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Who are you writing for?

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

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh. Keep Reading

Curtains for Oz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who are you writing for?

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one else.

Blood, sweat, & Theise

[wrestling]One of the worst consequences of the myth that those who sell wine can’t be trusted – the result of decades of trade-sliming from critics whose own monetary interests depend on you believing this lie – is that some of the best, most passionate, and most insightful writers on the subject are marginalized or dismissed.

This is a crying shame. Especially when one encounters someone like Terry Theise, whose annual catalogs have long been among the most enjoyable wine writing available. Self-interested? Yes, they are. Theise is, after all, trying to sell us something. It’s not like he hides it. But only a fool would thus conclude that the content of that salesmanship isn’t worth their time, for few know as much about their chosen subjects as Theise, and even fewer write about it as well.

Brevity may not always be Theise’s strong suit (take it from an expert), but he can turn a pithy phrase when the need arises. As, for example, this, which is as close to essential reading for oenogeeks as anything I’ve seen of late. Theise offers his take regarding an issue on which this blog has been harping for a while: categories are useful, philosophies are nice to have, but categorical dismissals are silly, and one can’t drink a philosophy.

Let me assert, before I begin to contradict myself at numbing length, that I wholeheartedly endorse most of what Theise writes in the linked essay. And even when I don’t, he makes an effective case for his thesis. That said, I do have some quibbles. And one of them is precisely what I’ve otherwise defended above: the way in which self-interest has the potential to deform one’s views.

[T]oo often aficionados feel the need to turn […] knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge […] they spring to protect their theory. “All serious wines must be dry,” is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example.

This is an interesting opening example for Theise to use, considering the fair amount of pushback he has received – more of late than in the past – against his continuing defense of German wines with residual sugar. Among certain groups (German drinkers, for example), his position is increasingly the minority one. It’s not fair to say that Theise has always been against dry German riesling, but it’s eminently fair to say that he hasn’t always been its most enthusiastic supporter, either. The realities of German wine production have influenced his views on this point, both in terms of wine quality and commercial availability. But it’s amusing that the first category of wrong thinking that comes to his mind is so closely related to the exact reverse of the one of which he has most often been accused.

When we are insecure — we don’t think we’re knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine.

I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is more than one reason to embrace doctrine, and most reasons are not the result of insecurity. Some people really, truly, passionately believe in their preferences…organic vs. non-, local vs. non-, “natural” vs. industrial, terroir wines vs. branded wines, lower-alcohol vs. higher-, fruit vs. dirt, brett-free vs. not, and I could go on and on listing oppositional categories…for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity. I have my own preferences, Theise does as well, and they’re not plucked from thin air nor mired in insecurity. They’re based on our experiences.

May they be in error? That’s not a relevant question; preferences can’t be wrong. Are they be subject to future revision as new data arrives? Certainly, and (as Theise argues), a wise taster is always open to such revision. Still, this is not the same thing as insisting that, faced with contradiction, a person must perforce abandon preference (or “doctrine,” as Theise puts it). It is both perfectly normal and eminently reasonable for someone to acknowledge that a given wine demonstrates an exception to one’s beliefs without modifying actions based on those beliefs. A continued refusal to do so despite overwhelming contradiction by data or anecdote is pointlessly stubborn and resembles religion more than sensibility, yes, but the question must be asked: so what? A counter-argument can only be made so many times. If someone won’t acknowledge it, sometimes it’s better to move on to those who truly don’t know, rather than beating one’s rhetorical head against those who have dismissed the possibility of same.

Even the wisest of tasters may fully acknowledge a cornucopia of caveats, exceptions, counterarguments, and counterfactuals, yet still possess firmly-held conviction as to the general utility of their preferences. Isn’t that what preference is, after all, once it’s backed by experience? It’s not black and white, X ≠ Y absolutism, but it is a trustworthy guide. When it’s not – if it repeatedly fails to guide – it’s not useful anymore, and the choice will not usually be the abandonment of preference, but the modification thereof. Choosing to term this doctrine rather than preference only burdens the concept with external judgment, rather than shedding light on the evidentiary basis for the choices themselves.

For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it’s true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you’ve been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.

