My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.
He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”
I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?
But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.
Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!
So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”
What should a critic do when he’s confronted with a wine he himself would never consider drinking, yet isn’t so awful as to be undrinkable?
I come across this problem all the time. I’ll pour myself a tasting sip from the bottle, which is in a brown paper bag. The color seems all right. I smell: an immediate reaction of negativity. It can be boiled vegetables, like mushy asparagus, or it can be the nostril-pinching mold of botrytis (rather more common these days, as the 2011s come out). It can be exceptional amounts of oak, or some oak-like smell, heavily toasted and caramelized. It can be many things, but my first reaction to the “nose” is Uggh.
Then I taste, and the wine is no better in the mouth. It’s thin and simple. Yesterday I reviewed a round of Chardonnays that were so watery, your palate had to frisk them up and down to find any trace of fruit. Or certain red wines can transfer the vegetativeness or mold of the aroma into the mouth. Such wines, too, elicit an “Ugh!” factor in me: I conceivably might drink them, but only were I stranded on a desert island and they were the only wines available.
So how do I deal with them, in terms of a score and a text review?
Well, for starters, there’s a big difference between an undrinkable wine and one I personally loathe. Granted, the line between them can be blurry: it’s not the same as the difference between two adjacent squares on the checkerboard, with a strict delineation between red and black. It’s more like the edge of a shadow: fuzzy, inchoate. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line of the shadow is, because, due to the scattering of atoms, there is no line, just an interference pattern that is “Heisenbergian” in indeterminacy.
That makes the choice between a score of 22 (absolutely undrinkable, under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) and 80 or 81 (barely drinkable) a difficult one. On Tuesday the wine may be 22; on Wednesday, 80. So we have to admit there’s a certain arbitrariness here. But the important thing to keep in mind is that my own personal preference or reaction to a wine ought to be irrelevant to my review of it.
This really can’t be emphasized enough. In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; yet such wines are drinkable, often eminently so, and, if priced right, can be bargains that receive the highly coveted “Best Buy” special designation the magazine lists in the wine’s formal review in the Buying Guide. (Producers love it when their wines get “Best Buys” as they can use this in their marketing.)
I will often think, when writing a review of an 82-point wine that costs, say, $9, that millions of consumers will like it and consider themselves lucky to have gotten something so good at so affordable a price. This leads to the question of the critic putting himself in the shoes of the people he imagines himself to be writing for. In my case, this is an “average” consumer, one looking for value, as well as one who wants to enjoy his wine and have fun with it, preferably with companionable food. Since I have friends and family members to whom this description applies, I’ll often visualize them in my mind as I review, in a sort of version of “What Would Johnny Think?”
However, as a wine critic, I’m aware that people of a higher order of wine appreciation, more akin to my own, also read Wine Enthusiast and will be curious about my reviews of rare and expensive wines. And so I wish to do a good job of reviewing those wines as well. And I think I do. This illustrates the balancing act that Wine Enthusiast tries to accomplish: to be the magazine (and website) of the “masses” as well as the source of high-class information about the world’s greatest wines.
Most magazines and wine review newsletters do not do this. Some cater exclusively to the upper end. Others, who do not have access to the upper end, exclusively review what I call “supermarket wines” (and I’m sure you know what I mean). Few straddle the entire spectrum, at least in terms of the sheer numbers Wine Enthusiast does.
I’m very proud of the fact that, despite my preference for reviewing the greatest wines in California, I also have the opportunity of reviewing the commoners. Is it my favorite thing to do, to taste through 15 California-appellated Chardonnays that all cost less than $15? I’d be lying if I said it was. But I take that tasting to be as great a challenge as going through 15 high-level coastal Pinot Noirs or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. Yes, I’d probably take two or three or even four times as long to taste through the latter as the former (because they’re vastly more complex wines that require more time to understand). But if I can give a Best Buy to an inexpensive wine–even one I’d never drink myself–it makes it a happy camper.
What does it mean when people say Millennials want wines that are “more approachable” and less “snooty”?
You hear it everywhere, especially in the Blogosphere, but also in conversations about social media and in the columns of newspaper writers: for example, “Snooty is no longer where it’s at in the wine world,” and young people are seeking “more approachable and drinkable wines that are suitable for a range of dining and social occasions,” in the words of this article.
