Wine Critics’ Reliability and the Need They Fulfill

Tongues Tony Greenberg has a quick, nimble, searching and eclectic mind that he's beginning to train on the wine industry. More importantly, he's training that mind on the unique way the wine industry chooses to distinguish the hundreds of thousands of wines at consumers' disposal: ratings.

"These judgments [ratings] are based on the false premise that wine assessment can
be absolutely objective. But it absolutely cannot; there’s always a
measure of subjectivity, even though our minds seldom reward nuance.
Critics’ reliability is secondary to the need they fulfill. You can say
the emperor has no clothes, but the masses still yearn for a king they
can raise a toast to."

This notion that "Critics' reliability is secondary to the need they fulfill" is a most insightful point that Greenberg makes in an essay he has posted at "", a website where he expounds on issues of trust, consumerism, wine, spirits, philosophy and technology. This notion begs the question, what is the true impact of critic's ratings and particularly the 100 point rating scale that is so ubiquitous within the industry?

Ostensibly, the real purpose of the 100 point rating scale is to address this fundamental issue that is identified in the essay: "We’re all struggling to figure out what we might actually want to drink,
can afford and can find. But keeping track of the latest and greatest
in booze can be bewildering."

Unfortunately, Tony explains, "All the Booze Crit Lit resources measure, ultimately, the preferences
and idiosyncrasies of a bunch of people who don’t necessarily share
preferences and idiosyncrasies. Their palate is not

This still leaves us without the answer to what's the true impact of the 100 point rating system and its sister systems and the critics the wield these systems. But if you look at what has happened with the futures for the 2009 Bordeaux vintage and how buyers responded to Robert Parker, Jr.'s "vintage of the century" pronouncements, then we can see that one real purpose of ratings is to help determine the relative value of wines. But neither I nor Tony Greenberg understands how this helps the vast majority of wine consumers.

There is another real impact that critics and their ratings have that
Greenberg touches on but doesn't explore fully: Ratings make many people that don't know much about wine except that they like to drink it feel
comfortable making a choice among the thousands of wines we have to
choose from. We feel good about buying a wine that got a high 80s or low 90s or, certainly, a high 90s, rating. Surely this is an important benefit of the simple to
understand 100-point or five-star ratings. But that benefit doesn't get
us any closer to dealing with the fundamental problem that Greenberg sees with these critics and their ratings: "Their palate is not your

Now, lucky for me and the rest of the one-quarter of one-percent of the population that has an overabundance of experience training our palates for wine, it's pretty easy for me to filter "Their Palate" through my own palate experience, to utilize my extensive experience comparing what I smell and taste with what "they" smell and taste, to correlate the meaning of my wine vocabulary and its meaning with "their" wine vocabulary and its meaning and put this all to good use to really use a review from a given critic for determining if a given wine will please me.

But then there's the other 99.75% of the population, isn't there.

The experience of this much larger portion of the wine drinking population that tries to derive real meaning from a critic's wine review and rating is akin to the average person picking up an academic history journal or academic legal treaties and attempting to extract meaning from the jargon and academic shorthand that is used in those publications. Good luck.

We end up with these reviews having meaning to people like me. That's fine and all and I appreciate it, but it leaves the average drinker with a sense of security that might only last until they find out this 91 point wine is really much more tannic than their palate can take or doesn't nearly possess the kind of sweetness they like in the "dinner party wine" they like to serve when Roger and Kimmy from Springfield comes to visit when they pass through on their way to Topeka. But, our hosts may also derive an added benefit of knowing that Chateau Lafite is going for five times what it did the previous vintage because it's the greatest vintage ever. While this bit of esoterica may allow our host to change the subject from his wife's concern about the new neighbor's poor disposition toward her roaming Rover with his unfortunately deteriorating digestive system, it's still esoterica to the people round the table and not likely to keep the the subject off Rover's inclination to deposit his crap on the neighbor's lawn for very long.

Greenberg's solution is an obvious but never yet quite achieved one: find a way to "empower consumers and trade buyers with not just more information, but
with the most
pertinent and relevant information about
wine and spirits that they, personally, will enjoy."

In a companion piece to Tony's at, Master of Wine/Master Sommelier and all around brilliant wine guy Doug Frost delivers the only answer to Greenberg's point about more relevant and pertinent information I've read (and I've read it before): "There are many trustworthy palates; you should seek out as many as you
can. You should find out their favorites and if you can afford them, you
should try them to see if your palate roughly aligns. If they offer no
great reviews of affordable wines, you should look elsewhere; great wine
is all around, just like good reviewers."

Again, that works for the highly inspired and highly motivated wine person. But does it work for the average wine drinker? Are they really going to explore many wines reviewed by many educated palates? I don't think so.