There’s a whiff of straw hominid, here. Who are the people who’ve pursued the latter path? Are there actual examples of such?

Further, I don’t think a reasonable person would actually “throw out his assumptions about yield.” That’s an overreaction just as unreasonable as the alternatives of rigidity or mindless relativism. A reasonable person might prefer to conclude that yield is a complicated subject, that different grapes and different places have different relationships to yield, that what works for pinot noir on one patch of land may bear little relation to what works for riesling on a different patch of land.

Theise’s lurking point – that successful wines follow many different and often contradictory paths from start to completion – is an excellent one, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But this is a different argument than the one against holding too tightly to doctrine. One is an argument about a process, the other is a criticism of a person. And still, one may demonstrate that a belief is factually inaccurate or inconsistently applicable without successfully influencing personal preference. (The reverse is also true.) Fact-based deconstructions of procedure are worthwhile. Criticizing people’s preferences might be fun, but it’s not very enlightening.

In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called “natural wine” phenomenon. […] Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we’re tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What’s the alternative? “Partly natural” wines? The very use of the word “natural” tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.

For years I’ve been reading this argument. For years I’ve been wondering at who it’s aimed.

Are there people who, abandoning sense and rationality, worship at natural wine’s fundamentalist altar? I’m sure there must be. I’ve met a lot of the people who make, sell, and drink so-called natural wines, and this applies to almost none of them, but for any belief one can imagine there is almost always a puritanical adherent. And maybe Theise is, hourly, oppressed by hordes of such fundamentalists, though he offers no evidence for it in this piece. But I have to say that I simply don’t know these people. Not even the loudest philosophy-thumpers of my acquaintance, the ones who sometimes defy commercial sense in pursuit of their beliefs, insist that there are only Natural and Unnatural, and that the line between them is impenetrable, razor-sharp, and inherently obvious even to the most casual observer.

Do I know a few people who are, for me, far too quick to start categorizing and prejudging wine? Yes. Do any of them have a strong public voice? Yes, though only a very few among the few. But that’s not restricted to the natural crowd, nor was hyperjudgmentalism invented by them, and in fact I see at least as much, and possibly more, dogmatism among the pro-intervention gang. Most often, however, this is a situational and transitory fault. I would accuse myself of falling into the trap from time to time, for example, and I’ve also heard the charge leveled at Theise. We all make mistakes, from which one hopes we learn.

In one sense, I again wonder: so what? Cannot the proverbial multiplicity of flowers bloom, each with their advocate?

The thing is, the case for rigid adherence to doctrine is almost never made by natural wine folks. Yes, they decry industrial process in vineyard and cellar (and so, incidentally, do many who would never attach themselves to the “natural” crowd), but the people insisting that we must have either tablet-etched commandments or babies discarded with bathwater are rarely the naturalistas. And I bet if we all agree to remove one (and only one) particular writer from consideration, examples to the contrary would be extremely difficult to find. What, then, is the overwhelming power and influence of this one writer that must be so aggressively resisted by both philosophical enemies and potential allies alike?

I’d point out that some of the answers suggest themselves. No one likes to be at a marketing disadvantage, and the gauzy appeal of the word “natural” is not easily countered. It’s mindshare, it’s commercial self-interest, it’s the never-ending war of marketing vs. marketing, and one does not have to grant the accuracy of argument or counter-argument to see this battle played out. On the other hand, sometimes the resistance to concept comes from theoretical allies, in which case it often takes the form of a Chamberlainesque ceding of ground to the “other side” before a disputed claim for that ground has been adjudicated. I don’t really know why this happens. Fear that if a perfect defense can’t be mounted, it’s better that there be no defense at all?

Natural wine doesn’t actually require a detailed defense. Everyone understands the fundamental, foundational precept of more vs. less natural, more vs. less interventionist. Everyone with a functioning neuron understands that wine does not actually make itself (centuries of winemakers blathering otherwise to the contrary) nor is it actually “made in the vineyard,” and understands that the entire categorical debate is a matter of degree, of a preference for not-doing over doing, that natural is no more than the amorphous cluster of producers and practice at one end of that motivational and philosophical axis. No one in the natural wine milieu is demanding fealty oaths. The insistence that this state of affairs cannot exist, that there must either be iron-clad definition or wholesale abandonment of concept isn’t an argument, it’s Asperger’s.

