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The meme remains la même

[biking sculpture]The future of wine writing is not blogging.

OK, so now that I’ve pissed off just about everyone likely to be reading this, let me explain…

The world of wine, and especially the world of wine writing, benefits from a multitude of voices. There’s no doubt of this. One of the least important but still sad effects of the ongoing (though long-inevitable) decline and fall of newspapers is the loss of the wine coverage that usually precedes their demise. Winemaking regions derive special benefit from vibrant, locally-focused coverage, but there’s plenty of value to be found elsewhere. In my own market of Boston, for example, there’s barely any wine writing to be found. Nationally, Food & Wine no longer has a wine editor. (Why not just call it Food?) I could go on…

Many think the “2.0” version of the web, long in ascendance if not always in fulfillment of its hype, will replace what’s been lost. There are reasons to doubt this, which I’ll iterate in a moment. But more importantly, this lays the burden of hope on the wrong recipients. Blogs (or tweets, or whatever else that might follow) aren’t going to replace newsprint wine writing. But bloggers might.

Confused yet?

In terms of creating a collaborative, multi-directional wine experience – the promise usually trumpeted by proponents of Wine 2.0 – bloggers are actually rather late to the party. Wine fora have played in this realm for a long time:, the wine communities on CompuServe and Prodigy, the original Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group, the Mark Squires forum (now part of the all-powerful eBob empire), and on and on.

Over the many years of their existence, a few things have been learned about the potential advantages and disadvantages of much-hyped 2.0 era. For example: while some of the fora were “communities of equals,” others worked on the expert model. The latter proved to be the stickier of the two concepts. The former are especially prone to splits, offshoots, declines, and all the normal trends and lifespans of online communities, while the latter provide a consistent draw, even as participants come and go. It’s now clear that to hold a community together over the long term, it helps to have a draw aside from the community itself. For while a community can provide great value (especially given quality contributors), the seemingly inevitable human desire for authorities has remained more powerful. This is a slightly dismaying outcome, but the numbers don’t lie.

Corollary to this, both types of forum tend to attract and/or develop their own authorities, and from this a second lesson can be drawn. Authorities are a mixed blessing, because while they bring elevated value to a community’s knowledge, they skew the discourse of the community from many-to-many towards several-to-many or one-to-many. Moreover, they’re especially prone to lead an exodus as that authority grows, for reasons both good (a desire to monetize their utility) and less so (conflict between competing authorities). People point to blogs and other, newer media as an exercise in social communication, but what’s the actual draw of a successful blog? First and foremost, it’s the authority or authorities that helm it. Without them and the audience they create, the community that coalesces and participates would form elsewhere. And were the community uninterested in authorities, they’d be on a community-of-equals wine forum. Since the numbers show that they’re not, there’s good reason to believe that, whatever they say, they’re still interested in some sort of authority…maybe not as the entirety of the meal, but at least as the centerpiece of the dish.

Additionally, while the value of fora is often professed to be the collegiality of its participants, their actual success or failure relies more on the more tangible benefits it provides (which, in the case of wine communities, means information about specific wines, regions, producers, and businesses). Collegiality is unhelpful when no one can answer a question, and as a result people naturally gravitate towards communities of greater expertise. That swell of numbers is followed by an increase in tangible value, which in turn attracts greater numbers, and so forth. Similarly, a decline in information leads to a decline in participation, and vice-versa. Wine fora have not proved immune to Darwin. Again, the lesson that can be drawn by blogs and other divergent forms is that while collegiality, community, and population matter, it’s the quality of information that matters most.

But the success of a blog is not measured by its population, at least not in the way a forum’s success is. Yes, success is measured by traffic – and comments matter – but the physical format of a blog places far greater importance on an original post than the comments that follow. Most of the really successful blogs are one-person shows, more or less. In comparison to a wine forum, then, a blog is actually less egalitarian by its very design, whatever the intent or motivation of the host. (Twitter is a little different, but comes with certain inherent limitations of its own.) So again, we return to the essential element: the blogger him- or herself. As Johnny Carson once said regarding the success or failure of late night talk shows, it’s not about the style or the guests, “it’s about the person behind the desk.” He could have been talking about blogs.

[man blowing glass]The trajectory of successful bloggers is, largely, a common one. From tentative and overtly humble beginnings, with success and greater access comes greater authority, a willingness to take risks and be controversial (or a deliberate choice to do so; controversy is always good for traffic) from the perspective of an outsider, and finally an assumption of authority and controversy from the perspective of an insider, as an acknowledged authority. (Sometimes, this leads to problems, but not always.) The progression from voice-in-the-wilderness to authority and leadership is a change that happens to the blogger, not the blog, and will be reflected in an historical survey of the posts. For those whose primary publication outlet is a blog, it’s nearly always true that early entries will be modern, blog-style posts (pithy, link-ridden), but that later entries look an awful lot more like traditional print columns. They’re longer. They’re more authoritative and declarative. They educate or provoke, but at greater length, and yet with less elaborate justification for each point of potential controversy; authority is assumed by the writer. Sometimes, actual journalism – research, sourcing, fact-checking – creeps in, born of both desire and necessity.

This is all to the good, by the way. There’s a place and a future for the sound bite format, to be sure, but as a different kind of webslinger once learned, with power comes responsibility. This is no less true for bloggers than it is for journalists in other media. In fact, the maturation of the wine blogosphere demands this evolution if it is to supplant or be coequal with, rather than aspire to, the power of other forms of media.

These days, the most successful bloggers of all get to move on. Not that they abandon their blogs (though some do), but rather that they gain access to other media. Newspapers (such as they are in these times), magazines, even books…the final step in new media success is often measured by joining the old.

Or at least, that has been true up until now, and may continue to be true for a while yet. In the future? It’s hard to say, especially given a rapid rate of technological and societal change. My suspicion – and it’s based on little more than a hunch, though one founded on several decades of experience in different forms of new media – is that it will change. New media will develop its own measures of success that render irrelevant those of the old media. (This, I hasten to add, is hardly an original thought on my part. Though it may be an overly optimistic one.)

So why, then, do I say that the future of wine writing is not the blog, but rather the blogger?

As noted earlier, there’s hardly a difference between the most successful wine blogs and the most successful print wine columns; other than the physical format, they look and act pretty much the same (and of course, most print columns are read online anyway). The one major difference is that almost all blogs lack an editor. Editors can be a mixed blessing, to be sure, but as the format continues to mature, the lack of them is going to be an issue for someone. Controversy is all very exciting, but inaccuracy (and worse, defamation) can be permanently damaging, and sooner or later someone’s going to pay a price for doing something that a good editor would never have let them do.

But the thing with professional editing is that it costs money. As, it’s important to add, does wine blogging. At the very least, someone has to pay for server space and traffic. Then, as authority and success brings their accordant responsibility, the need of a blogger to explore their subject more deeply and/or broadly increases; this, too, is not without cost. Ads help, but as everyone in new media knows, they’re rarely remunerative enough to support the rigor of actual journalism. Until that changes, blogging remains primarily a hobbyist’s pursuit…which, incidentally, is exactly the situation print wine writing has found itself in for some time. Only a tiny, tiny number of bloggers and print wine writers can actually support themselves by writing about wine. However, there’s a difference: as more and more print writers disappear, things actually improve for the few that remain, but as the number of bloggers increases, competition for already-insufficient ad money will only escalate.

