Browse Tag

faq

Praise

Please note that employers and titles below were correct when received; some of these people have since moved on.

I read your column with regularity and just wanted to pipe in and let you know that it’s among the most readable and unassuming writing about wine out there. I really respect what it is you try to do. Keep up the good work.

Jason Christian, Harvard University Press

 

Perhaps the rarest find in the whole world of wine is not that bottle of Screaming Eagle, Colgin or rare Montrachet. The rarest of all things is a truly fresh and intriguing voice from the world of wine writers. Thor Iverson, writing for the Uncorked section of the Boston Phoenix, is just such a voice. Independent, vigorous, and informed…Iverson is able to combine a sharp wit and an obvious depth of knowledge with a rich writing style. This is a rare talent. It reminds this writer of the work of the unparalleled Gerald Asher in Gourmet, but with more street sense. He also is able to communicate his wonder at the complexity of wine.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve made understanding the American wine press an important part of my occupation. I’ve read the work of nearly everyone in the country who fancies themselves wine writers. There are many good ones, a slew of average writers, a few very bad ones, and the occasional outstanding writer. Thor Iverson is the latter. Run, don’t walk, to his words.

Tom Wark, Director of Content, Winebid.com

 

You describe the art of enjoying wine in such a profound and philosophical manner that you elevated the simple idea of enjoying a glass of wine to a virtual art. To me the way you describe about tasting a wine is like trying to understand a Zen koan. It’s just not a search for an instant physical satisfaction but, more importantly, it’s trying to make a connection with the wine maker, the fruit, the growing conditions and it’s location.

Trung Nguyen, reader

 

One of the most witty and literate wine writers I know, Thor could teach us all how to write about wine

Robin Garr, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wine writer & creator of
The Wine Lovers’ Page, the largest wine-related site on the Web

 

Glad to see you have your NZ notes up on a website. They are nothing short of spectacular. I have never read any travel/ wine review in any format, anywhere, at any time that is as well put together as yours.

Craig Thomson, Kiwi Wine Fan Club

 

I just read through the interview and my complements to you for a great job! Very thorough and informative plus the ‘real’ Gina Gallo shows through.

Carmen J. Castorina, Director of Communications, E. & J. Gallo Winery

 

I read your interview of Véronique Drouhin with great interest. You really got some wonderful details and insights about her life, her family and herself. You are a great interviewer!

Patrick Séré, Director, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.

 

Just wanted to commend you on the article you wrote this week. I found it fair and balanced and not placating to anyone. Very refreshing!

Dan Boissonnault, University Wine Shop, Cambridge, MA

 

I’ve read your column over the past few years whenever we’ve visited and find your commentary spot on…a rarity in the wine press at all levels really.

Rob Forman, Regional Salesperson, Winebow

 

I feel compelled to put it on the record that you have consistently elevated the level of oenophilic education in your Phoenix column.

John Simon, reader

 

I enjoy your column. Since I get to see most of what’s written about wine, I know for sure that actually writing about wine is both far more interesting and more reader service than anything else.

Jim Caudill, VP Public Relations, Kendall-Jackson Winery

 

My other reason for writing is to offer some long-overdue praise for the consistently high quality of your writing. What most especially sticks in my mind is the column you wrote last year about the issues of professional ethics encountered by a wine journalist. It’s easily the best piece I’ve ever read on the subject — which, it must be confessed, is not one of the most popular and frequently discussed topics in the wine media. Even so, it was a refreshingly lucid and thoughtful essay, above your normally high standard, and I’m pleased I finally stumbled into an occasion to express my appreciation.

John J. Simon, reader

 

Anyway, I wanted to say that all of your archived articles are really nicely written — so friendly, so personal — they’re great; and they address issues that folks who like wine but don’t have much knowledge of often wonder about but usually never bother asking.

Colleen McKinney, Food & Wine Books

 

I started picking up the Phoenix again when your column started running there. It was and remains the best wine read in the Boston area.

Eden Stone, wine educator

 

I read your article ‘Buying wine by the back label’ and I want to thank you for it. I am an importer, and although I only distribute my wines in the Midwest, I welcome your opinion and its availability on the Internet. You have provided some credibility to something I tell my customers.

Ron Spears, President, Grape News Importing, Ltd.

