Tag Archives: wine criticism

Winebits 600: The Wine Curmudgeon has ulterior motives and is trying to destroy the wine business edition

Wine Curmudgeon

“Dude, you’re so not good for the wine business. Why are you trying to destroy it?”

This week’s wine news: The cyber-ether is ablaze in criticism of those of us, including the Wine Curmudgeon, who want people to enjoy drinking wine they can afford to buy. Because, of course, we’re up to no good.

July 3 update: Thank you for the kind words in the comments and your emails. Frankly, I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. The blog’s readers have always supported what I do and are the reason I keep doing it even when too many in the wine business wants me to sign off on selling $12 wine for $25.

Take that, Curmudgeon: Dwight Furrow, writing on the Food and Wine Aesthetics website, wants to know where people like me get off offering wine advice. After all, all we want to do is destroy wine and make money in the process. He links to the Jamie Goode post I wrote about earlier this year, and agrees with Goode that people like me are part of some vast conspiracy that has it in for “wine experts.” We’ll ignore for a moment that I am incapable of evil mustache twirling and that the only conspiracy I believe in is that Microsoft tried to destroy Linux. What Furrow misses, as Goode did, is that wine criticism is seriously flawed, and that responsible, legitimate critics who aren’t so-called cheap wine slime like me (Eric Asimov, for one) think so. So let’s figure out a way to fix the problem instead of pronouncing judgment on everyone else.

And this, too: I’ve been writing about wine and the three-tier system for more than 20 years, but I’ve never seen anything like a recent post in something called Alcohol Law Review. Apparently, those of us who oppose the three-tier system are lying scum who want to make money off the deaths of others. As near as I can tell, if we change the three-tier system in any way, we’ll end up with tourists dying after drinking tainted booze, as happened recently in the Dominican Republic. The enemy here is the same one as in Furrow’s post: “Various economic interests” who want to overthrow the system so they can get fat and rich. Who knew? I thought I just wanted to buy cheap wine more easily.

And don’t forget this one, either: Jamie Goode is back at it, reminding those of us who like cheap that we’re not only wrecking the environment, but that our greed ruins the wine business: “The race to the bottom in terms of price points sucks life out of the wine category. It also sucks out all the profit.” I would argue that the £5 wines he’s talking about are Barefoot and their ilk in the U.S., and the last time I checked, Barefoot owner E&J Gallo was one of the richest and most profitable companies in wine. But what do I know? I’m trying to ruin the wine business and feather my already fat and corrupt nest.

Top British wine critic: Don’t trust the Wine Curmudgeon

Wine Curmudgeon

“Hmmm.. what should I write to ruin wine today?”

British wine critic Jamie Goode warns wine drinkers against people like the Wine Curmudgeon

The WC can’t be trusted. Or so says British wine critic Jamie Goode, one of the most respected voices in the wine world. Writes Goode: “Beware the consumer wine champion.” His cry has electroned its way way through the cyber-ether to hurrahs and huzzahs, and one U.S. blogger even called Goode’s stand “courageous.”

Who knew I was the problem bedeviling the wine business? I could have sworn it was overpriced, crappy wine. But no, writes Goode. His argument: That wine critics who do what I do are frauds, and that it’s wrong for us to say that any wine that someone likes is OK to drink. We’re full of “faux outrage” at the wine business and we have an insidious, unspoken goal — to foist simple, sweet wines on the consumer instead instead of interesting, complex ones.

Which I do all the time, of course, evilly twirling my mustache. (And I guess Goode didn’t see this rant.).

Goode doesn’t mention me by name, and I assume he has no idea who I am; we travel in completely different wine worlds. But his description of the threat to the future of wine is spot on with what I have done for 11 years on the blog. Hence this post, since I consider myself part of the solution — the problem is with those who insist that wine should be difficult to understand and require its users to practice medieval alchemy to drink it correctly. Besides, the closest I come to belonging to any international cabal is my enthusiasm for Linux. And we know how much good that has done.

I have no idea why someone as well-spoken and as intelligent as Goode would write this, which is more like the sort of blather that appears every so often in the Wine Spectator. I argue for interesting, complex wines all the time. I just want them to be fairly priced and to come without reams of winespeak. And it would be nice if they were generally available.

Goode even says wine critics shouldn’t review mass-produced wines, since restaurant reviewers don’t write about McDonald’s. Which doesn’t explain why movie critics review poorly-made slasher films and car magazines review pickup trucks.

