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The (sometimes) uneasy relationship between critics and somms



Like lions and tigers sharing a contested hunting ground, sommeliers and critics circle each other’s turfs, eyeing each other warily across the veldt.

Scattered on that field is the game both sides seek: wine consumers. Somms want to sell them wine; critics want to influence their buying decisions. Therein lies a conflict. Though they both wear the mantle of “gatekeeper,” critics and somms often seem to be in charge of different gates.

Somms tend to see critics as uncredentialed—folks who one way or another achieved career success with little or no formal training. They—the somms—worked extraordinarily hard to get where they are and, especially if they’re Master Sommeliers, feel (with a certain amount of justification) that their superior knowledge makes them the kings of the wine jungle.

Critics tend to view somms with some envy. They know that they—the critics—never had to go through any sort of rigorous certification process, whereas the somms did. Critics may even feel lucky to have landed their jobs. But they—the critics—also know that they wield far greater power, in general, than somms.

The critics’ power extends over broad stretches of geography. If they happen to write for one of the major wine periodicals, their words, recommendations and scores are seen by millions, either directly or indirectly, through quotes in third-party publications, shelf talkers, marketing materials, social media and the like.

The somm’s power typically extends only across the square footage of the restaurant floor. There, the somm reigns supreme. Step outside the door, and the power of the somm melts away, replaced by the power of the critic.

Critics are seldom if ever disdainful of somms. Why would they be? They recognize the somm’s achievements and are respectful of it. Somms tend to disdain critics. They may be in awe of the critic’s influence, but they can’t help but feel like they know more, which makes them sense that there’s an imbalance in the world. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that the sommelier community is a tightly-knit one, filled with mutually-reinforcing beliefs, whereas the “critical community,” so far as it exists at all, is quite the opposite. Critics don’t socialize much with each other, and there is within that small circle a certain degree of suspicion. Lesser critics want to be A-listers, while even A-listers look at Parker and think, “Why can’t I be him?”

Critics also point to a built-in weakness of the sommelier community: Somms are trying to sell wine. No matter where they work (for a winery, a restaurant or whatever), somms have a stake in their employer’s financial success. Critics, on the contrary, say they have no agenda whatsoever when it comes to wine. They don’t care who’s successful and who’s not, who sells what and who doesn’t. They’re in the enviable position of simply telling the truth.

When I was a critic, that was certainly my feeling. I recognized that my knowledge of the world’s wines was not as broad as that of some somms. However, I treasured my independence, and felt that it gave me the ability to be fiercely objective, without regard to the consequences—even for advertisers in the magazine I wrote for. Whenever I ran into a somm—usually in a restaurant—I sensed two things: great knowledge, but also an underlying motive to sell wine. I must admit this gave me a certain moral superiority.

Now I work for a company that sends me out on sales trips with their Master Sommeliers. I see the potential ironies, but I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve long admired and respected Jackson Family Wines for the obvious reason that their wines are so good, at every price point. I sometimes wonder, if I’d been offered a job by a winery whose wines I didn’t respect, would I have taken it? What if the remuneration had been very high? This is a hypothetical and so it’s impossible for me to say, since it never happened. But I think that, if I had to promote wines I didn’t care for, I would be a very unhappy ex-critic. As it is, I’m a happy one.

Have a great weekend!

  1. “Critics are seldom if ever disdainful of somms.” I know of a very powerful critic and a former critic that are disdainful of somms…

    “Critics, on the contrary, say they have no agenda whatsoever when it comes to wine.” and then… “critics want to influence their buying decisions.” Isn’t that an agenda?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Outside of Master Sommeliers (autodidacts — a few I know and respect), I think the educational studies time investment and credentials angle for most “sommeliers” is overstated.

    Too many of these “sommelier” titles are self-conferred. (Printing up a personal business card and drafting a Linkedin profile is easy and cheap.)

    Or given to a waitperson by restaurant management as an ego-stroke inflated job title (instead of coin-of-the-realm higher compensation).

    I meet many of these folks at wine industry trade tasting here in La-La-Land, and I come away from those conversations asking myself sotto voce: “How did this person get that job?”

    There are lots of “empty suits” in this industry . . .

  3. Critics still have to sell something … they have to sell advertising.

    If a magazine critic routinely blasted (75points) wineries that drop six figures on full page ads, the critic or the advertiser would quickly be gone. I’d bet it would be the critic.

  4. Bob Henry says:


    Speaking as an ad agency veteran, a winery won’t advertise its “75 point scoring wine(s)” in a nationally distributed wine magazine.

    Some wine magazines aren’t even publishing wine reviews below 80 points. (Perhaps just the score and no descriptive text on their website.)

    Advertising that product would be an indefensible expenditure of scarce marketing support funds.

    Wines scoring in the 70s — let’s assign them to the category known as “fighting varietals” — are typically single digit dollar priced, and merchandised on the lowest shelf in the grocery store.

    They represent the next tier above “Two Buck Chuck.”

    They “fight” it out for shelf space on the grocery chain’s Plan-O-Gram based on one product dimension: low selling price.

