Wine Critics’ Reliability and the Need They Fulfill
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 "tonygreenberg.com", 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 your
preferences and idiosyncrasies. Their palate is not your
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 TonyGreenberg.com, 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.