A friend, who sent me the link to Goode’s post, said it was probably a dog whistle, and likely had more to do with internal British wine politics than anything I’ve written. And he may be right.

Still, it’s worth repeating the philosophy that has helped the blog earn its place in the wine world: First, I love wine and I want to share my passion with everyone who finds it confusing and who is afraid of it. Second, there is only one wine rule: Drink whatever you want — just be willing to try something different.

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: Continue reading

aliens

Aliens (no, not that one): A wine parable (sort of)

aliensWhat happens when aliens from another galaxy discover wine – and the scores that go with it?

“I don’t understand,” said Brzyx. “What’s the point?”

“We’re humans,” said Miller. “We rate things. We list them. We rank them. That’s what we do.”

Brzyx’s accent was thick, but Miller could understand it without too much trouble. And why not? If its species was advanced enough to travel hundreds of light years to get to Earth, they could certainly speak passable English.

“But why can’t you just enjoy it?” said Brzyx. “It’s different, this wine, from anything we have at home. It’s pleasant. It’s – what’s your word? – enjoyable. I like the – what are they? – fruit flavors. I like the feeling I get from the thing you said was alcohol.”

“None of that is enough for us,” said Miller. “We have to sort things in order, top to bottom, first to last.”

“But scores?” said Brzyx. “All they do is spoil the fun, take the joy out of this wine thing. What possible difference could it make to anyone if something is 91 points or 92? Who can even tell the difference?”

“They claim they can,” said Miller. “It’s a huge business – lots of multi-million dollar companies, hundreds of experts claiming to know more about wine than anyone else. Telling people what kind of wine they should like.”

Brzyx sighed. At least Miller thought it was a sigh. It was kind of hard to tell.

“So you have all these wine experts spending all this time and money – scarce resources on your world – to give something as wonderful as wine a score, instead of using those resources to solve your world’s real problems, like hunger and poverty?”

“That’s pretty much it,” said Miller.

“Now humans make sense,” said Brzyx. “All that time and energy for nothing. No wonder you’re still stuck in this solar system and we had to find you.” He took a sip. “But I do like the wine.”

What’s wrong with California expensive wine?

California expensive wineNothing, actually. But what happens when one of the world’s top wine writers picks only a handful of California labels as her best expensive wines in the world for 2015? If you’re a California expensive wine devotee, it’s time to panic, and many did on Twitter and elsewhere. If you have a little more perspective, Elin McCoy’s choices speak to how much great wine is made in the world, and how even those who buy pricey wine sometimes don’t understand the need to try something different.

McCoy’s list of the 50 best wines for $50 or less in 2015 had just seven wines from California. Excluding the six Champagnes on the list, that meant 7 of 44 — just 16 percent of the best expensive wine in the world — came from California. Is it any wonder so many howled so loudly? It’s one thing when I criticize California for making such ordinary, grocery-store cheap wine. But expensive wine? That’s the Napa and Sonoma reason for being, and if those regions don’t dominate lists like this, their supporters figure something must be wrong.

But as McCoy said when I asked her about it, “Those seven wines were more than from any other place but France, so I guess I don’t feel I neglected California too much.” And, she added, the list doesn’t have any wines from Chile, Argentina, and Washington state, which also make great wine.

Hence perspective, something too many American wine drinkers lack. Because it’s not enough to have 17 percent — it must be 50 or 60 percent or even more. Because, dammit, expensive California wine is the best wine in the world. Everyone knows that. And if you don’t, you don’t know anything about wine (and no, I’m not going to link to the blog posts that say that — no need to start the new year with a flame war).

Which is that lack of perspective. I’ve written many times that California makes the best wine in the world, cheap or expensive, but only when it wants to. The rest of the time, it’s content to make wine other people think it should make, be it a focus group or the Winestream Media. And if anyone complains, we get the speech in the previous paragraph.

Or, as one noted wine competition judge told me when we discussed this, “California wines have gotten boring, for the most part. Same ole, same ole, year in, year out. … I can appreciate the box they have built for themselves. Why mess with success? But no one wants to discuss it because we are all so close to those people and that industry, but the reason I love Old World wines so much is that they are interesting, with unexpected, often delightful, surprises. And every year, they are different.”

And difference brings perspective.

Is wine the last bastion of the snob?

wine snob

“Trust me. I’m not dead.”

