Embrace the Wine Critic — They Matter

The Wine Critic matters…as much as ever.

It’s worth pointing out that the wine critic is not, as too many suggest, some self-interested hanger-on simply pushing subjective opinions any one of us could offer. Rather, the dedicated wine critic is a passionate student of wine who has devoted a healthy part of their lives to understanding wine, celebrating wine and prodding those who produce wine.

It’s true that the wine critic can grow cynical and even stiff from their constant exposure to so many wines that come to them so easily, but we ought not to question their continued passion for their chosen subject nor their continued pursuit of education—their own and others.  At their best, wine critics expose us all to new ideas, new interpretations of wine, new winemakers, new wines and new trends. They are largely responsible for asking us to question our preconceived notions about wine even when they are not the originator of new ideas. In this way, the wine critic pushes the industry and the form of wine forward in new directions.

To many, the occupation of wine critic appears privileged. But the responsibility of the wine critic is great. The most thoughtful among them understand the nature of wine better than most. They understand how wine is made, the risks it entails, what drives consumer relationships with wine and, of course, what makes some wines great and others not so good. (Hint: it’s not whether you like it or not).

But the most important thing to understand about the professional wine critic is the dedication they throw at their job; a dedication born and sustained by a great passion for the subject. This passion is life-changing for them.

Robert Parker, Jim Laube, Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Eric Asimov, Matt Kramer, Harvey Steiman, Jamie Goode, James Suckling, Stephen Tanzer, Antonio Galloni, Neal Martin, Allan Meadows, Michael Broadbent, Josh Greene, Stuart Pigott, James Halliday, Steve Heimoff, Gerald Asher, Jerrry Mead, Charles Olken. These and other great wine critics saw their lives changed by a passion for wine and in turn have changed other lives, informed the perspectives of others, and helped shape the meaning of “great” in the realm of wine. And they have helped move the practice of winemaking forward.

I’ve been provoked of late to think about the wine critic after reading Jamie Goode’s “Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others” article appearing in VinePair earlier this month. Easily one of the best wine articles of the year, it is a defense of expertise and could apply to any number of disciplines.

Though I don’t agree with everything Goode has written in his article, his general case for the critic in nearly unassailable in my opinion. In the article, Jamie defends what he does: Reviews and writes about wine. I think in the end it is the job of the critic to defend the role of the critic and how they go about it. I’d love to see more wine critics take up the task, look into what they do and what those have done before them, and offer their view on the necessity (or non-necessity) of the wine critic.

It must be said that the greatest innovation in the world of wine criticism over the past 50 years, and the innovation that has garnered the most criticism, is the 100 point rating system. The critics that have deployed this system have been charged with abrogating their responsibility and catering to the lowest common consumer denominator. This view of the critic and the rating scale should be ignored. It fails to appreciate that the critic who applies a score to their review is simply providing additional information to their written review—which has and remains the heart of their evaluation and critique of wine. More importantly, this view is more or less a backlash to the power to motivate consumers that many critics possess. This backlash doesn’t take into account the fact that so many of the critics that utilize the rating scale alongside their review bring as much experience, passion and discernment to the assigning of a rating as they do their review.

Finally, in between the passion-driven wine critic and the casual consumer, lies the latest innovation in wine criticism: the group.

Vivino, Cellar Tracker, Delectable, among others. Here we can find not only an array of individual reviews of a wine but also a group rating. Bringing the voice of the crowd online and accessible to all is an important innovation and has been offered as a replacement for the individual critic. Of course, it can’t be that as it is an entirely different thing from what the critic does, or should do. The consensus of the group almost always moves to the middle.

The best critics I’ve ever read, in any field, always had a point of view, an opinion of what is worth paying attention to; an ideology. These are the critics that lift criticism to an art form. These folks understand the history of their subject. They know the history of criticism in their field. Sometimes they are looking to advance an aesthetic agenda (or even a political agenda) and I appreciate that effort. For me, the great wine critic is one that not only can describe the components of a wine and declare how it fits into the current aesthetic zeitgeist but also go beyond and think about what the wine means, the viability of the context the wine exists within and the purpose of the wine. You don’t see this too often, but then again Gerald Asher isn’t writing anymore.

But, Jamie Goode is. And you should read what he has to say about the critic and wine criticism.

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8 Responses

  1. David Vergari - December 28, 2017

    The late Susan Sontag stopped being a film critic after she attempted to make a movie. One wishes this were so for the majority of wine critics. The vast majority have never made a liter of wine in their lives. I call them frauds.

  2. Clark Smith - December 28, 2017

    A very fine article about a very fine article. Thank you for bringing Jamie’s essay to our attention.

