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Fraudulent reviews have no place in professional wine writing!

89 comments

I don’t often express outrage on this blog, but reading this made my jaw drop and my eyes bulge in sheer consternation: Jamie Oliver’s Australian wine expert has defended himself against criticism for not tasting some of the vintages he recommends.

Seems that Matt Skinner, the Australian wine “expert” who runs the wine operations for celebrity chef Oliver’s Australian restaurants, rated certain wines he never tasted, in his annual guide to wine, “The Juice.”

On “The Juice”’s webpage Skinner describes it as “a beginners guide to wine – a guide that is designed to inspire and encourage those that know little about the subject to feel more confident, more knowledgeable, and more enthusiastic about wine.”

Well, I don’t know how “confident” his readers will feel when they find out they’re reading reviews of wines Skinner never tasted.

(Skinner also has reviewed wine and restaurants for periodicals including GQ Australia, and Gourmet Traveler Wine.)

The original report that Skinner had not tasted all the wines he reviewed appeared in an Australian publication, according to Decanter. Decanter.com, on Nov. 13, wrote that Skinner “has admitted to not tasting several wines that he recommends in his latest book.” After the scandal broke, Skinner defended himself on his website, explaining that “It is imperative that I taste all the wines that I recommend however [sic] there are some releases that are consistent from year to year, and as popular, good value and accessible wines I want to include them because I know that my readers will appreciate them.” In other words, Skinner made the decision that just because a particular wine performed well for several years in a row, he can recommend that his readers buy it for the new vintage, which he hasn’t yet tasted!

Mitchell Beazley, the publisher of The Juice 2010, also issued a statement on Skinner’s website in response to the brouhaha. “One small category of wine in Matt’s selection regularly comprises wines which he rates worthwhile buying and drinking as soon as the most recent vintage comes on to the market. For these few wines, Matt’s [sic] has always based his recommendations on the qualities a particular wine has regularly achieved.” In other words, Skinner reviews — or let us more accurately say previews — wines of the new vintage, which he hasn’t tasted, so that his readers can rush out to buy them before they sell out.

Besides, Beazley is saying, Skinner only does this for a “few wines” in “a small category,” so it’s not like he’s committing massive fraud.

Look, here’s the truth. Just because a winery has a track record of excellence doesn’t mean it can’t make a dog. A wine critic simply is not allowed to review a wine he hasn’t tried!!! It’s irresponsible to the highest degree. This insults my profession and feeds into the perception that we’re all sleazebags. Skinner could have written, in a transparent way, “Here are some wines I haven’t had yet, but they always perform well, so I can recommend them.” But apparently (Decanter again) he didn’t.

I can’t conceive of myself writing about a wine I haven’t had. It’s just beyond the pale. I can’t imagine what Skinner was thinking, or how Mitchell Beazley thinks they can blow this off by calling it a “few wines” in “a small category.” That’s like saying to the police, “I only stole one Rembrandt from the museum, not the whole collection, so let me off.”

There is one implication to be had here, and that concerns the reputation and quality of annual handbooks on wine. I have always had concerns that some of them, like Hugh Johnson’s, are cranked out like cans of soup, rather than thoughtfully re-written each year. And I can tell you, personally, that I was asked to write the California section on one very well-known pocket guide published under the name of a famous wine writer. When I asked to be given written credit as a contributing editor (he was going to pay me anyway), the famous wine writer summarily fired me. (This was about six years ago.) His pocket guide went out under his name, misleading readers into thinking he’d written the actual reviews when I knew for a fact he hadn’t. Now Skinner’s annual guide casts further doubt on the accuracy of these annual guides. I won’t go so far as to say Skinner should lose his job. But he, and Beazley, need to come up with something more heartfelt and confessional to explain this egregious lapse of ethical standards.

  1. Sue,

    They may call it quality, but as a food scientist you must know that quality is something that is measured to an established standard.

    Most wine critics work from no universal standard. Their “quality” is strictly personal. Mostly, they pass judgment based not on winemaking achievement but on winemaking achievement as it pleases their sensibilities. This is not the same thing as evaluating wine for its merits.

    Originally, wine judging (the one that gives medals as awards) was established to recognize meritorious production achievement–it was geared toward an established standard and it was expressed through the 20-point scoring system that was established in part by Maynard Amerine at UC Davis. Over time, however, the concept of meritorious production achievement was lost in the promotional hype and now meritorious production judging is lumped in with what wine critics do in their evaluations and the 20-point scale, which was not perfect but was more tuned into technical achievement, has been relegated to the sidelines by the even less perfect 100-point scale that in its hedonism says nothing about particular attributes but instead provides a list of vague concepts that merit a certain score.

    The 100-point scale has absolutely no established measurable standard assigned to it.

  2. Tom

    The Davis 20 point system is useless as a measure of enjoyment. You might drink wine for technical merit. I drink it because I enjoy it.

    I tasted wine with Maynard Amerine a couple of times in the kinds of large tastings I no longer attend. He was not judging wines in those settings according to the Davis system. He acknowledged that it was developed to measure ordinary wines for flaws and the absence thereof.

    I would be very surprised if you think every wine with good color, clean aromas, acceptable acidity and balance and no discernable flavor flaws to be the measures by which you choose your wine or your food.

    And I would be even more surprised if those were the standards that the millions of people who read about wine would want me or any other critic to apply.