[sagrada familia detail]For any new media to take that last step to dominance of a category, someone’s going to have to pay for it. For now, a combination of ads and crossovers to old media are the patchwork covering the problem. That won’t continue. Will bloggers continue or improve their work, even if they’re losing money? Maybe some will, out of altruism or thanks to a hefty personal supply of otherwise-sourced funds (a/k/a a “real job”), but the lack of remuneration is no less damaging to the category than it is in the print world. First because it makes valuable authority available only to the otherwise wealthy (the effects of which can be seen rather clearly in the world of print wine criticism; just count the number of lawyers and doctors), and second because it reduces the quality of discourse by putting a cap on the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge that brings enlightenment to wine writing, whatever the medium. Authority matters. Knowledge matters. Experience matters. None are free.

The success of the blogs-and-beyond world of wine coverage has been presaged by the fractalization we’ve already seen among critics. What started with just a few voices entrusted with the vast general-interest audience has become a growing chorus of focused coverage from dedicated enthusiasts: Allen “Burghound” Meadows, Peter Liem, Parker’s new gang of hires, and so forth. This will continue, and more importantly will broaden to include writers, rather than just critics. Blogging in particular is ill-suited for comprehensive criticism of the type to which we’ve become accustomed, but it’s perfectly-suited for writing. Which is, by the way, what most of the best wine bloggers do, in lieu of standard criticism.

That said, blogs aren’t comprehensive. In fact, they can’t be; no one authority can, in our dizzying modern world of wine. A fanatical single-subject blogger may be able to provide quality coverage of that subject (whether it be a region, a grape, or some other field of interest), but it’s more likely that a subject of interest to a given audience must be surveyed across a wider selection of blogs. And if, as is even more likely, the audience has other interests than that single subject, this task increases. A connection must be made between blogs and their potential audience, but – like editing – marketing costs time and money. It is one thing to read Peter Liem’s blog for interesting Champagne commentary. It is a very different thing to read fifty blogs in search of similar information. And it is yet another thing to read 100 blogs in search of commentary on the full range of wines and subjects that interest an audience. Almost no one has that sort of time, especially – as noted earlier – as the content in which they’re interested broadens, deepens, and lengthens thanks to the ever-increasing skill of the bloggers.

This is why blogs themselves aren’t the future. The success of old media wine journals and most of their new media successors is intimately connected to their one-stop-shopping format, in which all available content is presented in a single location (be it physical or digital). But the necessary and desirably-expanding cloud of bloggers, all with something interesting to say, is – from a practical standpoint – impossible for anyone but the unemployed to find and follow, even with the best aggregators and filters.

Choices will have to be made. And those choices will be made based on the interest and authority commanded not by the blog format, nor by the appeal of new media or 2.0-era community coalescing around content, but by the source of the content: the bloggers themselves. In fact, the very expansion of authoritative blogging that leads to this revolution will act in opposition to its collaborative aspects, for given that time is inherently limited, a reader that chooses to participate is giving up an opportunity to read something else, and vice-versa.

In other words, the larger part of the audience will flock to authority, just like they’ve always done, and the focus will be more on that authority than on communitarian corollaries. The ever-evolving network provides interesting and worthwhile tools that old media lacks, but it does not change this fundamental principle. Fully collaborative environments exist and are of unquestioned appeal – at the very least, they’re better than their lack – but people still want their gurus. As before, the numbers don’t lie.

Or, as I believe someone may once have said: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The I in wine

[merchant sculpture, venice]Does arrogance go hand-in-hand with professional criticism?

In response to my recent musings on Robert Parker and his anti-engagement style of online discourse, one of the nicest wine-loving folk I know wrote, after several paragraphs of worthy comment, this rather provocative coda:

Thin skin is a tough play in the wine critic game. Arrogance, even worse.

The latter characterization is something I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years. Because it must be said, almost every professional (which I’m defining as paid) wine critic I’ve ever met has a discernable arrogance. Including, though it hardly needs to be reiterated for anyone who knows me, myself.

Now, it’s true that some handle their arrogance better than others. The most successful seem to employ one of two techniques: a passionate humility in their non-critical life, or an equal measure of self-deprecation that usually, but not always, takes the form of humor. I wouldn’t argue that most critics are off-puttingly arrogant, though some certainly are…but still, the character is there in virtually everyone who plies the trade.

Why? Well, I think there are actually two different questions therein. First: is arrogance an essential part of being a critic? And second: does being a critic make one arrogant (or increase that quality, if it already exists)?

I’m afraid I believe the answer to both is yes. Everyone has an opinion, but a paid critic is compensated for theirs under an assumption that others will subordinate their opinions to the critic’s. Otherwise, what market would there be for a critic’s opinions? The critic will succeed or fail based on the perceived value of that subordination (or, sometimes, just because the critic is an unusually entertaining communicator), but the basic fact of a critic’s professional existence is one that puts their judgment “above” that of others. Moreover, to even want to be placed in such a position in the first place betrays a core confidence that one’s opinions can be judged more worthy than others’. The cognitive leap from that to the definition of arrogance looks a lot like standing still.

And if that arrogance somehow isn’t there to begin with, the process of criticism seems to bring it out. Anyone who’s been a fan of the most successful bloggers as they’ve risen from obscurity to compensated fame can see the process at work. Exploration becomes knowledge. Knowledge becomes authority. Argument for the sake of knowledge acquisition becomes argument from authority. Questions become statements. Statements become accusations. What was independent becomes establishment. None of this makes the blogger less successful – in fact, it seems to escalate fame, which is a phenomenon I’m not going to explore here – but it does affect their interactions with their audience.

The only defense is self-examination. Constant, relentless, and even harsh self-examination. Without it, there can be no mitigation. And without mitigation, trouble inevitably ensues. Oh, I could tell embarrassing stories about that

(Another time.)

One caveat: I’d argue for a separation between arrogance as a character trait vs. arrogance as a way of dealing with the rest of the world. They often go hand-in-hand, but they don’t have to. Someone may state their opinions in a voice of unimpeachable authority (earned or not), but they don’t have to be a bastard about it. Staying on one side of that line seems to me to be the key difference between tolerable arrogance and insufferable arrogance.

Unfortunately, the immediacy of the internet brings out the worst in many inherently arrogant types. There’s no time for self-examination when someone is wrong, after all. Many critics have the self-awareness (often coupled with a lack of time, which can be very helpful in this regard) to use the internet in what I’d call “safe” ways – one-to-many communication, like blogs – rather than as a participant in opinionated free-for-alls, like online wine fora.

And those that don’t? Well, sooner or later they get into a lot of trouble. And they behave very, very badly at times. I could undoubtedly fill the next few hours with stories from my own past, but let’s leave lower-tier critics out of this for the moment, and head right to the top. Guess who?

Oh my….in their blind tasting of 2004 (I have no affiliation other than one tasting I do for Howard and Bob each year,but like the professionalism of their tastings)……another “evil” wine blew away the competition…and very noteworthy ones at that….that anti-“terroir” “transparency” creation…..Lascombes looks to have had a sure-fired great showing….of course let me say it before The Usual Suspects chime in….it won’t last…won’t improve…just a terribly bad wine that people actually like to drink and makes friends for all of Bordeaux…that a do…

Now, I could be as snarky as usual and wonder how someone who is paid for their words can be so persistently incoherent, but then again we could all use an editor from time to time.

I could also spend a while explaining the background of this quoted post, but there’s probably no need. The intent should be clear even if one has no idea of the details. What makes it worse is that it was a thread-starter. Given the identity of the critic who posted it, everyone on that forum is going to click on the thread to read it. And then…what? What contribution is being made here? None. It’s not even an argument. It’s finger-pointing (mostly the middle one) in text form, for no reason other than to – yet again – mock unnamed interlocutors.