    I agree that the 100-point system is perfectly valid when dealing with a well-understood wine type such as Pauillac, Muscadet-Sur-Lie or Tawny Port. But in emerging regions in the New World where experimentation continues and no standards are established, a numerical score connotes nothing more than a personal smiley factor. Too often the unfamiliar – be it a new take on a known variety such as Snake River Viognier, a completely new variety like Marquette or Aromella, or a resurrected heirloom species cross like Cloeta or Lenoir will not fit expectations at first. The best critics look for innate charm, potential likability and above all, trueness to type and appellation.

    We are in the midst of a Golden Age in the U.S. which I call the Invisible Rainbow. There are pioneers like Linda Murphy, Jancis Robinson, Dan Berger and Jon Bonne who are opening our eyes to these new delights, and they do not use scores. At AppellationAmerica.com we are endeavoring to establish regional standards for a future when scoring will make sense.

    • Tom Wark - December 28, 2017

      Clark,

      So nice to hear from you. And I agree. The concept of “standards” for new regions, newly adopted varieties, is probably not nearly as useful as with other regions as you noted.

      But what if the critic was exposed to the Snake River Viognier? Certainly, they would recognized a style. Certainly they could put the wine in the context of other, better-known wines. Certainly, they could offer meaning to the experience of drinking it. Right?

    • Julie Pedroncelli St. John - December 29, 2017

      Great articles. I thank Clark for including Dan, Linda and Jancis-I’ll add Robert Lawrence Balzer, Bob Thompson and Larry Walker. Each of them are or were passionate about this thing called wine.

      Writing about what you are passionate about, whether it is wine or aviation. is the crux of the matter. Devoting a lifetime of studying the subject at hand, honing one’s palate, talking to the winegrowers and delving into the world of wine by conversation, discovery and the sharing of the wisdom that comes from years dedicated to this focus on wine seems to me license enough to help educate those who don’t have the scope of information the critic has amassed and is now sharing. All because it is their passion.

      I actually disagree with the thought that millenials don’t care about critics or points-why then are Yelp and Trip Advisor consulted–isn’t it also a way for people to critique a business and for others to follow the review given on a particular hotel, restaurant or plumber?

  3. Bob Henry - December 29, 2017

    The role of critic as an “opinion leader” and “taste maker” is being diminished in the minds of Millennials:

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (March 9, 2010, Page D8):

    “Critics’ Ranks Thin Out”

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/mar/09/entertainment/la-et-bigpicture9-2010mar09

    By Patrick Goldstein
    “The Big Picture” Column

    “. . . Virtually every survey has shown that younger audiences have zero interest in critics. They take their cues for what movies to see from their peers, making decisions based on the buzz they’ve heard on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social networking.”

    . . .

    What influences a consumer to purchase a specific bottle of wine?

    For some insight, we can turn to this bar graph exhibit from the reported results of a Wine Opinion survey:

    https://franklinliquors.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/9-influences-franklin-liquors.jpg

    “90+ score from respected critic” . . . 25%

    • Bob Henry - December 29, 2017

      Established wine critics disseminate their opinions two ways: in print, and online.

      Ask a wine merchant you know if their Millennial customers subscribe to wine magazines.

      The answer, always invariably, is “No.”

      Their knowledge of wine magazines comes largely from the “shelf talkers” that reproduce printed review blurbs.

      (Assuming the store even allows shelf talkers. Many don’t because they are perceived as “visual clutter.” Further, retailers don’t want to be sued for “bait and switch” merchandising practices when the shelf talker’s declared vintage doesn’t match the bottle on the shelf. Google this headline: “Is BevMo! Engaging In A ‘Bait-And-Switch’ With Wine? Suit Claims It Is.”)

      Millennials don’t subscribe to newspapers. (Not that there are many wine review columns left in major metropolitan cities.)

      Millennials don’t watch broadcast and cable television news. (Not that there are any wine reviewers on television.)

      They turn to social media for news. (Google this headline: “How Millennials Get News: Inside the habits of America’s first digital generation.”)

      So how do Millennials cross paths with the opinions of established wine critics?

      That is the unanswered question.

  4. Ray Krause - December 29, 2017

    Under “Other great critics” we must add Jerry D. Mead (Mead on Wine) , founder of Wine Investigation for Novices and Oenophiles and the Orange County Fair Wine Competition who may have been second only to Parker and Balzer in actually and directly inspiring folks to purchase a given wine. It has been said that Jerry never met a wine he didn’t like. Truth is, he just didn’t write about anything inferior. BTW, was Charlie Olken also inadvertently skipped ?

  5. Bob Henry - December 30, 2017

    Excerpt from a Wine Times (later rebranded as Wine Enthusiast) magazine interview with Robert Parker circa 1989:

    WINE TIMES: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?

    PARKER: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. . . .

    . . . The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.


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