Privileged Old White Guys and Negative Wine Reviews

grumpy old manOne of New Zealand’s top wine judges Jim Harre, after sampling a Pinot Noir from Ekleipsi, sent an email to winemaker Jess Mavromatis with the following message:

“Hi, I tried your wine at Moiety Restaurant this evening, the worst Pinot Noir I’ve tried in years. Give up. The wine I tried was disgusting. As an international wine judge who lives in Waipara, you should be ashamed of yourself — get a new hobby.”

He seems nice.

Oliver Styles in a post entitled “Wine’s Problem with Old White Men makes the following points that seem to me to be exactly right.

— This is neither a critique nor a review. It’s an insult.

—  This is a person in power kicking someone who is powerless—a small production, natural wine producer, who is also a woman.

— Nastiness like this is seldom called out because powerful people can leverage institutions to bring down the hammer on anyone who speaks up

— A bad wine is one thing, but what was said is potentially libelous in some countries since it attacked the winemaker and her reputation, not just the wine. (Although it should be said that the email was made public by the winemaker for reasons that are not clear to me)

–Being an international wine judge is a responsibility and a privilege. “It does not entitle anyone to demand someone’s head on a platter just on a whim.”

I’m in 100% agreement.

Interestingly, Styles  brings out an irony in his own article. Are we now in danger of creating stereotypes of old, white men in positions of power in the wine industry? As Styles points out, we have had so many instances of bad behavior from this demographic that the stereotype “comes close to being deserved.”

I am firmly in that demographic (although I have no power in the wine industry) and share with Styles a desire not to be lumped in with men behaving badly. We could take the easy way out and condemn all stereotypes but that is lazy. Stereotypes exist because there is usually some truth to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be stereotypes. If old white men want to avoid being stereotyped, they need to insist that the institutions they control stop excusing the bad behavior. If there are no consequences or sanctions, nothing will change. Harre has not apologized and neither have the competition administrators that Harre works for.

Although the email in question was not a review, Styles’ article got me thinking about the appropriateness of negative reviews. Among product reviews, especially of cultural products such as art, film, or books, wine reviews are unique in seldom being highly critical. Many reviewers report that life is too short to bother writing about bad wines. That is a good reason not to seek them out but when one falls into your lap, why not write them up?

More central to the issues Styles raises is how one should approach a negative review when one decides to write one. Even a negative review must be thoughtful, constructive, and informative to the reader. It’s fine to express anger at mediocrity but that doesn’t relieve one of the responsibility to not be mediocre oneself.

Although I occasionally write negative reviews, I have a rule that I do not write negative reviews of small, independent wineries. My reasoning is related to one of the points Styles mentions—the fact that small wineries lack the market power or the power to control their reputation that large wineries enjoy. My reviews are not widely read and have little influence on a winery’s prospects. But I still don’t feel right knocking someone who may be on a steep learning curve, lacks the resources to do much about a less than stellar batch, and certainly lacks the marketing clout to influence how they are perceived.

Large wineries are a different story. They have much more control over their product and their reputation and thus should be held to a higher standard.

I doubt that Harre would have taken the time to write his nasty gram if the wine had been from a major producer. It would have harmed his reputation with the winery and would probably have fallen on deaf ears anyway.

There is no particularly good reason why we should refrain from negative reviews. But we need to be cognizant of who has the power to fully deserve the opprobrium.

And to be honest, I am now very curious about that Pinot Noir from Ekleipsi.

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