‘One good friend, a refugee from the wine trade James Herrick, likes to remind me that I once told him that when I approach the keyboard, ‘the milk of human kindness drains out of me” Jancis Robinson.
That’s my single most favourite quote about being a wine writer ever. It’s a mantra. A reminder that the privileged ‘job’ as a wine critic isn’t to be a cheerleader or a marketer or a promoter – it’s to dispassionately, even brutally, judge the quality of a wine, and not give a stuff about what anyone else might think.
But sometimes, I can’t help but cheer.
Cheer like a schoolkid. Feel ‘the stoke’ thanks to a wine that tastes exactly like I want it to taste. That joy that you get when a new producer delivers their first wine and its great. Or a winemaker who has had a rough year and gone on to release something delicious – where the tears are channelled into hard work, which is then translated into really fine wine.
And that’s where the challenge lies. I can try my best to ignore that milk of human kindness, but emotion still dictates how I ‘feel’ about it, and ultimately colours my perception, if only a little.
It’s easy to be either too critical or indeed too positive. I could slip into Halliday mode and give 94 points for middling boredom. Or I could go into ‘hard assed winemaker at a wine show’ setting and give nearly every wine 15/20 because of the mere suggestion of VA.
But I’d argue that neither approach is that useful. Ultimately, you want a critic to be hard but fair. To give high scores only when wines deserve it and call out the rubbish.
Is that really achievable though? There’s a point when I open a great wine and it’s just impossible not to get excited. How amazing is wine! But then, you come back a few minutes later and that initial enthusiasm has cooled again, and it’s just another good drink. Until you finish the glass, and then it’s a great wine again. How amazing is this fermented grape juice stuff!
You can see what I mean. Dispassionate judging is the ideal, but is it unrealistic when we’re trying to describe what are effectively emotional responses to one of the most complex products on the planet?
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