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Wine critics vs. crowdsourcing: which is best?

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It’s never a good idea for wine critics to defend the field of wine criticism against its critics, because they end up sounding whiney and defensive. I got plenty of criticism during my time, and I never took the bait, but Eric Asimov did last week, and he shouldn’t have.

His column, which ran in the Wednesday New York Times on July 18, was a rebuttal to what Eric called an “attack on wine critics” that appeared on the liberal news and opinion website, Vox. The Vox article argued several points, all of which undermine the importance of wine critics like Eric (and me, when I was working). The most important is this: “community wine reviews,” like CellarTracker’s, are better than, or at least as good as, professionally individual wine reviews (like those of Eric or Jancis Robinson), especially given that CellarTracker is free, whereas Jancis charges $110 a year for her subscription, and to read Eric, you have to subscribe to the New York Times.

(Parenthetically, that’s why I can’t link you to Eric’s column. The Times’ firewall is very effective! But if you Google “every few years, an article” Asimov, you’ll find in second place an Untitled link to a PDF of it.)

The Vox premise is harmless enough. All it’s saying is that crowdsourced wine reviews tend to correlate very closely with individual reviews, which objectively is true, according to Vox’s data. But Eric took the finding personally. “Pitchforks Are Out, Again, for Wine Critics” he, or his editor, headlined his column, letting you know, even before you read the first sentence, just what Eric’s going to say about those wielding the “pitchforks.”

He resorts to an ad hominem argument in blasting the study Vox cited, calling it “dense [and] statistics-heavy,” as though the fact that a study contains numbers and tables somehow makes it suspect, which of course isn’t true. He attacks, too, a video that accompanied the Vox article which showed Vox employees blind-tasting wines. “While they were able to identify the most expensive bottles with some consistency, they far preferred the cheaper ones,” Eric wrote, adding, “The conclusion: ‘Expensive wine is for suckers.’” This is a conclusion that rankles Eric a great deal.

But to me, the most shocking part of Eric’s column lies in his statement that “It’s not surprising to see this [sort of attack on critics] again, at a time when knowledge and expertise have been dismissed at the highest levels…”. You know exactly whom Eric’s not-so-subtle remark is directed at: Donald J. Trump and his legions of fact-free followers.

I defer to no one in my condemnation of and contempt for Trump and Trumpism and its war against scientific and historic fact. Readers of my blog know that I’ve warned about this dangerous know-nothingism for a long time. But to equate questioning the value of wine critics with attacks on the science of global warming is hyperbolic to the extreme. It’s a desperate resort to the emotions of the Times’ readers: Eric knows that the vast majority of them loathe Trump’s war on “knowledge and expertise,” and he seems to be trying to convince them to turn against critics of wine critics, as well.

It’s a positively Trumpian move.

Let me give my judgment, after tasting hundreds of thousands of wines professionally, at the highest levels of the industry, for twenty-five years. First, critics don’t agree amongst themselves. That should tell you something. Secondly, inexpensive wine can be as good as expensive wine. I need to parse this sentence, because it’s complicated. First, “inexpensive” and “expensive” are obviously relative terms. Second, when I say “good,” that also is a relative word: “goodness” in wine (as in films) is strictly in the eye of the beholder. You might love that $11 bottle of Croatian white wine. Jancis or Eric (or I) might hate it. That doesn’t make your taste any less authentic than theirs’, which is the whole point of the Vox article. Eric, who has devoted a lifetime to the knowledge and understanding of wine, deservedly wants to be acknowledged; when his “knowledge and expertise” are dismissed so lightly, he becomes affronted—as well he might.

But we’re not concerned here with Eric’s feelings. We’re concerned with the best approach for consumers to take, who are overwhelmed with the mysteries of wine. Eric suggests that the smart consumer will turn to a professional like him for the best advice. But the Vox article says definitively that crowd-sourced reviews are at least as correct, or right, or spot-on (whatever word you like) as the reviews of a single professional. And I simply can’t disagree with that. It’s true; it’s a fact; it makes sense, and there’s no getting around it.

This isn’t to say that wine critics don’t provide a very valuable service. If you find a critic whose tastes align with yours (no easy task), then you should feel free to follow that critic. Critics have the additional benefit that, because of their knowledge and expertise, they’re a delight to read. I love reading good wine critics (including Eric), because they write so well, and they’re able to put a wine into context, beyond their mere hedonistic review. (My favorite current writer is Benjamin Lewin.) Wine is complicated, elusive, the product of the marriage of history, geography, grape and fermentation science, human artistry, climate, entrepreneurial business and marketing and so on; a good writer, like Eric, captures these complexities for us and educates us about the wine, which makes its consumption all the more enjoyable.

