jamie goode's wine blog: Does having a nice experience of a country bias writers, even subtly?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Does having a nice experience of a country bias writers, even subtly?

Keith P posed an interesting question in response to one of my blog posts from New Zealand. To paraphrase: does having a nice experience when visiting a wine region of country introduce a degree of positive bias in subsequent reviews?

Let's put this another way. Would it, in fact, be better for wine critics to have samples sent and taste the wines blind in a relatively neutral environment, such as their offices? There are a couple of well known critics who 'don't do vineyards', for example. Is their coverage more objective? Are wine reviews done in large, blind peer-group tastings of c. 100-150 wines per day in some way more professional and therefore more useful to readers because they are shorn of such biases?

I don't think there's a simple answer to these questions, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. But here's my current thinking.

Visiting wine regions and vineyards, and meeting with the people behind the wines, is absolutely vital if a writer is going to be able to make useful comments about the wines. Wine is more than simply a liquid in a glass that we, as critics, measure in much the same way as a Foss WineScan might do.

I had a great time in New Zealand and met some great people. My coverage of New Zealand wine will be better for it. I'm also aware that positive experiences can lead to a desire to big-up the wines a little, but I have visited enough regions now that I'm aware of the danger of thinking that the latest region visited is the next big thing - just because I have been there.

I also think large, blind tastings have problems of their own - often the results that come from them frequently seem a bit odd when you know some of the wines included well. They are useful, certainly, but they are not the final word. The job of the wine communicator is to tell the story of the wine, as well as evaluating it.

Pictures above: top two - the gold mine sluicings at Mount Difficulty (Central Otago), viewed from the restaurant and also from above (you can see the winery from the aerial picture); bottom picture is of a vineyard in Gibbston, Central Otago.



At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Katy Prescott said...

Totally agree Jamie - that's why the wineries do it so often after all. But isn't wine about sharing? And is it any different to Joe and Mary Smith who enjoy a bottle more that they bought on holiday because of the surroundings, people and warmer climate?

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Per and Britt said...

It is naive to think that any writer can be unbiased - in whatever situation it is. Jamie is absolutely right that he will be a better writer on NZ by having been there. Equally Keith P is undeoubtedly right that Jamie will in some way be biased by having been there.

One might ask though, does it matter? Or perhaps better, what do you mean by "biased" or "better coverage"?

Wine is not a neutral product existing in isolation. So "judging" and writing about wine (or scoring wine) cannot be done in a vacuum. The appreciation of wine is affected by the environement of the vineyard, by the people who make the wine and other things that are not really part of the liquid. (Seeing a beautiful photo of a South African vineyard will no doubt change your experience of a wine from that vineyard.)

Marketing people do influence wine writers and wine drinkers, but there's nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, that's the way it should be.

An explicit example of that is, for example, the numerous posts from New Zealand we've seen on this blog over the last few weeks.

If there hadn't been a marketing budget to finance the trip those post would never have been written. Thanks to those posts more people will taste and discover NZ wines. So already there you get a bias on what topics are covered. And it's inevitably so.

I don't mean to say that Jamie's opinions will be more biased in the future, I don't know, but simply that the increased attention is a bias in itself.

But, as said, there's nothing wrong with that.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger stu said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger stu said...

In total agreement. To me, the people/ cellar door/ region/ country package further enhance the overall experience.

I certainly recall fondly wines where a positive experience was had against those where the experience was less positive (and despite knowing the wines of that less positive experience to be very good).

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Helen B said...

To drink wine whilst deliberately ignoring the producer, the setting, the history even, reduces it to just an academic exercise, assessing a glass full of chemicals!

Some of the wines I enjoy most are those that come with fond memories of times and places - arguably I understand them better having visited the producer etc.

At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Keith Prothero said...

Think it is great that you and many other serious wine writers take the trouble(if that is the right word!!)to visit wineries around the world.
Agree that the experience of wine is as much about the people who make it and the terroir they make it in,although obviously the actual taste of the wine is paramount.
Think it great that you post so many photos and I for one,value your opinion,especially when actually drinking the wine and posting notes.
One reason why I like your video tasting notes.

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even a beautiful country with warm, courteous people and great terroir can make lousy wine. It doesn't matter how scenic the vineyard or how good the grapes are if overenthusiastic or plain clumsy rides roughshod over the subtleties of flavour. There is also the "when in Provence" argument that one's critical faculties take a vacation and one enjoys wine for the sake of drinking it, but that when one tastes the same wine back on home turf sans sunshine, sans Mediterranean, sans the smell of pine forests, it lacks the context that made it so delicious in the first place.

Judging wine involves mixture of subjective and objective responses: it is part spontaneous reaction to the liquid in the glass and part evaluating according to critical norms and part bringing previous tasting experiences to bear.

At 8:55 PM, Anonymous Ron McFarland said...

Of course a trip like the one you just experienced will influence your perception of New Zealand - the place, its people, foods and wine.

That's why its done and consumers are better off because the stories you share, the notes you write will have a better chance of reflecting the New Zealand experience.

The alternative is a robot spitting out wine trivia.

Thanks for sharing.

At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Nick said...

If wine has a sense of place (and I believe it does) then it makes absolute sense for writers like Jamie to visit wine growing regions and the wineries. Otherwise, how else can you compare the wine to the place.

I think, however, the bigger risk of bias comes from who finances such trips and visits. It is only human nature to feel more positive towards someone/ some organisation if they have shown generosity to you.

So perhaps the bigger question is should wine writers disclose either within a specific article or more generally on their website what support they have received and from who. Remember the furore about the Spectator writer in 2009. With the move to more and more self-publishing on the internet (i.e. writers no longer have an employer to claim expenses from) the issue will become more pressing (and not just for those writing on wine).

At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Ian S said...

If a clear declaration of hospitality is made, then we can judge for ourselves.

Maybe we need a distinction here, between a wine writer (whose camp Jamie IMO falls squarely into) and a wine critic.

A wine writer covers as much about the background story, as they do the wine in the glass. Such writing tends to be more pro-winery. Maybe this is the influence of the visit, of the freebies/hospitality, or just that it's rare one would have a bad image from visiting a wine region.

A critic is someone whose main focus is a comparitive view across a genre/region, identifying successes and failures, at least according to their palate preferences.

If a wine writer ends up writing about 2 Lebanese wines gifted to them during or as a follow up to a trip there, then that's par for the course. Whether those write-ups are biased by the trip, is for the readers to judge.

However, the critic must avoid this situation. They need to avoid favouritism and being influenced to write about some wines and not others. If they write mostly aboutr New Zealand, then each winery should expect as fair an assessment as the next. The reader likewise should demand that same even-handedness. Criticism isn't about making friends and doing favours.



At 3:13 PM, Blogger Per and Britt said...

@ Ian

That's and artificial and arbitrary distinction. And impossible to make.

In both cases you should expect fair and honest assessments. (If not, then the "wine writer" becomes a marketing agent, and I don't suppose you mean to say that Jamie is that.)

And in both cases the writer/critic is influenced by realities, environment, people and many other things.

There is no such thing as an entirely neutral "critic". The simple fact that, in for example the case of NZ, a critic has not tasted every single NZ wine, and tasted all of them under exactly the same conditions, introduces a bias.

No, criticism isn't about making friends and doing favours. Nor is wine writing.


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