A critic or a critique

hpim2295As a wine educator, I truly love to teach and am passionate about wine – its complexity, nuances and the connection to the earth it provides. Consequently, I use my blog primarily to inform and educate about wine, as an adjunct to my teaching. While I don’t think that someone needs to know everything there is about wine to enjoy it, I do think that knowledge, even in small doses, enhances one’s enjoyment of this unique beverage.

In adding to one’s knowledge, I feel that it is useful for a wine educator to talk about specific wines in the context of wine education. However, I feel that as an educator and journalist, my review of a specific wine should be impartial. To that end, my descriptions of wines are intended to be non-judgmental and simply provide the reader or student with the opportunity to learn more about the qualities of a given wine and then make his or her decision about whether or not they might wish to taste it themselves. We all have different preferences, which are equally valid, so a clear and accurate description of the wine should be beneficial to the consumer, rather than trying to dictate whether a person should like a given wine just because of the writer’s preference.

Moreover, preferences are just that — preferences. They are not necessarily an indication of quality or a lack thereof.   Further, if my preference for a given wine isn’t the same as the producer’s, I am free to find another wine to drink. Therefore, I don’t think that it is my place to tell a winemaker how to make his or her wine. Given that I am a wine professional, I do think that I have a responsibility to point out poor winemaking – not my preferences for a particular wine style, but rather those elements that can be empirically determined such as unbalanced alcohol (as opposed to criticizing a winemaker for a wine with high alcohol) or an otherwise flawed wine. But, beyond that, I don’t feel that it is my place to arbitrarily prescribe winemaking techniques.

Today, there is a proliferation of wine regions and wineries, providing consumers with the luxury to find wines that span a wide range of styles and price ranges. Within a given wine region, there will be many styles. For example, in a recent Decanter article on Brunello di Montalcino, one producer noted that there was room for both a traditional and a modern style of Brunello. Even within the same winery, with the same winemaker, there will be differences among the wines that appeal to one and not another. As a case in point, at a recent visit to Jaffurs winery in Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to taste through a number of its wines. Among the selection were two single-vineyard Syrahs – Bien Nacido Vineyard and Thompson Vineyard, both from the 2006 vintage. The Thompson Vineyard Syrah was fruit-forward in style with notes of blackberry, chocolate/cocoa, berry and spice. Conversely, the Bien Nacido offering was much less fruit-driven and presented with decidedly secondary aromas and flavors of earth, leather, berry and a hint of spice. Each retailed for $38.00.

For some consumers, the Thompson Vineyard wine will be more to their liking while the Bien Nacido may be preferable to others; different people may like both wines and still others may not like Syrah at all or may only drink Syrahs from France. Did I have a preference? Yes, but does it really matter? Were I to voice an opinion, I would become a critic, but, as an educator, I wish only to offer a useful critique. In this regard, I feel that it is my responsibility to accurately communicate what is in the glass and leave the decision-making up to the consumer. My preference for one or the other isn’t valuable to my students or to the winemaker. Of more value, I can use the two wine descriptions to talk about the influence of the specific terroir (each of the named vineyards) and, more generally, the differences in climate, which may account for the flavor differences in the two wines.

With this in mind, one of the interesting things about wine is that it is both a natural product and a man-made one. From budbreak to harvest, it is essentially up to Mother Nature to determine the outcome of a given harvest. Yet, humans have the ability to manipulate the vineyard such as through amendments to the soil, irrigation in the absence of rain, and both natural and chemical means to control mildew. Then, more directly, once the grapes have been harvested, it is up to the winemaker and his/her team to decide what winemaking techniques to consider. Should they employ stainless steel or oak? How long should the maceration last? In Europe, many of these decisions are more regulated than in the New World (i.e. the Americas, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa), but they do exist to some extent.

Accordingly, as an artisan product, the winemaker must be a grape whisperer – listening to what the grapes are telling him or her to do. Some winemakers are more hands-off than hands-on, but may need to intercede in more difficult years. With experience, knowledge and preferences guiding the winemaker, he or she endeavors to make the best wine they can. Once the wine has been made, it is the reviewer’s job to accurately describe the wine and leave winemaking decisions up to the winemaker. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback, but as I wasn’t in the vineyard or the winery encountering various conditions and challenges, it is not my place to tell the winemaker how s/he should make their wine. And, of course, I certainly wouldn’t want a winemaker telling me how to write.

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