death to critics!

Monday, December 20, 2010

I am, by trade, a wine critic. In my own account, I am also a journalist, an educator, a historian, an editor, above all, a chronicler of a fascinating place and time in the evolution of the global wine industry. But to most readers I am a critic, because I am privileged to work for a publication that reviews wines using the 100 point scale.

Has any critical yardstick in any medium on any topic ever been more reviled?

This past weekend, while signing books at West Seattle Cellars, I struck up a conversation with a reader who introduced himself by noting that he had been eager to meet me in person because he had often found himself defending me. I thanked him, of course, and we went on to talk of other matters, but I can’t help but wish I could overhear a conversation in which a defender of Gregutt takes on someone who says that Gregutt guy has more bungholes than a used barrel.

The next day I was cruising through some unfamiliar wine blogs and came across a diatribe by a writer unknown to me, who took it upon himself to bemoan the fact that the wine industry is in thrall to the evil critics, or, as he stated it, “a handful of palates so control the Washington wine industry.”

You may or may not agree with the veracity of that remark. I will say that in my 25 years of chronicling the Washington wine industry, I have seen it massively influenced by breakthroughs in vineyard research, by advances in winemaking technology, by the introduction of new clones, by vastly improved educational resources focused on the particular terroir of this state, and by consumer trends. I have seen individual wineries succeed or fail based upon the quality of their wines, and the effectiveness of their business plans, their marketing efforts, and their pricing.

What I have not seen, because it is a straw man, and does not exist, is the “handful of palates” that allegedly “control” the Washington wine industry. In fact, to believe such nonsense is to suggest that winemakers are robotic fools who chase scores rather than learning their craft and doing everything possible to make the best wine they can according to their own individual standards.

The endless and relentless bashing of critics is neatly counterpointed by the industry’s excessive reliance on scores to promote the sales of wines. Open almost any distributor’s catalog, or look through almost any winery website, and you will find an abundance of positive reviews, with scores, touting their wines.

Are the critics posting those scores? Are the critics paying to buy advertisements trumpeting those scores? Does a critic earn one red cent from the sales of wines that benefit from his or her scores? No, no, and no.

So yes, let’s all hail the death of critics, that happy day when every consumer is brimming with confident knowledge and pays no attention to scores; when the Washington wine industry (and every other wine region’s industry) is no longer shackled by the whims and fancies of the Press, those Grim Controllers whose scores rule the world. O such joy when the day dawns when someone writes a positive review in praise of a wine for its balance, depth, detail, finesse, and attention to craft; a wine that is not jammy, oaky or high in alcohol. Oh blessed day, when we can all drink the wines we choose, regardless of scores, freed at last from the despotic grip of the Critics!


1winedude said...

May all of our kind rot in hell!!!


Marlene Rossman said...

But we should all have a glass of great WA State wine in our hands!

Anonymous said...

Not Just for Washington State wines, but for all wines in general, critics like those from Spectator and Robert Parker have certainly had an impact on how wines are made. Are you really suggesting that the power of these scores are coming from the distributors who post these scores in their catalog? Really, you think they are that forward thinking that they started doing this from the beginning? Or was it because retailers were starting to ask their sales reps for these high scoring wines because that's what was requested by their customers(you know, the ones reading these publications)? NO, NO, and YES. I am NOT saying that the world should be rid of wine critics, in fact they are necessary. However there seems to be a laziness in the writing. There is such a narrow view for each wine when reviewed. In some cases as with Spectator you don't even get a review if its below a certain score, so you are simply given a number(HOW LAZY IS THAT?) When I read a review that goes something like...reliable, dependable and uninspiring...I find myself thinking WTF does that mean? I know that with wine critics(and let me just say that anyone who drinks wine is a critic for their own palate) they are coming from a passionate love of this juice, and that's all that matters I guess. Because, if the critics scores impact how a wine sells (and it does), it's certainly not their fault, but I would like to see more of an effort to review a wine not only for it's individual merit but also for its merit within different contexts.

Anonymous said...

Wine Trials 2011 seems to make a good point when they challenge critics to use true blind tests more. RobLL

Justin said...

Hi Paul!

First of all, you failed to cite my blog, which you quoted, so let me rectify that:

Second of all, you took the quote from my "diatribe" out of context. Allow me to post the entire paragraph (out of a post about Cayuse's Bionic Frog):

"Whether or not the wines justify their hype is a completely different question, and I think a difficult one. A lot of what makes Cayuse so appealing to many of its consumers is the press. This is for me a bit of an irritation and also a paradox. I despise the fact that a handful of palates so control the Washington wine industry, especially when those palates are so skewed in favor of ultra-rich wines- as is the case with The Wine Advocate's Jay Miller, for instance. I also think that these scores being the be-all-end-all for so many consumers pushes other producers to produce wines in this style, thusly reducing the diversity of the Washington wine scene and forcing producers to make wines that they perhaps might not even like themselves. At the same time, high Washington scores bring the state further into the consciousness of drinkers around the country and around the world, and that is a stated goal of mine. "

You'll notice that I was bemoaning the reliance of consumers on the palates of so few more than anything else. You cannot deny that The Wine Spectator and Advocate have heavy, heavy influence on the buying decisions of wine consumers globally, and that so therefore the opinions of a handful of reviewers affect the sales of Washington wines profoundly.