Is arrogance to blame here? Well, that’s part of it, yes. There is an obvious implication in this and so many other posts from the same source that what’s most important is not that his criticisms be useful or even right, but that they be acknowledged as right. However, to me, that isn’t arrogance. That’s an inexplicable inferiority complex covered up with arrogance, unfiltered by what my commenter referred to as “thin skin.” And it remains unworthy of the critic in question.

Look, I don’t want to turn this post – and especially not this blog – into a bash-fest over one particular critic. We all have our faults, and some of us put them on display a little more frequently than we’d like. But here’s a plea meant for all of us who do any sort of criticism: remember what’s actually “important” about what we do. It’s the work. Not us.

Don’t taste with me, Argentina

A long-ago story on Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino blog about tasting Argentinean wines with a critic from The Wine Advocate is more a little horrifying, and has me thinking. And, it seems, ranting. So what else is new? A better question: how did I miss this when it was first posted? I don’t know the answer to the latter, but the recent publication of the notes in question brought the story to my attention….and so, better late than never, right?

There’s been some hand-wringing in the wine consumer sector over Dr. Jay Miller’s work in The Wine Advocate, mostly due to his very high scores and sometimes breathtaking aging predictions. I’m not so much interested in that argument, because a critic can do whatever he or she wants in this regard. For me, he’s overly enthusiastic and prone to wild-eyed guesses that only blind optimism can justify, but so what? I’m sure he’d argue I’m far too critical, and who’s to say who’s right? Criticism is subjective, and will always remain so.

However, I have a number of more fundamental reactions to the piece in question:

1) “The setting was actually the Argentine Consulate in midtown Manhattan.” (Dr. Vino)

I don’t think it’s necessary for a critic to go to “the source” (the wines’ place of origin) just to render a judgment. The reason to go is to learn, which helps place wines in their cruicial contexts, and since this is a somewhat groundbreaking expansion of Argentinean coverage in (arguably) the most important publication in the field of fine wine criticism1, I’d like to have seen Miller visit Argentina along the way. His boss Robert Parker came under criticism in the past for doing report after report on Australia (and, if I remember correctly, Spain) without having visited either, though I believe that has changed.2

The counter-argument, which I’m sure many would make, is that all that matters is the wine itself, and that visiting only leads to psychological entanglements to fight off at the time of tasting, distractions that allegedly get in the way of critical truth-telling. But an ethically serious critic doesn’t deal with such facile definitions of objectivity (and in any case, the PR agents that were present would have been far more interfering than winemakers, who are generally far less intrusive), and from an organoleptic standpoint one simply cannot deal with wildly different expressions of grape, terroir, and winemaking as if they were all one. They’re not. A Paso Robles syrah is and always will be different than an Hermitage, and for a critic to pretend that they’re applying the same critical standards to each is willfully misleading.

So did Miller visit Argentina? Well…

2) “This tasting was just one aspect of my Argentina review which will ultimately involve a trip to Mendoza to taste at wineries.” (Jay Miller, in the comments)

“Miller has never visited Argentina (at least on official wine tasting business) but expects to early next year.” (Victor Honoré, in response)

The article has already appeared. So someone is lying. (Or, to be charitable, circumstances may have intervened that prevented a planned trip…but in that case, it would benefit Miller to say so in the same string of comments, lest people be led to the uncharitable conclusion.)

3) Dr. Vino is surprised that the tasting wasn’t organized by variety and style; Miller conducted the tasting by producer, apparently following the lead of the agents who set up the tasting in the first place. There are merits to both sides, and in large format tastings I prefer Miller’s approach here, though for a different reason: it helps combat palate familiarity, which I view as a debilitating component of palate fatigue. However – and this is important – I don’t rate wines. If one is tasting to rate, and thus tasting “competitively,” there’s something to be said for tasting in peer groups, and for not having to artificially attempt to adjust one’s reactions to, say, a sauvignon blanc tasted after a chardonnay and another tasted after a merlot. There’s concurrence on this point in the comments, from Dr. Debs of the Good Wine Under $20 blog (“I have to say that I don’t mind tasting by producer, because I find I have less palate fatigue that way. But–and its a huge but–I don’t claim to be objective, or assign points to things. If I were, I would taste by varietal [sic], so as to be able to make sure the syrah I just gave an 95 to was actually in some way/shape/form better than the one I gave a 90 to just a few minutes ago. How do you keep your standards consistent. When I grade student essay exams, I read all the answers to one question and grade them, then the next question and grade them. Makes sense, keeps me honest, comparative, and focused.”)

In any case, we’re not done with the issue of palate fatigue. Stay tuned.

3) “At one point [Dr. Vino] lamented the quantity of wines and [Miller] replied “well when you’ve been working for Bob Parker for 25 years, you’re used to it. He did not offer in what capacity this was although he only started as a critic last fall.” (Dr. Vino)

That Miller has written for and tasted with Parker for a very long time is not a secret, though his official and public position as a critic for The Wine Advocate is a fairly new one. But it’s a secret that is not as open as I suspect it should have been, and has caused a lot of speculation over the years. Parker went to some lengths to reinforce this point after he hired Miller, but it’s a little strange how much in the realm of rumor and whisper this relationship was in the days previous to that announcement. I, for instance, constantly heard it in the context of Parker owing his entire palate to Miller (on which I should note: even if it was true at one point, and while I have no way of knowing I kind of doubt it, Parker has long been his own man, and so it’s neither true nor relevant now).3

4) “But I report on this since I had little idea about the specifics of how tastings happen at the influential Wine Advocate. I didn’t know they were organized by producers or their agents. I didn’t know they were not tasted blind and were tasted by winery, not style. And I was surprised at how we basically had no discussion about the wines themselves, essentially having our own separate, parallel tastings. Maybe that’s because he didn’t know me but it could also be that it’s uncomfortable to talk about the wines in presence of the third party PR person, even if she did repeatedly ask for Miller’s instant evaluation.” (Dr. Vino)

It’s important to not generalize here. Different critics at The Wine Advocate take different approaches. It’s also important to highlight the non-blind nature of some of that publication’s tastings, because I think many consumers are misled on this point.4

I’m surprised that Dr. Vino didn’t know how many of The Wine Advocate’s tastings were arranged by interested third parties. One famous and highly-invested Bordeaux consultant set up tastings in that region for Parker for years (and may still do so; I’m out of touch with practices there), without major public objection…though I’d note that this is not a subject that is often discussed, and probably equally unknown among the general public. And were this knowledge more widespread, I think many would object more strongly. This is inevitable blowback from making great issue of one’s objectivity and ethics vs. other critics, because there is always something that can be called into question by consumers who have an overly idealistic and unrealistic expectation of what is meant by “independence.” (See, for example, the comments to the original post: “Wow. So we’re left to assume that Parker doesn’t taste blind, either. Sounds really objective…” and “that is absolutely fascinating. and scary. […] at least the spectator claims that it does at least the first round of its tastings blind.”)

