment and desire. Other times I just felt like a fraud.
Still, if critics’ scores are not useful or desired by consumers, you’d never know it from a trip to the wine shop. I see my scores and tasting notes on little laminated shelf talkers in plenty of stores, even when the vintages I reviewed are no longer available. I see them quoted on importers’ websites and online retailer pages. When I first saw my words on those laminated shelf talkers, I’ll confess that I felt the same sort of thrill I once did upon seeing a short story of mine published in a literary journal for the first time. But the thrill was short-lived. I realized the words — blackberry, black olive, pepper, savory, spice — meant little to most people. In the end, it was all about the score. I spiraled with self-loathing. The publication and I mutually parted ways. Among the editorial feedback I’d received was that my scores were too low.
A new approach to criticism
That was a year ago. For most of that year, my thoughts on the death of the wine critic have mostly been: Sure, why not? Certainly, a more inclusive world of wine communication, full of diverse voices, is more ideal than the same crew of middle-aged white dudes holding forth. And I wish we’ve reached a place in our culture where — like film or music or art — scores are unnecessary, and we can discuss wine with more nuance and understanding. Sadly, that’s not yet reality. Scores, and the disdainful reaction to scores, will still be with us for many years.
What I fear more is that we may be throwing away wine criticism altogether. Lately, there’s been this smarmy, drippy, anti-intellectual narrative of “everything is great!” that’s taken over wine communication. Wine in this moment is full of people who affect both know-it-all and know-nothing attitudes according to which way the wind blows. When I look around at some recent developments: so-called “clean” wine, multi-level marketing schemes like Scout & Cellar, corporate wine co-opting the language of natural wine and sustainability, terroir deniers, wine communicators with conflicts of interest, scandals in the sommelier ranks… I wonder if a decline of independent wine criticism has been a good thing for wine.
I’m not saying that old-school critics could have stopped any of this. As we’ve learned during the Trump era, all the reported fact-checking articles in the world aren’t going to address a false narrative like clean wine. But a new kind of criticism that evolves from the old criticism might have dealt with it more stridently.
I believe a new wine criticism might begin with what the art critic Morgan Meis calls Romantic Criticism. A decade ago, Meis defined and advocated for a criticism that surrenders “all great claims to authority” and “refuses to judge” and whose primary virtue is “its inherent generosity.” Romantic Criticism is not based on an infallible, all-knowing expert or unquestioned arbiter of taste. “In this theory of criticism,” Meis writes, “we don’t need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.”
I have no idea what this looks like, but perhaps wine is finally ready for Romantic Criticism? Or maybe a criticism that drops, once and for all, the guise of objectivity and authority and gives in to emotion and individual expression. The wine critic is dead. Long live the wine critic.