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Wine critic-bashing, again

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The blogger at Wine Cast (his name is Tim) had a short but provocative post yesterday, titled Course Correction. Seems he’s been reading a new book, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, by a fellow named Neal I. Rosenthal, who seems to be the New York-based owner of Rosenthal Wine Merchant (I get this from Google). Now, I don’t know anything about Rosenthal’s book beyond what Tim wrote, but he (Tim) did say Rosenthal “attack[s]…wine ratings.” Tim also includes this excerpt from the book that pinpoints Rosenthal’s attitude toward most modern wine writing:

“There is little journalism, which is to say fact findings and reporting, and virtually no effective prose; there is, however, a series of judgments backed by a sadly limited descriptive vocabulary and powered by precise scores.”

Let’s break this down.

- “There is little journalism” Well, in a 25- or 30-word wine review there’s not much room for classic journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how, how much, and so on. However, wine magazines — Wine Enthusiast and every other reputable publication I know of — also have articles into which a great deal of journalistic effort, fact finding and reporting are invested.

- “no effective prose” Says who? The wine writers I know pride themselves on being wordsmiths. True, the average wine review isn’t about to compete with a Basho haiku, but that’s not the point.

- “a series of judgments” True enough! Wine reviewing is judgment. Judgment is not a dirty word. Its synonyms are discernment, appraisal and determination. Judgment is what wine writers do.

- “sadly limited descriptive vocabulary” This is a statement of Rosenthal’s I agree with. We wine writers, as a collective community, do lack a standardized idiom for describing wine smells and tastes. To some extent this is because the English language itself is deficient in olfactory and gustatory descriptors — as opposed to visual and auditory descriptors. I suppose somebody could try to develop a standard vocabulary of tasting (and some people have; Linda Bisson’s Aroma Wheel, for instance), but it’s highly unlikely the entire community of tasters is ever going to adopt a universal language.

- “powered by precise scores” Not all critics use scores. I do, and, yes, they are precise. But I’ve always advised readers (and I can’t imagine any critic, or M.W. for that matter, not agreeing) that a score is an impression of a particular wine at a particular moment in time and one, moreover, that can be different at another time.

Anyhow, I don’t imagine that we wine critics will ever find ourselves anywhere but in the middle of the bull’s eye. I’ve learned to be comfortable there.

P.S. Please visit our other blogs at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

  1. I’m surprised here – you work for a major wine magazine and yet do not know who Neal Rosenthal is. (You had to get it from Google!?) You mean there’s not one colleague at the Wine Enthusiast who’s even mentioned this book to you? (It’s probably the most read book by wine geeks this year.) Does this also mean you’ve never heard of Kermit Lynch and his first book? Or, you’ve never drunk a wine with Rosenthal’s import label on the bottle? (Gee, try Terroir in SF to find a whole bunch of his wines.)

    Btw, it’s not “Linda Bisson’s Aroma Wheel” – it’s Ann Noble’s.

    P.S. (Here I get really snarky…) I will never visit the other WE blogs, as you’ve had this message at the end of every post for weeks now. Once was fine. Twice, well, okay. Everytime…(comment withheld).

  2. In reply to Jack’s comment: My bad on getting Prof. Bisson mixed up with Prof. Noble. Jack is correct. As for knowing who Neal Rosenthal is, I can’t know everybody in the business, and besides, I don’t actually read that many popular wine books. My preferences in reading are history and short stories.

  3. That quote seems so mercilessly generalized that it’s hard to believe the author has deeply considered writers like Prial, Asimov, Steinberger, Gaiter & Brecher.., many Brits: Jancis Robinson, Anthony Rose, Victoria Moore, Tim Atkin.. that excellent Canadian Zacharkiw, and so on in the English-speaking press.. -but wait: is someone not making the distinction between wine writers and wine critics?

    Parker, Tanzer, Meadows et al. aren’t where they are because of their prose, but willingness to cover mad distance for consumers. This is what people pay them to do, they are judges and not writers. People who want to read wine journalism don’t bother with them.

    Maybe such comments fall closest to the special group of people wearing two hats who in the employment of big magazines performing the roles of both writers and critics.

    At any rate, there could be a context to this quote that makes it seem more considered.

    BTW, I have to ask since you give the impression not knowing much about Mr. Rosenthal: Have you not seen Mondovino?

  4. Tobias, you’ve provided a great list of writers, some of whom I’m familiar with, some not. I’d like to mention that I take wine writing very seriously, in my articles as well as my books (which you can find in the “My Books” link above). As for Mr. Rosenthal, I’m starting to feel tremendously guilty not knowing who he is!! I did see Mondovino and hated it. I thought it was Gotcha! moviemaking at its worst.

