Unmercifully and Honestly Ironic

One of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s many great roles was his brilliant and intimate portrayal of the uncool Cream Magazine Editor and writer Lester Bangs in the Cameron Crowe film "Almost Famous". Hoffman portrays the perennially uncool Bangs who, in 1973, believes Rock n Roll is in its death throws due to the "swill merchants" that have taken over the business of rock n roll and only care about business.

There is a wonderful line in the film where Bangs is counseling a 15 year-old who must write a 3,000 word story for Rolling Stones about a band he’s been traveling with, but finds he’s having trouble with the assignment due to the friendships he’s formed with the band members. Bangs tells the budding writer:

"I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful."

Could there be better advice for anyone writing about any topic, including wine and the wine industry? I think not. It’s particularly good advice for folks considering or currently critiquing wine. No one should ever imagine theirs is the last word on any subject, including the quality of a wine. But this small fact shouldn’t stop anyone from being perfectly clear as to what they think about a wine and why they think it.

This is a controversial notion within the wine reviewing community. "Why should I take time to inform my readers of a bad or mediocre wine when there are so many good wines out there I can recommend to them?"

My best response to that legitimate idea is, are you a critic or not? The definition of critic, be it of wine, film, music or dance or architecture, is not "cheerleader." It is not sycophant. It is not Happymongering. It is explaining, in your view, what is good, what is not good, what is interesting, what is important and what is significant about the creative work under consideration and then, possibly, suggesting how the reader respond.

I hope that coming from me this sounds ironic to many of you who know that my profession is, in large part, publicist. As a publicist, I’m charged by my clients with not merely helping them communicating to media and critics the client’s  place in the world, but in helping them explain their place in a way that leads critics and writers to be more likely to appreciate that place in the world. But, the good writers and good critics know this is my job. And there begins something of a dance long known as the "Journalist-Publicist Pirouette".

There is an agreement, largely unstated, that exists between the dance partners: The publicist will tell the the journalist the truth—always. Though the publicist may not say what they think. It is, after all, not the publicist’s story. It is the client’s story and that’s the story the publicist will tell. The journalists knows this—or at least should. On the other hand, the journalists promises to be accurate in their account of the publicist’s or client’s words, statements and comments. However, the publicist knows that the words and stories they offer the journalist won’t always comprise the whole story they tell their readers.

Lester Bang’s advice to the budding writer to always be honest and unmerciful is advice that wineries and others who court the press should assume is taken to heart by the media. It isn’t always taken to heart, particularly by wine critics, and for this wineries should praise Bacchus. But it shouldn’t be assumed this will always be the case and no one should be surprised or outraged when it’s not the case.

27 Responses

  1. Arthur - July 21, 2008

    Good piece, Tom.
    I suppose that many of those writing about or critiquing wine may feel compelled to pull punches (or adopt a policy of only writing about the wines one feels comfortable endorsing) because doing otherwise may jeopardize relationships they have with the producers. The cost of having to purchase every wine which is reviewed – especially two bottles of each wine – may be prohibitive for many.
    If a critic gives a review that falls short of the producer’s expectation, will that producer be as inclined to submit wines for review in the future?

  2. Tom Wark - July 21, 2008

    I don’t know the answer to your last question. However, I know that I would continue to recommend that producers send their wines to critics if they think they are good wines. Now, some critics like certain types of wines and if your wine is not the style of, say, chardonnay they like, then I’d not recommend sending it in the first place.

  3. Morton Leslie - July 21, 2008

    Be unmerciful and honest. I cannot think of worse advice to a budding wine journalist. First, no one would send them wine. Second, no one would invite them to their winery or take them on a junket. Third, no winery would feed them a story. And finally, no reader is interested in trying wines the critic says are lousy. Why read a column about things you don’t want to drink? This is why wine writing is all happy news. If Laube was afraid to show his face upvalley after his hit piece on Montelena, imagine you average aspiring journalist.
    We create the story lines and we give them to journalists who will write them they way we want them written. Yeah, we let them change a few things in the name of “journalistic independence”, but really! Where do they get the wine? Where do they get that information about the wine, how it was made, or info about the vineyard or the winemaker? Who gives them the tidbits and insights? Who creates the event they were invited to which they report on? Who buys the lunch or dinner? Ninety percent of what we read from the wine journalist is something that has been spoon fed to them by one or more wineries or the industry organization. Why would any journalist want to cut off that supply?

  4. Arthur - July 21, 2008

    Does every wine writer eagerly take the freebies, perks, trips and meals?

  5. Arthur - July 21, 2008

    Afterthought: how about: “respectful but honest”.