 

I appreciate your Uncorked columns when I see them. Nice to see signs of intelligent life here and there.

Gerald Weisl, Weimax Wines & Spirits, Burlingame, CA

 

Word of your article on the Veneto rapidly reached me here in our home office. Your kind words about our wines and your attention to detail are much appreciated.

Lara Zahaba, Director of Public Relations, Winebow

 

As someone who has been following Thor’s columns since they began appearing in the Phoenix, I’d just like to add my own voice to the rest. I was quite impressed with his first few articles, which contrasted dramatically (in a very good way) with the work of the other wine writers in the local papers. I still think that his first few columns offer an excellent introduction to wine, and recommend them to beginners as a good overview.

Marcel Lachenmann, reader

 

Thanks again for the great writing, I continue to enjoy reading your articles.

Lisa Anderson, marketing representative, Corus Brands

 

I have been reading the Uncorked articles and wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your writing. I have found the articles very informative and easy reading with great information on wines. In fact, I found your site from a link only two months ago. I have since read every article in the archives.

Michael D. Hurst, reader

 

What a pleasure to have good wine writing in a local newspaper…not a common thing.

Doug Metz, managing director, Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America

 

Thank you so very much for your brilliant wine tasting class. I really really enjoyed it; it actually made not only my Thursdays but my everyday life so happy – full of expectation.

Youngjeen Cho, student

Practices & methodology

Every writer works differently. Every writer has different ethical boundaries. Every writer has a unique relationship with objectivity and independence. What really matters is not the form of these functions, but their open declaration. Here, then, is an iteration of my personal methods and practices.

  • I accept samples from any entity wishing to provide them. I have not, thus far, requested them, but am not averse to doing so should a specific need arise. “Samples” are herein defined as wine in any form: bottled and in finished form, a bottled barrel sample, or tastes procured from barrels, tanks and other containers at a winery.
  • I accept meals from entities within the wine trade, provided that the meal’s primary purposes are to taste wine and learn from more informed sources. Were I to accept a dining invitation that did not meet those criteria, it would be because I was friends with the entity in question, and I would expect to return the favor in the future. Otherwise, I would decline.
  • I am not opposed to trips paid for by some entity in the wine trade (or a national marketing agency like SOPEXA), though thus far I have only accepted one (to the Piedmont, to taste barbera and blog about it with no restriction on tone or content, for which I was not paid except with compensation for part of the trip; meals outside the event itself and other expenses not related to the purpose of the event were out of my own pocket) since I started writing about wine. For that and for any future such trips, there are two ironclad stipulations: 1) no guarantee of positive coverage, and 2) no guarantee that coverage will not be supplemented or contradicted by further research. As with meals, the primary purposes of the trip must be wine tasting and education; a trip dominated by sunning oneself on the beach is a non-starter, appealing though it might be.
  • I have accepted gifts from wineries, of wine and (very rarely) of other products. I have also, on occasion, rejected such gifts. I view this situationally, based on an assessment of the gift’s value, purpose and intent vs. the benefit it will provide. If I think the gift comes with strings attached, I will refuse it.
  • I do a lot of travel on my own, and visit wineries when possible. Sometimes, I will identify myself as an interested professional. Other times, I will not. I am not averse to writing about the differences that can result from these two approaches, and do not consider a truthful recounting of events to be unfair.
  • I am not concerned with the modern redefinition of “fair” as “giving equal weight to all sides.” I am always happy to air contrary opinions if I think they have merit. But wine writing is a non-objective pursuit, and in the end my biases are inevitabilities. If any entity considers that to be unfair…well, tough. “Fair,” to me, is being as honest and professional as possible, not a futile attempt to be objective or positive at the expense of the truth.
  • I have friends in the wine industry. I have enemies in the wine industry. I try not to let either affect my work, though from time to time intensity of feelings overcomes that attempt; a winery that feels offended by something I’ve written might not allow me to taste on their property, for example, or a particularly angry distributor might leave me off their contact list when winemakers come to town. I consider both friends and enemies to be an inevitable result of what I do, and do not modify my opinions – positive or negative – based on those relationships.

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

economic

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.

personal

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.

ethical

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.

productive

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.

The ethics of wine criticism

Wine writers are not doctors, lawyers, accountants or politicians, so any discussion of ethics is of an import several orders of magnitude below its more crucial applications. Nonetheless, ethical considerations do play a role in shaping the personality and work of a writer – and, especially, a critic – and those considerations are worth exploring in some detail.

