Tim Marlow and Serena Sutcliffe have both published widely in their respective fields of art and wine. Here they discuss the crucial role of the critic and the challenges of wine and art writing.

Tim Marlow It is fascinating to explore the role of critics across our two areas as they have a significant part in shaping not only perceptions, but also taste, and perhaps even careers. Roger Fry, for instance, who died in the 1930s, is often cited as an early influential critic in British art, yet he was actually key in assimilating recent French painting. Clement Greenberg is a similar example. Both were certainly critics, but at the same time they were curators and historians with strong personal views. These two are atypical given the level of their influence, but are there similar voices in the field of wine? Robert Parker, for example?

Serena Sutcliffe It’s interesting that you cite Robert Parker, who has been extremely influential in the field, with his concept of applying numerical ratings and marks to wines. We don’t use that style of ranking in our auctions, but rely on our own notes. It is important that people get to know a specialist’s palate and then decide if it matches their own, rather than having to decipher a mass of views. 

TM Do you consider yourself a critic on any level then?  

SS Well, you’re always judging. Recently, I had two weeks of intense tasting of 2012 Burgundies, and my views will affect what we buy for our retail wine operation in New York. So it is judgmental, otherwise why do it?

TM But you are not publishing your notes?

SS They appear in the auction catalogues and will soon be available in digital form! The most important criterion for me is that a wine has to be representative of what it is. Wine has to have character, and really scream its region, be it a Bordeaux or a Rhône. 

TM Art critics are generally not invited to witness the stages of production. They are presented with the finished work or exhibition, they have their say and that’s it. In your world you’re dealing with something at various stages, to predict how it’s going to be in the future as much as now. 

SS You do have to update as a wine develops and matures, but I don’t know if there is an equivalent in art writing?

TM There is in terms of how some artists are underrated. For instance, El Greco virtually sank without a trace until the 19th century, but now we quite rightly revere him. 

SS In wine terms I would say great vintage port is seriously underrated. It is wonderfully complex and to watch it age is incredible, but again it relates to a more fundamental question about the nature of criticism: the idea of one voice being definitive. I think the way different places approach critics and criticism is fascinating – Europe tends to be more skeptical and wants to make up its own mind, while in Asia or the US there is more of a sense that there should be a definite opinion to follow – or a number! 

TM Does that make us more arrogant? We believe in our tastes over the experts! 

SS That opens another subject entirely, but blogging has meant that everyone has the means to get their opinion out there, sometimes regardless of the knowledge they may or may not possess. 

TM This is not self-interest, as I don’t see myself as an expert in any field, but I am tired of the cultural convention that the opinion of someone who’s thought about something for 30 seconds is given equal weight to someone who has spent their professional life in a field and has significant qualifications. 

SS It goes back to your point about the subjective and the objective in both wine and art. When you’re properly qualified, you can have an objective view as a basis, but quite separately, you can “fall in love” with something – be it a wine or a picture. That is entirely subjective. 

TM There’s a convention within the media and the newspapers, certainly in my world, whereby you can feel the pressure to let the subjective come forth more because newspapers or magazines want something confrontational, controversial or heartfelt. I need to feel that the person concerned has authority, and when they want to be indulgent or mocking then I’m interested, but not as the only purpose of the piece. 

SS For me, I think it is much more important to have a discussion around a table with the bottles and glasses. It is infinitely valuable and you really learn from other people.

TM You’re right, why wouldn’t a group of you discuss it – especially when you can sample the subject matter.

Sotheby’s international wine specialist Serena Sutcliffe, MW is one of the world’s leading authorities on wine.

Tim Marlow is Director of Artistic Programmes, Royal Academy of Arts. 


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