jamie goode's wine blog: Are wine writers and critics too soft? Am I too soft?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Are wine writers and critics too soft? Am I too soft?

Lots of wine writers seem to follow the principle, 'if you haven't got anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all'. It seems polite not to be mean about wines, and I can see why some people might prefer to keep their negative opinions to themselves. However, many who take this course come across as toothless.

You may be liked by the trade if you are a safe bet for a kind review. But you don't serve your readers very well if you aren't totally honest. I try to write with my readers in mind, rather than winemakers whose wines I'm critiquing, or PR people who kindly send me samples.

I'm worried that I might be getting a bit soft. Have my scores crept upwards over time? Am I afraid to use the 70s, and perhaps even the 60s?

There's a certain honesty and transparency that comes from reviews written by people who have actually paid for the wine they are drinking. Perhaps I should be buying my own wines a bit more often?

But there is also the opposite scenario, when reviewers are deliberately and OTT mean, because this is entertaining. It might be fun to list your five worst wines of the month, and exaggerate the awfulness of these bottles for dramatic effect, but we are dealing with people's livelihoods here, and so we need to be fair in our criticism - and not grouchy and harsh for the fun of it.

27 Comments:

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Rickg said...

Jamie,

Depends why you review a wine and what expectations you've set. If the expectation is that you only publish notes on recommended wines then nothing below about 80 ('good') needs to be published. You can make exceptions if it's a highly touted wine that you feel really only deserves a 75, but in general, skip such wines.

As for actual scoring... I don't find much value in the 100 point scale. What I really want to know is less granular - did you like it? Love it? Would sell the house for it? Or was it just OK? If you tell me a wine was in the "Love it" category and give me a note that conveys the experience of the wine, I'm fine. I don't really care about whether it was 92 or 94, nor do I believe you or anyone else can reliably make such fine distinctions over time.

However, if you want to use the 100 point scale then I think you mostly need to make sure you're not giving out 90+ scores too easily. I have some friends with whom I use the 100 point scale as a shorthand and we have one real dividing line - does it make it over the 90 point threshold. We've drunk enough wine together that we understand what we mean by this - 90 and over means a wine has that _something_ which separates wines that are merely very good wines from ones that make you go "Oh, that's special." If you find yourself saying "That's very good... 92" you need to worry as very good wines should be in the high 80s. Over 90 a wine should pop over some point that makes it truly special.

 
At 6:32 PM, Blogger La Gramiere said...

I completely understand your dilemma, you want to be truthful and honest, but a negative blog is always a downer, not to mention the livelihood issue. Buying your own wines would be, for me, quite interesting. I know I sort of lost interest when another very well-known wine blogger stopped writing about wines that he actually went into a store to buy and started only reviewing samples that were sent to him. I guess if you no longer need to buy wine because samples are constantly arriving at your doorstep that's a sign that you're successful. But it might make for more interesting reading to, at least once in awhile, see what Jamie Goode goes out and buys for himself!

 
At 6:48 PM, Anonymous will said...

Hi Jamie,

Just started reading your blog the last couple of days and I think it's great!

With regards to what you are saying, I can see your view point, and I realize that the wine industry is quite protective of it's 'clubby'and supportive, not-overly ayn rand-ish environment....but I personally must be a heartless bastard because the way I see it, by being 'nice' and uncritical of mediocre wines, you are allowing these people to carry on being mediocre, which means more underperforming wines for all of us! I would love it if you critics were actually harsher on poor wines, that way everyone would be forced to raise their game!

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger Gavin said...

Something that fascinates me about wine is that, if you want to see it, deep issues of philosophy are just below the surface -- or at the bottom of a glass.

To me, the most useful thing a critic can do is say whether they think a wine is worth drinking/buying or not. Like others, the one hundred point scale doesn't convey that for me. There are various ways critics can convey this: one way method I like but rarely is a measure of the specific wine against the critics own expectations: did it deliver for a wine in this price range? This region? This brand? This vintage?

You could argue that the point scale is a reduction of this and other variables but I personally do not believe that humans (and most critics are humans) are very good at doing that reduction.

 
At 7:46 PM, Blogger ”scar said...

Good point! You are writing for your readers and you will get their respect and attention not just by your nice and high reviews, but mainly for your lower scores.

No one from the trade will like to see his wine with a low score. But if you are being fair, also the trade will accept it and you will get also its respect. It's not possible you love all the wines you taste, some 60s and 70s are also necessary. And if you have a legion of people disagreeing about a score, you can always give a second opportunity to that wine.

 
At 8:12 PM, Blogger Steve Borthwick said...

I agree with Rickg & Gavin, ditch the Parker scores it's soooo 90's.

