Wine Critics: Please Ignore The Consumers!

winereviewersWine descriptions are more pompous than helpful, and most of them fail to help consumers understand the taste of the wine.”

Such is the conclusion of a new survey of English wine drinkers published in Harpers Wine & Spirits Trade Review. It’s nothing new is it. We’ve been hearing about the pretentiousness of wine descriptions for ages. What’s notable is that this latest reiteration of a theme speaks to the utility of wine descriptions. The article goes on to say:

“Some 55% of those polled said wine descriptions failed to help them understand the taste of wine, while nearly two thirds said they never get the same smells from wine as are suggested from the label. Only 9% said they looked to wine critics before choosing a bottle….Six out of ten people said picking out a clear fruit taste in the wine was the best way to help understand a wine’s taste.”

So, it appears that consumers want utility. Clearly there is a failure here of the marketers and sellers of wine. The issue likely lies with the ego of those writing the descriptions of the wine. They are likely wine geeks who can’t bring themselves to give consumers what they want, which appears to be something like this:

“This wine tastes like cherries, cranberries and cola. It’s smooth. You’ll like it with pork”.

Wine marketers and sellers should keep this in mind: The average consumer is crying out for boring! Why not just give them boring!

However, there is another kind of wine description that has no business being boring, but too often is: those composed by wine critics, wine writers and wine reviews. The responsibility of these folks is altogether different from the responsibility of the wine seller. The wine critic should entertain us!! Enlighten us! Make us think!

When the wine writer describes a wine I say, GIVE ME PRETENTIOUS! GIVE ME COMPLEX. GIVE ME DETAIL.

The fact is, most wine writers are composing prose for a far more sophisticated audience than those consumers who complained in the survey reported on by Harpers. Most readers of wine writers are willing to consider the meaning of a wine that is described with unusual, three-syllable words. Most readers of wine reviewers are willing to read through a description of where a wine fits on the hedonistic scale or on the scale of historical styles or how it adheres to the traditional style of wines from a region. Yet this kind of wine description would probably be called “meaningless, bearing no relationship to a wine’s taste, pretentious and a load of poppycock.” as many of those in the survey described wine descriptions.

Let the pretentious wine writers be, please. Let them go on and on with odd and curious descriptions of wine. Let them compose descriptions of wines that stretch the meaning of utility. The day every wine review tells me the wine “tastes like apples, pears and vanilla and is smooth” is the day wine reviews really start to become useless.

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15 Responses

  1. Sue Whitaker - April 16, 2013

    There is a place in the wine world for both — the utilitarian AND the pretentious wine descriptions. The wine descriptions of the wine critics add flair and prose that give us the elegance…the imaginative that make us feel special, important and knowledgeable when drinking that glass of wine, while the utilitarian approach to wine descriptions lays it out there in a more practical, down-to-earth fashion that we can connect with and understand. We need both. It all adds to our experience in enjoying a glass of wine and isn’t experience what it is all about in a glass of wine?

  2. Charlie Olken - April 16, 2013

    I would suggest that great wine descriptions can soar without being pretentious and pompous on the one hand and plain and pedestrian on the other.

    A good wine description–one that describes a wine worthy of soaring prose–does also need to describe the wine. If a description fails that test, then the rest of the description is not worth a tinker’s dam.

    The notion that different audiences deserve/need different types of descriptions is certainly true as well, yet it is hard to see how pretence and pomposity by themselves serve any audience.

    The late, great Leigh Knowles, the head of Beaulieu in its heyday, used to make fun of the “prismatic luminescence” school of winewriting. He was right then, and his sentiments of pompous, overwrought rhetoric still rings true today.

  3. Fredric Koeppel - April 16, 2013

    I was about to reply when I saw Charles’ response, and, as people say on Facebook, “What he said.” A wine review or critique that gets to the heart, the ambition and the history of a wine that also happens to be elegant and “prose with a flair” doesn’t have to be pretentious at all. It should enlarge the understanding and whet the palate with desire.

  4. Charlie Olken - April 16, 2013

    Thanks, Fred. Sometimes, we all get painted with the same broad brush even though each writer has his or her own style, many of which would seem to meet the dual standards that we have espoused.

  5. Matt Baack - April 16, 2013

    Wine writers and wine consumers are equally important for the wine industry. As an avid wine drinker, but by no means a connoisseur, I appreciate a detailed description in certain instances and the “boring” description in others.

  6. Joslyn Baker - April 17, 2013

    CRITICS speak to geeks in a language they understand and appreciate. MARKETERS must speak to the uninitiated, the consumer who has not yet tasted the wine. The wine label, shelf talker, website, etc. should convey a general sense of what to expect in a wine in clear, concise language anyone can understand.

  7. Plonk - April 18, 2013

    Agree with Joslyn. When most consumers pop to the supermarket for a bottle of wine they look for one thing: PRICE. Pompous descriptions won’t help sell that bottle of wine to the average Joe. Simple descriptions and reasonably priced will though. There’s a place for descriptions of this kind, but it’s not the local supermarket 😉

  8. Richard - April 18, 2013

    Your write up on the pretentiousness of wine reviews has slight overtones of tongue in cheek with an aroma of sarcasm. Overall, while there is a lot of earthiness in the piece, there is slightly too much backbone. The intense flavors of journalistic excess are not present as in many pieces of this type, thus lending to subtle nuances of credibility. And, the legs are present, simply not overripe or overwhelming. This piece has a certain je ne se quoi that many will find flavorful, but some may find somewhat underwhelmed because the full tongue in cheek flavors don’t show through for them. Overall, a fine piece that will stand up to various standards, but not for the wimp writer.

  9. tom merle - April 18, 2013

    Descriptions of whatever kind by the gatekeepers are fairly useless to the consumer. What s/he wants to know: how delicious is the wine TO PEERS, other consumers, And at what price point.

  10. Tom Wark - April 18, 2013

    Mr. Merle:

    Really? Completely useless? Of no use in any way? Without any value?

  11. Charlie Olken - April 18, 2013

    I just love Tom Merle. He has a wonderful way of making sweeping generalizations that are so broad that they are instantly provable and disprovable at the same time. At least, he occasionally also has a sense of humor.

    But? Useless to consumers? Can he explain why there are millions of people paying the various gatekeepers (a term I personally abhor), the various critics and evaluators for their opinions. At last count, not only were they consumers, but they make up a large portion of the dollar volume in the wine biz.

    Of course, buyers of TBC are not likely to be looking for descriptions of any sort or ratings of any sort, but just because they make up the bulk of the consumers does not mean that Mr. Merle is right–unless, of course, he truly believes that readers of wine descriptions are not to be counted as consumers.

    At that point, the comedy does get pretty broad.

  12. Fredric Koeppel - April 19, 2013

    It’s curious that several responders to this post see wine critiques or reviews as diametrically opposed: either simple or pompous, either utilitarian or pretentious, as if any effort beyond the lowest common denominator of prose has to be “affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn or self-important.” If you read many wine review blogs, written in whatever style or from whatever viewpoint, if don’t think you’ll find descriptions or evaluations that conform to the definition of pompous that I quoted here. Rather, you’ll find people who are sincerely trying to get to the essence of a wine and trying to convey that essence to their readers. To assume that any wine writing that stretches beyond the most basic and “utilitarian” is pompous and pretentious smacks of the anti-intellectualism that has perpetually stained an appreciation of American culture.

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  14. David Price - April 21, 2013

    It is hilarious to read two or more different wine reviews of the same wine, tasted at about the same time, and find that not only is there almost no similarity to the reviewer’s description of the wine, they don’t even find the same basic aromas and fruit. After reading and experimenting with “Le Nez du Vin”, I wonder why Jean Lenoir even bothered to distinguish so many different, but verifiable aromas of wine.

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