Feedback on my post on critics and style preferences

My recent post on whether or not wine critics can judge wines without their personal style preferences coming into play got quite a bit of reaction, both in the comments section, and also on Twitter. I thought it would be worthwhile looking at some of the responses.

Most of the comments agreed with my point of view. This doesn’t, of course, mean that what I said was correct: majorities have been wrong before. It does expose, though, a divide between the wine critic model popular in the USA (where the critic sets aside her or his personal taste to try to deliver an objective assessment of the wine that will be useful for all readers), and the reality most of us who taste lots of wine experience (which is that it is virtually impossible to set aside our preferences when we come to interesting wine, and it is probably not all that desirable).

Here are some of the comments:

‘Critics should involve their style preference so they can develop a following of like-minded readers’

‘Just name your style preference when judging, public will judge your judgement accordingly’

‘Opinion is by definition subjective. Just be clear as to what you value to readers’

‘Those who can recognize and assess wine quality in spite of style and personal preference are pros’

The three following comments make a good point. A critic can set out to be objective in their work, and be self-disciplined and scrupulous, yet still display bias in their work based on their own biology as well as their personal preferences:

‘Kahnemann won a nobel prize for showing how much biases influence our thinking. Silly to argue tasting is immune.’

‘The brain needs a huge amount of interpretation to recall and identify flavours’

‘Can one transcend one’s own subjectivity? Worth a try but not sure about the outcome though…’

American wine writer Mike Steinberger made a good point:

Interesting topic, but it seems to me you have missed a key point. Critics and especially those who depend entirely on subscriptions have an economic incentive to be equal-opportunity point floggers, to embrace all styles. If the trash a particular style they risk offending people who enjoy that style. It might cost them current or future subscribers.

This is an interesting perspective. Does this economic incentive box the leading US critics into a corner where they have to judge wine with one eye on their subscriber base? As an independent, I try to respect all the wines I taste, and be as useful a critic to my readers as I can. But there are some styles of wine I really dislike, and I’m not going to do the silly thing of giving them high point scores because there might be some readers out there that like this style. It all gets a bit silly if you try to recognize well made versions of wines you don’t like versus badly made versions. Some people like super-ripe spoofy wines. As a critic, how do you distinguish good super-ripe spoofy wines from bad?

Where the discussion got more complicated was in relation to my slightly naughty comment that not all styles of wine are legitimate. Here, many thought I’d over-stepped the boundary. Surely, it should be for the market to decide what is legitimate? Some pointed out my apparent hypocrisy: a while back I made a video in which I tasted Gallo’s Apothic red wine with its elevated residual sugar levels. I commented that this was well made in its style: surely, if any style is illegitimate, it is sweetened up commercial red wines?

‘Certain styles of wine are not legitimate’ completely agree, good taste is not a democracy

‘The bigger issue is, can you say certain wine styles are not legitimate?’

‘Consumers choice to make legitimate or not’

‘Some “wines” should simply not be. Period.’

‘There are perhaps degrees of illegitimacy, depending on how utterly faked up/spoofulated a wine might be’

‘Our job is to comment on styles and put into context, not create them. Market does what it wants with info after that.’

Let me explain why I said Apothic is good in its style, yet suggested that some styles are illegitimate. It’s about market segmentation. Different rules apply to inexpensive commercial wines and fine wine. What is acceptable (or excusable) for commercial wine might not be for fine wine. Tricked up commercial wine isn’t something I love, but I accept it and understand there’s a marketplace for it, and while I would rather commercial wines are more honest, I’m not going to go to war against them. But for wines playing in the fine wine sphere, fetching high prices, trickery and spoofulation are not acceptable. It’s a dual standard, but I think it’s justified.

6 comments to Feedback on my post on critics and style preferences

  • Patrick

    Jamie – I agree with your position that as a critic it’s impossible and anyway likely not desirable to set aside your preferences, but interested to know how that translates into your role judging at events like the International Wine Challenge – do you trust that there’s sufficient diversity in the panel and at chair level that the group’s preferences will even out?

  • Jamie,

    You mention U.S. critics being boxed in because they have to watch their subscriber base. — How does it work for other critics? When you judge the International Wine Challenge or moderate the In Pursuit of Balance Tasting (just two recent examples, not singling them out in any way), are you compensated for that? Or when visiting Chile or Argentina, are those trips paid for by the Winery Organizations in the area? — How would such compensation (if there is one), be more or less influencing?

    Thanks,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • Laurence

    I drink (and taste) a lot of wine. I think I can taste most objectively, but I dislike white Bordeaux and white Rioja. I have had some of the very best of the both – and hated them. Now a professional may be able to deal with such bias, but there will be some. Must be better to accept and acknowledge, than mislead

  • Paul Dove

    Interesting if slightly slippery explanation as to why you gave the thumbs up for Apothic red, Jamie – ie it’s OK for relatively inexpensive wine to be tricked up, over-oaked and jammily sweet because there’s a market for the stuff.

    As you say: “It’s about market segmentation. Different rules apply to inexpensive commercial wines and fine wine. What is acceptable (or excusable) for commercial wine might not be for fine wine.”

    But then, as others have pointed out, that begs the question as to how you and your fellow judges go about assessing the submissions at the International Wine Challenge which, after all, overwhelmingly fall into the “inexpensive commercial wine” category that you describe.

    Are you going to praise and award medals to tricked-up spoofy wines that you come across at the IWC, in the same way that you praised Apothic, because they are “well made” examples of a commercial style?

    Or will you only award medals to the non-spoofy ones? I’m hoping it’s the latter. But it’s not clear from what you’ve said so far as to what your criteria are for judging inexpensive as opposed to fine wines.

  • Damien

    Wonder how long it’ll take for the OED to find “spoofulation” to be ‘acceptable’?!

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Apothic red….. Surely if this is the style of wine the punter likes, then I too would say give it a try, along with maybe one of those sweeter reds from Georgia. However as the fellow trying to sell wine in the store, I could very easily suggest maybe moving on to another style of red.

    Bob Alberta

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