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On critics, criticism and bad reviews



I think it’s perfectly fine for the restaurants and pubs in Dallas to band together and try to stop the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic from having access to them.

It’s a free country, right? Leslie Brenner, the DMN’s critic, has the right to publicly trash the restos in her column, and they have the right to collectively be pissed off and try to bring her column down.

This minor brouhaha would be of interest only to Dallas folks, if it didn’t touch upon some larger issues. Here’s the nugget of the case: The restaurants “are organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority.” Leslie is a “tough critic” whose negative reviews can be damaging to those she targets (as can bad reviews in any city, including in San Francisco, where Michael Bauer holds sway). The restaurateurs are calling for a “more nuanced system,” whatever that means. Until and if they get one, they can’t stop Leslie from visiting their venues—but they can refuse to accept her payment, and they can stop cooperating with the DMN’s photographers.

The practice is not unknown among wineries. Several of the country’s most famous critics are routinely not sent the wines from certain wineries who believe that they (the critics) are somehow prejudiced against those wines. I, myself, suffered this fate (not that it bothered me), and many winemakers have told me over the years they don’t bother sending their wines to the nation’s leading wine magazine because they don’t think they get fair treatment.

So this situation in Dallas is neither new nor particularly egregious. What I do find interesting is the particular gripe the restaurateurs have with respect to Leslie Brenner: “[T]hey’re confronting a self-described tough critic whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

“A more nuanced system.”. Hmm. That sounds an awful lot like what critics of the 100-point system say. They, too, argue that you can’t summarize wine by a numerical score. I don’t happen to agree, particularly because the point score is usually accompanied by a review in text (if anyone bothers to read it). But the truth is, there’s no system of critical reviewing that would ever make the critic and those she criticizes BFFs. Critiquing is inherently an act of defiance; nobody likes to see their product, whether it be food or wine, savaged in the pages of a metropolitan area’s leading daily newspaper (although they love it when the critic gives them a good review).

A good critic takes no satisfaction in a negative review. I certainly didn’t, and it was never fun when an angry winemaker called me up to complain, which happened on a fairly regular basis. But I do want to say this: A critic has to be fair and speak her mind, but there’s no reason for judgment to turn to acrimony. There’s a way to give a mediocre review that’s constructive, and doesn’t roil the waters with animosity and snark. There were many times when I loathed a wine so much, I want to write something like “The winemaker should be banished to a desert island and forced to drink this swill for the rest of his life.” But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.

  1. Bob Henry says:


    “[The restaurants] They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

    Such as the Zagat Guide three-part score.


  2. Steve:

    I completely agree that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, and the most important statement in your article is your last sentence:

    “But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.”

    There is always a way to provide constructive criticism with rancor. Why not build relationships instead of tearing down? What has happened to civility?

  3. Anybody can become a critic and you can see a million of them these days as blogers. However to have the attention of the audience is a different question. Critics who has big “sway” had to earn that and it is respected by many. Maybe it is time to take a criticism to heart and learn from it.

  4. Aside from the silly red herrring “banished to a dessert island …”, etc, which no responsible, respected wine critic has ever written in my decades of being in and watching the wine criticims business, this is a very useful column because it essentially says, “the truth will out”.

    Anyone whose products are criticized is not going to enjoy the process when the comments are less than enthusiastic. But, any critic worth his or her salt must necessarily spread the downside when it is there. Critics are not cheerleaders.

    Let me repeat that for the hard of hearing: CRITICS ARE NOT CHEERLEADERS.

    It is also true, however, that there are wines so flawed that one wonders how they ever found their ways to market. And there are really only two possibilites–either the winery has engaged in the cynical practice of selling wine it knows is flawed or has no idea how bad the wine it is in the first place.

    It may not be appropriate to call for the winery’s banishment, but it is also not appropriate to pull punches in those cases. They may be rare but they exist. Civility is a good thing. Pulling punches on inferior products or restaurants is not.

  5. One doesn’t actually need to look farther for a more nuanced system: WS’s Top 100 2014 has shown how to think out-of-box. Out of the gazillions of wine of the year on planet earth, the most grandeur goes to Dow Vintage Port 2011. (By the way, there’s no such thing called “score inflation”. Not a single winner in the top 100 nailed a perfect score of 100, and Dow is the one & only that garnered an impressive 99 point.) One editor voted the most fabulous to a Portuguese white wine that is NOT imported to the United States. Well, he’s definitely a fast learner from his somm buddies of esoterica. You see, new nuances arise when you play the master of avoidance.

    I myself happen to be a Portuguese Port lover but was told by the elated importer about this: “You can’t get it at $75 because it’s the 99-point top one of WS. It’s no longer available by now. You may get it at $300 at an auction site. … …” What crossed my mind at listening to these blah & blah was the health formula of E+M=H. If you haven’t heard about it, it means Eat + Metabolism = Health. But for the WS top 100, it means Esoteric + Misleading = Hazy Hodgepodge.

