When experts get stuff wrong
Matt Kramer is Wine Spectator’s best columnist. He’s fresh, witty, smart to the point of intellectual, and he doesn’t repeat himself by writing the same old thing over and over again (which suggests also that he possesses good taste). He also can own up to his mistakes, which he has done in the June 30 issue.
In it, he admits that he got Syrah “so wrong” when he predicted, in 2003, that it was “the most exciting wine in America,” more so than Pinot Noir. In fact, he believed Syrah would be “the next really big red.”
He should have asked me fifteen years ago. I would have told him, No, Matt, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. If Syrah ever had a chance, it was back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when there really was an opening for a “next really big red” that wasn’t Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot or a Bordeaux blend.
After all, that time period, 1989, was when Matt’s own magazine had its famous cover story on the “Rhone Rangers,” featuring a photo of a masked, costumed Randall Grahm, reaching with his right hand for what appears to be a bottle of wine in his holster and wearing pants that are just a touch too tight. The Rhone Rangers in fact became so famous in the industry so that, around that time, a group of the leading producers from the Rhone Valley came all the way to the enemy camp, Napa Valley, to sniff out what they were up to.
I would have bet even money in 1991 that Syrah would explode in popularity, but alas, it never did, and today vintners still occasionally can be heard wondering why the category simply collapsed (unfairly, in my opinion, but that’s reality). I’ve explored this several times in my blog and won’t do it again, for the question I want to address today is what happens when famous wine critics get stuff wrong.
That they do is obvious. Wine critics are only human and, being thus, they are fallible and subject to inaccuracy. We like to believe that our leaders, whether they be shamans, priests, Presidents or wine pundits, speak unerringly (and they like it when we so believe) but of course, everybody gets stuff wrong. Even Einstein concluded he’d been wrong about his cosmological constant (although more recent research suggests he may have been right after all).
However, the wine world is replete with critics getting stuff wrong. This runs the gamut from incorrect ageability predictions (common as dust) to prognostications of what’s hot and what’s not (cf. Matt Kramer). Wine critics commit, not only sins of commission, but sins of omission, such as a failure to overlook quality in brands they are not receptive to. Now that we’ve discovered critics can be wrong, what should we conclude about their real bread and butter, the wine review?
Well, the question answers itself, doesn’t it? This doesn’t invalidate the role of the wine critic, it merely puts it into perspective. Any given wine review is only partly accurate; this can be proven by asking the critic to repeat the review a second time, even a third time, but under blind tasting circumstances. (This is unlikely to happen very much, for a variety of reasons.) With this observation I now segue into the world of the gatekeeper, and specifically the sommelier. Did you know that some somms actually work against the best interests of their clients, who are the diners who eat at their restaurants? This was brought home to me the other day by someone who deals frequently with somms on a professional basis. He told me of a Bay Area restaurant, which I will not identify, whose wine list is so esoteric (Hungarian Juhfark, Republic of Georgia Kisi, Slovenian Rebula) that many customers end up bringing their own California Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon and pay the corkage, just so they can have something they like. To add insult to injury (according to my source), the restaurant’s somms then make the wine-bringers feel like village idiots.
Those somms also are getting something wrong: fundamentally, inherently wrong. It’s fine to suggest new and different things to customers, but you also have to respect their own preferences. There’s something horribly ideological about a restaurant insisting that everything its customers like is inappropriate, simply because the fact that the customers like it is de facto proof it must be pedestrian. Wine already suffers from an elitist image, and sommelier behavior like that only adds to the problem.
So if wine critics and sommeliers can get stuff wrong, can wine bloggers? Submit your answer to me written on the label of a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc. Winners get a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.