Wine drinkers have little use for wine criticism. Do they know something the wine business doesn’t?
The Internet was supposed to revolutionize wine criticism, making it more accessible, more open, and more democratic. So what has happened in the 11 years I’ve been writing the blog, as we celebrate Birthday week 2018?
Just the opposite – 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?
More, after the jump:
The answer, to listen to the surveys and the polls, is yes. One recent study found that just nine percent 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. Increasingly, it seems, they could care less about what people like the Wine Curmudgeon have to say.
And who can blame them? The goal of criticism, whether wine, movies, books, or cars, is to inform the consumer so they can make an intelligent decision. The best criticism makes us think about the subject, helps us understand and appreciate it. But when was the last time a score or a descriptor did that?
Bring on the winespeak
This is hardly the worst review I found during a quick Google search, but it makes the point:
“Medium-bodied and tightly integrated in terms of oak, this wine imparts favorable anise and pear characteristics, with a lively spritz to the acidity that provides freshness.”
How is that supposed to help me figure out whether I’ll like the wine? Or if I should spend $18 for it?
Yet, if the studies are true and wine drinkers don’t need us, why do so many lament the lack of well-written, intelligent criticism? I see it here all the time in emails and comments, and I hear it when I’m in grocery stores and wine shops and when I give talks and do seminars. Besides, I wouldn’t have been here this long unless there was a demand for that kind of wine writing. Surviving 11 years on the Internet is an accomplishment for even the biggest company, and I’m just me – a cranky ex-sportswriter with a keyboard and wi-fi.
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.
This is something that has been on my mind for the past couple of years, as I’ve watched wine prices go up and wine quality go down. Meanwhile, the wine business treats the consumer like a rube at a carnival con game, selling us $8 wine in $15 clothing. Isn’t that when we need intelligent criticism the most?
So why don’t we have more of it?
The answer lies in incentive. There isn’t any, for either critics or the wine business. It’s almost impossible to make a living as a wine critic, and the only ones who do are the ones who give us the scores and winespeak that tell us so little. So we have the Wine Spectator instead of film critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, who were both intelligent and accessible. And we have wine review sites that charge distributors more to use it than they do consumers. Because, of course, distributors are more important than consumers.
After all, isn’t the last thing the wine business wants is an informed consumer making an intelligent decision? Then we wouldn’t pay $15 for $8 wine, and they can’t have that in the age of premiumization. Or, as the man who runs Constellation Brands, one of the biggest producers in the world, put it the other day, $15 to $20 is the place to be.
Which is where scores fit in. Give a wine an 88, and and everyone is happy. Best yet, the consumer thinks she or he is getting a great bottle of wine, because there isn’t any perspective. Give a $15 wine an 88, and no one will know that they could have spent $8 for an 88-point wine. Or even a 90-point one.
In this, producers expect critics to do their marketing for them. Yes, it’s backwards thinking, but this is the wine business. I can’t tell you how many times over the years, since I don’t do scores and since I try to explain how the system is stacked against wine drinkers, that I’ve been seen as slightly subversive – as someone who doesn’t have the best interests of the wine business at heart. One person even suggested selling spots in the $10 Hall of Fame. That my obligation is to wine drinkers and not the wine business never seems to occur to these people.
Which, in the end, is why wine drinkers don’t believe in wine criticism. Wine drinkers are smarter than the industry thinks they are, and wine drinkers understand on some level that post-modern wine criticism isn’t there to help them. So they don’t use it. Which is not their loss, but wine’s.