Although wine writing takes diverse forms, wine evaluation is a persistent theme of much wine writing. When particular wines, wineries or vintages are under discussion most wine writers at some point address quality often using a numerical score to represent their assessment.
But if, as readers, we are to make a judgment about whether an evaluation is legitimate or not we must know what its purpose is. What are these evaluations aiming to achieve? Is wine criticism similar to film, book, or art criticism? Or is it more akin to the evaluation of consumer products? The practice of using a numerical score to indicate quality is controversial and much has been written about it. But an assessment of that practice depends on answering this question about the goal or goals of wine criticism.
I suspect the most popularly held view is that the goal of wine criticism is to help consumers make purchases or decide which wine to experience. Positive evaluations are used by winery PR departments to help sell wine. Wine shops use “shelf talkers” which include some evaluative language to guide consumers toward a decision about what to buy. The alleged purpose of wine scores is to give consumers, who may not be well versed in the arcane language of wine evaluation, an easy way to judge whether a wine is worth buying. Many wine evaluations include reference to the wine’s price and the degree to which it provides value. In fact, investors decide on which wines or wine futures to purchase for long term investment based almost entirely on a critic’s judgments about the quality of individual wines or vintages.
No doubt reviews are sometimes used to make purchasing decisions. That is not in dispute. The question is whether this is the primary or constitutive aim of a wine review. In other words, is the practice of providing consumers with information intended to influence their purchases part of the essential nature of wine reviews or do the reviews serve some larger purpose?
It seems to me that purchasing decisions are not the primary function of wine reviews. If that is their primary function why are there few negative reviews? Surely directing people away from a bad purchase is as important as directing them toward a good one. Consumer reviews of other products can often be quite scathing but we don’t see that kind of negative review in wine very often. Publications such as the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast decline to review wines that fall below their standards despite the fact that such a review might be informative for their readers when making a purchase.
Furthermore, with the exception of the brief tasting notes in publications such as Wine Spectator, wine reviews usually provide context for their evaluation, pointing out similarities and differences compared to other wines in its comparison class, noting factors regarding wine making and viticulture that influence the wine, and discussing the history of the winery and its story. In other words, such reviews seem designed to enhance the experience of tasting the wine by giving it meaning. It’s true that lending meaning and context might influence someone’s decision about what to buy. But it is also the case that this kind of information enhances the experience while enjoying the wine after purchase and can be useful even after the wine is consumed, cementing one’s memory of the experience and providing knowledge of its significance. In other words, for reviews that provide context there is no reason to privilege the purchase decision as the primary target of the review. (Just a personal anecdote: I almost never read wine reviews prior to purchasing. I don’t need them for that purpose. I do read them after tasting the wine and taking my notes in order to learn more about what I’m tasting. But in addition I like to check my impressions against others who have tasted the wine because it teaches me something about my own palate and preferences.)
Finally, many wine reviews are of wines that no ordinary mortal can afford or are not available because the wines are fully allocated. This it seems to me is the most important objection to the view that wine criticism is primarily aimed at influencing purchases. If wines are fully allocated or to be delivered only to wine club members they are already purchased, which precludes the review from having that sort of influence. Yet tasting notes are usually included in shipments of allocated wine. Thus, they must be serving some other purpose.
What that purpose is will be the subject of a future post but I think we should set aside the view that the constitutive aim of wine reviews is a purchasing decision.