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Best Of The Blogs: Do Wine Critics Need Local Knowledge?

By Stephen Eliot

Today’s pick of the Best of the Blogs from last week addresses a topic that is certainly germane to what we do here at CGCW, the ways in which wine writers and critics might be influenced for better or worse by the frequency and ease with which they visit the regions they cover. Steve Heimoff in his eponymous blog asks the question “who’s the best wine critic, a local or a visitor to the region?”, and his article elicits a fair number of worth-reading responses that drive the conversation forward.1 The best blogs are those that stir the pot and invite thought, and this one does just that.

Spurred by a recent conversation he had with winemaker Nick Goldschmidt in which Nick said, in effect, that he thought wine writers/reviewers should actually live in the places they write about, in order to understand the culture, Steve muses that:

“I suppose it’s true that living in or near the wine country you write about makes the writing somewhat more authoritative. I’m not sure I agree that an understanding of the “culture” is all that relevant, though. It can’t hurt, but I like to feel that I could take the skills I’ve learned—having a decent palate and all that—and apply them to the wines of France or Croatia or South Africa, if I was reviewing them.

Winemakers always want to feel that the people critiquing their wines have as thorough an understanding as possible of those wines—where they’re from, what the underlying philosophy is, how they were made and so forth. This is perfectly understandable. The relationship between a critic and the wines he reviews is a very intimate one. This is why many wineries—not most, but a lot—won’t allow critics to taste their wines, except with the winemaker on the premises. I personally don’t subscribe to that approach, as I think it’s short-sighted; but then, I come at this from the critic’s point of view. I think Nick’s questions raise deeper issues, and reflect an ongoing uneasiness about wine critics on the part of many winemakers."

While we do not wholly disagree with the notion of “ongoing uneasiness about wine critics” on the part of at least some winemakers, the larger question raised by the piece is really what are the advantages and potential pitfalls faced by a wine critics who are very well known by winemakers in a given region that they regularly visit. We would argue that there are plenty of both.

Intimate knowledge of the people and places responsible for fine wine is certainly the foundation for informed opinion, but as one commenter rightly pointed out that too much familiarity with winemakers could well influence wine-critic opinion, and, in fact, that is an issue that is never far from our minds. Our answer, of course, to review wines with a strict methodology of blind tasting on our home turf and at the same table day in and day out. We spend a good deal of time in the field from Santa Barbara to Mendocino learning everything we can about the infinitely changing world of California wines, but we will never review wines tasted at wineries with winemakers looking over our shoulders and constantly telling us what to think.

We do not like to say less than wonderful things about the wines of those vintners that we know and like. It is not easy telling a friend that we think their child is ugly. We have, in fact, lost a few friends over the years. On the other hand, we are a little uneasy with lavish winemaker praise and appreciation when we happen to like their work. We did not make the wine; we simply call ‘em like we see ’em. It is what we do.


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