Are ethics necessary?

On its face, it seems a silly question; of course ethics are important. But it’s worth asking: are they really? Is anyone truly harmed by an unethical wine writer?

Leaving aside the issue of the writer’s own karma, the answer is: not much, unless the writer is both unethical and malicious. To the otherwise-unarmed-with-context consumer of wine writing, there’s no functional difference in negative outcome between information based on inethics and information based on ignorance; both are entropic within the greater context of wine, but I would suggest that the latter is a much, much greater problem than the former. A parallel argument concludes with a similar lack of damage to the subject of the writing in question; again barring the presence of actual malice, ignorance and inethics are inseparably entropic. There are multiple paths to foolishness, but in the end one is still a fool.

What ethics instead provide are a framework for battling back the two actual dangers of unethical writing: malice (momentary or predetermined), and the purchased writer. Battling back, that is, but not eliminating. Human nature is such that any writer, no matter how self-professedly ethical, is subject to momentary (though recoverable) failure at any time. This is not something we should concern ourselves with overmuch, as writers remain human and subject to the accordant frailties. To expect writers to be otherwise is to desire the impossible. What should be expected is a thoughtful and open examination of ethics and consequences on the part of a writer, and frequent re-examination thereof…especially on the occasion of a lapse.

Ethics vs. responsibility

Ethics, as framed by the consumer of wine writing, are often characterized as responsibilities: the duties of the writer to his or her readers. This is a limited and ultimately incorrect view, but since it exists it is necessary to address it.

All that a writer is really responsible for are the fundamental necessities of wine writing. Consumers of wine writing are responsible for their own expectations, though of course a writer who fails to meet enough consumers’ expectations is going to be an unsuccessful writer. A writer is not responsible for the individual ethical beliefs of consumers, primarily because such standards are myriad and frequently contradictory, and secondarily because the adoption of external ethics is a poor substitute for thoughtfully-conceived personal ethics in which the writer actually believes. A writer who is primarily responsive to the external ethics of consumers will be a writer who is forever on the defensive, forever explaining and disclaiming and arguing until the writer’s own ethics are deformed by the debate itself.

A better term for what must exist in the writer-consumer relationship is trust. A consumer must trust that a writer is informed by their own ethics, and a writer must do as little as possible to strain that trust.

“The appearance of impropriety”

Formal ethical codes, and certainly those so often applied to journalists, place great importance on the external. This is done for a theoretically wise reason: institutional trust in journalism is predicated on the consumer’s assumed belief that the motivations of journalism are ultimately noble and separated from the baser passions. As a society we desire a free press, but as individual humans we are uncomfortable with the anarchy of true freedom, and distrustful of any class or group that seems to exercise it. We want journalists to abide by rigid codes of ethics because we ourselves live under various collections of codes and laws, and thus have difficulty relating to or accepting those who operate with potentially unlimited freedom. We say that ethical codes free journalists from a quagmire, but what they really do is tie their hands in a way that seems beneficial to the rest of us.

On the other hand, we can all see how well this is working out for journalists. Only politicians (who have their own extensive set of ethical guidelines, oh-so-closely followed) are viewed with more suspicion and mistrust. To repeat what I see as the key issue: the problem with external codes is that they are not fundamental to the writer. They work to eliminate environments for impropriety, but they do not address the desire for impropriety. Only a personal code can do that.

The concept of “appearance” as the problematic factor is, in itself, a widely-held and endlessly-repeated fallacy. Certainly what matters is the actual impropriety, not whatever public face one does or does not put on it. Focusing on mere appearance encourages a secretive environment of non-disclosure, which is no good for the consumer or the writer. And, as has so often been noted through scandal after scandal, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that pushes people beyond redemption. Fair consumers can forgive admitted impropriety. What they’ll rarely forgive is an ongoing attempt to hide it.

Ethics, then, must discard the baggage of externally-applied expectations of responsibility and a misguided focus on appearances, and concentrate on core fundamentals, which can be summed up in four questions:

  1. What is fair?
  2. What is right?
  3. What is truthful?
  4. How do fairness, rightness, and truth serve the aims of the writer, the consumer, and wine writing in general?

