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Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

wine criticism

“I’m tired of toasty and oaky. Where’s that damned thesaurus?”

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.

More perspective on the wine business:
10 years writing about cheap wine on the Internet
Premiumization, crappy wine, and what we drink
The end of the wine business as we know it?

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6 thoughts on “Have we reached the end of wine criticism?

  • By Jason Willis - Reply

    677

  • By Mike - Reply

    334

  • By Bill Walters - Reply

    I agree. This thing about identifying the essence of fruits, berries, and other elements in nature has frustrated me for a long time. Every time I open a bottle of new wine, and read the description of what I should find in the way of the aforementioned, I give up after a few sniffs. Your article is spot on, and if the it makes the critic’s feel good, more power to them!

  • By Cody Reynolds - Reply

    666

  • By Bob Henry - Reply

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page A15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”

    URL: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124701229573408977.html

    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    “Free: The Future of Radical Price”
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    “It is easy to see why FREE is an appealing price for consumers, although HOW COMPANIES MAKE MONEY BY GIVING STUFF AWAY IS LESS OBVIOUS. In ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price,’ Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of “The Long Tail,” sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    “Mr. Anderson explains how the underlying economics of digital services make free business models far more widespread than they were in the analog world. Central to the new ‘free economy,’ he says, are the ‘near-zero “marginal costs” of digital distribution (that is, the additional cost of sending out another copy beyond the ‘fixed costs’ of the required hardware).’ So Google spends billions on its software and infrastructure, to get its vast search engine up and running, but each incremental search costs it almost nothing.

    “Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy — that’s why you get a ‘free’ mobile phone when you sign up for a long-term service plan. In the digital realm, the ‘freemium’ model offers the elusive free lunch. Many millions of Skype users, for instance, making voice and video calls over the Internet, pay nothing at all, subsidized by a smaller group of customers who pay for additional functionality. The free service is a loss leader (and cheap marketing) for premium paid services.

    “Advertising is plainly the best known free model. You don’t pay for Web searches, any more than you pay for network television, because in both cases ads are attached to the product you are getting free. As Mr. Anderson notes, though, ADVERTISING CAN’T PAY FOR EVERYTHING ONLINE. IF YOU HAV A BLOG, ‘no matter how popular,’ THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE — a Google service that places ads on Web sites — WILL PROBABLY NEVER ‘PAY YOU EVEN MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.’

    “OF COURSE, THAT’S FINE FOR BLOGGERS MORE INTERESTED IN FAME OR INFLUENCE THAN IN MONEY or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. BUT IF YOU HAVE TO EARN A LIVING FROM THE WEB, ‘FREE’ CAN BE A PROBLEM. Even Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, doubts that free can work for everyone. ‘The problem with Free,’ he allows, ‘is that it eliminates all the price discrimination texture in the marketplace. . . . It tends to be winner-take-all.'”

    . . .

  • By Bob Henry - Reply

    How many wine bloggers do it for FREE because — motivated by a noble purpose — they have something to say (beyond a letter-to-the-editor in a wine review magazine), and the Web gives them a street corner soap box and megaphone to expound?

    And how many wine bloggers do it for FREE because they are motivated by less-than-noble purposes: the free samples and lunches and hoped-for press junkets to “wine country”?

    This has been an issue going back for decades. Best illuminated here:

    From Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (August 23, 1987, Page A1ff):

    “Wine Writers: Squeezing the Grape for News”
    (Series: First of Two Articles)

    URL: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1987-08-23/news/mn-3198_1_wine-writers

    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    “Two years ago, Craig Goldwyn — publisher of International Wine Review magazine — spoke to a couple of East Coast audiences about people who write on wine for American newspapers and magazines.

    “Goldwyn, who also writes a monthly wine column in the Washington Post, began by asking, ‘What is a wine writer?’ Then he answered his own question:

    ” ‘A wine writer is a physician or a lawyer with a bottle of wine and a typewriter, looking to see his or her name in print, looking for an invitation to a free lunch and a way to write off the wine cellar.’

    “Colman Andrews, who writes about wine for Los Angeles magazine, offered an even more acerbic observation in a recent interview:

    ” ‘Any jerk can call himself a wine critic and get published.’

    “Andrews and Goldwyn may have been indulging in a bit of hyperbole — but not much, judging from recent Times interviews with more than 40 wine writers and 15 editors nationwide, as well as with about 90 other people in the wine industry — wine makers, winery owners, importers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, publicists, restaurateurs and representatives of French, Italian, German, Spanish and Australian wine, trade and tourism agencies.

    “Most wine writers are genuinely enthusiastic proselytizers for the wines they like — so aggressively so that some seem to ‘forget this is not liquid gold, this is simply . . . grape juice,”‘ says Gracelyn Blackmer, a publicist who represents several Sonoma County wineries.

    “Few wine writers are either experienced, professional journalists or knowledgeable students of wine; most are wine hobbyists — lawyers, doctors or others who can afford to drink good wine regularly — or free-lance writers eager for all-expense-paid trips to the vineyards of Europe.”

    . . .

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