  6. Cheerleaders they are all. Basically everyone with a keyboard has become a cheerleader. Social media has facilitated this mass-inbred-friendship situation where free wine flows and the props exude. Every cheerleader in this area is friends with every wine-maker and resty in the area. Every wine is wonderful. Every restaurant is charming and every atmosphere is perfect. There are no bad wines. The Southern Califonia restaurant scene has become so “nuanced” and “unstuctured”, rating have been eliminated. We are not smart enough to tell the difference between a 4-star taco truck and a 4-star French Restaurant. Everyone’s a winner. No one will say ANYTHING bad about a wine anymore. What winery are we at today? Line’em up boys! And get your instagram ready. Everyone’s a winner.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Wine Spectator doesn’t characterize the “Top 100” as the “top scoring” wines they reviewed in any publishing year.

    Rather, the “Top 100” are chosen (and I quote from the magazine’s website):

    “. . . on the basis of quality (score), value (price), availability (cases produced or imported) and an ‘X-factor’ referred to as excitement.”

    The word “exciting” comes up often in their commentary about the selection process.


    Navigate to “How we pick the top 100” video clip.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Use this link to see past “Top 100” lists:

  9. Bob Henry says:


    You can “express” your consumer purchasing dollars in the marketplace more effectively by selecting bottles of Port from equally revered older vintages.

    (Drinking a 2011 Port today is almost committing infanticide. It is akin to drinking high alcohol grape juice.)

    Found on Wine Searcher at K & L Wines in the Bay Area for around $350 is the 1963 Dow.

    A sublime and nearly (19.5 out of 20 points) “perfect” wine, as Jancis Robinson, M.W.’s 2006 review underscores:

    “19.5/20 points. Mid to pale ruby with a brick rim. Wonderfully mature, complex nose with dried fruits – prunes? – but freshness too. Hint of dark chocolate. Alcohol wonderfully integrated. Then on the palate a real dancer of a wine – perfectly lively and truly tonic on the palate. Real delicacy – not desperately sweet, just beautifully balanced. Very very clean finish with a definite whisper of tannin on the finish. The Syms reckons this would be ONE OF THE TOP FOUR OR FIVE VINTAGE PORTS OF THE 20th CENTURY by anyone’s reckoning and certainly it demonstrated to me exactly what I love about really mature, top quality vintage port – a world away from young ruby.” (10/2006)

    ~~ Bob

  10. Bob Henry says:

    This calendar year didn’t lend itself for Wine Spectator to award many “100 point” scores due to poor harvests in Bordeaux (2011 and 2012 and 2013) and Burgundy (2011 and 2012 and 2013) and California (2011) coming to market.

    “Grade inflation” has been tamped down on recent French wine releases.

    It may rise as more 2012 and 2013 California red wines come to market.

    In November, Wine Spectator awarded an unprecedented “98 point” score to an Oregon Pinot Noir.

    Late last year, Robert Parker awarded a “100 point” score to two 2010 vintage Peter Michael Pinot Noirs from Sonoma . . . likening one to the 1990 DRC La Tache bottling:

    “Parker describes the Ciel [bottling] as ‘a dead-ringer for the 1990 DRC La Tache,’ which currently has an average price of $5,747 on Wine-Searcher compared to the Ciel’s $171 price tag. ‘This could be a game-changing Pinot Noir that sets the wine world upside down given its spectacular quality,’ says Parker. Similarly, he calls [the] Ma Danseuse [bottling] ‘one of the greatest Pinots I have ever tasted … anywhere.’ ”


    Those with long memories (and back issues of The Wine Advocate) will recall that Parker invoked the 1980 DRC La Tache when he favorably reviewed the 1990 Kalin “Cuvee DD” Pinot Noir from Sonoma:

    ”I have rarely tasted as complex and profound a Pinot Noir as Kalin’s 1990 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD from Sonoma. Anyone who is familiar with the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s magnificent 1980 La Tache might want to try a bottle of Kalin’s Cuvee DD for comparison.

    “It possesses a huge fragrance of macerated prunes/plums, smoked meats, jammy raspberries and cherries, and loads of smoke and herb notes. The flavors are reminiscent of tea and smoked duck. The wine is full-bodied, with huge richness, great precision, and freshness, as well as a heady, spicy, lightly tannic finish. It should drink well for 10-15 years.

    “Years ago I remember tasting Kalin’s 1979 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD, which was a dead-ringer for one of the great grand crus of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Whatever the [winemakers Terry and Frances] Leightons are doing with Pinot Noir, the 1990 is mind-boggling.”

    Source: Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s Wine Advocate (Issue 99, closing date 6-30-95)

    Earlier this year I found 1990 Kalin “Cuvee DD” Pinot Noir available on a wine auction house’s “retail site,” selling for the princely sum of 75 bucks a bottle.

    I snapped up six bottles for a client’s wine cellar.

    Just one more example of “wine knowledge arbitrage”: contemporary collectors’ benign ignorance of great older vintages — which sell on the cheap.

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