What Entitles YOU to be a Critic!?!?

Beth-Chislett-Reading-Wine-List

From the beginning of this year my wine teaching slowly began to skew “offline,” since I started instructing an 11 week wine class to culinary students at the local Art Institute. It’s certainly been a wake-up call for me. I never really thought teaching would ever be listed on my resume, and even though it’s only a part-time class, it’s really opened my eyes as to how wine drinkers palates evolve….but more importantly, how so many people view themselves as a wine critic (so matter how much wine experience they may or may not have).

To do my best to set the tone for the first wine class, each I semester I start things the same way:
I review the syllabus, outline what we’ll be talking about over the 11 weeks, what is expected of them, how the grades will be broken-down, when projects are to be handed in etc. etc. etc…
Then the slideshow comes to an end, and I give my final words of advice:

“Over the course of this semester, we will probably sample between 120-140 wines. Some of those wines, as brand new wine drinkers, you will enjoy. Some of them you will not enjoy. What I will say is that I’ve personally hand-selected all of these wines myself. There will be no bad wines in the bunch. I will have tasted all of them beforehand, so I will know if any are corked, or otherwise spoiled in any one of a number of ways in which a wine can be.
We’ve already established how much wine knowledge you have, and we all agreed that it’s pretty-much next to zero. Some of you, being in your early twenties, have indeed only ever tasted wine once or twice before this signing up for this class. You are therefore all brand new wine drinkers.
 
I know for a FACT you WILL all have an opinion on each of these wines i.e. whether you enjoyed it or not. I’m here to tell you that your opinion is not relevant. It doesn’t count. It also won’t count for at least a few more years, and that is ONLY if you continue to taste wine, refine your palate and develop what EXACTLY it is about that wine what you like/do no like. As harsh as that sounds, it’s an absolute reality. If I want your opinion, I will ask for it; and even then it still has no credibility, either inside or outside of this classroom.
Ok, so, our first wine will be a German Kabinett Riesling…”


WINE-SNOB

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this “little talk” will absolutely rub a large amount of people the wrong way, as it no doubt flies in the face of what new wine drinkers have come to believe is true upon tasting different wines i.e. “you like what you like.”
Just so you know where I stand on you like what you like,” I find it to be some of the worst pieces of advice a new wine drinker can receive. The kind of people who use “you like what you like” don’t even know what they like, since I generally find they haven’t tasted enough wine to even know what they like.

With that being said, I seem to use “you like what you like” all the time in polite conversation. I usually find that I use it most frequently when greeted with:
“I HATE Chardonnay!”
Oregon Pinot is weak and watery”
“I only drink sweet wines.”
“All red wines are too dry.”

To which my response (without missing a beat) is always: “You like what you like…”
[NB: If you hadn’t already noticed, I could do a whole separate article on: “You like what you like,” and I probably will.]

wine-snobs-and-critics

With my teaching gig, I’m lecturing chefs who are suicidal enough to want to go out into the Hospitality Industry, and since said Industry can be an oh-so mean place, I honestly believe it’s in their best interests to come to terms with reality sooner rather than later. Being a critic on wine at this stage would be the same as me giving them a piece of steak for the first time in their lives, and them automatically thinking that since they’ve tasted steak, that they’re now allowed to be an expert on all red meats.

Along these same lines, it mirrors very closely the way in which I view restaurant critics.
I personally don’t think you should be able to call yourself “restaurant critic” unless you have actually spent a decent amount of time (however you want to define “a decent amount of time”) working in the F&B industry. Sure you can call yourself whatever you want…this is America after all…but this is where I take issue with a great number of restaurant bloggers/critics.
My question is that anyone can critique a restaurant, and you don’t need a formal blog to do it. With the increase in the various social networks, you can literally have your opinion on “Restaurant X” be potentially put in front of an audience of millions. But just how relevant is that opinion?

The reason people have so much respect for chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey is that they’ve lived and breathed it for so many years. Would they be so successful if they both had their exact same personalities, but had never worked a day in a restaurant in their lives?
I’ll let you answer that one.

Being a wine critic is something which is earned. Having an opinion on a wine is something which is not. However, having an opinion on a wine which is valued by others is something which absolutely is earned….and it doesn’t come quickly, easily, or (arguably) cheaply.
Americans are so proud that they have a freedom of speech, and rightly so! People absolutely should have a freedom to say what they want, when they want, but that isn’t to say that particular “speech” will be guaranteed to carry any weight or hold any relevance for others.

anton-ego.-ratatouille-critics-quote

5 Comments

  • November 9, 2012

    Shutup andmakewine

    Wrong question in your title. Kind of like asking what “entitles” you to be the President of the US or what “entitles” you to be on an NBA team. Exchange “entitles” with “qualifies”.

  • November 9, 2012

    Kris Chislett

    I know what you are saying, I just think a great number of people think they do indeed have a sense of entitlement, or a just claim, to critique wine.

  • November 9, 2012

    Shutup andmakewine

    As emblematic as that is of our “me, Me, ME!” American culture, maybe that is exactly what’s wrong with our wine culture? While “entitled” and “qualified” both imply some sort of hierarchy with superior and inferior members (thus some – yes – elite in the group), I’d rather have the elite, superior be *qualified* rather than *entitled*.

    How about, instead of entitlement, they seek knowledge (not of the1855 classification type, but of the what-makes-cab sauv-cab sauv-and-different-from-cab frank-or-merlot-or-syrah and what-distinguishes-california-merlot-from-Bdx-merlo-and-napa-merlot-from-paso-merlot type), sensory evaluation (not the whatever-you-think-you-smell-is-right type but of the a-C-sharp-is-A-C-sharp-and-not-a-G and the methoxypyrazine-is-not-vaillin types)? That might lead them to more enjoyment and satisfaction. But what do I know?

  • November 12, 2012

    Frank Doherty

    Great opening “speech” for your classes. It sets a very professional tone for a group that will be more than just casual drinkers. I am curious as to whether you get any drop outs right after you set your guidelines.

    I enjoy reading your blogs.

  • November 12, 2012

    Kris Chislett

    Cheers Frank!

    I haven’t had any dropouts…yet. This little speech is very much catered towards the people I am dealing with in this unique scenario, namely: culinary students. I’m all about them having an opinion, but in the profession they’re going into, it’s not their palates that they’re trying to satisfy.

    If they were going to put together a wine list for a restaurant based solely on their likes and dislikes, it would CURRENTLY consist of Riesling and Moscato…maybe with a random bottle of Merlot thrown in for good measure! :)

    It’s an 11 week class and the part I love the most is seeing them go from never having tried wine, to being blind tasted on 6 wines and pinpoint them by varietal and country etc.

    Thanks for reading. Very much appreciated!

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