Thursday, 14 November 2013

What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 3)

The role of the critic has got to be to help the wine industry to grow, not simply to fault find and criticise. Otherwise what's the point? The critic should also look to discover new wines and write about them. This is key to the health of the wine market.

The end game
On a broader point about the critics’ purpose for the wine industry (as oppose to a reader), I think the end game of the wine critic (and all the other professional and amateur wine writers too for that matter) has to be to encourage a sustainably stronger wine industry, rather than just finding faults and pursuing controversies and negative stories. The vast majority of the critics and writers I read and have read seem to buy into this principle too.

People will argue what ‘sustainably stronger’ means but in my view it means encouraging the use of more natural methods (fewer chemicals, more organic farming), helping to educate consumers about new regions (e.g. Georgia, Greece, Brazil) or different styles of wines (e,g, natural wines), encouraging the drinking of better quality wines (subjective, I know) and drinking more responsibly (also subjective).

For me, discovery is a key role of critics and producers. How boring it would be for us, the consumer, if all producers gave us was what they thought the market wanted today, as defined by current tastes and trends, and that was all the critics wrote about. On the other hand, many producers (especially those producing in large quantities) would prefer a world where the consumer had predictable tastes and where their demand could be locked into production schedules a long way into the future. Their capacity planning would be so simple.

But the market, and some consumers, need producers who innovate and push the boundaries, and we need critics to write about them. Innovation in any industry is vital and sometimes the customer doesn't know what he/she wants or needs until he/she is presented with the innovative new product. Do we think the consumer would have thought up an iPad or smartphone or even car in isolation and been able to articulate it to a producer which would then have produced it? I don't think so. Marketing isn't always about giving the consumer what he or she wants or needs today. It is also about creating the need with something they haven't thought about yet.

Innovation is hard and it is why most businesses tend to imitate rather than innovate. But we need the vinous equivalents of great innovators like Apple, Microsoft, Google et al because they push the boundaries and create new growth opportunities. Furthermore, I am sure a significant number of wine consumers just want to experiment and taste new wines. Not everyone wants polished sauvignon blanc or chardonnay - they look for wines which pique their interest and arouse them, and this sometimes means working outside the norms of production and challenging conventional wisdom.

I am not arguing for one extreme or another. The market needs to cater for many tastes, from the conventional to the unusual.

And accepting unusual wines into the broad range of wines available shouldn't be an excuse for bad wine making (although some would argue that even that definition is subjective!). There are good and bad wines across the spectrum, from the conventional to natural wines. Wine critics and writers should feel free to criticize growers, methods, wines, regions and so on where they believe it is justified, but I do ask them to have an open mind and not focus on faults when others may see these as interesting flaws which make the wine intriguing.

Whatever you view, the overriding raison d’être of a wine critic has to be to concentrate on developing the overall sum of knowledge by educating drinkers and on generating the sustainable economic growth of the wine industry. If they do this, then there really is a point to critics and they really are a force for good for everyone - producers, merchants and consumers. Otherwise, what is the point in having them?

The importance of a critic’s independence
Don’t be hoodwinked into thinking that a critic’s independence is the key, unimpeachable ingredient and that the merchants and other ‘sell-side’ charlatans can’t be trusted to write about their wine honestly and then sell it (why would they, their livelihoods only depend on it!).

Independence is just a box to be ticked, part of a process that tells us nothing about a critic’s own style and taste preferences. The critic can declare their independence if they want to although I am not particularly bothered. If they write rubbish and try to trick people, they will soon get picked on, sorted, unpicked and macerated in the people’s crusher of Internet bloggers and commentators. Aux armes, les citoyens!

While online abuse and fraud in wine will never be completely eliminated, the Internet is more effective than anything else in policing fraudulent and bogus practices. Independence is never a reason for me to read a critic’s work, especially if he/she bores the pants off me. I write more on this in another posting so let’s not get sidetracked here.

Parker and the law of unintended consequences
It is perhaps one for a different, lengthier posting but the irony of Parker is that while he set out to stop the largesse of the industry by being the independent ‘voice of the consumer’, he has inadvertently had another, opposite effect.

He has become such a powerful brand and force that his scores drive up demand from consumers and therefore prices. Here are just two examples, which I looked at recently and happen to own, which contrast the prices pre and post Parker scores: Isabel Ferrando’s St Prefert Giraud 2007 (which is now circa four times more expensive) and Chapoutier’s Hermitage Le Pavillon 2009 (which has doubled in price).

There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence that plenty of producers and merchants make and deal in wines which they know will get them higher scores, further raising prices and making them more money at the expense of the consumer. This in turn makes them unaffordable to the majority of the very consumers Parker set out to protect in the first place. The way the Bordelais wait for Parker to announce his scores before setting their prices is particularly cynical.

How does this help the consumer? I don't think Parker should publish any notes or scores until the Bordelais have set their prices and started to sell their wine. Parker should let them work out pricing for themselves and not let himself be used as promotional material just so they can increase their prices based on what he says. This can't be in the consumers’ interest, can it?

Clearly Parker never intended to be used by some producers in this way and I know he guards his independence and integrity fiercely, but it is what the economists would call ‘the law of unintended consequences’. Nothing in life is simple is it?

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