Ethical dilemmas in wine writing

Some problematic ethical areas are specific to a genre of criticism. Some are specific to journalism in general. None, however, are specific only to wine writing; what’s important is identifying the commonalities and differences between different subfields of these practices, and discerning what’s sensible in the specific discipline of wine writing. Herein, an attempt (subject to future expansion).

bias

Freedom from bias is both impossible and undesirable. This point is greatly expanded-upon here and here.

truth-telling

It is manifestly unwise for a writer to make things up. It is even more unwise to deliberately employ mistruth in the service of an argument that could not otherwise be supported. Fictionalization for the purposes of entertainment is fine as long as the practice is obvious and transparent to the reader, but any intrusion of fiction into informational or critical practice is a betrayal of the necessary trust between writer and consumer.

If a truth is negative, this does not preclude or mitigate its importance. It’s understandable if a writer wants to avoid negativity altogether, but it lessens the importance of the writing, it lessens the contribution of such writing to the general subject wine, and it leads to dangerous opportunities for the replacement of negativity with untruth. This latter impulse, especially, must be fought.

judgment with (or without) expertise

Bafflingly to some, this is not an ethical concern, but a practical and professional one. Without question, it is preferable for a writer – and especially a critic – to possess contextual expertise before issuing judgment or characterization. It is not unethical for a writer who lacks such context to do so. It is merely silly and unrewarding in its extreme forms, and of limited utility in its milder forms.

completeness

This, too, is not an ethical concern, but one of practice and professionalism. What it means is that many – consumers, occasionally, but more often producers and those who move or sell wine – want writers to have wide and deep experience with any given subject, and to have that experience shared to its fullest extent. But there remains no ethical obligation of context or expertise, and if someone who has never tasted a Bordeaux wants to issue an opinion on Bordeaux based on an insufficiently large sample, that is their right undiminished by ethical concerns. Again, however, it is poor practice and of minimal or no utility.

free samples

Of all the ethical bugaboos that plague wine writers, the issue of free samples – their existence, their acceptance, and their use – is the one that simply will not go away. This is so because certain high-profile wine critics make a great and trumpeting noise about them, drawing bright, clear lines between themselves and the allegedly unethical masses who do not adhere to their particular practices. This is unfortunate, for even a cursory examination of the issue shows that much of the debate over the inethics of samples depends on the selective use and misuse of definitions.

A free sample is just what it seems to be: wine not paid for by the writer, with the implied corollary that such wine would require monetary compensation were the receiver not a writer. Wineries and the entities that represent them supply samples for the obvious reasons: exposure and coverage. Yet a sample takes many forms, and too often some of those forms are dismissed (as inconvenient) by those who which to paint themselves as ethical paragons.

Unquestionably, a free bottle of wine is a free sample. This applies whether the bottle is opened or closed. It applies whether the bottle is shipped to the writer’s home or office, or handed to the writer by someone else. It applies whether it is poured in a convention center by an importer or distributor, by a retailer in a store, by a sommelier in a restaurant, by a winemaker or waiter at a special wine-related meal, by a tasting room employee at a winery, or in fact by anyone else, anywhere, for any reason not caused by transfer of money equal to the wine’s value from writer to provider. But it doesn’t end there. A glass, a pour, or a barrel sample at any press & trade event, winery tour, or one-on-one meeting is also a free sample; these events are seldom completely open to the public, not all wines are willingly poured for those outside the trade and press, and the level of access required for such opportunities is rarely similar to that enjoyed by the general public.

So, for example, is it correct for a writer who tastes barrel samples at wineries to claim that they do not accept free samples? Only if each and every barrel sample would be equally available to any member of the general public, and if the writer compensates the winery for those samples. Since this is rarely (never is more likely) the case, the answer should be: no, it is not. Similarly, is a writer who has region-wide tastings in a hotel room organized for them (and paid for by someone other than the writer) free of the “taint” of samples? No. For a writer to claim they do not accept free samples, the writer must pay for each and every drop of wine that passes their lips (an exception may, but very probably shouldn’t, be made for pours provided by family and friends if those wines are then the subject of later commentary). While I am open to correction on this point, I do not know any wine writer who meets the purest form of this criterion. Not one.

