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criticism

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

(NB: this essay was originally published in 2011.)

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”

Uh-oh. Keep Reading

Curtains for Oz

Louis XVI & Marie-AntoinetteThat the end was approaching for Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate has been clear for years. It has long been no more than a matter of time. Thus, today’s signposting of that end, which is still clouded by contradictory statements and may be overtaken by further clarifications, doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

But this sort of end? Robert Parker giving up and selling out – and that’s absolutely what he has done – with one giant middle finger pointed squarely at Robert Parker himself? Advertising? Paid advocacy, in the form of seminars, of wines that are otherwise under review? No, I didn’t expect that at all. Robert Parker, the young firebrand Naderite with a wine newsletter, would not have been pleased.

I suppose I really should have seen this coming, though. Parker has gradually given up even the illusion of his own claims to independence over the years, defending and justifying each (or, at most, offering a slap on the wrist of policy and then changing nothing). Still, I always felt that he at least had convinced himself of the illusion, and that he would cede the field with that conviction intact.

I don’t, by the way, blame Parker for grabbing the lucre when it’s offered. He’s worked hard, he deserves a well-funded semi-retirement (he’s still going to be reviewing his favorite regions). I don’t say that with the slightest hint of sarcasm. Whatever I may feel about the content of his criticism, he built a wildly successful brand from scratch, and that’s to be admired.

At the end of Felix Salmon’s Reuters article, he writes, “The idea that a 95-point wine is always better than an 85-point wine is an idea which deserves to die.” This is true, and one hopes that this will, indeed, be one of the outcomes of the erosion of The Wine Advocate’s brand, though there are no lack of alternative publications offering the same false sense of objectivity.

But what I hope is a good deal more fundamental: that the long, oft-times slow, but now firmly-accelerated demolishing of the Parker model of criticism will lead to people realizing how poorly that model serves them.

When wine’s universe was smaller, it was perhaps useful for a lone voice (or a tight collection of same) to offer comprehensive assessments. That is now an impossibility. Within discrete categories of wine, there’s still a measure of utility…especially if one is purchasing for reasons of investment or prestige as much or more than personal taste…but the task Parker set himself is no longer achievable.

It’s not just that the world of wine has sprawled, though that’s certainly a major factor (note, for instance, that the publication will now cover Asian wines. Asian wines.) It’s that the market has sprawled along with it. There was a time when sought-after names were easily available, though still for a price, via a long-term relationship with a retailer with his or her own long-term relationships. Now, there’s skyrocketing international competition – some of it completely unknown even a decade ago – for desirable wines. And not just the blue-chip brands, either; even the cultish, counter-cultural, ultra-natural stuff can be both impossible to locate and impossibly expensive. Anyone tried to buy Overnoy Vin Jaune lately?

The days of the ranked shopping list, which was always what Parker’s work boiled down to, are almost over, except for – as mentioned – those with unlimited funds and time, who will continue to derive great value from them. But for everyone else? Even at the speed of online dissemination, a moment’s hesitation (whether temporal or monetary) cedes the market to someone else. Only wines produced in truly industrial quantities – supermarket dreck, négociant Champagne, classed-growth Bordeaux – will be available to all, albeit at a price, and even then the latter is crumbling under the weight of a worldwide demand that even the counterfeit market cannot sate.

From now on, most wine lovers will have to be content with getting only a little of what they want. The future of wine, as with everything else, is the niche. Obviously, the future of wine communication must, of necessity, also be niche. Even Parker, in his limited fashion, saw that when he hired a handful of collaborators, but he saw it too late and from too high a perch. In any case, fractionalization brings a more important change: the inexorable demise not just of the comprehensive critic, but of criticism as we know it.

This isn’t to say that critics will cease to exist. They’ll continue, and to the extent that they can live up to the ideals that Parker once claimed to exalt (what limited measure of independence is actually possible or desirable, a conviction to tell the subjective truth no matter the consequence), they might even succeed as long as their fields of interest are sufficiently narrow. But the future is in narrative. In insight. In the deep rather than the broad.

In other words: writing, rather than pure criticism. (Or video, or whatever else; it’s not the medium that matters, it’s the message.) A personal relationship with a merchant. A trusted intermediary in the biz. And so forth. It’s no accident that what’s succeeding in the wine world right now, in a way that it didn’t during a long interregnum, is the micro-business. A tiny wine bar focused on just one category, with so few seats to fill that there will always be a demand. A B2C importer with a firm point of view and very little wine to sell. Direct winery sales, even where such things were very recently unknown (like Burgundy).

And the era of false claims of independence, which was never actually possible, and even more ludicrous claims of objectivity, is also drawing to a close. More and more consumers see through the marketing of this pernicious falsehood, and realize that depth of understanding comes on a continuum in which one can only pay for that understanding by relinquishing independence. The only actual independence is that of thought and action. And there is no objectivity, only fairness.

I don’t know if Parker could have changed enough to meet the new paradigm. I suspect he couldn’t; one does not abdicate the Emperor’s throne to develop a deep working knowledge of the vineyards of Elba without a fight, or at least a large measure of self-denial. Of which we’ve seen an awful lot from Parker in recent years.

I will not be sad to see him go, no matter how long or sullied the goodbye. It would be foolish to deny his success, and equally foolish to deny his influence on both the market and wine itself…the good and the bad. But his time has passed. Even if he still only sees it through a glass darkened by hyper-extracted syrah.

A real teat

romulusSo here’s the pitch. The name of the writer, included in a letter that its author has cast hither and yon into the wine trade sea, isn’t important, so I’ve left it out.

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. […] I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.

I have to say, I admire the shine on those giant brass balls; this is like taking a full-page ad in Variety announcing that you intend to prostitute yourself and giving the exact dates and times at which you are available for whoring. It’s not just anyone who lacks sufficient shame to attempt something like this. And so, from that perspective: kudos.

Then again, the pearl-clutching horror with which this message has been received by some is awfully naïve. Years ago, when I started typing about wine, there were innumerable writers – even a fair number publications – for whom this was the entire business plan. Some of both are still around. And let’s be frank: it was, and is, one of the surest paths to (monetary) success. One of the absolute best at it back in those days, a local colleague who never once met a press release or one-off tasting that couldn’t be rewritten for publication, is now an editor for a venue for which I have repeatedly been asked to write…for free, of course. (And probably should anyway, in these dim-venued times.) The wheel turns, and Astroglide helps ease its passage. Nothing new under the sheets the sun.