  3. Thomas,

    Since you are passionate about this topic, you may be interested to read the chapter I have just written entitled “Sensory Quality Control in the Wine Industry.” In D. Kilcast (ed.), Sensory Analysis for Food and Beverage Control: A Practical Guide. Woodhead Publishing, to be published this year.

  4. I’ll look for it, Sue. You can email your chapter if you like.

    As you can see from Charlie’s last post, he is not concerned with wine quality only with wine enjoyment, which taken to its most absurd level could very well mean that if he as a reviewer enjoys swill, then he will give swill high scores.

    Yet, reviewers (trained or untrained) claim that their palates are endowed with the talent to identify quality, The problem is: it’s their version of quality that they identify, not a codified standard of quality. To a degree, the word quality is now weak and misused.

    Just recently, a reviewer was taken to task for giving a certain wine 56 points, a wine that has in the past been routinely rated highly. His reasoning for the low rating: he doesn’t like oak. With no standard to regulate the use or lack of use of oak, the guy has a perfectly reasonable position. But if his readers like oak, then they should cancel their subscriptions to his newsletter.

    Charlie’s responses are the ultimate in wine reviewing hedonism. Again, nothing wrong with that, so long as your hedonism agrees with his.

    Where reviewers pull the disingenuous out of their hats is when they lead the consumer to believe that the number rating is tied to anything more than the reviewer’s level of enjoyment. The words already specify that level–the numbers are an attempt to make it appear universal.

  5. So Thomas, what you object to is the number attached to a review? That’s fine, but what is the alternative for communicating in a practical and time-efficient way how a wine reviewer judges quality?

    I’m a producer; I am not overly fond of having the product that I spend a great deal of time with and passion on reduced to a couple of digits. I am realistic enough to know, though, that consumers want information, consumers want help, and consumers have a limited amount of time to research wines as they are running from work to the grocery store to the kitchen.

    I agree with your thoughts on the double-blind tasting as a way of removing variables and associations and preconceived expectations about a wine. But I am having trouble with understanding your notions of “quality.” What makes a wine of high quality?

    I think the idea of a codified standard of quality is, at best, wishful thinking. Who creates the code? How long is the code valid? Does the code take in account the differences between cool climate and warm climate Syrah?; Livermore Valley Cabernet and Howell Mountain Cab?; wines produced before 1990 and those after? If the code is based only upon the numbers…TA, pH, VA, Alcohol, for example, you have a way of identifying the framework of something, but all the beauty and magic have been sucked out.

    My father and I have different ideas about what makes a Cabernet great. All of our “standards” are based upon our individual tasting experience; likes and dislikes. Assuming a wine doesn’t have flaws (where in the Brett spectrum does a wine with interesting aroma become flawed?), how can one ever hope to codify all the differences inherent in two individual tasters of different backgrounds and ages into some consistent, meaningful, measurable framework that can be easily transmitted to millions of wine drinkers, each with his and her own set of prejudices and experiences?

  6. Steven Mirassou has made some important points in this thoughtful comment.

  7. Steve,

    Your points are right-on. It is indeed a problem to figure out how to establish standards of quality–I assume that every product industry must face this issue. But that does not preclude trying, and however quality is established it can only be measured through some agreed upon standard or else, well, it has no meaning.

    I don’t see how creating cult leaders in the form of wine reviewers or critics tackles the problem. If you agree with one critic’s palate, you defend it to the end. If you disagree with a critic’s palate, he or she is either a charlatan or an idiot. Where’s the quality measure in that?

    It’s easy to create this kind of climate when each and every critic speaks from his or her personal idea of “quality,” which Charlie has made into “enjoyment.” But as I said then, they are not the same thing.

    I feel for you, Steve. When I operated my small winery, I didn’t know which way to turn on this issue: a critic with the palate of a hamster could break my latest release. On the other hand, a critic with a heightened sense of quality would recognize my stellar offering and bring me to rich rewards. Or better still, avoid all critics and sell directly to the critic that really matters: the consumer who pays for the wine.

    My generally contrarian nature tells me that the smaller the winery, the better off it is to go directly to the consumer (which will be more possible after Tom Wark wins his crusade…) Why give one or two people the power to move or stall your product or brand?

    The reason I object to critics having that power is because the general consumer has been led to believe that their scores actually relate to levels of quality–even Sue, a food scientist was under that impression.

    When you get right down to it, a critic’s evaluation is a personal opinion. I don’t place much value in experiential evaluation–someone who likes bad wine can like it for twenty years, but it will still be bad wine. I want the evaluation to have some basis in technical knowledge. I’ve tasted many wines that certain critics have catapulted to cult status but those wines often come with some truly offensive technical flaws–twice I watched one of them ferment on a retail store shelf!

    The wine opinions of critics will always find consumers who agree with them and consumers who don’t. Let’s not give this phenomenon any more credit than it deserves.

  8. @ Steven Mirassou

    Re: your comments in paragraph 4

    The standards should be region-specific. This is what Appellation America attempted with the Best of Appellation program: identify the range of styles as a foundation for benchmarks of regional typicity. From there you can move on to look at what is sub-par, what is superb and what is atypical. Thus, a Livermore Valley Cabernet should never be judged in the same category as a Howell Mountain Cabernet. Nor should a Sonoma Syrah be judged along with a Paso Robles Syrah.

