Thursday 2 June 2016

I Just Love This: We're All Wine Critics

So at some point in the last ten years, we started to move towards a new critical dispensation. Once upon a time, we had to put up with the consensus that certain people had the authority to pass judgement on things, while everyone else, didn't. If you'd managed to fashion yourself as an authority of some sort, or at least someone with a platform from which to mouth off, you could hang on to that position, influencing the terms of the discussion, until you did something so catastrophic that you discredited yourself; or died. Newspapers and magazines, the worlds of TV and radio, the publishing industry, were structured around this hierarchical principle, and did their best to sustain it. If you were in The New Statesman, or had a publisher, or were on TV, you had a kind of tenure.

But now. Thanks to the internet and the possibility of endless reciprocal commentaries on just about anything, the old critical hierarchies have started to collapse. Ever since Amazon hosted the first readers' book reviews, followed by a deluge of sock-puppetry and anonymised badmouthing/logrolling, the gates have been wide open. Everyone has a platform, everyone's views share the same space, we are all become our own George Steiners. And we have opinions about, not just big-ticket items like dishwashers and, indeed, George Steiner, but startlingly unengrossing things like Marks & Spencer socks ('This is the second batch of these socks I have bought', anonymous, a month ago, from their website), a mains plug adaptor from Tesco ('Plug used without issues', traveller99), and a set of paintbrushes from B & Q ('Awful brushes', Jimmyb78). All that opinionising, that energy, released like radiant heat, your words, treated with the same formal impartiality as if you knew what you were actually talking about, and if you're keen on Tesco's mains adaptors, traveller99 is now an authority on the matter. This is liberation! This is egalitarian!

Online, of course, it's now increasingly hard to tell the punters' star ratings from the official blurb. And wines are a particular area of ambiguity. Bright, vibrant and fruit-driven, says Waitrose of its Coral Tree Cabernet Merlot; A diamond in the rough, complex yet very drinkable, says racwillett of Swindon, a couple of lines down; both equally pithy and persuasive. Over in the whites, how about the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc? An ideal match with salmon apparently; also Perfect with seafood. But who came first? Waitrose's copywriter or BaJa of Norfolk? Are they even the same person?

Clearly, we like demotic reviews: they have that word-of-mouth feel to them - an authenticity that no amount of corporate shillwork can replicate. On the other hand, if regular punters can - seemingly at will - sound like experts, what's the point of quoting them? Won't they simply acquire the commercial sheen of disingenuousness that's been putting us off for the last hundred years? Which, conversely, poses the question, why do we still have expert, or at least professional, reviewers? What have they become? In a world where the most humdrum novel can be called brilliant, the most ordinary screwtop Shiraz impressive, the most Godawful design accessory must-have, pro reviewers denature themselves on a daily basis (maybe they always did), any quiddity or dissent unlikely to make it past the editor's desk. They are imitable because there is so little to imitate.

So, once you've got your head round minerality, fruit, floral, some others, you know what I'm talking about, the standard lexicon, you're a wine writer much like any other wine writer. Everything else wine writers get up to is just the worst kind of showboating, so for the love of sanity don't even think of going there. Which leads us with deadly circularity to the usurpation of the critics' role by the greater public. And the thought that it's not just the terrible rapacious invasiveness of new technology which has enabled idiots to take over those jobs previously earmarked for a highly skilled and privileged sub-group: but that the jobs were always there for the taking, there was no great genius required to do them, it's merely the way the system worked. The whole thing was more wide open, more invadable than it looked - it's only now that we've been able to do it, be the public arbiters we always knew we could be. Then the question becomes: is it worth it?


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