So is this elephantiasic pitch actually problematic? In one sense, absolutely yes. It has nothing to do with brazenly soliciting samples. It’s not even really the promise of coverage, as long as the promise doesn’t pre-characterize the tone of that the coverage. It’s the explicit deal whereby the subject of the “review” can vet said review before publication.

The issue isn’t that such prior consideration is unethical by journalistic standards. The writer of this fantastical pitch isn’t (to my knowledge) claiming to be a journalist…one hopes…so those standards don’t apply. The issue is that if one is going to claim authorship of content (and he is), one must be its final arbiter. But in this case, he’s ceding a measure of control over both to the subject of commentary. That’s inherently untrustworthy…which is not, please note, the same thing as claiming that it doesn’t happen all the time. It does, but it’s called marketing or public relations. Anyway, the other side of this transaction – managing relationships with content providers to get the coverage a client wants – is exactly what many PR agents do, and if they didn’t succeed frequently enough to achieve their clients’ aims, they wouldn’t exist.

In any case, what he’s attempting to do will create inevitable limitations and restrictions. Good and/or small-production wineries are probably not going to be making their product available for his consideration unless he becomes spectacularly famous and powerful. Which seems unlikely, though it’s true there are some pretty blatant panderers and panhandlers who’ve done quite well for themselves. This, incidentally, is no different from how wineries usually parcel out their limited quantities of free product to “real” journalists: a judgment is made as to popularity, then filtered through a stylistic assessment (only the overcapitalized will send an oaked-up fruit bomb to someone who mostly writes about natural wine). Our pitchman will only acquire a certain type of wine with this approach – mass-market, industrial – and his audience will, in turn, be limited by the same stylistic restrictions.


On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to care all that much, no matter how distasteful or naked the appeal to quid pro quo. I’ve written endless commentary on the difference between the appearance of ethics, actual ethics, and real trustworthiness, so I won’t revisit all of it here. The précis is this: it’s much better, from the perspective of a consumer of information, that a writer be right, good, or useful than to say high-minded things in the fine print yet produce incorrect, poor, or useless work.

A bit of amplification: not long ago, some folks on one wine forum wondered why (now former) Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller was being criticized for doing something that his colleague David Schildknecht did without public condemnation. Yes, from the standpoint of rigid universal ethics that’s patently unfair. But the actual answer is completely obvious: the people offering the criticism trust the content of Schildknecht’s work more than they trust Miller’s. Were Miller’s work beyond reproach to those critics, he could act with greater impunity. But it’s not, and so he can’t. (Well, couldn’t.)

Or look at it this way: wine is, among other things, a product. Whose product criticism is considered ethically pure and nearly beyond reproach? Consumer Reports, certainly. And they’ve actually done some wine criticism over the years. Does anyone respect it? Does anyone who knows anything about wine find it anything other than laughable? Not that I’ve noticed. And the reason is not that CR struggles with ill-considered ethical lapses, it’s because ethics are not only not the same as skill or utility, they don’t even function as a fair replacement, either.

So if ethics don’t make one a good critic, what does? How about being a good critic? You can replace “critic” with “writer” or “journalist” and the statement remains true. Being a good critic requires knowledge, it requires skill in both assessment and communication, and it can be argued that it requires an audience. Note: ethics were not on that list.

This isn’t to argue that ethics don’t matter. They do. The reason they matter, however, is not their self-referential importance, but in how they – or their lack – affect the quality of the work. If unethical behavior leads to untrustworthy or useless work, then ethics matter, and that’s why attention must always be paid. If the work is poor despite pristine ethics, however, then they didn’t matter at all. Again, what really matters is the work. The rest is worthy of consideration, but it’s a secondary consideration.

“Oh,” someone is now objecting, “but with far more wine commentators than anyone can actually follow, it’s necessary to judge ethics to help sort them out.” Really? If that’s the case – if we’re filtering critics by their ethical practices – then we’re back to a wine world in which Consumer Reports sits atop the pyramid of utility. Do they? Again, I know of no one who thinks so. We can (and should) talk about ethics, but in the end our primary consideration is always going to be the quality of the work. It’s similar to how one may have all the admiration in the world for a winemaker’s overwhelming swellness as a human being, but the decision to buy his or her wine is based primarily on its quality.


All that said, I can understand wariness on this point from consumers. With so many voices, most of them largely unknown, and limited money to spend on what is, after all, a liquid frivolity, doesn’t a precondition of apparent trustworthiness help? Sure, of course. Consumers are wise to at least wonder about ethics. Further, the existence of as-pure-as-possible commentators acts as a necessary check against those more compromised, because they can shine a light on the worst (or the best-hidden) practices.

But the thing is, a lot – probably the majority – of the carping about ethics these days isn’t coming from consumers. It’s coming from the trade. This would be laughable were it not so hypocritical.

vultureCan’t – in this age of the hyper-fragmented, many-to-many marketplace of information – wineries, importers, and retailers bypass what used to be the gate-keeping press filters and funnels, and just put their own message out there? Yes, absolutely. Many are in fact doing exactly this, and well.

After all, who knows more about a wine than its maker? Who knows more about a peer group – wines of a single region, wines of a certain ethos, and so forth – than importers with a point of view (of which there are now many)? Who knows more about what their customers actually want than retailers? No journalist, no matter how ethical or skilled, can hope to provide information of this granularity at better than second-hand, once-removed distance. Third-party commentators have other skills and freedoms, and there are ways they can contextualize and criticize that are not usually open to those in the trade, but what they offer is a view of the source material, not the material itself.

In other words, what makes a winemaker’s or importer’s words valuable has absolutely nothing to do with ethics (except in the case of an unalloyed charlatan). No, it has everything to do with their inextricable connection to the product. In fact, they cannot be “ethical” by journalistic standards because they cannot separate themselves from personal and financial interests in the subjects on which they are commenting.

