So should I post more negative reviews?

I taste a lot of wines and only a few of these end up on this blog. This filtering process means that you will tend only to see positive reviews here. Some people have commented on this.

Would you like to see more negative reviews of wines I didn’t like? This might make for more balanced reading, and a greater range of scores. I’m conscious that my scoring is in quite a narrow band, and one reason for this is that I don’t usually write up dull or poor wines.

The rationale behind my policy of focusing on the positive is as follows. I think that it’s only fair that the good wines get the limited slots that exist on the blog: they’ve earned their place. But perhaps more significantly, a false positive is better than a false negative.

Let me explain. I think I’m a reasonably good wine critic. But I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes. A false positive is undesirable, but it is less of a problem than a false negative.

If I err on the side of criticizing a wine, I could be causing a miscarriage of justice. My mistake could create problems for a producer, and I’d rather see an undeserving producer sell a few extra bottles than dent the sales of someone who has actually made a great wine, only for me to make a mistake and knock it down.

It can be entertaining to see a critic lay into a wine. And there are a lot of bad wines out there that deserve criticism. The risk of slamming an innocent wine with a bad review, however, is usually too high for me to want to do it on a regular basis.

There’s also an extra factor here, which involves market segmentation. There’s a lot of crap wine out there that’s actually good quality. Let me explain this contradiction. Quality is best defined as fitness for purpose. A crap wine that is dull, inoffensive and has no personality, might be a good quality wine in certain segments of the market. If you can list a clean, fault free, but dull Pinot Grigio at under £4 then you’ll have some happy customers.

What’s the point of me laying into wines like these on my blog if they’re actually perfectly suited to their market, and their target market isn’t reading my blog?

Sometimes I think people criticize from a point of insecurity. Criticizing makes them feel more powerful, and better about themselves.

Isn’t it better all round if I’m just enthusiastic about the wines I like, and steer you towards those?

30 comments to So should I post more negative reviews?

  • elias

    Think you are one of the purist/honest critics I know… Too much critics think they have power by slamming inocent wines as you say and I totally agree. As a consumer and wine lover I follow your judgement because you steer me to wines that I will enjoy most of the time. Thank you for not wasting my time by filling your blog with mediocre wines only for me to read that I should not be drinking them… no point in that. My opinion is to keep on keeping on Jamie. Thanks.

  • I think that is right Jamie. People want recommendations of wines to buy. It’s also very honest of you to say that you are not perfect. There is a tendency among wine critics today to regard their score for a wine to be an attribute of that wine. If we’re honest, we all have bad days and we all realise there are conditions which make a wine taste fabulous and those in which it struggles to shine.

    You haven’t mentioned the other factor which is that if you wrote detrimental reviews of wines, those suppliers would be unlikely to send you further samples.

    The only exception I would make is when you feel the public are being conned by a high-priced or over-publicised wine.

  • Alex lake

    An interesting question. I suppose you could always damn with faint praise, but it does indeed give a vague feeling that you only try the good stuff! You could just give scoreless one-liners, eg “Blossom Hill Merlot 2005 – A touch confected, a bit dull” that might chime in with our own experiences.

  • Gareth Byrd

    For me the choice is so vast, I don’t really want to wade through reviews of wines that are mediocre, however I do enjoy reading reviews of wines that are contentious. Either because your view is at odds with the general perceived wisdom on an area or wine style, or when your view is at odds with those of other “experts”.

  • Justin Roberts

    Personally, I’d rather not read about bad wines, even if they are good for their segment. I’d much rather know about the interesting ones you already write about.

  • Behind the scenes, in other area of his work, Jamie visits vineyards on a paid, contracted basis, to taste, evaluate, and yes, criticise wines in terms of their winemaking, closure choice, fitness for market etc. I have used this service in the past, and I can tell you that Jamie is full of candour in those post-visit reports. We don’t expect nice reports just because we paid for the service, we want honest assessment and that’s what we get. In particular, Jamie was critical of one our Spanish partners, where the winemaker had too heavy a hand with the extraction and the oak. No-one took offence, we just reviewed the style. And we’d use him again, which answers Jon’s remarks about producers sending further samples. I think they would

  • Tim Carlisle

    I think the point is – why do people read your blog? Is it for entertainment primarily (some of it is otherwise we’d never read anything about RTL or FFS) but the other reason has to be to see what there is out there that is good and worth either seeking out or at least trying if we get the opportunity. Certainly if I’m going to a trade tasting and I remember a wine you’ve raved about I’m more likely to go and try it.

    But I also know that I have days when almost every wine I taste seems to be out of balance, fruitless and vile – if I only tasted one wine that day and wrote about it that would be very unfair.

  • Stevie

    A false positive is completely understandable and I believe that your desire to review only wines that stand out above their peers a noble a just process. Personally, I would appreciate occasionally seeing a list of wines that you sampled, and decided not to write about for whatever reason. No explanation necessary!

