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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
10/03/2012
Wednesday Warblings
Wine Opinions: Do You Like Them Ecumenical or Parochial

By Stephen Eliot

Is it wrong for wine professionals to recommend a wine they do not like? Should they be writing narrowly for themselves or more broadly for their audience?
                                         
A couple of weeks back, Blake Gray made a fairly provocative observation about the confluence of practice and personal belief when reviewing Eric Asimov’s new book, How to Love Wine, and it has since been sitting quietly and persistently in the back of my thoughts. He wrote:

“It's a personal story, not an encyclopedia or teaching book, and at the beginning I noticed where I disagreed with it. My focus changed with a simple sentence that I strongly believe, but few other wine professionals seem to:

"I have a great deal of difficulty recommending wines that I don't care for myself."

It is a sentiment for which I have some degree of sympathy, but it is also one that flies in the face of any notion of relativism and respect for varying styles and tastes, and it runs very much counter to the oh-so-tiresome populist mantra of the day that “whatever you like is right,” and that quality lies solely in the eye of the beholder.

Now, I call Blake’s comment “provocative” in the truest sense of the word in that it very much incites thinking, especially the added phrase “but few other wine professionals seem to”.

Is recommending wines that you do not personally care for a failing? Is it equally so for every wine professional or even every wine writer for that matter, or is not doing so a luxury limited to those concerned with crafting editorials and telling stories.

As a writer/reviewer with over thirty years of experience, I can honestly say that I do not find it at all difficult to recommend a wine made in a style that I might not chose for myself as long as that wine is well-made and hits all the right marks for that style. I suspect that at the beginning of my very long journey, I was rather more doctrinaire in my views than I am now, but today I like to think that the years have brought a bit of perspective to what I do.

Yes, we do award points and rankings to wines here a Connoisseurs’ Guide. “Points” are the lingua franca of the day, and some sort of hierarchical framework for review cannot be avoided, but it is the descriptions of those wines that is the focus of our work, and accurately describing a wine that I may not pick for myself does not mean that it is summarily dismissed or damned with a low score. There are good wines that simply are not my cup of tea. I will, for example, rarely reach for a high-octane Zinfandel or a wiry, acid-laced Pinot that immediately sets my teeth to buzzing, but I hope that I never lose sight of the simple proposition that style and quality are not the same things.

I cannot imagine a retailer refusing to stock and recommend wines whose styles may not please him or her but have a real following among its clients, and most restaurant wine lists should, I think, have a certain ecumenical flavor.

While I in no way support the idea that quality is wholly subjective, I do recognize that even among very good wines, one size does not fit all.


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Comments

Professional...
by Sherman
Posted on:10/3/2012 10:33:12 AM

...is the key word here. If you are a pro in the wine biz and have some position to make judgment calls about wines, you should be able to recognize that there are many styles that don't fit your own preferences -- but do fit the preferences of your customers. If you aren't able to identify a quality product outside your "comfort zone" and be able to recommend it to a customer, you will be missing out on making a sale, or letting down that consumer looking for a good tip on a wine they like.

 

You don't have to love it and spend your own money on the wine, but you should be able to make a recommendation of a quality product that fits someone else's needs. That's why we are the professionals, right? 

The Pros
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/3/2012 11:08:05 AM

Sherman--

I think you are onto the truth here, especially at the retail level. Unless one is a complete iconoclast, the customer is the arbiter of his or her taste, not the retailer. A good retailer, and there are plenty of them, is able to offer a range of products that fit many stylistic preferences.

But, this all begs the question when it comes to a pro like Eric Asimov. I fully respect his knowledge, his ability to write at the level required by the NYT, but I aometimes wonder if he is serving his readership well. The same question applies to Jon Bonne at the SF Chron.

And while I regularly and heartifly disagree with Dan Berger, much of Dan's writings, especially in his own journal, need to be narrow reflections of Dan's palate.

I am less enamoured of major newspaper writers who heap scorn on wines they do not crave because they are then heaping scron on the people who like those wines.

I have the same concerns about restaurants whose sommeliers say things like, "why should my list reflect what my customers want. It's my list."

It comes down to respect for others. If you are in the iconoclast business and sell yourself that way, then fine, be as parochial as you want. But if you are the wine voice to the larger audinece, then a more ecumenical approach, even with comments that say you personally are not a fan of the style, seem to me to be more in order.

In my view...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:10/4/2012 9:21:09 AM

Reviewers have the same responsibility as retailers, which is to point readers/customers in the direction of what the consumer might like to consume.

Any wine professional who believes that his or her evaluations are supposed to be about what he or she likes, and only that, isn't even close to approaching an evaluation of the wine.

A combination of hubris and self-absorption might be the better way to describe such a "professional."

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