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jay miller

Untangled & unencumbered

[wrestling statues]There’s a saying borrowed from academe that’s broadly applicable to the world of wine chatter, which I’ll paraphrase:: “the reason the arguments are so intense is that the stakes are so small.” And so the tempest in a decanter created by a pair of blog posts (here and here, some aftermath here and here) isn’t all that surprising. This is about as juicy as wine scandals get: accusations of hypocrisy, of ethical breaches, of abusive moderation, of plain old jackassery, all laid at the altar of the high priest of wine criticism…maybe someone should film it with a shaky hand-held camera. Perhaps with a few gratuitous shots of flatulent dogs.

It’s an interesting conflict, no doubt, but the more worrisome component of the controversy is the shaky foundation on which it rests. In the comments that follow the two blog posts, and on the linked forum thread, there’s a persistent but passionately-expressed insistence that the root of the problem is bias, whether actual or potential.

This is ridiculous.

I’ve written about this before, and at length. And while this will be an opportune moment to revisit some of those arguments, the current brouhaha offers an additional perspective.

Note: this essay deals primarily with critics, not with writers in general. I’ve explained the difference in detail here, and almost all wine communicators engage in both, but a shorthand way to differentiate the two is: writers inform, critics judge. Bias, even if one accepts the argument that it is bad, is largely irrelevant when considering the primary work of the writer. If interesting or useful information has been communicated, then the writer has succeeded, whether or not bias plays a role.

Are biases disqualifying? It’s very easy to answer this one: if they are, then there can be no such thing as a critic, because everyone has biases. Everyone. Preference is as natural a human quality as breathing. To be sure, self-awareness is necessary; beware the critic who tells you that they lack bias, because they’re lying to you and – more importantly – to themselves. Transparency is equally crucial. With the widespread adoption of the internet, the only actual limit on it – the lack of a ready venue in which to be transparent – has been eliminated. It would be to the benefit of everyone if all critics made a habit of publishing their biases for all to read. For they most certainly have them.

But this is a bit of a diversion. People who complain about bias aren’t, believe it or not, actually concerned with bias. They’re concerned with entanglement and encumbrance. For example, there’s obviously no functional problem with a critic who prefers Zind-Humbrecht to Trimbach as a result of their internal biases, but there is a problem with one who either is, or believes herself to be, unable to express the opposite viewpoint due to personal or economic pressure. It’s completely natural to prefer Sancerre blanc to Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but it’s potentially* problematic if that preference is compensated outside a journalistic revenue stream, and it’s even worse if that compensation is anticipatory.

[Colleoni statue]*I say “potentially” in the first case, because it isn’t clear that all forms of compensation would be problematic. Accepting an invitation to speak at a world conference on sauvignon blanc would seem to be OK. Accepting an invitation to speak before the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre is probably still OK, as long as there’s no attempt to control the critic’s message for the purposes of marketing. Accepting an invitation to write marketing copy for the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre? Most definitely problematic under some ethical schemes, though the society’s use of the critic’s published work for that purpose would obviously be fine, subject to the rules set down by the critic’s publisher and the principles of fair use and copyright as they exist in the relevant realms.

For those who haven’t thought much about the issue, the obvious solution is to remove all potential sources of entanglement. In other words, a sort of enforced asceticism, though with free-flowing alcohol. Pushed to its ideal (that is, purest) form, that would mean cutting off ties between the critic and all winemakers, importers, marketers, distributors, sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs, other critics, etc.

The problems with this level of retreat from real life are obvious. From a practical standpoint, the acquisition of wines to criticize (especially hard-to-source wines) becomes very difficult without contacts in the industry, and the acquisition of knowledge with which to better-characterize the objects of criticism becomes nearly impossible. (There’s an expansion of that argument here.) A cynic will wonder how often requiring quasi-monastic professional existences – especially when the divorce is from the field that a critic loves so much they’ve decided to make it their life’s work – is successful in preventing lapses. Consider: much of the fun of wine is sharing it with like-minded enthusiasts. Must the critic eschew relationships with enthusiasts who have themselves become entangled with any commercial aspect of wine? It would seem the safest bet, because entanglements can exist via third parties, yet who makes wine their career other than its greatest enthusiasts? Lacking the ability to make contact with other enthusiasts, the critic’s life is a lonely one indeed. Loneliness can lead to resentment. And isn’t active resentment of the subject of criticism a far more dangerous bias than having lunch with Olivier Humbrecht?

Ah, but what about restaurant critics, one might ask? Some (certainly not all) cloak themselves in anonymity, avoid all situations at which they might encounter chefs or restaurant owners, and dine on their publisher’s dime (although these days, said recompense rarely covers the entirety of a critic’s work). What’s wrong with that model?

