How to lose friends & influence no one

[bungee jump]In 2008, I tried an experiment. I attempted to post a note on every single wine that I tasted that year. Every single wine. You can see the results over on the tasting notes blog, oenoLog.

How’d that go? In terms of completing the task I set before myself, about as well as can be expected. In the backlog of travelogues and tastings, there are still quite a few wines (especially from the jaunt to South Africa) that remain un-noted, and so the listed 1143 wines – itself a bit lower than the real total, because identical wines often get grouped together on that blog – should really be more in the 1400-1500 range, probably closer to the latter.

Now, before I get a flood of email concerned about my liver and desperate to get me into AA, that’s “tasted,” not “drank.” And yet 2008 was a fairly light year, for me. 1500 wines aren’t that much. That’s only 125 wines per month, 29 per week, or just over four per day…which any working wine critic will tell you is a rather paltry average. I didn’t attend many press or trade tastings, for various reasons (some of which I’ll get into in a moment), and so this is probably less than a third of the total I would have amassed in my earlier, more fecund years.

But whether or not I could have tasted more wines isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the total itself. What’s interesting is what this project entailed, and the results of the experiment.

Obviously, taking and then posting notes on so many wines requires a sort of discipline, and that’s something that isn’t always my strong suit. But I did try to apply some diligence to the task, and – with the above-mentioned caveats noted – got most of what I wanted to note up on the site. The good, the indifferent, the bad, and the ugly…it’s all there, in black, red burgundy, and some sort of nasty cream sherry color. (Maybe it’s time for a new blog template?)

So was it a useful thing to do? It’s certainly useful when hunting for wines to include in print or more thoughtful online work, so it’s a valuable resource for me, if for no one else. And in some ways, that’s enough; I used to keep a personal database of my notes at home, and this is just one more way to keep that database…one that won’t disappear if my computer does. But there are some drawbacks, as well, and I think they’re worth talking about.

To my knowledge, this is not something that any major critic has ever attempted. And I’m not sure most minor critics or writers have tried it either, though I’m sure there are a few – more likely in the self-published blogosphere than from the ranks of those who write for print or online publication. Even the most prolific tasters tend to focus mostly on the best (or, if they have a mind, the worst), rather than the entirety of what passes their lips.

And with good reasons. The for-public-consumption reason – which has the value of being true – is that, especially in print, space is money. One can waste that space writing about wines that no one should drink, just for the sheer glee of it, or one can use what space is available to be useful to the reader/consumer. Space restrictions don’t really apply online, but other restrictions do: who has the time to taste and write up all those notes in a given day? Who has the time to read them, or the interest in doing so?

But there’s another reason not to work without an internal editor, and it’s not much talked about, because it tends to drive a certain segment of the audience into paroxysms of ethical pontification. Noting, for public consumption, every single wine will necessarily entail writing about a lot of bottles that the taster doesn’t so much like. Now, not everyone will employ as colorful and abusive language as, say, me – some people still adhere to the “if you can’t say anything nice…” dictum – but there’s no getting around the fact that most wine writers taste a lot of really lousy wine.

They taste most such wine (who would voluntarily buy wine they won’t like?) in the presence and at the behest of people in the trade. Free samples in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps, or at portfolio tastings, or over lunch with an importer, or in a producer’s cellars. Whatever the source, these are wines that haven’t been tasted in distancing isolation, but instead were bundled up with personal relationships…relationships that are often a regular (and easily-severed) source of a broader tasting experience than most under-funded writers can afford. And as I’ve written before, the majority of people in the wine trade are lovely people, no matter the quality of their products, so even aside from considerations of access, it’s not the easiest thing to trash the lifework of someone you like.

(And that’s just within the trade/press relationship. Friends and family, too, can fall victim to the unedited critic’s bloody pen. If the motivation to avoid confrontation occurs between those with whom one has an inherently adversarial critical relationship, imagine offending your in-laws by savaging a wine they poured you over the holidays.)

As a result, the critic willing to employ their poison pen finds themselves rather frequently uninvited. They drop off PR lists, sample lists, guest lists. They find doors closed where they were once open. They find their contacts in the trade suddenly less than helpful, their local retailers less glad to see them, their attempts to set up tastings rebuffed by producers with long memories. And it’s not just the peon-level writers who experience this. Even the most powerful critic of all, Robert Parker, has run afoul of producers, importers, and even entire regions that have attempted to limit his access. If Parker can be asked to talk to the hand, what hope for those with less star wattage?