As for discussions, I’m on Miller’s side here. One of the things I hate most when tasting wine professionally is to be asked – by fellow tasters, by uninvolved consumers, but most of all by interested parties in the production and trade realms – what I think of the wines. First, I think that discussion leads to the integration of reactions other than one’s own, and a consumer of Miller’s or Dr. Vino’s (or Iverson’s) tasting notes is not looking or paying for consensus involving any other party. Second, the opinion is evident in the final result (the publication); this isn’t physics where showing one’s work is important or valuable, except in assessing the critic…and that’s something that’s not easily done during the tasting process. Third, and perhaps most importantly, talking wastes time. It’s important to remember that, for a professional critic, this is work, not a social wine occasion. I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Vino doesn’t know all of that, only that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find it exemplified in this particular tasting.

5) Finally, and most dismayingly, there is a rather shocking bit of head-in-the-sand denial on Miller’s part regarding the important issue of palate fatigue.

“The palate fatigue argument, frankly, is total hogwash. The principal difficulty for amateurs is maintaining concentration, mental fatigue, not physical fatigue. Someone mentioned doing no more than 12 wines; that’s 30 minutes work. You taste, you spit, you write a note, taste again, spit, add (or not to your note) and on to the next wine. When you’ve had practice doing this, it’s simply not difficult.” (Miller)

Shorter Miller: it’s what I do, therefore it must be immutable law. And if you can’t do it, you’re not at my level.

“The quantity of wines that you are able to taste is, indeed, prodigious. Did you follow the interesting series of articles on about the science of taste? The author reports on his discussions with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He said it’s impossible to taste dozens of wines in rapid succession and not suffer olfactory fatigue and that anyone who claims otherwise is claiming to ‘defy biology,’ as he put it. Although a critic might think that his sense of smell is still acute after sampling 40 Cabernets, his impressions at that point are being formed less by the nose than by past experience, visual cues (such as the color of the wines), and perhaps also tactile sensations.” (Dr. Vino)

“Sensation and Perception” and “Psychophysics” were part of my academic studies way back when (I got my my [sic] doctorate in 1972 and took that class (or classes) in the late ’60s. While I have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gestation, I learned enough in academia to take findings in this field with a grain of salt. There can be significant differences between theory and practice. There are still, I’m sure, issues involved in presenting stimuli in a consistent way and in the need to use trained observers (and the biases that go into that). Don’t get me wrong, they’re valid fields of study, but in terms of practical application, forget about it.” (Miller, emphasis mine)

Note that he claims authority in this field, his second dalliance with a classic logical fallacy. But then there’s the rather breathtaking statement highlighted in the quote. He notes (see below) that he has not kept up with the science in this field…in fact, his knowledge in this area is almost forty years out of date. That’s forty, not four. But that doesn’t matter to Miller, who claims to know more than the scientists anyway, just because…well, why? Because he’s Chevy Chase Jay Miller, and they’re not? So, here’s a willful dismissal of science, plus a refusal to even attempt to change one’s personal triumph of belief over evidence. Miller should run for president. Or sub for Stephen Colbert.

“As a wine blogger, I am extremely interested in the research of Wysocki and other experts, much as I am interested in the science associated with wine closure and the science related to organic viticulture. It’s unfortunate that anyone tasting wine on Mr. Miller’s level is willing to ‘have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation.’ As an academic, it is wise to take any findings with a grain of salt; it is not wise to ignore current findings. I will be taking Mr. Miller’s conclusions about wine with more than a grain of salt in future, given his comments here.” (Dr. Debs)

“To Dr. Debs, I can just see myself pouring [sic] through the journals after 35 years (in areas that weren’t even my specialty). My time is much better spent tasting wine. Just out of curiosity, though, I’d be interested in how you think I’d be a better wine critic if I kept up on pyschophysics, olfaction, gustation, etc. As it is, I probably know more about those subjects than 99%5 of those writing about wine. I think you’re just blowing hot air. (Miller)

So, even though he just claimed authority in these subjects in order to “win” the argument, now that he’s been called on that bit of BS he’s moved on to claiming that this field wasn’t his “specialty”. And then he claims more expertise than all but 1% of wine writers (which, I assume, would be the 1% who have, at the very least, read the Slate article, which doesn’t even require being up-to-date on the science behind palate fatigue, only basic literacy). So is Dr. Miller an expert, or not? We don’t expect those whose familiarity with computers ended with vacuum tubes or punched tape to guide us on cutting-edge chip design or the multi-touch interface, do we? In any case, if he can’t be bothered to keep up with the research over a period of forty science-filled years, I think I know what the answer is: he’s no expert, though he might like to play one on the internet when it allows him to attempt bullying legitimate questioners into silence.

But sure, there are indeed better uses for his time. Why read, or learn, or visit Argentina, when he can taste wine with an instrument (his palate) that he apparently doesn’t understand, and spend the rest of his time insulting his audience.

1 I’m exempting Wine Spectator, which is dominant in the broader world of wine, but generally considered less “important” among high-end consumers.

2 A busy critic can’t go everywhere or cover everything. There’s too many wines, and there’s simply not enough time. However, to be as informed as possible about a specific subject, a critic has to visit and taste in situ. A critic owes that to him- or herself, first and foremost, even before their duty to their readers.

3 And yes, I realize this is a sleazy way to bring up the rumor while dismissing it, sort of like what political campaigns do when they want to keep their candidates’ hands clean. I really apologize for doing so, because it’s not my intention to bring the sleaze or even the innuendo, but I think contextualizing the previously-understood (or previously-misunderstood) relationship between Parker and Miller is important in understanding why Miller’s “working for Bob Parker for 25 years” comment will strike many as bothersome, or at least curious.

4 Does it matter? To some people. For me, all that matters is whether or not you trust the critic to be fair (I don’t believe a critic can be objective, at least not in the hair shirt sense that many consumers believe). Whether the wines are tasted blind or not is far less important than a sense of ethics and fairness, and that those senses are perceived by the audience.

5 As if we needed more evidence that 71.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Where critics fear to tread

[map]As I predicted the moment I finished tasting the wines, posting notes on a Washington Wine Commission tasting led to an angry blowback. Mostly from one impassioned winemaker, but also from a few anonymous snipers. As I know this sort of thing gets passed around amongst otherwise busy wine industry folk (“can you believe this guy?”), I’m sure I haven’t yet heard the end of it, either.

There’s nothing surprising about this…in fact, it’s the norm for critics of all stripes. If there’s one blessing about the wine field, it’s that the criticisms tend to be coherent and well-written, rather than the incomprehensible gibberish that, say, music critics receive on an hourly basis; I know, I’ve been one. Other than a few letters to the editor, the general public doesn’t usually get to see this sort of thing. But that’s all different now that everyone and their sister has a blog. Unless comments are turned off (and frankly, that’s not a terrible idea for an opinion-monger), everyone gets to see the criticisms, the counter-criticisms, and (usually) the arguments that follow. Though others may disagree, I tend to believe that transparency is a generally positive thing. So if I post notes, and there’s a consensus out there that I’ve missed the boat, I think it’s worthwhile to have that response where readers can see it.

In case you’re wondering – and you’re probably not – there are actual consequences to criticism, and not just those claimed by those whose products are being criticized. Critics get uninvited to tastings when they post negative notes. They lose access to resources – winemakers, PR agencies, trade commissions – which can be very helpful in “getting it right,” or at least getting a broader picture; this lowers the overall quality of wine criticism, but it’s probably an inevitable result of the necessarily antagonistic producer/critic relationship. I doubt, for example, that the WWC will be eager to invite me to their next Boston event, and I doubt a lot of cellar doors will be open to me on my next trip to Washington. It can even make everyday life difficult, as criticizing a local restaurant or retailer makes it very, very difficult to patronize that establishment (which, in the latter case, makes it hard to buy wine). And it can get even worse. Though it seems hard to fathom, I’ve actually received physical threats over things I’ve written. So has my family. It’s an ugly world out there, sometimes, with some ugly people in it. Thankfully, this WWC-related tiff (and I should note that, at least to my knowledge, I’ve heard nothing from the fine and generous people at that commission) was nothing like that. It was just regular old criticism, which almost seems like a relief when compared to other possible responses.