First of all, restaurant critics are the only critics asked to take these steps on a regular basis. In no other field of criticism is this level of separation, and in fact outright deception, required or expected. Second, anonymity rarely works for long (if at all), as the photos of allegedly unknown critics hanging in restaurant kitchens all over the world will attest. And third, does anyone think that restaurant criticism is a clear order of excellence above and beyond that of other fields? If the answer to that question is anything other than an enthusiastic “yes,” maybe it’s worth questioning how much value enforced separation and rigid constraints bring to the consumer.

A caveat: I’m not arguing that there isn’t obvious potential value in anonymity (which is just a particularly obvious version of enforced separation), as anyone who remembers Ruth Reichl’s visits to Le Cirque knows. But the value of pretend invisibility is limited, both by time and by effect. Of far, far more importance is that the critic be good. Being anonymous will not help a lousy critic become more useful to the consumer. Nor will being free of all possible potential conflicts of interest.

Given all this, it seems obvious that the real question is not whether a critic has biases, or even if there are entanglements and encumbrances, but to what extent they affect the work. This, incidentally, is why revelation and transparency are more important than impossible-to-achieve independence; the reader can, with knowledge that contextualizes a critic’s work, make an informed judgment as to that work’s worth. Thus, a compromised critic will not escape detection, even if consumers’ reaction to that knowledge will differ. More importantly, a judgment as to a critic’s quality will be made primarily on the quality of the work, rather than suspicion and rumors of actual, perceived, or imaginary conflicts. What matters is not why a critic lauds a wine, but that said praise is of utility to the consumer. (This is all laid out in greater detail here.)

[sagrada familia crucifix]And now, the new perspective on this well-worn (at least by me) issue that I promised several hundred paragraphs ago. It’s useful to ask whence the motivation to demand absurd levels of purity comes. I think it comes from a fundamental understanding of what critics do. They are, very simply, paid to opine. That’s it. They may, in the course of their opinion-mongering, do other things – which is why most critics are more properly identified as hybrid critics/writers – but when they’re paid to be a critic, they’re paid to critique. To render judgment. To offer an opinion.

Opinions, judgments, critiques…they’re all 100% subjective. Full stop, end of story. There may indeed be greater value in informed opinion, but the inherent subjectivity of a critical judgment is unassailable. I don’t think that some consumers understand this. There often appears to be a belief – and reading the comments in the above-linked blog posts and forum threads shows that this belief is widespread, though (revealingly) no one can agree on the specifics – that there is some sort of “more objective” version of an opinion that is made less likely by the existence of bias or entanglement. This, too, is nonsense. The opinion swayed by externalities is no more or less subjective than the pure and honest one, even though it’s different. So if there’s a desire for less subjectivity, it’s a futile one, because what’s asked is impossible. All the consumer can expect of the critic is to tell the truth and to say what she actually thinks.

In addition to an ongoing conflation of two conflicting ideas (objectivity and subjectivity), there’s a misunderstanding of the preparation and mindset fundamental to the non-accidental critic. Accusations of inexorable bias (“certainly a critic can’t judge wine X fairly if they’ve had lunch with the winemaker”) rest upon a foundational assumption that the critic is unaware of these potential sources of conflict, that they will inevitably come as an insoluble surprise to the critic, and that they will thus lead to unavoidable compromise. This assumption is particularly insulting as it appears to think or expect very little of critics. Any smart critic knows all this going in. Any ethical critic has thought about, is thinking about, and will continue to think about these issues and their chosen responses to them. Any good critic will make it clear to both consumer and source where their boundaries are. Again, transparency helps: while critics are revealing their biases, they should also detail their practices.

A sensible consumer would not presume a predilection towards corruption. Instead, they’d conclude that a critic has thought about these issues and deals with them on a daily basis. That to the extent possible given the realities of her career, she will try to act ethically and honestly. That she will not lie to consumers in order to gain advantage over them. That she will not act unethically in order to gain advantage from her suppliers or her publishers. And so forth. These conclusions will be tested and retested in an atmosphere of natural suspicion, to be sure, but it is rather obnoxious to assume, without evidence, that a predilection to unethical behavior is beyond a critic’s control. One does not create a being of pure ethics by encaging that being in some sort of procedural deprivation chamber. The motivation to ethical behavior cannot be imposed from without, but must be generated (and regenerated) from within. If externally-imposed ethics were entirely or even largely effective, there would be some societal evidence thereof. There’s not, except to the contrary.

