The land of the flat white crowd (New Zealand, pt. 3)

Prism sentience

Don’t talk to me about rainbows. Those partial-arc terrestrial versions are, at best, pale imitations of what I’m seeing now. I rub the crust of a long airborne snooze from my eyes and gaze, dumbfounded, out the tiny airplane window at vivid lasers of color streaking across the pre-dawn horizon. Above and below are two themes on uninterrupted grayscale, but in-between is the most wondrous display of prismatic brilliance imaginable, the pure refraction of the planet’s encircling atmosphere unhindered by the distractions and diffusions of earthbound land and sky.

I fire up the in-seat video screen and thumb the controls to channel one: the overhead map. The long, island-dotted crossing of the Pacific is, mostly, behind us, and Auckland – our destination – inches centerward. As I twist and stretch stillness-abused muscles and joints, cabin lights stutter and stagger into illumination, while roasted esters of morning coffee drift from the galleys. It’s morning, and New Zealand approaches.

Energy crisis

Perhaps just a little bit of familiarity breeds ease, but this trans-Pacific crossing seems much less body-destroying than the last one, and we arrive at Auckland International Airport fairly refreshed and energized. That energy is tested a bit by a long wait at the other end of customs (a reminder to self: carefully clean golf shoes before flying to a country with obsessive agricultural neuroses) but returns as we step out into the sharp, sunny clarity of an early summer morning. The sky is blue, the grass green, the air clear, and after many months of endless snow, wearying cold, and dreary gray back in Boston, it’s a wake-up call to surpass all others. Our senses are alive, our anticipation peaked. The heart of our long-planned voyage is finally at hand.

A half-hour later, all our energy is gone…sapped by the deadening heat of an airport shuttle caught in a rush hour traffic jam and without compensatory air conditioning (or windows that can be opened), but with the noisy and unavoidable drone of two monitors blaring an endless litany of touristy advertainment. Only the entry into Auckland itself stirs our senses, as we point out familiar landmarks and remembered sites like old friends in a crowd. We’re deposited at the end of Queen Street just across from the glowing orange-golf of the Ferry Building, quickly cross a street that’s nearly devoid of traffic (where’d the rush hour go?), and purchase a small handful of ferry tickets. We’re headed for the sedate retreat of Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the sailboat-and-shipping-filled waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and into the island-dotted expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. We’ve just missed the 9 a.m ferry – curses on traffic jams everywhere – and so, settled into uncomfortable red plastic chairs, we wait for the next…which arrives on the hour in a clanking, creaking din of metal against wood and a hissing vapor of choking exhaust.

The Gulf and its low-slung islands still glisten in bright sun, but every glance westward – back across the towered rise of Auckland and over the mainland – reveals an oncoming wall of rain. It chases us onto the ferry, pauses at the thermal barrier of the Harbor, and then rushes forward once again. It is thus that we have a clear, calm, and sunny passage – the brisk and sweet-smelling wind reviving our travel-dulled minds – but arrive at the sedate and rustic Matiatia passenger terminal on Waiheke Island just as a first few experimental drops of rain fall. The slow trickle of passengers through the cavernous and largely empty terminal is calming enough that the energy of the city already seems a distant memory. We collect a grossly expensive rental car (someone could make a lot of money offering a cheaper alternative to the island’s two rather larcenous automobile agents) and gingerly edge out of the parking lot, Theresa at the wheel and me repeating our British Empire mantra at each intersection and turn: “left…left…on the left…you’re driving on the left…left…left.”

(Continued here…)

The importance of negativity

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.

Nice people

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.

Price tomfoolery at Martignetti Liquors

So I was at Martignetti Liquors on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton, Massachusetts today. Martignetti is rarely known for the area’s lowest prices, but they do have an excellent selection and they know their stuff.

However, while browsing their clearance bin, I noticed something peculiar. The Eric Texier 2000 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Chusclan was in the bins at $19.99. Now, that might not be an unusual price, except that the other sticker on the labels indicated that the original price was $29.99! Now, this is a wine that, at release, went for various prices in the mid-teens. So what’s going on at Martignetti Liquors? Some of the other prices are a bit…fishy…as well. Caveat emptor.

The philosophy of wine criticism

Millions of words have undoubtedly been written on the meaning and practice of criticism, and I have no intent of adding to that din beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, it is worth a few moments to explain what I view to be the philosophical basis of wine criticism, in an attempt to support what will be said elsewhere on its ethics and its practice.

Why criticize?