  6. Dr. Debs - July 21, 2008

    Jeez, Tom. You sure know how to start the week off with a bang. I happen to be sympathetic to the “review wines you’re happy with” philosophy, in large part because I am one woman who can only write so many posts in a week. I’d rather tell people what to look for rather than what to watch out for–but I do make the occasional exception when I feel a wine has been overly hyped and doesn’t deliver or when I feel like a wine’s past reputation no longer lives up to their present production. Just today I had to say that I think Bonny Doon’s reds have fallen off a bit during the transition to biodynamics, but that their whites are really interesting, though pricey. Rather than list the wines that led me to those conclusions, I focused on the one white that was the most intriguing to me. Should I have enumerated the reds? I don’t think so. I said my piece, I praised the wine I thought deserved the praise, and moved on to drafting tomorrow’s post.
    And as someone whose own creative work is criticized, there is one rule of criticism that I would say trumps both of the ones you include here: “don’t criticize the wine that you wish they’d made, criticize the wine that they set out to make.” This is the gold standard for book reviews, for instance. But to know about the wine a winemaker set out to make in the first place, a critic must do their research and often you must participate in the kind of activities that Morton Leslie outlines above. And then you have to be very careful that a developing affection for the people you are writing about doesn’t dampen your honesty. But this is no more difficult to do in wine criticism than any other form of criticsm.
    A note about unmerciful: I don’t think that’s ever appropriate unless its in private. A critic should always seek balance.

  7. Tom Wark - July 21, 2008

    I think Roger Ebert is a good Critic. He’s good at it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he knows film, knows film history and understands contexts. He wrote following about one film he reviewed:
    “The movie is an utterly meaningless waste of time. There was no reason to produce it, except to make money, and there is no reason to see it, except to spend money. It is a dead zone, a film without interest, wit, imagination or even entertaining violence and special effects.”
    Should he have written this?

  8. Derrick Schneider - July 21, 2008

    Arthur says, “Does every wine writer eagerly take the freebies, perks, trips and meals?”
    Nope. Most do, and it’s a constant thorn for writers like me who have deep-seated ethics. I’ve made my peace with samples as a freelancer, but I’ve turned down nice gifts, meals, and trips in the name of honesty. It’s something that I and two of my editors feel strongly about, which is part of what they like about me.
    And for the record, I’ve come down hard on wine and books even when I like the people behind them. And I’ve praised wines when I don’t like the people.

  9. Morton Leslie - July 21, 2008

    Does every journalist always take freebies? My experience is that wine journalists sometimes refuse a freebie. Usually this happens when someone else is offering a bigger freebie and there is a time conflict.
    Regarding cutting a vintner down to size when they don’t deliver what the journalist believes they had promised, most realize they would be using their soapbox to damage someone’s livelihood. Even if in the remote possibility that they were right – the wine isn’t what it is cracked up to be – why set out to hurt someone? The only reason I can think of would be to make themselves look better, but does it really? Certainly not to those in the business.
    Have you seen the Osama Bin Laube wanted posters or heard the whispered rumors about a supposed volleyball nose injury? Just the industry gettin’ back.

  10. Derrick Schneider - July 21, 2008

    By the way, the “you’re not cool” scene from Almost Famous often plays through my head as I realize I’m going to write something that the subject isn’t going to like.

  11. Tom Wark - July 21, 2008

    How interesting. From the first time I saw Almost Famous until today, The Lester Bang character and his various missives have been for me what made the movie most valuable.
    I think it is very difficult for a full time critic of any art or craft to not take something for free here and there or even often, though I appreciate your own decisions regarding this issue.
    What’s interesting is that if you do take a dinner or wine from someone and if you don’t write kind things about the person that paid for these things, the problem isn’t yours. The problem, if there is one, is for the person who paid for it and thought they were buying something else.

  12. Derrick Schneider - July 21, 2008

    I don’t set out to hurt anyone, but if I’m writing an article about, say, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I’ll get a bunch of the bottles that people are likely to find in their stores and write about them. It’s not seeking to destroy a winery: It’s being aware that certain wines are exemplary within the context of my article and some are not but all are within reach of the reader. Shouldn’t the reader know which wines underscore the point I’m trying to make so they can decide for themselves?
    And I should amend my freebies comment: For my blog, I have very strict ethics. When I’m on assignment for a publication, I follow its guidelines. Some of my clients actively encourage and arrange trips and so forth.

