Sunday, 23 November 2014

The role of a critic

I am a tadpole when it comes to the wine industry, going quietly but energetically about my business and learning every step of the way. An industry that is full of very big bullfrogs that croak loudly every chance they get. The wine critic/judge/journalist is a vital cog in the world wine machine, guiding and educating a 'relatively' ignorant public on what they should be drinking and why, and taking the emphasis away from clever names and pretty labels. Their word should be taken with a pinch of salt because the most important thing about wine is knowing what you like. Every palate is different and while getting insight into the impressions of an expert palate is important, it is even more vital to concentrate on training and listening to your own palate.

One of South Africa's very own big bullfrogs, with an encyclopedic wine knowledge, has given me his take on the subject.  He prefers to remain anonymous. 

In a democratic society everyone has the right to express an opinion thanks to the fundamental right of freedom of speech. Under a totalitarian regime this expression can land one in jail or worse. So thankfully, a bona fide critic can freely express an opinion, but exactly who is qualified and what role does a critic play in society......... Firstly to be a critic, one should know what he is talking about, in other words be intellectually schooled and have practical experience of the subject involved. To be a theatre critic one has to have expert knowledge of plays, poetry, stage craft and literature etc. and have first hand knowledge of what he/she is writing about. However the verb criticise implies an element of finding fault, it is submitted that this is not the primary function of a true critic but critics may be criticised and agree to disagree and leave it to the reader to choose which opinion to follow. 

So exactly what role does a critic play? In short he or she helps to shape public opinion. One does not necessarily have to agree with the opinion but should be the wiser as a result of having read or heard of the critic's view. To be a journalist, writing say on wine, one has to have a detailed knowledge of all aspects of the subject and be honest in his or her view and be able to defend it. South Africa, being a major producer of wine, has a number of respected wine critics who occasionally graduate to become judges of the quality of wines at international and local wine shows. A critic usually comes to the notice of the public via articles published in the press, magazines or the internet and they develop a following. If you're wondering what impact a critic can have on the wine industry, the answer is tremendous. An example of this is the remarkable following Robert Parker has in the United States and other parts of the world. If he gives a wine a rating over 90 points, the price reacts accordingly. Here at home the Platter wine ratings certainly influence the public. This leads to the question of how to assess the integrity of the critic. 

This is a difficult issue and can only be answered by examining the credentials of the critic (both academic and practical) and the consistency of his/her views and whether or not they are generally accepted by their peers. Thus far the wine industry has had no scandal relating to wine critics and those who do not have the required level of competency are soon found out and quietly disappear. 

Another guide is the awards earned by the critic, such as a Master of Wine, as well as international recognition by way of being appointed as a judge at international events. The prestige of the publisher of articles also shows a level of success, but the ultimate recognition comes from the industry itself. The Champagne House of Louis Roederer annually awards a prize to the wine writer of that year which reflects how the industry values the views of the critic. 

It is pointless listing all of our wine writers but mention must be made of Dave Hughes, Phyllis Hands, Christian Eedes, Tim James, Christine Rudman and Michael Fridjhon who have all had distinguished careers. However of all of these one really stands out as an international authority. 

Michael Fridjhon has been writing about wine for The Business Day, The World of Fine Wine, The International Herald Tribune, Decanter, and been a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Wine and has been a taster for the Platter wine guide for a number of years. He has judged numerous wine competitions, such as the Six Nations Challenge, the Australian National Wine Show and the International Wine Challenge (2007). He also runs the prestigious Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show and has written the Penguin Book of South African Wine. In addition he has received peer recognition as a recipient of the French Chevalier de L'Ordre du Merit Agricole, an honorary life member of the UK circle of wine writers, an honorary life member of the South African wine tasting society, the Cape Wine Academy person of the year and visiting professor of wine business at the University of Cape Town. 

Fridjhon co-authored a book entitled 'Conspiracy of Giants' which led to his role in advising and assisting the Minister of Agriculture in the dismantling of the KWV statutory powers in 1998. 

With an example like that the future of top class wine journalism should be assured. So to be a successful critic his/her judgement should generally be accepted over a period of time as setting a benchmark standard for successors to emulate.

A final word - a critical opinion should be constructive not destructive.  

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