    People tend to aggregate to two major camps here: lumpers and splitters. The lumpers can range from those that think all CA Pinot Noir should be judged against a singular standard to those that only want to delineate cool and warm climate Syrah.

    For the sake of the average consumer, we have to have both sets of categories, with the simpler breakdown supervening the more detailed one. I have no problem with “Cool”, “Intermediate” and “Warm” climate Syrah categories being defined (and yes, there are some clear commonalities of styles originating from those types of climates). But a Paso Robles Syrah is very different from a Happy Canyon Syrah (never mind that east and west Paso Syrahs differ as well). And so for the sake of the more advanced enthusiast, a more regional standard should exist (as a more parceled set of categories): Santa Lucia Highalnds Syrah, Santa Maria valley Syrah, Satna Ynez Valley Syrah, etc. As much some us bemoan sameness, even when made to fit a specific style, the Syrahs of these different regions do have some commonality of character.

    There are real, appreciable organoleptic hallmarks of regional wines. Why not approach them as what they are – sensory findings that indicate something about the origin, evolution and quality of the wine at hand?

    Romance is nice. Mystique is nice. Magic is an illusion. Wine evaluation is consumer product assessment. The reviewer/evaluator owes it to the consumers who buy wines (and collectively spent how many millions on wine last year?) to tell them how a wine fits/ranks in the context of its variety and how it ranks in the context of style or climate and then its local AVA. This is actually good for the producers as well: it doesn’t penalize styles or regions that may not be the reviewer’s favorites. It also promotes region’s style and, in a way, validates it.

    Whenever I see arguments like the one in your last paragraph, I cannot help but see them as deflective. There is no reason to be afraid of regional typicity-based standards of quality. These standards would not be based in what you, your father, or I *think* quality should be (or on what we *prefer*), but on a group of skilled organoleptic evaluators describing the characteristics of a given region’s wines. Out of this, some commonality of character would have to be sifted out. Gradations of quality would be rooted in an understanding of how varietal character expresses in a given region and how elevage affects that expression.

    There is no reason why this could not be re-assessed periodically.

    This is completely doable but it is not by any means something you can accomplish in a 1-hour meeting.

  9. @Steven Mirassou. Your father’s ideas about Cabernet and mine also do not agree.

    @ Tom P. If I recommend swill to my readers, I will have no readers. They pay me to tell them what it is that turns out to be preferred in our blind tastings and why. They do not and would not pay me to tell them that a Cabernet conforms to a rigid, specified set of measureable standards. They want to know what the wine smells like, how it feels on the palate, what it tastes like, how it is balanced, how it finishes, what kinds of food does it go with and, yes, how much I like it.

    Steven Mirassou, the younger, has within the last few days had the same discussion about CS standards with me as he has had here. There is not even a possible standard for West Rutherford Bench Cabernet because Hewitt does not taste like and is not structured like Corison and neither of them is like Mondavi Reserve, which in 2006 is a fine wine, but not like the 2005.

    This notion of scientific precision is exactly what wine drinkers do not want. And Arthur is equally wide of the mark, in my opinion, in that his “gradations of quality rooted in a defined standard for an area” has nothing to do with how much the wine will be enjoyed. The wines mentioned above would possibly meet some standards and not others, but so what. Do all Bordeaux taste alike? Do all Paulliacs taste alike?

    And let’s make this harder. Given what is happening on the Right Bank in Bordeaux, one cannot give high quality marks to Angelus and Pavie-Macquin if one is giving high quality marks to Clos Fourtet because the makers have adopted different styles.

    So, Arthur wants standards of typicity set by a group of wise men. OK. Such standards exist but are not codified. I am willing to bet that my definition of RRV Pinot from Westside Road is not very different from Steve Tanzers or Alan Meadows or Greg Walters or Bob Cabral or Tom Rochioli. The reason for that is that we all have “knowledge” based on experience, and while there is codified reason why we agree, the chances are that we do agree. And a similar group of wise men also agree generally about West Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignons. I wrote about that issue thirty years ago, and I came up with that notion because I had learned from others like Barney Rhodes, Laurie Wood, Andre T and every one else I could talk to during my fast learning period.

  10. When I fist saw this discussion take this direction, I knew I’d seen it before. I also knew where it would end.

    Charlie has brought us there: “It is just oh-so impossible to achieve” says the man who borrowed my term ‘commonality of character’ he saw me use in one discussion and then used it himself in another thread. For a split second I thought he “got it” but then he throws up his hands and says: “It can’t be done. Don’t bother trying”. That does not go with the idea of servin your readership.

    All the people Charlie lists “have “knowledge” based on experience” but how much real knowledge and understanding of how wine comes about informs that “knowledge” which comes out of the experiences?

    I’m not calling Charlie ignorant, but if one’s “knowledge” comes from experiences without being informed by underlying the “why” and “how” your experiences are such as they are, then what good is that *final*, end-product “knowledge”. It is not knowledge but opinion.

    Every field – even the most artful or artistic – does not function on the basis of personal experience alone. If the principles of of painting, music and poetry can be described, articulated and codified, so can those of wine. Theoretical (for lack of a more apt term) knowledge informs the experience. It guides one to more accurate conclusions and makes the opinions issued that much more valuable.

  11. Humans are able to evaluate the quality of lumber and tomato paste because there are agreed upon standards which define the levels of quality according to number and type of defects, for example. With an art object, such as wine, the agreed upon standards vary among many people.

