There's a minor brouhaha going on in the wine-blogging and wine-writing worlds about English wine critic Jancis Robinson's statement reported earlier this week by Decanter that wine critics "must always remember that we are parasites on the business of winemaking." For my part, the only thing I find surprising about the statement is that a critic said it; overall, critics are often seen as parasites, especially by the industries they criticize, so the appearance of the word really shouldn't surprise anyone in the business of being a critic. Shocking! Me? How could you say such a thing! I feel faint. I think I'll have to sit down.
I'd go out on a relatively stable limb and parse Robinson's comments as follows: "winemakers are the actual artists here, and the wine itself is the crucial thing, so let's not forget that." I'm guessing that's more what she meant than, "we critics are vitality-sapping, largely unsavory creatures having a fine time living off the wine industry," which seems to be how a number of people are interpreting it. I'd also argue that even if you take wine criticism as parasitical in the word's most familiar and generally negative context, you're oversimplifying wine. Sure, wine can be a wonderful, transcendent liquid that approaches or reaches the level of art, that subsumes thousands of years of history, culture, science, and what have you, wrapping the whole thing up nicely and sealing it in a bottle with a cork (yep, you heard right). But wine's also a business. Winemaking is part of that business. As soon as a winemaker decides that he is going to sell the wine he's made, well, hi-ho, welcome to capitalism. Is the critic a parasite on winemaking, or a useful symbiote with the consumer, picking off the nits and biting flies of advertising, marketing, pretty labels and general b.s. that accompany selling darn near anything?
But back to Jancis. Wine, I think, operates with a wonderfully uneasy balance between romance and pragmatism, far more than most other products that you can buy in a store. At one extreme, people describe wine's qualities with a fervid passion that usually marks religious zealots or high-school sophomores. At the other end, wine gets you drunk. (Yadda yadda, wine lovers don't drink because of the alcohol; yes, of course, but also let's be realistic—humans didn't come up with alcoholic beverages because they wanted nuances of stone fruit and white pepper.) Robinson's statement, rather than critical, is romantic and idealistic, if you ask me. Whether that's a good thing is another question.