Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?

Should wine critics allow personal stylistic preferences affect their judgments on wine?

I recently had a discussion on twitter with a respected US wine critic from a major publication, who kept emphasizing that personal stylistic preferences had no place in his ratings. He was quite insistent.

It’s a question I haven’t really considered before. I like the idea that a critic can be objective and assess wines for every palate. If you are a big magazine, and give a single critic the remit to rate the wines from one country or region, then you need to spin this angle, and instruct the critic to be even handed to all producers. The critic is, after all, writing for all the readers of a magazine.

Thus you have created the myth of an individual critic as a global arbiter of style.

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

Look at the tastings carried out by The World of Fine Wine. They have three expert tasters on each panel, and the individual scores are given. More common than not, there is wide divergence in the scores. You could conclude a number of things from this: that some tasters are better than others, for example. Or, that people have different tastes, and try as they may to be objective in their criticism, they can’t be, fully. I’ll settle for the latter.

Look at spoofulated wines (here I am exposing my style preferences). Take a new world red wine at 15.5% alcohol with lots of spicy new oak, and sweet liqueur-like dead fruit fruit, with added acidity sticking out like a sore thumb. As a critic, do you say ‘I don’t like this style of wine,’ and yet score it 94/100 because ‘it is very well made in its style’? Or do you say, ‘this wine is unbalanced and quite disgusting to drink,’ and give it a low score?

The sorts of critics who score these monster, childish wines very highly often say that they are not judging style. But put an elegant, fresh, pure Loire Cabernet Franc in front of them and there’s a good chance they will call it thin, weedy and undrinkable. We have probably all seen this happen! When they travel to the northern Rhône they fawn over the ripe oaky wines with no sense of place, and ignore the fresh, vital, peppery Syrahs that could have come from nowhere else.

I believe you have to be open-minded, and recognize well made wines in a variety of styles. But only to a point: certain styles of wine are not legitimate. A wine grower needs to produce and intelligent, sensible interpretation of her or his terroir. And for the writer, it’s just not possible to separate out style preferences from doing a proper job as a wine critic.

You can’t go so far as to hate entire genres of wines if you want to be a useful critic. But you do need to make a call on styles. It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into. Yet many critics choose to project this image of wine criticism to their readers.

22 comments to Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?

  • Rod Smith

    Hi Jamie

    Thought provoking as always. But the answer to your question is ‘of course they should’, and your US co-respondent was/is wrong.

    If popularity is the only arbiter of quality, we’d lose all but the lowest common denominator of everything. Your job, as a critic, is to allow your personal taste to shine through, and find people for whom yours is representative of theirs, so that you can guide them to wines, styles, places, that otherwise they might miss or not explore.

    Some critics, with their love of big flavours that have mass-appeal, have hit it big as critics simply because their tastes coincide with a large number of other people. Bully for them, but if this happened with, say, film or music we’d have Titanic and One Direction regarded as the best simply because they are the most popular.

    It’s possible and admirable and essential to admire and acknowledge the quality of things you do not personally like. But it’s not essential or admirable to ascribe quality to awful things simply because lots of other people like them. That’s what criticism is.

  • Good post Jamie, you’ve touched a lot of angles and by taking a stance I imagine this will generate a lot of feedback.

    I have recently been thinking about the role of critics and how we rate wines myself. And it’s an interesting question, should / can critics aim to define the style of regions? In the Northern Rhone example you cite, I imagine many wine lovers will side with your view. But I am wondering about Rioja for example. What is it? Elegant wood-aged classics such as López de Heredia, more modern Reservas such as Roda, Parker favourites such as Contador or non-interventionalists such as Olivier Riviere? Who gets to decide? Surely a region is allowed to evolve?

    In general I think that as a consumer the best way is to follow one or several critics, but to know their own preferences. For example I’m not (yet) as big a fan of natural wines as you. I’m trying my best, but I think my mindset is just too conventional. So I’m going to read your reviews but then apply my Jamie Goode filter to them – so I might not be as excited about some cloudy Loire white as you and I might prefer an oaky Ribera del Duero to you. BUT the key thing for me is that your reviews are useful to me, as (a) you keep me up to speed on a lot of wines / regions I woulnd’t know about and (b) as someone who’s job is to taste as many wines as poss, I can learn from and respect your judgement even if I know I won’t necessarily agree with it.

  • Wrote about the subject of illusory objectivity as the source of legitimacy for the modern expert. In short, objectivity is a few hundred years old idea that is very nice on a theoretical level but is based on a misconception about expertise itself.

    http://koskeloonwine.com/2012/01/07/expertise-in-transformation/

  • Mark Swift

    I thoroughly enjoy your occasional wave of the red cloak and have often written a reply only to destroy it later before actually sending it.