    Did you intuitively know that the Mona Lisa is a great work of art? I would assume that someone experienced with art had to tell you why the picture was special. It is not just paint put on a canvas in a certain way or a portrait of some lady but everything taken together. It is also the feeling you get when you experience the picture in the Louvre. You may like the painting or not; the fact still remains that the Mona Lisa is considered a masterpiece by people who know art.

    Wine quality scores are needed because the consumers demand them. I maintain that these scores do indeed reflect a critic’s opinion of the quality of the wine. Hedonism is one aspect of quality. Hedonic scores may be highly correlated with wine quality however I have not seen any published data to this effect. Also, correlation does not indicate causation. Just because I like a wine, it doesn’t follow that the wine is high in quality. And vice versa: high quality wines are not necessarily highly liked.

  12. Charlie,

    Oi!

    If you recommend swill to readers who like swill, don’t worry you will have your readers.

    Now, can you get back onto the discussion, or are you dead bent on simply defending turf?

  13. Sue,

    You don’t address the fact that the scores are tied to nothing concrete except a critic’s concept of enjoyment. And in many cases, the critic is self-appointed, with no training. Plus, there are no standards; as you set out in your first sentence about lumber–those standards to assess the quality of wine don’t exist in the critic’s world.

    So, your comment both confirms and disputes my position.

  14. @Sue Langstaff

    Of course you can codify standards of quality in all artful things.

    All one can know intuitively about the Mona Lisa is whether they like the picture or not (I like the butterfly my daughter drew the other night, but it won’t get get her into art school or raise any money at an auction).
    The reason why The Mona Lisa is considered a work of art is not only because of the mystery (and, yes hype) surrounding it, or who painted it but the technical elements that come together to make it pleasing (or not) or a good example of technique, etc. Understanding how those technical elements come together to make a 1. pleasing or 2. lasting/timeless work is no different than understanding how the technical or sensory elements of a wine do the same.
    I have no issue with scores or rating – as long as they are rooted in meaningful criteria. Hedonism is a personal experience (which is why I could have sworn that the last 97 Parker point chardonnay was actually Listerine). Parker and I may disagree on the enjoyability of the wine, but the stuff clocked in at >16% ABV and had no nuance or finesse or potential for food pairing.
    Enjoyability is not even in the same galaxy as quality. Case in point: Retsina: even at its finest and most beautifully executed, it will have very few fans (ie people who enjoy it).

  15. Arthur,

    I disgree with your comment regarding Retsina. As with any wine style there will be various levels of quality. It is the task of an impartial judge to be able to evaluate the wine on it’s inherent attributes which are characteristic to that varietal or style.

    There are many people in Greece who really enjoy Retsina since it can cut through those greasy lamb dishes.

  16. Sue
    I’m not saying Retsina is bad or that nobody likes it.
    I like Retsina. I know its food pairing potential. I have it with middle eastern dishes. I’m sure others enjoy it.
    However, if you take the average wine consumer, they are not likely to like it. It can be a challenging wine.
    That was my point: Even at its best and most superb example (ie highest quality) a wine may not gain wide approval/acceptance based on pure hedonic appeal.
    Another example: Soft, low acid Pinot Noir is not a quality Pinot Noir because it is the character of that variety to be high acid (and light in color and body). The fat and flabby Pinot Noir may garner higher scores from a critic who does not like acidity and it may have broader immediate appeal, but it is qualitatively inferior to another offering which has appropriate acidity.
    Enjoyability is really a subjective thing, in that it is a function of the taster and not the wine.
    The wine does not change from taster to taster, but opinions and preferences do.
    Quality ratings should exclude preference and personal impressions of enjoyment.

  17. Arthur & Thomas:

    Guys, I respect and understand the desire to have as an “empirical” and “objective” evaluation of a wine as a possible. But it is a fool’s game. Not only don’t I think it is practical or possible to develop a system whereby appellation wines (Arthur) are given their own sets of common standards (find the commonality between Sleepy Hollow Vineyard and Paraiso Vyd, other than the variety and appellation; they are as different as night and day, and are only a few miles apart!), and, more importantly, I don’t think the average consumer cares a lick about this more ‘objectively’ rigorous system of wine evaluation.

    There is a Grand Canyon-size gap between what the wine ‘cognescenti’ find important and what the majority of wine buyers bring to their wine buying decisions.

    From our own perspective, we are like the one-eyed man among the blind. That is so wrong. There are so many people out there who like wine (who might even to grow to love it) who are just looking for a little guidance, who don’t want to be burdened with what is the “proper” or “right” example of Cab or Chard….just something that tastes good.

    This person may have to wade through the bad choices of a number of critics, but they are going to find something they like. Can you really say that an evaluation system that requires a group of ‘experts’, devising an arcane set of parameters for what is varietally “correct” truly increases the enjoyment of the consumer? I can’t.

    Let the consumer experience the world of wine. Let him or her be disappointed in a critic that doesn’t get it…they are adults…they’ll get over it…and they will still drink wine.

  18. Arthur–

    How do you define meaningful criteria? It certainly has to go beyond mere technical criteria.

    And I would respectfully submit that the technical elements of the Mona Lisa are no more or less correct than in many other works of the era. It is the soul of the portrait that makes Mona Lisa great.

