Noelle at Outwines blog launched an interesting discussion thread on Twitter.
This has puzzled me for a long time. The responses to her question were interesting. Here’s a quick summary which I’ve divided into categories.
The first category are responses that try to explain why wine reviews differ from film, book, or restaurant reviews:
1. Most reviewers rely on free samples and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.
This is surely a plausible explanation, since it is true that many critics rely on samples which are necessary to defray the sometimes substantial cost of wine. (And review publications have their advertisers they don’t want to offend) This is not a factor for book, film, or album reviews given their minimal costs. Restaurant and live performance reviews sometimes rely on comped tickets but often the publication in which the review appears pays for the ticket leaving the critic free to make her uncoerced judgment. Is it cynical to believe this financial incentive influences wine reviews? It’s probably naïve to believe it doesn’t. But that doesn’t make it right.
2. Bottle variation makes negative reviews unreliable.
This is an important consideration. There is no doubt that bottle variation exists even when wineries are conscientious about trying to control it. It, therefore, seems unfair to base a negative review on a single bottle. Large wine publications try to avoid this by requesting two bottles be sent for review. But that is not routinely true for most bloggers writing reviews. Restaurant reviewers face a similar dilemma, which is why many will visit a restaurant more than once before passing judgment. Obviously this is not an issue for book, album, or film reviews. However, variation is a fact of life for any kind of performance review. Yet that does not prevent theatre critics or live music critics from panning a bad performance. The difference is that a poor performance is the fault of the performers; a bad bottle may not be the fault of the winery
3. Many reviewers pre-select the wines they review which greatly reduces the chance of reviewing a wine one doesn’t like.
This is a factor in some cases but it doesn’t explain why wine reviews are almost universally positive. Although some wine critics review anything that is sent to them, many bloggers seek out wines they think will be interesting. Few would deliberately seek out wines they think will be inferior. However, the same would likely be true of book, film, music, or restaurant reviews. They also pre-select what they review, and the negative reviews come from disappointed expectations. Why is wine an exception?
So (1), (2) and (3) provide some explanation for why wine reviewers uniquely tend to write only positive reviews. But (1) is a corrupt reason. And (3) doesn’t adequately explain why wine reviews differ from other kinds of reviews. Only (2) provides both an explanation and a justification.
Other reasons provided by respondents are less persuasive because they suggest wine reviewers are uniquely….well, how should I put it? “Too nice” is probably too nice. How about “not cut out to be critics”.
4. Worries about being labeled a “wine snob”.
5. Not wishing to offend people who like the wine.
6. Negative reviews sound “mean and petty”.
7. Not wishing to offend the winemaker who puts “effort and heart” into making the wine.
I understand these sentiments. But the practice of criticism of any kind depends on the idea that there are quality standards that some aesthetic objects meet and others do not, and it’s important to let people know what those standards are. If you’re not willing to do that you’re not engaged in criticism. Do music critics worry about being “music snobs”? Do book reviewers worry about not wanting to offend people who like the book? Are negative film reviews always “mean and petty”? Do theater directors and performers not put effort and heart into their performances? These reasons fail to explain why wine is unique while ignoring the whole point of criticism.
There was one response that gets to the heart of the nature of criticism and perhaps to something unique about wine.
8. There are too many good wines to write about. Why waste time on bad ones?
My immediate reaction to this was to ask why it’s not important to let people know about a wine that is an aesthetic failure. Doesn’t a critic save people money and disappointment by pointing out wines that are inferior?
However, there is another dimension to this. Good critics help their readers appreciate a wine. They point out features of a wine that are worth paying attention to, features that some drinkers might miss, features that indicate new trends or something unusual that makes a wine distinctive. Good criticism will often explain why a wine tastes as it does or provide historical context to help readers understand what they are drinking. In other words, there is a lot to say about wines that are an aesthetic success. By contrast, there seems to be less to say about wines that fail. Most wines fail because the grapes are inferior. That is not interesting to write about nor is it interesting to read about unless there is something distinctive about that failure.
Books, film, and music, by contrast, can fail for more interesting reasons. Wooden characters, convoluted plot lines, or clichéd melodies provide an opportunity for the critic to explore how characters, plots or melodies are supposed to work. We learn something from their failure.
Perhaps its a weakness of wine criticism that we don’t pay more attention to aesthetic failures. Perhaps we wine critics don’t know enough about winemaking to point out the reasons behind aesthetic failures in a way that would enable our readers to learn something.