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Real wine-drinking countries don’t need wine critics



Matt Kramer makes a good case about the difference between “enjoyment” and “assessment” of wine in his Dec. 15 Wine Spectator column—too good a case, for in describing the importance of “context” in wine appreciation, he carves out a huge exception for “truly great wines” in a way that is not entirely consistent with his argument.

Briefly, Matt’s argument runs thus: “Context is everything—or nearly so.” A humble little Tuscan wine that was so good in Florence is “a little thin” back home in the States. Port on a hot summer day just doesn’t work. A big Napa Cabernet that tasted so good at Farmstead can be “a little too strong” someplace else. Yes, “context” as such is of supreme importance in how we experience our wines.

The logical extension of this is that every wine is a product (or victim) of its context, and therefore, there is something fungible about our impressions of wine quality: it all depends on what Dr. Leary called “set and setting.” I can buy into that theory, although it does imply the (rather alarming) wrinkle that there is no such thing as objective quality.

This is dangerous territory for critics, who make their living by appraising quality. Matt senses this risk: he gets this close to affirming it, yet instinctively backs down or away at the last second. (Even his headline, “Context is [nearly] everything,” testifies to some inner wrestling with himself.) After telling us, correctly, how context trumps objective quality, he retreats to the following loophole big enough to drive a fleet of trucks through: “Obviously, this is not always the case—and certainly not for truly great wines…”.

Think about this statement. It states rather categorically that there is a subset of all wines, namely “truly great wines,” that is “protected” (or, in Matt’s exact words, “protect themselves”) from the context dilemma by virtue of their greatness—a sort of vinous nobility that is above the laws to which the rest of us ordinary mortals are subject. Matt, like wine writers throughout history, creates this exclusive carve-out and contrasts it with “lesser wines.” The former need no context to be appreciated, only the discerning powers of the critic. The latter can be appreciated—must be appreciated—only in context.

This is a very strange dualism. For one, if the world can be divided into “truly great wines” and everything else, who’s to say which camp any particular wine is assigned to? When the world of wine commentary was restricted to a mere handful of (white, male) critics, this was a simple matter. These men dined and drank at the same clubs and shared the same outlook. But that is no longer the case. As the stranglehold of the ancien régime loosens, so too, and inevitably, must our concepts of what makes for “truly great wines.” The Internet unleashed this genie on the world, and we have to live with, and adjust ourselves to, its destabilizing results.

But of course any critic who has made a career of curating wines into the “truly great” and everything else must hesitate before taking the enormous step of declaring that everything is context—even the evaluation of LaLas or Latour. I count myself among them. I am hugely reluctant to declare that wine quality is a myth perpetuated nowadays by a complicit media, and that everything is relative. For I know that everything is not relative. There are degrees of quality, and we in this business are expected to make distinctions.

At the same time, I’m aware of the fact that the way we hierarchize wine is changing. We may in fact be coming to a point where we abandon the notion of objective quality and come down instead on the side of “enjoyment,” as opposed to “assessment,” where the first duty of a wine is, not to garner praise from “experts,” but to please the person who buys it. I don’t expect this to occur in my lifetime, but we’re closer to it than we ever have been, for the simple reason that America is more of a wine-drinking country than it has ever been, and real wine-drinking countries don’t need critics to tell them what to drink.

  1. There is no dualism. Great wines establish their own context. That is, context isn’t simply latitude and longitude. It’s dozens of things including your mood, where you are, what you’re eating, who you’re with, the conversation, lighting, what the somm/sales person told you about the wine, your experience with the wine, and so on.

    When you are presented with a “great wine” that you know to be great, then expectation-setting is in full gear and you will look for greatness. Even as a professional taster this has to be true.

    The role of a critic should be as important as ever. But the reason wine critics will go the way of the marginalized restaurant, music and movie critic is not due to skill but due to the fact that they fail to see that the single most important thing they can do is to establish context for wine buyers. To do this, they need to be in front of wine buyers in restaurants and retail stores, proactively encouraging decisions.