  5. Well, Mr. Rosenthal wasn’t a villain in that film and received kinder editing treatment than the offered “boogie men”. In defense of Mondovino and underdogs everywhere, it may often seem that those sitting on all the money and power are so unshakeable, only dirty fighting can accomplish something.

    It’s very surprising when the big school bully starts crying because you preemptively hit him too hard.

    But Rosenthal did leave an impression his heart is in the right place about diversity in wine expression, which in principle one would think most would agree on.

    And about my abridged shortlist of fine writers, let me add that though I have not yet read any of your books, I have enjoyed several of your articles too. Wine writing doesn’t seem dying to me.

  6. Steve: Thanks for checking out my blog. As surprised as I am you don’t know who Neal Rosenthal is, let me offer a bit more context. As an importer, he’s been selecting wines from France and Italy that reflect where they come from and not some homogenized style that seems in fashion right now. In short, he’s a terroirist. His views on wine critics are quite strong but his point is well taken.

    Since the reviews on my blog are not some sort of consumer reports for wine, I’ve decided to drop the 100-point scale. I think since you, Parker, Tanzer, Meadows, Laube, etc. taste so many wines at once, such precision might work. It just doesn’t work for me anymore which was the point of my post. I’ll be expanding these thoughts more when I post my review of the book this weekend.

  7. Tobias, what I remember about Mondovino is this: That Nossiter [was that his name?] could have made a really good documentary if he’d dealt directly with the issues, which are real and substantive. But instead, he chose to do a mockumentary, where he made the people he disagrees with look like fools. That’s just not fair, or so it seems to me.

  8. One can argue that there will never be a completely satisfactory portrayal of any wine for all readers who wish guidance on what to try or buy. De gustibus non est disputandum. Where, or who, is the M.F.K. Fisher of the wine world?

  9. Jeff, there will never be another M.F.K. Fisher! But I do want to say that she was a writer I had very much in mind when I wrote “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” I don’t mean to sound shamelessly self-promotional, but it’s a lovely read.

  10. Morton Leslie says:

    It’s interesting the increase in critic bashing since the sanctioned authorities began to lose their control over the conversation. Not a lot of self examination and criticism these last two decades in any of the print media.

    Meanwhile, in a step backward, my wife bought me some cigars for my birthday based on high scores in the cigar aficionado. We will bash ‘em, we will trash ‘em, but we will always have a place for ‘em.

  11. Steve, I agree with you, Mondovino is less a documentary than a madly molded subjective rant. I have even seen the 10 part TV series on BBC (i.e. 10 hrs) and even without time restraints Nossiter excused his feature-length with, there was no real change in the way he manipulated the context. The feigned guise of journalism is what offended me the most.

    But then there are other people there who have reasons to kick themselves too. Who in their right mind gives a camera team soundbites such as, “I give my landlord higher scores”, “Languedocians are f-ing peasants”, -one man reveals admiration for Hitler..? For some of them the indignation must be in part for realizing their lack of media savvy.

    Anyway, I’d be curious to read what Rosenthal thought of Mondovino, as that is my only exposure to him, and his quote could so easily be applied to that film..

  12. Tobias, what bothered me the most about Mondovino is that Nossiter went to nice people and pretended to be doing objective reporting when his sole intent was to sabotage them. Most people outside the media don’t know how to “protect” themselves when they talk…they’re just honest and direct. People like Nossiter make them think twice about what they say to the media, which is, of course, one of the worst features of modern politics — the inability to be straightforward.

  13. Steve, I couldn’t get through Rosenthal’s book (wading through knee-deep Jello) but his wines are usually superb. And no one speaks ill of him in the biz, which is rare. He is more than one of Nossiter’s good guys, he IS a good guy.

    The distinction between wine writers and journalists is useful, although I might quibble at the terminology. At any rate, there’s a world of difference between a Parker and a Robinson (not to mention my personal guru, Hugh Johnson). May all flourish.

  14. Yes, I agree. It’s a crappy consequence of the times that anyone dealing with the media ought to have thorough PR training, or risk getting put to the pillory. It leaves very little incentive for sincerity.

    Whatever Nossiter’s intent was at the outset, he emerged from the editing room with with a dishonest product, which is maybe apparent to some and others not.

    I do think it’s interesting that despite the film’s best efforts, Parker’s straightforwardness didn’t hurt him one bit, and the vilifying backfired. Anyway, this was never going to be “the great film about the wine world”, so we’ll just have to keep waiting for that..

  15. I think you jumped the wrong direction too quickly on Neal Rosenthal’s quote. I’m kind of shocked that you did not know of him at least from Mondovino; and if you did not know him, but saw that a respected blogger deemed him quoteworthy, wouldn’t a step beyond googling him be in order?

