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What makes a good wine writer? My take


A chap named Gad Kaplan wrote a piece in South African whose title, “What makes a good wine writer?”, naturally grabbed my attention. Gad (who a Google search says holds a post-graduate degree in Comparative Mysticism, which makes me like him) looked at the usual quartet of Robinson, Johnson, Broadbent and Parker — three Brits and an American (whose collective names sound something like a law firm) — and reserved most of his ire for their inattention to the wines of his country (except for Ms. Jancis, whom he credits for at least visiting, but whom he nonetheless accuses of being “a bit off the mark” in her reviews).

Gad notes three “principles” that  distinguish good wine journalism: “humility, sensitivity and objectivity.” “I have often marveled at the humility of so many wine makers I have had the pleasure of interviewing,” he writes, in the article’s most touching phrase. I, too, have seen this during my time as a wine writer, meaning that humility has been one of the notable features of the (largely California-based) Baby Boomer critics I’ve known. (Which calls to mind Churchill’s cutting comment on Clement Atlee: “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”) Certainly the basis of modesty among wine critics is the knowledge that we can be wrong, that we can make mistakes at any time and that we may embarrass ourselves doing so. But another reason for modesty is that we are aware of a certain power we wield (over people’s lives and incomes), and images of the Sphinx come to mind


accompanied by the proud, pathetic boastings of fallen gods and a knowledge of the transience of power:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

So much for modesty. Gad’s second principle, sensitivity, he defines as being “sensitive to the past history of the producer and where they are heading…in judging wines we need to keep the total curve of their performance in mind.” I would agree with this, although I know that it always stirs up a controversial hornet’s nest; there are those who insist that the less you know about a wine, the more objective you can be. Perhaps. I think the way to rate Latour (say) is in the context of its past performance, its aspirations, and perhaps even its vintage. It would make no sense to stick Latour, in a paper bag, into a blind tasting of full-bodied reds from Chile, Australia, California and the Rhône. That would be a disservice not only to Latour but to the consumers who are looking for context for their buying decisions. But it does make sense to stick Latour into a blind tasting of Classified Growth Bordeaux. IMHO.

Gad’s final principle, objectivity, is indisputable: “it is vital that a wine writer does not allow their [sic] personal taste preferences to cloud their judgment.” But I don’t know any reputable wine writer who does this. I am not a particular fan of the Chenin Blanc grape variety, no matter where it’s grown, but I can recognize good Anjou or Vouvray. On the other hand I am a fan of ripe, oaky California Chardonnay but I can also recognize when these attributes are exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness. It may sound self-serving, but I think older wine writers (which is to say those who have been at it longer) are the most objective, whereas younger wine writers are the least objective, and tend the most to praise what they like, rather than what’s good. Let the charges fly on Twitter!

There’s a final principle of good wine writing Gad missed, in a kind of losing the forest for the trees slip. Good wine writing is characterized by — good wine writing! I mean the ability to turn a neat phrase, to avoid common, stupid spelling and punctuation blunders, to convey interesting and important ideas in a way that seems simple but is anything but. Good wine writing also is more than the sum of its parts: it is a baring of the writer’s soul. If I may quote Emerson: “Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.”

  1. Steve,

    I agree with your statement that some (maybe many) wine writers praise more of what they like — take many of the recent Thanksgiving recommendations that flooded the interwebs last month.

    Not sure about younger vs. older, but I have seen it in the blogosphere, which may point to many newer (i.e.younger) writers out there. However, having said that, it may be their premise and if a reader can align with that writer’s tastes is that so bad?

    I for one am not a huge Riesling fan, but I can pick it out of a line up and can objectively say one has the distinctive characteristics of that variety and level of quality.

  2. A must read in the age of the internet, where everyone is a critic. I’m always dismayed by the inability of some newspaper wine writers (where they still exist) to pen an interesting article that can speak dually to the novice and the expert–I’d say the WSJ is probably the best at this. On the other hand, a lot of the internet bloggers…nevermind.

  3. lori narlock says:

    Hi Steve,

    Great post. But one little change I’d suggest:
    Alter your second sentence in the last paragraph to read:
    Good wine writing is characterized by — good writing! As a great writer, you know you have to be able to communicate clearly and tell a good story no matter what the subject.


