Tag Archives: wine criticism

“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.

Winebits 189: Wine and bikes, millennials and wine, wine criticism

? Safe and secure: Because there is no way I can describe this in words:

? Wine with friends: Yes, millennials are unique because some of them like to drink wine with friends. This is the one of the findings in a study from California researchers looking at how millennial wine consumption is different from the rest of us. And, as the author, noted, it really isn’t (though she desperately tries to find some difference). The age group born after 1982 or so drinks the most wine at special occasions and eating at a formal restaurant. The study will no doubt make my pal Tom Johnson at Louisville Juice fire off yet another of his eye-rolling millennial missives. And I’d have to agree with him.

? What do critics want? To like the wine they drink, of course. This is quite well expressed by the Israeli writer Daniel Rogov, who is known as that country’s Wine Curmudgeon (something we have had a giggle about). “A great many may not realize it,” he writes, “but writing a negative review pains the critic. The simple truth is that that bad or mediocre wines have a deep emotional impact for the critic, who lives for the day when he can be entirely positive.” This, I think, is the difference between honest criticism and what passes for criticism these days, and especially on the Internet. The goal is to write truly (to paraphrase Hemingway). Too, many, though, prefer snarky, since they think it makes them look clever.

Expensive wine, better wine and wine writing

Buried at the bottom of post on a Wired science blog, which recaps research on the expensive wine/better wine issue, is this:

If the only story we can tell about wine is its price, then our pleasure will always be linked to cost, even though this link doesn ?t exist in most taste tests. A much better (and more cost-effective) idea is to find some other narrative, to focus on aspects of wine that don ?t require a big expense account. Knowledge is free.

Which is a damning indictment of wine criticism — and by science writer and Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer, no less. He writes that it's accepted scientific fact, based on robust research, that expensive wine isn't better wine just because it costs more.

Then Lehrer asks the question that no one in the wine business wants to ask, let alone answer: If there is no correlation between wine price and quality, why does wine writing insist there is? Why doesn't wine criticism deal with what Lehrer calls the subjectivity of taste: "We ?ve somehow turned the most romantic of drinks into a commodity worthy of Consumer Reports."

Regular visitors here know how the Wine Curmudgeon feels about that. What's interesting about Lehrer's post is the perspective he brings, which is to understand that there is more than "wine" going on when we drink wine, and he touches on neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. What happens, he writes, is that "if we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap."

All of which, of course, is something that those of us who write about wine rarely take into account. Even I'm guilty of this sometimes. Championing cheap wine just because it's cheap is its own form of snobbery, and just as insidious as any other form of snobbery. What's better, says Lehrer (and what I hope I do more often than not), is criticism based on education. "We should realize that we can make our wines much more delicious, if only we take the time to learn about them," he writes.

Which seems so obvious, and yet is so rarely done.

High alcohol: The controversy continues

What kind of a stir would a food magazine cause if it said it was going to list the ingredients in its recipes? None at all.

But the wine business is not the food business. Only in wine would a controversy ensue when the San Francisco Chronicle and Decanter magazine, two of the leading members of the Winestream Media, announced each would start listing alcohol levels for the wines it reviewed. Said the Chronicle's Jon Bonne: ".. [W]e resisted printing them regularly because the act of bringing alcohol into the discussion of a wine is inherently political."

Which says a lot about how screwed up the wine business is. Bonne is right — unfortunately, reporting alcohol levels in an alcoholic beverage has become political, because much of the wine establishment has made high alcohol its cause. Winemakers have pushed alcohol levels to 15, 16 and even 17 percent, even in white wine, and have been rewarded with glowing reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. Those of us who object, like the Wine Curmudgeon, are called philistines and told we don't understand the issue.

Most wine drinkers want to know alcohol levels. As one commenter noted in the Chronicle story, "If I wanted to get sh*tfaced, I could do it for a lot less than $50 a bottle." But that's of little concern to the people who make and write about these wines. They know best, and they're going to tell us what to think. More, after the jump.

