A Fascinating Cri De Coeur Over Wine

Cdc Is it possible to judge a wine without ever having laid foot in the region where it was produced?

I've been wondering about this really fascinating question ever since reading this comment by MW Tim Atkin, made at the opening of Fine Wine 2010 in Spain in April and published in Wine Business Monthly:

"Critics who judge wines without visiting the country they come from are insane and insulting….Our interpretation of fine wine regions and grape
varieties has barely evolved in the last 100 years despite the increase
in quality worldwide….The journalists who do write about wine
should base their opinions on research, not just samples. Visit the
regions: it’s not just about the liquid in the bottle.”

That's pretty forceful opinion ("insane and insulting")

To round out his meaning, Atkin stood before the audience of wine folk and said:

"What worries me about wine writers today is the absence of context," Atkin said. "The idea that a wine remembers where it comes from is all but overlooked, particularly by American journalists. They think it's enough to taste the wine in the bottle. I couldn't believe that Robert Parker only made his first trip to Spain last year."

What I'm most interested in, in all this, is the fact that while we know a wine critic CAN judge a wine without ever having set foot in the country or region in which it was produced and while we know that a wine critic CAN do a very good and useful and erudite job of critiquing the wine, and while we know Mr. Atkins knows this is all possible, he nonetheless stands in front of many very knowledgeable wine industry people and tells them the opposite. In fact, he tells them that to do the things we know for a fact CAN be done and done well is to be to "both insane and insulting".

THAT is really interesting!

I don't know Tim Atkin, but after having read that, I sure want to. I love those folks willing to stand up and make an emotional plea for an industry-wide return to a pre-globalism mindset. I love a powerful call for magical provincialism that feels good. And the fact that Atkin is willing to do this by accusing the most important wine critique the world has ever known, the person who delivered wine critics from their own special corner of oblivion, is particularly bold and revealing of a solid and righteous constitution.

I definitely want to meet Tim Atkin.

One of the reasons I want to meet him is to get a better sense of what is at the bottom his cri de coeur. It has to be something more than the now passe anti-American theme that has run through circles of English wine professionalism for the past 30 years and which has of late been piggy backed on anti-globalism themes. And it has to be more than a vestige of English paternalism that has always been a part of the wine trade on that Island that really did invent the modern wine trade.

A colleague of mine suggests that Atkin's emotional outburst is really just a follow up to Jonathan Nossiter's similar outburst in "Mondovino", which itself was a completely uninformed piece of media that mistook the prominent and distorting qualities of the unique American Three Tier System for a problem with Parker's power.

Another colleague suggested that Atkin and other English writers that remember the good old days, as well as a number of second and third tier wine critics here in the U.S., all detest and envy Robert Parker for being, really, the only important tastemaker on the planet and that it is from this situation that much of the  Atkins-like analysis and outcry originates.

I'm not sure about that.

Here's what I'm taking away from this right now: It's time for those who really LOVE and I mean LOVE the diversity of wine across the globe, and who are willing to pursue the small and artisan wines as well as pay for them, stop worrying about a globalized taste and about investment wines that live or die on one critic's voice. These wines and these markets exist, they please many people, they fill a need,and they are real. Embrace them and understand them. They are a legitimate part of the global wine industry. 


Further, admit that one man, because of his ingenuity, skill, forcefulness and hard work, is the most important wine critic in the world and will be so for quite some time.

Further, admit that in a world of instant communication, with access to endless amounts of information, and where the ability to access culture remotely really does exist, it looks a little silly—or at least "fantastical"—to suggest a wine can't be judged or critiqued unless we have walked its vineyard and surrounding environs. This sounds more like trying to discredit folks for the sake of discrediting them, than any particular pursuit of truth.

Further, appreciate that wine educators and professionals and media need to understand that we all have different audiences, different influence, and different purposes. When we insist that an entire industry come around to our way of thinking where taste and terroir is concerned, we only come off looking like whiners.