Obviously, a core issue is that it is very difficult for any other than the extremely wealthy to practice informed criticism in this fashion (which leads to several fundamental difficulties; see the essay on independence for a careful expansion of this point). For some writers, the way out of this dilemma is to differentiate between modes of acquisition. A writer may choose to not solicit samples – that is, to not request them – but to accept those that are freely offered. Alternatively, a writer may choose to accept samples only in certain forms: yes to press/trade tastings, no to winemaker dinners or shipped bottles, etc. Obviously, at this point the writer has abandoned any pretext on which to deny that they accept samples (no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), and is simply picking and choosing among associated ethical challenges (special access, free food) that accompany the wine itself. On this, see below.

Ultimately, the hue and cry over the existence of samples can fairly easily be shown to be a vast forest of misapprehension among consumers, grown from seeds of distrust planted by allegedly well-meaning but misleading writers who wish to highlight their ethics in opposition to others. This is an unfortunate situation. None of this is to say that the question of samples is not important, merely that it is in no way as significant as it is made out to be by certain self-aggrandizing critics.

other forms of largesse

Wine writers enjoy – if they wish to – all manner of invitations to special access and complimentary booty associated with the world of wine. Access can range from simple distributor- or importer-arranged tastings to which press and trade are invited, to lunches and dinners hosted by sales representatives or winemakers, to exclusive and rare tastings in the cellars of famously private wineries. Food is a frequent accompaniment to such events. Gifts of wine-related tchotchkes are not uncommon. And, of course, everything up to and including the much-maligned junket is available to the writer who wishes to take advantage of such opportunities.

As with samples, bright lines are hard to draw. Writers who claim to reject hosted wine dinners can often be seen nibbling on the snack trays at larger press & trade tastings, rendering their professed standards merely a matter of price and formality, not of principle. Some writers accept gifts of wine but not of, say, t-shirts; others practice the opposite standard. Junkets are particularly problematic; the nearly unparalleled opportunities for education are usually coupled with a clear and obvious expectation of positive follow-up coverage flowing from such a large expenditure, and there are enough writers that those who host such trips can afford to sift for the pliable.

All of this, however, is cause and not effect. Again, surely the crucial issue is not the form or the value of the gift itself, but the result of the gift, and how it affects the writer’s subject, approach, and conclusions. Ethical codes that focus on the former are really trying to address the latter. Yet the potential for abuse does not inherently flow from the gift, but from the inethics of the writer, and so removing the gift does nothing to modify or combat the ethical failings that produce potential abuse. In fact, it may make it easier to hide abuse under a veneer of ethical behavior. Again, we return to the material difference between appearances and actual ethics; one matters, the other is simply window-dressing.

anonymity

The cult of critical anonymity worships principally in the restaurant world, but because wine is so often associated with food, some adherents to the cult have turned their attention to wine criticism and demanded similar practices. This is a mistake.

Wine is not like a restaurant meal, where the key factors that shape it can be modified at will and in the moment. Wine – with one exception, which will be covered in a moment – is a fixed product…bottled, sealed, and inalterable by any monetarily-involved entity thereafter (except negatively, as with a distributor who doesn’t protect their wines from the damaging effects of heat). In this, it is like a CD or a toaster oven, the criticism of which requires no anonymity on the part of the critic, and the criticism of which carries no expectation of anonymity from the consumer. That is the methodology that should apply to wine criticism.

The one exception is, of course, before a wine is contained within a sealed container. A barrel sample – thieved straight from the barrel or contained within a temporary receptacle – can indeed be altered by an entity sufficiently inclined to do so. (To be completist on this point, this exception could also apply to bottled wine especially produced for critical review; that is, not part of the regular for-sale production line.) The potential abuse is in the power of the entity providing such a sample to misrepresent the product under consideration. A winemaker can pour the best among multiple potential samples, or pour an entirely different wine, for example. More nefariously, they could provide a specially-concocted sample tailored to a critic’s known biases. (A few – very few – critics angrily insist that such “critics’ cuvées” don’t exist. Usually, those critics are those with the most to lose if their judgments are called into question, or perhaps they are merely willfully naïve. In any case, the key point as it relates to a discussion of ethics is not whether or not these doctored samples exist, but that they can exist, and their potential existence applies to the only instance where critical anonymity may in fact be preferable.) There’s really no defense against this tactic except vigilance, and the annoyances of anonymity are well beyond the slight protection it would provide for all but a tiny minority of very famous writers, for whom it is almost certainly too late.