You are a scientist, you know that any points based system is more astrology than astronomy, IMO it means more if you just tell people what you think, i.e. buy it, like it, love it, hate it etc.

 
At 12:11 AM, Anonymous Andrew Graham said...

It all comes down to fairness and equity. If you give a wine a serve and back it up with logical reasons why you don't like it, then it comes across as informative.

In Oz they judge your ability as a wine judge on not only your score consistency but also your score range - a wide range indicates a more discerning palate with the best and the worst identified.

 
At 1:48 AM, Blogger Paul Tudor said...

Yes, and Yes

 
At 3:36 AM, Blogger Robert M. Oliva, ND, LMSW, MA said...

Jamie,

I just came across your wine blog. It's very well done and informative. I've added it to my humble blog. I wish you continued success.

Bob Oliva at http://bottlestoppers.blogspot.com

 
At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Alex Lake said...

I'd say your scores are high when compared to many other reviewers. With your system, I'd expect a decent £10 wine to score 90 points, with some others that requires a bit more money.

For amateurs like me, it's generally only important to be consistent. For pro's whose scores will be compared to other pro's, a more globally harmonised score is useful to avoid being labelled as "soft".

I am slightly wondering if you just got meaner this week, though!

 
At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are in a no win situation here. You rely on the wine trade for your business and that is selling wine to punters like me. If you dont sell it you wont get the gigs. I suspect that, maybe unconciously, you pick and choose the wines to review, avoiding the clunkers so as not to upset the trade who in the end are your paymasters.

 
At 8:24 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I buy my own wines and review them (http://timswineblog.blogspot.com), and I definitely have no reservations about slagging off a wine that I feel has let me down. On the other hand, it doesn't happen that often as I normally only buy wines that I think I'll like. I use a 5 point scale, where anything over 3 is basically "I'd drink/buy it again".

Jamie I wonder if the general quality of wine that is sent to you is of such a high standard that it wouldn't justify scores in the 60s and 70s...?

 
At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your spelling is too soft :-)

 
At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Stuart Peskett said...

Jamie, I think everyone is naturally more inclined to tell other people about wines they like, rather than ones they don't.

On your blog, correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't remember the last time you scored a wine below 80. It gives the impression you've made a conscious decision not to talk about wines you don't rate.

 
At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I imagine that enough samples/wines cross Jamie's desk that he writes up the ones which are interesting/provoke thought more than he writes up every single bottle.

JMac

 
At 10:25 AM, Blogger Camoranesi said...

Interesting stuff this Jaime, and it's a relief to hear a critic discussing this. Personally, I think wine critics are unbelievably soft - you see a great many more negative reviews in almost every other realm of reviewing, be it theatre, dance, restaurants or whatnot. I think it's just as important for consumers to know what to not buy rather than pick up. And without getting into bogged down in the 100pt debate, I think it's faintly crazy that you've got a 100 point system that functions effectively as about a 20 point system. I've definitely tasted wines that deserve less than 50, but I don't think I've ever seen a critic have the nerve to go that low. And yet restaurants frequently get failing grades. Why, exactly, should wine be treated so gently?

 
At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Augustine said...

Hi Jamie,

As a long term reader my feelings towards your scores are this. It really is a 85 to 95 scoring system as hardly anything is below even 85 and very little above 95. As a very happy entry level employee in the wine industry we get sent weekly Jamie Goode reports detailing the reviews that you have been giving on our wines and competitor wines. In that respect you have become a somewhat happy hunting ground for lazy marketing departments from large supermarkets and chains who use your scoring to sell there wines. You shouldn't worry about wages or livelihoods as I am sure you they are not considering your bank balance. Personally I think the site needs a bit of rebranding. I would be happy to pay a subscription fee if there was more science, less uninteresting wines that have frankly been sent to the same twenty wine journalists and more interviews. In conclusion the scoring has gone soft and regardless of how you score them or draw more "granular" conclusions most of these wines are reviewed over and over elsewhere. What was unique about you and this site, including the blog, is your own distinctive scientific angle. Reviews and the wines being reviewed should emcompass that distinction. Differentiation is as important in blog world as it is elsewhere. I would to finish by saying that I believe, honestly, you seem to be soft by nature and have nothing to prove to the world by thrashing wines, which contrary to what you say, is what a lot of wine critics do e.g. Look at the way SA winemakers are spoken to by the British media in the clips you published sometime back.

 
At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Ben Smith said...

Jamie,
I agree with Camoranesi - there is less criticism in the wine trade than pretty much any other subjective area that I can think of. I think it would give more credibility to wine writers in general to have more reviews of rotten / over rated wines. Unless they are from my company, of course!