  • David M

    Jamie,

    Your Honesty and Professionalism is a mirror where many others should look at to have a reference. And from my humble point of view, Jamie, you are more than just a reasonable wine critic, as many others I do think you are a rightful leading professional in the industry.

    Being Demanding takes you close to Perfection (something impossible as everyone know), and that requires Fair rules.
    I do share your point of view about qualities and segment of price, that’s a reality. In all markets not few wines deserve to be punish. And to be fair, the good wines deserve to be more highlighted and supported positively in behalf for the final consumer. That would force the formers to do things at least a bit better.

    An idea to avoid the risk of making a mistake (we’re humans) when rating a wine: A selected and short tasting pannel team would reduce that risk close to “0”.
    Thanks for your honest writings.

    DM

  • I generally don’t post negative comments on wines from tastings I go to – as Jamie says, there’s so much good stuff to write about that.

    But (for the moment at least) virtually everything I’m sent to try at home gets a warts-and-all review, usually on video. If I don’t like something, I’ll say so, hopefully in a fair and constructive manner.

    And Jon, rather than never sending stuff again, my experience is that suppliers actually appreciate the detrimental reviews.

  • I agree with all the above. I have often picked up a bottle based on reading about it on wineanorak. As default, I presume a wine on a shelf/list may not be for me unless I have tried it, read some detail about it or been recommended it by someone whose palate I trust. And just because Jamie says a wine is terrific, I may still not buy it if he gives me the info I want. For example if he were to write ‘A wonderfully voluptuous, fruit driven example with a well integrated but heavy handed use of oak, completed by a long finish of green pepper and mint. 14.5%. 94 points.’ I still wouldn’t buy it. My point being that yes, generally I want to read recommendations, not critique.

  • Simon T

    I don’t read your blog/sign up to your twitter to hear praise for the wines at the ‘commercial end of the scale’, but likewise I think it is important to avoid condascending tones towards this part of the wine category. Different wines mean different things to different people and the same enjoyment can be extracted by a 40something couple drinking Echo Falls White Zin on a sunny evening than Roman Abramovich dropping into a glitzy restaurant and having a bottle of Petrus – it’s all relative, they’re both made from grapes !

    Looking outside the window, I’d settle for Echo Falls White Zin on the Patio tonight – were it possible to have sunshine rather than incessant drizzle…

  • Ed

    I don’t see there is much to be gained in slamming some smaller outfit for a poor wine but think it is essential there be some attention paid to poor performances by large brands. Some brand Champagne is just terrible and consumers who don’t know better waste a lot of money buying it. The New York Times just this week took SA Chenin Blanc to task and did the consumer a service by doing so.

  • Greg

    This was an outstanding post– very logically reasoned and complete.

    As far as posting more critical notes, I would say there is a place for it. Since you pointed out that context is important (a $4 wine that is sound and balanced is serving its purpose), perhaps this is the area to consider. Is a wine serving its segment well? Bashing cheap wine serves no purpose, but highlighting under-performing wines at higher price points is useful.

  • You write “A false positive is undesirable, but it is less of a problem than a false negative.” Do you write for consumers or the wine trade? For consumers, I’d suggest false positives are at least as bad, and possibly worse. For the wine trade, of course it is fantastic if everyone praises wines they like and keeps quiet about the others. Someone sooner of later is going to write something good about practically any wine.

    The trade needs to learn how to handle criticism – these are just opinions.

    You don’t have to really lay into bad wines and waste lots of words on them, Jamie. Just tell us you don’t like them – perhaps in the form of a list. Otherwise as far as we are concerned you might simply not have tasted them – how are we to know the difference.

  • Richard

    I agree with Steve Slatcher and would welcome a range of opinions on wines you did and didn’t like, especially in areas like Burgundy where consumer choice is very difficult.

  • David M

    Dear Steve,

    That’s a clever alternative, a funny name for that: “The Black Wine List”.
    This post is very interesting. I do like reading your points of view, thanks to all.

    DM

  • Life is too short to spend any time dumping on wines. And yes a good wine at under $9CND maybe an 85er, why would I write it up. I rate Good (-) and up I don’t write reviews of Acceptable wines.

  • I’m with you, Jamie. Stick to the good stuff and stay postitive. There’s so much wine out there that is good and worth the time to publish. My blog reviews mostly wine from my cellar or share with like-minded friends and focusses on very little current release material, so occasionally, you’ll see some derogatory tasting notes. Luckily most of the wine I open is well worth crowing about – touch wood. Thanks for your thoughts on an important subject.

  • Keep on doing what you’re doing. God knows there’s enough negativity in the world already. Shine the light on the good stuff, please.