So I’m certainly not dissing wine critics! But I am saying that to write a whiney, defensive tome like Eric did is not in his best interests, or those of knowledgeable wine criticism. Very few people read the Vox article because very few people read Vox. Eric’s position atop the heap in American wine writing is unchallenged. He shouldn’t have wasted his time.


“Parkerization” is real. Lisa Perrotti-Brown has it wrong!

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There is much to admire but also to object to in Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s op-ed piece in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, about Parker’s influence on wine. I hardly know where to begin to address the misinformation, but perhaps the biggest refutation of her claim that “parkerization is a lie”—repeated so often it sounds like it came from the telescreens of 1984—is that winemakers themselves say “parkerization” is real, and has dramatically changed their approach to winemaking.

“Parkerization,” or “wine parkerization” to be precise, even has its own place in Wikipedia, where it’s defined as less-acidic, riper wines with significant amounts of oak, alcohol, and extract.” That wines, especially in trend-setting Napa Valley and Bordeaux (where Parker’s influence always has been outsized), have undergone this stylistic development is made clear by the facts: “Alcohol levels of Napa Cabernet have increased more or less steadily since the seventies,” writes the Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, in his book, Claret and Cabs. Lewin cites studies showing that from 1975 until 1995, average alcohol levels in Napa Cabernet were between 13% and 13.5%. (The first issue of The Wine Advocate was in 1978.) From 1995 to 2000, they rose to around 14%, and then, after 2000, they went sky-high, in many cases reaching if not exceeding 15%. Lewin, citing a Napa winemaker, Anthony Bell, writes that “a deliberate change to riper styles” came in the 1990s, and that Bell “attributes it to Robert Parker’s influence.” This fully comports with the scores of winemakers I interviewed over the years, who all told me the same thing.

Perrotti-Brown’s contention is that Parker, who remains a co-owner of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and thus is one of Perrotti-Brown’s bosses, is not the cause of this phenomenon. Instead, she says, consumers are driving the change; Parker is simply an objective journalist reflecting this trend. We could, of course, debate forever the question of “Which came first?”, the consumer’s taste or Parker’s scores. That would be a fruitless pursuit. But to me, after close to thirty years of being at the center of the wine reviewing business in California, the answer is clear. While the old saying, “Correlation isn’t causation,” is, strictly speaking, true, we usually assume that blatant and repeated correlation is a form of causation. For instance, when we see the cue ball hit the eight ball, sending it careening, we infer with a high degree of certainty that the collision of the cue ball with the eight ball sent the latter on its merry way, even though, as David Hume reminded us, we cannot prove that to be the case.

So too is it with Parkerization. Over and over during my long career as a wine writer and critic, California vintners described to me how Parker scores forced them to change their winemaking style, even when they didn’t like the new style they felt compelled to adopt. I first heard this in the mid-1990s, not only from Napa winemakers but from others up and down California. By the early 2000s, the argument over whether wines, especially Cabernet, should be picked ultra-ripe was essentially over. Parker and parkerization had won. Only a handful of challengers, like Cathy Corison, could make “non-parkerized” Cabernet and get away with it.

There is something arch about Perrotti-Brown’s argument, a bit of “Methinks she doth protest too much.” It’s part of her job, I suppose, to defend her boss. Now, I don’t mean to disparage Robert Parker himself. As Perrotti-Brown points out, Parker has made “an incredible contribution…to our wine world,” and few understand this better than someone like myself, whose career overlapped his for many years. Working as a wine critic, in such a critic-sensitive place as California, I couldn’t help but be super-aware of Parker’s gigantic shadow, which made the rest of us mere fledglings beneath his eagle wings. I always defended Robert Parker; I thought he was entitled to every plaudit he got, and in fact our tastes in wine often overlapped. His high scores matched mine, almost bottle for bottle, in the areas, such as Napa Valley, we both covered.

I just think that Perrotti-Brown is a bit too outraged by the allegations of “parkerization” and I’m not sure why her outrage is in such high dudgeon. “Parkerization” is not “an erroneous slur,” as she characterizes it; it’s a description of reality. Every winemaker knows it; every critic knows it; every merchant and sommelier knows it.

Thought experiment: If Parker had not existed, would Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux have gotten as ripe and “big” as they did over the last 25 or 30 years? I can easily conceive of a reality in which the old style of red wine—anywhere from 11-1/2% to 13.2% or so—continues to be popular. After all, Bordeaux, upon which Napa is based, became celebrated hundreds of years ago, when alcohol levels were so low, the wines often had to be fattened up with Syrah from the South of France (or even, perish the thought, with Algerian wine!). There was nothing inevitable about people developing a preference for richer, higher-alcohol, oakier wines.