It seems to me that someone in the trade who wishes their own voice to be heard, yet complains about the ethics of writers, is trying to have it both ways. If a writer is compromised by a lack of distance, certainly that writer is far less compromised than the person selling the product. Wouldn’t we, by that standard, be much better off ignoring anyone who makes or sells wine? Or if this very lack of separation is why we should listen to those who make and sell wine, why is a lesser version of same still unforgivable from a writer? One cannot have it both ways.

There are those in the writing cohort who beat a “the trade is inherently untrustworthy” drum, and have for many years. I’ve said before that I think this is ludicrous, because it stupidly ignores some of the greatest potential sources of knowledge and insight about wine. Moreover, most often this mantra is chanted by those who stand to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, from consumers turning their eyes and ears from the trade and towards the commentator doing the complaining. It’s mercenary at its heart, though no less so than a tradesperson leveling a similar charge against a commentator.

Or maybe, despite the hypocrisy, the trade thinks they have something to gain by shouting down the commentariat with charges of inethics. Let me suggest to them that they’re being dumbasses, if so. In case no one’s noticed, traditional media aren’t doing so well. A lot are already dead and buried. It’s not impossible that the rest are doomed. Which, if so, means that the old ways of getting one’s wines noticed are awfully thin on the ground. One does not have to view that which is replacing traditional journalism with love and respect to see that it is, at least for now, close to all there is.

So there are three paths the trade can follow. They can embrace the current state of affairs, and in fact it doesn’t much matter if they do it with arms wide open or while holding their collective noses. They can ignore the whole thing, and trust that the winds of fate, chance, and word-of-mouth will put food on their table…which, given a sufficiently small amount of wine to sell, can actually work under certain limited circumstances. Or they can whine, cry, and stamp their feet, demanding an ethical purity that they cannot actually produce themselves.

The funny thing is, they could actually have that last thing, if they really wanted it. So could we all. If…


if we were willing to pay for it. Not directly, as in the sort of wine-for-coverage deal in the nakedly avaristic pitch above But…well, an example. Allow me to quote an importer (one I like and respect) on this very subject:

There is a journalist I sometimes drink with who won’t take a single thing. He insists on paying for every little thing, even if you only offer him a taste. I doubt there is a single blogger out there who can claim the same thing.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it probably is. Let’s posit it’s so. It is, frankly, almost unique even among actual journalists operating under actual corporate-imposed ethical strictures. I’m pretty sure I know who this is, and while I’m going to mention neither his nor the importer’s name (because it’s not germane to my point), I do hope our unnamed importer helps pay our unnamed journalist’s salary by subscribing to his publication and going out of this way to patronize its advertisers. If he doesn’t, then he’s being a leech, and a self-entitled one at that.

Look, I know it’s a confusing time. A few somewhat compromised but familiar voices have given way to a hurricane of unknowably compromised voices, and it’s hard to know who to trust anymore. The average wine communicator is less informed and less experienced than ever, though there’s an inverse gain in niche expertise. We know there are paid shills working the commentary and social media circuit, but openly and in the shadows. And while all this has been going on, the contraction of the bulk of wine commerce into a few mega-corporations has produced the inevitable backlash: a luxuriant and largely unexplored jungle of personality-driven sources and outlets, who – in the face of the marketing power of the megaliths – need every bit of coverage they can get.

But some limitations are built into the system. To spread news about a wine, a person must taste said wine. One way or another, the wine has to get from the trade’s hands to a communicator’s glass. Someone is going to have to pay for that transaction. Either the trade does it directly, as used to be the norm, or they do it indirectly, as paying consumers of information; “free” all too often being worth what was paid for it. The alternative is that all communication is left, as it was long ago, to merchants. The most thoroughly compromised entity possible.

It’s an imperfect and probably imperfectible system, to be sure. But it’s not one that benefits from thoroughly self-serving hypocrisy any more than it benefits from undisclosed compromise. Flaws are a part of wine, but they’re also a part of those who make, sell, and write about them.

Noted, passing

fruit at la boqueriaLook, I get it. The pressure to publish makes us all write dumb things. But still…oh, Jamie

[I] was jolted by the realization that tasting notes generally do a spectacularly bad job of communicating about the nature of wine

Really? That was your moment of spiritual revelation? Your trans-hypnotic insight? An understanding of the essence of wine is not to be found via one writer’s grocery list nor via another’s arcane analogies about bunnies and Dadaism?

Just…no.

Jamie Goode is a sensible – often overly-sensible – writer who’s one of the best at deconstructing the molecular guts of wine, though at his worst when slathering praise over liquid mediocrities, but is not the go-to authority on tasting note quality. That’s not his fault, nor a criticism. The fact is that no one is.

What, exactly, is a bad tasting note? Well, what’s a good tasting note? Take a look at the comments to Jamie’s post. You’ll see accord, widespread agreement, a set of key principles on which any good note must rest, a…

No. Wait a minute. You’ll see nothing of the sort. Some people want standards. Some prefer writing. The fruit-and-veg genre is fairly unpopular, but there’s no clear alternative. Expanding this survey to comments elsewhere, it’s pretty clear that there’s absolutely no concurrence regarding the best possible form of a tasting note.

Huh. Funny, that.

One of the more tiresome assertions about notes is that their primary role is to be correct. Well, what does that mean? The most correct note of all would be a chemical breakdown of the wine, and one would need to be a chemist to utilize such a note. Once one strays from chemistry, one enters the realm of the subjective, and the mere possibility of correctness erodes at a rapid pace.

So how about “useful?” Can’t a note be that? Well, sure. Any note, no matter how good or bad by any individual standard, can be useful to someone. But what defines utility? Wouldn’t the obvious answer be the note that catalyzes the greatest commercial effect vs. its absence? Thus, a Robert Parker note on a Bordeaux would be the most effective note, thus the most useful note, and thus the best note.

I’ll wait while you find someone who thinks that. Still waiting. Oh, you found someone? Their tastes and Robert Parker’s tastes in Bordeaux appear to be in full alignment? What a shock!