    That is why wine is more than technical in the judgments that we make of it. You as much as admit that in your distaste for the Chardonnay you cite. It is not the alcohol per se that is the problem. It is the effect of the alcohol in that wine. There can be 13% alcohol wines that are hot. Indeed, 35 years ago, it was argued that the reason CA Cabs of the 1970 vintage would not age was because they were riper and higher in alcohol than their “better balanced” French counterparts. And, of course, the CA 1970s did outlast most of their French counterparts, including some Firsts.

    So, in order to put this conversation back on the track where you think it belongs, please explain the criteria for judgment that makes a wine great.

    Let me help by asking if the following qualify and if so why and in what way, but if not, then why and in what way. And, also, please add your own criteria to this list.

    Adherance to commonality of character for wines of the area? And if so, then is there one standard for all wines in all vintages or are variances acceptable. For example, some West Rutherford Cabs have a tea leaf character and others have a green olive character and others have no green-tending characteristics at all.

    Intensity of aroma

    Complexiity of aroma

    Barrel-related influences? How much toast? As much as Leflaive or as little as Chablis?

    TA. At what level? Same TA for all levels of pH? For all levels of ETOH? For all levels of sugar remembering that (1) wines ferment “dry” at anywhere from 0.05 RS to 0.2 RS, and also that there is no rule, law, demand that all wines be dry.

    How do perceptions of balance come into play here? Is balance a technical measure or an organoleptic experience? And whose sense of balance do we believe anyway? Yours? Mine? Dan Berger’s? Steve Heimoff’s? Jess Jackson’s? Therry Theise? I am not being facetious here. I really do want to know what factors you would use and how they would be defined and then who would be making the call? Would the call be judgment or measured? Can an individual do it? Must he or she have passed a test?

    Now, let’s get back to commonality of character. I don’t know and do not care who first used that term. It is not copyrighted and if I like it and you used it first, then good for you. I will continue to use it with or without your permission.

    When it comes to West Rutherford Bench Cabs or West Side Road Pinot Noirs, there are many wines that meet the commonality of character test as determined by organoleptic analysis. I smell it, taste it and say that it is in concert with my trained tasting memory or not.

    But what do you do with wines that are from the West Rutherford Bench and do not meet that test. Hewitt is one that is ripe enough to lose its Rutherford Dust character. Yet, that wine is rich, deep, balanced and generally well-liked by critics and wine drinkers. Where is the problem in describing it positively.

    Finally, it matters not that my tasting acumen is learned in apprenticeship rather than in academia. This is the old and disgraced argument “you cannot judge wine if you have not shoveled pumace” argument. Sorry, but being able to recognize when wine and when wine does not bear commonality of character is a learned skill and is not subject to rules of sourcing. One has it or one does not.

    It may even be existential. If enough people agree with my interpretation of factors and flavors, depth, balance, correctness, etc, then that my standard exists.

  19. Sue,

    You said: “It is the task of an impartial judge to be able to evaluate the wine on it’s inherent attributes which are characteristic to that varietal or style.”

    My point is that most critics are not impartial–they are hedonistic. Plus, they bring no training with them not only to make consistent characteristic assessments but also to catch such flaws as bacterial contamination.

    Steve,

    Is it a fool’s game to ask that those who pas judgment on your wine understand why they do so or why they pass that certain judgment other than because it is their personal opinion?

    To me, it’s a fool’s game to allow your product to be subject to the personal opinions of others.

    If all wineries take your attitude, then it’s a cinch that instead of simply trying to produce the best possible wine that represents their location and talent, they’d be trying to produce the wine that best appeals to the most market-dominated critic. Now, we know that nobody does that–right?

  20. Charlie,

    You were doing relatively fine with your latest argument, even made me stop to think about a few things, until: “One has it or one does not.”

    This is the self-appointment that raises my hackles.

    “I am the magical recipient of special endowment and so my proclamations are unassailable. Why do I need training?”

    It’s a confident and strident statement of the aesthetic, but what matters to me is can the critic prove it?

  21. Thomas:

    Maybe I’m sounding more defeatist than I feel. I’d love to see the day where everyone has the confidence in his/her own palate to make the buying decision without assistance. And I know there are far more wine drinkers out there than there are subscribers to or casual readers of the wine magazines/newsletters even now.

    For most small brands, the world is truly a local one. The winery relies on the generosity of the folks who come, mostly from just a few miles away. They are the ones who are passing judgement on my wine. If they don’t believe that we are doing a quality job commensurate to the price we are asking, they will have rendered their verdicts by virtue of their not returning. Their personal opinions will have affected my business.

    I’m not sure I understand your stance. In your ideal vision, is there no wine critic/reviewer? Or, there is a wine critic/reviewer, but he has been trained? The former leads to a very short conversation; the latter brings up all the points, among many others, that I made earlier: who creates the quality standard and training for a region and a varietal?; why should a producer or consumer have any more confidence in that person or group’s ability to arrive at the “truth” or to create the training curriculum of the site and varietal than in a competing person or group?

    I am all for wine drinkers, producers, critics… gaining more experience and understanding about what they are tasting and why they are tasting it. I guess I just don’t believe as strongly as you, that wine, with it’s nearly infinite number of variables, can fall as neatly into a structure as you seem to.

  22. Tom–

    A couple of things leap out at me.