    As for the quote itself, it is easily seen as a factual observation of what wine “journalism” has become. Simply put, anyone who actually reads about on a regular basis knows that the finest writers on wine today are not writing for the leading U.S. wine media (that is fodder for another debate another time; Wine & Spirits stands apart). In fact, the leading U.S. wine media are now wine-ratings magazines, not wine magazines. As a form, wine reviews are no more or less than “a series of judgments” and in brevity alone their “descriptive vocabulary” is necessarily “sadly limited.” As for “powered by precise scores;” have you checked the amount of page real estate consumed in current WS and WE issues by “buying guides” that absolutely no one r-e-a-d-s?

    Interestingly, your choosing to rail out against Neal Rosenthal brings up a different dilemma created by “modern” wine journalism. Which is: the current system at the glossy mags is driving so-called to become so specialized that they lose touch with the big global picture. I mean, here you are, a respected journalist whose area of responsibility — California — is so time- and palate-consuming that you do not know one of New York’s most interesting and vibrant importers. How can individuals be expected to think critically about wine overall if your real job is to stick your noses in glass after glass and come out spewing haiku-length missives and tattoo-like numbers? The “beat” system is beat.

    Remember, Steve, this is not a condemnation of what you do. You do your job well. But the system you swim in is pretty messed up. Neal Rosenthal is simply pointing out how the most prominent wine media have evolved — and it is not pretty in terms of pure prose. Think about it: when was the last time you were asked to write a real critical-thinking article? Your job has become less about providing interesting original content than it has become about feeding the machine. I, for one, would love to read your impressions of a tasting of 24 wines… 12 from Calif and 12 of Neal Rosenthal’s of European imports….

  16. >>Where, or who, is the M.F.K. Fisher of the wine world?

    Gerald Asher immediately comes to mind, although his writing days now seem to be behind him.

  17. Nossiter really screwed the Staglins. I don’t know them personally, but I know they are very charitable and have delt with some very distressing family issues. I could never imagine what it is like to have the wealth they possess or what their life experience is, but for him to distill it into a 20 second clip of them dealing with their farmworkers told me alot more about Nossiter then it did the Staglins.

  18. Those who dish out criticism should be the target of critics.

  19. Great comments, Tish!

  20. Neal is in the business of selling wine, just like wine critics and writers are in the business of selling magazines, and Nossiter is in the business of selling audiovisual media. I know Neal slightly, professionally, and I don’t always agree with him, especially when he ventures an opinion on winemaking decisions he doesn’t fully understand or have any training or experience with, e.g. filtration and fining. However, his outlook, opinions, and perceptions about wine and, yes, even winegrowing and winemaking, to some extent, are refreshing, honest, and most importantly, based on years of experience tasting thousands of wines in all phases of their lives, from juice to decrepitude. I must admit that as time goes by I find myself leaning more and more in his direction, which is the antithesis of modern corporate and pop culture winethink. Neal has a focus on individual vineyards (and the involved people, as individuals) and ostensive minimal winemaking. He has a professional persona that serves his business, but don’t confuse that with him as a person. I’m sure Neal knows personally and likes many wine critics. And I’m sure he drinks Napa wine occasionally, even if he doesn’t sell or write about it much. He’s got a story, and he’s schticking to it. One thing for sure, he has brought a lot of interesting, non-corporate wine into the U.S. for us all to enjoy drinking and learning about. You know, he is a reformed lawyer, just like Parker. He probably knows all the secret handsakes. Terroirist or not.

  21. Frank, I completely agree. He hijacked the Staglins. All they did was graciously open their home to him.

  22. I find that wine reviews rarely help me to understand how the wine will taste. The prose, descriptors and focus of reviews don’t get the job done.

    At a minimum, I’d like to know if the wine is typical for the varietal, style and region. Then, what’s unique, better, worse, etc.

    Scores are fine with me, but don’t have some funny notion that certain varietals can’t be 100 point wines.

  23. Rosenthal didn’t use the word precise correctly. Precision refers to repeatability. A precise reviewer would give the same wine the same score if reviewed multiple times. An accurate review would give the wine the correct score. Which is meaningless in wine reviews because there is no basis for accuracy. Wine reviews are subjective.

  24. Brad says, “I find that wine reviews rarely help me to understand how the wine will taste. The prose, descriptors and focus of reviews don’t get the job done.”

    I so agree, because, the prose and descriptors of a wine review, for the same wine, by multiple critics, never* matches up. (*I haven’t seen it.) Each wine critic finds (or says he finds) different things in the same wine. How is this useful.

  25. Jack, well, it’s about as useful as movie critics, who abound. I myself tended to like the movies Roger Ebert gave a thumbs up to — but not always. That doesn’t mean I rushed out to see every movie Ebert recommended, or that I never saw one he didn’t. For some reason the marketplace rewards wine reviewing. Maybe someday it won’t. The important thing is that wine remain healthy, and that Americans recognize wine as the magnificent thing it is. Which they are, by every reasonable measure.

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