OK, so now we might have discovered that the test of a great tasting note is not actually utility, but the extent of its confirmation bias and its epistemological closure. I, person X, have tastes in wine expressed as close to 100% as possible by critic Y. Thus, his or her notes are the best, by definition. Right? But if that’s true, why involve third parties at all? (I understand that the reason is because the critic can taste wines that (and when) the consumer can’t, but we’re discussing tasting notes here.) Because it’s inherently obvious that while critic Y and person X might exist in somewhat rampant agreement with each other, there’s only one note-writer with whom person X will never disagree. That’s right: person X. The “best” notes are one’s own.

In other words, we’ve just discovered the only truism about the utility and correctness of tasting notes: that they’re inherently individual and personal. Once one starts to disseminate notes, one has reduced their utility. One has made them less correct. One has subjected them to criticism not just regarding conclusion, but of form. On and on, until someone will be found who finds a note utterly unredeemable. Perhaps many someones.

To this I say: so what? If you’re writing tasting notes for other people, you’re writing for one of two reasons or you’re wasting your time. The first, and most important, reason to write them is that you wish to write them in the form in which you’ve written them. The second is that you’re being paid to do so. Pretty much any other reason is demonstrable self-delusion.

So why is Jamie’s post so incredibly silly? Because he’s asking for something that doesn’t exist, and he already knows this. There is zero agreement on the form of a good, correct, or useful tasting note. And because he’s now joined the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of tiresome broadsides against the gibberish of jargon as viewed from outside that jargon, which has a long and anti-intellectual history with regard to wine commentary. Except that Jamie’s not outside that jargon, and so he lacks this excuse.

But that’s not the silliest aspect. What really grates is that Jamie knows very well that understanding wine does not come from discerning and then describing which type of fig most represents 12.3% of its aroma. Understanding wine comes from tasting the wine, tasting its context, visiting its birthplace, discussing its origin and purpose, reading about it, wandering amongst its parents (the vineyard), having it with this food or that, and so forth. Are any one, or all, of those things required to understand a wine? No. But they all help. Each one of them illuminates. And it is the job of the writer, rather than the critic, to translate those illuminations.

More relevantly, for any writer it’s important to understand the difference between writing about one liquid in one glass at one moment and writing about everything that has led to that moment. They’re both worthwhile. But one is the path to sensation and temporal pleasure. The other is the path to understanding.

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”

Uh-oh.

“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”

“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.

“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”

“Uh…”

“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bullshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”

We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.

When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.

I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.


Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.

This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.

Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.

But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.

How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.

What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?

(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)

If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.

In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.

Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?

Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.


So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?

Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.

There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.

Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.

The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.

Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.

Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.

And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?

Respect.


The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.

This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.

To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.

Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.

So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.

It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.

To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.

A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.

But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”

The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?

This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.

A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.

Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?

Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn’t wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.

Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.

And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.

Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.

Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.

And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.


The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?

It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.

We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.

But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?

If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.

And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.

Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”

No one else.

Color me surprised

[mosaic]So here’s a fun thing. Excerpted from Twitter, but with the graphics, etc. removed. It’s a dialogue between Evan Dawson, a journalist and spare-time (where does he find it?) wine writer from New York, and the auto-estimable James Suckling. Let’s count the evasions and logical fallacies, shall we?

Evan Dawson
If sunlight is best way to view color, why judge color indoors like you do?

James Suckling
Isn’t that sort of a dumb question? Tasting outdoors doesn’t work1. You know that.

Evan Dawson
Right. But 15% of the wine’s score is color, and you admit you judge the color in sub-optimal conditions.

James Suckling
What do you do2? Do you have anything better to do today3…or is it a slow news day?

Evan Dawson
Just honestly curious. If a wine’s color is 15% of its score, why judge in conditions that don’t let you see it optimally?

James Suckling
May be you use your daylight flashlight when you visit cellars to taste4? Can [I] get one?

Evan Dawson
Ha! That would be great. But perhaps another reminder that assessing color for points is questionable.

Evan Dawson
And yes, I confess that I think it’s strange to put so much weight on a wine’s color. But your mileage may vary!

James Suckling
But just to be polite and answer your question. I have been tasting for 29 years5. I know how to judge color6.

Evan Dawson
A wine can go from 92 to 89 pretty easily all because you judged the score in artificial/lesser lighting. That matters!

James Suckling
Giving points for color works for me7, UC Davis8 and lots of people9.

So…by my count, that’s four evasions and five logical fallacies (though to be fair, some of the latter are reiterations of the same fallacy). I’d suggest that this is some sort of record, but then I remember that I’ve read/heard/seen political commentary more than once over my lifetime…

Since Mr. Suckling won’t actually answer Mr. Dawson’s (excellent) question about color – his defense of his self-alleged inerrancy, by the way, goes against science in the field – I’m free to opine.

Identifying color is fine, especially if it is any way unusual (opaque pinot noir, young wine not made from nebbiolo but with significant bricking, orange wine) but it is, to me, the least important category of descriptor. Why? Because it is so rarely useful in the note’s afterlife. I often mock the fruit-salad tasting notes that writers (including me) tend to fall back on, because I doubt anyone has ever gone into a store and asked for a wine that tastes of “slightly bitter Rainier cherry skins and crisp, lemony acidity,” but even if that’s not true, I’m sure no one has gone in with an electromagnetic frequency range between which they wish to restrict their purchases. “No, sorry, that aglianico is just a bit too magenta for me.” Please.

But scoring color? Especially, as Dawson points out, in variable and sub-optimal conditions? Ludicrous. Of course, conditional variability can be a reason to suspect all components of wine scoring, but I’ve a pledge to myself that – the anti-scoring rant being well-worn territory – I won’t repeat what so many others have said on the issue, and yet here it’s especially damning. Unless the light source is being frequency-controlled across all wines in a peer group, it is impossible for wines tasted in different lighting to be scored for color in any reliable fashion. Especially when the color component forms as significant a portion of a total score as it does in Suckling’s methodology.

Why didn’t Suckling answer Dawson’s question, except with complaint, evasion, and logical fallacies? Because, obviously, he can’t. No one can.

(Yes, yes, I linked the word “science” to a Wikipedia article. I’ll do penance in the afterlife. It was the best gateway to the actual science I could find in fifteen seconds of Google-fu.)

