We Have Met the Enemy

And He is Us


I found myself reading Time magazine today, quite literally a found copy, and I was struck by how poor a magazine it has become. No longer satisfied with supplying the news, it has become a series or articles pushing an us against them agenda, desperately in search of demons and willing to vilify the opposition at the slightest suggestion of a division. What was most striking about my hour spent with the magazine was the reliance on estimates and opinions while purportedly reporting on the news. Most glaring in the face of all the little morsels of facts the magazine now offers those of us with less than a two minute attention span to digest. Thank you internet.

This might seem an odd way to begin an article on wine, but the whole experience got me to thinking. Thinking about the world of wine reporting today and how it sadly mirrors what one finds on Time's pages. Wine reporting is suffering from the same fate. We write today not only to inform our audience, but at the same time to attack those we disagree with. Take the recent report from the Association of Wine Economists that purports to show that the power of the internet is breaking down the walls of traditional wine media. The paper takes a look at the data on Cellartracker.com, and their evidence finds:

"a significant direct relationship between the wine evaluations to which respondents were exposed and their own subsequent wine evaluations."
In other words people's opinions about wine tended to fit a norm that was present in pre-existing data for that specific wine on Cellartracker.

Furthermore the researchers found that:

"the more uniform the earlier evaluations were, the closer the subsequent wine evaluations were to the average rating of the earlier evaluations."

So, If there was a party line subsequent tasting notes for that bottle tended to hew that party line. And now here is the kicker. The final determination of the study was that

"Results did not, however, support Hypothesis 4, that wine evaluations would be more in agreement with prior evaluations, when those ratings were made by more “credible” group members."

This is the evidence that wine critics are losing sway over the populace at large, with one small problem.

"it appears that informational social influence was not operative in group members’ wine evaluations, or that despite using four possible indicators of credibility or expertise in the wine domain, we failed to detect greater impact of more credible group members because the construct validity of our measures of expertise was low."

That's right. the authors of the study were unable to accurately account for expertise. So what in the world does this have to do with the persuasive power of wine critics? Very little, painfully little in fact. It is in the end just another piece of reporting designed to try and illustrate the waning power of the professional and further fuel the frothy mouthed proclamations of the death of the wine critic. Long live the wine critic!

You see the folks arguing that the wine critic is now dead are in fact those very same people who are currently writing about wine, albeit with much less reach than the most successful wine critics. Like me for example. I write about wine, I even use the despised 100 point rating system, which we are also told is dead. And yet, I'm not writing about, or rooting for the end of the wine critic and the wholesale adoption of social media as the end all in wine referral.

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  • Snooth User: CAN
    1366738 17

    I think you may be a bit too close to the issue. I read a fair amount of wine stuff and appear to have completely missed this idea that the wine critic is dead. They may get challenged (a good thing) and it may be popular to hate RP or WS but that's been going on for years. In fact the "hate" is validation of their importance. To quote Capt. Jack Sparrow " but, you have heard of me"

    May 27, 2014 at 10:22 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Thank you for the response. i am indeed too close to the subject matter at hand. No doubt about that. Perhaps this was written for a very small audience, I was just annoyed by the constant attack on traditional wine criticism and the presumed superiority of the new model. It seems that all to often those writing about these things forget about the audience and focus on the messenger. I just needed to share but thanks for reading and commenting.

    May 27, 2014 at 11:10 AM

  • Snooth User: Hogwild25
    192043 2

    I don't sense the end of the wine critic - I sense the wine critic having more competition from new media and not enjoying that fact. All wine analysis is biased as everyone's palate is different - my palate trends to bold rich wines and not so much to lighter more subtle tasting wines, so I read about what interests me. I tend not to read RP or WS but instead explore comments by new media such as Snooth as I prefer what less well know critics and the general public say about wine regions and types. The more commentators on a subject - the better informed the reader. I hope the high end and low end critics all thrive.
    BTW - Time has been a poor magazine for decades - too much partisan and too little news. lesson for Snooth - don't become flacks for certain regions, wine types or wineries just because they are popular! The wine world is enormous, introduce the readers to as much of it as possible.

    May 27, 2014 at 1:10 PM

  • Snooth User: Aobregon
    1092637 56

    Greg, you do a magnificent job with your wine information and you hit the nail right on the head in regard to wine critic abuse and the current social media age in general. The fact is, many people are lazy in their research and want a quick fix, ala the internet. They can quickly do a search or query, use some Big Wine Critic's review, and boom!, it's Bible!, without really taking the information into context with regard to a person's likes/dislikes, current situation, knowledge of wine, etc. I do not let anyone think for me, I like to take the information, chew on it, then decide if it fits for me and my wine, or not. Keep on Wining!