Another note: publications most certainly can impose their own ethical restraints on critics. This is a contractual arrangement, voluntary in both directions. But these days, they’re more often an attempt to address the concerns of the consumer, not the work itself, for all the reasons I’ve detailed above.

In fact, most critics would laugh – albeit with a certain sadness – at the assumption that their loyalties could be bought, no matter what anyone else suspects. By taking on the role of a critic, they’ve taken on the potential (and inevitable) conflicts even before they’ve published a single word of criticism. They’ve accepted that they must deal with those who will attempt to corrupt them and those who will always believe them corrupt. And they’ve understood that their work will be judged in such a way that subverting their judgment to external influences can only damage their integrity and their reputation. Critics who have sold out – and they exist – always pay some sort of price. But it’s unfair to make ethical critics pay it along with them in a futile attempt to satisfy impossible preconditions.

As I’ve said with more precision in my essays on ethics, objectivity, and independence, the search for a visible armor of incorruptibility is a hopeless one. Not only because ethical behavior is an internal, rather than external, property of the critic, but because it’s not what the consumer actually wants. The most ethically monastic critic is not necessarily the best critic, and vice-versa. Surely what the consumer really wants are skill, efficacy, and utility. The endless focus on bias, on entanglement, and on the appearance of or possibility for conflict distracts from the key question a consumer must ask of any critic’s work: is it useful?

Update: The always-eloquent Jancis Robinson, who is (aggravatingly) better at what we do than any of the rest of us, offers her own thoughts on this issue. And I note with some pleasure that, for the most part, she appears to agree with me.

Don’t taste with me, Argentina

A long-ago story on Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino blog about tasting Argentinean wines with a critic from The Wine Advocate is more a little horrifying, and has me thinking. And, it seems, ranting. So what else is new? A better question: how did I miss this when it was first posted? I don’t know the answer to the latter, but the recent publication of the notes in question brought the story to my attention….and so, better late than never, right?

There’s been some hand-wringing in the wine consumer sector over Dr. Jay Miller’s work in The Wine Advocate, mostly due to his very high scores and sometimes breathtaking aging predictions. I’m not so much interested in that argument, because a critic can do whatever he or she wants in this regard. For me, he’s overly enthusiastic and prone to wild-eyed guesses that only blind optimism can justify, but so what? I’m sure he’d argue I’m far too critical, and who’s to say who’s right? Criticism is subjective, and will always remain so.

However, I have a number of more fundamental reactions to the piece in question:

1) “The setting was actually the Argentine Consulate in midtown Manhattan.” (Dr. Vino)

I don’t think it’s necessary for a critic to go to “the source” (the wines’ place of origin) just to render a judgment. The reason to go is to learn, which helps place wines in their cruicial contexts, and since this is a somewhat groundbreaking expansion of Argentinean coverage in (arguably) the most important publication in the field of fine wine criticism1, I’d like to have seen Miller visit Argentina along the way. His boss Robert Parker came under criticism in the past for doing report after report on Australia (and, if I remember correctly, Spain) without having visited either, though I believe that has changed.2

The counter-argument, which I’m sure many would make, is that all that matters is the wine itself, and that visiting only leads to psychological entanglements to fight off at the time of tasting, distractions that allegedly get in the way of critical truth-telling. But an ethically serious critic doesn’t deal with such facile definitions of objectivity (and in any case, the PR agents that were present would have been far more interfering than winemakers, who are generally far less intrusive), and from an organoleptic standpoint one simply cannot deal with wildly different expressions of grape, terroir, and winemaking as if they were all one. They’re not. A Paso Robles syrah is and always will be different than an Hermitage, and for a critic to pretend that they’re applying the same critical standards to each is willfully misleading.

So did Miller visit Argentina? Well…

2) “This tasting was just one aspect of my Argentina review which will ultimately involve a trip to Mendoza to taste at wineries.” (Jay Miller, in the comments)

“Miller has never visited Argentina (at least on official wine tasting business) but expects to early next year.” (Victor Honoré, in response)

The article has already appeared. So someone is lying. (Or, to be charitable, circumstances may have intervened that prevented a planned trip…but in that case, it would benefit Miller to say so in the same string of comments, lest people be led to the uncharitable conclusion.)