independence

It may be seen that all of these potential ethical dilemmas hinge solely on the ability of the writer to assess and manage potential corrupting influences. The goal of formal codes of ethics is to enforce independence – to forcefully separate the writer from their subject – in order to maintain the aforementioned appearance of impropriety. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the important word in that phrase is not “appearance,” but “impropriety.” And while it is not enough to simply declare one’s independence (all too often, this is presented as a misguided synonym for objectivity), the path of trust between writer and consumer can only be walked by the writer who puts into actual practice a code of ethics that create a recognizable shield of independence. And on that subject, we leave the realm of ethics and enter the difficult, but real, world of methodology.

Bias

Bias is a difficult subject among critics, because the word carries a lot of negative baggage that most would prefer to avoid. But understanding the concept and its fundamental role in criticism is vital to a successful dialogue between critic and consumer.

Bias is natural

All humans have biases. Those that claim to be free of bias are either remarkably self-unaware or attempting to con their audience. How can the fundamental human trait of preference be abandoned just because one puts finger to keyboard?

Bias is good

That fact-focused reportage exists is good. That opinionated reportage exists is also good. The important thing, always, is that bias be open and acknowledged; little is more dangerous to the truth than stealth (or worse, denied) bias.

Criticism cannot, by its very nature, help but be stuffed to the gills with bias. After all, criticism is a statement of opinion, and opinions are shaped by personal experience and personal preference in equal measure. Critics must accept, reveal, and revel in their biases…and audiences must accept and correctly interpret those biases. Only in this fashion can a useful communication of ideas transpire between critic and audient.

Critics must confront their biases in a constant process of reexamination. An absence of questioning is the calcification of bias into ignorance.

What critics must not do is pretend they are free of bias…or worse, claim that their biases are objective truth. The more authoritative a critic becomes, the greater this danger, and the more it must be guarded against; not only by the critic, but also by a wary audience. Beware the critic who decries others preferences while holding their own immutable. They have lost their way.

Bias is personal

I do not pretend that it is possible to iterate all potential biases, for I do not believe it is possible to know all the inner workings of one’s mind. Nonetheless, there are biases that are clear and known to me, and I think it best to reveal them here. Readers should consider these biases the context under which all my writing – critical and otherwise – should be considered.

I believe very strongly in the importance of terroir, and will nearly always prefer wines that are of their place to wines that are not.

Native grape varieties are preferred to imported and “international” grape varieties, because tradition and diversity are valuable (though not all-important), and because safe choices are too often boring ones.

Minimal intervention is preferable to deformative intervention. It is unquestionably true that there is no such thing as non-interventionist, but it is equally unquestionable that there are degrees of intervention.

Ripeness is not a goal without limit. Nor am I afraid of green aromas in wines. Underripeness is no estimable goal, but “riper” is not a synonym for “better.”

Wine is just a beverage, wine is a product of agriculture and chemistry, and wine is a work of art. I do not consider those statements to be in conflict.

Extreme levels of anything are off-putting. I am severe averse to obscene levels of alcohol, fruit, and oak. I am somewhat averse to obscene levels of tannin and acid. I am indifferent to the presence of residual sugar, pending a consideration of the wine’s balance. Conversely, I am extremely averse to the absence of acid, and not at all averse to the absence of anything else.

The complexity of mature wines is, when achievable, preferable to the exuberance of youthful wines. This does not mean that I don’t like youthful exuberance, only that I find my emotional and intellectual responses to it inherently limited. Nonetheless, the majority of the wine I drink is youthful and, in some measure, exuberant.

Sweet wines are better if they have balancing acidity. I tend to prefer sweet wines unmarked by new oak aromas, but there are exceptions to this tendency.

I am strongly predisposed towards earthy and mineral characteristics.

I am particularly sensitive to volatile acidity, though I’m not against it in all cases. The greatest consequence is that I have a fairly strong adverse reaction to certain wines rife with it (e.g. traditional Amarone or Madeira).

I am not averse to mild levels of brett, but will soon tire of a wine overwhelmed by it.

I am somewhat put off by strong new oak influence, though there are exceptions.

