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Who’s the best wine critic, a local or a visitor to the region?

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Old friend Nick Goldschmidt braved the terrors of I-80 through Berkeley and Emeryville to visit me in Oakland yesterday. We grabbed some sushi to go and walked over to the park, where we sat on a bench by the lake, with all the seagulls and geese, and talked. (Yes, Gus came, too.)

What did we talk about? Wine, of course. I got caught up on his adventures (Nick seems always to be somewhere in the world making wine) and he got caught up with mine. We spoke about wine critics, and Nick made an interesting statement.

He said, in effect, that he thought wine writers/reviewers should actually live in the places they write about, in order to understand the culture. For instance, he said, when Nick travels to Chile, he lives with winemakers, not in a hotel, eats their food, plays with their kids, and in general absorbs the culture. Chileans eat a lot of sushi, which accounts for many of their wines. Argentinians, by contrast, eat a lot of beef.

So what about traveling writers, like Jancis, Parker, Galloni? I asked. They don’t live in the wine regions they write about but they seem to do a pretty good job. And, I pointed out, I don’t live in wine country either.

“Yes, but you live in the Bay Area and easily travel up to Napa and Sonoma,” Nick said, which is true; and it’s also easy for me to get to the Central Coast. On the other hand, lots of wine writers only visit overseas regions once or twice a year—and then they tend to go to the same old wineries over and over, and this, too, bothered Nick.

I suppose it’s true that living in or near the wine country you write about makes the writing somewhat more authoritative. I’m not sure I agree that an understanding of the “culture” is all that relevant, though. It can’t hurt, but I like to feel that I could take the skills I’ve learned—having a decent palate and all that—and apply them to the wines of France or Croatia or South Africa, if I was reviewing them.

Winemakers always want to feel that the people critiquing their wines have as thorough an understanding as possible of those wines—where they’re from, what the underlying philosophy is, how they were made and so forth. This is perfectly understandable. The relationship between a critic and the wines he reviews is a very intimate one. This is why many wineries—not most, but a lot—won’t allow critics to taste their wines, except with the winemaker on the premises. I personally don’t subscribe to that approach, as I think it’s short-sighted; but then, I come at this from the critic’s point of view.

I think Nick’s questions raise deeper issues, and reflect an ongoing uneasiness about wine critics on the part of many winemakers. They (winemakers) work their butts off to make wine, and then their success or lack thereof is in the hands of writers who are, let’s face it, largely uncredentialed. We also talked about where wine criticism is heading, as the Boomers fade from the scene and print publications continue to try to figure out how to stay relevant. Nick asked me what I thought, and I had to admit I don’t know. After all these years of kicking the subject around on steveheimoff.com, the jury’s still out on how Millennials (the future of wine) will be basing their buying decisions in 5, 10 years.

Speaking of Nick, whose wines I’ve adored for a long time (he’s so talented), I will miss tasting the fantastic range of great wines that used to come my way, not to mention the interaction with so many talented California winemakers, some of whom have been nice enough to contact me and wish me well. I was lucky in my job: I got to taste the best that California has to offer. Not that I’m complaining: I still get to taste some fabulous wines from Jackson Family. Long before now, I should have congratulated Virginie Boone for inheriting the Napa-Sonoma portfolio of my former job at Wine Enthusiast. Good for her: she deserves it.

  1. redmond barry says:

    I don’t know that being with the folks makes much difference in California, which is more -or-less monocultures compared to , say, Provence and Catalonia, or Chile and Argentina. at least if you’re eating street food with Bourdain. OTOH, Clive Coates made much of getting to know individual Burgundians, and I’ve found his comments very instructive.

  2. This is probably an idealistic position, but a critic with local knowledge is the best because she/he can give you context. Take Lodi: right now there is a new movement there among a select few winemakers to make lower-alc, minimal-intervention Zin from old vineyards. A taster sitting in Philadelphia might not be able to inform us consumers about how the new zins relate to the old ones.