The moment of preconception

[reflected fortress]I wanted to break up the barbera-blogging with something about identity, or maybe authenticity. Perhaps essentiality. You can already see how carefully- and narrowly-conceived this thought was, and how a successful, highly-convincing argument was already virtually assured.

However, it turns out that I’ve already written that post. With, I note, my usual brevity. (There cannot be a wine writer alive who benefits more from the lack of an editor…or a writer’s audience who suffers more from that same lack.) So anyway, I don’t have to repeat myself. There will be some additional thoughts on what barbera is, isn’t, and should be in a wrap-up narrative that should be happening, oh, any week now.

Instead, as I head into another blizzard of notes, followed by a very difficult and convoluted, but important, story about Barbera Meeting 2010’s day of angst and agita, I’m going to share a few thoughts on the aforementioned identity…not as it affects the drinker, but as it affects the taster.

The biggest problem with expectations, of course, is that they encourage prejudgment. While I stand firmly among those who insist there is no such thing as objectivity (nor has the concept any real value) when it comes to criticism, there are forms of subjectivity that one does better to avoid. And prejudging an entire class of wines is one of those forms.

To enter into a tasting of barbera with one’s biases intact is fine, and natural, and in fact unavoidable. To enter into that same tasting with a determination to judge each and every wine against a subjective “ideal” barbera is as easy and natural as it is entropic. An intelligent taster must know they are going to be shown not only different takes on a familiar idea, but also new ideas based on entirely unfamiliar assumptions. To fail to respond to this with an open mind, at least initially, is not only a failure to capitalize on the potential for broadening one’s knowledge, but also – and this is where it matters to everyone else – unhelpful to anyone but the taster. A taster that is writing a long series of notes that amount to no more than “this is 2% closer to my ideal barbera than that one, so I like this better” is writing notes on the mirror. It’s arguable that this is all notes ever are, but then why exert the public effort of sharing them with anyone else?

The above is one of the many reasons I find points and other scoring systems unsatisfying. Yes, they’re a shorthand for a hierarchical ranking, in which some find value. But they absolutely enforce the sort of thinking I’m criticizing in the previous paragraph, in which one identifies – or constructs, if an actual example doesn’t exist – some sort of Platonic ideal of a wine and then ranks everything by its qualitative proximity to that ideal. That seems awfully narrow-minded to me, but beyond that it seems a little hostile to the audience…essentially demanding that they embrace the taster’s preferences before they go on to make use of those rankings. Certainly there are both more utilitarian and more expressive ways to communicate preference to another. Like, for example, the text of a note.

The thing is, a determination to avoid this sort of preferential trap doesn’t, as a rule, last long in the face of the actual tasting experience. First, one’s experience of wines will change due to the influence of the other wines in the same tasting (a contextual effect). Then, as one adds to an accumulation of organoleptic data, new conclusions will coalesce around that data (an observer effect). Ultimately, one will start to judge wines based not necessarily on preconceptions, but on reconceptions born from within the process itself.

So it was with the barbera tastings. I approached them assuming two styles: sharp, biting little numbers that I considered “classic” barbera; and slick, modernized versions layered with the individuality-numbing, internationalizing effect of new wood. I left having found not only three general categories (traditional, internationalized, and a middle-ground style in which the fruit and acid had been modernized but the wine is not overburdened with barrique), but a different fulcrum point for the two known categories.

I’ll expand on that to (much) greater length in the aforementioned wrap-up post, and I’ll also note that there were good, bad, and indifferent wines within each category. And I certainly have my thoughts on which I prefer, but also which I think will and won’t bring the barbera producers of the Piedmont success on the international market.

The important lesson, however, was that – despite my preconceptions – there was something both new and unexpected to learn about the wines, both individually and taken as a group. And not just the things for which one might hope, like vintage characteristics or each sub-zone’s terroir signature. Instead, it was the how and/or why of the various possible stylistic choices, the role the grape does (and doesn’t) play in those choices, why barbera (rather than another grape) was chosen for this experimentation and marketing effort – for that is, at the heart, what Barbera Meeting was – and, finally, the tension between how the producers see their work and how their potential markets see that same work.

And yes: “tension” is the right word, for more reasons than one. For it turns out that the preconception-laden approach isn’t just a danger for wine tasters. The producers themselves have some issues along these lines…

Scaling Olympus

[tour de france sculpture]Other than the rings left on a tablecloth by sloppily-filled stems, I can’t claim that there’s an obvious connection between wine and the Olympics. If anything, it should be the opposite: athletic endeavor, pushed to and beyond the limits, isn’t often served by the liberal application of pressed grapes. Something I believe Bode Miller once demonstrated

But as a certified Olympic junkie (I’ve got a membership card and a halfpipe terminology decoder ring), I’ve been musing on connections and parallels, which I intend to explore over the next few posts. One that comes immediately to mind is a difference in what people expect from an Olympic broadcast.

For the results-oriented viewer, sports (and I don’t want to get into debate about which competitions in the Olympics are and aren’t sports, because it’s not relevant to my point) are about the play and its results. The fewer filters between the action and the viewer, the better; everything else is just baggage, distraction, and time-wasting. In the end, all that matters are the results. Who’s #1? Who’s off the podium? There are winners, and thus there are losers.

This hierarchal view of the world – who’s up? who’s down? – is appealing in its binary simplicity, is in some ways the very essence of athletic competition, and is very popular. It’s also responsible for the ratings phenomenon in wine. Whether it be stars, upturned glasses, or points on any scale, the desire for quantification and ranking is and will always be with us.

But there’s a downside to this desire. It’s one thing to wonder, about a group of wines, “which is the best?” It’s another to attempt to objectify this assessment, which is subjective. The sports analogy here would be to judged, rather than measured, competitions. (Was that figure skater better than the other? Was there an undue compression in that aerialist’s landing?) Wines do not and cannot compete in a vinous 100-meter dash; instead, they’re competing on the gymnastics mat. Wine ratings are not analogous to the number of seconds on the clock in a sprint. They are not etched in stone. They are not “truth.” They’re just opinions. (Is this wine balanced? Is it good because it’s an exemplar of its type, or because it’s not?)

Worse, they lead to the wholesale dismissal of any quality other than quantitative superiority. It’s not just that there’s more interest in number one than in number three, it’s that there’s no interest in number four. It might as well not even exist. Many viewers will interpret any competition through this lens…and the motivation to do so extends to wine, as well.

