Other than the tangled web of critical ethics, no subject causes as much confusion and consternation among readers (and the critics who love them) than objectivity.
Just the facts
Wine can be described via chemistry, which means that much in its makeup can be measured. Things like acidity, tannin, dry extract and residual sugar (to name a few) have numbers attached to them and can be quantified, assuming one has access to a lab (or the data). Viticultural and winemaking techniques can be specifically iterated. Matters of geography and personnel are definable. There’s more along these lines, but I trust everyone gets the idea. This, and only this, is what’s indisputably objective about the description of wine.
Facts not in evidence
Critics may include elements from the objective realm, but their goal is to communicate the subjective; were it not, data sheets from the winery would suffice for the purpose of criticism, and they do not. Taste is inherently subjective. It is an opinion…nothing more…and a personal one at that. Thus, wine criticism cannot help but be, at its core, a pursuit of the subjective.
Blurring the lines
So why do these simple ideas cause so much confusion, and (often) acrimony? Why do critics – including this one – insist that there is a grey area that can, and in fact must, inform wine criticism? It’s all tied up with the thorny idea of typicity.
The concept of typicity is far too involved to here cover in any rigorous detail, though an overlong essay on the subject can be found elsewhere. The shorthand version is that it is a sort of defined summation of an expectation, based on the weight of historical precedent and producer adherence to that precedent. A grape can have typicity, as can a place, a wine style, and even a producer.
Obviously, there are difficulties with the concept. First and foremost, it’s trivially easy to turn one’s back on typicity by deliberate actions in the vineyard, the cellar, or the boardroom. Second, it relies on both democratic principles of “majority rule” (what if “the majority” are lousy winemakers?) and on arbitrary historical segmentation (is today’s typicity the same at 1890’s typicity?) And third, people cannot agree on whether or not it is a good thing. (The full exegesis on these subjects rests in the aforementioned overlong essay. Accept the previous as a given and we’ll get to the actual point faster.)
Critics rub the silky underbelly of typicity on a regular basis. “This does/doesn’t taste like a pinot noir” is one common mode of expression, and one of the easiest to embrace; grapes do have signature characteristics, though they’re easier to see when comparing wildly disparate varieties like gewürztraminer and merlot than they are when considering organoleptic cousins like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Inevitably, someone will object with a version of the following: “who are you to say what pinot noir should taste like?” and the acrimony will commence. More debatable statements come from descriptions of appellation-based typicity (“Chianti should be…”), which almost always lead to definitionally tortured arguments and a lot of pointless debate about first principles.
So why involve such blurry concepts in criticism at all? Because the alternative is, indeed, the justifiably-maligned “caveman criticism.” If a critique is solely reducible to a simple statement of like or dislike, it is only marginally useful. One rather hopes for an answer to the fundamental question: why? And once one begins to answer that question, one is inevitably forced to deal with issues of typicity…with the coalescence of the subjective and the objective in the murky seas of justified opinion. It is impossible for a critic to work well while utterly rejecting all notions of an expansion of wine’s expressible elements beyond the chemical, geographical, and procedural. A critic needs that additional vocabulary to communicate anything of value to the general public.
The dangers of authority
What the critic cannot do is hold just as dearly to these more ephemeral aspects as they do to matters that are clearly objective. Critics who pile abuse on other critics using statements of dubious (or worse: unsupported) objectivity are especially distasteful, and one hopes they will rediscover their humility before it is too late. There is an unfortunate tendency among some powerful critics to believe, due to the wide affirmation of their audience, that their own theses and contexts have become immutable law. The process of justifying one’s opinions must be ongoing; once a critic resorts to the weight of their authority in lieu of other arguments, that critic has lost their way. And a critic cannot forget that, at the end of the day, taste is still subjective, and one can be endlessly “right” about a wine and still not speak to the tastes of another.