Bias is a difficult subject among critics, because the word carries a lot of negative baggage that most would prefer to avoid. But understanding the concept and its fundamental role in criticism is vital to a successful dialogue between critic and consumer.
Bias is natural
All humans have biases. Those that claim to be free of bias are either remarkably self-unaware or attempting to con their audience. How can the fundamental human trait of preference be abandoned just because one puts finger to keyboard?
Bias is good
That fact-focused reportage exists is good. That opinionated reportage exists is also good. The important thing, always, is that bias be open and acknowledged; little is more dangerous to the truth than stealth (or worse, denied) bias.
Criticism cannot, by its very nature, help but be stuffed to the gills with bias. After all, criticism is a statement of opinion, and opinions are shaped by personal experience and personal preference in equal measure. Critics must accept, reveal, and revel in their biases…and audiences must accept and correctly interpret those biases. Only in this fashion can a useful communication of ideas transpire between critic and audient.
Critics must confront their biases in a constant process of reexamination. An absence of questioning is the calcification of bias into ignorance.
What critics must not do is pretend they are free of bias…or worse, claim that their biases are objective truth. The more authoritative a critic becomes, the greater this danger, and the more it must be guarded against; not only by the critic, but also by a wary audience. Beware the critic who decries others preferences while holding their own immutable. They have lost their way.
Bias is personal
I do not pretend that it is possible to iterate all potential biases, for I do not believe it is possible to know all the inner workings of one’s mind. Nonetheless, there are biases that are clear and known to me, and I think it best to reveal them here. Readers should consider these biases the context under which all my writing – critical and otherwise – should be considered.
I believe very strongly in the importance of terroir, and will nearly always prefer wines that are of their place to wines that are not.
Native grape varieties are preferred to imported and “international” grape varieties, because tradition and diversity are valuable (though not all-important), and because safe choices are too often boring ones.
Minimal intervention is preferable to deformative intervention. It is unquestionably true that there is no such thing as non-interventionist, but it is equally unquestionable that there are degrees of intervention.
Ripeness is not a goal without limit. Nor am I afraid of green aromas in wines. Underripeness is no estimable goal, but “riper” is not a synonym for “better.”
Wine is just a beverage, wine is a product of agriculture and chemistry, and wine is a work of art. I do not consider those statements to be in conflict.
Extreme levels of anything are off-putting. I am severe averse to obscene levels of alcohol, fruit, and oak. I am somewhat averse to obscene levels of tannin and acid. I am indifferent to the presence of residual sugar, pending a consideration of the wine’s balance. Conversely, I am extremely averse to the absence of acid, and not at all averse to the absence of anything else.
The complexity of mature wines is, when achievable, preferable to the exuberance of youthful wines. This does not mean that I don’t like youthful exuberance, only that I find my emotional and intellectual responses to it inherently limited. Nonetheless, the majority of the wine I drink is youthful and, in some measure, exuberant.
Sweet wines are better if they have balancing acidity. I tend to prefer sweet wines unmarked by new oak aromas, but there are exceptions to this tendency.
I am strongly predisposed towards earthy and mineral characteristics.
I am particularly sensitive to volatile acidity, though I’m not against it in all cases. The greatest consequence is that I have a fairly strong adverse reaction to certain wines rife with it (e.g. traditional Amarone or Madeira).
I am not averse to mild levels of brett, but will soon tire of a wine overwhelmed by it.
I am somewhat put off by strong new oak influence, though there are exceptions.
Winemakers should produce the wine their terroir indicates rather than practice deformations to conform to a style, when and where possible. Corollary to this is the acknowledgment that not all grapes and techniques are equally-suited to all terroirs, and the mere physical ability to grow a variety or make a style is not, by itself, an unquestionable endorsement to proceed.
Complexity is almost always preferable to power. Power, by itself, is boring.
Grapes have characteristics that should be respected. Terroirs have characteristics that should be respected. Winemakers have signatures that should be respected. However, the best winemakers subvert their desire for respect to the demands of grape and terroir.
“All that matters is that it tastes good” is a simple-minded way of approaching wine appreciation, and of no utility when it forms the foundation of criticism.
A wine that requires food to show its full quality is not inherently less good than a wine that is complete when consumed by itself. (It is not inherently better, either.)
Winemaking techniques designed to mitigate deficiencies in the source material are to be viewed with suspicion if their use is the rule rather than the exception. None invalidate the resulting wine, but at some point they become fundamentally deformative.
The better-funded the winery, the greater the responsibility for producing quality wine.
Changing a wine’s style to fit the vagaries of fashion or the tastes of powerful critics is an understandable reaction – bankruptcy and starvation are not estimable goals for winemakers, and philosophical purity doesn’t pay the bills – but this rarely leads to a superior product, and contributes to the entropic decay of wine as an essentially natural product (that is, a literal product of nature).
I adore many natural wines and the lack of process that leads to them, but am weary of indifference to flaws and deeply suspicious of anti-scientific ideologies. I also don’t understand the purpose of a “natural” winemaking that allows so many different grapes and places to taste the same. The homogeneity of industrial wine a bad thing; homogeneity is no more admirable because it’s uninoculated.
“The hand” (the influence of man) is more important than “the land” (natural factors) in determining a wine’s character, but the best wines reveal more of the latter than the former.
Wine can be fun. Wine can be serious. Wine can be mindless. Wine can make you think. Wine can make you feel. The best wines are those that embrace more, rather than fewer, of these concepts.