The Dumbing Down of Wine Reviewing

I take from Dan Berger’s latest article at Appellation America ("Why Terroir is Essential to Wine Evaluation") that it is becoming easier and easier to be a highly competant judge of wine or wine reviewer.

As Dan points out:

"regionality is
not automatically a part of most American wine judges’ psyche. Weight,
richness, and “hedonistic” appreciation of a wine’s flavors seem far
more the dominant aspects of most evaluations we see or read about."

Dan’s point is a fairly simple one: the degree to which a wine displays a regionality in its aroma, taste and character should be an important factor in how we judge a wine or review a wine. A Riesling from Anderson Valley should taste like a Riesling from Anderson Valley. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley should taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley.

Dan’s right, clearly. But it occurs to me, isn’t it much much easier to be a wine reviewer if all you really need to be concerned with is the weight and intesity of the wine; the hedonistic value?

Sure seems that way to me. Heck, if all you have to judge is the degree to which a wine is more intense than another or how dark it is relative to others or how intense it is to others then frankly it doens’t take to much to be a qualified judge of wine.

On the one hand this dumbing down of wine judging strikes me as odd, given that our society seems to be continuing down the road of specialization that began at the beginning of the industrial age, a trend that has not abated as we can see from the development of academic disciplines such as "Late 20th Century Women’s Business History" or the rise of a professional class of publicists that specialize in small to medium sized winery promotion.

On the other hand, wine judgement has been a specialized area of concern for a very very long time, at least since the dawn of the industrial age. So perhaps it’s dumbing down is a natural progression.

Berger opens his article by stating:

wine rating numbers game has blinded reviewers and consumers who don’t
consider the unique influences of taste which are contributed by where
the grapes were grown. It is time to take terroir into consideration."

While I think he’s right about the impact of the "numbers game" on the dumbing down of wine, what want to take note of is his call to a return to rigorous evaluation that takes into account the various elements that it takes to describe a wine. This of course would take some considerable training on the part of those who review wines. It would not be enough to simply write, "This wine is big and rich and laden with intense blueberry and cherry flavors tha saturate the palate."

In Dan’s world that would be shorthand for, "I’m not much of a wine reviewer…but I can detect listen to me."

I like Dan’s world.


14 Responses

  1. winehiker - January 2, 2007

    True, anyone can hang out a “wine reviewer” shingle. The greater bulk of wine drinkers, however, prefer value ahead of terroir. If it is indeed time to take terroir into consideration, Mr. Berger, if not many of the rest of us, has a lot of work to do. Perhaps 2007 is the year for that kind of resolve. As for me, I’ll continue to host and report on regionally-inspired tastings.

  2. Fredric Koeppel - January 2, 2007

    Dan is correct, of course, there’s more to wine than those bright and shining factors of weight and intensity, though those may jump out at you. There are authenticity and integrity, elements shaped by a region or vineyard. Tasting a wine that reflects those qualities can be a joy, but then so can sipping a $10 chardonnay that carries a California designation and happens to taste really good. In other words, what “winehiker” asserts mirrors an inescapable reality: most people just want a glass of decent wine. And it takes years of experience, the sort of experience that Dan impeccably possesses, to be able to distinguish a Carneros pinot from a Mendocino pinot. Most people don’t care.

  3. keith wollenberg - January 2, 2007

    But, if those who do care about the differences do not have a voice, what is lost in the wine world? I have lots of room in my world view for that $10 wine that Frederic talks about that is simply rich and good. But none whatsoever for a $70 bottle that lacks any essential character other than weight, intensity and expensive new oak.
    That is why Burgundy holds the fascination for me that it does. Many people do not care about subtle distinctions, but many do, and in my veiw, more should, particularly as they climb up the price ladder.

  4. Dr. Debs - January 2, 2007

    Another great post, Tom, that really got us all started in 2007 with thinking and discussing! Not surprisingly I think that terroir and value are important and that they can go hand in hand. And, I do believe that this elusive combination is more important to wine buyers than currently realized by either winemakers or marketers. I hear from a lot of people who are fed up with homogenized wine (which often results from the noteworthy characteristics and prices of, say, a Napa cab or a Burgundian chardonnay). Then again, you will never get rid of those folks who say “I hate this wine–it tastes of rocks, not grapes like its supposed to” while drinking a German riesling. Oy, give me that glass! The power of the blogosphere is education–more and more folks are discovering terroir and varietal characteristics and this will probably lead to more educated consumers at all price points. Some don’t care whether they’re drinking a bottle for $10 or $100, as Fred says, but they certainly won’t care if people can’t make a compelling case for why they should. And now that more and more people are making that case in the public forum of the internet, maybe terroir can become as important (gasp) as points in the marketplace. (note of Pollyannism there, I confess)