    The first is that you have not given us any indication of the metrics to be used and the range within which “acceptable” falls. You continue to sit in judgment of my criteria but you have yet to offer your own. We cannot get anywhere as long as you and Arthur only argue that the rest of the world is wrong. Let’s hear your criteria.

    Secondly, the notion that some tasters actually know what they are doing should not raise your hackles. You can argue, if you care to, that Heimoff is godlike in his tasting acumen and I am off in left field, or that Parker is the king of the Rhone and Tanzer is a serf. But, this “proof” that you want is in the pudding. Go read these guys. Decide for yourself if their judgments align with your own standards. That is where you find out if those critics know what they are talking about.

    You have not responded to my point that much of what we are talking about is existential. If we all agree that something smells curranty, it smells curranty. And I don’t care if some supposedly learned panel now tries to define what the range of “curranty” is. Or how I am supposed to judge balance in a wine. I can judge balance just fine, thanks, and so, my dear friend, can you. You did not learn to judge balance from some codified set of standards. Yet you can do it for your own palate.

    And that is how the world works. We develop more or less common language to describe our experiences and we teach them to our children who teach them to their children.

    You have said above that what I am talking about is enjoyment, not quality. Yet, if I and the world define quality to include enjoyment based on subjective judgments of taste, then that is quality by definition because we agree that it is quality. You can argue, and I wish you and Arthur would, that certain parameters help define what those judgments need to consider. And then tell us what those parameters are–as I have asked in a previous post.

    Finally, as to the notion of self-appointment. There are reasons why critics develop followings. Some of it has to do with style. Some of it has to do with marketing. A lot of it has to do with the content of judgment. And even though you have dismissed by swill argument a bit too cheaply for my taste, I will make it again. If I recommend wines that the greater majority of the winedrinking world find to be swill to their tastes, then I will have very few readers. The commonality of character argument applies here as well. The wine drinking world likes all kinds of wine, but it does also know when it broadly and commonly dislikes certain wines.

  23. Steve,

    Generally, I’m no fan of aesthetic criticism, simply because I don’t really care what someone else likes, and I can’t imagine why anyone should care what I like. This attitude came to me many eyars ago after reading John Simon review of Liza Minelli’s one woman show on Broadway. He panned her show while admitting that she has talent, but he panned the show because he didn’t like the size of her nose.

    Having said that, I understand that myriad consumers met with myriad products creates the need for guidance. I’d rather the guidance be given by those who bring not just experience to the table but knowledge. Much of the standards about wine are taught–it’s called enology. Nothing wrong with developing a separate training program geared toward developing the knowledge of those who would pass judgment.

    So many people take my position and throw the, “but you want to take the soul out of wine,” argument at me.

    I’ve stopped responding to that specious retort, because it has nothing to do with the issue, which, distilled is: I value informed opinions, and you can only have an informed opinion by learning what it is you are talking about. If you are talking about what makes any particular wine a 90-pointer, by God it would seem to me a little proof beyond, “because I say so,” is in order. That proof can only be proffered by the wine living up to an agreed upon standard–however or whatever that standard is, it must be codified to have meaning.

    Even if my position is a cloudy ideal, and it likely is, since I know much about how the world works, I still don’t think it’s too much to ask of critics that they dispense with their present methods and really evaluate wines without any clues. There are likely many psychological studies to prove that perception is a powerful force when making evaluations–just knowing that you are sitting down to taste Chardonnay can mean that you are seeking those traits that remind of Chardonnay and quite capable of overlooking those that do not: this is why double blind tastings often produce the results that they do. If you have no idea what you are looking for, you have a better shot at focusing on everything that wine presents.

    I recall an Emile Peynaud story of a perception class where he discovered how easily trained wine people can mistake a white wine for a red, just by believing that they were being served a red.

    In my experience teaching wine classes, I have seen over and over people’s attitudes either change or solidify based on what they learn or refuse to learn through double blind evaluation. The difference between my position and the position of many critics is that I go into the evaluation process seeking to learn something about the wine and about me–critics go into the process seeking to validate what they believe that they already know. Fine, then let them prove it.

    Incidentally, I agree with you about small wineries needing to interact with their customers directly. It’s a slower marketing process, but certainly more secure than being at the whims of warring opinion mongers.

  24. Charlie,

    I learned how to judge balance by learning how to make wine. I may have had the talent beforehand, as I was a wine drinker well before I became a wine professional, but I still believe that I needed to know more.

    Re, existential: I fully agree with you. That’s what was in your post that made me think more. If I understand the concept, to be an existentialist is to focus on the individual–in this discussion that would mean hedonistic focus, as I was saying.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having an existential, hedonistic view of wine and to promote that through evaluations of individual products. And as you say, you will find an audience that agrees with you–and you will get rich telling them what to drink. Does that mean that the audience that doesn’t agree with you is stupid, dull, has no palate, has no knowledge, has nothing to offer the wine world?

    I have no problem with your model, as long as you don’t try to persuade me that it’s based on the quality of the wine. For me to believe that, it will take more than me agreeing with your wine preference, because unlike most critics, I really don’t believe that I am any sort of taste arbiter–I need proof even to validate my sensory perceptions, I certainly would like proof that you can validate yours, beyond you just telling me that it is so.

    Let me ask you this: if critics have the experience and talent to make solid wine evaluations, what would prevent them from wanting to add knowledge to the equation?

