Before I get started today, I’ll paraphrase René Magritte: This is not a wine column.

Everyone acts according to hidden assumptions, habits and drives. Most of us believe we are correct most of the time and believe ourselves to be in control of our thoughts, speech and body most of the time. But this is not so. Only rarely does anyone act from a truly conscious state.

I personally have had enough moments – just that, moments – when I wake up: I catch or half-catch myself in the act of mechanical thinking and realize, in contrast, that the rest of the time, when I’m not catching myself, is the standard.

It’s actually horrifying, being brought face to face undeniably with the recognition that one is not in control. It’s so horrifying, in fact, that we have developed something called “a personality” that helps protect us from that reality.

In a state of true consciousness, we are objective. In the other states – the mechanical, sleepy states – we are subjective. Distinguishing between these is what leads me to the discussion that has been heating up in national publications and mainstream online outlets about whether a wine critic ought to be subjective or objective.

As if it’s one or the other! The questions, insofar as they concern wine, are moderately interesting, or maybe they aren’t, depending on who you are and what you’re after. But if we can expand our scope and frame the questions in terms of ourselves – how we sense, respond, think, believe – then this really starts to matter.

In The New York Times last month, Eric Asimov started by asking, “Should wine critics allow their personal preferences to color their critical views?” He follows with a plea to not “dismiss me as one more self-absorbed wine writer” because “these are important questions for anybody who cares about wine. How you answer them shapes how you think about wine, your attitude toward its aesthetic potential and, indeed, what you expect from critics.”

I agree with that as far as it goes, but would add that looking at these questions about wine without considering our own broader awareness – or lack of it – may be exactly what Asimov hopes to avoid: an exercise in self-absorption.

Taken on their own, writing about wine and reading about wine don’t matter. Rather, it is the entire experience of a human interacting with a wine – in the vineyard, in the cellar, at a meal – that begins to carry some degree of innate relevance.

Asimov was responding initially to a piece by’s Jamie Goode entitled “Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?” in which, shockingly, Goode wrote, “It’s a question I haven’t really considered before.” Really?

That’s the elephant in the room: Critics don’t regularly interrogate their own value systems. If they do, they sure don’t tell their readers the results of their interrogations. And before you cast a stone, accept that everyone’s a critic in various ways.

Goode crystallizes the question thusly: “As a critic, do you say ‘I don’t like this style of wine,’ and yet score it 94/100 because ‘it is very well made in its style’? Or do you say, ‘This wine is unbalanced and quite disgusting to drink,’ and give it a low score?”

Do you have the strength of mind to ask that question about your deepest-held beliefs? To wonder whether your neighbor really is a reprobate or buffoon, or consider whether he could have a whole set of dreams and loves and histories that just happen not to align with yours, a personality that happens to be disagreeable to you but which, in its own manner, is true and therefore beautiful?

Test yourself with wine, which is a lot easier than dealing with human beings. Wine is practice. Consider the wines you drink from their own point of view. Ask, what is this wine trying to do?

Anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” knows that asking those questions is not anthropomorphism. Plants live, the planet lives, the universe lives. Entertain the notion that when you drink a wine, a manipulated plant, you might be being sensed and directed at least as much as you’re sensing and directing.

Seen from this angle, no wine is bad. Some wines may be flawed or faulty: they may contain so much volatile acidity, oxidation, acetaldehyde, Brettanomyces or some other trait that they have missed their mark. Yet whether one enjoys such a wine is a subjective matter. I know people who love such “off” characteristics, despite the fact that they might make you retch.

Who’s correct? No one. A critic who claims an objective superiority of one over the other is ignorant or lying. A critic who attempts to disrupt settled opinions and point toward opportunities is honest. And ultimately more helpful.

No wine is bad. Each wine is merely useful for its intended purpose, or it isn’t. Your neighbor is either someone you’d like participating in your life, or he isn’t.

A critic of wine is a critic of himself, one who has absorbed the quantum lesson that the observer is part of his observation. We ought to aspire to recognize, acknowledge, uncover or disclose as much as possible. To remove masks, to widen scope and sphere. Uncovering a wine can be useful. Uncovering oneself can be brave.

This is not a wine column.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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