critical mess

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Anyone who is a critic must, on occasion, criticize. If you only praise, you perhaps make a lot of shallow friendships, but you do not perform any sort of valuable function. You are, in effect, an unpaid PR person. There are many flavors of critic, and the specific tone and temperament of any one individual depends upon their medium, their personality, their influence, their ability, and their topic. My topic these days is wine, and I am something of a rarity – a full-time wine reviewer with a genuine background in journalism and media that encompasses far more than wine and wine writing.

So I take the job seriously, and do my best to make my contributions valuable. Along the way, inevitably, some feelings get hurt, some words are taken the wrong way, or out of context, and much well-intentioned criticism is ignored or discounted. So be it.

On one occasion a few years ago I received samples of four wines from a new Washington winery, tasted through them, and found them to be remarkably bad. I mean awful. These were horrible wines. As is my usual practice, I made some notes for reference and did not publish any reviews. Some weeks later I received a call from the winemaker. How were the wines? he wanted to know. I spoke the truth – I found them seriously flawed. Undrinkable really. Oh no, can’t be, he said, people love these wines. You must have gotten a bad bottle. I’ll send them again.

Well, since it was a new winery, I agreed to try again. New samples arrived – three bottles each of the four wines. I should also mention that these were not cheap wines – they were very ambitiously priced, especially considering this was the first release from the winery. I tasted through them again. Same results. Not just mediocre; these were wines with flavors like insect repellent, and odors that you might associate with Home Depot. I called in some knowledgeable friends to see what they thought. Same reaction. I offered the wines for cooking purposes to a friend who is a chef, and he turned them down.

Again the winemaker phoned me. Again I had to say, these wines have serious issues. I strongly urge you to have them tested at a lab and get a professional consultant to help you determine what went wrong. And again, I published not a word about the wines or the winery. I never heard from them again.

On other occasions, when a wine is reviewed and scored in the mid-range, say 85 – 87, it’s not unexpected that a winemaker may feel a little bruised. I understand. I’ve had plenty of work handed back to me by editors who didn’t immediately appreciate the brilliance of my prose. But most winemakers and PR people will reach out, ask questions, and initiate a further dialogue. Only occasionally will someone simply cut me off forever. But the truly rare event is when I have lavished praise on a wine and still get flamed. Which happened just a couple of weeks ago.

Out of nowhere, on an otherwise pleasant Sunday, came this e-mail (I have deleted specific references to the wine and winery, but I have not changed another word):

“I read with less than some amusement your rating of our [wine #1]. Your Walla Walla biases are well known within the industry but your mean spiritedness is finally showing. The only reason I can think of why you editorialized the wine with [wine #2] is that you’re getting even for me not coming to Waitsburg and worshipping at your feet.

“I finally have to agree with most people outside Walla Walla: you are really a self serving ego maniac and worthless to our industry. I am tossing all your books from our tasting room as an insult back. But it really isn’t much of an insult because no one bothered buying any anyway.”

OK then. My first thought was, what on earth did I write that was so horribly negative? I checked the review. In fact, the wine received a very good score and positive words. I did compare it briefly to a second wine, part of the same group sent from the same winery at the same time; I do it all the time, just as a movie reviewer might compare the work of an actor or director to preview efforts. Nowhere was there any disrespectful or (from my point of view) damaging criticism. Here is an excerpt from my reply to the winemaker:

“I must confess some amazement at this e-mail. Apart from the vicious personal attack it contains, I have to say it's the first time in my 20+ years as a reviewer that anyone has complained about a [xx] point rating. Of course you are under no obligation to buy, sell or promote my book. It has sold quite well in fact, and will be updated in the coming year. My "biases" seem to be well known among winemakers who think of me only as unpaid PR rather than as a thoughtful, educated critic. The fact that I invite many winemakers into my home is a gesture of respect for their craft, their intelligence, their dedication. Believe me, it would be a LOT easier just to do what most critics do and sit down with 100+ wines a day without regard to the story behind them. I am sorry to hear that "most people outside of Walla Walla" think of me as "a self-serving egomaniac and worthless to our industry." I can assure you that neither my ego nor my bank account benefit from this work.”

More back and forth e-mails ensued, with me attempting to explain how I view the role of a critic: “A reviewer, which is what I am, often compares things. When there is a release of multiple wines from a single winery, it is not unfair to compare them in terms of quality and value. That is what a reviewer does, whether the subject is wine, books, movies, or baseball teams. How I come across to people is out of my control. I do what I do to the best of my ability.”

We finally reached a truce of sorts, but the exchange was instructive, at least to me, as it showed just how difficult it can be to communicate even kind words, and friendly criticism, when someone’s life work and business is the topic. An interesting postscript: it was only a few days later that a different winemaker, speaking in strict confidence with a tear in his eye, told me that had it not been for my very positive reviews of his new wines a year or two ago, he would be out of business today.

Any critic must have a thick hide, and mine is pretty tough. But personal attacks are not my style, never have been, and don’t advance the understanding or dialogue on either side. There will, of course, always be wines that I honestly feel are not deserving of praise; in those instances I really try to tread lightly. But a critic, as I said, must occasionally criticize. When I do so it is intended to be honest, informed feedback. The same as any coach might give an athlete, any editor might give a writer, any expert in any field might offer to someone who is interested in improving their work. When you offer a product for public consumption in a highly competitive field, you are inviting a reviewer to review it. Bottom line – I work for the consumer, not the wineries.


wawineman said...

Mister G, it is your responsibility to guide us through your discoveries in the ever broadening wine landscape, with a focus on Washington wines. With your many decades of tasting experience, witnessing and chronicling the re-birth of the Washington wine industry, combined with your formal journalistic training, you carry both the leadership (and burden) of critiquing the end products in this region.
Quality criticism is essential to improvement in any field of endeavour. Those who cannot handle critical comments will never become long-term legitimate "players".

Are you the final word? No. Of course not. The consumer is. Again, your duty is to guide educate us, the reader, through the maze of look-alike bottles that await us at our favorite stores. If a wine smells and tastes like paint thinner, then we need to know that. Especially, after a second tasting. Those who look at your work over a period of time (at least I do) will understand the words and impressions that you are intending to convey. That's the magic of the written word and the artistry of the writer. And, might I say, you paint a polychromatic on canvas that a Peter Maxx would admire.

Keep on truckin'...

PaulG said...

Very kind words, and very much appreciated!

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