Obviously this is a sore subject for you; noone likes to be criticized for doing their job. But surely you can see my point: the tasting notes from one person on one day of one bottle of wine should not be the ultimate judgement of a winery, winemaker or wine. Wines made in a style that is flashy and immediately expressive will invariably show better in a whirlwind tasting of many wines than one that is reserved, tight, or just not showing well that day.

At the end of the day, the post was describing my experience with a wine (which I liked), and my comments on the wine press were meant to expound on the nature of that wine and its place within the wine industry.

Thanks for reading, Paul. Feel free to leave a comment next time.

Chris said...

"Are the critics posting those scores? Are the critics paying to buy advertisements trumpeting those scores? Does a critic earn one red cent from the sales of wines that benefit from his or her scores? No, no, and no."

I don't think I'm taking it out of context too much to say the answers here might be Yes, Yes, and Yes.

No, you don't post the scores on the distributer literature, but you do post the scores. Isn't that the whole point? That the scores then get used to compare one wine to another by some metric beside price? What's a distributer or sales outlet or winery supposed to do with the scores if not post them?

No, you don't buy advertising to trumpet your scores, but the magazines where your scores are trumpeted are certainly supported by advertising.

Finally, no you don't directly earn money from a specific wine sale, but without those sales how would you get paid? It doesn't really take too much abstract thought to make the connection between wine sales of WA wines and your income, does it?

I don't bash critics too much I don't think, but the martyr act gets old. Own what you are and tell people to shove it, but don't expect sympathy from me because you've spent the past 25 years earning your income drinking wine.

Merry Christmas Paul!

Alfonso Cevola said...


Yes there were those in the distribution side 20+ years ago, using reviews (and sometimes ratings) to move the wine business forward. I was there. I know it's hard to believe...

Now it seems a bit trite to rely solely on the experts. because of the interconnectedness we all have grown so comfortable with.

The wine business is evolving, thankfully

PaulG said...

OK then! Where to begin...
Justin – I meant no disrespect. All too often Blog Wars get started when a simple point turns into a flameout. So my first impulse was to keep your comments anonymous. Since you prefer to bring the whole post up, let me just reiterate that yes it's a "sore subject" with me because I have spent 25 years writing exactly the sort of reviews that you and so many others bemoan the lack of. I get criticized for the excesses of publications for whom I do not work, yet rarely acknowledged for all the times I have diligently written about wines that are off the radar, undervalued, given so-so scores by others. So yes, it rubs me a little bit the wrong way.
Chris - I take your point to be that because I earn a living as a writer/journalist who also reviews and scores wine, I am somehow beholden to wine sales. Not true. Every magazine in the world depends upon advertising to support itself. So what? And please give me a break - this post was no "martyr act." It was an opinion expressed forcibly and you have done nothing to refute it. Accusing me of being a martyr is a cheap and pointless shot.
Alfonso - even a casual look thru the emails and catalogs (pick any day of the year) will prove that the selling of scores continues unabated. And it is the distributors and retailers who push the scores in front of the great masses of wine buyers. Wine drinkers who care enough about the subject to actually purchase and read the trade mags probably don't need scores to decide what they actually want to drink. I know I don't use scores to purchase the wines I purchase.

Chris said...

My point wasn't that you are beholding to wines sales, but that your income is a not-so-indirect result of same. People buy wine, in part based on critics opinons, critics are paid to review the wines that get sold. Higher the score, higher the price of the wine, the more influence of the critics, the more they get rewarded.

I don't begrudge that at all so my aplogies for using the word martyr.

PaulG said...

Apology accepted. And just to make a final point - when you write "don't expect sympathy from me because you've spent the past 25 years earning your income drinking wine" it suggests that 1) I'm looking for sympathy, which I am not. I am looking for respect, yes, and I hope that readers will make the effort to accurately interpret what I am trying to say, as clearly as I can. And 2) the notion that I've spent 25 years earning a living drinking wine is both demeaning and inaccurate. For most of those years I held a full-time, non-wine related job. And I do not get paid to drink wine. Any actual wine drinking is done on my own dollar and my own time. The work of wine writing involves a lot of unpaid and low-paid drudgery. That is not a complaint, not a plea for sympathy; it's a simple statement of truth.

Chris said...

Not sure if my comment got eaten, so my apologies if this is redundant.

