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Does anything matter besides the score?


Sometimes I get weary. I work so hard on each and every review in Wine Enthusiast. I’ll use my Thesaurus to come up with just the right adjective. I’ll sweat the difference between black cherries and black raspberries because I want to nail that fruit. I’ll write a phrase, then decide it doesn’t work, get rid of it and start again. I’ll go into our database and see what I did with previous releases so I can make comparisons. I’ll try to work in a reference to the vintage. I’ll edit and re-edit the text of my reviews until they shine like a haiku, and I don’t hit that “send” button until I know it’s something I can be proud of. All for 35 or 40 words!

And then I go out on the road, and inevitably I’ll run into someone — a winemaker, P.R. person, winery executive or just plain consumer — who with brutal frankness says, “Steve, you know, all anybody cares about is the score. The actual review doesn’t matter.”

And that’s when I get weary and deflated. Has it come to this, where the only thing that matters is the number?

I understand the natural human tendency to want information instantly, to desire by some iconographic means to know what somebody thinks without having to go through the trouble of actually reading an opinion. I share that tendency myself. When Mick LaSalle, the S.F. Chronicle’s fine film critic, reviews a movie, the first thing I look for is what the famous Little Man is doing.


If the chair is empty I know Mick hated the movie. If the Little Man is leaping out of his seat, Mick loved it. Isn’t this the equivalent of a 5-point scoring system? It is.

But I also read Mick’s reviews. It’s not enough, for me at least, to just take in the image. I want to know exactly how and why Mick arrived at his conclusion. And I also want the pleasure of reading Mick’s reviews, because he’s an awfully good writer, and I infer that he edits and re-edits his copy as rigorously as I do mine. Probably more so.

On the other hand, I admit there’s a limit to how much “writerly-ness” a short wine review can contain. Yesterday, Tom Wark wrote a post over at Fermentation entitled “An Open Door To Real Wine Criticism.” If I read it right (and Tom’s dense, layered posts often lend themselves to various interpretations), Tom is calling for better written, more thoughtful wine writing that reflects, not only the writer’s opinion of the wine, but even “the current state of politics, culture or social interaction” in America. Tom alluded to my own post from last week (“Why wine criticism isn’t as important as film criticism”) to call for greater “intellectual heft” in wine writing. I could do that, I suppose (although it would be pretty hard to wax eloquently about politics and culture in a 35-word review and still get a word in edgewise about the wine itself!). But why bother, if nobody’s reading the text?

Why don’t people read the text? Is everybody so hurried and harried that we don’t have time to do anything anymore? Or is it that we, the wine writers, are failing to deliver prose that’s scintillating enough to turn readers on (which seems to be what Tom is saying)? I think some wine writers are tumbling to the truth that we do have to do a better writing job —  more elegant, more eloquent, more complex, just as we demand of the wines we review. Last December Asimov, at The Pour (and no slouch himself when it comes to writing), touched on this when he described wine writing that “reflexively resort[s] to…trite explanatory notions. Cobbled together, they can flesh out a standard-issue column or two” but, alas, they lack “more interesting and useful information.” Eric vowed to try harder.

But ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter what Eric or I or any wine writer writes. In this age of Twitter Taste Mini Reviews, who’s got the time to worry about quality of writing? What counts is quantity, speed and the number of Followers you have.

  1. Hey Mick, you are a must read. Love your Sunday column. Why don’t they run a picture of you?

  2. Steve–

    Film reviewers like restaurant reviewers have to remain anonymous. Otherwise, when they walked into a theater, the management would run serve them the Private Reserve version of the film and give them free popcorn.

    Of course, it is the really the same in the wine business. That is why when I go to wineries, I tell them I am Steve Heimoff.

  3. Charlie, if you’re going to do that, you’ll have to start dressing right. Torn jeans and t-shirts are authentic Steve, not polyester.

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