Because it is in our nature. We are creatures of emotion, and we are creatures of opinion. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked. That we are also creatures of communication seems to me to inevitably lead to the practice of criticism. At every moment of life, we exercise judgment – here, for example, I decide to employ one word over another via a judgment that one is better-suited to my needs – and we communicate that judgment in ways both internal and external. Externally-focused judgment is simply the expression of opinion, and that is the basis of criticism, which is merely a formalization of that inherent human trait.

Why not criticize?

We are creatures of emotion because we are creatures of feeling, and judgment can be difficult when you or your work are its target. Yet this, too, is fundamental – not necessarily to our beings, but to our society – for without judgment there are no standards, and without standards we cannot advance and improve in ways that are meaningful and helpful to us as people. Nonetheless, the most common objection to criticism is that it carries the potential for emotional damage. This is unquestionably true, and an inevitable fact of criticism, but it is not enough to invalidate the practice.

Why critics?

You know the saying: “opinions are like [maligned body part]…everybody’s got one.” This is true. On the other hand, there is also this (frequently attributed to Harlan Ellison, but probably not original to him): “everybody doesn’t have the right to an opinion, everybody has the right to an informed opinion.”

Some will see the latter statement as unduly elitist. They are no doubt correct, from one point of view. Another group will see the former condition as insufficiently rigorous for utility; informational anarchy. They, too, are correct from one point of view. The critic inhabits the world of the latter group, though this may or may not be his audience. It is true that anyone can criticize, but it is not true that anyone can criticize with equal authority, and it is definitely not true that anyone can criticize with equal utility. The uninformed opinion can be emotionally satisfying to its source, but only by accident can it be useful beyond its author. There are several reasons for this.

The informed and authoritative opinion can exclude by the very means of its expression. This is because most fields of criticism have developed their own communicative traditions. The language of wine criticism is rife with terms and modes of expression that are undoubtedly impenetrable to the casual and uninformed reader. This is something the careful critic will consider, though whether or not it informs their work is a personal decision. On the other hand, it virtually guarantees that an uniformed opinion will stand out as such, because the terminology and syntax are unfamiliar, unless the critic is making a deliberate effort to eschew jargon…which is itself usually obvious.

Adding to this is the issue of context. Authoritative criticism becomes so by its ability to contextualize information and opinion. There is scientific basis for this: when studying the brain activity of wine professionals vs. complete novices in response to the act of tasting wine, the differences found by researchers are not emotive or sensory, but analytical and associative. The expert and the novice “taste” the same things, but the expert has the ability to put those sensory impressions into meaningful language, and they have this ability because of experience and the contextual authority it provides. (This is an extremely positive finding for the wine novice, for it suggests that the majority of differences between them and any given expert are not necessarily matters of inherent sensory skill, but rather of training, and that achieving expert status could be a mere matter of learning and practice.) The novice, lacking this contextual ability, can only respond to an object of criticism on a more purely emotive level.

This level of response has, somewhat uncharitably, been called “caveman” criticism. What this means is the basic, gut-level responses of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” that form the foundation of criticism become an end in themselves, and are not expanded upon. The populist and democratic appeal of this notion is undeniable, but of what use is it? Unless caveman number one and caveman number two have identical tastes, or one is willing to subordinate their tastes to the other, nothing of utility is communicated. This is unsatisfactory. A critic must ask, and answer, “why?”

It follows, then, that for a critic to be useful he must communicate judgment and opinion with some measure of authority. This means some measure of academic study, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be institutional (one cannot confuse acidity and tannin and be an effective wine critic), it means broad experience in tasting a variety of wines and wine styles, and it means the ability to separate the objective from the subjective and communicate as much of both as is necessary to support a criticism. It also means accepting and embracing the fundamental nature of bias. Incidentally, none of this invalidates the broad field of amateur criticism; this is not a plea to “leave it to the experts,” but rather a roadmap to improved criticism at all levels.

It also follows that a critic must be effective at communication. An unreadable criticism can be forgiven if delivered in an unfamiliar language, but otherwise is virtually useless. The mode of expression can and should differ – no one style will satisfy every audience – but the true intent of the author must be on display and comprehensible to the consumer of the information. This is much less about spell-checking or grammar than it is about clarity; a work of criticism can be as prosaic and scientific or as metaphorically fanciful as one wishes, but at the end the reader should be able to say, “yes, I know what that critic wished to communicate about that wine.”

Why not critics?

Because everybody has their own taste. Critics serve an important function in a world with almost too many options, but can never and should never replace or supersede one’s own judgment. This is why wine writing is such a crucial adjunct to wine criticism; the consumers of criticism must have the opportunity to develop their own analytical and authoritative responses to wine, and pure critics rarely fulfill that role. But beyond critics and writers, there exists an infinitely more crucial source of information: personal experience. A successful critic becomes so by the breadth of their context, and a successful consumer becomes so by similar practice. To use critics effectively, one must taste as widely, as deeply and as analytically as possible in order to properly contextualize the information provided. Paradoxically, this reduces the need for reliance on critics.