In Tony's article he notes that he's working on this problem using a similar approach he applies to his primary business of matching the needs and desires of tech services buyers to solutions delivered by the many tech service providers. But until his or someone else's solution appears, it remains a fact that there is a disconnect between the real needs and desires of the average wine buyer and the solutions provided by the ratings and reviewers.


28 Responses

  1. KF Louis - July 6, 2010

    Tom – your last sentence should be the lead of this article. It is well said.
    So how about you write a companion piece on what we should do with that gem of knowledge? (The solution.)
    Until we have a solution, the 100 point system will ruin our wine lives. 😉

  2. Lab Theologian - July 6, 2010

    Greenberg may be nimble and insightful, but his views on wine criticism seem pretty obvious and plodding. Seems to me we need to accept (at least) two principles beyond Frost’s very accurate observation.
    1. Tasting notes are like the blurbs describing residential real estate. They are a highly coded, subjective (often self-serving) and idiosyncratic form of consumer advocacy. At their best, they are good haiku.
    2. CellarTracker makes it much, much easier to do what Frost recommends.

  3. tom merle - July 6, 2010

    The wisdom of CellarTracker is clear. It’s only downside is its skewing toward the wine geek, i.e., those with cellars, hence the name. Crowd sourcing requires a percentage of less refined palates to find those sweet spot wines. We need a wine version TripAdvisor, i.e. WineAdvisor ( is available from GoDaddy for $2.98) Snooth is a start but it seems to have too few users.

  4. nursing tops - July 6, 2010

    But neither I nor Tony Greenberg understands how this helps the vast majority of wine consumers.

  5. Lab Theologian - July 6, 2010

    Tom, I agree with you about CTs bias. But I’m not sure it matters. Wine criticism is inherently subjective. Palates are individual. So you want a calculus where as the number of subjective inputs approaches infinity, you reach something like objectivity. The broader the range of inputs the better certainly, but, for wine evaluation, this requires participation in the language-game which implies a certain level of geekery. But I’ll take a democracy of geeks (especially when I can filter them) over a single expert every time.
    I also think there’s a significant usage of CT by non-geeks. I’ve read the notes. There’s a lot of less refined palates playing along.
    Tom W has a deep talent at framing the question in a way that engenders discussion (I like the new photo too, by the way), but the more I think about this, the more I think the problem isn’t subjectivity per se, but that we write about wine with flavor metaphors and agro-chemistry vocabulary.
    In ye olden times, the king’s tasters used a more biology-based terminology when evaluating wine (largely to determine if it was what the seller claimed). They described the salivary effects and the direction of taste. Apparently, they were fairly accurate at identification with this.
    So maybe we should stop trying to say, “You’ll like this because it tastes like…” and evolve to something like, “This is a wine that does that thing to your tongue you like…”

  6. Charlie Olken - July 6, 2010

    Short of some form of agreed upon laboratory procedure, wine criticism is always going to rely on the palate or palates of the individuals involved.
    But, it does not stop there. There is also the thing called a tasting note. Parts of the note are indeed metaphors. There are no currants in Cabernet Sauvignon or plums or peaches or black cherries or anything of that ilk or not of that ilk that some writers may devise.
    But, the writing, the ability to describe wine in a way that someone else tasting that wine will agree is, in fact, of great value.
    Those notes, those descriptions are intended to convey a sense of the wine and to do so in more or less plain language. We do not speak to parts per billion of extract or discuss TA in numbers. Some of the better writers do discuss the impact of acidity, the relative level of tannin, the body of the wine, the feel on the palate, the balance, uses with food.
    It seems a little too narrow to suggest that people who drink wine cannot understand the comparative meanings of the words pert and sour. It gives language too little credit. And thus it also gives good wine descriptions too little credit.
    Sure, those descriptions are not wholly objective, and even when discussing physical phenomena like tannin impact and glycerin, there are personal judgments involved. But even that does not make wine criticism inaccurate or without value. or beyond the ken of anyone who is not a true geek.

  7. phillywinefinder - July 7, 2010

    I agree with Charlie Olken that there are both subjective and objective elements in wine tasting, and that we can communicate with each other about how the wine smells and tastes through wine descriptions; after that it’s up to us to know our own palates and decide whether or not we might like a wine as described by someone else, or how it might pair with food.
    As for cellartracker not being broad based enough, it has enough people who are interested enough to take the time to log what they buy and describe how it tastes to them. For everyone else they speak through the market: we know which wines sell the most.

  8. tom merle - July 7, 2010

    Well, I guess having 108,600 users posting 1,427,000 wine reviews, most with scores, from real users does qualify CT as having a broad enough base…{8^D

  9. Thomas Pellechia - July 7, 2010

    People are generally sheep–geeks are more intense sheep–critics are smart.
    There are exceptions, but the generality isn’t far off the mark.