Anyone connected to the wider world of wine consumers knows these folk. When they buy wine, they’ll only buy the best (and “best” is usually defined as the highest rating assigned by a favored critic or set of critics). To judge by their drinking habits, only JL Chave makes Hermitage, there are only two or three vintages per decade in Bordeaux, the entirety of California wine is represented by a few pricey producers in Napa, and so forth. The mantra of the questing wine consumer – “life’s too short to drink bad wine” – is recast in the narrowest possible terms, leaving everything below the magical 100-point threshold as an easily-dismissed afterthought.

Obviously, such consumers drink very well by their own lights. But they stand on a peak, surrounded by self-created clouds that obscure everything else. Are they missing something? A more important question is: how would they know if they were?

There’s another sort of Olympic fan, and proceeding from the assumption that bottom line-focused networks will do whatever the majority of viewers want them to do, one might presume that they are the majority. They’re the fans of narrative, of storytelling, of the flow and sweep of something beyond the moment of performance. Not just those created and prepackaged for the purposes of hype, as reflected in so many of the “up close and personal” videos, but also those that develop organically from the process: the superstar who wins everything but seems cursed on Olympic soil, the athlete who performs through unimaginable pain, the surprising triumphs (and failures), and those for whom a personal best is the only goal that may realistically be set.

For such fans, sports in general (but especially the Olympics), are a rich tapestry of experiential opportunity that goes well beyond the raw metrics of performance. It’s not that achievement doesn’t matter. It’s just that it’s only one part of a larger story.

Wine appreciation of this sort is populated by those who want to know what lurks behind and within their wine. Less important than whether one pinot noir is “better” than another is the reason for that judgment, and even the label “better” is itself replaced by a fluid scale of intellectual and emotional complexity. Difference is not the blank page on which quality is charted, but a quality in itself. History, culture, personality, context…all these matter more to the lover of narrative than they do the lover of achievement.

This division is most starkly evidenced in the sometimes subtle, sometimes stark, differences between wine criticism and wine writing, which I’ve discussed before. But it goes beyond that. It’s a difference in worldview. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong (though that might necessarily be the view of those that most vehemently inhabit the hierarchical world), nor that a given consumer of either sport or wine may not shift allegiances from time to time, but rather a reminder that our experiences of wine and sport are not always based on a common set of assumptions.

The Brewer’s art

[pig’s rear end]Grapes can be thin-skinned. So can critics. To their great credit, winemakers usually aren’t. As with any other producer of a critique-able product or work, they’re the constant recipient of feedback, both good and bad. The good can go to one’s head, the bad to one’s heart, but the majority of winemakers take it pretty much in stride, accepting the fundamental truism that taste in all things is personal.

Oh, there are some exceptions. Angry rebuttals in the press, lawsuits, dogs set upon visiting critics as they exit their rental car. I’ve had a few run-ins myself. And even the most mild-mannered winemaker can be pushed beyond their limits by what they perceive to be a particularly egregious slight.

But at least critics know to expect this sort of thing, given what they do. Consumers don’t. It didn’t used to matter, but in this evolving age of many-to-many communication, the consumer who voices an opinion becomes as much of a potential target for retribution as any critic. Perhaps even more of one; a winemaker may not wish to burn a bridge to a powerful critic, but an everyday consumer might be dismissed without a second thought.

Not long ago, the denizens of one of the web’s various wine fora got into a discussion about Brewer-Clifton, a well-known producer of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. As with any robust discussion, there was both positivity and negativity, and a full range of opinions was aired. But I’m sure no one expected what happened next.

“You have received this notification from Brewer-Clifton because you are a registered user or you or some other registered user requested some information for you from our store.

Dear [name redacted],

Your profile at Brewer-Clifton has been deleted.”

This reads as it looks. Step one: criticize Brewer-Clifton in public, or at least appear to do so. Step two: get dropped from their mailing list.

Putting aside the dubious sensibility of shedding customers in a flailing economy, Brewer-Clifton had three choices when faced with public criticism. One, ignore it (the path chosen by almost everyone in the wine world). Two, respond to it (a path with its time-sucking and image-destabilizing dangers; only those with quick wits, faster fingers, and a taste for the arena usually survive this sort of thing unscathed). Or three, punish their critics.

Did they choose wisely? Not in the view of some of those dropped, some of whom hadn’t even criticized the winery or the wines, but instead had been critical of the scores accorded the wines by famous critics. As one dropped customer objected:

“Of course, I was not referring to BC or their wines as ‘a complete joke’ but rather referring to The Wine Advocate’s lazy review [of] their wines.

It’s important to note, after the fact, that those deleted have reportedly been reinstated. But what went on here is worth examining a little more closely, because it has fairly profound implications for the open and collaborative world of wine commentary into which we are decisively moving.

What was behind Brewer-Clifton’s move? Simple pique. Read for yourself (both excepts edited for clarity):

So I decided to call Steve Clifton to see if this was the case. He returned my call about ten minutes later and indeed confirmed that my post was the reason. Steve went on to explain to me that these kind of posts on wine boards are extremely hurtful, and that because it’s a bottle of wine doesn’t mean that there aren’t real people behind the scenes, and if I don’t like the wines why should I be on the list?

“A complete joke” is what led Greg Brewer to terminate me from Brewer-Clifton’s mailing list. He felt like if I, or anyone really, thought the wines of Brewer-Clifton were a complete joke then why would that person want to be, or deserve to be, on the mailing list?

As pointed out by some, including one of the above-quoted victims, everyone was within their rights here. People were free to say anything they wanted about Brewer-Clifton, short of actionable defamation. Brewer-Clifton was free to drop anyone from their mailing list, for any reason they could come up with. And in an earlier world of wine communication, that’s where the story would have ended. Except, of course, we’re no longer in that world.

As it turned out, everyone else knew what Brewer-Clifton was up to while it was happening. Some, even those that counted themselves fans of the winery and their wines, weren’t too happy, and their relationships with both soured. In the end, despite the reinstatements, the move counts as a minor PR disaster for the winery, for they have now set as an apparent condition of receiving their wines that one may not engage in public conversations that the winery principals find disagreeable.

