For the better part of 25 years of my professional life, I firmly believed that my notion of a ‘good’ and a less good wine mattered rather a lot. I was bolstered in this belief by newspaper, magazine and book publishers who payed me to express my views on paper, and by the astonishing success of the International Wine Challenge of which I was co-founder and co-chairman.
Admittedly my notion of ‘good’ did not always coincide with other critics’ but that’s the nature of criticism after all. The arbiters of taste who failed to share my enthusiasm – or lack of it – for a particular wine were quite simply wrong. As of course were the consumers who were sufficiently deluded to follow their advice. As a Brit, I naturally particularly equated this wrongness with some of the top US critics. How could they possibly like the over-alcoholic, over-oaked, over-priced red monstrosities to which they regularly awarded points in the high 90s?
Today, my views have changed pretty radically. I still am clear in my mind about a good and a bad wine but I’m far readier to try to understand why others think differently. It’s rather like no longer saying about apparently mismatched couples that “I can’t imagine what he/she sees in her/him”, but trying to understand the attraction. I personally don’t choose to spend my money on Starbucks coffee or Big Macs or Krispy Kreme donuts but I can see why so many people do so – in preference to what I might have chosen.
Sometimes it is simply a matter of what they are used to, culturally or socially; we all inherit and adopt tastes. Sometimes the appeal lies in something other than the flavour. I’m writing this in rural France where non-Frenchmen and women who regularly holiday and quite possibly have houses here, attune themselves to happily consume rustic wine they’d complain about if it were offered to them in their own countries. People wanting to embrace ‘natural’ wine also recalibrate their palates to accept smells and tastes they would previously have rejected. When in Rome…
The brain can also find a reward in consuming something that is said to be ‘good’ or ‘expensive’. I’ll bet that many of the less well-off people who apparently relish the occasional opportunity to eat Foie Gras or caviar would not choose to make either a regular part of their diet if they won the lottery. I know of plenty who’ll drink Champagne when offered it, but actually prefer Prosecco and, to return to my point about Starbucks, there are those who unashamedly admit to liking Nescafé more than a freshly brewed ‘real’ coffee.
To the critics, it’s all a matter of education. Of teaching the misguided and unsophisticated what they should appreciate. That principle can work very well, of course. Even today, I’m occasionally surprised and heartened by someone saying that their journey into the higher levels of wine enthusiasm was helped at an early stage by something I may have written or said 20 years ago. And those moments reassure me that I wasn’t wasting my time – and that the critics writing today aren’t wasting theirs either. But I’ve shifted my perspective.
I still use my knowledge and experience – and personal opinion – of what’s good and bad when judging at competitions like the IWC or Mundus Vini, when working with consultancy clients or when benchmarking our Le Grand Noir wines against competitors’. But I’m increasingly intolerant of intolerant critics. I know when I’m right, but I’m far less confident of saying that others are wrong. After all, those Big Californian wines I thought so little of are still selling well at the prices I laughed at, and the critics who praised them still have their audiences. And the art critics who mocked their colleagues for supporting – what they thought to be – meretricious artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are still waiting for time to prove them right.