  10. tom merle - July 7, 2010

    An interesting thesis. How can you demonstrate? The incentives for authenticity seem robust.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2010

    Tom Merle,
    You’ll have to first read up on 19th century theories concerning hysteria…
    The only thing that ever changes are the dates.

  12. Dr. Debs - July 8, 2010

    Thomas Pellechia, I think maybe YOU might wish to refresh your memory on 19th century theories of hysteria. In 19th century medical literature, hysteria was considered to be a female pathological condition related to disturbances of the uterus and to related sexual disfunction.
    Is that what you meant? I’m finding it difficult to make it relate to your remarks about sheep…
    (I believe you are thinking of more modern theories about mass hysteria. But I still think you’re off the mark with that analogy.)

  13. Tom - July 8, 2010

    Very interesting view point on posting reviews and providing “opinions” on wines to the average Joe. Maybe less fluff and more down to earth descriptions.

  14. Ron McFarland - July 8, 2010

    I suspect a common goal is to have more people seeking and trying different wines. The best guidelines for finding new and delicious wines I have ever read were written several years ago in the year end wine columns by Dorothy & John Gaiter in the Wall St Journal.
    Two points that stick in my mind are “learn to trust your own palate & find a good retailer” — very worthwhile columns to go and find in the online archives – they really are a good road map for finding new and delicious wines.

  15. tom merle - July 8, 2010

    Since she injected a comment (most sensible), I’d like to use this thread to commend Dr. Debs for posting notes and scores on CellarTracker for larger production, less expensive wines. Posters like Dr. D make CT that much more useful.
    Following the normal mode of conflict methodology, Thomas P’s comments are suspect due to the occupational bias of the writer (not unlike Mr. Olken). Supporting consumer commentary over the promulgations of “experts” threatens livelihoods.

  16. Wine-Know - July 8, 2010

    The very heart of this discussion is that wine consumers don’t understand the criteria used for rating wines using the 100-point scale. As long as this scale is used by wine critics, there will be a need for wine consumers to learn how to rate wine themselves so that they can compare their own ratings with the critics. For those of you who are curious about my wine education product, which addresses this need, check out my site. Thanks.

  17. JohnLopresti - July 8, 2010

    The fictitious name of LabTheoln at first seemed a hopeful element in the thread, for me, as some of the most interesting evaluations I have heard have been in the lab, both inhouse, and the outsourced local variety lab known for a wide range of germane tests. Also worthwhile when added to those design-in-process, abstract assessments are the weighting of considerations during the growing season and beyond, among winemaker, vineyard relations directors, and vineyardists. Certainly, at the marketing interface the tasting critiques are essential; however, many times these public writings once lots have shipped seem very distant after one has participated in the history of how the as-bottled-and-aged effects are compared to the stewardship which produced the ripe fruit and tended its numerous processes before cork is set to the 750.

  18. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2010

    Tom Merle, I do not write wine criticism; I do not rate wines; and I do not have a front porch filled with unsolicited wines to taste and review. But if I do the above, I’d be pretty stupid to call my readers sheep, and I’m trying very hard to find where I did not support consumer commentary over the promulgation of “experts.”
    You obviously did not comprehend my sarcasm, which was aimed at the gaming inherent in wine ratings by major critics, who know the theory behind herding sheep.
    Mostly, my wine writing is historical or directed for the trade, because I study wine, I don’t try to sell it or to sell my opinions about it. Maybe you should buy one of my books–I could use the help and you could use the education concerning my bent 😉
    Dr. D, you are correct. I meant the early 20th century hysteria views. As for it being off the mark, that is your opinion, and I have mine, which is the trouble with all opinions, even wine opinions: they are personal and often meaningless to those who disagree with them. Mighty wind is an opinion.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2010

    Tom Merle,
    I misspoke: in my two separate wine columns, I do write to the consumer, but I never rate wines, barely ever review individual wines, and always try to make the columns informative rather than strictly op-eds.
    My beef is not with consumers, as Charlie will tell you, but I do think there’s more talk about wine than there is immersion in its enjoyment, and that consumers are quite often in sheep mode–the reasons for that are many.

  20. tom merle - July 8, 2010

    I do stand corrected; I should have perused Thomas P’s website where I would have learned that Thomas is not in the rating biz in any fashion, but seeks to inform consumers and trade about the many facets of the wondrous world of wine.
    I would still make the distinction between the appreciation of wine, its sensuous/hedonic effects and information about wine, from the planting of grapes in certain regions to the making of the fermented juice and beyond. I usually draw the parallel to enjoying a Bach sonata and understanding how it was composed.
    So in this respect we are in agreement. And I would not disagree that there is much sheep behavior among wine consumers, just not much of it on CellarTracker.

