When Critics Get It 'Wrong'

You were expecting agreement? Forget it
When Critics Get It 'Wrong'
Matt Kramer says the critic's purpose is not to be "right" or "wrong." (Jon Moe)
Nov 7, 2017

All my professional writing life I’ve been a critic. I was a restaurant reviewer (a guaranteed way to raise hackles); a food critic commenting on any and all matters of foodstuffs and, of course, a multi-decade critic of wine.

You won’t be surprised to learn that along the way I managed to offend, annoy, irritate and sometimes enrage this, that or the other restaurant owner, chef, winemaker or winery owner and even the wine-producing population of entire regions, to say nothing of readers. Oh, and I forgot to add one other group: some of my fellow critics.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I’ve never lost much sleep over it.

Now, you may think that such imperviousness is nothing less than the worst sort of arrogance. But it’s not. Rather, it’s due to something that, unless you’re in the critic’s role yourself (which many now are, thanks to blogs, chat boards and the like), can be difficult to know.

And what is that? Strange as it sounds, it’s this: As a critic, you know that there is no right and wrong. There is, however, responsible and irresponsible. Kind and unkind. Generous and grudging. Fair and unfair. Understanding and vindictive.

Over the past 40 years as a critic have I crossed those lines? I’m sure I have. Hell, I know I have. And that—and only that—is behind the little sleep I’ve lost. What prevents me from having become a full-fledged insomniac is that I think that when I’ve overstepped I’ve subsequently recognized it, and sought to repent by never making that same error of irresponsibility, incomprehension or lack of generosity again. At least I hope so.

Having said that, I’m also more than prepared to defend not just the critic’s role in the ecosystem (whether we’re sharks or bottom-feeding scavengers I’ll leave to you), but also the critic’s right to get it “wrong.”

Recently I read yet another pained and puzzled missive questioning how reliable critics can be if they can disagree so much about one or another wine. The writer could not comprehend how one critic could give 94 points to Château Glorioso while another critic scored it 86 points.

The wine is either really good or it isn’t, right? Wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read someone suggest that critics aren’t useful because they don’t agree with each other.

Whenever I hear this contention, I always want to say, “Look, goodness or greatness in a wine is not established by absolute consensus. Yes, there often is such a consensus. But it’s not, nor should it be, the overriding measure.”

I can tell you this much: If you buy only those wines that achieve near-universal consensus you will have a cellar partly filled with some unquestionable jewels. Some wines truly are so great that pretty much nobody can miss them.

That acknowledged, if you buy only those wines that achieve near-universal consensus I can guarantee you that your cellar will be stuffed with high-achieving mediocrity. You will have wines that are undeniably well-made yet devoid of truly individual character. They get good grades and offend no one. We all went to high school with them, remember?

I don’t mind saying that I, for one, disagree with other critics all the time (and they, surely, with me). For example, every time I read a critic’s—or a merchant’s—fulsome praise of a so-called natural wine that I know is more than just a little technically flawed, I find myself wondering how such praise could possibly be justified?

Then, I calm down and answer my own question: It’s justified because the critic is making different demands upon the wine, asking different questions and consequently getting different answers, than I. And that those answers are legitimate.

What I want from a wine may very well be different from what you’re seeking—and are rewarded by. Take local wines for example. When I was the wine critic for the Oregonian newspaper, which I was for 26 years, I both praised and panned the local wines, many of which were, in those early years of Oregon wine, less than ideal.

That this hardly endeared me to the local wine industry was understandable. For my part, I was viewing the local Pinot Noirs against what I, as a critic, felt was some sort of reasonable standard for what constituted a good Pinot Noir. A critic’s role is, to a degree, a bit like that of a cop on the beat.

Maybe I was just, or unjust. Surely I was both over such a long span of years.

But you know what? Many of my readers—most, even—were not interested in holding their local wine producers to my standard or, indeed, to any particular standard. Rather, they were rooting for the home team, win or lose.

In short, the local wines answered other needs. And those needs were and are every bit as legitimate as my own standards and measures as a critic.

Bottom line: Don’t ask or expect critics (or anyone else) to agree with each other. Do recognize that consensus leads to a boring, predictable median mediocrity of taste. And please do accept that there are different questions, with consequently different “answers” for every wine—including wines that you (or I) simply cannot abide or comprehend.

And there’s one more thing. If I were advising a would-be critic today, I would hand her or him a slip of paper with the following advice from no less than the Master himself, Henry James: "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."


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