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Don’t blame wine writers

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I agree in general with many of the criticisms Gregory Dal Piaz expressed yesterday in his online article, at Snooth, entitled 6 Current Issues in the Wine Industry And how to work around them.

I said “many of the criticisms.” Not all. He’s got it pretty much right in his remarks about the 100-point system (which he, himself, uses as a critic). Yes, it is subjective, in the sense that it’s not as accurate as the pH reading on a wine. As long as we’re clear on that, the 100-point system is useful–a fact Gregory acknowledges.

I also agree with Gregory about lazy retailers. But I don’t think he’s talking about fine wine shops; I suspect he’s talking about supermarkets. Most wine is sold in supermarkets, which are never going to have robust wine sections or knowledgeable floor staff. So if you’re looking for a proactive supermarket wine aisle, fageddaboudit!

Bossy distributors? Sure. I’m onboard with that.

Where we part company is when Gregory writes about “Arrogant Wine Writers.”

Go ahead, read the link. It’s only 3 paragraphs in length. What I don’t understand is the snarkiness with which Gregory expresses his opinion. “The people who know it all,” he describes wine writers, who critique a wine “based on spending merely five minutes” with it.

I guess that includes me.

Look, I have never claimed to “know it all,” which is a very negative thing to say of somebody. “A know it all” is a pompous, gaseous windbag who goes around pronouncing on matters of which he knows very little. We all know people like that in the wine world, but you know what? They don’t tend to be writers. The writers I know do know a lot about wine, because we’ve studied it for many years and, hey, when you study something you’re passionate about for a long time (butterflies, the Bon religion of Tibet, Major League Baseball statistics), you end up knowing a lot about it.

But wine writers in general are a pretty modest lot. They’ll tell you about wine if you ask, but if you don’t, they won’t. I would ask Gregory to name one “know it all” wine writer. There is an element of “know-it-all-ness” among Masters of Wine and certain others who have abbreviations after their names, and I don’t care for it, either. But don’t bash wine writers for arrogance!

Gregory also accuses us wine writers of “us[ing] a language full of code words to make sure you never catch on to us, and attack you when we think that’s not working.” I read that phrase over and over, and still don’t know what it means. “A language full of code”? I don’t think so. At least, I don’t. I use normal English words in my reviews–words that mean exactly what they seem to mean, and are not coded. I concur that a wine review means little or nothing to most people, but then, if a consumer cares enough about wine to read a review, he or she most likely can understand what the reviewer is trying to say. And “to make sure you never catch us”? Catch us at what? The implication is that we’re somehow trying to fool people. Really? Do you think credible wine writers are trying to pull a fast one? I don’t. All we’re doing is expressing an educated opinion about a wine. If you want to latch onto people who don’t want to get caught lying and cheating, I refer you to politicians, used car salesmen and real estate agents–not wine writers!

And “attack you when we think that’s not working”? What the heck does that mean? I’ve never attacked consumers. I embrace, respect and support the ordinary wine consumer. When I evaluate a wine, I have a generalized, Platonic image of that consumer in my mind. I imagine him or her sitting right next to me, and me trying to patiently and cogently offer an interpretation of the wine I hope will be helpful. I have no idea what Gregory is talking about when he says we “attack you.” That is truly weird.

Gregory ends with this faux message from a fictitious wine writer: “Now please renew your subscription lest you miss a single prognostication.” This sounds like something that someone would say who doesn’t work for a subscription-based publication! Of course I want people to subscribe to Wine Enthusiast! Why wouldn’t I? It’s a great magazine, and subscribers love it. Again, the attitude with which Greg expresses this sentiment disappoints me. Surely we can have a polite discussion about any and all of these issues without dissing hard-working wine writers or imputing nefarious motives to us.