Periodically, one of my colleagues will lament that the U.S. isn’t more of a wine drinking country, and wonder what can be done to change that. I mention this not because I have the answer — I’m usually shouted down when I offer one — but because it ties into two recent items. First, the annual list of “Blue Chip” wine brands chosen by the company that publishes the Wine Spectator and that ranks wine by sales growth and profit margin. Second, an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, bemoaning what he calls the death of the film snob and how the movies are poorer for it.

Scott argues that the Internet and post-modern democracy have transformed film criticism, and that “the world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody ?s taste can be better than anyone else ?s.” Who needs critics when we can decide what to watch based on the wisdom of the crowd, and even feel more confident about our choice?

Which, of course, is not how we do things in wine. Scott writes that: ” ‘Snob’ is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership,” so I must assume he has never read wine criticism or discussed wine with the too many people who are too proudly snotty about what they drink. What else is brose but an attempt to turn $10 pink wine that anyone can drink — that anyone should drink — into something that only the most entitled among us can appreciate?

I’m not sure, after writing about cheap wine all these years, that the laments about the U.S. and wine aren’t about wine as much as they’re about the wine that the wine snobs think we should drink. After all, we’ve made tremendous strides as a wine drinking country, with per capita consumption higher than it has been since the 1970s and wine sales up even through the recession. But is that progress enough? Or do we have to progress as a wine drinking nation in the direction the snobs think best?

What if American wine drinking rates were the same as France’s, where the typical adult drinks a bottle a week, four times what we drink here? Because, to get to that point, more of us would have buy the wines on the Blue Chip list, like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, and Cavit. Would that make the wine snob happy? I doubt it. They’d argue that it wouldn’t be enough that most of us were drinking wine with dinner, but that we weren’t drinking the right wine.

The irony, of course, is that all those everyday wine drinkers in France, as well as Spain and Italy, are drinking the local equivalent of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, and Cavit — or something even cheaper or more poorly made or both. The next time you’re in a European grocery store, check out the amazing numbers of wine brands that cost just a couple of euros. Hard to believe if you’re raised on wine in the U.S., where no one is supposed to drink that stuff.

The other irony? That there is a difference between snobbishness and criticism, and I’m surprised Scott didn’t make that point more strongly. A snob rejects anything he or she confiders inferior, even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. The best critics, and Scott is certainly one, detail the whys and wherefores, allowing us to make up our own minds. Good or bad isn’t even the point, which is why wine scores are so useless and why something as stupid as “Animal House” can be so much fun to watch. Rather, did that wine or that film or that restaurant do what it set out to do, and did it do so honestly and with respect for both the form and the consumer?

Otherwise, we might as well buy what the Wine Spectator tells us to buy, make fun of people who don’t drink “good” wine, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else.

“Preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers”

The joke in the wine blogging business is that the easiest and best way to goose your numbers is to write about wine blogging. And it works, actually, which says something about wine blogging that many of us probably don ?t want to know.

That’s mainly why I stopped writing about wine writing. The people I want to come to the blog don’t care. They want to know about cheap wine, and anything else is a reason not to come back. If you’re any good, you write for your audience — not to please yourself.

That’s why I was so intrigued by Richard Thomas’ piece in the July issue of North Bay Biz, and not just because he said very nice things about me. That Thomas, an icon of Sonoma Country agriculture and wine, wrote the following means something:

I’m not sure how many of you read the multitude of wine blogs, Twitter feeds and so forth regarding wine. Some make a few good points, but in general, it sounds like they’re preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers.

In other words, sloppy and boring criticism. That’s because too many of us reinforce the conventional wisdom, and we don’t ask the most important question a critic should ask: Why? Why is the business this way? Why does this wine taste this way? Why does this wine cost this much, and this wine this much? Why does this matter to our readers?

This style of criticism exists almost nowhere else, not in film and literature,  certainly, and not even in cars or electronics. Can you imagine a wine-style review in The New York Times Book Review: “87. Offers a hint of savory adjectives balanced by unctuous characters and a zesty finish.”

The Italian Wine Guy (who wrote knowingly about this in May) wonders if we are becoming as irrelevant as Pilates. The Hosemaster of Wine, never one to mince words, went even further last fall: “What amazes me is how wonderful and entertaining and fascinating wine itself is, whereas wine writing is, with few exceptions, dreary, pedantic, insipid and repetitive.”

The best critics are conduits, placing their subject in perspective and facilitating discussion, understanding that they are not the final arbiter but one voice among many. In this, they should be an intelligent, well-versed, and thoughtful voice that their readers can trust. The point is not whether someone reading the blog disagrees with me; the point is whether I have helped them understand enough about so that they are able to disagree with me.