Thursday, 14 November 2013

What the wine critics don’t tell you (part 2)

Some critics’ claims of ‘independence’ suggest that only their tasting notes and scores can be trusted
When some critics declare their independence with great alacrity and self-righteousness, it implies to me that he or she believes that they have right on their side, ordained by a higher order to impart their monopoly of vinous wisdom on the world, bringing light where once there was darkness, in search of the sacred and undeniable truth. That it is only by being independent and having no commercial interest in the wines that he or she can be trusted to describe and score them accurately, and that you, the gullible consumer, shouldn’t trust those rapacious merchants who will flog you any old ‘belly wash’ to hit their sales numbers.

Bollocks, say I.

I can hear you say that critics guilty of these antics don’t mean this but this is what I infer (perhaps facetiously, I admit) from their terribly serious declarations of independence, delivered in the style of Thomas Jefferson and his US Declaration of Independence of 1776. It may be ungenerous of spirit but the style of some (only some, as others don’t push this too much) critics’ claims does rankle.

The vast majority of merchants give great advice too. They can’t afford not to
I can understand why critics claim independence from merchants and I don’t doubt they make them in good faith. I understand their argument that it is important for the critic or organization to declare their hand and be transparent with the reader if they are scoring wines. Is he/she incentivized to write about and score the producer? You clearly can’t present a note and score like you are independent when in fact you aren’t. OK, I get that.

But on the other hand, a relationship between a merchant and consumer is also clear – the latter knows the merchant has a vested, commercial interest and this is completely transparent and understood.

Even though a reputable merchant has a commercial interest in marketing and selling the wine, I don’t believe they will stupidly overate a wine and give good scores for poor wines. I think there are three reasons:

1.     Real time information and bad publicity. Unlike the past when information wasn’t easily available, today the world is awash with it on all wines and prices. It is difficult to fool a consumer these days and if an unscrupulous merchant does, it can be named and shamed in real time using any number of social media sites. It isn’t in the interests of a reputable merchant to do that because their livelihood depends on goodwill and repeat business.

2.     Commercial interests. It is precisely their commercial interests and focus on customer loyalty which hold them to account. If they rip you off then you won’t go back. In fact, I would argue that the merchant needs to ‘get it right’ far more than the critic. If a merchant ‘gets it wrong’, they might lose sales.

3.     They rate the wine already. They rated the wine in the first place, hence why they bought it and sell it to customers. Of course they rate their own wines highly. The cause and effect works this way around, not the other way.

They may well be guilty of inflating a score at the margin but no more than any other wine critic could do. Independent critics may also inflate a score because of external factors outside of the glass (the occasion, weather, your mood, temperature, lunar cycles -  apparently - and so on). Robert Joseph recently wrote an excellent article called ‘Wine, critics and science’ which I would recommend people read. (

(That said, be careful of unscrupulous merchants with no track record and looking to make a quick buck – they do still crop up from time to time, particularly in a booming market like we saw up to 2007).

Independence does not mean zero bias. Everyone is susceptible to bias, even the critics
Even if the critic is independent of merchants and even if there is a ‘learned component of wine tasting’ and that critics can apply this scientific approach meaning they can remove personal style preferences from scores (which are a lot of probabilities and therefore long odds), the critic is still susceptible to some bias, even if unintentional.

External factors such as friendship with and veneration of certain growers are inevitable and this affects sentiment in descriptions and scores. To eliminate this risk, a critic would have to taste every bottle blind which, of course, is just not practical.

Therefore ‘independence’ does not mean ‘no bias’. Bias is all-pervasive in our lives, whether intentional or not.

Independence doesn’t mean the critics’ notes and their industry insight are better than merchants’
Just because a critic is ‘independent’, it doesn’t mean that he or she writes better notes or has a better palate than a merchant who isn’t ‘independent’. Check out Alun Griffiths (20 years at Berry Brothers and Rudd, and now at the Chinese company Vats Liquor), Jasper Morris MW (Field, Morris and Verdin) and Doug Wregg (Les Caves de Pyrene) who all work on the ‘sell side’. They all write superbly and I trust their opinions, even though they may have different style preferences.

I digress slightly but I would also say that just because a site is a paying subscriber one, it doesn’t mean the tasting notes, scores and other opinions are better. Check out Jamie Goode (all content is FOC) and Tim Aitkin (some content is FOC) who offer non-subscriber sites and excellent tasting notes, scores and commentary.

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