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Thursday Thorns
If It Ain’t Broke-—Break It

By Charles Olken

If you are a professional critic, then you are in favor of critical reviews. If you are not a critic, then you must take an oath to destroy criticism as we know it.

Everywhere one turns these days, some one is attacking wine critics. And the predictable thing about their rantings is that those who criticize the critics aren’t critics. Some are rank amateurs. Some want their brand of criticism to be the new paradigm for criticism. Some can’t make up their minds.

Take my good friend and adopted Internet son, Joe Roberts, whose blog entitled 1WineDude reviews wines in twenty words or less and gives those scores with letter grades. Joe, who I have predicted is going to be part of the generation of wine writers who replace folks like me who are rapidly approaching our “sell by” dates, is often critical of wine reviews by professionals even as he is penning his own reviews. I have always found that a bit odd, but he’s young, and he is trying to learn and is growing a lot faster than most of the amateurs on the Internet.

The other day, Joe Dude suggested something even more radical than short reviews with letter grades. He proposed giving everyone a big “I like it” button that they could push when they tasted a wine they liked. Kind of an interesting idea. A bit like Zagat guides and TripAdvisor. Everyone gets to vote. What could be more democratic?

I kind of like the idea. After all, I do cast my ballots on Zagat for San Francisco, and for other cities when I visit them like London and Paris. I am headed off to Boston in a couple of weeks and I will probably stick my two cents in on the restaurant scene there. I grew up in Boston, have family there, and go back often so I both know a bit about the restaurants there and am always on the prowl for new ideas.

Wine could be reviewed the same way, says Joe Dude. But I would hasten to point out that we already have a couple of “voice of the people” review mechanisms. They are called Snooth and Cellar Tracker. Some people love them. Others won’t go near them. That is what makes horse races—differences of opinion.

There are only two reasons to read a bona fide wine critic. The first is that some of us know what we are talking about, and even if we don’t, we have established track records. People read CGCW or The Wine Advocate or any other review vehicles because they have a sense that those critics won’t steer them wrong most of the time. If we do not get it right for a given palate, then the owner of that palate is going to look elsewhere. So, there is a certain endorsement that comes with having paid subscribers.

But, even that is only part of the reason to read one or more of the established critics. The chances are that any of us are going to be right often enough to have earned our meager reputations. Still, it is the timeliness effect that will always separate the critics from the public voice. Let’s say that you are a Zinfandel buyer and you see that the wines of Storybook Mountain, Rock Wall, Ridge and Carol Shelton have all come to market. And let’s say that these wines interest you but not enough for you to buy a bottle of each and to taste them blind before you make a large purchase. And let’s further say that you can’t wait for the voice of the people, with their “like buttons” to finally speak having assembled their several thousand opinions of this year’s Geyserville because the wine will be gone from the market before the final opinion in.

The reasons why critics matter, and will always matter in areas of taste and choice among expensive alternatives, is that good critics speak with clear voices, and they speak when the wines are still in the market place. Maybe the “like button” will work for the various offerings of Kendall-Jackson, Beringer and Gallo Sonoma, but try waiting for the “like buttons” to work on Williams Selyem or Dehlinger or Staglin or Shafer and you will find yourself shut out from those wines.

It is a simple equation. Knowledge counts and timeliness counts. The “like button” comes with neither.


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YO! Fashizzle!
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:7/7/2011 10:26:47 PM

I think it depends on where the drinker is on their journey of wine enjoyment. The under 30 novice wine drinker crowd with short attention spans would probably prefer a like button. It’s a simple, straightforward KISS method--why be bothered (and who has time) for pesky verbiage? Just give me the rap in 5 seconds or less and I’m ouw-da here so I can text some more!! K-J, Gallo, give me the scoop. Hit me with the 12K likes and I’m buy’n YO!

A like button won’t help (or sell) a Saxum red blend from Paso.

That's One Click on the Like Button
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/7/2011 11:04:35 PM

Well said, Pam.

The "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (KISS) principle will work for simple wines made in long quantites, but only if enough people really take the time to care about posting their opinions of $12 Chardonnay.

Please explain to this nitwit...
by Thomaa Pellechia
Posted on:7/8/2011 1:57:09 PM

...when did the opinion of the masses go from something mediocre to somethign preferred?


I understand what you say about Zagat--but to me, that opinion system was the beginning of the end of information about restaurants.

I'm also surprised that no one has mentioned how easily a "I like it" campaign can be abused, you know, like those bloggers who send emails pleading for a vote; get enough response and you might win a nomination; get enough :I like it: and you might persuade a lot of people with equal lack of desire for real information; hey, that's a win/win.

Smarter than you think
by Brian
Posted on:7/8/2011 10:29:09 PM

People would take it for what it's worth. I think sites like Snooth and Cellar Tracker are beneficial, but not if you take every review too serious. When you do, you end up more confused than you were before you started. 

The younger crowd is smarter than most give them credit for. They would know 1,000 "likes" for Sutter Home would not be as significant as 1,000 "likes" for Staglin.  

Also, I don't think the younger crowd  is very trusting of large corporations. Most would see right through any attempt at abuse.

by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:7/9/2011 7:38:58 AM

Brian--I don't understand how 1,000 "likes" imparts any information beyond the fact that 1,000 people have registered their "like."Or if it really represents 1,000 separate people.

Supposing that it is a real number, it still says nothing about the taste of the 1,000 people, says nothing at all about the wine, and generally is more akin to herd mentality than it is to information.

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