The suggestion is that some sort of cosmic alteration has occurred in the way younger consumers view wine, that this paradigm shift is revolutionizing the way wine is marketed (with, for example, Franzia WineTaps appealing to “growing demand [for] intriguing products”), and that “Specialty wines such as sangrias and chocolate wines” are aiming for the “sweeter taste profiles” the under-30s like.
In line with this blog’s continuing struggle to get at the truth, and hewing to its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy, I now dispel these modern myths with the wave of a hand. Begone!
Let’s break it down.
Of course consumers want wines that are less snooty and more approachable. Nothing new about that. “You certainly don’t have to be a wine expert to drink wine…For wine-drinking is fun. And wine isn’t difficult. Why consider it harder to serve than coffee, soda pop or beer? There isn’t any hocus-pocus, except for the so-called experts who as specialists have fun trying to make things complex and involved.”
That might have been written yesterday by any number of wine bloggers. But no, it was written by Mary Frost Mabon, then the food and wine editor at Harper’s Bazaar, in her 1942 book, ABC of American Wine. I cite it merely to illustrate the fact that more than seventy years ago writers were reassuring “ordinary” Americans that wine wasn’t “snooty” and that “preciosity in a wine connoisseur” (Mabon again) is laughable.
When I read this stuff about “more approachable and drinkable wines” my first reaction is that it’s sheer nonsense. Milliennials aren’t looking for “more approachable and drinkable” wines because these words have no meaning. They sound like they’re describing something real, because they hew to standard English syntax; but just because I can make up a proper sentence doesn’t mean it corresponds to something in reality. (“My unicorn just leapt over the radioactive rainbow.”) How is any wine “more approachable and drinkable” than any other wine that has ever existed? It all depends on what you like, right? Now, if “more approachable and drinkable” really means sweeter, then why don’t we just come out and say that Millennials prefer sweet wines to dry? Because it’s not true, that’s why. There’s no proof of that. The explosion of things like Moscato (and, yes, sangrias and chocolate wines) is indicative only of rising consumption of wine across all demographic groups, some of whom want their wines sweet while others like them dry.
What writers really mean when they say Millennials want “more approachable and drinkable wines” is that they want cheaper wines. This, too, hardly qualifies as a Eureka! moment, nor would it have come as a surprise 70 years ago to a producer (or 300 years ago to a London merchant). People, especially younger ones, always want value in their drinks, which is why The Wine Group, Bronco, Barefoot and so many other companies are doing so well.
So, you ask, is Heimoff saying that nothing ever changes? In a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Trends come and go–Moscato will fade back into semi-obscurity someday–boxed wines were inevitable once the technology developed–one day tequila is on top, the next day rum–sweet, fruity wine-based concoctions have been around from the days of Bali Hai through the coolers of the 1970s to today–young people always will like inexpensive wine but usually are willing to spend more as they age and earn more money–the Sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west–lazy or ill-informed wine writers continue to search for “news-like” information they can pass on with seeming authority–well, you get the picture.
I will stipulate the following concerning younger consumers: they want more interesting wines these days, wines that tell them stories and about which they can talk with their friends (and perhaps to the proprietor via social media). And this, they certainly have, in spades, in unprecedentedly open and interactive ways. But this is a double-edged sword for wineries. It makes the younger consumer easily the most fickle consumer in the history of the world. As soon as the story becomes boring–as soon as a more interesting story pops up (and I use the phrase “pop up” deliberately, in its latter-day urban sense)–the consumer moves onto the next thing.
I leave with this word of caution to wineries tempted to stroll down the “less snooty-more approachable” path: you may be headed up the garden path, leading to a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. It’s one thing to make a wine-in-a-box and be content to sell gazillions of gallons of it (and this is in no way a criticism of such wines; among critics I’ve probably praised them the most, on grounds of quality-price ratio). But what if your ambitions as a winemaker are set higher than a boxed wine? What if you’re a garagiste or terroirist or someone seized with the notion of creating something awesome from your patch of ground? Some writers and customers always will “squint, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit” (in Mary Frost Mabon’s alliterative words), meaning in turn that these wines by definition become “more snooty” and “less approachable,” which is simply a way of saying that they become of greater intellectual and conversational interest, at least to those of us who care about such things. Do we really want this appeal to “less snooty and more approachable” to result in the end of pleasant discussions about wine, terroir, technique, varieties, aromas, finishes and all the other arcane topics we geeks love to talk about? I would hope not. Any winery that walks the serious quality walk but talks the “unsnooty and approachable” talk is trying to have it both ways, an unsustainable proposition that ultimately will please no one.
