keeping score

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Once in awhile, inevitably, something I do, or don’t do, or write, or didn’t write, really ticks somebody off. Believe it or not, most journalists really do want to get the facts straight, and most critics really do take their jobs seriously. I am no exception. If I make a mistake – a factual error – I want to hear about it, and I will correct it. But before launching an all-out attack on me, my work, and all I’ve ever done or ever will do, it would be useful to have some understanding of media and how it operates.

A few years ago I was startled to hear from my editor at Wine Enthusiast that a winery had contacted them to demand that a review I had written not be published. This was not a bad review. Au contraire, it was a rather glowing review of a new wine from a brand new winery. I had made an appointment, visited the winery, met the owners, tasted with the winemaker, and made it very clear I was there on business. Yet somehow, they were under the impression that their wines were not going to be reviewed (why I still don’t know).

About a year ago, I received some flaming hate mail from a different winery owner whose wines I’d been reviewing for at least a decade. His complaint? I had compared wine A with wine B (both his), and stated that I preferred the less expensive wine. Both received good reviews and scores, both were sent at the same time by the same winery. Yet somehow, he felt it was unfair for me to compare them. As if a consumer wouldn’t do the same?

Last week, I was called out on Twitter by name by another winery with whom I’ve had a long term (and heretofore cordial) relationship. I was accused of “violating our trust” and doing myself “a great disservice.” My crime? I reviewed their recent releases in Wine Enthusiast, with scores. This particular winery does not like or believe in wine scoring. As anyone who has read my book, my blog, or followed my newspaper columns over the years surely must know, I do not think that scoring wines is the only way, or necessarily the best way, to evaluate them. Nonetheless it happens to be a useful, commonplace, widely-accepted practice. Rare is the wine shop that does not post scores somewhere in its inventory. The vast majority of wholesalers, distributors, importers and retailers – not to mention wineries – actively seek and promote their scores on websites, in print, and in marketing materials.

Here is the crux of the “to score or not to score” question. Like it or not, the option to critique, to score or not to score wines belongs to the reviewer, not to the winery. Any product, service, performance or work of art that is offered for sale in the public marketplace is de facto up for review. When I put out a book, I do not get to tell the reviewers when, if, how or what they can say about it. Actors and directors cannot instruct movie critics to ignore their work because they don’t like the “two thumbs up” system.

As a courtesy, and with all due respect, I have on occasion agreed not to score wines from those rare wineries who wish to opt out. In this instance, the winery principals gave conflicting messages to me about scoring/not scoring. But the real issue is this – who makes that decision? And the real answer is – me. You may not like it, but if I want to review and score your wine, it is entirely my prerogative, and perfectly legal and ethical to do so. I see now that by extending what I felt was a courtesy, it was mistaken for a right. Not so. That is not how media works. I hope this clears the air. And a final thought: when Harvey Steiman, Steve Tanzer, Jay Miller and I are all dust, I suspect there will still be scores and scorers.

8 comments:

Chris said...

100

Plymale said...

"There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary."

- Brendan Behan
Irish author & dramatist (1923 - 1964)

Anonymous said...

Goodness, a wine Critic that does'nt critique? Let the corks fall ...

Mark K said...

I give it a 92, good beat and easy to dance to.

Wayne K. said...

Neither arrogance nor a thin skin are attractive qualities, and both are on display in this article. Dissapointing, considering previous efforts from this writer. I give this article 76 points.

Dave Domanski said...

Just because wine shops and distributors seek out scores doesn't mean it's right. It's your job to give your opinion, and I think it's pretty hypocritical to call someone out for their opinion--disagreeing with you/the scoring system. And for the record, there are plenty of distributors and wine shops out there that abhor scores too. Like it or not, people have the right to disagree with you. You should be used to that by now...

Anonymous said...

I don't think some of these folks are reading the post correctly...

PaulG said...

Of course people have the right to disagree with me. I have no problem with that. But disagreement is quite different from personal attacks on my credibility and journalistic integrity.

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