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Drinking Out Loud

Are You Really a Critic?

Or are you just captious?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says a critic's job is to illuminate rather than denigrate.

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 7, 2016

I purposely inserted "captious" in the headline above, knowing full well that it's hardly a commonly used, or frequently seen, word. So before I go any further, allow me to provide a definition, courtesy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "Captious: Marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections."

Merriam-Webster further expands on the meaning by noting: "A captious individual is one you might also dub 'hypercritical,' the sort of carping, censorious critic only too ready to point out minor faults or raise objections on trivial grounds."

Recently, I was privileged to participate in a blind tasting "face-off" of high-end red Bordeaux and California Cabernets from the 1996 vintage. It took place at a wine event at the Post Hotel, high in the Canadian Rockies at Lake Louise. The Post Hotel is renowned for its extensive wine cellar. (It received a Grand AwardWine Spectator’s highest award for a wine program—in 2002 and has kept it ever since.)

All 10 wines in the tasting came from the hotel's 25,000-bottle cellar, and the wines were in pristine condition. With 20-year-old wines this is worth noting, as such impeccable provenance is rare these days.

Let me cut to the chase: Château Latour 1996 was the group's sixth-ranked wine, which caused comment as you might expect. (It was my last-ranked wine.) The Château Margaux 1996 came in third. (I ranked it first.) Obviously, these are very big names.

The group’s first-place choice was Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 (it was my No. 2 wine), followed by Joseph Phelps Insignia 1996 (No. 3 for me).

Now, were any of the wines in this tasting bad wines? Hardly. But subsequent private conversations revealed a certain amount of—you guessed it—captiousness. Much of the "ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections" was of the defending-the-home-team sort. Defenders of Bordeaux rallied to their cause by saying that Bordeaux wines never show well against sun-rich California Cabs. (The group's bottom three rankings were all Bordeaux.)

For their part, the California crusaders highlighted the "ridiculous" prices of the big-name Bordeaux and expressed an "emperor's new clothes" contempt for Bordeaux wine veneration. That noted, most of the folks I talked to after the tasting simply shrugged and said, effectively, "whatever." I was in their camp.

What is it about wine today that makes so many otherwise decent souls become so captious?

Take for example—who can resist?—biodynamics. Boy, does that ever get people going. Is it mumbo-jumbo? Scientifically speaking, it sure sounds like it. But practically speaking, it seems not.

When I look at the roster of winegrowers around the world who adhere to biodynamic practices, and I taste their often-extraordinary wines, I can't help but think: Who am I to say it isn't so?

Yet the captious crowd, many of whom have done nothing more agricultural than put grandma's African violet into a new pot, froth at the palate over the seeming absurdity of biodynamics.

The list of wine prejudices that incites captiousness is considerable, and I'm sure that you can add to the examples already offered (feel free). But the common denominator for all of them is not healthy disagreement but an "ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections." In a word … well, you know the word.

The key point here is that this is not criticism. Instead, it’s partisanship. Contentiousness. Even just plain old mean-spiritedness.

Being a critic—the real thing—is something else again. Real criticism involves not just a weighing and sifting, but also a willing availability to others’ views, to perspectives different from your own. Above all, being a critic means thinking not of your own needs but that of your readers or listeners. Simply put, you exist to serve, not merely to opine.

The captious (who doubtless fancy themselves as critics) are easy to spot. The giveaway is that they always denigrate; they always polarize. Not least, they always present themselves as certain that they know better than anyone else. There’s never any humor, never even any false modesty, never mind the real thing.

Such sorts have no idea of what being a critic is really all about. Nor, for that matter, do they seem to have any interest in actually being one. They have no interest in striving for illumination, no consideration for the legitimate possibilities of the "other side." Indeed, there’s no interest in anybody’s opinion but their own.

Above all, you get no sense of collegiality, of a cordial mutual interest. The New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott puts it well in his book Better Living Through Criticism (2016). A critic, he says, is “a person whose interest can help activate the interest of others.”

It’s a useful definition, as it shows the bright shining line that divides those who are captious from those who are genuinely, usefully and sincerely critical—in the best sense of that word.

It’s up to you—to all of us—to judge who among us falls into which camp.

Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  June 16, 2016 8:45am ET
Good article - well put and like you yourself said: it is up to us to judge who falls into which camp.
Again you open our minds into territories otherwise analytically unthought-of.

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