So how did I know that there would be an angry mini-mob after I posted those Washington notes? Well, as long-time writers know, there are three critical “third rails” in the wine world. One is Champagne, because those massive marketing and advertising budgets have to count for something. “What is the source of your personal hatred for Veuve-Clicquot?” cried one devastated agent after a negative review…not even in print, but on an online wine forum. (Answer: I don’t have a personal hatred for V-C. I just don’t think the wines are what they should be, and the yellow-label Brut is incomprehensibly popular given its low quality.) The second is any critic more successful than yourself. Because you will be accused of jealousy, and of insufficient experience, and both the human shields and (too often) the critics themselves will snippily crush you like an insignificant bug on their way to another few months of mutual back-slapping. It’s simply not worth it, and in any case no one cares about critics critiquing critics except…critics. Talk about inside baseball…

And the third? The third is domestic wine. Outside of Champagne, you can write anything – no matter how harsh – about a foreign wine, and only on a rare occasion will you hear a complaint harsher than “well, I liked it, and I think you’re wrong.” But criticize a domestic wine, and you will hear from everyone. The criticism will sometimes be personal, but even if it’s not, it will be defensive and more than a little angry.

So why is that? Well, part of it is an ongoing reaction to years of “European wines are better because they’re better” sniffing from critics around the world. And that’s understandable. No one should seriously question that domestic producers are capable of making truly world-class wine, or that many of them already do. Too many don’t, but that’s no different than anywhere else. However, very few critics actually make that claim anymore, even subconsciously. A lot of the defensive response from the domestic wine industry is actually rooted in attitudes that are, for the most part, of the past. Which is not to say that there aren’t still Europhile palates out there…after all, I’m one, and the East Coast is rife with them…just that critics, even if they’re Europhilic, have a duty to be fair to wines they don’t necessarily like. And I think, for the most part, they fulfill that duty. Oenophilic anti-Americanism should be a non-factor, but in some cases we’re still waiting for the producers to catch up.

Another part of it is because too many critics aren’t actually critical. Especially with writers local to wine regions, the appeal of boosterism is difficult to ignore (though there are many skilled exceptions). Some publications even insist on it; I’m writing for one now, for example, that doesn’t want too much negativity in its pages (which might explain why so much of it ends up here). Local cheerleading is helpful because it doesn’t pit you against the people you’re going to see on a daily basis (and that you’ll need to see to do your job well), and it can lead to book-writing opportunities, which is one of the very few semi-lucrative outlets for wine writing. Plus, as noted earlier, being critical is a reliable way to be cut off from the gravy train of samples, meals, trips and other largesse. Given that a large number of critics make this choice for entirely understandable reasons, it’s not surprising that the ones that are actually critical stand out like a very sore thumb.

But there’s something else at work, too, and I’ve never been quite sure how to identify it. Some domestic winemakers and winery owners just can’t seem to abide any criticism. Is it the classic American sense of entitlement? An oddly anti-capitalist over-personalization of the market, where the product becomes conflated with the person, and thus criticism of the former is incorrectly taken as criticism of the latter? Is it somehow related to the high prices of domestic wines (which, given equivalent history and quality, often sell for much more than their European counterparts…discounting currency effects, of course, though even then American wines are expensive), wherein so much money is riding on each bottle that negativity is more keenly felt? I don’t know, and I’m not going to play armchair psychologist and guess. All I know for sure is that it’s a known phenomenon, and I (and, one presumes, other critics) deal with it every time I’m negative about a domestic wine.

There’s more to this issue, too: the nature of criticism, the purpose of negativity, the use and abuse of language. But this is already far too long for a blog post, and so I’ll have to leave those issues for another time. Meanwhile, I’ve got angry correspondents to deal with.

The myth of independence

It seems self-evident that some measure of independence is crucial for any critic. Exist there many who would trust an employee of a firm to objectively review the products or practices of that firm? The same is also true of the writer, whose narrative musings must be recontextualized if they have a foundation that is not principally internal.

However, independence is very much a matter of degree, and it can be successfully argued that true independence is unachievable if one’s goal is informed, effective writing. Just as complete objectivity is a myth, so too is the notion of the unencumbered and unentangled critic.

What is independence?

Independence, in the context of wine writing, is freedom from encumbrance and entanglement with the subject of said writing. There is also the corollary implication of independence of action; the independent writer is not bound by restrictions on their work from any source, including parties unrelated to the subject. An truly independent writer is free to inquire, free to explore, free to opine, and free to express, all without restriction.

One can immediately see many of the great problems inherent in this definition. But first, it might be valuable to examine the myriad ways in which a writer can be “dependent” (that is: less than fully independent.)

Forms of dependence


This goes beyond the most obvious case, that of a writer employed by a wine-related firm being asked to review the products of that firm. That is a situation that few would trust, and though it is a frequent component of marketing materials, it is fairly rare among actual wine writers. But economic entanglements come in many forms: partners, investors, financial relationships not specific to the product in question, subsidiary relationships (for example, an employee of a winery’s public relations firm, or their dentist), etc. Those writers who are employed by wine producers and related businesses usually avoid this conflict on a situational basis, simply avoiding their own products in their work. When it is clear that a writer is employed by, or otherwise economically entangled with, a product about which they’re writing, it is almost always a safe assumption that their work is either pure marketing, or must at least be viewed with a most suspicious eye.

Of course, merely avoiding the products of the entity that signs one’s checks isn’t necessarily enough. For example, can a producer of a product successfully review competing products? Is it fair for them to do so? Many would argue that it is not. But what is the definition of a competing product? Must a producer of Oregon pinot noir avoid just their own products, other Oregon pinot noir, all Oregon wines, or all the world’s pinot noir? (This example, as many will understand, is not selected by accident.) It is fairly easy to argue that a competitor should not review the products with which they are in competition, but what is far less easy is defining what is and isn’t in actual competition. By one admittedly expansive definition, all wine would fall under this heading, thus making it impossible for anyone involved in the production, transfer or sales of wine to write on the subject. And as I’ve just written, it would be entirely justifiable to take this suspicious view.

But here’s the counter-argument: with the goal of informed criticism in mind; entities intimately involved in the creation or sales of wine are often the most informed, well-tasted sources. Why unnecessarily restrict their ability to share their knowledge? To put it in more personal terms: can anyone trust Kermit Lynch on the subject of wine, or is the line of demarcation drawn between wines he is selling and those he is not? Corollary with that question, who is a more authoritative source regarding wines that Kermit Lynch sells: Kermit Lynch, or a writer of unknown provenance? It’s easily seen that the answers to these questions do not lead us to the same place. Perhaps a different solution must be found.

It seems to me that the problem actually arises when one attempts to draw bright lines. Is it OK to sell wine, but also write about it? Is the necessary limitation there that the writer not mention their own products? Is a writer then prevented from selling a wine that they loved and wrote about, just to preserve the appearance of independence, given that even a retroactive retraction of their commentary puts no genies back in (wine) bottles? Or consider a producer of a wine-related product (let’s say a synthetic cork) who also writes? Are wineries who employ that cork off the commentarial menu? How about wineries that were pitched but rejected the cork in favor of a competitor? Or return to the aforementioned Oregon pinot producer. His reviews of pinot noir might indicate certain stylistic preferences, preferences that could naturally be assumed to be reflected in the wine he helps produce. Would that not lead those aligned with his critical judgments to be especially interested in trying this unnamed wine, resulting in increased sales? Is that not the specific sort of dependent entanglement that should be avoided if independence is a worthwhile goal?