Finally, rejoice in the fact that despite all this talk of globalization and tastemaking critics of extraordinary power, never have wine lovers and the wine trade lived in a time where the diversity of wine and wine styles was so great. The majority of juice may be bland and placeless, but the majority of wines are produced from small, idiosyncratic producers from across the globe.

10 Responses

  1. Roberto Rogness - June 1, 2010

    Tom, if someone dropped, say, a Tibetan throat singer or an Amazonian native flute player in front of you, could you judge them?
    Without seeing how the strange and VERY different sounds they make both evolved and intertwined with their culture, how would you have any idea what criteria to use?

  2. Roberto Rogness - June 1, 2010

    All you could do would be to compare them to WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW which is not at ALL the point of their performance.

  3. akatsuki - June 1, 2010

    Well, if winemakers have this problem, I have a solution – stop selling your wine out of your own region. You want to play internationally, then stop whining about reviews.
    Of course wine and food evolved together, but to ascribe some deeper cultural tie-in that no foreigner could appreciate, that seems more than a bit pompous. As if visiting and staying in a hotel will suddenly engender understanding.

  4. Jeff - June 1, 2010

    And, here I thought Matt Kramer’s piece in the current WS, on this very same topic, was an original piece of thinking.

  5. Peter O'Connor - June 1, 2010

    It is, indeed, foolish ”in a world of instant communication, with access to endless amounts of [satellite, real-time…] information, and where the ability to access culture remotely really does exist”, to say that one needs to visit a place to understand its wine culture.
    On the other hand, I have to agree, context and a good deal of research are essential. How can a wine critic review California Merlot, e.g., without knowing how it is grown in California: in what climates; soils; viticultural and winemaking practices; what are the pros and cons for Merlot in the areas where it is grown; what soils and climates are more favorable; is the fruit character, and other attributes, of Merlot in California similar to other benchmark areas in the world like Bolgheri, Pomerol or Hawkes Bay? No? Why not?
    Opinion-makers, among consumers, “don’t want knowledge. [They] want certainty”.

  6. John Kelly - June 1, 2010

    The question is not whether or not there is an “international style” it is whether or not “wines of place” can establish cross-cultural appeal on an international stage.
    I’m a pretty good judge of wines that taste at all like I expect wine to taste, but I doubt there is time enough left in my life for me to ever be a really good judge of retsina, or what the Chinese have called “wine” (jiu) for at least a century, or buttered yak’s milk for that matter. I am not Greek, or Han, or Tibetan.
    From within my own cultural context I judge those beverages to be somewhere between unpalatable and utterly foul. As for learning to appreciate them and the subtle differences between good and bad examples – I probably could, but to learn to rank them on the same scale as a decent California “wine of place” (even a Merlot) – I don’t think so. That’s just asking me to suck up too much “context.”

  7. Hampers - June 1, 2010

    I just recently discovered your blog and am so glad I did. What a sweet post!

  8. lagramiere - June 1, 2010

    Was just going to point out the same thing as Jeff above :http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/42838 Matt Kramer says virtually the same thing.
    Going to meet Tim Atkin this weekend at the Grenache Symposium, I’ll give him your best! Cheers, Tom, when are you coming for that visit???

  9. Tom Wark - June 2, 2010

    I see the point you are trying to make but I don’t think it’s properly made.
    I know nothing about the Tibetan Throat Singer genre. However, I know a great deal about the wine, red wine, grenache genre. However, I’ve never been to Spain. That does not, however, mean that I can’t judge the quality of a spanish Garnacha. Now, I may not judge it in the context you’d like to see it judge. But I can tell you what kind of fruit intensity it has, what tannin level it has, what sugar level it has, what kind of body it possesses, what kind of flavors and aromas it delivers, etc. Being able to do this might be a great deal more than is needed to give someone an indication if its the wine for them.

  10. Nathaniel Smith - June 2, 2010

    Isn’t Spain Jay Millers’ responsibility? Why should it matter how often Parker gets there. Don’t get me wrong I love Tim Atkins work, but this point seems to be a bit of a reach. Should a critic be able to place the wines they taste in their regional context, absolutely!

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