Fear Not, Wine Criticism Lives
The Wine Curmudgeon (Jeff Siegel) is celebrating his 11th anniversary penning his blog and reviewing affordable wines. I’ve been reading for all 11 years and will continue as long as he keeps up delivering his consistently astute, honest and interesting posts. However, despite his anniversary, the Curmudgeon is feeling a bit dour, at least as far as the job of reviewing wine is concerned:
“Wine criticism has become more button down than ever, a continually increasing jumble of scores and winespeak where every wine, regardless of quality, seems to get 88 or 90 points. Which raises the question: Have we reached the end of wine criticism?”
Well, I’m here to cheer Jeff up.
Jeff supports his contention that wine criticism is done by citing a study that explains “that just nine per cent of wine drinkers relied on critics, while almost half of those surveyed said wine descriptions were pompous. This is far from the only such study – wine drinkers have rated wine criticism this poorly for years.”
Jeff is right. The vast majority of wine drinkers do not care one bit about wine criticism or wine scores. However, wine criticism isn’t for the vast majority of Americans any more than ballet critics are writing for the vast majority of American. Wine Critics are writing for the 5% of Americans (according to the Wine Market Council) who buy wine over $20 a bottle.
I’d bet every dollar I’ve saved that if you polled people who regularly buy wine over $20 per bottle the per cent that say they do or often do rely on wine critics would be double, if not triple, the nine per cent of overall Americans who say they rely on wine critics.
So, Jeff, wine criticism isn’t dead. However, the audience of drinkers you write for, those who buy less expensive wines, don’t care much about scores. They care that the wine is in liquid form, a little sweet, isn’t too rough around the edges, has a tasty character and possesses alcohol. I don’t need a Wine Advocate handbook by my side to find one of those when I’m staring at an end stack of wine at a Lucky Supermarket.
Yet if you are contemplating buying a $25, $50, $100 or $500 bottle of wine and your budget isn’t unlimited, you might do well to get a sense of what others who are as impressively committed to wine as you think of the stuff before you hand over the credit card. This is who wine critics write for.
Jeff’s explanation for why most wine drinkers don’t use reviews and don’t like reviews is a little different from mine:
“Perhaps what the surveys are telling us is that wine drinkers aren’t rejecting criticism, but the faux criticism of scores and toasty and oaky. Perhaps they want intelligent wine criticism – the kind that educates and informs – more than ever. They just can’t find it.”
Jeff isn’t wrong that many wine descriptions could be better than they are. But remember that those who are in the business of trying to comprehensively evaluate a large number of wines from a region don’t’ have time to write comprehensive, contextual, in-depth reviews of all 5,000+ wines they review each year. There must be a shorthand. That shorthand is a basket of descriptors that have come to have meaning for a small group of wine lovers, as well as a score to go with it.
That’s not to say there is no room for longer reviews of wine. But once a wine review gets to be over 250 or 300 words it really does become something different from a simple review. It becomes an investigation or story or essay. I like this idea. But I’d be among the 2% of wine drinkers who, if polled on the question, would say they find this kind of investigation useful.
So dread not dear Wine Curmudgeon. Wine criticism lives! Not only that but after 11 years of writing you are much more than “a cranky ex-sportswriter with a keyboard and wi-fi.”