Saturday, March 20, 2010

Advice from Vino Critics: You Can't Taste It All

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at a conference organized by York U's graduate art history students. I set out to learn something from all the talks, and I most certainly did—folks are studying some pretty interesting stuff these days.

I myself gave at talk titled "On Being a Journalistic Parasite: Writing and Thinking about Art as a Form of Appropriation," (The conference was themed on appropriation, so this was the best way I could think to connect my experience in arts journalism to the conference theme.)

The talk touched on that idea from a few angles, but one point I enjoyed conveying was that the idea of critic in particular as parasite has come up in the area of wine criticism, among other areas.

A couple of years ago at a wine conference in Spain, Financial Times wine correspondent Jancis Robinson caused a bit of stir when she said, flat out "We [critics] must always remember that we are parasites on the business of winemaking."

She also had a line I thought was absolutely terrific relating to the subjectivity of every critic: "We must realise we only have one palate."

I take Robinson's statement to mean something like "Don't think you can understand or sense it all--the nuances in every bottle of wine, the themes and histories in every artwork. You have a set sensibility or set of receptors, which might be refined or expanded through training and other experiences--but people, let's deal with the truth that no one person can taste it all!"

I think it's a relief to hear a critic make an assertion like this--while a related article notes Robinson may have simply been attempting to promote a little humility among wine critics (maybe arrogance reigns in that realm? dunno) I really think her statement is also just a nice human thing to acknowledge.

You can't taste it all, people. You can't taste it all! New motto.

On a somewhat related note, it recently came to my attention (via an article by David Lawrason in Toronto Life) that a group of American wine critics revolutionized reviewing in their area of criticism three decades ago by implementing a 100-point scoring system that has become the industry standard. Lawrason believes that the ratings should also be arrived at through a consistent ingestion regimen--tastings must be controlled for time of day, number of wines tasted and the type of glass being used. Can you imagine if this standard was applied to art critics? ("You can only see four shows maximum in a day, and always from 2-5pm after you've had a coffee. Dressed for the weather as well, so not to be too hot/cold when viewing. Oh yeah, and you must score numerically on form, content, presentation, and so on.")

Interesting diversions and similarities to the art realm--Lawrason does note that that "purists argue that you can't put a number on a piece of art (assuming wine is an art—an unwinnable debate for another day)".

Image of Jancis Robinson from Taste In

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