  25. Charlie and Steve M

    Why don’t we just try to taste together the next time you guys are in my area. We can explore some of my ideas while sipping wine. The only “conditions” would be that if we do this, you come to the table with a mindset of openness and a willingness to try and accomplish what I propose rather than trying to disprove its possibility.

  26. Wow! I didn’t realize that I jumped into a hornet’s nest.

    I am coming at this issue from the same point as Steven Mirassou. He is correct when he said that “the average consumer cares a lick about this more ‘objectively’ rigorous system of wine evaluation.” Gallo tried to do this with bar graphs of the various sensory attributes on the back labels of their wines. Nobody was interested; it didn’t sell more wine. Sure, it provided more “analytical” data along with chemistries, but it didn’t tell the consumer if he would like the wine. This is how consumers use “quality” scores from critics. If the critic gave it a high score, he must have liked it and since I usually agree with his opinions, I’ll buy the wine (or see the movie or buy the book, etc.).

    Perhaps there can be a compromise. Two scores: one for how much the wine is liked and one for “quality,” however you want to define it. In this way, Fred the Wine Drinker, who is not considered an “expert” can still give his hedonic opinion and this will provide guidance to those with similar tastes as Fred’s.

    I guess I’m missing the big deal here. I’ve judged wine quality with professional winemakers and we are all usually on the same page. I think what is important is that the same people taste together consistently and learn each others strengths and weaknesses. I have also judged at professional beer competitions and there are specific requirements for each beer type. As Steven mentioned, there are too many variables in wines to create specific categories. And why should wines fit into neat categories? That would remove the creative aspect of winemaking and force producers to conform to some arbitrary standard.

  27. Arthur:

    I would enjoy that…condition accepted! On that note, as I replied to Thomas, I have no quibble with yours and his thought process/methodology at all (at least as far as I understand it). The more informed/educated a consumer of anything is of the product, the more likely he is to make a sound buying decision. And, though, I see more value in an experienced opinion-giver than you do, I certainly am not blind to the effects their “authority” can have on my brand.

    I am not usually a fence-straddler, but I see utility and consumer benefit in the experienced, opinionated wine reviewer, at the same time I am loathe to let someone beside myself “tell my story.”

  28. Thomas:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Your mention about a 90-pointer should be based upon more than just “because I say so” touches on an interesting question.

    Without playing the nihilist card, I can’t help but think that a 90-pointer is just a fabrication. So is a 78er and a 100. While folks can generally agree on what is a well-made wine (or one absent of flaws), isn’t a notion of what’s a GREAT wine just a collection of shared opinions, no matter how rigorously they were come by?

    And if, over time, the “standards” of wine greatness change, as they have, then isn’t the standard itself simply the temporary victor in a majority rules contest?

    Enology is the study of winemaking. An enologist will learn how to help marshall the conversion of sugar to alcohol, maintain an inhospitable environment for bad bugs; support primary fruit flavors with the use of malolactic bacteria, wood barrels, etc. I’d argue that he can learn the hows and the whys but not the whats. The experience of greatness, at least as far as wine is concerned, can’t be dumped into someone’s head. Doesn’t it have to come ultimately, from one’s own experience of it in his nose, on his tongue? Over and over again?

    Or…I could be totally full of it!

  29. Steve,

    You will hate me for this: I don’t believe there is a such a thing as “greatness” as it applies to a strictly subjective conversation, and for the very reasons that you cite.

    Greatness, to me, is measurable by achievement: you know, 65 home runs a year, but wihtout the pumping up. You can see the ball going over the wall or into the stands, you can count how many times it happened, and you can measure the achievement against others, and if none of the others did it, then that is an incident of greatness. If it’s done again, and still no others do it, that’s two separae incidences of greatness, now building a potential long-lasting, measurable title of same.

    How many people would or even could doubt that display of greatness?

    Is there a wine tht can ofer that kind of greatness. Perhaps. But I am almost certain that someone, somewhere will claim it can’t be as great as..fill in the blank.

    One of the questions I continually ask myself is why wine?

    Why is this particular consumer product singled out for the volumes of geek talk, quantity of pontificators and snobs, seemingly over abundance of “critics,” and overall sense of specialness?

    Form a historical standpoint, I know the answer. I wrote a book about it.

    From the standpoint of a consumer product, I wonder.

    Indulge me a minute and entertain the possibility that maybe, just maybe, because wine is so subjective it is also easy prey for those who would opine over their ability to detect the great ones. Maybe if they could prove that ability once in a while things would be better; you know, like hit that ball over a fence with consistency and provide the rest of us with an objective measure.

  30. Sorry for the typos. In the middle of a deadline and shouldn’t even be on the Internet…

  31. Tom–

    Why is it that you cannot state the criteria that you would use? How is that that knowing how to manage an ML or to use bag acid makes you more competent as a judge of balance than I am having tasted a couple of hundred thousand wines?

    I do have an idea that might be good for everyone, however. This thread has become repetitive on the one hand and excrutiating in its detail on the other. Maybe we should take it to email.

    Arthur–

    Let’s go. I have only one condition. I will enter this realm only if you do not insist that it is the only possible realm. No proselytizing one way or the other.

    Charlie

  32. Charlie,

    To answer your question: because I am not the arbiter of that criteria–it needs to be determined by the industry.

