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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
07/16/2012
Monday Manifestos
Man Up, You Softballing Critics

By Charles Olken

Since when is a wine critic supposed to be a Pollyanna?
                                                                                       
Here is what one critic wrote about why he does not publish negative reviews:

“I think I’m a reasonably good wine critic. But I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes. A false positive is undesirable, but it is less of a problem than a false negative.

If I err on the side of criticizing a wine, I could be causing a miscarriage of justice. My mistake could create problems for a producer, and I’d rather see an undeserving producer sell a few extra bottles than dent the sales of someone who has actually made a great wine, only for me to make a mistake and knock it down.

It can be entertaining to see a critic lay into a wine. And there are a lot of bad wines out there that deserve criticism. The risk of slamming an innocent wine with a bad review, however, is usually too high for me to want to do it on a regular basis.”

First the good news—for him. Wine critics are indeed not perfect.

Now the bad news—for him. If a critic is not good enough to get reasonably good reads on the wines he is tasting, he should not be in the wine criticism business.

I take the business of wine evaluation very seriously. It involves developing a body of knowledge based on years of tasting, years of study, years of taking great care to pay attention and to give every wine a chance. Even then, the best evaluators can get it wrong. I don’t mean differences in judgment about a given set of facts. I am talking about not seeing the facts. I am talking about seeing vinegary wine when it is not there. I am talking about not understanding the difference between grape tannins that age out nicely in balanced wines and wood tannins that are both coarser and less likely to smooth out. I am talking about tasting a wine whose main character is residual sugar in what is supposed to be a dry wine and calling it fruity.

And I am talking about critics who are so afraid that they will make those basic kinds of mistakes that they break out in a rash when they think about posting negative reviews. It leads to the kind of thinking that shows up at our doorstep from time to time on the part of wineries who get such reviews.

A case in point. We reviewed a fancy Cabernet from a good vintage from a good winery and get a very nasty phone call from the winery’s sales director. “How could you pan that wine?”, quoth he.

“That’s how we found it twice. Once with a bottle we bought and with a second bottle you sent us”, we responded.

It took a couple of years for that winery to talk to us, and it was the winemaker himself (not the owner or sales guy) to break the ice. “We did have a substantial batch of that wine go through malolactic fermentation in the bottle. Chances are that was the wine you received”.

There are many more stories that could be told, but this is not about true confessions—theirs or ours. It is about the responsibility to tell the truth. Wine reviewers are not cheerleaders. If you pay us to review hundreds of wines every month, you deserve to know not only which wines we liked and how much we liked them, but also to know which wines we did not like, how much and why.

Disagree with us when you do. Swear at us if you think we have insulted one of your children. But do not tell us to post only the good news. We are not in the public relations business. We are in the consumer information business—and that requires us and all comprehensive reviewers to tell the whole truth.

N. B. The man who wrote the comments above is not a comprehensive reviewer and thus has limited space to tell his tale. He does not need to and cannot post comments on everything he tastes anymore than we did when we were writing newspaper columns. Still, it was his idea to defend his decisions based on his fear of getting it wrong. And that takes us full circle. Whether you post on everything as we do here at Connoisseurs’ Guide or must cherry-pick your content for your limited-space column, you need to be confident that your negative reactions are right or you cannot be confident that your positive reactions are right. And if you cannot get to that point, you might just belong in the used car business.


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Comments

Trust your judgment -- but you might still hold back
by Blake Gray
Posted on:7/16/2012 7:13:03 PM

As you probably know, I rarely publish negative reviews either for a variety of reasons, most of them selfish. But one of them is NOT that I don't trust my judgment. I think I'm in general agreement on you guys with this one. If you don't believe in your own judgment on bad wines, then you shouldn't be publishing "criticism" of good ones.

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