  5. Jerry D. Murray - January 2, 2007

    Is there actually someone out there standing on a soap box and saying “Bigger is not Better”? Are there voices in the distance that are actually interested in what makes a wine different from others? Are we witnessing the emergence of champions of wines that “are about that which is not obvious”?
    Does anyone see the irony in major publications having reviewers responsible for covering regions, not varietals? Napa Cab and Sonoma Coast Pinot? Oregon and Australia? Then we actually want to hold these folks accountable for a sense of place or varietal? Can anyone be that good at tasting?
    How would one create a hierarchy of wines based on subtlety? With weight and intensity it is easy… more is better. When ‘terrior’ enters the picture things get more complicated. Comparing one ‘terrior’ to another is apples and oranges and more importantly what criteria would be used to rank one wine better than another within a ‘terrior’? I fear it would become weight and intensity!
    I think the problem is one of rating and judging wines in the first place. The human tendancy is to rank and order things and wine is no different than football teams or cars.
    Perhaps what is really needed is for the wine writer to be more of a poet and convey thier inspiration ( by a wine ) to readers, without scores. This would give the writer freedom to speak of a wines individuality instead of its homogeniety, it’s ‘terrior’ instead of hedonism.
    Who will hire these wine writers? Who will buy their publications? How would we manipulate this medium into a marketing prod to keep the Smith’s and Jones’s knee deep in thier subarban status war? How would we declare a winner?
    Wine, at its best, is about modest craftspeople working with raw materials to create some sort of statement of truth. Wine deserves to have someone talk about this truth… and so do we.

  6. Alder - January 2, 2007

    That’s a very self serving (and employer serving) point of view that Dan has. So, uh, what happened to blind tasting being the best way to evaluate wine?
    Call me crazy, but when you blind taste a wine, one of the things you’re specifically NOT supposed to know is where it came from.
    After all, if terroir is real then it is in the glass, and shouldn’t a competent wine critic be able to taste it?

  7. tom - January 2, 2007

    Happy New Year.
    Dan’s been calling for a terroir-based approach to wine appreciation and reviewing for probably 15 years, if not more.
    Blind tastings by region are a regular occurance. I’m sure you’ve done them. It’s really the best way to go about tasting through a series of wines you plan to review that all come from a particular region. The point in that case is to take away the label factor.
    Terroir is real and it’s always in the glass. One of Dan’s common points, however, is that it is a component that is too often obscured by grapegrowing and winemaking techniques that have little to do with allowing the effects of terroir to shine through and most often serve to mask it.
    Your point about a competent critic is a very very good one. A competent critic who has studied the wines of bordeaux for example should be able to taste through a series of wines from the area and identify the margaux, St. Estephe and Pomorol. Should a competent critic be able to identify a Carneros, Green Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir? I think that’s a much more difficult challenge for a number of reasons, history and longevity being chief among them. However, I think you could also argue that there is a conflict in California. There is a genuine motivation among serious winemakers to paint a portrain of terroir in their wines. On the other hand, there is a genuine compulsion to make wines du jour that feature components that tend to overwelm the terroir-driven characteristics.

  8. tom - January 2, 2007

    “Who will hire these wine writers? Who will buy their publications? How would we manipulate this medium into a marketing prod to keep the Smith’s and Jones’s knee deep in thier subarban status war? How would we declare a winner?
    Wine, at its best, is about modest craftspeople working with raw materials to create some sort of statement of truth. Wine deserves to have someone talk about this truth… and so do we”
    Jerry the more I think about terroir and the idea of regional style the more I understand that we are all in learning mode. There are lots of writers out there who are genuine educators who care about the rather arcane idea that wine can taste like a place and is more interesting and satisfying when it does. However, the profit motive in wine often pushes winemakers to a specific place on the style spectrum that has fidelity to place being only a secondary concern.
    There has always been a real struggle between artists, consumers, merchants and critics. Each wants their needs served, each has an agenda and each wants their vision adopted by the other three. The consensus that usually lives somewhere between these constituencies is constantly shifting.
    We should remember that what constitutes beauty and what is therefore desireable is an idea that can be manipulated by a compelling voice, by passionate promotion and by calling spades spades until the obvious is no longer obscured. That is the role of those who understand that what makes wine worth contemplating is the beauty of difference, rather than than hints at the higher reaches on the scale of intensity.

  9. Mike - January 2, 2007

    There is something to be said for a wine that reveals its place in the world. There is much more revealed when a wine drinker can identify that wine. Its not something that can be done at the drop of a hat, nor is it something that can be done accurately in blnd tasting on a consistent basis – at least not by mere mortals (i.e. the vast majority of wine drinkers). Most wine drinkers (who purchase the vast majority of wine sold) want enjoyment from their wine, not a geography lesson.
    That being said, I am in the other group, At least I try to be in the other group. I try to discern the characters that make Shiraz from Barossa different from that of Coonawarra, Pinot Noir from Mornington Pen (Aust.) different from Marlborough (NZ). And I marvel at the youngster who must be 20 years my junior and can pick a Spanish Tempranillo in a wine Options game while I, with my limited knowledge of Spanish wine, struggle with the option of Old or New World.