It’s funny that I never really thought about it until recently, when I was browsing through my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database and realized that I had chosen the special designation of “Cellar Selection” for about 80% of my highest scoring wines.
If you’d asked me what parameters form the basis of a high score (let’s say anything above 95 points), I would have referred you to the magazine’s guidelines. They say things like “truly superb,” “great complexity,” “memorable,” “pinnacle of expression,” “complete harmony and balance,” “absolute best,” but the guidelines are silent on the question of ageability.
Had you pressed me to more fully explain a high score, I suppose at some point the “A” word would have arisen. But in and of itself, “ageability” does not equal great wine. Many wines will age, some for a long time, yet are not particularly complex or beautiful, either in youth or in old age.
And yet, my highest scoring wines, from this year alone, include Williams Selyem 2010 30th Anniversary Pinot Noir, Rochioli 2011 West Block Pinot Noir, Freemark Abbey 2009 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet, Flora Springs 2010 Hillside Reserve Cabernet, Tantara 2010 Gwendolyn Pinot Noir, Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey, Terra Valentine 2010 K-Block Cabernet, Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet, B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet, Jarvis 2007 Estate Cabernet, Von Strasser 2010 Sori Bricco Cabernet, Sodaro 2009 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet, and, another Beckstoffer coup, Janzen 2010 Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard Cabernet. All 95 points or higher, all Cellar Selections.
What I look for in predicting ageability are two things, or three, depending on how you define them. First is an immediate reaction (from the nose/palate via the brain) of stunned impressionability. It’s a simple “Wow!” factor, although of course there’s nothing simple about it. Now, any wine can possess the “Wow!” factor without being ageable. A lot of it has to do with what Dr. Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. where you are (the external circumstances) and your mindset (subjective factors). A silky Beaujolais, like the one I had the other night, achieved the “Wow!” factor, because it was a warm evening, I had slightly chilled the bottle, and with it I enjoyed a soy-glazed tuna burger (homemade) and the company of someone special to me. But that Beaujolais was not an ageable wine, and if I were scoring it, I would have given it around 90.
The next thing I look for, in determining ageability, is an immature quality that makes the wine, good as it is, undrinkable, this latter word used in the old British sense of “too young to enjoy now” (although I’m always careful to point out that even a California wine that’s “too young to enjoy now” is, of course, enjoyable now, if you like it that way. The Cellar Police will not slap you into Guantanamo). What makes a wine “too young now,” for me, are, usually, dense tannins that numb the palate, but this is not so great a problem as it used to be (in California or in France) because modern tannin management regimes render even the hardest tannins more mellifluous (the adjective “mellifluous” being a good example of its own definition). A greater problem is what I call the unintegrated quality of a young wine’s parts. Those parts include oak, fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins, and if they feel (in the mouth) like a herd of cats, each going its own way, resistant to corralling, then the wine is unintegrated. A subset of this is that California fruit can be overwhelming in youth, a detonation of jam that makes them too obvious–“Tammy Faye Bakker,” in the words of a Frenchman I know who crafts wines (or seeks to) of greater finesse and control.
The final aspect of determining ageability is the history and reputation of the winery. I make the previous two determinations blind, but this third factor weaves its way in when I take the bottle out of its covering bag. If I’ve already determined that the wine is ageable, that is going to appear in the review; but if I then see that it’s a wine I know for a fact ages well (say, a Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir), that seals the deal, as they say. In general, I don’t like to stretch the window of ageability too far into an uncertain future (the way RMP does), but if I know the wine has a good history of hitting, say, 10 or 20 years, I’ll say so. (Corison Cabernets are a good example of this.) Which obviously makes it difficult when the wine is a new brand, without history, of which there are many, particularly in those bastions of ageability, Napa Valley Cabernet and cool-climate Pinot Noir. But, going through my highest-scoring wines, I see very few new brands among them. Mostly they are the older, traditional names, which is just as you’d expect.
Lunch yesterday (at Ozumo) with Clarissa Nagy, from Riverbench and Nagy, her own label. Clarissa is on my panel for the Chardonnay Symposium, where the topic is clones, so naturally we talked about that a lot.
