Through a glass darkly: on critics, princes, and poets

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“G-d is dead,” wrote Nietzsche (The Gay Science 1882).

“The author is dead,” wrote Barthes (“The Death of the Author” 1967).

“G-d is dead, Marx is dead, and I don’t feel too good either,” wrote the students on the walls of the 1968 revolution in Europe (quoted by Ionesco in 1979).

In the demotic age of wine blogging, is the wine writer dead?

I really loved Eric “the Red” Asimov’s column this week on the nature of oenography, “A Wine Critic’s Realm Isn’t a Democracy.”

Calling himself not an “impartial arbiter” but rather “a guide,” he politely argues that personal preference is fundamental in wine writing.

The back story is that for many years, there’s been an ongoing behind-the-scenes feud between the editors of points-based publications and “narrative” wine writers, where the former hold that their evaluations are superior because they are the fruit of an empirical, impersonal system for critiquing wine.

I would take Eric’s argument a step further. Echoing the Gertrude Stein of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I contend that all writing is purely subjective — including point-based wine reviews. That is the nature of writing. And that is, above all, the nature of wine.

From St. Augustine, to Stein, to Barthes, to Derrida… critical theorists have considered the issues of subjectivity in discourse and perception for thousands of years. Who are we, now, to lay arrogant claim to a new and purely objective means of observation?

Why not embrace our humanity and our human shortcomings in wine writing?

After all, we see through a glass darkly.

I wrote about Eric’s piece yesterday for the Boulder Wine Merchant.

Also for your consideration…

My friend Katie Parla, a Rome-based food, wine, and travel writer, wrote this superb article for Punch on the Antinori-Boncompagni feud over the legacy of the Fiorano wines. In it, you’ll find an excerpt from my translation of an interview that Prince Boncompagni gave to Luigi Veronelli before he died. It’s a great piece.

Lastly, the most lyrical of wine bloggers, my friend Levi Dalton, delivered one of his most brilliant essays with his post this week for EaterNY, “As Wine Culture Gets Older, the Sommeliers Get Younger.”

Everyone in the trade has been talking about Levi’s insights into the evolution of wine connoisseurship in this country.

Buona lettura e buon weekend, yall. I’ve gotta hop on a plane…

7 thoughts on “Through a glass darkly: on critics, princes, and poets

  1. Ciao Jeremy read Katie Parla’s article with great interest being a lover of the Fiorano Rosso. Eric Asimov write an excellent article on the same subject when he visited the new Prince and Alessia Antinori. I also wrote two articles on the subject when I visited Alessia at the estate. I have tasted the wine from the new prince and find it to be an easy drinking wine with no relation to what Fiorano Rosso was in the past. I have not tasted Alessia’s wine and do not know if it has been released.

  2. Eric’s piece resonated with me as someone that has never drunk for the glass of the point system and one all knowing palate. Best wines and 100 points are just silly monikers in my book, best for what and compared to what? Just never made sense to me. Wine is more like people to me, with accents, blemishes and beautiful imperfections that add to their charm and make them unique. How do you give points to that?

  3. Charles, I read your pieces on Fiorano and Alessia and I linked to them in my own post on Fiorano. You know these wines better than anyone I know and I agree with you that the new Fiorano has nothing to do with the wines that the Prince made. I tasted them in Philadelphia and while I liked them a lot, I didn’t find a continuity between them and the wines of the prince. How about you bring out some old Fiorano rosso for us to drink this week in NYC? ;)

    Samantha, I so agree (as you can imagine). And I agree with Eric, whose piece really resonated with me, too. Accents, blemishes, and beautiful imperfections… I love that!

    Thanks to both of you for being here… :) buon weekend, J

  4. Levi rocks and his commentary & podcasts are a must for anyone with a strong interest in contemporary wine trends.

  5. While I agree with much of what Asimov says, most importantly that all writers write from a perspective and it is disingenuous to act otherwise, I disagree that all writing is purely subjective. I don’t think any of the writers you reference would hold that position either (perhaps with the exception of Barthes). Rather, an author imbues her writing with certain imprints of her life, psychology and situation. However, once written, words no longer belong to the author as subject. There is an objective quality to writing that allows it to persist despite its author’s existence and then both into and out of other subjectivities in various readers. Additionally, all perception (including wine tasting) is both subjective and objective insofar as subjectivity relies on at least the possibility of experience. To fall into a realm of total subjectivity/relativism would reduce wine writing to banalities such as ‘drink what you like, everything is equal, etc.’, which is not true of course as what one likes changes with experience and appreciation of certain objective qualities. In the same way, writing should endeavor to respect such objective qualities and combat meaningless relativism while at the same time combating a patrician elitism or pseudo-scientific objectivity. That’s the real problem with the points model – it is pseudo-scientific. It does not meet the standards of scientific objectivity and so is merely a facade of objectivity, underlying which is a relativistic, changing set of perceptions. It also misunderstands what is objective about wine, which is not quality as measured by points, but the actual existence and proportions of chemical compounds. Anyhow, good debate, but I thought the interaction between subjectivity and objectivity is more complex and subtle than suggested.

    • the interaction between subjectivity and objectivity is more complex and subtle than suggested

      Shea, you are entirely right and I recognize that I’ve made a sweeping observation without a lot of substantiation… I’m also with you 100% when you write that wine writing should combat patrician elitism…

      thanks for being here… and for the insightful and thoughtful comment…

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