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tasting panel magJeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, was rather curmudgeon-like in his post last week arguing that wine criticism was no longer relevant or effective. Asking the question “Have we reached the end of wine criticism?” he writes,

The answer, to listen to the surveys and the polls, is yes. One recent study found that just nine percent of wine drinkers relied on critics, while almost half of those surveyed said wine descriptions were pompous. This is far from the only such study – wine drinkers have rated wine criticism this poorly for years. Increasingly, it seems, they could care less about what people like the Wine Curmudgeon have to say.

His argument is that “winespeak”, with its fruit basket descriptors and numerical scores, is unintelligible to ordinary wine drinkers who are clamoring for a different, more informative kind of review. But, he argues, there is no incentive for wine writers to change since the delusional wine industry is happy with the system that uses critics’ inflated, meaningless, numerical scores to market their wines.

Tom Wark pushed back against Jeff’s dismay by pointing out that wine reviews are not really for the ordinary wine drinker but are aimed at connoisseurs who are willing to spend considerably more for a bottle and want some assurance that the wine is of quality before buying.

So, Jeff, wine criticism isn’t dead. However, the audience of drinkers you write for, those who buy less expensive wines, don’t care much about scores. They care that the wine is in liquid form, a little sweet, isn’t too rough around the edges, has a tasty character and possesses alcohol. I don’t need a Wine Advocate handbook by my side to find one of those when I’m staring at an end stack of wine at a Lucky Supermarket.

Both Jeff and Tom make compelling points but I have a somewhat different take on this issue.

1. “Winespeak” is unintelligible to ordinary wine consumers because they lack the training and/or experience to grasp it. Wine is a vague object and difficult to describe and it takes years of disciplined study before it makes sense. No doubt “winespeak” sounds pompous to those who haven’t studied it. So does “physics speak” or discussions of formalist art criticism. These are technical vocabularies for specialists. (Which does not of course mean that their aren’t some really poorly conceived reviews out there.) I know this sounds “elitist” but that’s the way it is. We should be careful about treating wine as if it were orange juice. There is therefore an important question about how to talk to novices so they learn and are not put off. But that problem exists with all technical vocabularies and is not unique to wine.

2. “Winespeak” when used to describe most inexpensive, everyday wines is fundamentally deceptive. Most of these wines do not deserve the florid descriptions they are often saddled with. (There are exceptions to this, which is why its worthwhile reviewing these wines) And on a related note there is nothing more inaccurate than a winery’s description of their wines  which they put on the label. That is marketing, not criticism.

3. Thus, Tom is right to argue that the audience for wine reviews is not the ordinary consumer buying wine at the supermarket. They don’t care about wine reviews nor should they. The audience for reviews are people who have expertise or aspire to gain it

4. Jeff is right that a list of fruit aromas tells a reader nothing about whether they will like a wine or not. Fruit notes are part of a description of the features of a wine, not an assessment of its aesthetic value. Reviews that don’t address aesthetic value are useless. Jeff’s reviews address aesthetic value because he focuses on whether the wine is authentic and typical of its region or varietal.

5.  Jeff is also right that the wine business is cynical about this issue. They view wine writers as extensions of their marketing departments and care little for accurate descriptions of their wines.

But it the end I would want to question the underlying assumption of this whole debate. I doubt that the constitutive aim of wine criticism is helping people to make purchasing decisions. After all a significant number of wine reviews are written for wines that are unavailable for purchase. I devoted a good deal of attention to this issue in a recent Three Quarks column.

Essentially my argument is that wine criticism serves a larger function for the wine community. We need to know the meaning and significance of a wine, the kinds of experiences we can expect from drinking it and whether it represents a new trend, a typical flavor profile or a departure from accepted norms. The wine community is an aesthetic community that can sustain itself only if we can communicate about the shared object of our passion. It’s only through such communication that norms and standards are set. The wine review is the main vehicle for that. If the wine review is dead, so is the wine community.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

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