Do We Need Wine Critics?

By / Magazine / March 8th, 2012 / 2

Hell, no. Of course we don’t need wine critics.

We can all shop for a 20-buck Chardonnay, grab the one with the prettiest label, and hope for the best. Who needs to know which one might be the best value for money? We can keep spending the $20 until we find a bottle we like, right? Side-by-side comparisons? Bah. Just grab and go. And if the one you liked best last week was decent, grab it again. Why shoot for the stars?

Mediocrity is not in my vocabulary. And when we’re talking wine, it doesn’t have to be in yours either. The wine market is too competitive for that nonsense. But you do need to know which bottles to buy. Of that, I’m certain.

The point?

It’s not a level playing field. It’s just as easy to find a horrific $14 red or white as it is to find a perfectly satisfying pour. And I assure you, a lot of wine being sold by the truckload is terrible. And I don’t mean I just don’t personally fancy them. I’m talking out of balance, stalky, hollow, dirty-tasting, or otherwise disgusting. And sadly, even more expensive wines are guilty of these offenses.

The other point?

To argue that the wine-drinking public doesn’t need wine critics is blatantly inane, ostrich-like behaviour. Fact is, wine criticism is a properly valuable service and will remain so until producers find a way for wine lovers to taste every bottle before they buy.

Frankly, there is a huge thirst for wine criticism. I think imbibing minds want to know what wines offer the best value for money. A lot of wine enthusiasts recognize that wine critics aren’t there to drive up prices of Bordeaux classed growths, Californian cult favourites, and otherwise unsung gems — they’re there to be surrogate drinkers. Guides to take you gingerly by the hand and lead you through places such as the minefield of Burgundy, where it’s so easy to waste dough on a disappointing drop.

But wine criticism is a funny thing. Unlike any other form of review you can think of — restaurant, film, art, music, television, fashion; you get the idea — wine criticism is almost never scathing. Rarely do blatantly negative writeups about wine appear in magazines and newspapers (or elsewhere for that matter.) It’s all fine and dandy to hear about the good, better, and best bottles, but what about the filthy, putrid and vomitous? When was the last time you read about what not to drink?

The argument goes: wine writers only have so much space per column, so why waste it on what to avoid? Readers only want recommendations. Really? When I posed the question to my wine-loving Facebook friends, most were dying to know about bottled wastes of money.

Quite rightly, too.

Okay, that deliciously well-written and irreverent blog called Vinography has a section titled, “What Not to Buy.” And I pipe up and blog the topic now and then. But few of us critics really dish the dirt.

My feeling is, if I’m sent swamp water to taste, a few things are probably going on that I’m not entirely cool with. First off, the winemaker clearly doesn’t taste widely enough to know how bad his or her wine really is — or just doesn’t care. Secondly, whoever is sending me the sample is clearly underestimating my judgment and technical tasting skills. And thirdly, there’s a certain smugness at play; the obvious thinking behind sending bottles of hogwash to media is, there’s no risk because critics don’t write up bad wines much. Surprise. I do.

After my blog entry titled “What Not to Drink” appeared earlier this year, some well-meaning Facebook friends cautioned me that negative reviews might create reluctance to send me more samples, but I can live with that. If samples ever did dry up, there are more advertised trade tastings than I could ever manage to fit into my work week.

So back to the original question. Do we need wine critics? Or more precisely, do you need them?

No. You don’t. But you might like to know what wine is pretty damn good from someone whose taste you trust. Basically, wine critics taste broadly so you can drink well. And if you view it as a cooperative exercise, you can work with the critic to lift your vinous pleasure to higher levels.

What am I talking about? Well, if you at least know what grape varieties you prefer, the wine regions or styles that suit you, and how much you’re willing to spend on a particular purchase, a wine critic can fine tune your selection, taking you closer to personal nirvana than you might get with a random shot in the dark.

If you’re looking for a $100 bottle for your birthday and love Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley, it might interest you to know that Cakebread Cellars made a stupendous one in 2006 that had me (and a lot of other critics) swooning. It’s supple, but with tremendous depth, power and finesse. It offers the complexity and opulence of classed growth Bordeaux in a good year — think Mouton Rothschild 2000 — at a snip of the price. Glorious wine well worth knowing about.

You trust your lawyer to take care of your legal affairs, your banker to manage your investments, and your plastic surgeon to keep you looking 20 at 50 — at least from behind — with that Brazilian Butt Lift, so why wouldn’t you trust a wine critic to keep your drinking in check? If not for you, at least for the family and friends with whom you’re sharing your wine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to a home and been poured a glass of something horrid. It’s not a good look on the host or hostess at all. And of course, I can only imagine what is served when non-wine professionals go to parties.

Therein lies the value of wine criticism — the ability to lead you by the hand toward a better life. If not a better life, then certainly better bottles.

No. Not all critics are created equally. So how do you find a wine critic to trust? Easy.

Think of a go-to wine. A favourite. One you really enjoy. Then Google it and read several critics’ reviews of that bottle. The critic whose review most closely resembles your view on the wine is the keeper. And to test the decision, taste several other wines s/he recommends — obviously in a style you tend to like — and see if you like them. If not, ditch the critic and repeat the process until you find one whose tastes mirror yours.

Sure, to some degree, technical tasting is objective. It is a learned discipline like any other. Professional tasters taste for typicity, balance, cleanliness and all the rest; but a certain amount of personal taste does play into the process. Wine ratings will always have a margin of subjectivity even the most rigorous master of wine cannot deny. I know one particular critic in Toronto, for instance, who hates Carménère — the flagship red grape variety of Chile. Should I ever need a recommendation for a stellar Carménère, he would be the last guy I’d turn to despite the fact I think his tasting skills and knowledge of wine are among the best in this country. Suffice it to say, fit is important.

Who do I think are some of the best critics in the world? Who would I turn to for a recommendation, should the need ever arise? Andrew Jefford. Eric Asimov. Tim Atkin. Hugh Johnson. Margaret Rand. I love to read these critics’ material. Which brings me to another point.

All of the critics I named not only have good palates and taste broadly; they write well. They draw me in and keep me reading. Despite being hugely knowledgeable, their writing never feels like they’re saying, “I’m drinking this and, of course, you aren’t. I’m visiting this region, and, ahem, I guess you’re not.” Instead, their writing feels like I’m physically with them and, through sensitive tasting notes, they’re offering me a peek, sniff and taste of whatever they might be drinking.
Consider, for instance, Andrew Jefford’s take on Burgundy, which appeared in Issue 30 of The World of Fine Wine:
“Great Burgundy is white wine country, extensive and intermittent. For Chardonnay, that descent from northern Chablis all the way down to Mâcon’s last white vines, tiptoeing into St. Amour, is a chronicle. The wine world offers few comparable examples of a single grape variety teased through so many nuances and variations — from Petit Chablis at its sharpest and sourest, through to the puffy pillows of Pouilly-Fuissé, which loll about invitingly like dolls made of honeycomb. Somewhere in the middle stands Corton-Charlemagne, beautiful yet thin-lipped, sculpted yet silent — the enigmas at the heart of the journey.”
If that doesn’t make me hightail it to the Burgundy aisle of my local wine shop, I’m not sure what would.

So, to get back to the question: Do we really need wine critics?

No.

But they’re sure fun to have around.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.goodbetterbestwines.com Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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