Winemakers should produce the wine their terroir indicates rather than practice deformations to conform to a style, when and where possible. Corollary to this is the acknowledgment that not all grapes and techniques are equally-suited to all terroirs, and the mere physical ability to grow a variety or make a style is not, by itself, an unquestionable endorsement to proceed.

Complexity is almost always preferable to power. Power, by itself, is boring.

Grapes have characteristics that should be respected. Terroirs have characteristics that should be respected. Winemakers have signatures that should be respected. However, the best winemakers subvert their desire for respect to the demands of grape and terroir.

“All that matters is that it tastes good” is a simple-minded way of approaching wine appreciation, and of no utility when it forms the foundation of criticism.

A wine that requires food to show its full quality is not inherently less good than a wine that is complete when consumed by itself. (It is not inherently better, either.)

Winemaking techniques designed to mitigate deficiencies in the source material are to be viewed with suspicion if their use is the rule rather than the exception. None invalidate the resulting wine, but at some point they become fundamentally deformative.

The better-funded the winery, the greater the responsibility for producing quality wine.

Changing a wine’s style to fit the vagaries of fashion or the tastes of powerful critics is an understandable reaction – bankruptcy and starvation are not estimable goals for winemakers, and philosophical purity doesn’t pay the bills – but this rarely leads to a superior product, and contributes to the entropic decay of wine as an essentially natural product (that is, a literal product of nature).

I adore many natural wines and the lack of process that leads to them, but am weary of indifference to flaws and deeply suspicious of anti-scientific ideologies. I also don’t understand the purpose of a “natural” winemaking that allows so many different grapes and places to taste the same. The homogeneity of industrial wine a bad thing; homogeneity is no more admirable because it’s uninoculated.

“The hand” (the influence of man) is more important than “the land” (natural factors) in determining a wine’s character, but the best wines reveal more of the latter than the former.

Wine can be fun. Wine can be serious. Wine can be mindless. Wine can make you think. Wine can make you feel. The best wines are those that embrace more, rather than fewer, of these concepts.

The importance of negativity

The philosophical reasons for balance are beyond the scope of this document – and probably beyond the abilities of the author – so I will leave them as an exercise for the reader. But the notion of balance is necessary when considering one of the more difficult aspects of wine criticism: the need to be negative.

Nice people

Wine people are, in general, very good people. From the humblest vineyard worker to the wealthiest multi-generational patriarch, the kindness exhibited by and among those in the (broadly defined) wine industry is remarkable. It is thus difficult to comprehend the need to criticize those who have been nothing other than nice. Who have been generous. Who have welcomed critics into restaurants and stores, warehouses and wineries, and more than occasionally even into their homes. Difficult…but not impossible, for the product is not the person. The producer of any reviewable product who is incapable of absorbing criticism will be a perpetually miserable producer. (The same, incidentally, applies to critics who are overly convinced of their inerrancy.)

The deliberate act of not buying a wine after encountering it is, at its heart, a negative review. Any winemaker who pours their wines for the public deals with this phenomenon on a regular basis; not to mention the face-squinching and frantic-spitting reactions to some undesirable sample. A negative review simply formalizes those responses, though it does also raise the possibility of the reaction being preserved in perpetuity. This is why the ephemerality of a tasting note is so important for the reader to understand.

Cygnus, bringer of balance

Just as a good tasting note is supported by a foundation of context, the presence of a range of reactions to wine provides contextual clues that are important to a consumer of that note. When assessing the utility of a critic, it’s as important to understand what that critic dislikes as what he or she likes. A critic who is, say, reliably sensitive to volatile acidity, or routinely forgiving of abrasive tannin, must be identified to form a bridge of trust between critic and consumer, lest unpleasant surprises arrive in the form of critically-lauded bottles. A corpus of notes, positive and negative, forms the professional (as opposed to the personal) profile of a critic; a lopsided profile may be avant garde but carries worrisome implications about the critic’s chosen subject.

For it is also true that unrelenting negativity is undesirable in a critic. Why review a product that makes one miserable? This is not to say that numbers must balance around some arbitrary median – the good bottles equal to the bad – but that a critic must find joy and sorrow of equal intensity in their chosen field. A critic who leans too far to either side is worthy of suspicion.

Such a lonely word

Also, there is the important issue of honesty. A critic who cannot honestly report negative reactions to wine cannot be trusted to reliably report positive reactions to wine, because he is holding something back. A critic may choose how to best express strong negativity (or positivity), but that is entirely different than suppressing the reaction.