Now, one may say that this is short-sighted on the part of those in the trade, and I tend to agree. So would some of the better tradespersons, who recognize that they too pay a certain price for burning bridges, and that the inability to promote a wine through a hostile critic doesn’t mean that another wine might not benefit from that relationship. One is more likely to hear the objection that none of this should be the critic’s concern. That, too, is correct, albeit from a position of rigid ethical purity, but it does negatively affect the quality of the work most critics can produce. (For an expansion of this controversial point, pull up a chair and a few spare hours, and read this and this.)

So has there been blowback from my year of full disclosure? Yes. The worst of it was actually at the end of the previous year, but that little contretemps continued into 2008. And though I don’t attend many press events anymore (partially due to travel, partially due to having fallen off some people’s mailing lists without an attempt to get back on, and partially because a long history of antagonism between me and the trade has led irrevocably to this point), the invitations are thin on the ground these days, and getting thinner. I don’t expect the next year to be an improvement, either, though some of that will obviously be attributable to the economy.

So if you’re crazy enough to consider your own version of this project, now you know the cost. Post all your notes – every last one of them – and there will be a price to pay in your relationship to the people who make, ship, and sell your wine. Not to mention your free time, and the health of your fingers, wrists, and liver. Are you willing to pay that price in a recession?

Oh…and in case anyone is wondering, the answer is: yes, I will be continuing this project in 2009. Hey, who needs friends?


  • Vinogirl

    January 3, 2009

    What a great post.
    I had never really considered the logistics of wine reviewing before….food (or wine) for thought.
    What a great name you have, so viking! :)
    Sorry I haven’t discovered your blog before now.

  • Thad W.

    January 3, 2009

    Thor, you had me really worried that you were giving up this experiment in favor of bending to the common approach taken by so many wine writers. Glad to see you continuing this effort into 2009, for your tasting notes have had a significant influence on my wine experiences and education over the last year. I may not always agree with your assessments, but I do learn something as a result of following your tasting notes and other wine-related posts. You are doing something truly unique here, and I hope others will follow your lead in 2009. And please know that you have gained me as a friend due to your efforts here at oenoLogic. Best wishes to you in 2009.

  • thor iverson

    January 4, 2009

    Vinogirl, thanks for stopping by. And yes, the Norwegian heritage is hard to hide.

    Thad, no worries…I intend to keep irritating the hell out of people well into the next decade. Keep up the good work, and hopefully we can share a glass someday.

  • Anonymous

    January 8, 2009

    Well, if you’re hesitating in posting any of your 2005 Australian trip notes on the grounds they’ll cause offence, worry no longer! If on the other hand it’s due to the pressures of backlog-itis, then fair enough!
    To be honest, the full-spray, let-em-have-it tasting note is very entertaining to read.
    It’s not quite the same, but Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” is a fantastic read – critics tearing slabs off composers from Beethoven through to Schonberg. Perhaps part of the amusement is derived from the criticism copped by now-acknowledged masterpieces, but the fact remains that a good rant is more memorable than a hymn of praise. Wine is more ephemeral than music, perhaps, but in calling it as you see it, you’re still reflecting more honestly what wine is available – and the standard of much of it.
    They say ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, so it’s a shame if necessary trade accessed has contracted – but then you don’t want to drink/taste wines you don’t like anyway. Also a pity that so much of the trade is apparently so small-minded. Still, you can consider it a reflection of your influence – if they thought lousy comments from you were without consequence, then they might invite you still…

  • Brewnoser

    January 11, 2009

    This the ONLY wine blog I read.

    And the notes on wines you DON’T like are why.

    Most writers are constrained by the industry (via manners, or duress) to omit the wines they don’t like in their publications.

    You state any influences and personal preferences you have. I can trust what you say to be your unfettered opinion. And when, on the are occasion I can actually find the wines you write about, I can see where your tastes fit to mine, which adds to the usefulness of your notes.

  • thor iverson

    January 11, 2009

    Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate that.

  • Salil

    February 14, 2009

    I appreciate the access to all the notes; good and bad. While it’s great to be able to read a few positives notes and quickly discern that a wine’s worth buying – it’s just as useful to read warnings that’ll keep me from spending on a wine that could turn out to be overly goopy/unbalanced/something I’d hate.

  • thor iverson

    February 14, 2009

    Thanks Salil. I do think the full range of notes, negative and positive, is important.


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