  10. Saint_Vini - January 3, 2007

    I tend to agree with Alder on this one. Shouldn’t the influence of terroir come through in a review anyway, if that’s the reviewers desire? In a non-blind tasting, if the wine doesn’t exhibit the reviewer’s opinion of what the wine’s terroir should be (there’s a highly subjective can of worms in California), then he is free to note that in his verbal/numerical review!
    I think this is less of a winemaking style issue and more of a reviewing style issue. Dan Berger doesn’t like numeric scores as he believes they bring about homogeneous wines. Fine, but if you live in a world with numeric scores (which we do), you then need to consider that wines will be evaluated together on some single scale (1-100). Should we have a separate 100-pt system for Anderson Valley Rieslings? Why not just call for an end to numerical scores, which is what this issue is really about, IMO.
    Also, if an Anderson Valley cab exhibits its terroir, but tastes terrible will it receive a better review in Appellation America’s brave new world than an Anderson Valley cab that tastes good? Personally, I want the wine that tastes good!
    Last, and I’ve alluded to this in one of my posts, I think that Appellation America is well intentended, but the campaign to define and highlight regional terroir seems premature as I don’t think California wines are ready to be defined by a single terroir for each region/varietal yet. To me, that’s much of their charm!

  11. doug wilder - January 3, 2007

    I have had the chance to meet Dan and find him to be one of the best in the field. If a good taster is used to assessing wines regularly blind they may be swayed by a stylistic preference. Consider a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir and a Joseph Swan in the same tasting. If you like delicate, you prefer the Swan. When I taste wines professionally, I don’t do it blind, so I am fully informed as to where the wine is from and how it was made. I find that rating wines I recommend is a valuable gauge for our clients.

  12. Jerry Murray - January 3, 2007

    We have all gone to great lengths to attack or defend the importance of ‘terrior’. What we have not done is take the time to define it. This I believe is at the heart of the problem. I believe wines invariably show a sense of place. However I read reviews everyday, from reputable wine writers, that attribute the characteristics of faulty or heavy handed winemaking to ‘terrrior’. Just because a wine smells like dirt doesn’t mean it is a more honest expression of ‘terrior’ than a fruity one. So how hands off does a winemaker have to be to show a vineyards ‘terrior’? Can they irrigate? How many ton/acre can they crop at? I work with wines everday, I taste through my barrels constantly. I make wine from one vineyard and I can tell you each of my barrels is different, each block is different. I can say I am only begining to ‘understand’ my sight ( vineyard )and yet we expect a wine writer to ‘understand’ the world of wine? How big of an area should a wine be judged within? Can a wine writer simply say “shows classic Burgundy characters” or does he have to get down to which village or vineyard it comes from? To then expect this sort of detail to be applied to other wine regions, especially infintile new world ones is laughable. Find me one person who can really speak about the ‘terrior’ of a 6 year old vineyard in a wine made in a volume of thousands ( or more cases ) and I will crown them king of wine ( queen it appropriate ). What I eluded to above was that perhaps the wine should be evaluated relative to what the winemakers intent was. In my case reflecting my vineyard and the vintage are the second and third hightest priority in my winemaking. My primary goal is to make good wine. If a winery is making a million cases it is safe to say ‘terrior’ isn’t high on thier list. If a producer is farming a few acres in Pommard we can assume ‘terrior’ is a priority. Can’t we jugde these wines differently? Do we really need scores and can they really reflect the sublte differences present in great wines? We pro ‘terrior’ advocates are just operating under the assumption that wines which reflect thier place are better than those that don’t. As long as the wine is good to begin with I don’t have a problem with this assumption.

  13. Scott Tracy - January 4, 2007

    When I speak of terroir when commenting on wine I am always talking about a single vineyard, I don’t understand why are we having a terroir conversation and talking about appellations as if they are equivalent to French AOC’s. The vast majority of AVA’s in Califoria are based on climate and very little to do with soils. The lines of these AVA have more to do with the desires of larger wineries. That is why Keller Estate is in the same AVA as Peay. Can anyone tell me the tipicity of the Yountville Appelation? What do Chandon and Dominus have in common?
    I don’t think I have the expectation of tasting terroir in a wine that costs $12. as much as I might expect it at $38 . And indeed I would expect more intellectual and aesthetic pleasure in that category as well.

  14. Jerry Murray - January 5, 2007

    I agree with Scott and would go even further. Even if we look at a single vineyard we are looking at more or less arbitrary lines. Any winemaker will tell you, enthusiastically, about the differences in character within thier vineyard. On the other hand I think there is a typicity to larger geographical areas. To use an example I am attuned to, the North Willamette Valley produces different wines than the South Willamette Valley and within this AVA the Dundee Hills show different characters than the Ribbon Ridge AVA. If you were to taste these wines side by side you would likely agree. You would also agree California Pinot is different from Oregon Pinot and if you were in my cellar you would also agree that my 10 acre block differs from my Caveman block though they are from the same vineyard. Part of my problem with ‘terrior’ is its lack of definition. How big do we draw the cirlce that we expect a wine to fit into if it is to be considered authentic?

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