  3. Good point!

  4. Good question. I discussed this on my blog recently. Local writers have in depth knowledge but often lack the global context of wine to make best use of this. But if you try to cover everything you spread yourself thin. My policy – travel the world but develop specialisms. Make a point to benchmark the celebrated classics

  5. The great Jamie Goode weighs in!

  6. There is an element of elitism, or perhaps self-serving righteousness, in the notion that a person with informed knowledge of the wines of an area cannot be a valued and exacting critici of those wines. One does not have to live in Condrieu to have tasted enough of those wines to know about them, and one does not have to live in CA to understand the many variations on the Viognier theme that exist here.

    Tasting experience and careful observation is always the best teacher. My impressions of Chilean or Argentinean or Bordelais or Australian Cabernets come with years of experience of tasting not just the wines in my locale (California) but also those wines as well.

    It is absolute nonsense that one has to live in Bordeaux to understand the difference between Margaux and Pauillac or even between Lafite and Latour. Only a local would make that argument. And what makes the point even sillier is that the whole world buys those wines. If one believes that local knowledge is necessary to understand them, then the further extension of that argument is that only locals should drink those wines.

    Good luck with that.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    It ultimately depends on the ability of the individual to step outside the constraints of local provincialism, and not all can accomplish that. Being an insider certainly gives a degree of insight which can prove to be valuable. On the other hand, being an insider/local also comes with pressure (internal and external) to not offend one’s friends/neighbors/clients, to not rock the apple cart and to conversely be something of a cheerleader for the local industry.

    Often, a clear-eyed outsider’s perspective unfiltered by over familiarity and personal relationships is the superior judge.

    One of the things that I’ve always respected about this blog is Steve’s ability to take a cold, clear-eyed view of the California wine industry and occasionally make an analysis that isn’t entirely welcomed by the locals but one he feels is both correct and necessary.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Steve, et. al.:

    Let me come at this from a different direction: should critics even know the artists they cover?

    Will that personal knowledge led to the formations of friendships, which might make it more difficult to publicly criticize their work?

    Restaurant critics go undercover to review dining establishments. They don’t know the owners and/or executive chefs or sommeliers. And we the public like it that way.

    Critics who get too cozy with their subjects risk losing their objectivity.

    (Think of the cozy relationship that existed between the English wine press and the Bordeaux producers in the 1970s that motivated Robert Parker to take up pen and start reviewing wines with a Ralph Nader-inspired independence from the trade.)

    ~~ Bob

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    One more observation: what if a wine critic has a disability that limits his/her mobility and therefore ability to travel to/through “wine country”?

    His or her discerning opinions would/should still be valuable and welcomed.

    (Looking over the horizon: Robert Parker’s health issues. Going forward, if he can no longer travel to California or Bordeaux, walk the vineyard properties, and stand or sit for extended periods of time sampling wines for his annual reports, he could still cover the scene remotely via his home in Monkton sampling bottles — the way that almost every wine critic does who covers multiple geographic “beats.” Parker’s reservoir of knowledge trumps the importance of his personal “boots on the ground” forays.)

    ~~ Bob

  10. Bob–

    Let me add my two cents about restaurants vs wine criticism.

    I do not believe, and neither does Steve, that wine should be reviewed in wineries with owner or winemaker standing there telling you what to think.

    Restaurant reviews can only be performed in the restaurant.

    Second point: If you have ever eaten in a restaurant where the owner knows you and wants to treat you right, then you know that there are times when you get an enhanced meal. I can cite many instances of extra courses to bigger portions where it has happened to me. That cannot happen with a bottle of wine tasted blind within my tasting confines.

    Now, I know you are not championing bad behavior, but I will tell you that I have had winery owners tell me that the only way I can review their wines is to come to the winery and taste the wine there with them present. I refused one owner who then said to me, “Well, Parker and Tanzer do it”.

    When I asked him if he thought it was an appropriate way to taste, he said to me “All I know is that I get better scores that way”.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Charlie,

    Regarding this statement:

    “If you have ever eaten in a restaurant where the owner knows you and wants to treat you right, then you know that there are times when you get an enhanced meal. I can cite many instances of extra courses to bigger portions where it has happened to me. That cannot happen with a bottle of wine tasted blind within my tasting confines.”

