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Monday Maunderings
Wine Critics: Why We Do What We Do

You say "po-tay-to and I say "po-tah-to", you say "to-may-to" and I say "to-mah-to". You say 98 points and I say 91. You say " the sweet smell of Burgundian merde" and I say "Baby diapers on a bad day". Why can't we all get along? Ah, if it were only that easy. The language of wine is tough enough—red cherries, black cherries, bing cherries, maraschino cherries, dried cherries, sour cherries—but it is nothing compared to the differences in the ways that various critics see the wines they are reviewing. "Who critiques the critics" is a cry often heard, but, frankly, other than in matters of rigor and independence, who is to say when a little Bretanomyces is too much or toasty oak is a better or less good accompaniment to Puligny-Montrachet than crème brûlée oak.

And if that were not enough confusion in itself, questions like how much acidity is enough? Are oaky Chardonnays a blight on the palate? Are California wines sweet? are answered differently from one taster to another. The argument that wine experts, of which we stand accused of being in some quarters and do not deny, should have some code of objective quality us a constant in wine circles. "Surely", the objectivists say, "these things are measurable, and if they fall outside of the norm, the wines must surely be unacceptable". It is easy to agree that there exist some form of general standards for well-known wines. Read a bunch of reviews of the recognized critics and you are likely to hear many of the same words for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from review to review. And the same holds for Syrah from Côte Rotie, Riesling from the Mosel, Pinot Noir from Westside Road. That a recent study of the descriptions of lesser known varieties shows a wider array of words is not especially surprising. It is not fact that Cabernet Sauvignon smells like black currants, black cherries, herbs, olives and the other familiar adjectives. It just that the grape has been at the center of the wine consciences for so long that we have come to accept those terms as its appropriate characteristics.

Yet, if all that is so, why do scores vary more than the agreed upon standards for well-known wines? The answer is not that one critic is right and the other wrong. Rather the answer is that wine criticism is subjective, and even more than being differences in taste, which do exist from critic to critic, it is that each new wine brings a new and separate set of subjective judgments. And no matter how much critics like Connoisseurs' Guide or Robert Parker like to think that we are "right", we are cannot get away from the fact that criticism is subjective not objective.

You will find much to like, we hope, in our new website. Better and easier access to our tasting notes, editorials like this one and recommendations for fun and games in the wine country. But what you will not find is greater accuracy in wine reviews. Try as we might have, when all is said and done and the glamour of the pretty new pages and more efficient data base wear off, what you will have left is the same Connoisseurs' Guide. No matter how often we get it right, and no matter how much technology improves the range and presentation of the product, underneath it all are the people who taste the wine and write the words. We are still here, and we like to think that is our efforts that have made CGCW into what it is and what it will be.

Thanks for being with us for the first thirty-five years. Stick around for the next thirty-five.

Wine of The Day

Oaky Chardonnay? You say you like oaky, buttery Chardonnay? Have we got a wine for you. It does not get any bigger, better, richer, deeper than the DARIOUSH Chardonnay Napa Valley 2008 ($43.00). Some folks are going to be put off by this wine because of its utter flamboyance, but for all of its size and seeming bluster, it comes with an uncommonly fine sense of balance and stays in inviting form from beginning to end. Its involving flavors of ripe apples, caramel, toast and cream are as bright and alive as they are deep and impressively stuffed and its exceptionally long finish exhibits a spark of unexpected brightness that is the mark of a wine that is destined to hold up brilliantly for a good many years.


by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:9/7/2010 7:35:58 AM
Hi Charlie, welcome to the wonderful world of wine blogging! I'm looking forward to reading all the cool stuff here.
by Tina Caputo
Posted on:9/10/2010 9:24:21 AM
A blog, Charlie? What's next? Tweeting at wine writer conferences? (:
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/11/2010 11:34:09 AM
Tina--I have a solution for the that. I am going to sit next to someone with a nice, tiny laptop or netbook or one of those IPad thingies and watch them. Know anyone who could help out?

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