Thursday, 14 November 2013

What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 2)

Dear critics, please oh please give me interesting insight…..

I think there are four reasons why I read professional wine critics, but you let me know what you think:

1.     Interesting insight
I admit that I have a very low boredom threshold so interesting insight is vital. I am not interested in a critic if all he or she does is write another set of boring tasting notes and scores, conducted in an office thousands of miles from the grower. I don’t care about boring ones. They are just another person’s tedious opinion about a wine, typically drunk in isolation.

No, in my book it is not interesting insight, unless:
  • It is unexpected, e.g. “Chateau Lafite was crap in 2010; I give it 70 points. It was more like Chateau de Coq-Rot”; or
  • It is contrarian, e.g. “2009 Bordeaux was not the great vintage every other Tristram, Dickweed and Horatio said it was”; or
  • It is controversial, e.g. “Neal Martin’s book on Pomerol is the most boring book in the History of Boredom and if he writes another article called ‘After the book, blah, blah, blah’ I will have to stick needles in my genitals to distract me from the pain”; or
  • It is written with some love and passion, e.g. Parker and Molesworth, for example, are good at this. They reveal their passion for wine when they write about it which makes me want to drink it; or
  • It is about some new discoveries, e.g. small, little-known wineries which produce wonderful wine. I find wine merchants are generally better at this than critics; or
  • It is about a technical subject which requires some in depth research but which a critic can summarise quickly, e.g. Jamie Goode (the best teacher in the world of wine by a country mile) on something like wine faults; or
  • It is accompanied with additional content and knowledge, e.g. stories about the producer or village and based on some primary research at the vineyard. If you’ve been there you can tell the story far better; or
  • The notes and scores are recounted in an interesting way, e.g. the wines you drank with friends over Sunday lunch, or tasting wines off the cuff, like Jamie Goode did recently, whilst making supper. Unshaven, using a simple recorder and standing in his kitchen, Jamie sniffed, tasted and described Gosset’s Polish Hill and Springvale Rieslings. It was fantastic – real life, no pretentiousness, just a bloke in jogging bottoms having a drink, but it was still a video of good quality, with Jamie talking sense and educating the viewer. These less formal tasting are interesting and real. We, the consumers, can relate to them.
Critics have ample opportunity to write interesting notes. There are eight ways you can achieve this, according to my list.

What I want is real insight and discovery. Critics, please don’t bore me with knowledge alone, like a dull teacher on a wet Friday afternoon. Tell me something I don’t know or can’t get anywhere else. Inform, educate and inspire me, and do it in a way which makes it interesting and accessible, and at times funny. I want you to transport me into your world of wine and to experience, for a moment, what you, the critic, experience most days.

2.     Breadth of coverage
Critics should be good at this. Reading, studying, tasting and writing about wine, producers and their lives on a professional basis is what they do. Their breadth of knowledge should be vast. They don’t have to bother themselves with a proper job like sourcing wine, negotiating with producers and selling it to consumers, like the merchants do.

Therefore, the extent of their coverage and opinions of certain topics (e.g. vineyard science, wine faults, closures, the science or otherwise behind tastings) or of regions (e.g. the Rhone valley and Burgundy, the latter in particular being complex and difficult to understand or new wine discoveries) or their capacity to keep up with week-to-week news should be greater than merchants’. Some critics do this outstandingly well.

If critics achieve 1 and 2, then they can be a very effective force in educating the public and therefore driving interest and demand for wines, especially the lesser known wines or regions.

3.     Entertainment
I wouldn’t say that many critics are specialists in these fields but some are quite good at it, especially those who use new media effectively such as James Suckling. Watching James puff on a monte cristo cigar or drinking a fine Brunello, delirious with pleasure, is quite entertaining. His use of video makes his content and insight more digestible.

4.     Benchmarks
The world loves benchmarks, comparators, performance metrics and league tables, and we expect to see them in all walks of life - business, restaurants, schools, sport, music charts, Strictly Come Dancing (oh, bon dieu). In the global race to the top, they are used as a way of measuring performance. These days, we are measured against anything which others think is relevant (note the use of the passive and unattributable 3rd person), subjugating ourselves to others who, apparently, know better.

In the world of wine, they help the consumer identify the so-called best (a totally subjective descriptor) wines and place them in a pecking order which helps them make choices. Some tasting notes may be meaningless, some scores highly subjective and combined they may be pernicious, creating uniform wines and brands which crowd out the smaller producers and outliers, but I accept there is a practical value to them whether some like it or not.

I don’t especially like them or find them useful, and I would never buy a wine solely on the basis of what a critic says or scores. But, in my experience, the consumer likes and wants an opinion which can be measured. This direction of travel is also encouraged for the big investment grade wines as investment managers need benchmarks to justify investment and pricing decisions. Scores are here to stay.

However, caveat emptor. All is not what it seems with the critics. Think about these points before you subscribe:

1.     Opinions are very subjective and can tell you little about good and bad, truth and falsehood, light and dark.
On tasting notes and scores, readers of wine critics should take them with a pinch of salt because they are so influenced by the taster’s style preferences, context and experiences. Who says they are right and others are wrong? You need to read a few of them to get a more ‘averaged-out’ view, and then form your own opinion. Some magazines such as Decanter often use three tasters when reviewing wine and then average out the scores to achieve a consensus. This lends credibility to their results. I am highly suspicious of one critic’s scores as an indication of what the wine might taste like to me.

I recognize that good tasters can isolate some of their subjective style preferences to facilitate objective wine assessments and that they can generally agree on broad categorizations of wine by quality. However, I think personal preferences trump objective assessment in scores. I write about this in a later posting “What the wine critics don’t tell you”.

2.     Challenge conventional wisdom
Don’t timidly accept what the ‘Great Worshipful Committee of Wine Critics’ tells you. For the best-known critics, scoring tends to conform to a standard set of style preferences and definition of quality which leads to a uniformity of opinions and scores and correctness. If a wine’s aroma or taste is outside the boundary of what is deemed conventional, as it may be for some natural wines and other vins de terroirs, then some critics would regard it as imperfect, inconsistent, even faulty, rather than being the product of what the vineyard has given.

The best of these wines should be enjoyed in their unadulterated, unblemished form. Let the writer’s description reflect the essence of the wine, but don’t crucify it with a low score just because it doesn’t conform. (BTW, I know some natural wines and vin de terroirs, like any other wine, can be crap and taste like Chateau de Coq-Rot so I am not making a sweeping statement about their 100% success rate).

3.     Some wine merchants provide wonderful insight too, sometimes better than critic
When it comes to certain topics and communicating about them, especially those requiring evangelical effort, some merchants are better than critics. For example, Les Caves de Pyrenes probably have more experience and expertise on natural wines (i.e. those with minimal intervention - what some critics might call unconventional or even faulty but supporters would call real) than any critic.

Led by the highly articulate and passionate Doug Wregg, their views may be controversial and sometimes deliberately provocative in their support for natural wines (and criticism of manipulated wines), but they do know their stuff and write with great wit and insight. As a merchant and with interests in restaurants too, they also have a lot of supporters and customers. They must be doing something right.

Their posts and opinions always provoke reactions from other in the wine business and these are a good read.

Natural wines are a relatively new phenomenon for me and Les Caves have taught me a lot of what I know. If you want to drink natural wines and other great vins de terroir, eat real food and love personable bars à vins, then visit any of the following London restaurants: Terroirs, Duck Soup, 40 Maltby Street, Sager and Wilde, 10 Cases, French Man Green Horn, 10 Greek Street, 28-50, Brawn and Soif.

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