Does an importer of self-identified natural wines have a commercial self-interest in defending the concept? Yes. And to the extent that they may on occasion attempt same, a careful reader will hear their arguments and defenses through that filter. But the exact same sort of filter must be applied to those who commercially represent that which is in competition with the self-identified natural category. And Theise, while he represents a few producers who hover around the perimeter of the movement, falls into the latter group. In no way does this invalidate his arguments. But it does contextualize them.

Here’s the rest of the context, though: earlier, both Theise and I were suggesting what we thought a “reasonable person” might think in the face of contradictory information. My argument was that the most reasonable person might soon conclude that a practice that works in one place, with one grape, might not work in another place, with another grape. The core of Theise’s portfolio is German wine (mostly riesling) and Champagne. The latter can’t ever be “natural” according to any ultra-fundamentalist view, because it cannot exist without human meddling…though there are unquestionably producers who craft and hone less than others, and some of them are in Theise’s portfolio. As for the former, it’s worth observing that the techniques and anti-techniques of the natural set are virtually nonexistent in Germany. Since almost everywhere there’s wine, there’s a group of enthusiasts exploring oenological minimalism, and yet no one seems to be trumpeting their success with same in Germany, it might just be possible that the techniques don’t work there, or with the grapes common to Germanic wine regions. Certainly sulfur use alone, especially as employed with residually-sugared wines, would disqualify most producers from even the softest possible definitions of “natural.”

Again, is there someone, somewhere, who is arguing that because this winemaking path is largely unfollowed in Germany, that German wine can thus be categorically dismissed as qualitatively inferior? I don’t know of that person, but he or she might exist, and maybe Theise knows who it is. Most people of my acquaintance whose drinking comes largely from the natural world make an exception to their philosophical preferences for several styles of wine, and riesling (especially German) and Champagne often make up the primary population of those exceptions.

Let’s face facts: the natural wine movement, no matter how many zillions of words have been expended on it of late, is a micro-niche. These are ultra-small production wines, curated by a tiny number of commercial gatekeepers, and sold in not very many places to a passionate and loquacious, but extremely small, number of consumers. And I think, frankly, that a lot of the people along this commercial chain like it this way.

What they are, however, is competition for the attention of the relatively small group of wine consumers whose tastes are not informed by mass-marketing or by point ratings in major journals. The very group that Theise, Lynch, Rosenthal, et al have been selling to their entire careers. Does the emergence of yet another set of competitors for this finite market spell trouble for such importers? In theory, I suppose so. But no more than any other form of competition. If one is doing a good job of expanding the audience for such wines palate by palate – perhaps, and paradoxically, easier in these days of fractured wine media than it was when there were just a few editorial powerhouses – the net effect should be a wash.

Instead, we have this internecine bickering among niche entities, fortifying their little philosophical empires and lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other, further factionalizing the audience that they need to be expanding, not dividing. You know who benefits from this? Not Theise. Not us. Instead: Constellation Brands and their megalithic counterparts, whose sides would be splitting with laughter at such bickering if they amounted to anything more than a rounding error on their balance sheets.

And so, here I am contributing to the problem, lobbing my own IEDs at an importer whose wines I adore and whose words I admire. Why? It was this paragraph right here:

I’m a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn’t do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn’t going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn’t give much of a rat’s ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn’t make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally “pure” they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.

I feel like there’s a whole lot more to this story that we’re not getting. Did the sommelier say, in his survey, “your answers to these questions will determine your place in heaven and your worth as a person?” Or did he ask not because he wanted to pass moral judgment on the growers, but because he wanted to refine a wine list that reflected his own philosophy and needed information to make that reflection an accurate one? In the absence of any evidence of the former, I’d rather strongly suspect it’s the latter.

