subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Are there any standards anymore for wine quality?



We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.

What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.

But now? “There is no right or wrong.”

I need a wine magazine to tell me that???

Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.

But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.

But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.

What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.

  1. Jerry Murray says:

    “Different” is the new “Good”.

  2. Pricing and sales figures tell a different story – that people really do believe that some wines are worth more than others. The further up in pricing you go, the more influential critics become, as evidenced by shelf talkers with specific names on them.

    The big retailers keep an eye on the correlation between critical wine recommendations and sales, and know exactly who’s significant and who isn’t. I’ve had a couple tell me privately that some well-known critics don’t influence the sale of a single bottle, while obscure regional writers can start a stampede to the bottle shop in their local area.

    The talk might be egalitarian, but the results say something different.

  3. Murphy Moore says:

    Steve, did you really just equate the effects of blogger wine critics to the “Arab Spring”?

  4. The urge for an absolute scale of value that can be quantified by a number is understandable. That’s why we love sports so much: somebody won, somebody lost, and it’s clear which is which on any given Sunday. But wine is not sports. There are many ways of making wine from any given lot of grapes; why pretend that there ought to be one absolute scale of good and bad? The decline of absolute standards in wine judging is a good thing, because it can lead to more discussion about what makes a wine good. Let’s just enjoy the fact that 100 flowers are blooming, to misquote a dead Chinese Communist official.

  5. Patrick, if bloggers aggregated their reviews/scores and implemented some mechanism to calibrate your palate to a subset of theirs, then that’d be great.

    But the reality is that each operates in a silo, tasting an insignificant amount of wine to be of any utility to consumers.

    Bloggers – as individuals – don’t really impact wine. Bloggers – as a force – could be huge.

  6. Alex Kanzler says:

    Jerry Murray,
    I agree, “different” is the new “good”. Unless “different” is over 14% alcohol, in which case it’s unbalanced, unexpressive crap only fit for simpletons.

  7. Michael Brill: Nah. Not going to happen.

  8. ALex Kanzler, I liked your ’08 Pinot enough to give it 92 points and the alcohol was 14.8%. But I assume you are being wry.

  9. Alex Kanzler says:

    I was certainly striving to be wry… did I miss the mark?
    14.8% was right for 2008, not a particular hot vintage but a small crop from very damaging frosts. My 2011 was a real 13.9%… A reflection of that vintage for sure. This year in 2015 will be a much different case! That heat in early September, coupled with early bud break, really sent sugars flying on Pinot Noir; even the most coastal sites.
    Luckily there’s big color, big tannin and strong acids to balance what’s likely to be a higher alc vintage overall.

  10. The critic and his/her opinion is dead?

    Tell that to the group of distributor reps I did a brand presentation for last week.

    I (only somewhat tongue in cheek) ask, “What can I do to help you sell more of my wine?”

    “Continue to get 90+ points from Enthusiast, Spectator, Parker.”

    Scores from these pubs are still the shorthand employed to get our wines in the sales rep’s bags, tasted by distributor teams and looked at by the regional manager.

    To even get your “different” wine (or not different wine) in front of the Millennial geeked-out Somm who might actually listen to the blagueosphere or scan Delectable you need something to make you stand out.

    For better or worse, the easiest shorthand is still the score.

  11. Steve, of course it won’t. But it should if bloggers want their reviews to matter. Even the reviews you post here – regardless how good/accurate/well-written/etc. they are – just don’t matter because nobody’s going to see them when it comes time to buy wine.

    Critic reviews matter because they have scale of product coverage, even with modest audiences. People like Eric Asimov matter with limited product coverage because of massive audiences. But when you multiply small coverage by small audience, it’s instant obscurity.

  12. redmond barry says:

    On the other hand, the Gavin Newsom interview was excellent.

  13. It’s because most wine “experts” don’t know the difference between oxidation and reduction. So they give a wine with VA a huge score, and if someone calls them out on it, they say that wine is subjective.

  14. mutt, can you name a few professional critics that you think can’t differentiate oxidation and reduction?

    Well, wine is subjective. I’ve almost vomited drinking 0.8 VA wines – was like drinking vinaigrette. OTOH, two weeks ago I had an awesome 2012 Napa Cab with no noticeable VA.

    Actual VA: 1.3


  15. Jerry Roark says:

    Wow Brill, that’s interesting how one wine with va at .80 was so appalling and the cab over the perceptible va threshold was delicious! Were they both cabs?