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CellarTracker and the rise of social media

CellarTrackerWhen Eric LeVine came up with the idea for CellarTracker, the on-line wine inventory system, he thought it would appeal to wine geeks like himself and to people who needed to manage sizeable wine cellars. He never envisioned that he would be helping to make a revolution in the wine business

Because that’s what CellarTracker has done. The number of people who visit the site far outnumbers the number of people who use the site to track their wine collections. CellarTracker has about 40,000 registered users, but 90 percent of the site’s visitors are not registered — and it gets a couple of hundred thousand unique visitors a month. Which means people aren’t going to CellarTracker to mark off a wine after they drink it; they’re going to CellarTracker to read wine reviews written by amateurs.

Which is mind boggling, given the way the wine world works. Wine knowledge is handed from the top down, and we’re supposed to drink what our betters — Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator, and the like — tell us to drink. But that’s not what’s happening with CellarTracker. We’re looking for advice from people just like us.

“These are real people, spending real money for a real bottle of wine,” LeVine says. “There’s a much broader audience out there than I thought, and that was my first really big surprise.”

More, after the jump:
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Wine I like

wine I like

The most common question people ask the Wine Curmudgeon is, not surprisingly, “What’s your favorite wine?” My answer, also not surprisingly, usually disappoints them. I am, after all, the Wine Curmudgeon.

That’s because I don’t have a favorite. One of the tenets of the Wine Curmudgeon’s faith is that wine should not be about playing favorites, but about looking for new wine to enjoy. What’s the point of drinking the same wine over and over when there is so much still left to try?

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain wines that I like. White Burgundy is my guilty (and expensive) pleasure. Sparkling wine always makes me smile. Well-made regional wine, preferably with obscure grapes, is a huge treat. And, of course, any of my $10 wines — whether I’ve had it before or I’m tasting it for the first time — is a reason to open a bottle.

Which raises an important question that I’ve never really addressed in the blog’s three-year history: How do I decide which wines I like? What are my criteria? What makes a well-made wine? This is especially relevant given Monday’s release of the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame. It is, as always, an eclectic mix — grocery store wines, wines made with odd grapes, lots of rose, wines from small producers, and even chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. What qualities do I find that sets them apart?

The first thing to understand is that wine is subjective. Everyone’s palate is different. What I taste in a wine may not be what you taste. The second thing to understand is that there are no bad wines. If you like a wine, it’s good, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

That’s why I don’t use the words “good” and “bad” to describe wine. They’re empty adjectives and much too subjective — my interpretation of what wine should taste look, as if I was the wine tasting god and everyone had to obey my decisions. I’m also not a fan of descriptions like smooth; I’m not quite sure what that means. Water tastes “smooth,” but it’s not very wine-like. Smooth, I think, is an adjective people who drink a lot of poorly-made wine use when they find a wine that isn’t too tannic or too acidic. Too often, it’s a backhanded compliment.

Instead, I look for several other criteria:

Is the wine flawed? It is corked or oxidized or dirty or out of balance, or any of the countless faults that can creep in?

• Is it varietally correct? If it’s chardonnay, does it taste like chardonnay? This is the most difficult criteria, oddly enough, since wine styles are ever changing. What was considered pinot noir 10 years ago is not necessarily considered pinot noir today, and I have to take that into account.

• Did the winemaker accomplish what he or she wanted to do? Does the wine taste like the winemaker wanted it to taste? This is not always as easy as it seems.

• Can I appreciate the wine even if I don’t like the style? I’ve noted many times how I feel about merlot, yet a merlot made the Hall of Fame in 2009 and 2010. I was able to put my prejudices aside and taste the wine for what it was, not what I thought it should be. (Note to wine snobs: Do this the next time you drink riesling.) This is the most difficult thing to do in wine, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been drinking wine as long as I have or if you’re just starting.

• Is the wine honest? Yes, this is probably subjective, but I think it’s crucial to determining quality. Think about how many $10 red wines, regardless of producer, taste more or less the same, full of fruit and without much acid or tannin, and the cabernet tastes like merlot and the merlot tastes like shiraz. In this, they’re made to appeal to a specific demographic, and the idea was not to make quality wine, but to make adequate wine. And who needs adequate wine? Adjectives like interesting or intriguing are hallmarks of honest wine, because honest wine offers some characteristic that adequate wine doesn’t.

Because, in the end, it’s about finding wine that I like — and, hopefully, that you will too.