Ultimately, an honest critic will find more friends than enemies. There will, from time to time, be sensitive types that do not appreciate criticism, or the tone of criticism, and as a result friendships will erode or end. Yet this would seem to be an outcome necessary for a critic to accept. For in the end, sensible producers and critics will realize that it is more important to be respected than it is to be liked.

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.

oenoLogic

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.

oenoLogic

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.

The myth of objectivity

Other than the tangled web of critical ethics, no subject causes as much confusion and consternation among readers (and the critics who love them) than objectivity.

Just the facts

Wine can be described via chemistry, which means that much in its makeup can be measured. Things like acidity, tannin, dry extract and residual sugar (to name a few) have numbers attached to them and can be quantified, assuming one has access to a lab (or the data). Viticultural and winemaking techniques can be specifically iterated. Matters of geography and personnel are definable. There’s more along these lines, but I trust everyone gets the idea. This, and only this, is what’s indisputably objective about the description of wine.

Facts not in evidence

Critics may include elements from the objective realm, but their goal is to communicate the subjective; were it not, data sheets from the winery would suffice for the purpose of criticism, and they do not. Taste is inherently subjective. It is an opinion…nothing more…and a personal one at that. Thus, wine criticism cannot help but be, at its core, a pursuit of the subjective.

Blurring the lines

So why do these simple ideas cause so much confusion, and (often) acrimony? Why do critics – including this one – insist that there is a grey area that can, and in fact must, inform wine criticism? It’s all tied up with the thorny idea of typicity.

The concept of typicity is far too involved to here cover in any rigorous detail, though an overlong essay on the subject can be found elsewhere. The shorthand version is that it is a sort of defined summation of an expectation, based on the weight of historical precedent and producer adherence to that precedent. A grape can have typicity, as can a place, a wine style, and even a producer.

Obviously, there are difficulties with the concept. First and foremost, it’s trivially easy to turn one’s back on typicity by deliberate actions in the vineyard, the cellar, or the boardroom. Second, it relies on both democratic principles of “majority rule” (what if “the majority” are lousy winemakers?) and on arbitrary historical segmentation (is today’s typicity the same at 1890’s typicity?) And third, people cannot agree on whether or not it is a good thing. (The full exegesis on these subjects rests in the aforementioned overlong essay. Accept the previous as a given and we’ll get to the actual point faster.)

Critics rub the silky underbelly of typicity on a regular basis. “This does/doesn’t taste like a pinot noir” is one common mode of expression, and one of the easiest to embrace; grapes do have signature characteristics, though they’re easier to see when comparing wildly disparate varieties like gewürztraminer and merlot than they are when considering organoleptic cousins like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Inevitably, someone will object with a version of the following: “who are you to say what pinot noir should taste like?” and the acrimony will commence. More debatable statements come from descriptions of appellation-based typicity (“Chianti should be…”), which almost always lead to definitionally tortured arguments and a lot of pointless debate about first principles.

So why involve such blurry concepts in criticism at all? Because the alternative is, indeed, the justifiably-maligned “caveman criticism.” If a critique is solely reducible to a simple statement of like or dislike, it is only marginally useful. One rather hopes for an answer to the fundamental question: why? And once one begins to answer that question, one is inevitably forced to deal with issues of typicity…with the coalescence of the subjective and the objective in the murky seas of justified opinion. It is impossible for a critic to work well while utterly rejecting all notions of an expansion of wine’s expressible elements beyond the chemical, geographical, and procedural. A critic needs that additional vocabulary to communicate anything of value to the general public.

The dangers of authority

What the critic cannot do is hold just as dearly to these more ephemeral aspects as they do to matters that are clearly objective. Critics who pile abuse on other critics using statements of dubious (or worse: unsupported) objectivity are especially distasteful, and one hopes they will rediscover their humility before it is too late. There is an unfortunate tendency among some powerful critics to believe, due to the wide affirmation of their audience, that their own theses and contexts have become immutable law. The process of justifying one’s opinions must be ongoing; once a critic resorts to the weight of their authority in lieu of other arguments, that critic has lost their way. And a critic cannot forget that, at the end of the day, taste is still subjective, and one can be endlessly “right” about a wine and still not speak to the tastes of another.