  1. “A Wine Snob’s Dictionary” is described this way: “A nicely structured, lightly acidic addition to the handy Snob’s Dictionary series, decoding the baffling world of winespeak from A to Z.”
    Who knows, maybe Gregory Dal Piaz just read this book and took it to mean something arrogant. I think there’s plenty of arrogance in every profession (The human condition again), but that you have taken offense suggests some things to me: Steve rightly identifies with other wine writers, or he has thin skin, but most likely Gregory Dal Piaz has given Steve something to write about.
    Well, it did give you something to write about, gave me (us) something to read, and just maybe even the occasion to reflect upon my own (our) attitudes.
    I’ve just begun to “meet” wine writers, and I would say that the more Boyers and Heimoffs I “meet’ the more I like wine writers.
    Thanks for making me think.
    Dennis

  2. Steve, I read the article a couple of times to try to fully understand its purpose. After your comment above about the arrogant wine writers, I again reread that passage and Greg seems to be including himself in that category. However, I do scratch my head at his comments about ‘code words’ and the ‘attacking’ bits. I think the entire article could have bben a lot shorter as the takeaway is to find a retailer you trust. Most everything in there is accurate, however it has all been said before, and some sections (like the 100 point rating scale) have been beat to death, and I am tired of seeing those of us who use it continually having to defend it. Incidentally, Tom Wark has a good list of hands-on retailers in the Napa Valley that is worth taking a look at. You won’t find any POS in those places simply because for the most part, nobody has tasted them yet!

  3. Doug, regarding the 100 point system: “I am tired of seeing those of us who use it continually having to defend it.”

    I am with you on that too Doug. I seldom buy off of the 100 point system, although most of what I drink is probably high up on a lot of those lists (I just happen to buy it for other reasons). However, I am not sure why some have such animosity against it. It is like people have turned critics who use the system and consumers who follow it, into a bunch of animal abusers or something. Same goes for higher alcohol wines. I am not sure when it became morally wrong to drink a 15.5% 95 point Syrah, but I don’t get it.

    Drink what you like and read who you like too. Actually, drink what you like and what you don’t like. Same goes for reading. You might learn something new from time to time.

    I thought I hated Pinot Noir just like I thought I hated Bill O’Riley books… oh wait!

    Steve, people are going to hate what you do. It’s the nature of having a public opinion. I also think a few of your colleagues have not helped matters by being what some feel is openly biased, that is to say arrogant. “Nobody makes wine to please me…”

    I don’t know if I buy any of that, but then again I don’t make a living making, marketing, or selling wine, so I have no horse in this race.

  4. I have my own points system. It’s called what the market will bear. If they like it they will pay for it, or I lower the price. Pretty simple. I even have a wine writer in the family. The only thing he knows about wine is that it comes from grapes and France. What a fool. I have no use for wine writers, well they can always pull some weeds but they would probably screw that up too.

  5. Do critics actually spend five minutes on a wine? For those that claim 5000 wines, that would be two hours a day of constant tasting. Or if properly broken up with rest periods that would would be four hours a day. My guess it is more like one minute at the most.

  6. Morton,

    I have heard of some professional tasters claiming an astonishing number of wines examined within a day. I suppose some of that would depend on conditions but in the instance of tasting a flight of similar wines at the rate of 1 per minute. wine(x) will be less evolved than wine(x+20) During trade tastings, I can usually knock out 50 or so, but I am selective where I stop and even then rarely make any published, final conclusions. I used to consistently taste (formally) about 80 to 100 wines a week with brokers, distributors or wineries. It was a lot to sit at my desk tasting 15 – 20 wines over about six hours. There are plenty of wines that show virtually nothing when first opened yet within 20 minutes ‘blossom’. What any responsible writer should consider is letting a wine reach its stride before creating an opinion on it (whatever time it may take). I request every wine I taste to be opened in front of me if possible because I want a baseline for development. In practice, it doesn’t always happen and I will inquire how long a bottle has been opened or if it was double decanted and factor that into my notes. It isn’t uncommon that I spend 30 minutes collectively on a particular wine. Last night I met a vintner at his home to taste 2 new Syrah and left after an hour and 45 minutes. There was quite a bit of conversation throughout, yet the wines did benefit from being open that long and I revisited them throughout, not creating a composite of the wine until the end.

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  1. UNDER THE GRAPE TREE » EXTOLLING THE HIGH PHILOSOPHIES OF CUSTOMER SERVICE: WINE INDUSTRY NUANCES AND AN ARTICLE FROM SNOOTH - [...] Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast fame rebutted Gregory’s portion of the article pertaining to the 100-point scale, which I …

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