As the examples flow, they seem as increasingly absurd to the realist as they do worthy of examination to the idealist. The contradictions pile higher, the number of people independent enough to be unencumbered dwindles. Betwixt the contradictions, however, some solution must be found. And perhaps bright line-drawing is not it.


This category of dependence includes familial relationships. Even though the daughter of a winemaker may not herself make wine, her relationship to the winemaker is problematic and unlikely to allow true independence. And it extends to neighbors, friends, and even acquaintances. It is in the latter category that we find the issue of most relevance to wine writers, for it is exceedingly rare for a writer to proceed through their work without interacting with owners and employees of the entities they cover. Since wine people are, in the majority, highly decent types, it is inevitable that many of these relationships will be amicable, occasionally developing into outright friendship. How does one independently examine the work of someone that one likes or admires, of a close acquaintance, of a friend? This is tied up with the thorny dilemmas inherent in objectivity and negativity and their applicability to wine writing, but it also applies to the concept of independence, as the cost of truth may be the relationship itself. That is a dependency. Or worse, consider a revelation: a winemaker revealing some secret to a writer without specifying it to be in confidence. Does the right to know trump the pleasure of the relationship, or vice-versa? And in either case is the writer actually acting independently if they must weigh that decision while writing?

Obviously, the opposite case – an antagonistic personal relationship – can also affect independence, and in a similar fashion.


On this, there’s much more to say in the essay on ethics, but ethical challenges can also lead to dependencies. Ethics may be imposed from without, as in the case of a journalist bound by a publication’s strictures (on this, see more immediately below). Or they may be internal, leading the writer to positive or negative choices that restrict their independence. An example of this might be a writer who will not cover the wines of a certain producer, region or country for political, religious or historical reasons. A writer who chooses to focus on a niche is not suffering from a dependency (yet), but one who feels ethically drawn towards avoidance is.


One might also call this procedural dependency. The classic example, as indicated above, is the journalist constrained by the ethical code of the publication for which he or she is writing. Those outlets are few, these days, but they do exist, and writers who work for those publications should be held to their standards.

But matters may be more general than adherence to written codes. I once wrote for an editor who believed that anything that cost more than $15 was insensibly expensive, and I was strongly discouraged from writing about wines above that threshold. Even then – many price increases ago – it was a rather meddlesome limitation, and it was necessary for me to disregard (in print) entire categories of wine; important categories essential to understanding and contextualization, especially since my goal was education rather than the provision of shopping lists. But whether by suggestion or by enforcement, this was a restriction on my independence…an article on, say, Burgundy, or even Champagne, was simply out of the question. Other restrictions on independence might include issues as simple as word count, perceived audience (“writing down to the audience” is endemic among mass-market publications) or locality (avoiding the mention of wines not proven to be currently available in a local store). In each case, the writer is restricted and limited. This is not to argue that such restrictions may not be necessary in a specific writer/publisher dynamic, or even to argue that such restrictions are unquestionably wrong, only to point out that they do affect a writer’s independence.

With all these dependencies (plus those not iterated here), it seems functionally impossible for a writer to remain truly independent. In theory it remains a possibility…albeit a remote one, for one major reason I will soon iterate. As a matter of practice, however, no critic is actually independent.

Let me repeat that, since it’s a bold claim: no critic is independent. Dependencies, relationships and limitations can always be identified. Always. Independence, then, is simply a matter of degree. At which point, the burden falls on the writer to decide how much independence they want or need, and on the reader to decide what level of independence they require from a writer.

All about the Benjamins

The belief that full independence is an unquestioned good leads, as with misguided notions of objectivity and ethical purity, to unreasonable and unachievable expectations on the part of the reader. This is an important point, and thus worth examining in some detail.

The one inescapable requirement for complete independence is significant wealth. Without it, a writer simply cannot avoid entanglements with all facets of the wine trade. (This presumes that the writer is interested in expanding their knowledge; a writer content to work in ignorance can be as independent as they want at any economic level…but they will never be useful to anyone else.) A writer with enough money can purchase all the wines necessary for building organoleptic and intellectual context, while others less economically-blessed must either do without or rely on alternative sources. This becomes a more restrictive limitation with each yearly increase in the price of wine. A writer with enough money can visit any wine region they wish to visit, while others will have to forgo such journeys or accept ethically dangerous junkets. A writer with enough money can arrange face-to-face meetings with important, knowledgeable people in the wine industry, while others will have to accept limited access or take advantage of press-focused opportunities sponsored by the industry. In each case, the choice is tripartite: the writer pays, someone else pays, or the writer does without.

It’s true that the fraternity of wine writers is rather overpopulated, in comparison to society as a whole, with lawyers, doctors and other highly successful and wealthy people looking for a second career. This is especially true in the United States, where rather more of a fetish is made of independence from entanglements with the wine trade. But it seems profoundly anti-egalitarian to make this a virtual requirement for wine writers by insisting on some semi-mythic ideal of independence. No other critical endeavor with which I’m familiar is burdened by this expectation (in fact, in many fields the situation is rather the opposite: critics tend to be severely underpaid in comparison to the creators of the works they review).

So what is the non-wealthy writer to do? Accept profound limitations on their ability to learn, to grow as a writer, to contextualize their experiences with a broader and deeper range of knowledge, and to write with ever-increasing authority? That’s one path, though it’s hardly an estimable one, and it will definitely not lead to a more economically representative mix of informed wine writers. Alternatively, one could come into sudden wealth, perhaps via the lottery or a wealthy great-aunt’s will. But in the end, the only sensible choice is to accept a certain measure of dependence.

The educational value of access to, say, winemakers is immeasurable. A writer who wishes to improve must have access to that education. And words are not enough; any winemaker can best illustrate their knowledge via actual liquid examples, and a writer needs to also be a taster to do their job effectively. Once this has been done, the fact is that the writer has lost a bit of independence by drawing their knowledge from a winemaker rather than from their own independent study. This can be mitigated by greatly increasing the number of winemaking sources from which a writer obtains knowledge, but since winemakers frequently disagree, and since it is impossible that they are all right, at some point the writer will have to make an informed choice. A decision. An alignment. The freedom to make that choice is independence, but what follows from such an alignment is a diminishment of independence. A dependency, in other words.

A non-wealthy writer must, if they wish the widest context and opportunity possible, accept samples in some form. The restrictions the writer places on such acceptance will be a matter of personal ethics, but there is just no alternative unless the writer wishes to remain generally uninformed. This, inherently, forms a relationship between the writer and the various parties who provide samples: wineries, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and public relations agencies. And it is another form of dependence. (Some entities will refuse future samples to a writer who has earned their ire, whether by actual negative press or by unwillingness to trade coverage for product. Most, to their credit, won’t. But it does happen, and any writer who starts down this path must understand this. Dependent relationships are inherently unstable.)