    Instead, their insight is locked up in fusty old reference apps and websites where nobody is going to use it to make decisions. Apps like Viivino already have 3X the audience of the largest critics with insane growth rates and growing quality of reviews. Once retail inventory and a bit of machine learning are thrown in, then it’s lights-out for professional critics simply because they’re not where buyers are.

    Kudos to those that have (ahem) well-timed escapes or cash-outs. It’ll be sad to watch the remainder over the next several years – especially since they’ve had plenty of warning.

  2. Mr. Brill and Mr. Heimoff have nicely summed up the changing times which has/have? seen a movement from gatekeepers to peers: the democratization of recommendations. With enough ~wine drinker~ critiques of particular wines available via two clicks of Vivino, Delectable or other similar apps on a smartphone, context drops out as a variable since composite high scorers were enjoyed in a wide range of settings from winery decks to picnics to dinners to blind wine tastings.

  3. Patrick Frank says:

    Very interesting issue raised here. I disagree that truly great wines generate their own context. First, because “truly great” is difficult to define, because there is more than one way for a wine to be great. Second, I think that a “truly great wine” (whatever that means) can easily fail to be recognized as such in the wrong context.

  4. Good point @patrick. What I meant was really a great wine brand. If someone pops open a bottle of DRC for you while talking about how great it is then there’s a very high probability that you will consider it one of the best wines you ever had because your expectations are set very high. That is also context.

  5. @tom… even if the quality of reviews is iffy, apps will win because they will proactively advise buyers at the point of purchase. No matter how erudite your review, it matters none of its sitting somewhere where people aren’t.

  6. Also @Tom, apps have the ability to manufacture context. Imagine you sit down at a restaurant in the summer and your app uses sunny/hot imagery, and then highlights a rosé from Bandol because you’ve rated 3 French rosés wines well before and highlights that the wine is only 1.7X list price on the restaurant list and has a 91 point score from users (or stars or whatever), refreshing citrus and red berry notes, excellent acidity and a thumbs-up from Paj Rarr, the somm you’re following in the app.

    A Parker or Spectator doesn’t even remotely matter in this scenario… and this is exactly what 12 months from now is going to look like.

  7. The amazing flaw in this self-congratulatory thinking is that well-followed critics are not followed for their immediacy in one-bottle purchase situations.

    They are followed for their advise where quantity and price both are part of the calculus. All the generalist apps in the world cannot replace that kind of thinking because the kinds of readers who subscribe to publications want more than immediacy for one bottle purchases.

    It is the rare wine list in which I do not know enough to make an informed decision. But when it comes to putting wine in my cellar, I want to be able to look at lots of reviews side-by-side from a critic I trust. That will never be Vivino or Cellar Tracker.

    But, where Mr. Brill has logic on his side is in the one-of settings. I am looking at a wall of wine or a wine list with 30 or 300 choices and only a half dozen appeal to me, and I am happy to get any advice rather than none.

    The kinds of people who subscribe to Parker or Tanzer or Connoisseurs’ Guide are information junkies as that info relates to high priced wines and additions to their cellars.

  8. @charlie… not sure I get the “self-congratulatory” part as I have no horse in this race. On the contrary, I have long believed that professional critics should be able to maintain their important role in the industry… I would always prefer a recommendation from a professional palate – especially one I’ve calibrated against – than the average of my Aunt Mabel and zinboy82.

    However, with all due respect, critics are completely ignoring the role of technology in defining the form, place and time of information delivery. And my point is simply that no matter how good critic information is, if it’s not in the right form when and where users need it, and something else is (even if it is inferior), then, well, we’ve seen this movie before. Zagat didn’t completely go away… but how often do you look at Zagat vs. Yelp when figuring out where to go to lunch?

    It’s probably less of an issue for smaller critics and a much greater risk to those that rely on advertising as a primary source of revenue… as those dollars ultimately will get directed away from non-contextual sites/magazines to the highly-contextual point of purchase.

  9. Michael–
    Plenty of people use Yelp. I use Zagat and Chowhound. I have even occasionally used TripAdvisor, especially in small markets like the place I am headed to next Spring with its fifteen restaurants.

