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Thursday Thorns
Critics Cannot Sit On The Fence And Still Be Relevant

By Stephen Eliot

The operative question, whether we are talking about quality in wine or movies, cars or restaurants is “How good is it”?

Winery relevancy was the topic of yesterday’s CGCW Blog, and the question of which wineries do and do not have it are and how it might be gained and lost proved a lively discussion with different perspectives enough to leave the questions largely unanswered in any absolute sense.

Well, the question of relevancy looms large in a host of hot topics in the wine world these days, and those about the validity of critical rating systems remain among the more relevant yet polarizing threads of them all. Is ranking relevant? Is it on an inevitable and absolute decline? Does it have any value and if so to whom? Is it here to stay? Yes, no, yes and yes are and have been my own answers, but a noteworthy event in food journalism and a couple of subsequent, very insightful comments I read this week have set me to thinking. They made me a little more convinced and comfortable in my views.

First, I want to say that what follows is not one more labored, defense-under-fire argument for the 100-point system. And, it has nothing to do with Robert Parker’s latest round of very magnanimous, headline-making 2009 Bordeaux scores. Although I do find myself chuckling over coffee this morning at those who crow of Mr. Parker’s demise and growing irrelevance. What he does and does not do still sets the blogging world to frenzied yapping unlike anything else I have seen, and I suspect that most hostile voices are those of people who do not and cannot buy the wines that Parker praises. Influence dramatically on the wane? Hopelessly stuck in the muck of insignificance? I do not for a moment think so, but that, dear readers, is a topic for another day.

No, and back to the point, today’s musings arise from last week’s shift in editorial policy at the Los Angeles Times whereby restaurant reviews will no longer come with star ratings. The editors offered among their reasons that “the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score”. The topic at hand is not wine, but the issues are the same for critical reviews of restaurants and wine, and, while I can hear the anti-score cadre howling with pleasure and waving their manifestos with revolutionary zeal, a few thoughtful voices have emerged as well.

One that rings particularly true comes from Michael Bauer, executive food and wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who writes in response to the Times’s announcement that...

I, and many other critics, have a love-hate relationship with rating systems. However in the end I come down on the side of the star rating, as difficult and sometime as incongruous as the stars might seem.

As a critic, stars make us get off the fence and distill what we think into a concise rating. Yes, it may shortcut the review, and many people will start by looking at the rating, but I also think they go back and read the review… forgoing ratings lets the critic off the hook. I’m not sure whether that’s good for readers, or what readers want.

It’s not an exact science and there’s bound to be confusion, but in the end a rating gives a ballpark view and aims the reader in the right direction. Even if it seems inconsistent to the reader, it’s not to the reviewer; the rating reflects how we actually feel taking everything into account. Without that rating burden, readers would be left completely on their own to decipher what a reviewer has to say.

Now, I have always felt the same love-hate relationship with the 100-point wine-scoring system, but, as much as I prefer something a bit less definitive and allowing for a little more “wiggle room”, it is the undisputed standard of the day and cannot be ignored. The idea that some kind of rating is useful as a quick and useful reference point for most consumers is something we here at CGCW have always held. What I was most struck by in Michael’s comments, however, is the idea that ratings make us critics “get off the fence” and work a bit harder.

Yes, the work of a good critic should not be easy, and our job is to take a position, to make informed judgment and not to simply compose fanciful prose that leaves the reader wondering just where we stand. I think those who fret about having their “thoughtful and nuanced reviews” reduced in meaning by the imposition of some sort of ranking may be, in fact, a little too nuanced and self-indulgent for their readership.

When I turn to critical reviews about wine, food, music, the theater et. al., I am not looking for “nuance.” I am looking for well-informed, clearly stated opinion. I want to know what this or that professional thinks is good, better and best and why. That, I think, is the job of a professional critic: to be accurate and consistent and willing to, as Michael says, “get off the fence.” Tom Wark often writes in his Fermentation blog ( that curious consumers are looking for information that comes with the weight of “authority,” and “authority” should be willing to make the call.

Now, I know of no critic that gets every call right, but a measure of success in any critical endeavor is the longevity that is born when most of their readers find agreement and meaning most of the time. Umpires who try to please everyone with concerns for big-tent “perspective” and stop for round-table committee discussions on every play will not reach the big leagues, and neither will those critics who are unwilling to make the call.

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Star Ratings
by James
Posted on:3/15/2012 10:53:03 AM

I think your post is right on in that the stars represent the objective conclusion of the Rater, whereas, the written commentary is more subjective and , therefore, more difficult for the reader to dicipher. For sure,no system is perfect.  As for Mr. Parker's recent ratings , it does appear that it is an affront to the integrity of the system, but, shouldn't we wait for the wines to confirm or deny these ratings?         

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