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Critics of wine critics aren’t living La Vina Vida

28 comments

I’m always surprised by how negative the reaction of some people is to the field of wine writing/journalism/reviewing. If you read through the “Comments” section from yesterday’s blog, you’ll see what I mean. Why do these people get so upset to the point of almost losing their minds?

I wrote “wine writing/journalism/reviewing” on purpose, because a “wine writer” does all three. There’s a difference, you know, although the critics of wine reviewing tend to conveniently overlook it, preferring instead to focus on the 100-point system and what they perceive as the critic’s “elitism.” So let me explain to these people, most of whom are not legitimate wine writers as far as I can tell, just what the job entails.

Wine writing: I define this is the artistic or esthetic side. It’s what I tried to do in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and, to some extent, what I try to do here on the blog. It’s literature, nicely defined in my Webster’s as “writings considered as having permanent value [and] excellence.” When you do “literature”  you really exercise the art of writing. It borrows from literature you’ve loved in the past (my writing is heavily indebted to Churchill but also will dip its toe into whatever book I fancy at the moment. I went through a Hemingway phase of short, snappy sentences). But you also develop your own style.

Wine journalism: This is good, old-fashioned reporting. You interview somebody, or do research on something, then you write it up, answering all those “w” questions: who, what, when, why, where (and, in wine, “how” and “how much?”). Journalism is not literature: it’s too truncated, too formulaic, which is why so many journalists like to stretch their wings and try actual literature.

Wine reviewing: Well, we all know what that is. It’s one of the things I do and in fact pays most of my bills.

I’ve never met an actual, employed wine reviewer who was upset by wine reviewers, or who thought that the act of wine reviewing somehow is elitist or evil or arrogant or condescending or any of the other epithetical terms anti-reviewers toss around. Oh, before you object that there are people in the blogosphere and in the social media who review wine but who criticize wine reviewers (there are), I’ll add that, as wine reviewers, they’re not particularly influential. I mean, anyone can scratch out some wine reviews and put them up on a blog, but it’s the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around: Does anyone know or care? There is some jealousy out there, on the part of the have-nots for the haves.

Ambitious wine writers who haven’t yet made it in their chosen career would do well to put aside reviewing and take up wine writing and wine journalism, in the sense I described above. I ask them: When’s the last time you wrote something that glowed, that you were proud of? When’s the last time you really had to dig for a story, chase down the facts, get people to say things they didn’t want to, go through archives, search through the indexes of old books, spend an hour on Google to find a specific quote, make a scientist explain something in plain English, walk through the woods to hear what walking through the woods sounds like, lie on your stomach on the forest floor and bury your face in the dead leaves and dirt to smell what it smells like, transcribe a long tape, look through an almanac, use a calculator to figure out the rate of increase or decline of a particular grape variety in a particular region…I could go on all day. I do all of those things, too, not just rate wines, and all of those things make me a better wine reviewer, in the mysterious alchemy of that task. Antonio Galloni expressed it well when I talked with him the other week: We live surrounded by wine, by the lore of wine, by its traditions, by the business of wine, in the culture of wine. It fills our brains as it fills our bellies. When we’re not tasting it–not reviewing–we’re thinking about it, about the people who make and sell and write about it, about the next story we’re working on, the deadline, about the question we forgot to ask during that interview, about what time to leave for tomorrow’s appointment to avoid rush hour, and what time to try to get home so we can do a flight. And inbetween everything else, we’re going back and re-reading that draft, refining it, throwing out a clunky phrasing for a more pleasing one, replacing a misleading adjective with the correct one, and maybe even buying a Meyer lemon to see how it smells and tastes different from an ordinary lemon. Yes, all of those things. And reviewing, too.

  1. Steve,

    It kinda seems like you missed the boat on the comments from yesterday’s post. We weren’t criticizing critics per se, just your position that 1) critics fundamental ability to taste wine was better than the general consumer’s (thus you raise elitism as an issue) and 2) your position that critics yield great influence over the masses (i.e., Steve scores selling Costco wine).

    I do not think many of the comments were negative towards wine writing/journalism/reviewing. No one said you don’t do all three (and pretty well, too). The comments were more about your inflated perception of wine reviewing’s (and specifically your’s) place in the world.