    But, I am not sure I get your point. Virtually every subscriber-based publication is readable online with good search engines. And the readers are already committed to those publications. You want thousands of current reviews from you favorite pub? Pick up your smart phone and look.

    Why is that not viable? I do it all the time.

    It is already five or more years since the mantra “the pubs are dinosaurs” was first heard. Funny thing is that the pubs are all still here and are in no danger of going away.

  10. Bill Haydon says:

    I’ve gotta side with Charlie on this one. Silicon Valley’s self-congratulatory circle-jerk at having made the (wine) world a better place is a little premature. Hold on a minute, my order just arrived.

    OK, I’m back. While I have my problems with the most prominent American wine critics and view the Spectator as a vapid, lifestyle/wine celebrity navel gazer and Parker as the epitome of a wine world gone off the freakin’ rails, I do believe that no app crowd sourcing reviews can ever take the place of well written wine magazines and books. Sorry, give me Decanter or Jancis over winegeekinthe415 any day.

  11. @Charlie and @Bill… I doubt you’ll find someone as skeptical as I’ve been about the role of collective intelligence (Aunt Mabel’s reviews) in wine. 1,000 poor reviews is not better than 1 good review. I have seen dozens and dozens of venture investments into wine with a 0% success rate. I don’t see a lot of smug winetech companies… mostly just people with their tail between their legs and “never again” head shaking. So don’t lump me into a bucket of naive wine technology utopians.

    And nowhere did I say winegeekinthe415 reviews were better than professional critics. What I am saying is that critics fail to see or fail to care about the importance of context in buying decisions. The role of a critic is to help the consumer figure out what to buy. Consumers buy the vast majority of wine in wine stores and
    restaurants. Let’s say I walk into, say, a Safeway with 500 wines. What is that experience like? Do I start with wine #1, google the name or scan the label, read, jot a note down, and then go to wine #2 and start again? That is a ridiculous notion. Even if I walk over to the Napa Cab section, there are 60 wines. Even if you wrote the 60 most informative wine reviews ever created, how in the world does that help me standing in front of that wall of wine? And maybe I shouldn’t even be looking at overpriced Napa Cabs when there’s an awesome value Bordeaux across the aisle. But how am I to know? Search engines are for searching things you know about, not for figuring out where the good stuff is.

    This problem will be addressed by apps and, right now, those apps are created by companies who are building their own content from their communities – some of which are already larger than the entire readership of all wine pubs in the world. And even if those content bases aren’t as good as professional critic content now, they’re getting better and – most importantly – they’re going to be in front of consumers when consumers are making buying decisions. People don’t read wine books… shit, they don’t even read sensory reviews. Show them a number and brief narrative and that’s it.

    I write so forcefully about this because I think critics still have a window to change the way they think… to focus on their role as a consumer advocate. Instead, I’d argue that most critics are now serving the machine – retailers, distributors, wineries. Consumers are something that sits at the end, footing the bill.

    Go back to first principles of wine consumer advocacy in the internet age. Do you really think it ends with a magazine and searchable review database?

  12. doug wilder says:


    As much adoption as Vivino is showing from a user perspective, I don’t see much in their reviews that I couldn’t find on the wine aisle in the Marina Safeway. I gave up after 45 minutes of page after page of reviews for Mark West, Coppola, Chateau St. Jean, Mondavi, Silver Oak and Jordan. Ninety percent of the US wine market is controlled by 30 companies, with a mere three accounting for half; nearly 200 million cases. Consumers for a lot of these widely distributed wines are not concerned with what a critic has to say (and have probably never looked at a wine magazine, or could name a critic). One percent of a 400 million case market is still significant and probably only a fraction of that represents why critics are perceived to be valuable to consumers. As a critic, it is rare for me to review a wine with production over 5000 cases with the average more like 400, meaning 1000 wine reviews a year is equal to .00125 of the whole US Market. People subscribe to critics because it is information they are likely not going to get anywhere else and it is coming from a resource that has an established history of knowing what they are talking about.

