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.”



4 Responses

  1. Bill McIver - November 16, 2018

    Won’t read that guy. He stole Jerry Mead’s hallowed title — TWC.

  2. Bob Henry - November 17, 2018

    I will supplement Jeff’s citing of the 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey with this 2017 Wine Opinions survey:

    URL: https://files.constantcontact.com/c8aa6f40101/7a9a2acf-80fa-4fa9-a851-db5c4d18b79f.jpg?a=1127231316019

    “90+ score from a respected critic”: “25%” purchase influence

    “Positive review I read in print or online”: “21%” purchase influence

    Citing “data presented [at the Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Spain] by [David] Francke [former managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], U.S. wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.

    “[U.K. based research and consultancy] Wine Intelligence has studied the U.S. wine market in detail and categorised the wine drinking population — which it measures at 47 million . . .”

    URL: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=73903

    The “core wine drinkers” are the ones who are possibly influenced by wine critic reviews, not the general public.

    But where – exactly – does the general public find and read wine critic reviews?

    Not from consumer wine magazines and newsletters. They don’t subscribe.

    (As I recall, Wine Spectator’s domestic paid subscribers number around 350,000; The Wine Advocate’s paid subscribers number around 40,000. I don’t recall numbers for Wine Enthusiast magazine and Wine & Spirits magazine. Let’s be generous and project that – “assuming” no subscriber duplications – those four magazines are supported by 500,000 committed hobbyists.

    500,000 represent a tiny percentage of those 35 million wine drinking U.S. adults cited by Francke.)

    Not daily metropolitan newspapers, which have suspended publishing wine editorial (articles and advice columns) in their weekly “Food” section . . if such a section still exists.

    Not from shelf talkers in grocery stores. Chains ban them as a form of visual clutter.

    Not fine wine store printed and mailed newsletters. They were defunded during The Great Recession – replaced by less expensive e-mail blasts and website “content.”

    Not wine blogs. Most post “content” infrequently. Reviews by amateur writers lack depth or breadth.

    Wine industry observer Lewis Perdue wrote in 2014 that:

    “Consumers who try to rely upon wine ratings to make purchase decision are often thwarted by the widespread absence of reviews. For that reason, I’ve been trying to figure out about how many wines that are for sale in the United States have actually been rated by critics.

    “The numbers suggest that only about 25% ever get evaluated by the critics.”

    URL: http://recommendationinsights.com/?p=26

    Jeff’s is a modern day Sisyphus, fighting an uphill battle trying to inform the general public about good value wines.

    I applaud his efforts . . . and feel his pain.

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