  16. Jerry, unfortunately I’ve tasted/made hundreds of wines with elevated VA (say, 0.7+) and it just bugs you because you know it’s generally because of careless winemaking (not always the case in tough years or if you’re someone like Dettori or Cornelissen).

    But, yeah, 1.3 and no problems. If you’re in Napa, I’ll give you a bottle and you can see for yourself.

  17. Alex Kanzler says:

    What do Oxidation and Reduction have to do with VA? We’re talking three different faults here… and arguably reduction isn’t a fault in still wine. A certain amount of reduction early in the shelf life is generally needed to successfully cellar lower tannin wines (Pinot, Chard).
    Anyway, Michael, you sure the 0.8 wine didn’t have E.A. on it as well? Any detectable EA on finished wine makes it undrinkable.
    I know plenty of cab producers who aim for 0.8, and are comfortable much higher… even Pinot Noir at .7-.8 in-the-bottle is common. That’s the tricky thing about VA though; it tastes great right up to the point where it doesn’t… Great wines walk that line, amongst many others.

  18. I’ve gotten myself into trouble speaking about specific wine professionals in the past. And yes, I am aware the Redox is different than VA. I appreciate your point Michael, and I agree that a wine can be technically “flawed” but still taste excellent.
    I guess the point I was trying to make was that I have tasted wines that received high scores in respected wine publications, and when I tasted them they were clearly flawed. I think it is totally okay for someone to “like” a wine that is flawed. But if you are going to declare yourself as an objective authority on wine, and score wines based on quality, then you should be able to recognize wine flaws and score them accordingly.

  19. A significant part of “rightness” for me is being true to varietal characteristics.

  20. Scrappy Mutt writes:

    “. . . I agree that a wine can be technically ‘flawed’ but still taste excellent.”

    Such as the VA-afflicted 1947 Cheval Blanc.

    From Slate
    (posted February 13, 2008):

    “The Greatest Wine on the Planet:
    How the 1947 Cheval Blanc,
    a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good.”


    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables” Column

  21. Note to Scrappy–

    In our tasting for CGCW, we often come across wines in which we recognize “flaws” when using highly technical and pristine-wine oriented criteria. But recognizing VA or a little brett or slight reduction in a young wine is not the same thing as finding those wines “flawed” hedonistically.

    Most critics, ourselves included, judge the entire package and the way the wine presents itself and do not slam a wine when the “flaws” do not disturb the overall effect. I very much like Alex Kanzler’s comment about walking the line.

    We tend to describe the process as the search for excellence as opposed to the search for technical perfection. That does put a burden on us as critics to be very careful about how we walk that line in our judgments and in our descriptions.

  22. Alex, yeah, EA makes me just pass… but the number of commercially-released wines with obvious EA (to me at least) is pretty modest compared to those with obvious VA.

    I guess I admire those that have enough control over their microbial environment to “walk the wine.” That implies quite some effort, precision and luck. Mostly I see praying to keep it down and then busting out the machinery if they can’t. 😉

  23. The idea of “no right or wrong” is struck from a Millennial point of view, where every child gets a medal and that we are all “Special” for special’s sake. I’ve been scolded, as an adult, for telling a child “that’s wrong, put that down” when the appropriate response “wait…they’re learning”. Really? I didn’t think touching cat litter in a sand box was learning, I thought it was wrong.

    Trends are often based upon peer pressure, which feeds your egalitarian argument Steve. Social media is peer pressure on a global scale. All you have to do is check “What’s Trending”. Look no further than a hashtag and you’ll find what you should be drinking, eating and wearing because FB/Twitter/Instagram said a whole mess of people are doing it too.

    The words “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity” are dog whistle words for the Millennial generation. Throw in “Authentic”, “Curated”, and “Artisanal”. Meaning, it’s ok to check these orange wines out, we “the new tastemakers” give you permission, we hear you, darling wayward Millennial child.

    Think about this Steve, how often do you see an article in Fast Company, Forbes, AdWeek, Bon Appetit that focuses on The 50 over 50? Or the 70 over 70? You don’t. It’s always the 20/30/40 under the age of 20/30/40. They are who you should be listening to, not “some old guy”.

    That old guy probably isn’t a Somm after all. Somm’s are cool (trending on Social Media/Netflix), written about (Wine and Spirits), are Under 30 (a Millennial) and are “Curators” (Millennial buzz word).