The reported reaction of the producers is emblematic of the laughable, borderline insane, overreaction I’ve been harping about for a while now. Just how powerful was this sommelier? Was he the beverage director for the Starwood Hotels chain or the buyer for Walmart, and thus of overwhelming commercial importance, or did he just craft the lists at a restaurant or two? If the latter, why the angst and acrimony? Is he not allowed to write a list that reflects his own sensibilities, his own philosophies, his own tastes? Isn’t that, in fact, what Theise himself does? One could argue that it’s deeply misguided of Theise to not stuff his portfolio full of industrial Marlborough chardonnay and goopy pan-Californian zinfandel even though those aren’t the wines he’s interested in, and even though they don’t reflect his preferences. But that would be to misunderstand what Theise does and why he does it. If Theise was the gateway through which all available wine flowed, there’s be a reason to carp. But he’s not. He’s one source among many, and consumers have freedom of choice.

I’m reminded of the constant whining and sniping aimed at Mark Ellenbogen…what a coincidence that his name should come up just now…when he was doing the wine list for The Slanted Door. The crime of having a point of view on both the wines and their utility with the restaurant’s cuisine was one for which he could never quite be forgiven by differently-minded consumers and producers, who would serially lambaste him for not carrying more California wines, more high-alcohol wines, more burly reds, and more familiar grapes. As if, in San Francisco, it was impossible to find Napa cabernet, or Cakebread Chardonnay, or super Tuscans, on any restaurant list in the city. As if the very possibility of a list without them was a crime for which Ellenbogen could not be excused. As if he was not allowed to actually make choices, but was instead required to satisfy the tastes of all potential customers…even though they were allowed to arrive with their own wine if they just couldn’t abide his choices. As if the job and purpose of a wine director is no actual curative job at all, but rather little more than receiving shipments, slotting bottles into bins, and checking for typos on the wine list.

These were asinine complaints, and to say so I don’t even have to make a claim about the sense or lack thereof of Ellenbogen’s choices. Maybe he was a genius with exquisite taste. Maybe he was ridiculous and wrong about absolutely everything. I have my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just one guy, and one list. Those who didn’t like it were free to spend their money somewhere else.

And so, we have a similar-smelling outrage and existential agony from the producers who received this survey. I hope they’ll pardon me (as I continue to restock their wines in my own cellar, because they’re terrific) if I’m not particularly sympathetic. Can’t they answer a simple question or ten? If the response is really that they can’t, then return the survey uncompleted. Are they afraid to have their practices known? If so, that’s not particularly admirable. And if the core issue is that they’re proud of their practices but are afraid that they will be misinterpreted by the unknowing masses…well, then, do a better job of defending the practices. Arguing that we can’t know what a producer does because people who don’t know any better will get the wrong idea is ridiculously paternalistic, and helps neither us nor the producer.

But no, I suspect I know what actually went on in their heads. Last year, in the Piedmont, I listened to producer after producer lambaste everyone who was making different choices than they were, as if the choices weren’t just different, but a threat to their own existence. A few weeks later, in Alsace, I got to enjoy a repeat performance…my favorite producer’s winemaker calling ambient yeast advocates “idiots,” and another beloved winery returning the favor a few days later by labeling the previous producer’s wines “industrial garbage.”

Overheated rhetoric. And deeply misguided, since both producers make excellent wine. This is, it’s worth remembering (since I’ve been a little harsh on him over the last few thousand words), Theise’s core point: there is not One True Path to wine quality. But the thing is, despite his claims to the contrary no one other than Theise is saying that there is. So when Theise reaches the pinnacle of his argument, here:

It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.

…again I wonder: at who is this argument aimed? The first sentence is so unquestionably, powerfully correct, it should be repurposed for deployment in every other wine-related debate. It is, after all, just a restatement of the old trope that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

But the second sentence? Natural wine advocates are not the ones insisting on all or nothing. It’s their detractors who are doing so, in much greater numbers and with much greater rhetorical force. And since they’re criticizing ephemera, one must again wonder at their motivation in doing so.

I don’t wonder at Theise’s motivation. I think it’s clear. He believes what he’s writing, and he has a commercial interest allied to his belief. The latter does not invalidate the former, but the former does not render the latter nonexistent, either. Theise wants us to accept that one can simultaneously embrace multiple and occasionally contradictory modes of thinking about quality wine. About that he is certainly right. This is, after all, why readers should accord him that same benefit, considering his words neither because of, nor despite, his commercial self-interest. But he might want to view that assertion in a mirror for a moment or two.

In fact, we all should.

Untangled & unencumbered

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

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

This is ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.