    There have been allegations made over the years of “special cuvees” concocted specifically for visiting wine writers. (Bordeaux is repeatedly mentioned.)

    Those cuvees may — or may not — become the wine that gets bottled and shipped to importers and ultimately consumers.

    Example: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1994-06-23/food/fo-7290_1_wine-spectator

    As for restaurants, one could bypass personally dining in the establishment and sample via take-out.

    ~~ Bob

  12. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of Parker’s recent speech at the Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena . . .

    video clip: http://vimeo.com/87443435

    article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/katiebell/2014/02/24/robert-parker-faces-his-toughest-critics-wine-writers/

    . . . clearly the man is challenged physically from his back surgery last year (e.g., walking with the assistance of two canes).

    But his health has been a subject of discussion for 15 years.

    Excerpts from this 1999 front page article in the Los Angeles Times:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens;
    Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic.
    His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally, and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”

    Link:

    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    On a chilly early fall morning in the Napa Valley, the Most Powerful Man in the World of Wine — unseasonably attired in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts — stands next to his white rental car in the parking lot at the Meadowood Resort. There’s a boyish half-smile on his lips and a small, inch-thick notebook in his left hand. At 51, his Rabelaisian love of food — and 25 years of drinking two bottles of wine a day — HAVE ADDED 80 POUNDS to his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. HE NOW WEIGHS 265 POUNDS, AND HIS WALK IS BEGINNING TO RESEMBLE A WADDLE — a reasonably fast waddle, to be sure, but a waddle nonetheless. . . .

    “How much wine does he actually drink — not just taste, drink?

    ” ‘I used to drink about two bottles a day’ he says, ‘but when I hit my mid-40s, I figured it was wise to cut back to a little more than one a day.’

    “How is his health?

    “I’VE GOT GOUT. All that rich food, no doubt. . . .”

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

  13. Bob Henry: “Restaurant critics go undercover to review dining establishments. They don’t know the owners and/or executive chefs or sommeliers. And we the public like it that way.”

    That’s an arguable assertion. Apparently it’s been a longstanding joke in the restaurant criticism trade: the critics go “undercover” in the sense that they use a fake name for the reservation, but even maitre d’ worth his salt knows the important local critics by sight, and the kitchen is made aware of it. (Especially in the age of social media, where it’s relatively easy to find a picture of someone.)

    A synopsis here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/07/23/pete_wells_daniel_review_the_new_york_times_restaurant_critic_acknowledges.html

    New York Magazine’s food reviewer recently gave up the pretense of anonymity, for similar reasons: http://nymag.com/restaurants/wheretoeat/2014/adam-platt-revealed/

    If I recall correctly, the New York Times

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B:

    Here in Los Angeles, news coverage on “outing” a restaurant critic:

    “Food Critic Outed and Ousted from Restaurant;
    Times critic S. Irene Virbila was waiting for a table at Red Medicine when the manager snapped her photo and told her to leave. It sparked a debate over whether modern critics can — or should — remain anonymous.”

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/dec/23/local/la-me-critic-20101223

    News coverage on the restaurant reviewers at the Michelin Guide being anonymous:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/23/091123fa_fact_colapinto?printable=true&currentPage=all

    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob,

    I remember that story. That’s the same restaurant that went on Twitter to name and shame people who made reservations and failed to show.

    Of course, it’s another difference between wine and restaurant criticism that — this exception aside — restaurants generally can’t “opt out” of being reviewed by particular critics, whereas I gather that it’s pretty easy for wineries to do so given that many critics rely on submissions.

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B,

    If you make your wine scarce enough through artificially low production and nose-bleed mailing list selling prices, then conceivably a winery can thwart most reviews.

    So let’s turn to two such critics — Steve and Charlie.

    Disabuse me of my ignorance: have you each reviewed bottles of Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non for your respective wine publications?

    If “yes,” how did the bottles reach you: procured through the publication’s acquisition budget, or donated by the wineries?

    ~~ Bob

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