  13. Boat Drinker says:

    I’ve not spent much time on Vivino, but have been using Delectable fairly regularly for a couple of months. I’m not that interested in Aunt Mable or winegeekinthe415, either, but I find value in the opinions of various sommeliers whom I follow. You can edit/replace “sommeliers” with “writers” or “critics” or “whomever you want”, what matters is if I value their opinion. If I do, then I follow them. How is this much different than reading critics/publications? It is the content that matters. Is this sliding toward a newspaper vs. online news discussion? I hope not. There is a lot of not very useful wine websites and apps, but if the design and content gets it right, then it will work.

    Hey, I’d like to have my own personal somm to help me whenever I choose, buying 1 bottle at the store or 250 for my cellar. We aren’t there yet, but I’ll wager we will be, some day soon.

    It won’t be in book form.

  14. @Doug, I don’t disagree with the quality of app reviews *today*. I think we can all agree that Aunt Mabel’s “Had with Tony… yummy” review of KJVR isn’t providing value. But as per @BoatDrinker’s comment… they’re getting better. CT still has the best non-pro reviews imho… Delectable has clearly been putting effort into building up the “semi-pro” somm reviews. Vivino has some catch-up to do (imho), but they’ve got user momentum. Filtering out crappy reviews is a pretty simple software task. The question is whether you believe that there is a tier of, say, 10,000 hard-core wine drinkers (somms, semi-pros, etc.) that can produce high-quality reviews that can be corralled by software. We’re only seeing a bit of that today… but 12-24 months from now, it really will become more apparent.

    And, sorry to repeat myself, but my underlying point is that a well-designed app that constructs a narrative for a user provides a lot of context such that the score itself is no longer *the* single driver. Check out the Vivino email offers today. They’re already using some random somm’s numbers. I really don’t like this, but I don’t see many people complaining about it.

    As an aside, it’s also important to note that critic scores are not protectable IP in the US. So there’s nothing stopping apps incorporating your scores and Parker scores and Spectator scores, etc. Just to make this super-scary… none of the facts in a review is protectable. And with today’s technology, combining the facts from a few different reviews and generating new reviews ain’t nothing.

  15. Let me add some demographic consumption numbers to Doug’s market share numbers . . .

    The key statistic: 16% of weekly wine drinkers consume 96% of all wine sold.

    Fuhgettabout targeting the other 84% of non-habitual drinkers.

    Excerpts from
    (May 12, 2010, 2012):

    “The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”

    [Fine Wine 2010 Conference held in Ribera del Duero (Spain)]


    By Graham Holter
    Associate Director – Publishing
    Wine Intelligence [United Kingdom market research firm]

    . . .

    According to the data presented by [David] Francke [managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.

    [Bob’s aside: Corresponds with the “80-20 Rule of Marketing” — 80% of your sales unit volume comes from 20% of your customer base. For those interested in knowing more about this observed phenomenon, Google these keywords: “Pareto principle” and “Joseph Juran.”]

    . . .

    Wine Intelligence has studied the US wine market in detail and categorised the wine drinking population — which it measures at 47 million — into profile groups. Two of these segments – “Millennial Treaters” and “Experienced Explorers” — were introduced to conference delegates by Erica Donoho, Wine Intelligence’s country manager for the USA.

    “Millennial Treaters,” she said, represent just 6 percent of wine drinkers, but they account for 13 percent of market value.

    “They’re a young group, under 30, and they’re exciting market players to look at,” she said. “Wine was introduced to them at a young age and it’s something they’re embracing wholeheartedly. When we ask them lots of questions, one theme that keeps coming up is there’s a pressure — especially among the men in this group — to know more about wine. They’re receptive to information; they want to be marketed to with some instruction.

    “They’re really interested in sharing knowledge with friends and family, and it’s an amazing way to target this group. They want to share their experience and their knowledge.

    “The social etiquette of wine choosing is becoming increasingly important.”

    Typically, such consumers will use the varietal as a major buying cue, but two thirds of them are also influenced by country or region of origin.

    [Bob’s aside: The article goes on to discuss “Experienced Explorers,” which as a demographic group accounts for 17 percent of the wine drinking population and 33 percent of the market value.]

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