I, for one, reject that standard, and while I don’t enjoy Brewer-Clifton’s wines, I do appreciate wines from the related Palmina label. This new situation calls my support into question, and I am most certainly less likely to choose those wines in the future. The winery is free to act as they will, and so am I, by my lack of future support. (As a consumer only; a critic’s responsibilities are somewhat different.)

But all these personal acts of retribution and counter-retribution are insignificant in the face of the greater danger they pose to the very nature of many-to-many wine communication. The new paradigm has positives and negatives, but one of the of the unquestioned benefits is the free flow of a wide stream of information. Whether for good or ill, someone with information is going to bring it in front of the public.

In the world that Brewer-Clifton apparently seeks, this flow of information can no longer be trusted. People may post their experiences with Brewer-Clifton’s wines (or the winery itself), but they may now only post positive reports, lest they risk losing their access. The information stream is tainted. It is no longer reliable, which is always a danger, but in fact it is now worse: it is actively untrustworthy.

Think about what this means for an entity like CellarTracker, which trades on its community of tasting notes and ratings. Think anyone who values their presence on the Brewer-Clifton mailing list is eager to post a negative review or score now? Don’t count on it.

The effect will be no different than if one of the winery principals or their hired guns were to “spike” the database with hyped-up notes and ratings…an action which I suspect few would endorse. But in a sense, I suppose Brewer-Clifton has done something awfully clever here. Because rather than fouling the waters themselves, and paying the price, they’ve gotten their customers to do it for them.

Which makes it all the more important that they, and any other winery that tries the same trick, suffer equivalent public shaming. It’s the only defense the consumer has against such practices.

Untangled & unencumbered

[wrestling statues]There’s a saying borrowed from academe that’s broadly applicable to the world of wine chatter, which I’ll paraphrase:: “the reason the arguments are so intense is that the stakes are so small.” And so the tempest in a decanter created by a pair of blog posts (here and here, some aftermath here and here) isn’t all that surprising. This is about as juicy as wine scandals get: accusations of hypocrisy, of ethical breaches, of abusive moderation, of plain old jackassery, all laid at the altar of the high priest of wine criticism…maybe someone should film it with a shaky hand-held camera. Perhaps with a few gratuitous shots of flatulent dogs.

It’s an interesting conflict, no doubt, but the more worrisome component of the controversy is the shaky foundation on which it rests. In the comments that follow the two blog posts, and on the linked forum thread, there’s a persistent but passionately-expressed insistence that the root of the problem is bias, whether actual or potential.

This is ridiculous.

I’ve written about this before, and at length. And while this will be an opportune moment to revisit some of those arguments, the current brouhaha offers an additional perspective.

Note: this essay deals primarily with critics, not with writers in general. I’ve explained the difference in detail here, and almost all wine communicators engage in both, but a shorthand way to differentiate the two is: writers inform, critics judge. Bias, even if one accepts the argument that it is bad, is largely irrelevant when considering the primary work of the writer. If interesting or useful information has been communicated, then the writer has succeeded, whether or not bias plays a role.

Are biases disqualifying? It’s very easy to answer this one: if they are, then there can be no such thing as a critic, because everyone has biases. Everyone. Preference is as natural a human quality as breathing. To be sure, self-awareness is necessary; beware the critic who tells you that they lack bias, because they’re lying to you and – more importantly – to themselves. Transparency is equally crucial. With the widespread adoption of the internet, the only actual limit on it – the lack of a ready venue in which to be transparent – has been eliminated. It would be to the benefit of everyone if all critics made a habit of publishing their biases for all to read. For they most certainly have them.

But this is a bit of a diversion. People who complain about bias aren’t, believe it or not, actually concerned with bias. They’re concerned with entanglement and encumbrance. For example, there’s obviously no functional problem with a critic who prefers Zind-Humbrecht to Trimbach as a result of their internal biases, but there is a problem with one who either is, or believes herself to be, unable to express the opposite viewpoint due to personal or economic pressure. It’s completely natural to prefer Sancerre blanc to Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but it’s potentially* problematic if that preference is compensated outside a journalistic revenue stream, and it’s even worse if that compensation is anticipatory.

[Colleoni statue]*I say “potentially” in the first case, because it isn’t clear that all forms of compensation would be problematic. Accepting an invitation to speak at a world conference on sauvignon blanc would seem to be OK. Accepting an invitation to speak before the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre is probably still OK, as long as there’s no attempt to control the critic’s message for the purposes of marketing. Accepting an invitation to write marketing copy for the Society for the Promotion of Sancerre? Most definitely problematic under some ethical schemes, though the society’s use of the critic’s published work for that purpose would obviously be fine, subject to the rules set down by the critic’s publisher and the principles of fair use and copyright as they exist in the relevant realms.

For those who haven’t thought much about the issue, the obvious solution is to remove all potential sources of entanglement. In other words, a sort of enforced asceticism, though with free-flowing alcohol. Pushed to its ideal (that is, purest) form, that would mean cutting off ties between the critic and all winemakers, importers, marketers, distributors, sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs, other critics, etc.

The problems with this level of retreat from real life are obvious. From a practical standpoint, the acquisition of wines to criticize (especially hard-to-source wines) becomes very difficult without contacts in the industry, and the acquisition of knowledge with which to better-characterize the objects of criticism becomes nearly impossible. (There’s an expansion of that argument here.) A cynic will wonder how often requiring quasi-monastic professional existences – especially when the divorce is from the field that a critic loves so much they’ve decided to make it their life’s work – is successful in preventing lapses. Consider: much of the fun of wine is sharing it with like-minded enthusiasts. Must the critic eschew relationships with enthusiasts who have themselves become entangled with any commercial aspect of wine? It would seem the safest bet, because entanglements can exist via third parties, yet who makes wine their career other than its greatest enthusiasts? Lacking the ability to make contact with other enthusiasts, the critic’s life is a lonely one indeed. Loneliness can lead to resentment. And isn’t active resentment of the subject of criticism a far more dangerous bias than having lunch with Olivier Humbrecht?