My point is that your income, in my opinion, does come indirectly from wine sales.

No different, in my mind, than a sports writer earning their income from ticket or hot dog sales, or a music journalist earning income from record or box office sales.

Sorry for the use of the word martyr.

Chris said...

I did not intend my comment about drinking wine to earn money to at all be demeaning. I'm envious of that aspect, I guess I should have written taste and write about wine. I realize you write, very well in my opinion, and that earns your paycheck. So sorry too for any inferral to the contrary.

Todd said...

The public demands scores, so scores will continue to be published. I find the scores a distraction and I think I've always enjoyed Paul's Seattle Times column because it is a more personal review than the 30 or so words that are attached to a score. But the Times column can only look at a few dozen wines per year and doesn't attract a nationwide readership.
I'm always puzzled when I read what sounds like a rave review for a wine that receives 86 points. Sometimes the text doesn't comport with the score.
The idea that the taste makers have a homogeneous palate isn't necessarily true, although I suppose some winemakers can target certain critics' palates. This might explain why, for example, Marcassin's 2005 Three Sisters Vineyard received a 94 from Parker and a 76 from Burghound. (These two publications frequently seem to have a wide disparity - forgive me for using a California example.) The point is that the readers can find a critic they tend to agree with and then rely on him
or her for guidance. If there is an audience that prefers, e.g., lower viscosity syrah, a critic will appear and rise to prominence. I'm in Oregon, and I frequently notice wide ranges in the marks between Spectator and Enthusiast on Oregon pinot noir (even for my wine).
Still, I respect the critics - it really is a tough job and I think they are very aware of the impact their reviews can have on a winery. To be successful, a critic must be prolific. It would be an easy gig if you could review 60 wines per year. But when that number hits four digits it must get pretty brutal.

PaulG said...

Well put. I intentionally omit scores from the newspaper columns. You are right about the occasional disparity between the language of the review and the score. It is something I have to keep in mind at all times. Writing upwards of 2000 reviews a year and trying to keep them fresh, honest, accurate, and non-repetitive is really, really difficult. I'm curious about the different scores you are seeing on OR wines. I don't always see Harvey's reviews, but I know he and I differ on at least some of the high profile properties. You are right – there is no one who is absolutely "right" – but a good reviewer will be consistent, and that consistency is what enables readers to find a palate that resonates with their own. Which is one of the reasons I do not like reviews by panels, or wine judgings. A blend of (often incompatible) palates means the review/score will trend toward the middle - the classic 87. Which doesn't really tell you much about the wine.

Justin said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm not looking for a flame war, but do like to be cited when I'm quoted.

While I can commiserate with you about being under-appreciated for the good work that you do (which I personally do appreciate; hell, I have a signed copy of your book) I think that in large part the reliance of wine buyers on the 100 point system leads to that very under-appreciation. Frankly, for many people a numeric grade speaks louder than a thousand words of effusive praise.

When you say that "wine drinkers who care enough about the subject to actually purchase and read the trade mags probably don't need scores to decide what they actually want to drink," I must beg to differ. There are gross numbers of consumers who rely almost solely on those numbers, or "won't buy anything less than a 90 point wine." I think that for these people the number itself is an assurance of quality; in their mind it ensures that they are getting the best possible bang for their ever-stretched buck. Not all wine drinkers are this way, but in a world where everyone wants to be savvy but doesn't necessarily have the time to do the research necessary to make an informed decision, the 100-point system offers them a quick and easy way to purchase something that they feel they can have confidence in.

I ramble, but am narrowing in on my point. The 100-point grading system is an exercise in reductionism; it takes all the words of praise, criticism, and thoughtful reflection that a wine writer can put into a review and reduces it to a quantitative analysis of something (wine) that is in essence not quantifiable. When there is careful and considerate reasoning behind the score that might not be so bad, but when a reviewer flies into a region, spends two weeks there, and spits out (no pun intended) 810 reviews as a result, one has to wonder about the quality of the journalism involved.

I am, of course, talking about The Wine Advocate's Jay Miller (whom I was talking about in that original Cayuse review as well). This sort of thing is in my mind not only sloppy journalism, but detrimental to the wine industry in general; many an undeserving 89 point score has led to poor sales for a winery. However, these scores are given undue gravitas by wine collectors globally- Quilceda Creek will forever be known as the 100 point Washington wine.

I don't mean to hijack your blog, but it's a subject to which I've given a lot of thought. I don't necessarily have any answers; the public demands scores, wineries with high scores tout them, retailers and distributors use them to move product, and wine publications get publicity from them. As they say, it is what it is.

There is a (I think natural) backlash to this trend from those who see it as damaging to the industry. Let me point out, however, that not all of us are militant about it, and certainly not all of us are crying "death to critics!"

Or at least, not death to ALL of them.

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