    Sincerely,

    An illegitimate wine writer

  2. Steve:

    True, the audience and its size is important. But even more important in the realm of wine criticism (which is going nowhere) is the issue of “Authority”. Building an authoritative voice and using it in the service of wine criticism is something that relatively few people have done. A handful in the past 20 years.

    The claim I keep hearing is that wine reviewers and wine critics are a dying breed. I see this claim in a lot of place and I keep waiting for the evidence. One might rightly claim that there are more people reviewing wines. However, I never see any evidence that the professional wine critic/reviewer is being displaced.

    Finally, the scream against the 100 point system is really just that. I understand the cadence of that scream and I understand the breath that produced it. But screams don’t usually have the same impact as a reasoned utterance, and these are few and far between where critics of rating systems are concerned.

  3. CO Wine Press,

    The professional wine review may not be a better taster than the average wine drinker, but they most certainly are better analysts of wine, which in the end is the crucial element of a useful and professional wine reviewer/critic.

  4. Tom, true, though not necessarily. There are certainly many people who would be excellent wine analysts, but just don’t care for whatever reason. Same can be said about any field of critical analysis. I put this ability to analyze wine in the “experience” I noted in my comments yesterday. The more I think about it, desire is probably the biggest fundamental difference between critics and general consumers. When you combine desire with experience expertise often arises. Heightened physical ability is icing on the cake…

  5. I was one of the few to actually agree with your assertions on yesterday’s post, however, I wish you would retain some semblance of humility in your frequent lambasting of “illegitimate” wine reviewers and writers. It might serve you well you remember that you did not wake up an authority or expert in your field, that you were also one of those that you apparently hold in such low regard at some point in your career. At times it almost seems as if you defensively tear down anyone that is trying to air their passions for a subject because they are not already famous for it and perhaps you fear that your relevance will wane as the next generation moves in. I suggest you “keep it real” as they say and remember where you came from. I would hope that anyone would give me similar constructive criticism if it was so deserved.

  6. Steve, You continue to be my must read blog every morning. Keep up the good work. Mark

  7. I was not going to post a reply and have not read this blog much lately. I did yesterday.

    Steve,

    Some folks can’t afford expensive wines so for the most part they ignore what SOME wine writers write. Also some of those good and kindly folks actually like softer sweeter wines that do not call attention to themselves. There is nothing in the world wrong with that at the very least they are wine buyers. Many of them have tried some of the more expensive wines and either did not like the style and understand it or the wine did not seem worth it to them.
    In their world they are the experts. They know what they like and are not snobs and mostly are not pretentious about their lives.

    There are some people who have worked hard and long to develop the palette and all of the sensory skills and memory it takes to be a fine wine aficiando and lots of them, but not all,have also developed the MEANS to afford to indulge their aquired skills.

    There are also those poor souls who affect things in their lives in order to give the impression that they are better than what they really feel like way down inside. They might own a grand piano but that does not make them muscians nor pianists. They do the same thing with other expensive worldly goods.

    So a wine writer does not have to really be an expert, just get published.

    What wine goes with foot?

  8. Your last paragraph glows.

    Change ‘reading that draft’ to ‘perfecting that blend’ and we feel the same way about getting the right wine into bottle. It keeps us up at night, and occupies our thoughts at all times.

    Enjoyed your Q&A with Galloni, that is great reading. I’d love to see that with some other personalities in the business of wine as well.

    Keep on.

  9. Steve, you do a fine job of identifying the different aspects of the work we both do. The charge of elitism (and the silly counter-claim that as frequently appears, especially in books, that the author AT LAST breaks through the elitism that infects all other wine writing) – to repeat, the charge of elitism is a total red herring (except in the case of sommeliers, who are the true elitists).

    Anyway, when someone gets paid – and paid a decent living – to write opinions; in other words, to be a professional critic, it means one of two things. Either they are really good at what they do, or their father owns the newspaper. You are really good at what you do. No need to defend, explain, or apologize. When the anti-critic, anti-elitists can put forth a comparable portfolio of work, reach a comparable audience, and earn a comparable living, then they will have opinions worth considering.