  13. Benito - July 21, 2008

    I’d say a lot of it has to do with audience. Are you writing for Wine Spectator under the assumption that your readers know a lot about the subject? Or are you writing for a small town newspaper and just want to help folks try something other than White Zin and Yellowtail? Over the years I’ve moved closer to Dr. Debs’ position: I write about the wines I like with food I enjoy.
    In the current market, if you’re willing to spend at least $10, there’s not much bad wine out there, but a lot of boring ones that go through the motions as table wines. Some will disappear through the actions of the free market, the overpriced/overhyped wines will continue to be bought by people that care about such things and no amount of coaxing from me is going to convince them.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - July 22, 2008

    Since the positive side seems far heavier than the negative side in professional wine criticisms, and based on my experience as a wine drinker, I am forced to wonder:
    are critics drinking only the good stuff?
    are critics afraid to tell the truth?
    are critics gaming the consumer?
    are critics really knowledgeable?
    We’ve been down this road before on Fermentation. I’ve voiced my opinion about the “free wine” trade for critics.
    To me, whether or not a critic is influenced by the practice, it–wait a minute, let me see, how would a savvy critic word this–oh yes: accepting free wine and then writing mostly about what you like gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.
    Then again, to me, there’s a difference between being a wine writer and being a wine critic. For all the reasons already pointed out, I don’t trust most wine criticism, but I love good wine writing.

  15. Erwin Dink - July 22, 2008

    Critics of movies, books, restaurants, theatre, art, music and many other cultural milieus are known for sometimes publishing devastating negative criticisms. Is there any other field, outside the wine industry, where the ‘critic’ is so hesitant to offend (and has so many rationalizations to justify their reticence)?

  16. Fredric Koeppel - July 22, 2008

    yeah, we’ve been down this road before, but perhaps the importance of the topic and the controversy it seems to bring up make the repeat journey worth while. So: I’ve been writing about wine for 24 years, first in a print column that circulated nationally and now on the blog (the website koeppelonwine.com is defunct) and i have always seen the critic’s job as offering criticism in the classic literary sense: explanation, education, praise and censure. (I came to journalism from an English/literary/critical background); i think those criteria apply to criticism of all objects of concern: wine, books, music, drama and so forth. I believe that consumers need to be warned away from bad or bland or mediocre wines as well as being steered toward better wines, just as a book reviewer would do with a book. Why should mediocrity be given mercy? And for Thomas, I think that all writing should be good; good wine criticism is good wine-writing. Will producers stop sending samples to writters who give negative reviews? Based on my experience, I don’t think so; over 24 years of writing about wine there are producers about whom i have been extremely critical, but they didn’t stop sending product, which gave me an opportunity to be kinder when the wines improved. And where do you think the books and CDs come from that get reviewed by magazines, newspapers and websites and blogs by the thousands? They’re freebies from the publishers and recording companies. What I mean is: if you’re sitting there reading a free book or listening to a free CD or tasting a free wine and you can’t be objective about it (because that’s what you have trained yourself to do and your readers expect it), then you shouldn’t be a critic.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - July 22, 2008

    You are among the few who understand the literary meaning of “criticism.”
    Many movie or stage critics bothered to study film making or theater first–maybe it holds true in the world of wine criticism, but I can’t tell based on the results.
    Wine criticism–in print and online–seems littered with the self-appointed. That is a recipe for disaster and corruption, not to mention a serious gap in thoughtful, near-accurate information.
    Name me a few so-called wine critics who have your kind of literary and journalistic background and I’m sure they would be the people who strive for what I call good writing, but unless they know wine inside and out, are they providing good criticism?
    While some believe that criticism should be completely subjective–I do not.

  18. Morton Leslie - July 22, 2008

    Why wine and not elsewhere…the answer is that in movies, theater, restaurants, art and music they do not need the cooperation of the theater owner, restaurant owner, or artist to do their criticism. Try doing a review of the top allocated Cabernets in the Napa Valley without the good will of the producer. You won’t be able to buy them. If you could, assembling the collection would take you weeks of work and cost you thousands. Now you have the collection, thanks to largess of the producers, and you do your “blind” tasting. Ninety points better be your bottom score. It usually is.
    Cost is probably the big reason there are so few restaurant critics. In the old days when Bob Balzar handed out the Holiday Magazine awards restaurateurs made sure he never paid for a meal. And for expensive restaurants four stars was the bottom rating. Today for some reason restaurant critics pretend they dine anonymously and pick up their own tab.

  19. Morton Leslie - July 22, 2008

    Why wine and not elsewhere…the answer is that in movies, theater, restaurants, art and music they do not need the cooperation of the theater owner, restaurant owner, or artist to do their criticism. Try doing a review of the top allocated Cabernets in the Napa Valley without the good will of the producer. You won’t be able to buy them. If you could, assembling the collection would take you weeks of work and cost you thousands. Now you have the collection, thanks to largess of the producers, and you do your “blind” tasting. Ninety points better be your bottom score. It usually is.
    Cost is probably the big reason there are so few restaurant critics. In the old days when Bob Balzar handed out the Holiday Magazine awards restaurateurs made sure he never paid for a meal. And for expensive restaurants four stars was the bottom rating. Today for some reason restaurant critics pretend they dine anonymously and pick up their own tab.