This is, in my opinion, not a bad thing.

The rediscovered country (New Zealand, pt. 1)

How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return?

The answer to the first question seems as easy as it is pragmatic: by plane, by boat, by car, and by foot.

Then again, perhaps that’s a foolishly glib response. Life – so the philosophers and the poets tell us – is about the journey rather than the destination, and any journey is a process through which one moves. Is the answer, then, in the process? Eleven tiring months of detailed and sometimes overwhelming planning are certainly one sort of process, but the notion that sparks and fuels the journey ignites long before that. In a very real sense, a new journey begins the moment an old one ends. Yet notions are no more than dreams, and it is we who fashion the ephemeral into our reality. So perhaps the key is what we do to enable the journey…and perhaps changes can only come from within. The place, the day, and the hour become mere spectators to our acts of will.

And yet…and yet…one place, at one time, in one life, can become the unquestionable arena for change, and that place, day, and hour branded on the conscious mind like a moment of rebirth. If it be mere will, why there? Why then? How to reconcile that truth? Maybe the answer is more complicated than any of these musings. Maybe it is the person and the place, in a blessed symbiosis elusive to the philosopher and the poet but understood in the blood of the voyager. If so, there’s only one path to this particular truth: bringing the person and the place together once more.

So it is that, two years, two months, and two days after returning to the familiar pathways of home with new lenses, perspectives, shapes and lights, we’re going back to where everything changed. Back through the lens, to a place and a time and a feeling that it might well be folly to try and recapture. Back to New Zealand.

Oh…and as for the answer to the second question? That is a matter for more deliberation and consideration. For while the answer is both known and undoubtedly contains a metaphor of revelatory metaphysical significance, I’m not sure I’m yet up to the decryptive task. In any case, here it is: no, you can’t, because it’s raining so hard that the road is closed to traffic.

Ah, but that’s a much longer story

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

There are few in the world of wine communication who do not dabble in both the broad-spectrum field of writing and the focused practice of criticism. Yet it’s remarkably easy, given any list of well-known names, to separate the critics from the writers. Why should that be? And does it matter?

Wine writing

The writer has (theoretically) complete freedom. Wine writing can educate, on subjects running from basic to arcane (an oenology text, for example, is a type of wine writing), it can tell a story (in the first- or third-person), or it can employ the full range of subjective literary tools to make and support an opinion. In wine, as in any specialist field of communication, it is often necessary to practice criticism within a given narrative so as to educate, tell, or opine more effectively. But writing should not be mistaken for criticism, which it too often is; the intent is different, and the outcomes are different. There is much acrimony in the world of wine that stems from this simple misunderstanding.

Wine criticism

While the definition of criticism would seem to be obvious, there is nevertheless a lot of confusion on the part of the audience as to its purpose, ethics and practice. See the other end of those links for much more on this subject, but for now let this shorthand definition serve: the critic’s role is to critique. Anything else is subordinate.

Critics vs. writers

Robert M. Parker, Jr. is a wine critic. Jancis Robinson is a wine writer. To this, readers will undoubtedly respond, “but Parker writes long essays in his books, and Jancis is constantly publishing tasting notes.” This objection is valid, but doesn’t change the facts: Parker’s primary output, and the work on which his name and reputation have been built, is criticism. Robinson’s primary output is educational, with occasional forays into opinion (and one autobiography). The difficulty in this distinction arises when one tries to compare, for example, Parker and Robinson on the primary merits of only one of them…inevitably finding the other to be lacking in some fashion. This is unfair, and worse it is wrong-headed. Their roles are different, their goals are different, and the demands of their respective professions are different, yet specialization in one field does not preclude them from having skill in another.

oenoLogic

To the extent that such distinctions are useful, I am primarily a wine writer. In terms of word count, on the perhaps unreachable day when all my work is finally available on this site, that will be seen to be clearly true. But I do indeed practice wine criticism, and while that distinction will be obvious when comparing, say, a narrative travelogue vs. a list of wines with descriptions, it will be less obvious with certain works of criticism. For criticism is not limited to wine, but can also apply to people, to related works, and to the act of criticism itself.

The myth of objectivity

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.

Möbius

Wouldn’t it be wonderfully circular to herein reference a new feature of oenoLogic that announces the existence of this blog? Especially when said blog is meant to announce new features on the aforementioned site?

OK, OK, maybe this only amuses me.