Our Model of Wine Criticism is not Giving Wines the Attention They Deserve

wine criticism 4Master of Wine Geoff Moss interviewed music critic Peyton Thomas, a writer for Pitchfork, regarding the parallels between music criticism and wine criticism. (It’s hosted at Jamie Goode’s site.)

The insights into the process of music reviewing were interesting in their own right but they also expose some of the limitations of how we review wines. The most glaring comparison is the time spent with the item under review.

I don’t know if many people know this actually, but music reviewers do generally get the album at least a few weeks in advance, sometimes many months, to give us time to listen to it and live with it. That can definitely vary if an album is a surprise drop, and critics don’t get it until it’s out. Then you usually only have a few days. But generally, I have at least a few weeks.
So, what I like to do is listen to it a few times while doing different activities. Sometimes just sitting and relaxing, sometimes walking around the neighborhood. But before I make any notes or form any opinions about it, I just like to get familiar with it through repeated listening. And then, after four or five listens, I will start to take notes on it.

Outside of the listening process, I’ll also research the artist and read any interviews that they’re doing in the lead-up to the release of the album. If they’re an established artist, then I’ll also listen to other albums in their catalog at least once or twice, just to really get familiar and build a base. And once I feel like I have a good base in place, I’m familiar with the album, I can talk about it casually with a friend, then I will start outlining my review, and I’ll go through a couple drafts before I send a presentable one to my editor at Pitchfork.
And then, we’ll go through a process. I’ll get some notes on the review. They’ll push me to go deeper. Sometimes the editor disagrees with me about the quality of the music, which is always interesting, and we’ll have to really work to justify my opinion.
But that’s the standard process, and it can vary depending on many factors.

The contrast with wine reviewing couldn’t be more stark. Gary Moss explains:

And, I think that’s interesting how it contrasts to wine reviewing because typically if you’re a well-known wine critic, you’ll be tasting literally thousands of wines in a year. It could be 5,000, 10,000. And how you taste them is very analytical. You’re maybe spending somewhere between five to ten minutes a wine. When you’re tasting it, you’re spitting it out, because you can’t drink when you’re going through that many samples. And then you’re moving on to the next wine. I mean, there’s a couple potential issues with that. I mean, the first is you have palate fatigue over time. Can you really accurately analyze wines like that? I personally would say no.

But perhaps more importantly it’s very removed from how people actually enjoy and experience wine every day. It sounds like your process is much more closely aligned with how the average person would listen to an album. If I’m having wine at home, I’m having a glass of wine with dinner. I’m not having one or two ounces and quickly moving on to the next one.

This has long been one of my complaints about professional wine reviews. 5-10 minutes is not enough time to absorb the various facets of a wine, to think about them, assess emotional reactions, and compare them with other wines. The reviewer cannot know how it will show in various contexts, how it evolves in the glass, what it will contribute to a meal, how it resonates with an environment, or how others will respond to the wine. This is not to mention the very real problem of palate fatigue.

Our current review practices are not giving wines the attention they deserve.

Of course, there are practical impediments to critics spending more time with a wine. There are hundreds of thousands of wines produced every year. The only way a relatively small team at a handful of publications can review them all is to treat tasting like a production line. But that has more to do with the business model of publications than it does the inherent needs of the wine community.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But it doesn’t help that wine blogs are dying off. (Alder Yarrow posted the grim news last week about wine blogs as endangered species.) Bloggers can spend more time with a wine. (I review a wine over the course of 3 days.) But no one pays bloggers. It’s that business model problem again.

I don’t have a solution, but we first need to acknowledge there is a problem.

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