3) Dr. Vino is surprised that the tasting wasn’t organized by variety and style; Miller conducted the tasting by producer, apparently following the lead of the agents who set up the tasting in the first place. There are merits to both sides, and in large format tastings I prefer Miller’s approach here, though for a different reason: it helps combat palate familiarity, which I view as a debilitating component of palate fatigue. However – and this is important – I don’t rate wines. If one is tasting to rate, and thus tasting “competitively,” there’s something to be said for tasting in peer groups, and for not having to artificially attempt to adjust one’s reactions to, say, a sauvignon blanc tasted after a chardonnay and another tasted after a merlot. There’s concurrence on this point in the comments, from Dr. Debs of the Good Wine Under $20 blog (“I have to say that I don’t mind tasting by producer, because I find I have less palate fatigue that way. But–and its a huge but–I don’t claim to be objective, or assign points to things. If I were, I would taste by varietal [sic], so as to be able to make sure the syrah I just gave an 95 to was actually in some way/shape/form better than the one I gave a 90 to just a few minutes ago. How do you keep your standards consistent. When I grade student essay exams, I read all the answers to one question and grade them, then the next question and grade them. Makes sense, keeps me honest, comparative, and focused.”)

In any case, we’re not done with the issue of palate fatigue. Stay tuned.

3) “At one point [Dr. Vino] lamented the quantity of wines and [Miller] replied “well when you’ve been working for Bob Parker for 25 years, you’re used to it. He did not offer in what capacity this was although he only started as a critic last fall.” (Dr. Vino)

That Miller has written for and tasted with Parker for a very long time is not a secret, though his official and public position as a critic for The Wine Advocate is a fairly new one. But it’s a secret that is not as open as I suspect it should have been, and has caused a lot of speculation over the years. Parker went to some lengths to reinforce this point after he hired Miller, but it’s a little strange how much in the realm of rumor and whisper this relationship was in the days previous to that announcement. I, for instance, constantly heard it in the context of Parker owing his entire palate to Miller (on which I should note: even if it was true at one point, and while I have no way of knowing I kind of doubt it, Parker has long been his own man, and so it’s neither true nor relevant now).3

4) “But I report on this since I had little idea about the specifics of how tastings happen at the influential Wine Advocate. I didn’t know they were organized by producers or their agents. I didn’t know they were not tasted blind and were tasted by winery, not style. And I was surprised at how we basically had no discussion about the wines themselves, essentially having our own separate, parallel tastings. Maybe that’s because he didn’t know me but it could also be that it’s uncomfortable to talk about the wines in presence of the third party PR person, even if she did repeatedly ask for Miller’s instant evaluation.” (Dr. Vino)

It’s important to not generalize here. Different critics at The Wine Advocate take different approaches. It’s also important to highlight the non-blind nature of some of that publication’s tastings, because I think many consumers are misled on this point.4

I’m surprised that Dr. Vino didn’t know how many of The Wine Advocate’s tastings were arranged by interested third parties. One famous and highly-invested Bordeaux consultant set up tastings in that region for Parker for years (and may still do so; I’m out of touch with practices there), without major public objection…though I’d note that this is not a subject that is often discussed, and probably equally unknown among the general public. And were this knowledge more widespread, I think many would object more strongly. This is inevitable blowback from making great issue of one’s objectivity and ethics vs. other critics, because there is always something that can be called into question by consumers who have an overly idealistic and unrealistic expectation of what is meant by “independence.” (See, for example, the comments to the original post: “Wow. So we’re left to assume that Parker doesn’t taste blind, either. Sounds really objective…” and “that is absolutely fascinating. and scary. […] at least the spectator claims that it does at least the first round of its tastings blind.”)

As for discussions, I’m on Miller’s side here. One of the things I hate most when tasting wine professionally is to be asked – by fellow tasters, by uninvolved consumers, but most of all by interested parties in the production and trade realms – what I think of the wines. First, I think that discussion leads to the integration of reactions other than one’s own, and a consumer of Miller’s or Dr. Vino’s (or Iverson’s) tasting notes is not looking or paying for consensus involving any other party. Second, the opinion is evident in the final result (the publication); this isn’t physics where showing one’s work is important or valuable, except in assessing the critic…and that’s something that’s not easily done during the tasting process. Third, and perhaps most importantly, talking wastes time. It’s important to remember that, for a professional critic, this is work, not a social wine occasion. I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Vino doesn’t know all of that, only that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find it exemplified in this particular tasting.

5) Finally, and most dismayingly, there is a rather shocking bit of head-in-the-sand denial on Miller’s part regarding the important issue of palate fatigue.

“The palate fatigue argument, frankly, is total hogwash. The principal difficulty for amateurs is maintaining concentration, mental fatigue, not physical fatigue. Someone mentioned doing no more than 12 wines; that’s 30 minutes work. You taste, you spit, you write a note, taste again, spit, add (or not to your note) and on to the next wine. When you’ve had practice doing this, it’s simply not difficult.” (Miller)

Shorter Miller: it’s what I do, therefore it must be immutable law. And if you can’t do it, you’re not at my level.