    And I never said that I am more competent than you at judging balance, so I don’t know why you brought out such an accusation.

    I do hope you all take up Arthur’s invitation. If you want to take up a collection and send me the air fare, I’ll be there!

  33. Steve M:
    “The more informed/educated a consumer of anything is of the product, the more likely he is to make a sound buying decision.” – I think you get where I am coming from there.

    The issue Thomas and I have in the “experienced opinion giver (EOG) ” notion is that experience (ie personal observations) not informed by underlying facts and science of the field lead to erroneous conclusions. Additionally, that very knowledge actually paves the way forward towards some objective standards of quality. So I don’t have an issue with an EOG in the absolute, but rather the type and extent of the experience and knowledge they posses.

    I think that if you go to my website and look at my rating system, you will understand in greater detail where it is that I am coming from (and what it is that I want to achieve when I talk about objective benchmarks of typicity and quality). If you contact me via my website, we can further talk by phone about these ideas if you like.

    With respect to your comments to Thomas, I understand that the concept of quality changes with time. However, I’d argue it is more than shifting fancies that drives this flux. Sociopolitical influences, fashion are contributory but, above all, growing understanding of the nuts and bolts of a field affect these changes. So to me, it seems obvious that in an era where we 1) know more than ever about viticulture and enology and 2) have at our disposal a vast expanse of scientific data about organoleptics and sensation and perception we should seize the opportunity to find some meaningful benchmarks of quality and character and use those to understand where a particular wine fits in the grand scheme of thins. Not every consumer will want to attain this level of understanding – which is fine. But if we start at a sophisticated level, we can very likely find ways to communicate these things to both neophytes/casual consumers as well as advanced/wine wonks.

  34. Regarding taking this off line:

    I think continued discussion can be fruitful.

    I suggest we use my forum (redwinebuzz.com/forum)
    If you register, please not that there is a “real names” policy.

    I think that we can even explore some of these ideas over the internet. There are lots of free resources that could give us live interaction.

    I have a lot of ideas about how we could start exploring these ideas of mine without having to be in the same room.

  35. Charlie,

    By asking me not to insist that it is the only way is like asking me not to try my best.

    The success of any venture hinges on one being committed to it.

    The only way to disprove that something does not work is to have a large number of people try their damndest to prove it.

    If they can’t make it work, it means one of two things: 1. (most obviously) those that have tried thus far have been unsuccessful which does not rule out the possibility of the goal being unattainable), or 2. it is not possible to achieve (an assertion that gains strength with more and more people trying to do the same thing and failing).

    Of course, then one has to explore if the methodolgy or criteria need to be changed – and verification and testing is repeated.

    In the process you identify problems, confounds and limiting factors. As you strive to your goal, either the thing you envisioned emerges or it doesn’t. I get that.

    Since you talk about rating wines in the context of balance, typicity and complexity, I am led to believe that you are more closely aligned to my way of thinking than our back-and-forth would suggest.

    Off-line you mentioned that people come to the wine evaluation table with some bias (prejudices, preconceptions, preferences and worldviews). Certainly. But some biases are beneficial and some are deleterious. Perhaps a collective examination of how different biases contribute (positively or negatively) to the final judgment should be part of this process/exploration.

  36. Arthur, it seems to me that there are four people involved in this discussion. you, Tom P., Steven M and me. Anyone else who has not been bored to death at this point is welcome to join as far as I am concerned.

    You have my email address and I have yours. Let’s set up an email group of four and begin to explore some of the concepts before we take a couple of days to get together. We may even have to take up a fund-raising effort to get Tom out here.

    The number of factors that experienced reviewers take into account is enormous. And each of those factors have ranges of value, have interactions with other factors, etc. More that that, I would argue that a good reviewer brings the very thing you do not like to the review process, and that is the ability to make qualitative judgments based on the interaction of factors.

    So, when we start these conversations, I am going to ask for specifics from you, and then I am going to ask you about variations, interactions, etc. If this effort is to be at all useful, it is going to have to move beyond philosophy into specifics. And to make things more difficult, there is going to have be room for variances in observation and measurement. I am not interested in writing the absolute rule book of tasting standards to which all tasters must adhere. I would need another fifty years of experience to do that, and I am not going to live that long.

  37. Charlie,

    Arthur and I agree with your premise: “I would argue that a good reviewer brings the very thing you do not like to the review process, and that is the ability to make qualitative judgments based on the interaction of factors.”

    The difference is in the factors, and that’s where the conversation should begin.

    The problem with a four-way email is obvious–you can’t make the process real time interactive. But there are ways to have chats online that are more immediate and can handle multiple people.

    As for the flight to LA. Drats. I was scheduled to be there this month, but the trip got postponed. I’ve been in Sonoma twice over the past twelve months, but have no immediate plans for another trip. If I can get one particular project off the launching pad, I might be out your way within a few months.

    Maybe online for now is a good way to handle this. Maybe we can think about developing a standard for wine review that we can actually present to the industry. That would be a first–and I can hear the wailing already ;)

  38. I will have more to say about this on Monday’s blog.

  39. Gentlemen:

    One of the most enjoyable and personally useful things about wine for me is how much the beverage greases the wheel for sharing…time, emotions, memories, etc. In that spirit, I would very much enjoy working with you all on delving into the possibilities adumbrated earlier. My winery email is steven@stevenkent.com.

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