Ah, but what about restaurant critics, one might ask? Some (certainly not all) cloak themselves in anonymity, avoid all situations at which they might encounter chefs or restaurant owners, and dine on their publisher’s dime (although these days, said recompense rarely covers the entirety of a critic’s work). What’s wrong with that model?

First of all, restaurant critics are the only critics asked to take these steps on a regular basis. In no other field of criticism is this level of separation, and in fact outright deception, required or expected. Second, anonymity rarely works for long (if at all), as the photos of allegedly unknown critics hanging in restaurant kitchens all over the world will attest. And third, does anyone think that restaurant criticism is a clear order of excellence above and beyond that of other fields? If the answer to that question is anything other than an enthusiastic “yes,” maybe it’s worth questioning how much value enforced separation and rigid constraints bring to the consumer.

A caveat: I’m not arguing that there isn’t obvious potential value in anonymity (which is just a particularly obvious version of enforced separation), as anyone who remembers Ruth Reichl’s visits to Le Cirque knows. But the value of pretend invisibility is limited, both by time and by effect. Of far, far more importance is that the critic be good. Being anonymous will not help a lousy critic become more useful to the consumer. Nor will being free of all possible potential conflicts of interest.

Given all this, it seems obvious that the real question is not whether a critic has biases, or even if there are entanglements and encumbrances, but to what extent they affect the work. This, incidentally, is why revelation and transparency are more important than impossible-to-achieve independence; the reader can, with knowledge that contextualizes a critic’s work, make an informed judgment as to that work’s worth. Thus, a compromised critic will not escape detection, even if consumers’ reaction to that knowledge will differ. More importantly, a judgment as to a critic’s quality will be made primarily on the quality of the work, rather than suspicion and rumors of actual, perceived, or imaginary conflicts. What matters is not why a critic lauds a wine, but that said praise is of utility to the consumer. (This is all laid out in greater detail here.)

[sagrada familia crucifix]And now, the new perspective on this well-worn (at least by me) issue that I promised several hundred paragraphs ago. It’s useful to ask whence the motivation to demand absurd levels of purity comes. I think it comes from a fundamental understanding of what critics do. They are, very simply, paid to opine. That’s it. They may, in the course of their opinion-mongering, do other things – which is why most critics are more properly identified as hybrid critics/writers – but when they’re paid to be a critic, they’re paid to critique. To render judgment. To offer an opinion.

Opinions, judgments, critiques…they’re all 100% subjective. Full stop, end of story. There may indeed be greater value in informed opinion, but the inherent subjectivity of a critical judgment is unassailable. I don’t think that some consumers understand this. There often appears to be a belief – and reading the comments in the above-linked blog posts and forum threads shows that this belief is widespread, though (revealingly) no one can agree on the specifics – that there is some sort of “more objective” version of an opinion that is made less likely by the existence of bias or entanglement. This, too, is nonsense. The opinion swayed by externalities is no more or less subjective than the pure and honest one, even though it’s different. So if there’s a desire for less subjectivity, it’s a futile one, because what’s asked is impossible. All the consumer can expect of the critic is to tell the truth and to say what she actually thinks.

In addition to an ongoing conflation of two conflicting ideas (objectivity and subjectivity), there’s a misunderstanding of the preparation and mindset fundamental to the non-accidental critic. Accusations of inexorable bias (“certainly a critic can’t judge wine X fairly if they’ve had lunch with the winemaker”) rest upon a foundational assumption that the critic is unaware of these potential sources of conflict, that they will inevitably come as an insoluble surprise to the critic, and that they will thus lead to unavoidable compromise. This assumption is particularly insulting as it appears to think or expect very little of critics. Any smart critic knows all this going in. Any ethical critic has thought about, is thinking about, and will continue to think about these issues and their chosen responses to them. Any good critic will make it clear to both consumer and source where their boundaries are. Again, transparency helps: while critics are revealing their biases, they should also detail their practices.

A sensible consumer would not presume a predilection towards corruption. Instead, they’d conclude that a critic has thought about these issues and deals with them on a daily basis. That to the extent possible given the realities of her career, she will try to act ethically and honestly. That she will not lie to consumers in order to gain advantage over them. That she will not act unethically in order to gain advantage from her suppliers or her publishers. And so forth. These conclusions will be tested and retested in an atmosphere of natural suspicion, to be sure, but it is rather obnoxious to assume, without evidence, that a predilection to unethical behavior is beyond a critic’s control. One does not create a being of pure ethics by encaging that being in some sort of procedural deprivation chamber. The motivation to ethical behavior cannot be imposed from without, but must be generated (and regenerated) from within. If externally-imposed ethics were entirely or even largely effective, there would be some societal evidence thereof. There’s not, except to the contrary.

Another note: publications most certainly can impose their own ethical restraints on critics. This is a contractual arrangement, voluntary in both directions. But these days, they’re more often an attempt to address the concerns of the consumer, not the work itself, for all the reasons I’ve detailed above.

In fact, most critics would laugh – albeit with a certain sadness – at the assumption that their loyalties could be bought, no matter what anyone else suspects. By taking on the role of a critic, they’ve taken on the potential (and inevitable) conflicts even before they’ve published a single word of criticism. They’ve accepted that they must deal with those who will attempt to corrupt them and those who will always believe them corrupt. And they’ve understood that their work will be judged in such a way that subverting their judgment to external influences can only damage their integrity and their reputation. Critics who have sold out – and they exist – always pay some sort of price. But it’s unfair to make ethical critics pay it along with them in a futile attempt to satisfy impossible preconditions.

As I’ve said with more precision in my essays on ethics, objectivity, and independence, the search for a visible armor of incorruptibility is a hopeless one. Not only because ethical behavior is an internal, rather than external, property of the critic, but because it’s not what the consumer actually wants. The most ethically monastic critic is not necessarily the best critic, and vice-versa. Surely what the consumer really wants are skill, efficacy, and utility. The endless focus on bias, on entanglement, and on the appearance of or possibility for conflict distracts from the key question a consumer must ask of any critic’s work: is it useful?

Update: The always-eloquent Jancis Robinson, who is (aggravatingly) better at what we do than any of the rest of us, offers her own thoughts on this issue. And I note with some pleasure that, for the most part, she appears to agree with me.

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