    May 27, 2014 at 1:43 PM

  • I am a relative new comer to wine blogging/writing but I think that it goes both ways here. For just as long (perhaps slightly longer) the "traditional" wine media has been very critical of the "new kids on the block", dismissing them as far from serious, not knowledgeable, lacking experience, and so on. Perhaps there was some truth to their assertions, but by and large, I saw this as a thinly veiled attempt to protect their goose that provided them with golden wine bottles. For years, these professional critics had their run of the joint and it was virtually impossible for any lay person to break into "the club". Then along came a horde of amateur critics, offering their advice (albeit to much smaller audiences).

    For free.

    If I had been in the position of professional critic at the time, I would have felt the need to lash out at these new voices in order to protect what I had. So they started casting a few stones when they realized that this new "movement" was gaining steam.

    These "new" critics began to lash back, feeling the need to justify themselves (another understandable reaction, I feel).

    So now, it might be a bit out of hand, I agree, but the established, "traditional" critics do not have clean hands in this fight, far from it.

    May 27, 2014 at 1:44 PM

  • I generally find the ratings to be helpful, though I occasionally disagree. (I would have rated the 2010 Cotes du Rhone Villages from Kirkland (Costco) at least a 91; it was better than a good many wines that I saw rated 91 or better.) This article's comments about TIME are spot-on. It has never been the same since the death of Henry Luce, gradually sliding into politically-correct mediocrity without the genius of its founder to guide it.

    May 27, 2014 at 2:14 PM

  • I add simple yet important nuggets to all my wine reviews. l state that all wines were paid for in full.

    l clarify that I don't care what any supplier thinks about what l write.

    l relate all reports to the circumstances of complete personal experience at the time of tasting: food, ambience, etc to add context and avoid simplistic generalisations.

    l do NOT blind taste and l explain 'why' l think of that as nothing more than an amatuerish psuedo science.

    Total independence frees us up to say what we want to say irrespective of the sales outcomes of any wine.

    May 27, 2014 at 2:24 PM

  • Snooth User: mbew
    169856 6

    I think it is an example of the Foxification on journalism. all types of "news".

    May 27, 2014 at 3:19 PM

  • Let me first offer my "credentials" before I weigh in. . .I've been drinking wine for over 50 years, legally. . .And, I literally grew up in the Napa Valley; then, migrated to the Sonoma Valley. . .moving away from both as "they" [the wineries] began reading their press clippings. . .and, acting accordingly. After Sonoma became too "touristy," I moved on to the Shenandoah Valley (Amador County, CA) where I found a number of "world-class" wines; and, much of what I had enjoyed earlier in Napa and Sonoma. . ."rusticity" and "quality" and no traffic[If you've ever battled Hwy 29 in Napa on a weekend, you know whereof I speak]. . .

    Now to the issue at hand. . the "wine critic" and "evaluation"and "Wine Spectator-ness". . .By virtue of my experience, I enjoy a certain "respect" among my friends when I comment on a particular wine or a winery or a winemaker. . .And, I'm VERY respectful in ALL of my comments. . .Paraphrasing Orson Welles, "I'll drink no wine. . .until you pour it in my glass!" Carrying it a bit further, I'll quote my neighbour (Bob) who admits to knowing virtually nothing about wine. . .except he likes what I put in HIS glass. Bob says, "If I ever see you pulling a cork from a bottle; I'm leaving!" And, in recognition of his wish, I keep a box of red and a box of white . . .Just for him! And, he compliments my "taste" by asking, "Where do you buy your wine? The box wine you give me is soooo much better than the wines I buy!" And, he means it! I've taught him to read the codes on the boxes, because. . .Tuesday's "bottling" is "extraordinarily better" than any other day of the week's vintage! It began as a joke. . .but, it makes HIM happy! And, he's NOT offended!

    In other words, I think we should all take into consideration the words of a famous critic (whose name escapes me),"The BEST wine is the wine YOU like!"

    PS. . .One of my majors in college was History. . .And, I'm prone to fall back on historical quotes, such as: "I cook with wine. And, sometimes I add it to the food!" W.C. Fields <smile>

    May 27, 2014 at 4:04 PM

  • "....Let me repeat that. If people read good things about a wine they tend to experience those good things. It stand to follow, and to reason then, that if people read good things about a wine in a review from a professional critic that they trust, that they tend to have a good experience with that wine...."