Yet the consumer did. Why? Here’s a little secret: as a critic, I have long thought that people will like the wines they’re told to like by the critics. This may sound cynical, but in fact, when people buy a wine based on a shelf talker that advertises a high score, they’re being very human about it: With so many wines, they do need help making choices. It’s perfectly natural for someone to think, “If a famous critic loves this wine enough to give it a high score, it must be a very good wine, so I should like it, too.”

Nor does this way of thinking characterize only beginning or uneducated drinkers. Connoisseurs, too, are psychologically influenced by the critics (believe me, the richer they are, the more enslaved they are to Parker scores); and when the critic is so famous as to have his last name turned into an adjective (“parkerized”), even the savviest, wealthiest collector will find himself under pressure to like a high-scoring Parker wine. So, while it may ultimately be impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg (the consumer’s taste in big, ripe wines or Parker’s scores), common sense tells me that Parker did: he drove the modern style. It’s called “parkerization,” and my suggestion to Perrotti-Brown is not to attack it but to celebrate it. Her boss created the modern wine industry; he, and she, should be justly proud, and own it.


Benziger Family Winery: five new reviews

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I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.

Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.

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OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS

“WE REMEMBER”

oakland


Do red wines get higher scores than whites due to “bias”?

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Is there “a critical bias toward red wines” among wine critics? That’s the thesis of a thought-provoking study that examined 64,000 scores from leading publications and found some fascinating tendencies:

  • reds score higher than whites
  • red wines are over-represented above 90 points
  • whites are over-represented below 90 points

So pronounced were these findings, the authors write, that, as the score crosses the critical 90-point threshold, “selling price and selling price variation increased quickly…[with some] lower-rated reds costing more than more highly-rated whites.” For example, a 90-point Napa Cabernet might cost $75 whereas a 93-point Chablis might go for $45.

I came across an article about the study at Jeff Siegel’s Wine Curmudgeon blog. (Sorry, I don’t think the full study is available online, although it is on PDF.)

Siegel found the finding curious: “Something is going on,” he wrote. I agree. But what could it be?

Siegel himself postulated various explanations. Critics may rate red wine higher “because it’s more prestigious.” This leads to a cascade of results: Producers invest more money making red wines than whites “…because consumers are willing to pay for that prestige,” and that greater investment in the production process may result in better wines.

During my decades of being a wine critic, I thought about this topic intensely, although I never reached any definitive conclusions. But it’s pretty obvious when you consider that at the leading wine periodicals, there are more (often far more) 100-point scores for reds than for whites. (This was true for me, too. I never gave a perfect score to a white wine.)

Let’s consider the question of bias, or preconceptions. If you know you’re tasting, say, First-Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy or Sauternes for that matter, from a great vintage, you’re more likely to yield to the possibility of giving it 100 points than if you’re tasting, say, a Temecula Tempranillo. So, to eliminate that bias, we taste single-blind. But even if you don’t know the individual bottles, if you’re a professional wine critic and your tasting was set up by a staff person, you’re still most likely going to be told the general category. “We’re tasting Premier Cru red Burgundy today from the 2011 vintage,” or “This flight consists of 2013 Napa Valley Cabernets and Bordeaux blends under $40.” Armed with these telltale bits of information, the brain will begin to come to certain conclusions, albeit unconsciously: a below-$40 Napa Cab cannot possibly get 100 points (so the reasoning goes); the best it can aspire to is 96, maybe 97 points, and so that’s what the critic finds when he tastes the wines.

So let’s make the tasting double-blind: nothing is known about the wines except for the color. This is where the bias for red wines (if there is one) comes in. You cannot prevent the critic from knowing the color. (You can always use black glasses, but I know of no critic who routinely uses them in assessing wines.)

The more I think about it, the more I believe there is a bias toward red wines, and I think Siegel stumbled upon the truth. Red wine is perceived as “more prestigious.” To understand why, you have to look at history. The French invented the system of categorizing wines by status (Grand Cru, First Growth and the like), and they tended to reserve their highest categories for red wines. In turn, the British fundamentally invented the game of writing about and critiquing wine, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and they overwhelmingly favored French red wines over whites. They therefore gave their highest plaudits to red wines. Our American and British systems of wine reviewing today—from Oz Clark to Robert Parker—are direct descendants of those British wine writers of yesteryear. The inherent bias toward red wines has filtered down over the centuries and still exists.

Which begs the question: Are red wines actually better than white wines? Well, there is the argument they’re more complex: more skin and seed contact, more oak (usually, at the high end), and so on. Does more complexity = “better”? That’s a hard case to prove. At some point, what we know, or think we know, about wine gets so inextricably bound up with the pure and simple physical experience of tasting it, that it’s impossible to separate the two. Which, come to think about it, is perhaps what makes wine so great: its pleasure is as much intellectual as hedonistic.


Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

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Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.

 

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* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1394383/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

 

was the high point of my film career!


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