Some, including a few prominent wine critics, will immediately decry this solution as unacceptable. As with the issue of anonymity, one suspects that some are misapplying the ethics of restaurant reviewing to wine, while others are blithely and hypocritically dismissing their own dependencies to better criticize those practiced by their competitors. It’s also worth examining the ethics that govern other genres of criticism. In general, music critics do not purchase the albums they review, and they are showered with promotional items and other swag along the way; neither do they pay to attend concerts. The same goes for literary critics, who receive books free of charge. Theater and film critics don’t pay for their tickets, get special access to stars and directors, and attend events and junkets at the expense of producers/PR agencies/marketing firms. All critics of live performances get preferential seating. In fact, almost all product and event reviews are done with the assistance of free samples…except for restaurants, and then only at the few publications who subsidize a restaurant critic, and even then only successfully at the very few publications wealthy enough to subsidize enough repeat and representative dining to ensure fairness and proper context. (Think, for example, how much four dinners at Per Se must cost The New York Times. And that’s just one review.)

There is one shining mass-market exception to all this: Consumer Reports. But there, the monetary issue must be reintroduced into the equation. CR takes a monetary risk by purchasing (and then reselling, which is not an option for a wine critic) the often-expensive products they review. What if the audience won’t support the activity with their subscription dollars? They would be forced into one of three options: stop, accept free samples, or accept advertising (the publication version of coming into wealth). Their ethics and practices are laudable, but they are also nearly unique in the universe of critique. That, all by itself, is revealing. Even semi-similar publications like Cook’s Illustrated don’t have to purchase fifty mid-size sedans solely on subscription profits. A dozen containers of olive oil for a taste-off aren’t quite the same economic burden.

The knowledge-seeking writer should also consider taking advantage of travel opportunities. It is simply not possible to learn as much about wine in the comfort of one’s home as it is in the cool humidity of a producer’s cellar, or amongst the vines. But the junket has obvious dangers, not least of which the undoubted expectation of coverage in return for such expensive generosity (an expectation buoyed by the simple fact that many writers do feel an obligation, and others are blithely unconcerned with the quid pro quo), and there is also the issue of philosophical independence to consider. A particular trip might be engineered to convince writers of one firm’s position on a controversial issue, thus gaining “friends in the press” and advocacy for an opinion; for example, the cork industry has spent a good deal of money in this fashion, in an attempt to beat back the largely positive press coverage of alternative closures. And given the number of times that junkets are rewarded with coverage in the popular press (it turns out that much automobile journalism proceeds from junkets, for example), the problematic nature of these trips is thrown into stark focus. Nonetheless, the benefits can be substantial, and must be weighed against the risks.

Trust but verify

It seems that there are no easy answers here. A writer who practices true independence must be wealthy or contextually handicapped. A writer who allows dependencies is surrounded with the temptations of compromise and inethics. And there is still no chaste writer, anywhere. So: what, then?

As with the thorny issues of objectivity and ethics, the only effective solution is internal. A writer must practice and hold to their philosophical and intellectual independence despite the myriad temptations to do otherwise. A writer must communicate this independence to their reader by their actions and opinions as revealed in their work. And when a writer is compromised, there must be full anticipatory disclosure.

This does not mean an endless litany of potential dependencies must attach to every word the writer puts into print. No one has the time for or an interest in such a practice, even if they think they do. A successful writer could spend years writing disclaimers rather than writing about wine. That is insensibly counter-productive.

What “anticipatory disclosure” of compromise means is simply this: if there is an event or an unusual relationship that is likely to affect the focus, opinion, or intensity of a piece of writing, it is in the writer’s best interests to disclose it. If the wine was poured at winemaker X’s wedding anniversary party, disclose it (and mention the reason that the writer was invited to such an event in the first place). And though it should go without saying, economic relationships must always be disclosed. Samples are ubiquitous enough among writers that I think the effort to disclose their source each and every time is wasted verbiage, though others may disagree. Readers should assume, in the absence of commentary to the contrary, that most writers taste a mix of purchased and free wine from various sources. On the other hand, if the largesse is a special case – a bottle gifted due to a personal relationship between a winemaker and a writer – that should probably be disclosed. Junkets are sufficiently lavish in their supply of both wine and non-wine freebies that I think coverage that flows from them should be disclaimed.

For the reader, as with questions of ethics it simply comes down to a matter of trust. The signs of a writer working as independently as possible are clear with a little insight, while a compromised writer is quickly seen as a charlatan by nearly everyone. And it’s also important to remember that writers are readers as well, and will collectively shun those among them who demean the profession by their inethics. Writers, too, must play their role by constantly working to earn that trust by their intellectual and philosophical independence. But, ultimately, what allows an atmosphere of independence among writers is their audience. The active, interested participation of consumers creates a demand for experienced, knowledgeable and skilled writers. Without that audience, there would only be marketing. In which there is little hope of independence.

What is a tasting note?

A tasting note is an impression frozen in time. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It is one person’s opinion at one particular moment. It is a one-night stand.

It is not an objective assessment of the wine’s past, present and future. It is not Holy Writ. It is not a communal judgment, and does not represent some Zagat-like conventional wisdom. It is not a poll. It is not “wrong.” It is not a personal attack, or indeed to be interpreted personally in any fashion whatsoever.

It may or may not be an invitation to dialogue. The note itself may be all the dialogue its author intends. Alternatively, the note may instead represent the author’s dialogue with the wine. It may or may not be reflective of an overarching philosophy. Sometimes, a note is just a note. It may or may not be consistent with previous notes. Wine, despite the best attempts to industrialize it, remains a variable and living product.

What is a good tasting note?

If it pleases the author, it’s a good note. Nothing is more destructive to the purpose of tasting notes than the demands of others; neither descriptors, nor data, nor formatting, nor points and other qualitative shortcuts should be imposed upon the author from outside.

Notes may be structural, as exemplified by the methods taught to candidates for the Master of Wine examination, wherein the components of wine are systematically broken down to aid in analysis and identification. Notes may be organoleptically iterative, in the manner of modern North American wine writing – “laundry lists” of fruits, vegetables, flowers, rocks, etc. – or they may be as austere and ungenerous as the wine they describe. Notes may be metaphorical, comparing the experience of the wine to just about anything in the realm of experience, including anthropomorphism. Notes may be fanciful, reflecting the joy inherent in the beverage. Notes may be contextual, comparing one experience to another or giving the wine an active role in a real world narrative. Notes may be educational or informative, carrying the weight of experience and the power of data collection with every word. Notes may be a ranking and a justification thereof.

Indeed, notes may be all, any, or none of these things, and will still find their audience. What an audient should not do is insist that all critics compose notes to their preference. Critics are – usually – not prostitutes. On the other hand, requests, sensibly justified, are acceptable. (Similarly, critics should not insist that all winemakers create wines to their preference, but it is acceptable to express those preferences in the context of criticism when those preferences are supported by reasoned discourse.)

What is a useful tasting note?

A useful tasting note answers three questions:

  1. What is the wine?
  2. What are the critic’s impressions of the wine?
  3. What are the reader’s likely impressions of the wine?

1 requires that proper notation be observed. There are many paths to correctness, but undue abbreviation is not one of them. 2 has already been covered herein. 3 requires communicative skill on the part of the critic. Around this point revolves the fundamental different between a good note and a useful note; the former is free to ignore the consumer, the latter must not forget the consumer.


At times I attempt to compose good notes, and at times I attempt to compose useful notes. Sometimes, I attempt and achieve both, but I do not always make that attempt, and do not always achieve that goal. Sometimes, I fail in every manner possible. When forced to make a choice, I choose good over useful. Accuracy, however, is a must, and I will go to certain lengths to assure it; corrections are always welcome.

