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?