  21. Thomas Pellechia - July 8, 2010

    Of course, Tom M, now you will have to persuade me that your interests in the subject are not colored by your profession 😉
    I am a music lover, and was a teen performer. I play piano, er, keyboard. My technical music knowledge does not in any way prevent me from immersing myself in simply enjoying when others perform–it heightens the enjoyment because I often know what they are doing and why, not to mention what it took for them to get where they are.
    It’s the same with wine: my technical winemaking, wine marketing and sales, and wine writing background heightens my appreciation of the stuff that I drink. Still, I have no need to tell everyone what I think of what I drink, just as I have no need to know what everyone else thinks of what they drink–it has nothing to do with my enjoyment of wine.
    Therefore, I don’t get your Bach sonata point. In fact, I think people without music knowledge are likely to miss much of what Bach, or any composer, intended but they have been told it’s great and so, it’ great–that’s the sheep part.

  22. Wine Tasting - July 9, 2010

    I like your blog. Welcome to our website about Wine and Food Travel. (

  23. Peter O'Connor - July 9, 2010

    I’m a little late here but, what if, wine reviews would disclose “factual information”, like grape-growing (yields; designation; harvest; climate; weather) and winemaking (fermentation type; length of the aging period; type of vessels and materials used in both processes…) facts.
    Thus, allowing (rational) individuals/agents/consumers to figure out the rest.

  24. fredric koeppel - July 11, 2010

    Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published in 1841 and went through many editions in the 19th and 20th Centuries and indeed is still in print and widely quoted by economists today. The book describes the sort of “mass thinking” and “herd response” that Thomas refers to in one of his comments above, so actually he and Dr. Debs are both right but speaking of different phenomena.

  25. tom merle - July 13, 2010

    There are crowds (madness) and there are crowds (wisdom). In the former the individual gets swept up in the frenzy and simply adds to the collective fervor. In the latter, the concept refers to collective action that grows out of individual decisions that taken together create a new insight, opinion, observation etc.
    My POV, Thomas, does inform my wine activity: conducting tastings that seek to identify wines, tasted blind and with food, that have a wider appeal. We control for lemming behavior, though we understand that real world tastings include so many more variables.
    [In thinking more about your response earlier, I let you off too easily. While you don’t rate wines, you do offer yourself as yet another guru who has answers for getting more out of the wine drinking experience, which in a soft way, is anti consumer, telling your would be clients, don’t run the risk of being sheep…]
    I would never say that technical knowledge of some activity can’t heighten enjoyment. But there are different kinds of pleasures. What I would say in the case of music or really any artistic expression, including culinary creations, is that information about the implementation gives an intellectual pleasure, or the pleasure of appreciating skill, but it doesn’t give, I maintain, sensuous pleasure. This can be divorced from knowledge. The non musician can have as thrilling an experience listing to a Bach Sonata as the musician; indeed, it might be even “purer” since s/he won’t be marveling at certain techniques.
    Also, I more or less accept the fallacy of intentionality. That the audience must understand what effect the composer/author/artist was going for. Jaoquin Rodrigo, to take a notable example, explained that the effect he was seeking in the Concerto de Aranjuez was to evoke the wondrous gardens of a Spanish palace (his wife declared that it was written as a response to the miscarriage of their first child). But my joy comes from the notes and their capacity to transport me to a desert scene in North Africa, quite the opposite. And it moves me to my core. But this central joy of music, you indicate, must be less than the fuller intellectual pleasure of “knowing” composition.

  26. Laurie L Ross - July 18, 2010

    Best line – “Their palate is not your palate.”
    I take issue with rating wines and have declined any offers to do so. With the influx of wine bloggers, we have a wide variety of people with different levels of wine knowledge and experience rating wines as “experts”. I believe this is chaos to the confused consumer.
    The more I taste wine the more I realize my palate is constantly evolving. It would be arrogant for me to assume someone should like what I like based on a rating alone. I am not an wine expert but rather a great fan of wine. My readers know this and seam happy to continue to learn more along with me.
    I recommended wines by sharing the winemaker’s notes, as well as my own take to give readers of my blog an idea of what to expect from a particular bottle. I encourage my readers to post their opinions as well.
    I believe more description and less numerical ratings is a more helpful approach to the consumer. I prefer wine recommendations based on the wine style as opposed to a critic’s individual choice.
    Now from a marketing point of view a rating system of any kind or accuracy sells wine. Scads of consumers at a wine gallery in a grocery store are searching for some kind of direction whether it be an appealing label or that anybody rated it and claimed it was a pretty safe one to choose.
    BTW – I am new to your blog (and wine blogging) and look forward to perusing through your archives. One of the best wine blogs I’ve discovered. Thank you.

  27. Affordable literature review - November 2, 2010

    well your work is pretty good and i really like your post . .every thing in the post is awesome . . . .gr8 job . . .keep sharing 🙂

  28. Juliet Johnson - July 26, 2011

    Critics are mere critics. Ratings are mere ratings. At the end of the day you’re still the one who decides.

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