  • Robbie C.

    yo, you be awesome! You keep doin’ yo thang. We all love you. Peace.

  • I agree with you and I’m quite glad you focused on this particular topic. I mention this all the time to my clients–negative reviews serve no real purpose other than to inflate a “critic’s” ego.

    Cheers!
    tina

  • Mike Oldham

    I wrestled with this question a bit when I was writing about wine. I decided that since there were so many wines to review, I was rather wasting people’s time writing about bad ones, so I tended to focus on wines I felt were worth recommending. I did make exceptions for wines I usually recommended that didn’t seem up to scratch in certain vintages.

  • Jem

    Jamie

    It’s about being ‘objective’ not ‘negative’. You should tell them as you see it. WG’s 5 to avoid is always useful as many merchants may have to buy a dross wine in order to get the goodie.

  • Mark Swift

    Life’s too short.

    Let’s read the good ones, the interesting ones and perhaps the spurious ones and leave the rest to ferment a little more.

    The width and breadth of the range of wine available is astounding; all I want is a little guidance in my choice with maybe an extra nudge for good value.

  • I’d be happy to see the occasional less than positive review, maybe a monthly “Disappointing wine of the month” note. I’m not talking about a review of Echo Falls or a cheap pinot grigio but a wine in the £15 to £20 range say. That is one that we would all really expect to enjoy but for whatever reason has turned out to be a disappointment so we feel cheated having spent way above the average for a bottle of wine.

  • Adrian Read

    Yes, a weekly ‘Also tasted’ list will do the trick. You can explain that presence on the list does not necessarily mean failure. You might agree to say more about an ‘Also tasted’ wine if there’s sufficient clamour.

  • Adam D'Souza

    I’ll briefly add my vote to the many others here that agree with your current stance. I read your blog for interesting discoveries. Any fool can snobbishly write harsh words about a bottle of cheap plonk. I admire and respect your ability to find exceptional, interesting wines at reasonable prices and to tell me about them descriptively. More of the same please!

  • Cam Haskell

    Sorry to be so late getting to this. I’d argue that one of the great downfalls of wine writing (across the board, and I don’t think Jamie is near the worst of this – rather he’s very good with it) is the lack of critical discussion. The problem being that what is published isn’t often in accord with what is felt, or said privately, and people choose to censor themselves (golden rule and all that). But I like wine too much to consider this the way it should be. Plenty – PLENTY – of things get critical reviews: books, movies, restaurants, theatre. Some such reviewers (say, Tynan) manage to cross over to being read as writers and not just reviewers.

    And all decent reviewers take into account functionality of the product. They don’t expect michelin stuff at the local mid-range pub and vice versa and they can still manage to get it down in writing.

    A further problem is that a great many producers are trying to present their product as a brand. Which is really largely at odds to the way grapevines work. And accordingly, it’s important for our critics in wine to call out the duff examples. A case in point: in the Yarra Valley in Australia, a number of producers are still flogging their smoke-taint-y 09 wines. Now, to be clear: I LOVE the valley and the wines they produce. But there are large(ish) producers who I strongly suspect don’t need to sell the wines to survive, who aren’t wholly frank about it at cellar door, and haven’t necessarily dropped their prices on them. This is a classic example when they should be held to account. Surely. I have a great deal of sympathy for the producers in the region for what happened then. But there are ways to go about it. And allowing a brand to continually go on its merry way probably isn’t one of them to my mind.

    A similar point: a friend had a first growth a wee while ago. Bretty. But not just bretty. Almost entirely off the scale bretty. And they know because they couldn’t drink it, but for the heck of it, sent the wine to a lab to get the numbers run, and they came back higher than literally any member of the team had heard of. Such a case is one where a wine has a huge rep, which, to be frank, probably is undeserved. But also has a frankly ridiculously high price point for what it is. So, taking into account its functionality (high price, for special occasions etc) the wine is an abject failure. And deserves to be called out. Surely.

    I urge everyone interested in reviewing of any kind to check out Luca Turin and Tina Sanchez’s book of perfume reviews, if only for the prose. But also for being authoratative and compelling and, more than anything entirely honest.

    I am all for the conviviality and charms of the wine industry. I am very lucky to work in it. But the obligation of wine writers is surely, primarily to punters handing over cash at the offy.

  • While I agree with the sentiment that both producers and consumers get value out of mediocre and negative reviews, I personally much prefer writing about something I’ve enjoyed. Along the same lines, I find most people who are passionate about a subject are more engaged with something about which they are positive, and so reading their work on said subject is more interesting.

    Of course the one exception is when something is so indisputably bad that you can absolutely go to town panning it, which is its own special joy. So as far as I’m concerned, focus on writing about wines you like but if you find something you absolutely hate, have at it. It’s cathartic, and can let you appreciate the wines you enjoy all the more.

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