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When the critic rants: a defense


The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, got some heat from his readers in the “comments” section of his blog yesterday after he [Michael] trash-talked a restaurant for selling him a bad bottle of wine at an inflated price.

The wine was a Portuguese rosé that Michael paid $30 for. “I suspect[ed] the bottle was corked,” Michael wrote, explaining that he didn’t return it because, as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

It wasn’t just the bad wine that irked him, it was the service. Waitstaff didn’t even put wine glasses on the table, only “small drinking glasses.” Moreover, “The staff didn’t seem to know anything about wine.” (It should be noted that the restaurant, Mau, is a Vietnamese restaurant, in the red-hot Valencia Corridor of the city’s Mission District, so maybe you have to cut them some slack.) As for the $30 tab, Michael had a friend do some calculating and determined that the restaurant paid about $6.90 a bottle, meaning they marked it up more than four times, which he called “gouging.”

Michael was clearly irked and in ranting mode, and some readers called him out on it. One wrote, “Here is a simple solution Bauer, if you don’t like the pricing at a restuarant DON”T eat there.” Another: “There’s a simple solution to this. Stop wining.” And: “There are people homeless in New Jersey and Staten Island and this guy is fuming over a bottle of Rose instead?” and: “This just goes to show that Bauer either has never worked the books at a restaurant or is bad at writing.” And: “O cry me a river. As a poster mentioned earlier, we don’t see anybody publishing articles about the mark up of popcorn in a movie theater.” And: “You suspected the wine was corked but didn’t send it back? I don’t see how being a reviewer affects the correct behavior in this case.” And: “If you are worried about saving money get a case of cheap Zin at Trader Joes and order a pizza to eat at home.”

Okay, so maybe Michael brought some of this snarkiness on himself. He was in a bad mood, he was venting, and this wasn’t his printed column in the newspaper, it was his blog, where immediacy and emotional transparency come easier and are more appropriate to the medium than in a print publication. But let me tell you, as a critic myself, sometimes you need to rant, and I’ll explain why.

It wasn’t just Michael’s experience at Mau that so distressed him. He’s had that same experience scores, if not hundreds of times, over many years, at many restaurants. Mau just tipped him over the edge. It happens. You see a dereliction of duty and, recalling too many such, you lose your temper and let ‘er rip. Now, you can argue that a critic should always be evenly-tempered and sweet in disposition, and you might be theoretically correct, but that’s not reality. Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior–Michael for restaurants, me for wineries. We bring that high moral code to the industries we report on, and even though we know we’re supposed to remain balanced, sometimes the violations just get to you. You think, These people are idiots. They don’t deserve to be in business! You want and need to get it out of your system–to cleanse yourself–to rant.

As for the snarky comments, I get a lot of those myself, as some of my readers know. They don’t bother me, as I’m sure Michael isn’t bothered, either. Both of us know, before we hit that “publish” button, that we’re going to get snark, and the stronger we feel about something, the more snark we get. It goes with the territory. But intensity, two-way communication, passion, opinionating, strong expression of feeling, even snark–they’re all part of the blogging experience. I’m glad. Readers have been used to being on the receiving end of a one-way communication for a long time, and now that they have the ability to respond, they take full advantage of it.

  1. Bravo, Steve, I appreciated your candid thoughts here. Of course, reading some of those ridiculous comments aimed at Michael reminded me of yelp.

  2. Bob Foster says:

    The most important WINE critic? What has he been smoking?

  3. Hi Kathy, ditto on Yelp. That’s the Internet for you–the Wild West, where everybody’s a gunslinger.

  4. Dear Bob Foster, thanks! That was obviously a typo. I corrected it immediately.

  5. In today’s “anti-social” media – anyone who writes anything, anywhere, anytime, is likely to face a barrage of snarky, if not downright nasty comments. Think when people sit behind their computers all day and have no real social contact with others, it makes the grumpy and angry at the world… These folks need to get out more and engage in some real social events… And, probably part of the way the world is today as well, Steve – everything is divided (just look at the silly comments all over the internet about the election yesterday), people seem very angry, and they seem more than willing to take that anger out on anyone who happens to be close by…

  6. Richard, good points. I hadn’t thought of that. The Internet/blogosphere simple reflects the general psychology of the public at large.

  7. Kurt Burris says:

    I agree with Michael Bauer on the pricing of the Marhalas Rose. I used to work with the importer and it’s a great wine meant to be sold at around $10 retail. And he sure didn’t deserve the comments flung his way. What was bad was that so many of them were off topic. Those commenters can conflate every discretionary purchase with a tragedy somewhere in the world if they want. Just don’t expect me to invite them to dinner

  8. Barnaby Hughes says:

    Your statement, “Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior,” is right on the money. That is one of the principal differences between the critic and the average YELP reviewer. Dining out at the best restaurants, drinking good wine or attending theatre productions is what we critics do often. Our opinions are usually well-informed. Sometimes we rant, yes, but more often our criticism is designed to be constructive, to spur restaurants and winemakers to do better.

  9. Re: “as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.”

    Last week Bauer slipped into Press in St. Helena unannounced for dinner. Within 30 seconds everyone on the staff was made aware he was there and acted accordingly. This pretense that he gets the same service and the same food as everyone else is similar to the wine critic who claims he tastes blind and then does all the tasting standing in the cellar of the winery he is visiting. God forbid the rant in a Bauer review if he actually did have to experience a restaurant anonymously.

  10. Dear Barnaby Hughes, this ethical aspect of our job often goes unnoticed by the public. Thank you for clarifying it.

  11. Marton: Does the kitchen have the physical ability to prepare better food for Bauer?

  12. Can a restaurant cook better for a certain guest? If the diner gets an especially good table? If the whole meal is done personally by the chef and not delegated? If the chef goes into the locker and selects the best cut? Lf the fries don’t sit and cool and stand especially tall in the napkin presentation? If the somm knows the wine knowledge of the guest, is especially helpful, and presents no BS? Lf the service is quick, efficient and spot on? If the pastry chef takes special care in the dessert order and adds something extra to the plate? All are small differences that can influence a review. Andre Simon said the best restaurant is the one where they know you the best. And believe me, they know Bauer by now.

  13. Steve, when I was younger, knew everyone in town, and most were patients(over 86K when I had to leave practice),it was always distressing to go into a decent local restaurant, be recognized, and then get a corked bottle of wine. Admittedly, I ate the cost of the wine, let it sit, untouched on the table, and if either waiter or owner didn’t ask, “Sir, don’t you care for your wine?”, I just let it go. 12 yrs later, mostly unrecognized, I don’t think twice about saying, “Unnnhhhh, guys ,this bottle is corked”. If you then have a waiter who comes to the table and says, “we’ll get you another right away”….that is a good outcome. But woe be it to the yokel who tries to convince me that bottle of drek is fine…when it definitely isn’t. I understand the reluctance to say much when you are well known…it can be very embarrassing. Now, not much recognized, I just let them have it. You pay $30 for a bottle of guck, you deserve a $30 bottle.

    As an aside, the restaurant markups are ridiculous at times, just painful at others. A yr ago we withdrew all our wines from restaurants, hotels, wine bars, etc….buying at below cost of production and marking up 4 or 5 fold, and in once case, 8 fold….well, that is just pretty hard for a vintner to swallow.

    Now we sell just to wine club members or by apptmt only w/ vintner. For us, a much better way than to enrich certain restaurants, wine bars, hotels, etc. It is more palatable, too.

    Thanks for bringing this up.


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