I’ve thought about clones for many years. I recognize that they’re vital to the winemaker – but that consumers don’t care much about them one way or the other, as long as the wine tastes good — and that the wine writer is stuck in the middle. We don’t need to know anything near as much about clones as do winemakers, but we do need to understand them enough to be able to let the consumer know what we think they need to know. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great deal, because at a certain point, things get bogged down in technical detail to the point of MEGO.
I asked Clarissa what she thinks about clone. She more or less said she thinks clones are more important for Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay. I agree; Pinot is such a transparent wine that it displays the slightest perturbations to its nervous system, whereas Chardonnay is a rather neutral wine much of whose character is imparted to it by winemaker interventions, such as sur lie aging, malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation and aging. So clones aren’t that important. (I expect to learn more about this through the symposium.) Clarissa said that, in general, older Pinot Noir clones–more properly, selections–such as Pommard and Swan have more “floral” characteristics that the newer clones. I replied that the newer clones seem fruitier than the old selections, which is the criticism some people (including, occasionally, me) have had about these new wave Pinots: that they’re jammy. Clarissa replied she thinks the newer clones aren’t that fruity.
Herein lies the dilemma. These topics become impenetrably complex, with even experts disagreeing over the fundamentals. As a panel moderator, I don’t want my audience to be completely confused. On the other hand, I don’t want to dumb things down and feed them simple aphoristic clichés that break down under scrutiny. A greater and greater part of my journalistic philosophy (which includes wine reviewing) is to break down the conventional wisdom that arises about so many things–alcohol level, crop yields, vine age, clones, terroir–through lazy writing. By lazy writing, I mean that someone writes something that is verifiably arguable on its face. Then another writer repeats it as “fact,” and another, and another, until finally it’s all over the Internet. Along comes the latest lazy writer, who does a Google search, comes across repeated citations that such-and-such is a fact, and then states it herself, thus perpetuating the half-truth. This is bad wine writing. Wine writers, like all journalists, should be the most skeptical people in the world. Their attitude should be, “Just because everyone says it’s so doesn’t make it so. You have to prove it to me.”
What a different world we would live in if wine writers all went by that rule. Instead, afraid of making fools of themselves, anxious to prove themselves as experts, too many of them are content to repeat the same old stereotypes. If there was one thing I’d make every wine writer do if I were King of the World, it would be to take a class in Journalism 101. As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism states, the principles of journalism are
Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
Its first loyalty is to citizens
Its essence is a discipline of verification
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
It must serve as an independent monitor of power
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
The first 3 are the most important. My advice to people reading wine journalism, whether through a print magazine, a blog or whatever, is to ask does the writer seem to honor these principles. If not–read someone who does.
The last few years there’s been a ton of stuff published about how inaccurate critics’ reviews are. You’ve heard it all: We’re influenced by price. We give different reviews to the same wine. Different critics give widely varying scores to the same wines. (For a summary of the various complaints, click here, to this article which appeared yesterday on Yahoo Finance.)
All of the individual criticisms are largely true. In a moment, I’ll tell you why none of that matters, but first, I want to try and figure out why some people get so psychologically bent out of shape about wine critics.
The latest to do so is this guy, David Derbyshire (great name), who writes for the British publication, The Guardian. Here’s the link to his article, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science.
Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.
Well, neither do wine critics. If you want a “scientific” analysis of a wine, send it to ETS. But how useful would that be for the consumer? Not very. Consumers don’t want scientific analyses of wine and they don’t need them. They want to know what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in the mouth, and maybe a few other things. For these, they turn to critics.
What’s wrong with that?
We could settle this whole thing in 5 seconds if all the wine critics would take the pledge. What pledge? Admit that your review is the way you responded to that particular wine at that particular time. Don’t claim to be scientific about it, just assure readers that you’re doing your level best and have no conflicts of interest. I sometimes think critics invite this outside criticism because of their implication that wine tasting is science when it’s not. All the critics know this. They all know how fallible they are. They all know they could be fooled, and rather easily at that. But very few of them will admit it. They hide under a veil of authority and pretense, and that’s precisely why this field of wine reviewing is becoming suspect.
If social media has taught us anything, it’s to be transparent in our dealings. Transparency doesn’t cost people their reputation; it enhances it. And the most transparent thing a critic can do is to tell people, Hey, I could be wrong, but this is my opinion, just sayin’.