    Don’t worry Millennial’s, when we (put magazine/influencer/tastemaker here) get bored with orange wine, we’ll repackage it into “What you should be drinking NOW” or “What Somm’s are drinking” article for your repackaged boredom (the Rose’ trend is nothing more than repackaged, it’s certainly nothing new). Don’t worry, the other lemming/fledgling magazines/bloggers will follow the lead influencer magazine/bloggers, because that is what’s trending on social media and we might as well follow the wave to get hits and tag our fellow bloggers, influencers tastemakers so we all get hits and mutual internet love. A mutual admiration society and echo chamber of ideas.

  24. Alex Kanzler says:

    Dang Mr. Scheidt! There’s punks, slackers, wannabees and posers in every generation… not quite sure why you’re so bitter against us Millenials? Also Mr. Pott, you’re calling the kettle black here.
    Mr. Scheidt from Above:
    “The words “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity” are dog whistle words for the Millennial generation. Throw in “Authentic”, “Curated”, and “Artisanal”.
    Mr. Scheidt from HIS OWN Winery’s website:
    “Mastro Scheidt wines … distinctive, flavorful and always interesting.
    Flavorful, distinctive wines that compliment food but never overpower it, that’s the goal at Mastro Scheidt. “We believe every wine should be well-balanced and intense,” David says. “We insist that each of our vineyard sources has its own character.”

    Is “distinctive, flavorful, always-interesting, food complimenting, well-balanced, intense and character driven” all that different from “Authentic, Curated and artisanal”?
    It’s all marketing Mr. Scheidt… we all do it to survive. I’ll give you “curated” though, that’s a weird one…
    Btw… I also dislike orange wines, Jura wines, wines with Brett, etc., but what agitates me most is when a trendy spot in SF will brag to no end about how local their food is but their wine list seems to be Anything But California… hypocrites…

  25. Alex,
    My only thought would be to look at SocalityBarbie on Instagram and you’ll see where my edge comes from.

  26. Sorry, gotta fact-check some of this :).

    “nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s”

    Actually, this is true. It’s not necessarily useful for any consumers or buyers or importers, but it is true. I’d argue that the critic / buyer / importer should instead be asking themselves ‘what do I think my target audience will like?’ when examining a wine.

    With respect to quality, I think it is VERY difficult to argue against the notion that we currently live in a time when the highest overall wine quality (if measured in a fine wine *not being perceptibly faulty*) is available at the lowest relative prices. And I mean *ever* in the history of the product. To me, that suggests that having faults in control is simply the price of entry into the global fine wine market now, which means that there is, in effect, a de facto (though very rough) standard in place from a quality perspective.

    Finally –

    “witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.”

    If memory serves me correctly, Parker was vilified more for taking a very small number of blogs that attacked TWA directly, and using his issues with those blogs as broad-brush commentary against *all* wine blogging being worthless (something he later reversed when I did what I think was the first interview with him ever on a blog), without offering up examples of how he thought it should be done when it comes to blogging (he has since done some of that, both in his website forums and in print when interviewed).

  27. Bob Henry says:


    See this op-ed on Lake Wobegon syndrome where “every child gets a medal and . . . we are all ‘Special’ . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Weekend Journal” Section
    (October 27, 2000, Page W17):

    “An Excess of Excellence;
    These days, it seems, all must have prizes.”

    Alternate link:

    By John Allen Paulos
    Professor of Mathematics at Temple University


    “nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s”

    The underlying sentiment behind the Latin maxim:

    “De gustibus non est disputandum”

    Commonly (but inaccurately) translated as:

    “There is no accounting for taste.”

    Quoting that paragon of historical and literary accuracy Wikipedia:

    “The implication is that everyone’s personal preferences are merely subjective opinions that cannot be right or wrong, so they should never be argued about as if they were.”

  28. Bob Henry says:

    I concur with Dude: we are living in the “golden age” of wine grape growing and wine making.

    Identifying and eliminating defects in a wine — the historical goal of enology programs such as UC Davis’s and Fresno State’s — has been largely achieved. (Recall how the original UC Davis 9-point scale and revised 20-point scale predominately focuses on flaws.)

    The NEW goal should be nurturing students on crafting more appealing winemaking styles.

    Aside: many UC Davis grads over the past 20 years have told me they thought the program failed them in not opening up the university’s formidable wine library — donated by vintners to benefit students — for comprehensive varietal comparison tastings.

    They had to form their own student cohort tasting groups to sample fine wines from around the world to garner stylistic insights.

    UC Davis imprints a “classroom/lab palate” on their students.

    As deleterious as a “cellar palate.”

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts