The Makings of a Great Wine Critic Are in the Past

The HistorianIt was Antonio Galloni’s announced departure from the Wine Advocate yesterday that raised the question, “what makes for a good wine critic”? The question arose from the fact that with Mr. Galloni’s departure, the venerable Wine Advocate again needs a new California Reviewer.

I offered the following recipe for a good wine critic when I responded to a colleague and told him that the Wine Advocate is looking for “someone who knows CA up and down as well as its history, someone who can taste a huge number of wines annually, someone who can write really well and someone with the kind of gravitas that will result in respect from the industry and consumers.”

The absolutely critical ingredient in this recipe is easy to pass over: Someone that knows the history of California wine.

The possession of historical knowledge may in fact be the most important ingredient informing great wine critics. Without knowledge of  what was, it is simply impossible to put any wine—no matter what its aromatic or flavor characteristics—in its proper context, which is the foundation for any good critical review of literature, music, film, architecture, art…and wine.

In a recent piece about this very subject, wine writer, wine blogger, wine critic and wine historian Steve Heimoff made this very point about the impact of a proper historical education:

“I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine.”

Today’s average reviews of wine don’t often allude to a context or perspective that falls outside simple categorization and delves into the “what”, “where”, “when” and “why” that only a historical view can offer. The format of today’s wine reviews tend to be  truncated and bound to strings of flavor descriptors. This is useful to many—to most readers really. But it’s not the kind of serious criticism (or reviewing) that gives criticism a good name.

A Napa Valley French Colombard might deliver refreshing notes of lemon zest, pear and lime notes with moderately crisp acidity a slight finish. One could write this and be done with it. But the critic hasn’t really touched the important part of the surface. What would make this rare wine a more enticing choice is the knowledge that Napa Valley French Colombard is indeed a rare wine when at an earlier time it was not rare at all but a fairly commonly planted variety in the Valley’s vineyards, played a key role in producing wines that helped put the Valley on the map but was supplanted in the region’s vineyards by issues of changing American tastes, grape prices and more. No matter what the critic wrote in the service of describing the aroma and flavor of this wine would likely help move it off the shelf as quickly in comparison to writing about what makes the wine a rarity today.

Context and perspective is everything in the realm of criticism. Nothing matters more if the goal is to make a contribution to the genre, be it literary, art, film, music, architecture, food or wine criticism.

The art of wine criticism seems to me to be viewed as nothing of the sort today. Today, wine reviews and the wine critic are understood by most as simple utilitarian tools wielded by jotters, not writers.

And today, “Short and Sweet” is the order of the day, an approach that serves a deficit in attention skills of the average person. A short, sweet, review laden with descriptors seems to be what folks want and need today. History is neither short, nor sweet. Still, I believe that in the realm of wine reviews, the needs of today’s “move along” generation can be satisfied and at the same time perspective and context can be delivered. It’s harder to do and requires an excellent kind of pen. But I think it can be done. What prevents an 90-word wine review from including allusions to or explicit reference to the context of a wine?

“Derivative of that style of wine that once informed early Napa winemakers….”

“Set at the bleeding edge of a relatively newer trend of letting fruit talk first…”

“Harkening back to his education under the great Sonoma Winemaker Mr. Smith, this Pinot…”

“A throwback to when Napa Cabernet merely hoped to be understood in a Right Bank Bordeaux context…”

Just a little history, just a modicum of perspective, merely a trifle of context can produce a wine review of a different sort that I think today’s readers of wine reviews deserve more than ever. It’s knowledge of history that is required to accomplish this. And Steve Heimoff is right. It is his understanding of the history of California wine that serves as the most critical foundation for his work as a critic. It will be the critical element informing the new California critic for the Wine Advocate if that person-to-be-named-later is great or seeks to be great.

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10 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - February 13, 2013

    Tom,

    As you might expect, I agree 1000000 % about the necessity for historical context.

    As you might not expect, I believe those brief references that you suggest are not the answer.

    If something derivative of else is it safe to assume that everyone knows what that something else is?

    If someone’s winemaking is like someone who has gone before, can the writer assume that every reader knows who that earlier winemaker was?

    Historical context requires explanatory writing not just a droplet or two..

  2. Thomas Pellechia - February 13, 2013

    don’t know where the words went, but I wrote: “If something is derivative of something else…”

  3. Charlie Olken - February 13, 2013

    Dear Mr. Wark–

    You want too much. You want the Wine Advocate to hire me, not Galloni. You want the WA to steal Jim Laube from the WS and finally allow him to write tasting notes that do run ninety words and not 25.

    It ain’t gonna happen. Oh sure, the WA will find someone, but the WA will now have a hard time being a major voice in CA wine. It is not because the WA has no readers. It will be because it hires someone who lacks the very understandings of which you speak.