  10. @Paul, thanks for the comment!

  11. Dear gdfo, I review wines in every price bracket, not just expensive ones. You’ll find plenty of raves from me to wines in the $5-$10 range — and plenty of pans for wines that cost more than $50.

  12. Not to take this away from Steve’s post, but I have to point out @TomWark, that your definition of “reasoned utterance” apparently only includes opinions you already agree with.

  13. In a magazine devoted to the wacky and wondrous world of wine, someone has to rate new releases in addition to writing essays. Whether it is a legitimate (=”accurate”) portrayal of a wine’s merits is almost irrelevant. The magazine needs numbers and shelf talkers to keep up its circulation. Some of us think bestowing on a travel writer the job of critiquing wines is very misguided, particularly given all the studies that point out the lack of consistency, etc., but again this doesn’t matter.

  14. Steve, your last paragraph sums up the reason I don’t care for most wine blogs and why most winemakers don’t either, to be frank about it.

    Get out there, lean something, do something. That’s how you build a voice.

    NRC’s comments are perfect. For those who try to dumb down wine, to say all wine is equal, it isn’t. I know many friends who live in constant fear that Mother Nature will humble them, that the market will destroy them. They are people who farm, and labor, and toil to create something that is beautiful, something they can be proud to support their family with. It is not a factory product like so much wine is.

    In this way these wines are elite, not snobby, not pretentious, but they have honor and dignity. A good wine writer must know this fact first.

  15. I think the big problem was that there seemed to be an idea that an attack on criticism was OK. We should want critics and if they are to be good at all then they should be fairly elite. Our society in general has abandoned the idea that elitism in as far a personal achievement and taking pride in that is a good thing. This isn’t “I’m better than you” grade school kind of elitism, but simply we should want our experts to be the best of the best, which Steve describes above.

    We can’t all be experts but they are helpful when we go out on a limb and try something new that should be pretty good or at least different. “Good” and “I like” are different things and a critic can’t predict what someone will like, but they can say this is one of the better examples.

    Steve does a good job reaching out to his audience, which is undoubtedly mostly people who will spend some $$ on a decent wine. I don’t think we can ask him to restructure society so we feel better about wines historical association with elitism. He reviews a large number of wines at every price point capable of making modest wine and he does so under some of the least biased circumstances. That should be applauded.

  16. Wayne – well put. Honor and dignity – I like that. GDFO – which foot are you planing on dining on? We are not all winners, or even all equally good at what we are supposed to be good at, no matter what the kindergarten teacher or T-ball coach says.

    Now excuse me while I put on my astronaut suit to go shoot 3-pointers for the Knicks on the International Space Station – right after my next album drops and I wrap up my speech on human rights in front of the UN General Assembly.

  17. Christophe Hedges says:

    The revolution grows strong on this site.

    Steve, I think your a fine man, but the reality is, your numbers (pun?) are dying. Embrace the future, and dig deep into the roots of this industry. Why criticize? Perhaps you should just write stories .

  18. James Rego says:

    A lot of this back and forth is unnecessary. It seems to me that a lot of people overreact and they might be better served to just chill a little bit. Nobody agrees with everything that someone else says or does. I read this blog because I like Steve and like his point of view on wine related matters ; that said, I don’t always agree. One thing for sure , a wine writer must have a thick skin to survive. Keep up the good work, Steve!

  19. george kaplan says:

    We come back to blogs that are fun to read, regardless of subject. Part of fun to read , a big part, is the volume and quality of comments. A skillful provocateur will get people checking in not only for his Churchill-like prose( that would be Ward Churchill, right?)but for the skill, passion and wit of his commentators.
    Keep up the good work.

  20. Steve-

    My take on yesterday’s post is that you forced an argument that you like to make (about the have-nots jealously eyeing up what they perceive the haves to have while claiming that the haves don’t deserve what they have) onto a story that didn’t really fit it.

    A touch of that diligent investigation and hard work that separates the haves from the have-nots would have served you well yesterday. That silly little study had little or nothing to do with “wine experts” as you would use that term. The 330 people in the study were divided into “experts” or “consumers” and then conclusions were drawn.