    This argument, it seems to me, is irrevocably tied into the issue of points ( other than in an arbitrary sense) and the value individual tasters ascribe to a particular wine.

    Objectivity is, I suspect, a skill best used cold and I’m sure every wine expert would vehemently defend their years of experience, their superb palate, their depth of acquired knowledge and hence their ability to be able to offer ‘objectivity’ in their assessments. Quite rightly you suggest that we all taste things slightly differently and so frankly the possibility of an arm’s length opinion in erroneous.

    It seems to me that the key here is experience and consistency, and the relevance that has to you, the end user. Like many people, I rely on others to judge a wine and I make a purchase based on whether I might like that type of wine and the relative score/price ratio that seems to be offered. Key to this however is my belief in the experience and consistency of the taster. I will, hopefully, have compared my own likes and dislikes with those of the taster and make judgments accordingly. It might be said for instance that the great Robert Parker liked overly fruity wines. It doesn’t actually matter providing you can use the consistency of his judgement to make your own choice.
    It does then bring out the matter of a point scoring system. If the great wine gurus all give slightly different scores to an identical wine, does it not suggest that objectivity is extremely difficult to achieve despite our best intentions.

  • Mark Golodetz

    Interesting article on a subject that I have thought about and discussed over the years. I have finally come down on the side of personal preference, and if I don’t like a wine I won’t try and extrapolate for others. The classic example is Cos d’Estournel 2009. Exactltly what you described, “Take a new world red wine at 15.5% alcohol with lots of spicy new oak, and sweet liqueur-like dead fruit fruit” except it was from St. Estephe. Or it could just as easily have been grown hydroponically in the Arctic, it had no terroir, no elegance, and just came across a vinous in fact none of the traits that I value in old Cos’. How can one extrapolate a wine like that, when all I wanted to do was hurl down the sink.

  • Jason Carey DWS

    Lets just take a certain critic for WS who reviews California wines. There is now doubt that this person does not review wines agnostically. Many of the wines I find to have concentration and balance over the years, he rates in the mid 80’s. This is stylistic preference. He does not like a certain kind of wine. He will say its because they are intrinsically “thin” or “herbal” or something else. But this is a way to express preference. What I might consider purity of fruit is considered under ripe or acidic. I have a trained palate. I spent 4 years in the WSET honing my tasting skills to differentiate between poorly made wine and wines i just don’t like. I cop to the fact however that I have preferences. Honestly I can admit that I do not like over ripe or extracted or oaky wines. I can however recognize that they are well made in their manner even If I don’t like them. All I have to do is give my girlfriend a taste and she can tell me if its a quality wine of that ilk, cause she likes those wines.

  • Jamie,

    I believe that you take a huge (unjustified) leap in the second to last paragraph when you start calling wine styles not legitimate. To me that smacks of remarkable arrogance. The French authorities have done a similar thing over the years….with Thevenet Macon wines, because they weren’t typical and couldn’t be labeled accordingly. Or the more recent case of Olivier Cousins inability to label his wines as Anjou or even label the vintage, even though that is where and when they originate. — My California friend, Hardy Wallace, under his Dirty and Rowdy label, produces a 100% whole cluster Mourvedre….which is largely unknown to me as a technique of making Mourvedre. I’d say that was unusual, even groundbreaking…..but I would never call it not legitimate. — I bet in all of these cases you will take the side of the producer, because they make the style of wine you like. But I the case of someone making wines that you call “childish” you will say their wines are illegitimate.

    Over the centuries, wine has been made in so many different ways. I may like some more than others, I may rate some higher than others. Those ratings may be based on standards that are subjective or on my personal preferences or on whatever criteria I hold. But I don’t have the temerity to label any of them as “not legitimate.”

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • Paul Dove

    Err, Jamie, I seem to remember you describing the grotesquely synthetic and confected Apothic by Gallo as “very well made in its style”.

    Did you honestly believe that when you wrote those words? Or were you, as I suspect, trying to be the “global arbiter” wine critic that you reject as a myth in this blog?

  • Jamie, you are someone whose palate I have grown to respect, because I have found it often agrees with mine. So as a producer I applaud your acknowledgement of subjectivity in wine criticism, though I find it a little left-handed as you still apparently feel it’s OK for you to publicly label some wine styles as illegitimate (as Adam Lee notes above).

    Clearly you have had a Damascene moment – or perhaps just an evolutionary shift – since you labeled Apothic Red as “balanced and well-made in its style.” I’m not disagreeing with that assessment, but Apothic Red does seem a bit outside your wheelhouse in comparison to the wines you usually seem to prefer.