    I do not even think those understandings are necessarily part of tasting notes. Historical perspective of the type to which you and Mr. Pellechia refer do belong in longer essays. And they need not even be said in print.

    But, if someone has not grown up knowing the difference between wines of the West Rutherford Bench and the east side of Rutherford or has never heard of Burger (not Dan Berger), then that reviewer will be a wordsmith, not a savant.

    I can even accept the notion that I am a snob about knowledge, experience, perspective that informs without being splashed around in catchy phrases. I cannot help but wonder if the title of this column is not more prescient than you have meant it to be.

    I wonder it the days of the informed critic have not past. Guys like me are aging out of the wine biz, and just as Prohibition is something I read about in books, so too will Andre and Joe Heitz and Mr. Mondavi and Ambassador Zellerback and Napa Valley French Colombard be only historical footnotes and not live memories to the next set of wine reviewers. They will never know the thrill of the Paris tasting in real time. They will never now the AVA battles, good and bad, the varietal content rule changes that propelled CA into the quality wine world.

    But, then, neither will the readers, and as Mr. P. comments, if they don’t understand the derivatives, do they even exist?

    • CSMiller - February 15, 2013

      Wait ~ Prohibition is over? Wine drinkers in Utah will be very happy.

  4. doug wilder - February 13, 2013

    Tom,

    Steve recently wrote about this whole idea of bringing more context to wine reviews. I agree it helps if the writer is doing a review of a particular region or type of wine, but for virtually any critical viewpoint out there when it gets down to the actual wine, readers want actionable information. Here is my reply to his post:

    “Steve,
    In this post you seem to embrace a pair of opposite viewpoints but maybe I am just misreading. Even though I don’t actively blog any longer, I contend that if solely judging the utility of ‘reviews’ it is very different than writing a article-length introduction for a region. A Wine Enthusiast review doesn’t contain any more fundamental information than one written by any other publication. I do appreciate your comment that if you are tasting comprehensively through a particular region/vintage then an overview can help provide context. For a blogger to do that on a thin selection of wines would require an inordinate amount of time to research and develop the story for each wine. You can do it for one wine (see Vinography) but several dozen wines, each with a 400 – 600 word intro would be pretty tedious to get through, especially in a blog format. I don’t think you intended to say that a blogger would be providing less than complete or useful information to their readers. Where I see the contradiction is later you conclude your post being able to capture the wine’s essence in a few words (seemingly the antithesis of an overview) and attributing that ability to experience only, rather than any acknowledgement that you are a very good writer.
    From my own experience as a reviewer, I find that the point where I expand my discussion is at the winery level where I can sometimes devote an entire page to images, a paragraph or two on the brand and winemaker along with reviews but that only happens when there are at least four or five wines from one producer. If there are fewer than that usually only a stand alone review will appear. I once wrote 600 words on a single premiere release wine that nobody had heard about yet and had my head handed to me by my CEO. Taught me a valuable lesson.”

  5. Thomas Pellechia - February 13, 2013

    It occurs to me that this subject exemplifies the difference between wine writing and wine criticism. While the two are related, they are also mutually exclusive.

    Critical evaluation is helped along when the critic has knowledge, but I’m not so sure that every criticism needs to be infused with a lesson.

    As I posted earlier, historical context takes explanatory writing. To do that well takes time and space; by its nature, wine criticism isn’t given much of either with which to work.

  6. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: American Classics - February 14, 2013

    […] sort that I think today’s readers of wine reviews deserve more than ever.” Tom Wark offers perspective on Antonio Galloni’s resignation from the Wine […]

  7. doug wilder - February 14, 2013

    Tom,

    Do you mean a Colombard like the Cyrille Saviez Vineyard grown on old vines along the Silverado Trail. Do you remember which winery made it? How about the number of cases of the first vintage of David Arthur Elevation 1147 and what it sold for, or what the premiere vintage and total production was of DuMol, the sources and varieties and what the name actually means. That is context that you don’t find in books, but they are nonetheless stories that can be told. I know the answers to all of them because I was there when it all happened in the late nineties. All those tales have led to different realities and most people only see them for what they are now. Oh, one more..Why were Coppola’s first vintages of Rubicon only released seven years past the vintage?

    There are plenty of critics that have these nuggets in their memory tha tthey can use, probably more than you suspect.

  8. Charlie Olken - February 14, 2013

    I nominate Doug Wilder to take Galloni’s place. Nothing like knowing how many cases of Elevation 1147. And here, I only thought that Steve Heimoff and Ron Washam were qualified.

  9. CSMiller - February 15, 2013

    Decanter Magazine has been doing wonderful Wine Reports that are exactly what is being argued here; wine history, a map, and list of representative wines. Great stuff, more focus on where and who rather than who gave how many points.


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