flavor descriptorsMany words have been written about the decline of traditional wine criticism and the emergence of social media. The “old school” wine critics writing for magazines and newspapers now must compete with armies of amateur wine critics on FB and Twitter blasting their views to anyone who will listen, while opinion aggregators such as Cellar Tracker provide a forum for wine lovers to provide quick impressions along with numerical scores that are averaged in an attempt to overcome subjectivity through sheer force of numbers.

A case can be made that “old school” criticism carried more authority, was better written and more nuanced than the new democratized forms of criticism, but the world in which that critical style reigned appears gone forever.

But I wonder if the decline in the authority of wine criticism comes from the simple fact that wine critics seldom, well, criticize.

Jamie Goode is attending the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers and is keeping us up to date on the proceedings. NY Times wine writer Eric Asimov is reported to have said, drawing analogies with film criticism:

A critic is someone who makes a judgment. In wine there is this idea that it is bad form to be critical of any one sort of wine, because there are people who appreciate that style. This is condescending to the writer and to the audience.’

Asimov is correct that the job of a wine critic is to criticize. But as a commenter on Jamie Goode’s post said:

And not a word about how wine critics never criticize? Strange – or perhaps not. As Isle nearly put it, ‘readers also want to know what $10 Chardonnay NOT to buy…’

This commenter is pointing to one of the peculiarities of wine critics (both professional and amateur)—they almost never write negative reviews. Sure, sometimes they give scores that are less than stellar but even these are accompanied by tasting notes that seldom mention why a wine doesn’t measure up or what it’s lacking. A film critic who never panned a film would soon lose credibility and almost every discussion of a film includes critical remarks about scenes or performances that don’t work. But wine critics tend to write effusive praise for good wines, slightly less effusive praise for average wines, and neutral descriptors for the bottom shelf swill. You seldom see the cranky, “let it rip” critical remarks that are common in art, film, and literary criticism. (the exception is the Cellar Tracker Community that is often quite critical and occasionally this here blog when I get fed up with some of the stuff I have to drink)

The reason for this is quite simple. Most wine critics depend on samples from wineries or have other relationships with winemakers that preclude honestly critical reviews. Until the wine writing community finds a way to solve this apparent conflict of interest, wine writing will remain only a pale image of genuine criticism.