    Whether this acknowledgement is a tectonic shift or a small evolution, it does lead me to ask if subjectivity alone accounts for some of your other reviews? I was thinking specifically of your write-ups last week of the Fortnum & Mason Silvaner Spatlese and Margaret River Cabernet Sauv. Did they really rate 93/100 and 94/100, respectively, in your subjective pantheon? Or are they just 90+ points “in their styles”?

  • The wine critics’ responsibility is to properly inform their follower of their impressions on the major characteristics of reviewed wines and give an opinion on what the customer can expect.

    I use the words impressions and opinion: which reflect a personal touch from the critic. Even if the tasters followed the exact same guidelines, it would be impossible for the reviews to be completly objective since the nature of the human senses differ from one individual to another.

    This is why most trusted publications will either call on a tasting pannel to combine multiple opinions to get an average in the opinions. Or they will include the name of the critic who penned a particular review in order for readers to be able to compare their own impressions with the critic’s. In both cases the consumer will eventually side with a few prefered reviewers that tend to have similar preferences.

    On a second subject; like other readers I have trouble believing that a certain style of wine is not legitimate. On that point I must agree that we share prefrences, but as techniques evolved, so have the styles. As long as a prodcut style has a clientele and is bringing in revenu it has to be legitimate. Here is where the critic’s preferences come in play, in order to influence its followers to choose other styles by giving better reviews to wine of his prefered style.

  • Damon Levy

    Jamie, I think the proper response to the respected critic is “bollocks.” Forgive me if I am misusing the term but I don’t know how wine reviewers cannot be somewhat subjective. Yes, someone who tastes professionally should be able to respect the quality of winemaking for a wine style that isn’t his/her preference… but right there, clearly that person has a preference.

    Some people like ripeness, some like mouthfeel, some like acidity. That’s just how it is. Especially if we are talking about scores. If we are just talking about the descriptions of wine, I can see the critic’s point. However, if we are talking points, subjectivity is part of the game and the critic should just embrace it.

    And I should add that subjectivity is a good thing. I want the critic to have a perspective. The worst reviewers are the ones that try to erase subjectivity. I read Tanzer because I generally know what he likes. I couldn’t read Nathan Wesley because I couldn’t tell what he preferred.

    The goal of wine reviews is to help consumers figure out if they would like a wine. Describing the wine as “90 points, loads of blueberry, sweet oak, and a touch of tar” – that doesn’t help the consumer unless they know the reviewer’s context. Is 90 points low or high for that reviewer? Do they usually like sweet oak or is this an unusual case where they like a wine like that. Does he/she usually like Napa Syrah or Northern Rhone Syrah?

    I expect there to be information in the context. Perhaps I am willing to think about this more than the average consumer but I would guess the average consumer isn’t really getting any value out of reviews.

  • Hugh

    Interesting article and some well made comments. I think it’s impossible to be completely objective, and I value the stylistic preferences of the tasters I follow. Should we not be adding the commercial pressures of wine journalism in the mix? Wine writers must live and die on samples, trips and hosted tastings. I would find it very difficult to stand in some smart Napa or Bordeaux cellar on an expenses paid trip, and stay completely objective.

  • Greg Wright

    I think critics should publish what they taste and their thoughts on a particular wine. I remember reading a review Parker did on a Northern Rhone wine (I can’t remember if it was Guigal or Chaptoutier) but he said in his description that its flavor profile was not that dissimilar to a left bank Bordeaux. I knew right then this was not a wine I wanted to buy. If I wanted a left bank Bordeaux that is what I would have bought in this case I was looking for a Northern Rhone wine with a flavor profile typical of Hermitage or Cote Rotie. So I appreciate critics candor, in that case Parker liked the wine but for me it wasn’t what I was looking for.

  • I always expect reviewers to be unbiased, and the best critics (as you mention) are open-minded, and recognize well-made wines in a variety of styles. Experiences and personal preferences will always get in the way, but the best critics will place personal style preferences on the back burner and criticize with a thoughtful and critical eye to the quality and uniqueness each wine showcases. I might rate a wine highly, but this does not mean it is my style preference. Each wine deserves to be valued on its own merits and I consider audiences who would appreciate the stylistic characteristics the wine brings to the table.

  • Jerry Murray

    I have to echo the sentiment expressed by Adam Lee. How can you write an article refuting the objectivity of wine criticism and also assert that some styles are “not Legitimate”? Isn’t such a decree far more dangerous than simply scoring or rating a wine poorly? How can the determination that something isn’t “Legitimate”, especially in the varied context of wine, be anything but subjective?
    Don’t get me wrong I am not rushing to the defense of overblown wines. I just think this notion of “legitimate” styles have been used a a defense by critics, especially Europhilic ones, to dismiss wines of the new world. According to them, every Pinot Noir in the world should be “Burgundian”, despite the fact that, inherent in the french nomenclature, wines of that nature can only be made in Burgundy. Is a style; determined, by climate, farming and winemaking, to be discounted simply because it doesn’t have an acceptable degree of fidelity to a benchmark that reflects a very different Origin?
    I propose that the root of the problem is that the aim of “wine writers” is, largely, to establish a hierarchy; scores and ratings. I have always advocated that what would be infinitely more useful, to both consumers and producers alike, is a craft that aims to describe, not grade.

  • “Should wine critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?”
    I thought personal style preferences WAS their work.

  • I believe the job of critic is to be true to oneself. Yes, the stylistic preferences will show up in the critic’s scores, and there is nothing we can do about it – taste is subjective in the end of the day. But the critic’s scores and reviews should be unaffected by the external factors – money, political correctness, etc. The job of the consumer is to align to the scores and reviews of a given critic – for instance, as a consumer, I find myself more aligned with reviews from the Wine Spectator versus Wine Advocate. Once the consumer knows what works for her personally, as long as critic is consistent and unbiased simply to her own style, this should work just fine.

  • Randy Caparoso

    Just yesterday I sat on a table with five other well regarded wine judges evaluating three vintages of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noirs. We were asked to rate preferences, and with each round our lists of “5 best” varied wildly, with little unanimity. No one was surprised. What’s surprising is critics who actually convince themselves that there is such a thing as objective wine evaluation. Even if you break things down — telling people you’re rating wines on the basis of terroir, or intensity, or balance, originality, varietal character, regional typicity, et al. — in the end your final analysis will still be subjective. This is elementary, and true of all things in which artistic interpretation is involved.

    There is probably nothing worse than a delusional critic — especially ones convinced of the credibility of their numbering system. Such things do more harm than good to unsuspecting consumers who read this crap. It’s called responsibility: people may not know better, but it doesn’t give you permission to misrepresent under the guise of an objectivity that doesn’t exist, no matter how much you profess it to be.

  • RR

    Just recently I’ve been helping a MW taste wine for a book that is published annually. I’m involved in the wine industry as well. The NW has tasted over 2,000 wines for the book. I tasted around 400 (there were other tasters as well), in part we agreed on many of the wines. But some, as described above – new world wines at 14% plus – over-ripe, jammy, dead fruit etc. Some were given high scores because they were excellent wines, other just too “hot”. Here is few the other dilemma’s. 1. When a wine is so big the notes say “will be ready to dink in 10 or 20 years” Who wants to wait that long. 2. When a wine is perfect today how will it be perfect tomorrow? 3. Most wine drinkers seem to be ageing – no pun intended – and younger drinkers are not being attracted to wine. 4. Wines are being tailored for certain palate. 5. Wines that should not have been released were released because of economic and retailer pressures.

  • I’d probably read scores more often if somebody published tasting notes like this: “New world red wine at 15.5% alcohol with lots of spicy new oak, and sweet liqueur-like dead fruit fruit, with added acidity sticking out like a sore thumb — I give it 94 points although not a huge fan of the ‘impeccably made-up harlot’ style of winemaking”

  • Tyler Thomas

    I concur with Adam and John K. Jamie, I think you make some great points but do you not tacitly suggest you are an arbiter of style by calling one childish and another not?

    All in all I think the question partly comes to what exactly one is criticizing? If it is the quality of the wine making, then style must be taken into account. For the objective of the winemaker and the success of their choices must be taken into consideration to evaluate whether they successfully achieved those objectives and as a result desire a good merit. However, if “taste” or “pleasure” is the mere objective, then I think it is fine if someone does not like the style I make and gives a rating that reflects that. What is important is to know HOW they are rating so that the consumer and the winemaker know why they are being rewarded or penalized. I have a friend who likes a style that is not my preference. I may drink that style once a month, he once a day. If he told me a wine was great because he adored it, I can know that it probably is not within my wheelhouse. Great, no problem.

    This is one reason in my opinion the 100 point scale is tough. It suggests implicitly that there is an absolute way to judge wine, that people do so in the same way, and seems to have trained the consumer to assume that an 88 from Goode might be the same as an 88 from Parker. The score should be similar (or at least close) IF the winemaking choices themselves were being evaluated (assuming the critic understands winemaking which may be a big leap of faith). But if style considered and personal preference a part of the equation the consumer should know that differences emerge. More sophisticated consumers take this as a matter of fact, but I don’t think everyone does.

  • HHGeek

    Why would it be OK for a critic to specialise in a region, but not to express personal style preferences? As others have said, you learn a critic’s “bias”, then anticipate your likely feelings towards the product as a result. That goes for cinema, music, literature; why not for wine?

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