Wine critics and wine writers

elqui18

On Friday I wrote a piece for Tim Atkin’s website on the future of wine writing, considering the differing roles of critics and writers. In it, I suggested that if the future of wine writing is a move to wine criticism, where wines are assessed outside their context, then it’s not one I’ll welcome. My vision of hell is to spend my time in an office working my way through hundreds of samples. I’d rather be in the vineyards, finding stories and understanding the culture of a wine region. You can’t separate wine from place. You can consider it as just a liquid in a glass. And the idea that a professional critic can independently examine wine in a glass and deliver a definitive judgement on it is simply ludicrous.

There’s been a lot of response to this article, so I thought I’d attempt to clarify my stance here.

In reality, many of the critics are also writers, and some of them spend a good deal of time working the wine regions that they cover. Their core professional activity, however, is to generate ‘professional wine reviews’, as they like to call them (alternatively known as brief tasting notes with a score). The critic field has become overcrowded and competitive of late. This brings out poor behaviour in some, and also puts pressure on them to taste as many wines as possible. This usually means a lot of intense tasting sessions where over 120 wines must be tasted in a session. For an experienced taster, 120 wines isn’t a problem, as long as you are making broad distinctions (for example, awarding bronze, silver and gold medals, especially when you are tasting in teams). But for the precision that the 100 point scale implies, it’s very difficult to make nuanced judgements among wines when you are tasting a lot at a time.

The 100 point scale itself is a problem. It shouldn’t be, because it’s a good enough system. The problem is the compression at the higher end. The competition among critical voices has had an escalating effect on scores. The 85/100 of 20 years ago has become the 90/100 of today. You want to be the critic whose score is cited, so it’s very hard to resist the pressure to score highly. Australian critics have been the worst in this regard, where a solid commercial wine is frequently rewarded with a low-to-mid-90s score, leaving very little room for the decent stuff.

I can’t see this ending well for the critics. When Parker finally hangs up his pen and gets fed up of being trotted out at high ticket Wine Advocate events, there’s no one who has a chance of taking his place. The major publications operate now with teams of critics, and none of these look like being able to take his place as the superstar of wine rating. Couple this to the compressed point space at the high end (wine ratings are becoming increasingly predictable because there are only about five points left to play with), and it looks like the American-style critic model is close to collapse.

But there remains a need for criticism and rating of wines. People look to critics for guidance. Increasingly, though, I think consumers are realizing that wine is too complicated for any one critic to be an infallible guide. We look to critics whose palates and preferences we share to steer us to wines we will like. Despite protests to the contrary from some critics, it is impossible to set one’s own palate preferences (be they biological, aesthetic or stylistic) aside completely. So each critic will have something of them in their ratings, and smart consumers will choose their critic according to the usefulness of the advice to them.

My hope is that we’ll see a return to writing that places wine rating fully in context. Forget about trying to taste all the wines you can. Instead, tell me stories. Tell me about the wines that you love, and why you love them. Why does this wine move you? Why should I visit this region, and who should I check out when I arrive? Tell the stories of the people you meet, and the places you visit. It’s about them, after all, isn’t it?

15 comments to Wine critics and wine writers

  • Jamie,

    Interesting post, makes a great deal of sense. One question about it. In the world that you envision in the last paragraph, it would seem more important than ever to know what journalistic standards the wine writer employs. Is the trip paid for by a winery or a wine marketing organization? Does the wine writer hang out with the winemaker casually/personally? Those types of things. Do you see that information being part of the standards going forward?

    Thanks,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • Insightful look at challenges and trends in wine writing… Couple of thoughts:
    Do wine scores really have to be that important? It is so difficult to put wine scores in context. I attended a tasting of Italian origin red wines yesterday and was comparing my scores to industry critics. I noticed a common theme. Critics had consistently awarded higher scores to those wines that were closest to the typical style for the region and were more varietally correct. Is that the context readers are looking for? Perhaps, but I am not sure I agree. As wine writers, aren’t we looking for the interesting wines and stories? If it is better for all wines of a region to be the same, aren’t we encouraging boring uniformity? I try to look at wines in terms of a different criteria… Are they well-made and do I think the public would enjoy them? Scoring a wine should be more about structure, balance and mouthfeel, than flavors and style. No?

  • Doug, I see myself as layman in the wine world although as a wine photographer I’ve had my share of tasting opportunities. Whether I like a wine depends on two things: me and the wine. Sometimes I want what to drink what I like, sometimes I’m open to something new. It can depend on food, company and situation as well as my own individual mood at that time. As for the wine I guess I want a red Burgundy to taste of Pinot Noir and have the style that reflects it nuisance rather than some winemaker’s attempt to please an new market. And to be properly made. Wine critics/experts can report on THEIR assessment of a wine, points, etc but surely all that is both personal and dependent on their taste and experience.
    I would want wine writers to do what I try to do with pictures (Une Année en Corton for example) and give the drinker another dimension to the experience. I ignore points, all they tell me is that the guy awarding them thinks he knows what will please me, otherwise why should I pay them any attention…? I know what I like, we all do, but as for points we should ignore other peoples’ opinions and taste for ourselves. Leave the critics to argue over numbers, I want a wine writer to tell me about the wine’s soul, not its body. If that does not sound too pompous… Go Jamie !

  • Jamie – good piece and summary here. I agree that for me the 100 point scale as it’s used today is close to meaningless. As I understand it it is something like 96+ is excellent, 91-95 is very good, 89-90 is all right and anything less don’t bother with. I know Decanter recently have made their 5 star scale interchangeable with points, but I kind of like their crude scale, it seems more inflation proof. Ultimately is a wine excellent, very good, good or less? I think that’s all consumers need to know and then you can get on with the interesting bits about the people, the story, the region, the climates, the passion etc etc.

    As for critics scoring hundreds of wines, I think Wojciech Bońkowski made some fair points about it sometimes being necessary, to get a broad feel for a vintage etc. to taste a lot in one sitting. But at the same time, I think your core argument is very valid.

    Ultimately for me, (for anyone?) there are far too many wines to ever get to know them all, so trawling through 150 dilligently-written tasting notes with scores on, say, Tuscan reds, is rather meaningless and boring, especially as I can’t buy any of them where I live. I agree that it’s a better approach to find people who write well, incl those who you may not agree with, but who go the extra mile and go to regions and find stories and interview people and take photos. That’s the sort of stuff I want to read and if someone throws up Mt. Etna reds as interesting and gets passionate about Frank Cornelissen, or whoever, then for me that’s a start and something I’ll remember into the future when the opportunity arises to try the wines.

  • Lars

    “The competition among critical voices has had an escalating effect on scores. The 85/100 of 20 years ago has become the 90/100 of today”

    Yes. And this blog does it more than most. Jamie, your scores are give or take two whole points higher than the average of other wine critcs. So here would be a good place to start.

  • Im with my friend Will Lyons who states that points are vital for the illiterate.

  • As usual, I find Jamie Goode’s posts thought provoking, courageous, and entertaining. Still perplexed, speaking for myself, by the American wine consumer’s need to read so many wine critics’ tasting notes and reliance on a 100 point scoring system.

    Wine preferences are subjective, thus a 100 point score is meaningless if the reviewer, for example, has a rather dumb palate that requires big wines with big tannins, high ABV levels, big fat fruit, and bold flavors in order for said critic to “get” or appreciate the wine. If that style of wine is anathema to a readyer’s style preferences, and the reader doesn’t know the critic is scoring big wines higher, the reader will be always be disappointed and/or disagree with that critic’s reviews.

    Consumers should let their palate tell them what they like or find out which critics take time to share the back story of wines. If a wine critic tells readers why they like a wine, what food it might pair with, and reveal what kind of style they prefer, this is more practical and useful than typical tasting notes.

  • TomHill

    Jamie,
    You, here and on Tim’s blog, make a point about the dismal state of wine journalism that I’ve been decrying for years. When I sit down and read a wine article (I’m referring to wine magazines/newsletters/etc and their on-line equivalents…not books), I want to learn something new from it. Learning that such&such wine received a 96 from some critic is not something I’m particularly interested in learning.

    “People look to critics for guidance.” I would preface that with “Some”. There are some folks who have little need for wine criticism. And I think their numbers are increasing.
    Tom

  • keith prothero

    the only way to properly judge a wine is to drink it with food over time. Most tasting notes are worthless to me,as they are inevitably written,when tasting NOT drinking the wine,and almost certainly as just one of many wines tasted in the day.
    Hence,I place much greater value on notes written at “offlines” for example,by people such as Simon Grant,than I do on professional wine journalists,unless the latter have indicated that the wine was drunk with food.
    Points are useful but words far more meaningful.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    I would like to go even further than my good friend KP! My tasting method is to always leave a glass or two till the next day in order to see how the wine developes. We have hopefully all followed this method.
    I will give a brief example. I opened Eric Texier`s CdR Chat Fou and was not that impressed initially but next day the red had filled out quite well and was a completely different experience. Just my thoughts. OH, I do not score!

  • While I can agree with each of your arguments in the abstract, it seems as though you want to have it both ways. You lament the compression of scores–that most wines seem to be rated 90 or higher (which certainly seems to be the case), and then you champion the return to “wine writing” to tell the stories behind the wine. How many wine writers, telling the stories behind the wine, will tell a story of an average wine, or a boring producer, or a region that is less than inspiring. In other words, wine writing only represents the “best of the best” which could be represented as the ultimate in “score compression”.

  • Dear Wine Friends,

    The wineconsumption has gone up in the world , but with that also the “speed” of consumption for wines that show the complexity after years. A dangerous development?

    1) the interest about wine is proportinal related to the complexity of the wineregion, production difilculty and the use of grapes

    2) The speed of the wine consumption is proportional coherend related with the intensity that we forget about it.

    3)” Patience has it reasons, but the “reason” does not always no WHY.
    Tom Hill in the previous comment said something important: When I read about wine , I want to learn about something! That means from all sides , if that is a winewriter or even the producer , you must be in a constant position to make people curious and to learn something. What should people lear? Above all that wine making is woven into history, they should know about the soil, how it was formed, type of viticulture …etc, before even thinking about tasting notes etc.

    Keith says also a true word” Wine and Food” and I am also convinced of the fact wine is destinated for food. But many people do not have the skill and knowledge to put the right food to the right wine. People are more stranded in emotional comments , than clinical perception.

    Bob Parsons with you comment , and without even knowing it, you have touched base here with a much more difficult problem, and that is “How in fact to handle those , tasting notes”?

    These tasting notes are made by a lot of wine writers , in the months of october, november , december 2014 for exmp . Tasting from tank or barrel, knowing that these wines will be bottled in january, february , march of 2015. So these wine have been fully ripe they have tasted them as the wine realy looks like and make their article, and you and me we read that article and upon that we form ourselves an opinion and have envie to order them from our local winestore or what ever.
    Now I hope , that once in your life time , you can taste a wine at a winery, from barrel before bottling and the day after bottling. They are a world apart. A few months later you find that bottle on the shelf, due to its positive critics you buy it and you have high expectations , because the winewriter told you so. You could be disappointed though the next day, finding not the taste as described by the wine writer and can even go back with the half bottle to the wineshop saying: ” What is wrong here”?. You must know , that wine undergoes an enormous bottle shock and that takes some times 6 month to a year before being on its feet again. So watch out with these scores. So same thing as with the glass of wine that after a day seems to open up more than the previouis day. And here I conclude again as I started with my first phrases, and overthink these phrases with a bit of patience. The greatest luxury you can pay yourself in life is “Time”. Give yourself time to read about wine , the homework for the winwriter is to educate us and to keep us curious. As long as the winewriter does that , he has a future

  • Damien

    Maybe we should all accept that the 100 pt system is here to stay in a world where the average attention span of someone on the web is 3.8 seconds (so Mike, got as far as your point 3 and “patience” then mine ran out, sorry!).
    And Summer, they won’t “always” be disappointed with that reviewers scores, because they’ll pretty quickly realise their palates are out of sync with that reviewer and not pay them any attention.
    There is no context to “tell” for the vast majority of wines consumed; hence medals and scores will continue to help the uninitiated differentiate when they want to trade up a little. As with most consumable products or experiences in life.

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