    One-third of the study participants were defined as “experts” for the purpose of the study. Using the definition from the study, on a given Saturday, one-third of the people in a Costco wine department are experts. It was uncomfortable watching you wincing yesterday while you were forcing your argument into an ill-fitting shoe.

    All snarkiness aside, the Galloni and Burghound posts were interesting. Your occasional meltdowns now and again are entertaining, so I can’t complain about them (and they sure draw the comments), but in my opinion, the former are closer to the “wine writer” model you espouse.

  21. Mr. Freeze, I can please some of the people some of the time, but I can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sorry!

  22. James Regro, my hide is a foot thick.

  23. “Why do these people get so upset to the point of almost losing their minds?”

    In my opinion, it’s because people who don’t really know what they’re talking about receive attention and recognition as IF they do. I think anyone who calls themselves a “pro wine critic/reviewer” should work some time in the vineyard and bust their butts at the crushpad (at least a day a year) prior to picking up a pen or keyboard. This way they’d have some real world context before the climb up on their (corporate) sponsored soap box and pretend they have meaningful knowledge about THAT specific vintage and that specific region. You can’t get this critical perspective via just an interview or drive-by vineyard tour. Otherwise they are simply side-lining correspondents with NO SKIN IN THE GAME. If they did have something meaningful to LOSE, they’d perhaps tend to their opinion-based reviews better.

  24. People have already lost their minds Steve – that’s why they get upset – just look around when you drive, go to the grocery, etc. The age of “anti-social” media has completely fired the brains of many in our society… And you, sir, simply provide them the outlet – in their mindset you become the bugaboo of whatever pshrinkological malady pertains to their particular fakely diagnosed disease. Meanwhile their pshrink is out drinking the latest wine you recommended laughing all the way to the bank… Yes, I’m a cynic!

  25. Steve,
    As a former journalist, I get what you do and enjoy reading your blog for the interviews, reviews and for your impressions/opinions of the wine industry. It doesn’t mean I always agree. Perhaps those most critical of your opinions should realize they make a choice to read your blog. The only “authority” you have is the value readers place on your opinion…if it makes them buy wine at Costco or not. It’s always fun to see how readers react to you. Keep it up!

  26. Christina says:

    Wine makes a lot of people feel stupid, and so does a lot of wine reviewing. No one likes to feel stupid and that’s what differentiates wine and wine reviewing from, say, movie reviewing. Most people who like movies can extract from a movie review whether they will like the movie. We also feel free to enjoy a mediocre-to-truly-awful movie here and there just because we like it. (Even in movies, the broad audience is being left behind to some degree because of the attention and accolades given to small-distribution movies that many, if not, most people can’t see in the theater. But I digress.)

    But think about wine reviewing and terms like “cassis,” “ganache,” “singed bay leaf,” “treacle,” “quince,” and “blackberry confiture.” It may add a level of precision to the review that other words wouldn’t, but it’s definitely vocabulary for an insiders club. And most wines that get reviewed can’t be bought in most local markets.
    Don’t you think it would be a service to consumers and to the wine industry if reviewers also did roundup reviews of grocery-store wine? (Is this a good year or bad for Yellow Tail Shiraz? What are the good values in box wine?) What would be so bad about a list that did something like: If you like Yellow Tail Shiraz, you might like (a list of “better” wine in a range of prices, including inexpensive)? It probably would not be hard at all to get cherry wine drinkers to add Riesling to wines they like.

    Having said all that, though, I do believe it’s incorrect in all subjects in life to say that the uninformed know more than the informed. You may not be able to pick out the wine I like best, but it doesn’t follow that that wine I like best is the best wine. Best-selling books are not always lasting literature. The same applies to best-selling wine. But given that the biggest part of any market lives in the best-seller aisle, it’s foolish to ignore it and even more foolish to disdain it.

  27. Christina, agree with you about “ganache” etc. I only use common food analogies (although I do use crême de cassis because I think most Bordeaux or Cabernet drinkers understand it). Do you think crême de cassis is too exotic?

  28. raley roger says:

    I like Richard the cynic. Brother, can I buy you a beer. You sound like an interesting cat.

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