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A column with notes of obscure snarkiness

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READERS: I’m in New York for Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards and editorial meetings. This is a repeat of a post I wrote in May, 2008, shortly after I began blogging.

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Badmouthing wine critics is a parlor game anyone can play. Why not? The first guy who talked about “legs” put a Mark of Cain on the rest of us for all time. Ever since then, we critic types have been walking around with a big target on our butts that says “Kick here.”

I’ve learned to laugh at it and roll with the punches, but every once in a while somebody says something snarky about me and my collegues that makes me want to defend our occupation of wine criticism. This time around, it’s a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Joel Stein. Now, I don’t know Joel, and he didn’t mention me, or anyone else for that matter, although he did quote Gary Vaynerchuk, who name-dropped Jancis Robinson, Spectator and Parker.

Joel seems to cover the culture beat at the Times. His online biography says he’s appeared on Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy” and E! Entertainment’s “101 Hottest Hot Hotties’ Hotness,” so I guess we should take him seriously.

The object of Joel’s ire (I hope he doesn’t mind my calling him by his first name) is winespeak. Like I said, this is always an easy one for a columnist to knock, especially one who’s on deadline and can’t come up with anything more germane.

Joel’s hard-hitting column gets right to the point. He likens people who talk about “notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to “a whole lot of jackass. The language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers,” he goes on, “has devolved into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing.”

Well, hold on a gosh-darned micro-minuto here. As one who’s used “cherries, tobacco and rose petals” to describe more than one wine over the years, I feel as if the Hand of Destiny has tapped me on the shoulder as the Poster Boy to stand up and defend us over-worked, underpaid, and too-often mocked Wine Writers!

Here are the hard, brutal facts, my friends. Wines really do have very complex aromas and flavors of flowers, herbs and fruits, and other things as well: spices, minerals, animals, vegetables, and organic chemicals. The reason for this is that there are thousands of different kinds of molecules in wine, and many of those molecules are found in flowers, herbs, fruits, etc.

Now, Joel says he doesn’t care about these aroma and flavors descriptors (although, obviously, a lot of people do). He says, “I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly [sic], watery or has a long finish.” Well, the better critics I know (and I know many of them in the U.S.) do tell their readers these things, as a matter of routine. A critic can say a wine has notes of cherries, and also say it’s rough, or balanced, or tannic, or hot, or whatever. No mutual exclusion there!

Joel also quotes Vaynerchuk saying this about critics: “[T]here’s a lot of people who suck at communicating…Nobody has guts.” Well, I’ll drop the names of some wine critic friends of mine who have guts and are damned good communicators. Alan Goldfarb. Dan Berger. Steve Pitcher. Eric Asimov. Jim Gordon. Jim Laube. Karen MacNeil. Kathy Marks Hardesty. Wilfred Wong. Laurie Daniel. Alder Yarrow. Harvey Steiman. My colleagues at Wine Enthusiast: Roger Voss, Monica Larner, Paul Gregutt, Michael Schachner and Joe Czerwinski. And, ahem, me. I could go on and on. Maybe Joel Stein is a wine critic manqué. He wouldn’t be the first.

I think Joel just woke up on the wrong side of bed and was feeling a little meow. I forgive him. Next time I’m tasting a great Pinot Noir with notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals — and maybe even hints of licorice, mocha and green tea — I’ll lift a glass to Joel. L’Chaim!

  1. Steve – very well said. Glad to see there’s been a backlash against that article. –Philip

  2. Here Here! Though don’t you feel that certain critics/writers might stretch a bit too far? I agree that his dismissal of these aromas and flavors is ridiculous, but there are times when I read a review of a wine, and the critic seems less able to make up there mind than to be actually describing it! :)

  3. Ryan, the only criticism I’m gonna offer some critics is that they don’t taste enough to know what they’re doing. Other than that, every critic has his or her own style.

  4. Some people are born with disabilities… It seems that a sense of smell is missing; and that’s okay, we understand. We can’t all be born with a great sense of smell.

    Without it – just like if you were born blind you wouldn’t understand “red” – there’s no understanding “saddle leather” even if your nose was on a saddle just after a sweaty run.

    I’m suggesting hyposmia…

    hy·pos·mi·a (h-pzm-) n. A diminished or deficient sense of smell.

  5. Very well put, Steve. It’s just like the bully who makes fun of nerds because the bully never knew the answers in class. People always put down those they are jealous of. Maybe if Joel was given deeper topics than “the hottest hotties” he’d have less to gripe about!

  6. hi Steve – With total due respect, I think the point of the piece is being missed:

    http://www.elbloggotorcido.com/2008/06/a-whole-lot-of.html

    Please let me know what you think!

  7. Jefe, nobody is going to confuse wine criticism with Shakespeare. The genre does not really lend itself to a great deal of creativity — I’ll be the first to concede that. Especially when you’re tasting many thousands of wines a year (as I do, and Laube, and Wilfred, and others), it’s hard to come up with witty lines like “a ballerina in steel-toed boots” with each and every description. We do the best we can in providing the public with a service they like and need. I really see no point in bashing us and the language that we use, except to stir up a bit of trouble. By the way, I see on your website that you have used many of my reviews for your fine wines. To cite one example, my review of your 2005 Tempranillo as “Dry and medium-bodied, it shows rich cherry, red currant, tangerine zest and pepper flavors, rendered complex with earthier notes of tobacco, tar and cedar” was creative enough to have gained your approval! (Or was it the 90 points?) Anyhoo — thanks for the comment.