Ben

 
At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Tim Carlisle said...

Personally I think you have to ask why are people going to come to your site.

What a lot of people forget is that a lot of writers in the press, including your Express column I suspect are doing is offering up recommendations to readers to drink and in that vein none of the wines are going to have low scores. If you can only recommend 6 wines a week why take some of that space up telling people to steer clear of something.

AN Others supermarket Bardolino may be insipid rubbish, and it is possibly worth pointing it out, but on the whole the thing that makes reading about wine attractive is letting it get your imagination going and your taste buds tingling.

Sure there is room for some humour and comedy slating wines, but frankly why bother? Unlike restaurants, books and films there are far too many great wines at great prices out there to spend time talking about rubbish. In the same way as you could probably not score Blossom Hill TOO low (tasted blind) you wouldn't really want to talk about it either.

To be interested your writing needs passion behind it - wow look what I've found - absolutely cracking get it in is where we should be at.

Recommend good wines and I know what to buy. Spend your time telling me "What not to buy" (a new wine related show co-hosted by Jamie and Trinny Woodhall perhaps?) I'm still left with a problem of what to actually buy!

 
At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Ian S said...

Agree that generally the UK wine press are awfully soft. Newspaper columns are the worst culprits - I understand through editorial pressure to both be positive and push easily available wines (i.e. supermarket plonk).

Also find the 100 point scale starting at 70 or 80 is misleading for newbies coming to wine. 74/100 sounds better than the dull sweet plonk it actually is. I'm happy with verbal scales, but also feel comfortable that Broadbent's 5 star scale was more honest.

The only rating I've personally ever felt comfortable with was the £ scale - literally how much you think it's worth.

regards
Ian

 
At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Andrew said...

I believe that the actual values in the 100 point scale are too condensed to be of much use. I'm sure there was a period not long back when pretty much every wine scored was between 87 and 93. I work in wine production and we use a 5 point scale, A-E.

A is outstanding or iconic.
B is extremely good.
C is every day good / no probs.
D is simple but without faults
E is faulty

We then sometimes try and split the scale into 3 subdivisions per letter, but that's really just for fine tuning. It works for us and this also ties in with Ian S's comment about pricing. Each of our products has a target quality and a target selling price.

 
At 9:41 PM, Blogger Amy Atwood said...

I have chosen to only review wines that I like on MyDailyWine. The wines I did not enjoy, whether purchased or sent samples, I simply do not review.
I figure that most wine consumers want to hear about what they should buy. That is also the reason I keep my wine reviews very succinct and user friendly.
I don't do scores either, they are too arbitrary for my taste.

 
At 9:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't there is anything ressembling a perfect grading scale. On a 1-5 scale, no ever willingly drinks anything less then 3 (indeed there is very little about these days), and almost all wines rate 3 or 4. At least five gradations would be necessary between 3 and 4!

Also agree Jamie's scores are a bit soft. Have to say I take them with a pinch of salt since I poured down the sink a 90-rated Oz wine from a Southern European varietal which was truly horrible, oversweet, overripe, over-everything.

 
At 1:15 PM, Blogger firstpress said...

An old chestnut of mine. I'm in the Irish trade. It's a small one and everyone knows everyone else. There are never any bad reviews. Therefore evrything must be rosy! Let's hear it for the guy who peeps over the parapet and gets shot for the effort. Lets' hear it for the guy who picks/buys up bottles at random and reviews them blind! There are bottles out there that should not be on sale.

 
At 4:03 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Thanks for such a great response - really value all these comments. Lots to chew on.

 
At 1:02 AM, Anonymous The South Florida Punch said...

Buying the wine is half the fun! Also, I agree that negative reviews are sort of a downer. And since wine is really a matter of personal taste, bad press might ruin it for someone else who may enjoy it. I think it's fair to describe the flavors of a wine and allow the reader to decide if it's something they'd like to try. It's also fair to state if a wine seems overpriced for its level of quality.

 
At 9:44 AM, Blogger Ole Martin SkilleŚs said...

Will anybody read a comment this far down a long list? I wonder!

Sometimes one may wonder what the connection is between wine writing and the business. Wines are expensive, and what will happen to the hand that feeds you if you bite it? Do you dare to find out? Will you be cut out of the loop?

When you come across wines that are sub-standard will one: a) assume it is a faulty bottle and not write a word, b) mumble on about what a great producer this usually is and score it moderately, c) savage the wine?

I send out a mail every now and again to some 90 people. I don't score the wines since they all come recommended (relative to price, of course). If I don't come across wines that are both recommendable and available, no mail will be written. Several months passed between the last two mails.

But then: I don't make a living from this.

 

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