“The quantity of wines that you are able to taste is, indeed, prodigious. Did you follow the interesting series of articles on about the science of taste? The author reports on his discussions with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He said it’s impossible to taste dozens of wines in rapid succession and not suffer olfactory fatigue and that anyone who claims otherwise is claiming to ‘defy biology,’ as he put it. Although a critic might think that his sense of smell is still acute after sampling 40 Cabernets, his impressions at that point are being formed less by the nose than by past experience, visual cues (such as the color of the wines), and perhaps also tactile sensations.” (Dr. Vino)

“Sensation and Perception” and “Psychophysics” were part of my academic studies way back when (I got my my [sic] doctorate in 1972 and took that class (or classes) in the late ’60s. While I have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gestation, I learned enough in academia to take findings in this field with a grain of salt. There can be significant differences between theory and practice. There are still, I’m sure, issues involved in presenting stimuli in a consistent way and in the need to use trained observers (and the biases that go into that). Don’t get me wrong, they’re valid fields of study, but in terms of practical application, forget about it.” (Miller, emphasis mine)

Note that he claims authority in this field, his second dalliance with a classic logical fallacy. But then there’s the rather breathtaking statement highlighted in the quote. He notes (see below) that he has not kept up with the science in this field…in fact, his knowledge in this area is almost forty years out of date. That’s forty, not four. But that doesn’t matter to Miller, who claims to know more than the scientists anyway, just because…well, why? Because he’s Chevy Chase Jay Miller, and they’re not? So, here’s a willful dismissal of science, plus a refusal to even attempt to change one’s personal triumph of belief over evidence. Miller should run for president. Or sub for Stephen Colbert.

“As a wine blogger, I am extremely interested in the research of Wysocki and other experts, much as I am interested in the science associated with wine closure and the science related to organic viticulture. It’s unfortunate that anyone tasting wine on Mr. Miller’s level is willing to ‘have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation.’ As an academic, it is wise to take any findings with a grain of salt; it is not wise to ignore current findings. I will be taking Mr. Miller’s conclusions about wine with more than a grain of salt in future, given his comments here.” (Dr. Debs)

“To Dr. Debs, I can just see myself pouring [sic] through the journals after 35 years (in areas that weren’t even my specialty). My time is much better spent tasting wine. Just out of curiosity, though, I’d be interested in how you think I’d be a better wine critic if I kept up on pyschophysics, olfaction, gustation, etc. As it is, I probably know more about those subjects than 99%5 of those writing about wine. I think you’re just blowing hot air. (Miller)

So, even though he just claimed authority in these subjects in order to “win” the argument, now that he’s been called on that bit of BS he’s moved on to claiming that this field wasn’t his “specialty”. And then he claims more expertise than all but 1% of wine writers (which, I assume, would be the 1% who have, at the very least, read the Slate article, which doesn’t even require being up-to-date on the science behind palate fatigue, only basic literacy). So is Dr. Miller an expert, or not? We don’t expect those whose familiarity with computers ended with vacuum tubes or punched tape to guide us on cutting-edge chip design or the multi-touch interface, do we? In any case, if he can’t be bothered to keep up with the research over a period of forty science-filled years, I think I know what the answer is: he’s no expert, though he might like to play one on the internet when it allows him to attempt bullying legitimate questioners into silence.

But sure, there are indeed better uses for his time. Why read, or learn, or visit Argentina, when he can taste wine with an instrument (his palate) that he apparently doesn’t understand, and spend the rest of his time insulting his audience.

1 I’m exempting Wine Spectator, which is dominant in the broader world of wine, but generally considered less “important” among high-end consumers.

2 A busy critic can’t go everywhere or cover everything. There’s too many wines, and there’s simply not enough time. However, to be as informed as possible about a specific subject, a critic has to visit and taste in situ. A critic owes that to him- or herself, first and foremost, even before their duty to their readers.

3 And yes, I realize this is a sleazy way to bring up the rumor while dismissing it, sort of like what political campaigns do when they want to keep their candidates’ hands clean. I really apologize for doing so, because it’s not my intention to bring the sleaze or even the innuendo, but I think contextualizing the previously-understood (or previously-misunderstood) relationship between Parker and Miller is important in understanding why Miller’s “working for Bob Parker for 25 years” comment will strike many as bothersome, or at least curious.

4 Does it matter? To some people. For me, all that matters is whether or not you trust the critic to be fair (I don’t believe a critic can be objective, at least not in the hair shirt sense that many consumers believe). Whether the wines are tasted blind or not is far less important than a sense of ethics and fairness, and that those senses are perceived by the audience.

5 As if we needed more evidence that 71.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.