  8. Steve, this is a subject I often rant about. My take is a critic—whether in wine, music, theater or cars—has to do three things:
    1. Be correct
    2. Be honest
    3. Be consistent
    This is the only real way for a reader to understand the words being used in any type of review.
    The “ballerina” flair works on occasion and I applaud such phrases. But the reality is when tasting 100 wines in a week, there are only so many pirouettes a writer or a critic can make. In fact, were each wine to have such phrases, as an editor, I would worry that the focus was on the phrase and not the taste!
    I love “wow” wines and I love “wow” words—there is room for all—but not in every glass.

  9. Kathy, I pretty much agree with everything you said. On the matter of consistency, I’ve been chatting about this a lot lately with different winemakers in my travels. I am asking people this question: “Is consistency in anything a good thing over a long period of time?” We change our tastes in fashion over the years; personally, I wouldn’t wear bellbottoms anymore. In the same manner, I think peoples’ tastes in wine do and should change over time. I don’t mean on a day to day or month to month basis. But over 10 or 15 years, maybe a critic will come to like a drier, more subtle and elegant wine than she did when she was younger. I find myself gravitating away from alcoholic, extracted wines toward more balanced ones. I think the entire critical community [including sommeliers] is sort of grappling with this issue, and figuring out where it’s going.

  10. hi Steve – You have always been one of my favorite writers because you add something more to each review beyond the flavors and aromas. For someone who writes 1000s of wine reviews every year (and who lives to tell the tale!), this has to be a huge challenge! And you left out what I thought is the best part of that Tempranillo quote: “”A study in progress, as are all California Temps. This is easily Twisted Oak’s best so far.” and: “The texture is a lovely, lilting silk. A wine to watch.”

    I really like the fabric metaphor, but if you had thrown in a sports metaphor I bet I would have dug that too! I don’t see exploring alternative ways of describing wine as “dumbing down” wine writing (as was suggested elsewhere) but rather as another fun way of exploring a subject and a substance that we all love. (I do agree, and should have made clear, that being a snarky bully about it is not what it is about.)

  11. 1981 49ers is my sports metaphor

  12. Jeff raises an interesting side angle here. The type of “wine writing” Joel Stein is condemning is what typically comes out of a blind tasting: organoleptics, a la “cherries, tobacco, rose petals”. THat’s the nature of pure blind tasting — the writing MUST key on taste, aroma, structure — and the result is a lists of descriptors by nature are either short, dull, lifeles and repetitive OR flowery and rich in odd detail, making them ripe for parody.

    But the note Jeff references is clearly what I would call revisionist, as in the final description was shaped AFTER being tasted, based on its identity as a California Tempranillo. (How else could you refer to the wine as “a work in progress”?) BY adjusting the tasting note to account for the wine’s identity, aren’t you undercutting the notion of blind tasting? Not to imply that you did not taste the wine blind, but it the point of wine writing is to describe wines usefully for readers, maybe the answer is to drop the whole “blind” pretense and focus on reality. In this case, the point you are making about the wine is not the way it tastes, but rather where/how it fits into the vast universe of wine.

    The truth that there is nothing simple about wine writing, and articles like Joel Stein’s are perhaps most valuable as a reality check for us in the wine industry. Maybe if we wine raters dropped all the eliltist trappings related to wine judging (blind line-ups, repetitive ratings) and focused on the end user we would not be in a position to have Joel Stein condemn us.

    If we actually WROTE about wines like other critics write about their topics of expertise, buying guides would become useless, as the mutual goal of reader and writer would be to fit wines into contexts rahter than create this imaginary level playing field based on blind tastings and ratings.

  13. I’m busy watching out for real fires and missed this one. All this angst over a little name-calling? Who the f*** is Joel Stein and why would a wine professional care what he thinks?

  14. Joel, in his statement of preference, “I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly [sic], watery or has a long finish.” is telling us that he wants to be advised as to the sensations (that which can be felt rather than tasted) he may expect from a wine. Note that he does not mention anything about actual flavor or taste.
    Guess that’s why God invented industrial wines?

  15. This all reminds of an article written by sports writer Mitch Albom, who authored Tuesdays with Morrie and other syrupy, philosophical quick reads. He felt the need to write an anti-wine diatribe in the Detroit Free Press, wherein he hoped the movie Sideways would not receive the 2005 Oscar for Best Picture.

    He opined, among other criticisms, “It’s all an affectation.” And if it won the Oscar, he declared, “People will be running off to New Agey vineyards, pouring pinots and syrahs, and blathering on about harvests and fermentations.”

    He detailed several close-minded “I don’t care abouts . . .” and with piercing intellectual insight, he summed it all up by stating that wine is just a drink like every other beverage, “And a few hours later, you excrete it the old-fashioned way.”

    I emailed him about his close-minded attitude and his apparent lack of even rudimentary wine knowldedge, but received no response from him.

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