The philosophical reasons for balance are beyond the scope of this document – and probably beyond the abilities of the author – so I will leave them as an exercise for the reader. But the notion of balance is necessary when considering one of the more difficult aspects of wine criticism: the need to be negative.
Wine people are, in general, very good people. From the humblest vineyard worker to the wealthiest multi-generational patriarch, the kindness exhibited by and among those in the (broadly defined) wine industry is remarkable. It is thus difficult to comprehend the need to criticize those who have been nothing other than nice. Who have been generous. Who have welcomed critics into restaurants and stores, warehouses and wineries, and more than occasionally even into their homes. Difficult…but not impossible, for the product is not the person. The producer of any reviewable product who is incapable of absorbing criticism will be a perpetually miserable producer. (The same, incidentally, applies to critics who are overly convinced of their inerrancy.)
The deliberate act of not buying a wine after encountering it is, at its heart, a negative review. Any winemaker who pours their wines for the public deals with this phenomenon on a regular basis; not to mention the face-squinching and frantic-spitting reactions to some undesirable sample. A negative review simply formalizes those responses, though it does also raise the possibility of the reaction being preserved in perpetuity. This is why the ephemerality of a tasting note is so important for the reader to understand.
Cygnus, bringer of balance
Just as a good tasting note is supported by a foundation of context, the presence of a range of reactions to wine provides contextual clues that are important to a consumer of that note. When assessing the utility of a critic, it’s as important to understand what that critic dislikes as what he or she likes. A critic who is, say, reliably sensitive to volatile acidity, or routinely forgiving of abrasive tannin, must be identified to form a bridge of trust between critic and consumer, lest unpleasant surprises arrive in the form of critically-lauded bottles. A corpus of notes, positive and negative, forms the professional (as opposed to the personal) profile of a critic; a lopsided profile may be avant garde but carries worrisome implications about the critic’s chosen subject.
For it is also true that unrelenting negativity is undesirable in a critic. Why review a product that makes one miserable? This is not to say that numbers must balance around some arbitrary median – the good bottles equal to the bad – but that a critic must find joy and sorrow of equal intensity in their chosen field. A critic who leans too far to either side is worthy of suspicion.
Such a lonely word
Also, there is the important issue of honesty. A critic who cannot honestly report negative reactions to wine cannot be trusted to reliably report positive reactions to wine, because he is holding something back. A critic may choose how to best express strong negativity (or positivity), but that is entirely different than suppressing the reaction.
Ultimately, an honest critic will find more friends than enemies. There will, from time to time, be sensitive types that do not appreciate criticism, or the tone of criticism, and as a result friendships will erode or end. Yet this would seem to be an outcome necessary for a critic to accept. For in the end, sensible producers and critics will realize that it is more important to be respected than it is to be liked.