  4. People can complain about wine bloggers all they like, but to me that’s like screaming at the tide.

  5. Tim Heaton says:

    Dale, the word “bloggers” does not appear in the body of the post.

    But as long as you’re pointing fingers: a click on “Dale Cruse” takes me to which describes itself as “a daily account of what Dale Cruse likes to put in his mouth. I like to eat, like to drink, and like to write about both”. Daily? Ok, sure, whatever. But it does support what Steve refers to when he says “whereas younger wine writers are the least objective, and tend the most to praise what they like, rather than what’s good.”

    Shoe. Fit. Wear.

    Steve, regarding your statement “rather than what’s good”…what is “good” and what does that have to do with objectivity?

    A few nights ago I opened a 1983 Kalin Cellars Reserve – it was nothing short of stunning in its freshness, complexity and balance (at 12% abv mind you) – and poured it alongside a 2004 Napa “cult cab”. In attendance, a visiting friend from a 5th generation winemaking family from Barolo commune and two lay friends. My friend from La Morra was genuinely impressed with the Kalin and “got it”. She took a few sniffs of the “cult cab” and poured more of the Kalin. My friends tasted the Kalin, once, then proceeded to drain their glasses of “cult cab” over and over again.

    If by “good” you mean “well made” then I understand your point. But still, plenty of lay people will pass on a well made wine all day long if their reference point for “good” is their favourite $9 CA AVA red blend, I think.

    Thanks, Steve (as usual) for generating discussion and thought.

  6. Tim, you have of course raised one of the most important issues out there, one that has been debated on this blog (and others) for a long time. To some extent “good” is in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, there are long-recognized standards of quality. For example, good color and intensity of aroma and flavor are considered “good” whereas their opposites are considered defects. Also, dryness in a table wine is considered “good,” unless the wine is purposely off-dry (e.g. certain German Rieslings). I could go on and on about what constitutes “good.” Maybe the best definition is this: a “good” wine is one that most professionals say is good. That’s true with any art form. A great Picasso is “good” because art dealers, critics and collectors say so. Like your friend from La Morra, I have frequently passed on expensive wines in favor of more drinkable ones in dining situations.

  7. Let’s face it. A wine is good because enough people agree that it is good. Typically those judgments of “goodness” start with an evaluation of the wine against some sort of standard–usually one that has more or less floated down and become common wisdom.

    Greatness is a different kettle of fish, however, and greatness is both measured against much higher standards as well as meaning that whatever standards are being used have been met and surpassed by wines that are considered great.

    The ability to more or less consistently separate the wheat from the chaff is part of what makes a good wine writer–because I don’t care how good the writing is if the tasting acumen is wanting.

    Now, we can agree or disagree about individual palates and preferences, but there is a lot to be said about consistency in tasting, usually based on knowledge gained over time, when it comes to talking about which writers are good and which are not.

    For example, and leaving aside present company, I like Schildknecht on Riesling, Parker on Rhones, Decanter on clarets and Gerry Dawes on Spanish wines. I find each of them to be both consistent and very competent in describing what they find in a manner that I both agree with when I taste those wines and in leading me to wines of those types that I like.

    Slamming Parker has become this year’s replacement for slamming the Spectator, but give the man his due, whatever else his foibles may be, he tastes wine and has a consistent palate. And his writing makes the wines he likes sound interesting. It is those talents, not his use of the 100-point system, that has made him into the most powerful critic around.

    If he had used Ron Washam’s million point system, we might all now be using that system.

  8. In principle, I think you are right, Steve. I think objectivity probably more likely to be possessed the older the writer is. I think this is true for the same reason that the older we become, the more we realize the little we really know.

    I think it’s also true in practice because the younger one is, the more likely they are to be impressed by impressions, rather than by observations.

  9. I would like to nominate “A Great Wine Writer”. Laurie Jervis has done a lot to promote Santa Barbara County and Central Coast Viticulture. You can follow her on our website of couse!

