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A Precise Evaluation of Wine Criticism

By Stephen Eliot

We are professional wine critics. It is what we do here at CGCW, and, despite the populist internet clamor over the irrelevancy of critics of most every stripe, we feel no need to apologize for what we do. We are in the business of opinion, but we like to think that it is informed opinion based on experience and the insights gained from decades of systematic tasting, discussing and thinking about wine.

It is easy enough for critics to duck the bricks regularly thrown in their direction, and, in fact, the ability to do so is an absolute prerequisite for the job. I suppose that if they are flung from every direction and in very large number they can cause justifiable harm, but the deepest hurt, the fatal one is what occurs when none come at all.

The ultimate worth of our work is decided by our readers. As long as what we have to say is of value to them, and they will most assuredly let us know if it is not, we are content and do not spend our time in hand-wringing, philosophical self-examination regarding the admittedly subjective nature of reviewing and writing about wines.

Still, I do at times feel the need to defend my profession in general and, more specifically, what we have been doing for the past 40 years, and I am much heartened when I run across the rare and articulate defense of the wine critic’s craft and its place in the world.

A recent posting on Gargantuan Wine earns the nod as last week’s Best of The Blogs for being just that. On the Value of Wine Criticism: A Conversation with the Blind 1 is a lengthy, well-reasoned article that provides substantial food for thought for everyone who writes or seriously reads about wine. Its rather straightforward premise is that wine criticism can be and often is valid and useful, and that those who would damn it outright are missing the point.

Its author writes,

“I’ve had it with the parade of Philistines attempting to “empirically” disprove the utility of wine criticism. I’ve read endless articles making claims ranging from “no one can tell the difference between a $100 wine and a $20 wine blind; so never spend over $20”, to “wine descriptors proved bullshit in a study conducted by X”… and it’s all useless garbage built on well-intentioned but ineptly crafted castles of sand.”

“Look: it’s simple. We need criticism. We can’t see every film, eat at every restaurant, attend every art exposition, purchase every 200 lb appliance via Amazon and then return it, be everywhere at once. If you are eager to write off wine criticism and tasting notes, you’d better be ready to write off nearly all these equally subjective yet indispensable forms of criticism.”

“But let’s cool it with the red-hot disdain for wine criticism. So much ire is founded in what seems to be a green-eyed jealousy that “these critics say they taste things that I sure as shit can’t”; so, the naysayer concludes, “it must all be worthless”. Curiously, other forms of cultural currency are spared this onslaught. Why do we not witness legions of accusers decrying a lack of empirical consensus in film or restaurant reviews? I suspect it has something to do with the air of intimidation relative to wine as a cultural currency. Perhaps it’s the singular immediacy of wine tasting: it lights upon the palate, taste receptors begin firing … and the consumer patiently awaits the critic’s promised fireworks. If the experiences don’t align, the average Joe feels swindled and calls bullshit.”

The article does not ask us to believe that what every wine critic has to say is enlightening, merely that it should not be mindlessly dismissed on principle. The validity and worth of this or that critic’s work, as I have said, will be decided by interested readers, and, obviously, it is important to heed those voices with which you regularly agree. Consistency is the stuff from which real trust is born. It is at the crux of what makes any critic or reviewer worth consideration, and I wholly concur with the article’s declaration that,

“As with art or theatre critics, or hell, even Amazon product reviews, one most approach any appreciation of a thing with a dose of skepticism. At least until one has had a chance to verify a symmetry between the aesthetic of the reviewer and oneself on a few occasions…at which point one abandons a skeptical posture and slowly begins trusting.”

There will, of course, always be those who are incapable of escaping skepticism, some of whom are defined and paralyzed by it, but it is not unreasonable to assume that most of those who seek out and read criticism, be it concerning restaurants, movies, wine or whatever, are looking for insight and guidance rather than reasons for starting a fight.

Not all wine critics and writers will agree with one and other, and there are more voices than ever competing for an audience. I admit that it can get pretty noisy, and the racket and rancor are occasionally enough to shut them all out, but for those unwilling to buy several thousand bottles each year in hopes of finding a few haystack-hidden needles, there will always be room for an informed and consistent critical voice. Give a listen. You just might find one that resonates with you.


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No Subject
by Tom Hatch
Posted on:10/2/2014 4:55:06 AM

I value the CGCW and have been a loyal reader for several years. I often buy based on your recommendations, including a recent purchase of 2 Moone-Tsai chardonnay offerings, which you described as a remarkable pair because of their contrast in style. I would appreciate a more explcit definition of the contrasting styles--more than California vs. Burgundy, more than full fruit and lots of oak vs. tighter and more acidic.  Can it be defined more precisely? Can it be defined by scientific analysis, i.e. acid level, alcohol level, or other measurement?  Also, I can sometimes derive from the review the style of the wine, but I would appreciate a more exlict articulation of it.  For example, you describe Lewis as being to the extreme of the California, full throttle rich and fruity style, and Gary Farrell as in the middle. But who else besides the Monne-Tsai Sonoma Coast is being successful at the so-called Burgundy style?  