    Surprised that this would be one of the major conclusions of the AAWE's analysis of Cellar Tracker's user ratings, without the obvious offset, which would be something like "........If people read bad things about a wine in a review from a professional critic that they trust, they tend to have a bad experience with that wine...." It goes without saying, that opinions are partially formed by external influences, particularly for very subjective topics.....

    It should go without saying that most likely, a critic's praise of a good wine is because it is a good wine. And people tend to like good wine. Just that simple.

    Lots of other factors influence professional (and amateur) wine reviews, such as the typicity of a wine to a grape, region, or vineyard, which I personally find very helpful. I've had more than a few wines that I personally didn't care for, but which represented great balance and typicity of a well-made product, and most deserving of praise. I can appreciate it, praise it, but I still won't particularly like it, while others will.

    Thanks for the well-stated rant; very worthwhile, Greg!

    May 27, 2014 at 7:24 PM

  • Snooth User: lbpsfl
    140373 50

    Crowd-sourcing wine criticism is the thing that should be dead. I was a CellarTracker member for a year. It didn't take long for me to realize that CT reviews are not criticism. They are,": I like it's." A competent critic should either learn how to judge styles that they don't like, or they should shut the f#$% up.

    In particular, I recall bad reviews for wines that needed several more years of age. Find competent criticism and use it to drink rings around the idiots.

    May 27, 2014 at 7:42 PM

  • Your following is your own defense Greg. Many folks need to hear from someone like you, who has the great opportunity to really get to know the material. The journalists who attack wine critics are largely sound bite specialists who don't have the time to do the work you do. I don't always agree with you, but I recognize that you are really doing your job. That's why I keep reading Snooth.

    May 27, 2014 at 8:56 PM

  • Snooth User: djlevin
    478367 156

    Ibpsfl hit the nail on the head. As a trained, certified Sommelier... it took me time, but I was taught to judge and appreciate wine styles I did not personally enjoy. Just because any one individual does not enjoy a wine, has no relation to its quality. I am tired of BOTH CellarTracker AND professional wine critics on this issue. Evaluate structure, balance, age, varietal integrity, winemaker's style... Don't give me creative prose AND certainly don't tell my what YOU like. I write a wine blog (for free BTW) and just try to be informative...

    May 27, 2014 at 9:13 PM

  • Agree that experience seems not to get much respect. Am constantly struck by the ignorance of wine reps speaking at tasting events. Folks who have never set foot in the country whose wine they're representing, purporting to be knowledgeable. Am chagrined, however, by the author's own inability to hyphenate unit modifiers. We should be correct at all levels, even grammar.

    May 27, 2014 at 9:32 PM

  • Snooth User: Brian Mack
    108176 30

    Great comments and an interesting topic. Guess it is sometimes easy to forget that it's only wine, eh? As much as we love it and what it does to us, it's still only fermented grape juice which needs food and friends and ambience to bring it to full glory. True that enthusiastic passion drives us to deeper levels of experience and knowledge about that which we love. But when we get a bit too serious about our passions, I find a good dose of perspective and context helps to keep things healthy.

    Hope this makes sense. Bit fuzzy having just come off a wine dinner pairing Cantonese cuisine with a vertical of Ch Pontet-Canet's best here in Kuala Lumpur. Yum. Going to try and blog about it later. Snooth on!!

    May 27, 2014 at 10:23 PM

  • Snooth User: jm428
    1446797 38

    While I certainly value the point of view of professional reviewers, I base little of my actual wine buying on their recommendations. Hunting for that superb bottle of Chateau Whatever is most often a futile effort in the upper Midwest. Many wine reviews are much like an issue of Car & Driver, superb evaluations of vehicles I will never drive.

    Jun 03, 2014 at 10:58 PM

  • Snooth User: djlevin
    478367 156

    JM428... you hit on something there. Professional critics spend too much time writing about small production wines that cannot be accessed by the general public due to availability, or price. While I may enjoy satisfying my curiosity (being in the trade), most wine drinkers probably couldn't care less. Does it make sense for 10 different professional critics to write reviews of a wine that is produced in quantities of less than 500 cases, or costs more than $200/btl? In this regard, many wine writers are not meeting the needs of the general wine drinking community.

    Jun 04, 2014 at 11:30 AM

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