  10. Hi, Steve,

    Just wanted to point out that the definition of “wine writer” here seems to be limited to those writers who evaluate/review/critique wine. What about those wine writers who write about wine regions, winemakers, viticulture, history, news or other aspects of the wine industry, but who do not review wines?

  11. I agree with your take Charlie. Standards for good and “correct” wines are a consensus of opinions for a period of time. Just as views on the relative importance of an artist change over time (a change often spurred by the re-investigation of a new expert), the hegemony of wine regions and producers is subject to reformulation all the time.

    A consensus of opinion is not an absolute standard.

  12. Karen, you make a good point. There is a difference between “critics” and other writers who do not criticize. For example, my friend Rod Smith is a great wine writer who never reviews or critiques wines. So thanks for making the point.

  13. Karen and Steve–

    I would add Gerald Asher to the list of great writers who focuses first on the story being told and then on the wine itself. So, I agree with Karen and would re-apply my remarks to the area of wine-criticism.

    And yet, it also must be said that both Rod Smith and Gerald Asher have bags of experience–and that experience, knowledge, perspective, wisdom comes into play in their writings. It is not just that they are wonderful wordsmiths but also knowledgeable, insightful and can piece together complex thoughts into easily enjoyed writings.

    In that regard, much of what Steve has said about good writers stay holds true for the writers who are storytellers, not critics.

  14. Oh, yeah. Very right about Rod Smith. Conscientious, highly literate…perfect case in point. Thanks.

  15. Brother Timothy says:

    Hello Steve, very insightful posting. For me it begs a larger question. What ever happened to the wine reviewing entertainment factor??? When consumers read reviews (on anything), they can be easily overwhelmed with facts, acronyms, vernacular, lists, and other “information”. Where are the witty, the the clever, the urbane, the cheeky, the irreverant, even the irrelevant??

    Pick up most of today’s wine review magazines, and they can be effective substitutes for sleeping pills – facts, facts, facts. I can think of a few exceptions out there, however. Hugh Johnson, Matthew Jukes, and especially Cambell Mattinson, and maybe even Steve Heimoff are examples that come to mind. Their mantra seems to be, “80% entertainment and 20% information.” And it works! Consumer actually enjoy reading their stuff.

    Bring back the fun! See you in Davis.

    Brother Timothy

  16. Tim,

    The term “bloggers” DOES appear in Theo’s comment in this thread. That’s what I was commenting on.

    Also, a search on my name will bring you to drinksareonme.NET – not .com. As a former U.S. Army photojournalist, writer at West Point, and editor at, I understand that part of being a good writer (wine or otherwise) is getting your facts straight. I encourage you to do so before coming across as holier than thou.

    As to Steve’s comment “whereas younger wine writers are the least objective, and tend the most to praise what they like, rather than what’s good.” I see absolutely NO problem with that. Trying to apply an objective measure to a purely subjective experience (tasting) is folly in my and many people’s opinion(s).

  17. Gad Kaplan says:

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you for your wonderful article on my article “What makes a good wine writer?” There are very few people in South Africa who are able to write at the erudite level that you do. In terms of the issue of objectivity in wine, I do agree that it is difficult to achieve, but is still possible. For example, I much prefer Sauternes to Tavel. But perhaps if I was drinking it on a beach on a hot summer’s day in the South of France I would prefer the Tavel. Unless, it was a sunset, in which case I might prefer a nice chilled bottle of Barsac!

    Secondly, in terms of youth and objectivity, I have just turned 40 which in Jewish law allows me to study the Kaballah but I have been a mystic for the last 20 years. In other words, what makes a good wine writer is not necessarily their age, but their insights and sensitivity.

    Finally, on the subject of Robert Parker, my only issue with him is that he is trying to turn Bordeaux into California and I feel for that reason he has been a negative influence on the authenticity of Bordeaux wines (although he has done much to promote the Rhone). Sadly, I have never been to California to sample your wonderful wines, but I hope to do so in the future.

    My prof. in comparative religion at UCT (University of Cape Town) hails from Santa Barbara, California, the home, I believe, of some great Pinot Noir.

    Kind Regards

    Gad Kaplan

  18. many thanks Gad kaplan

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