The philosophy of wine criticism

Millions of words have undoubtedly been written on the meaning and practice of criticism, and I have no intent of adding to that din beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, it is worth a few moments to explain what I view to be the philosophical basis of wine criticism, in an attempt to support what will be said elsewhere on its ethics and its practice.

Why criticize?

Because it is in our nature. We are creatures of emotion, and we are creatures of opinion. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked. That we are also creatures of communication seems to me to inevitably lead to the practice of criticism. At every moment of life, we exercise judgment – here, for example, I decide to employ one word over another via a judgment that one is better-suited to my needs – and we communicate that judgment in ways both internal and external. Externally-focused judgment is simply the expression of opinion, and that is the basis of criticism, which is merely a formalization of that inherent human trait.

Why not criticize?

We are creatures of emotion because we are creatures of feeling, and judgment can be difficult when you or your work are its target. Yet this, too, is fundamental – not necessarily to our beings, but to our society – for without judgment there are no standards, and without standards we cannot advance and improve in ways that are meaningful and helpful to us as people. Nonetheless, the most common objection to criticism is that it carries the potential for emotional damage. This is unquestionably true, and an inevitable fact of criticism, but it is not enough to invalidate the practice.

Why critics?

You know the saying: “opinions are like [maligned body part]…everybody’s got one.” This is true. On the other hand, there is also this (frequently attributed to Harlan Ellison, but probably not original to him): “everybody doesn’t have the right to an opinion, everybody has the right to an informed opinion.”

Some will see the latter statement as unduly elitist. They are no doubt correct, from one point of view. Another group will see the former condition as insufficiently rigorous for utility; informational anarchy. They, too, are correct from one point of view. The critic inhabits the world of the latter group, though this may or may not be his audience. It is true that anyone can criticize, but it is not true that anyone can criticize with equal authority, and it is definitely not true that anyone can criticize with equal utility. The uninformed opinion can be emotionally satisfying to its source, but only by accident can it be useful beyond its author. There are several reasons for this.

The informed and authoritative opinion can exclude by the very means of its expression. This is because most fields of criticism have developed their own communicative traditions. The language of wine criticism is rife with terms and modes of expression that are undoubtedly impenetrable to the casual and uninformed reader. This is something the careful critic will consider, though whether or not it informs their work is a personal decision. On the other hand, it virtually guarantees that an uniformed opinion will stand out as such, because the terminology and syntax are unfamiliar, unless the critic is making a deliberate effort to eschew jargon…which is itself usually obvious.

Adding to this is the issue of context. Authoritative criticism becomes so by its ability to contextualize information and opinion. There is scientific basis for this: when studying the brain activity of wine professionals vs. complete novices in response to the act of tasting wine, the differences found by researchers are not emotive or sensory, but analytical and associative. The expert and the novice “taste” the same things, but the expert has the ability to put those sensory impressions into meaningful language, and they have this ability because of experience and the contextual authority it provides. (This is an extremely positive finding for the wine novice, for it suggests that the majority of differences between them and any given expert are not necessarily matters of inherent sensory skill, but rather of training, and that achieving expert status could be a mere matter of learning and practice.) The novice, lacking this contextual ability, can only respond to an object of criticism on a more purely emotive level.

This level of response has, somewhat uncharitably, been called “caveman” criticism. What this means is the basic, gut-level responses of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” that form the foundation of criticism become an end in themselves, and are not expanded upon. The populist and democratic appeal of this notion is undeniable, but of what use is it? Unless caveman number one and caveman number two have identical tastes, or one is willing to subordinate their tastes to the other, nothing of utility is communicated. This is unsatisfactory. A critic must ask, and answer, “why?”

It follows, then, that for a critic to be useful he must communicate judgment and opinion with some measure of authority. This means some measure of academic study, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be institutional (one cannot confuse acidity and tannin and be an effective wine critic), it means broad experience in tasting a variety of wines and wine styles, and it means the ability to separate the objective from the subjective and communicate as much of both as is necessary to support a criticism. It also means accepting and embracing the fundamental nature of bias. Incidentally, none of this invalidates the broad field of amateur criticism; this is not a plea to “leave it to the experts,” but rather a roadmap to improved criticism at all levels.

It also follows that a critic must be effective at communication. An unreadable criticism can be forgiven if delivered in an unfamiliar language, but otherwise is virtually useless. The mode of expression can and should differ – no one style will satisfy every audience – but the true intent of the author must be on display and comprehensible to the consumer of the information. This is much less about spell-checking or grammar than it is about clarity; a work of criticism can be as prosaic and scientific or as metaphorically fanciful as one wishes, but at the end the reader should be able to say, “yes, I know what that critic wished to communicate about that wine.”

Why not critics?

Because everybody has their own taste. Critics serve an important function in a world with almost too many options, but can never and should never replace or supersede one’s own judgment. This is why wine writing is such a crucial adjunct to wine criticism; the consumers of criticism must have the opportunity to develop their own analytical and authoritative responses to wine, and pure critics rarely fulfill that role. But beyond critics and writers, there exists an infinitely more crucial source of information: personal experience. A successful critic becomes so by the breadth of their context, and a successful consumer becomes so by similar practice. To use critics effectively, one must taste as widely, as deeply and as analytically as possible in order to properly contextualize the information provided. Paradoxically, this reduces the need for reliance on critics.

This is, in my opinion, not a bad thing.

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

There are few in the world of wine communication who do not dabble in both the broad-spectrum field of writing and the focused practice of criticism. Yet it’s remarkably easy, given any list of well-known names, to separate the critics from the writers. Why should that be? And does it matter?

Wine writing

The writer has (theoretically) complete freedom. Wine writing can educate, on subjects running from basic to arcane (an oenology text, for example, is a type of wine writing), it can tell a story (in the first- or third-person), or it can employ the full range of subjective literary tools to make and support an opinion. In wine, as in any specialist field of communication, it is often necessary to practice criticism within a given narrative so as to educate, tell, or opine more effectively. But writing should not be mistaken for criticism, which it too often is; the intent is different, and the outcomes are different. There is much acrimony in the world of wine that stems from this simple misunderstanding.

Wine criticism

While the definition of criticism would seem to be obvious, there is nevertheless a lot of confusion on the part of the audience as to its purpose, ethics and practice. See the other end of those links for much more on this subject, but for now let this shorthand definition serve: the critic’s role is to critique. Anything else is subordinate.

Critics vs. writers

Robert M. Parker, Jr. is a wine critic. Jancis Robinson is a wine writer. To this, readers will undoubtedly respond, “but Parker writes long essays in his books, and Jancis is constantly publishing tasting notes.” This objection is valid, but doesn’t change the facts: Parker’s primary output, and the work on which his name and reputation have been built, is criticism. Robinson’s primary output is educational, with occasional forays into opinion (and one autobiography). The difficulty in this distinction arises when one tries to compare, for example, Parker and Robinson on the primary merits of only one of them…inevitably finding the other to be lacking in some fashion. This is unfair, and worse it is wrong-headed. Their roles are different, their goals are different, and the demands of their respective professions are different, yet specialization in one field does not preclude them from having skill in another.


To the extent that such distinctions are useful, I am primarily a wine writer. In terms of word count, on the perhaps unreachable day when all my work is finally available on this site, that will be seen to be clearly true. But I do indeed practice wine criticism, and while that distinction will be obvious when comparing, say, a narrative travelogue vs. a list of wines with descriptions, it will be less obvious with certain works of criticism. For criticism is not limited to wine, but can also apply to people, to related works, and to the act of criticism itself.

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