  20. Thomas Pellechia - July 22, 2008

    Incidentally, I don’t have much against the freebies. They often come to me, too.
    What I do object to is the often too obvious result of the free flow of goods. I propose that every critic disclose exactly how he or she came by the wine. I’ve known critics who didn’t leave their apartment yet they wrote about the retail shops that carry their favorite wines–right to their door.
    Sometimes, the periodical is at fault: I once wrote a story for a major magazine, in which I disclosed my connection to one of the businesses that I wrote about. But some editor made a decision to excise my disclosure from the story–didn’t even consult with me. Made me appear like a shill.

  21. Dr. Debs - July 22, 2008

    Friends, I think the issue I have is not with criticism, which I think is important, but with unmerciful, which I think is not necessary. Unmerciful does not mean honest. Check your dictionaries. It means “excessive” and also means beyond the normal limits of acceptable conduct. Is that really what we think the gold standard should be for wine criticism? A good critic should be a balanced critic, they should be able to put personal ties and affiliations aside, and judge whatever they judge fairly and honestly, taking context, aims, etc., into account.

  22. Thomas Pellechia - July 22, 2008

    Dr. Debs, in my view, the first thing a good critic should be is technically knowledgeable about wine–it really helps. The other stuff is a matter of style, taste, and levels of corruption or no corruption; in other words, completely subjective.
    I simply don’t understand how someone else’s subjective view, backed up with little or no technical training, helps another person, unless that other person takes the time to calibrate palates, whatever the hell that means.
    In addition, a good critic should be willing to disclose all sources of wine–and should send back any obvious deliveries with strings attached.
    Of course, this is only my view, and I am well aware how strongly it goes against the grain. That’s why I chose to write about the subject of wine and leave to others the task of telling the rest of the world which individual wines they proclaim good enough to drink or to gain a score on an arbitrary scale.

  23. Dr. Debs - July 22, 2008

    OK, Tom, so I have some technical training in wine, I disclose my sources, and I don’t use points but a fully explained system of quality and price ratio. Still, I’m not unmerciful although I am honest. I’m not sure how what you write above, Tom, relates to the subject of this piece, which about unmerciful honesty?? Are your comments directed AT me, or are they more broadly aimed?

  24. Thomas Pellechia - July 22, 2008

    Oh no, Debs, not directed at you. Apology if it seemed that way. Just a general view of things.
    Unmercifully honest is rather meaningful to me when it comes from either lack of knowledge or inflated self importance–or both, and I find too many critics in the mainstream seem to suffer from that–or them.

  25. Dr. Debs - July 23, 2008

    Thomas, thanks for clarifying. I wasn’t seeing the connection between your earlier remarks on the “self-appointed critics,” lack of wine knowledge, and then unmerciful honesty. I get it. And I even agree with you! That’s why understanding the wine that’s trying to be made (i.e. a lower-alcohol, cool climate Cab vs. a high alcohol, warm climate cab) is so important–but not everyone knows or appreciates this difference which leads (in my opinion) to some pretty bizarre criticism.

  26. Kathy - July 28, 2008

    Q: Let’s say I have tasted, noted, and scored 20 wines today, in two tranches. Then I taste five of the 20 at dinner and discover that wine x is amazing with my 4-way Dixie Chili. Am I being:
    1. honest by revising my review and score
    2. honest by leaving the wine note and score as is
    3. honest by creating an addendum that this is the only wine I have ever found that goes with any Cincinnati chili (which may or may not be a fault…)
    4. honest by changing ratings for all wines at dinner because the taste changed due to the food and aeration.
    The list can go on.
    Of course, any professional wine critic would be wrong if she/he purposefully failed to note a fault. A serious fault means opening the second bottle if there is one or contacting the producer and requesting another bottle. And, after the second tasting, asking what happened. That is a lot of time. And there is neither reason nor time to pull punches. It’s not like a winery doesn’t know what its wine tastes like. Then again, whose fault is it when you or your retailers receive wine in 90+ degree temperatures and the note reflects a “cooked” taste? Should the winemaker take the hit?
    Nobody dies if the bad-wine tasting note doesn’t make publication. A bad tasting note may put you onto a hard news story (wine tainting, labor issues, fraud, scam, bad business deals, etc.) that will have a negative impact on a wine company and developing that story takes time and skill. But for 99% of the notes in the world, a tasting note is a note, it is not the story.

  27. Kathy - July 28, 2008

    One more thing: “The publicist will tell the the journalist the truth—always..”
    I wish that were so with all publicists, Tom.
    And, as you know, if the question doesn’t hit the nail on the head, neither will the still truthful reply.

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