Onions and Wine Critics Don’t Gel


Grab the whole onion.


When I,began my former career as a movie reviewer, I asked a colleague how one goes about this.

“Just sit back, enjoy, and write about it as you were describing the movie to your girlfriend or her mother,” came the answer from across the cluttered editorial offices of Die Burger newspaper.

Simple does as simple says. And as far as I was concerned, it worked.

Wine criticism, however, seems to be a different story. Far more niggly. Far more focus on the initial highlighting of negatives. And I was reminded of this during a tasting in Santenay, Burgundy last year when an elderly local viticulturalist said he does not believe in wine reviews and scores “because you can’t drink wine and peel and onion at the same time”.

The other Burgundians nodded sagely, forcing me to add to my list of questions I was pelting down on the assembled group of locals.

It was explained as thus:

A wine critic does not see pleasure as the main priority. He ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ or she ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ sees the duty of a critic to identify a layer of characteristics that he feels he has to point out as negatives. So the critic begins to peel away at the wine, just like the layers of the onion are removed.

Should the slightest whiff of oak be detected, one layer is stripped away. A touch of edgy alcohol, and there goes another. And what is this?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+..a teensy wheensy bit of brett? Take away two layers. And so the critic peels away the wines supposed faults until he or she is left with a stripped down object on which the final opinion and score is based.

“So is it fair that the whole wine is not judged, but only the small part that remains?” the old man asked. The others shook their heads slowly.

I took a sip of Meursault and, nervously, asked what the alternative is. And I was reminded of my erstwhile career in film.

“Taste, drink the wine,” I was told. “If you like the wine, then that should be your major impression and should be the first. Start thinking what you like about the wine then look for the elements that have made it good. Perhaps the wood it detectable, but adds to the balance. Just like the alcohol or lack thereof. And if you don’t like the wine, do the same. But it is wrong to seek faults before deciding whether you like the wine or not.”

In other words, the sum is greater than its parts. Why fault a wine for showing wood or a bit of herb when in its totality the wine works?

But then again, wine criticism is a little, abstract science which calls for the finicky and niggly. Unlike a film, a glass of wine has not actors, faces, narrative, story-line or art direction. To transfer subjective impressions and opinions thereof into print or words requires the hauling out of terminology and characteristics and adjectives to justify one’s position as a wine commentator.

Sometimes, however, we listeners would like to hear the whole story. To taste the whole onion.

Even if it does give us tears.



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