Why agree?
by Patrick Frank
Posted on:10/2/2014 11:40:38 AM

I read wine critics, but I don't follow them. The idea that one finds an agreeable critic, and then follows or trusts him/her, is weird. I would rather read a critic that I disagree with, and then drink that person's recommendation. I tend to learn more from those I don't agree with, be in in music, art, movies, and yes, wine.

Specific descriptions and scientific analysis...
by Stephen M Eliot
Posted on:10/2/2014 6:08:41 PM

Hi Tom,

You have asked a number of very good questions, and I will try to respond with some measningful answers.

First, it has always seemed to me that extremely specific descriptions can easily become meaningless and will alienate readers as references to obscure herbs, a half-dozen kinds of berries picked a certain time of the day, etc., are piled high upon one and other. Not a general and generic description will do, but, as I am sure you have encountered, convoluted and wildly floridprose abounds in the realm of winewriting. We try to paint as precise a picture as possible without wanderning into what we believe is overly impressionistic territory.

As for "scientific analysis", the "numbers" you mentioned -- alcohol percentage, acidity and pH -- are not absolutely reliable when it comes to what a wine actually tastes like. We want to know and dutifully record the data for every wine that we can, but we taste the wine first so as not to be biased before the fact. It is why we have issues with those who would summarily dismiss any wine over 14.0% alcohol as being unbalanced, for example. We have tasted countless high-alcohol offerings that were balanced and free of heat as well as plenty that managed to be hot and coarse while being but minimally ripe. The same goes for acidity; some wines are stiff and rigid when their low-acidity might predict otherwise and the reverse is not all that rare either. Real success comes when all the parts manage to work together in a way that cannot really be quantified.

As for good Chardonnays that do not go down the path of "full-throttle richness" and lean more to restraint while still conveying plenty of character and depth, you might take a look at Freestone, Grgich Hills, Dutton Goldfield, Freeman and Marimar to name but a few. And, keep an eye out for new producers in the very cool coastal appellations of the Sta. Rita Hills, the far western portion of the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino's Anderson Valley.

That said, I think that the vast majority of truly great California Chardonnays find a comfortable place in between the extremes of richness and restraint, and the notion that one end of the spectrum is to be preferred over the other is never one that I have embraced. It all depends on what is for dinner.

Why critics have been under attack
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:10/3/2014 12:19:53 PM

It is true that you can lump wine critics right in with other critics:  film critics, music critics, book and art reviewers, car and consumer goods magazines, etc.  Consumers follow critics, but common sense tells most consumers that you don't believe every word essaying from their pens.  You take things with a grain of salt and utilize the information you deem useful.

However, Gargantuan Wine ignores some of the broader issues more peculiar to present-day *wine* criticism:  one of the bigger ones being the use, and abuse, of numerical systems.  Is it any wonder that wine criticism has come under, well, criticism because of the way it has been conducted?  

Or put it any other way:  there is a reason why critics of other aesthetic disciplines don't use concepts like 100-point ratings.  It's absurd, simply because it presupposes some sort mathematical precision of objectivity or authoritativeness that simply does not exist in *any* aesthetic practice.  It's also harmful because of the way it's applied, especially in sales -- it misleads  consumers who simply don't know better (the vast majority of consumers don't have nearly the ability to make wine buying decisions for themselves, like they do with films, books or music).

Perhaps worse yet, our current dominant system of wine criticism is also grievously harmful because it has gone so far as to affect the way many of our best wines are grown and made:  many producers who wish to compete have had to make adjustments in order to hammer their products into forms most likely to garner numbers, as opposed to their own aesthetic sense or dictates of things like terroir, food compatibility, etc.

So again, I would pose this question to Gargantuan Wine:  is it any wonder wine criticism is coming under more and more attack these days?  It's inevitable because, as in all things, wine consumers are becoming a little more sophisticated, and so they are questioning the current status quo.  They are getting sick of today's wine criticism.

Ironically, the current status quo is really not that old -- it's been around only since the mid-1980s when Mr. Parker's catchy 100-point driven publication became popular, and other magazines followed suit in order to compete with that.  Connoisseurs' Guide, of course, originally began with its 3-puff system, of which many consumers and people in the trade (myself included) were huge fans.  Thank goodness, CG retained its essence, despite the added numbers.

In a nutshell:  it is not wine criticism per se that is bothering more and more people these days.  It is the type of wine criticism that began some 30 years ago, and persists today.  People always want critics around.  But they want them to be sensible, more self-aware of the intrinsic subjectiveness of what they are doing, and less harmful to unsuspecting consumers as well as the growers and producers themselves.

by Gary
Posted on:11/30/2014 8:09:35 AM

Althought new here and only a consumer, I enjoy wine critics/tasting notes, but have to learn how I match up with the author. It is the same when I taste with my son. I know his likes and dislikes fairly well, and can compare his responses to a wine to mine, and know whether thre is a good chance I will enjoy it. 

I am more interested in tasting notes and pairing. The rating numeric systems are fun, but only an indicator used by the particular author. It is the author that I learn to trust, not the fianl numeric label. 

Thanks for this post. It speaks well of you. 

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