    The consumer who buys these wines doesn’t subscribe to national wine magazines. Doesn’t browse for free wine magazines on the newsstand, or at the public library. Doesn’t read the newspaper for its wine column (assuming such editorial still exists in his or her local newspaper).

    Wineries put their marketing support behind “pushing” a wine through the three-tier distribution system (e.g., in-store signage, end-aisle displays, placements on restaurant wine lists) . . . not “pulling” it through the channels of distribution with consumer-directed brand-building campaigns (e.g., advertising).

    ~~ Bob

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Thank you, Bob. The MS on a pedastal thing has really gotten way out of hand. First of all, the theory component is all ROTE MEMORIZATION. There is nothing analytical or academically rigorous about merely memorizing arcane wine trivia. Watch the movie. They use flash cards for god’s sake. Contrast that with the Master of Wine program which is academically rigorous and demands well written, well reasoned long essay answers to complex questions, not to mention a 10K word piece of original research at the conclusion of the program.

    There is also no transparency at all in the exam. The blind wines–which again is not analytical in the least but merely the parlor game of trying to guess the wine–are never made known even to the candidates. The MW program releases both its theory questions and blind wines immediately after the test.

    As for the storied low pass rate, I am willing to call BS, and I would contend that it has to do far more with limiting the members of the club–and thus the potential renumarative value of being in the club–than with any true academic rigor. A Ph.D program in history at the University of Chicago or Physics at MIT has a much higher success rate than 5%, yet only a fool–or an MS–would contend that they are even in the same universe of difficulty.

    Let me put it this way. I could start a certificate (notice conscious decision not to use the word “diploma”) program called the MBS–Master of Baseball Statistics. Now, I could comb through the mass of arcane baseball trivia and rig the test so that less than 5% pass. That doesn’t change the fact that the test is still comprised of nothing more than spitting out memorized baseball statistics in a verbal exam. Contrast that with the competing MB (Master of Baseball) program where a test question might be something along the lines of having to answer a question as to why there was a rush of new stadium construction in the 1960s drawing on such factors as intra and inter regional population shifts, suburbanization, public funding, white flight and so on all tied together in a analytically reasoned and well written 600 word essay.

  6. Most MWs know something, but, just as with Ph.D holders, there are some who are able to spout the knowledge but can’t apply it.

    It’s all a parlour game, anyhow. What all this so-called knowledge has spawned is nothing more than a bunch of arcane wine lists in which these folks reveal their knowledge of the unknown but not their wisdom in crafting wine lists that fit their customer base.

    Oh, and let’s be clear about one thing. The MS program, regardless of its known failings, has also credetialed some extraordinarily competent folks as well.

    When you get right down to it, any degree, whether from MW or a Cal Tech Ph. D. is only a degree. It does not measure reality. That is why some Ph. Ds invent rockets and some contribute very well to the world based on their so-called knowledge.

  7. Here in La-La-Land . . . few subscribe to/embrace the Malcolm Gladwell-publicized “10 Years/10,000 Hours of Study Rule.”

    “Flash card” knowledge, not “real world” knowledge.

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (December 12, 2007, Page F1ff):

    “Wine Service Grows Up;
    Want in on the food world’s hottest career?
    The master sommelier exam awaits – good luck.”


    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer

    Massage therapists, bellmen and valets aren’t the people you’d expect to sit through a rigorous 10-month wine course. But in Southern California, the race is on to gain certification as a sommelier and get a foot in the door of one of today’s hottest careers.

    Los Angeles has long struggled to attract top sommeliers. But now as the area’s restaurant scene matures and restaurateurs elevate wine service to match the standards of their cuisine, salaries for sommeliers are soaring. And a new generation of ambitious wine professionals eager for a leg up in a suddenly competitive industry is seeking membership in the Court of Master Sommeliers, an elite organization that selects its members through a series of rigorous examinations.

    It’s attracting more than just seasoned pros such as the sommeliers who meet weekly at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant in Beverly Hills to study for the tests. Thanks to employer encouragement and subsidies, rank-and-file hospitality workers are cracking the wine books as well.

    The evolution of a serious regional wine culture relies on senior sommeliers willing to teach those less experienced. An entry-level course with 40 students at Disneyland’s Napa Rose restaurant [at the time Michael Jordan, M.S. worked and taught] looks ultra-democratic. But the highly politicized Court of Master Sommeliers invites just some students, not all, to advance through the process. Even then, the London-based organization’s final exam has a 97% FAILURE RATE.

    That elitist approach has had cachet in San Francisco, Las Vegas and, to a lesser extent, New York City. But not in Southern California, where SELF-TAUGHT SOMMELIERS have been the heart of an eclectic and informal wine culture. That LACK OF FORMAL TRAINING can lend an appealing, unpretentious ambience to restaurant wine service.

    Yet, as diners experience all too often, it has also made it possible for HOBBYISTS with no more than a subscription to Robert Parker’s “Wine Advocate” and the ability to babble to MASQUERADE AS SOMMELIERS.

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. — Bob]

  8. The career path of Master Sommeliers is from the restaurant sales floor to a more “lifestyle balanced” administrative position.


    The career path of a Master of Wine is either running a wine business (import/export) or wine journalism.

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