Browse Tag


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.

Bottle shock

I’d thought I’d lost the ability to be shocked. I was wrong. eRobertParker’s forums are closed, and going subscriber-only.

We are a small company with limited resources and, after months of deliberation, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the people who count most – our subscribers – that we change our policy with regard to the bulletin board. On April 27, the entire Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board on will become a subscriber-only forum, open only to subscribers of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate or […] Change is always difficult but, like this action, often necessary. We are sorry to say goodbye to those posters to Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board who are not subscribers, and who have made valuable contributions. We will miss you, but our overwhelming goal is more focused support and assistance to our subscribers, who are our bloodline of support and make all the fascinating features of the bulletin board possible. We look forward to better serving our loyal subscribers through a more focused effort on them.

As a “protect your power and image” move, it’s absolutely the right call. For 2005. And before. But now, in the social mediasphere, where collaboration is the value? Absolutely inexplicable. Everyone who is not the Wine Advocate wins big, starting…right now.

Speech, broad & bent

[the billionaire’s vinegar]Brewer-Clifton isn’t the only entity that would like you, the consumer, to just shut up. (Note the lack of a “please” in that request.) Oh, no. It gets much worse.

(A bit of background is necessary here, for non-obsessive followers of titillating wine gossip. I’ll try to make it brief.)

Once upon a time, there were these bottles of wine that were, allegedly, owned by Thomas Jefferson. They were auctioned for an awful lot of money to the rich and famous, who either seemed to do desperately stupid things with them, or display them as the (undrinkable) jewels of their collection.

Except it turns out that they might have been fakes. There’s a lot of that going around the high-end wine world now, but that was a more naïve time, and people may not have been as wary as they should have. Most of the current attention has focused on the alleged sources, but a little has soiled the collars of their facilitators: collectors and auctioneers. One luminary thus tainted by association was the very, very famous writer, taster, and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, whose self-described friendship with one Hardy Rodenstock – the source of the Jefferson bottles – is now as much a liability as it was a benefit, in those earlier days.

The guilt or innocence of the various parties isn’t what I’m interested in here, and so I’ll leave a discussion of lawsuits and investigations for another forum. What matters to this backgrounder is that a book on this very subject, entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar, was written by a guy named Benjamin Wallace.

It turns out that Michael Broadbent didn’t much care for his portrayal in the book, for reasons I’m still not going to adjudicate here. So he sued for libel (in the U.K., where such matters have a much easier standard of evidence to meet than they do in the U.S.), and the case was settled out of court by the publisher…who paid Broadbent some money, issued an apology, and so forth. It was a “victory” in a very limited sense, as it only applied to the U.K., and unquestionably brought more attention to the book’s contents elsewhere in the world than there had previously been. Nonetheless, I presume Mr. Broadbent got what he wanted, the publisher and the book weren’t adversely affected outside the U.K. market (if anything, the opposite), and post-settlement life should have gone on as before.

Except that it didn’t. Michael’s son Bartholomew (who I have met on more than one occasion, and have liked very much on those occasions) decided that it was in his father’s best interest for Bartholomew to engage mid- and post-trial discussions of the case around the internet, something most lawyers probably would have told him was a little unwise on the face of it. Broadbent fils got in a few snippy exchanges with the author of the book in various locales, and perhaps this added to his understandable feelings of agitation over the state of his father’s reputation, but on Jamie Goode’s blog, he went much, much too far in addressing some commenters in the case. Emphasis mine:

[name redacted] doesn’t know the specifics of the case and clearly his views are a reflection of nothing more than reading the book. My father won the case and they will not hesitate to win damages from further defamatory remarks made by others who continue to ignore the ruling. [name] would be better off accepting the court’s decision and the Publisher’s apology. He has no idea about the true facts and his statements show incredible ignorance. However, his views are precisely the reason that this case was won. [name] is actually setting himself up to be sued too, if he continues to repeat such defamatory views which have no basis on truth. As Jamie’s Blog is published in the UK, it and its commentators fall under the same defamation and libel jurisdiction.

The thing is, Bartholomew was probably right: were his father especially litigious, he could have gone around suing anyone who continued the debate, and may even have won. Thankfully, and to Broadbent père’s credit, this does not appear to be happening. But the threat issued by Bartholomew was at best distasteful, at worst a reprehensible way to quash debate, and in practical terms an entirely unhelpful way to “help” clear his father’s name. And it was one more instance of someone – this time in the trade, which Bartholomew most certainly is – trying to squelch online discussion of topics they do not wish to have discussed, or at least not in the manner in which they are being discussed. As with Brewer-Clifton, my personal interest in supporting the wines he sells with my purchases is diminished as a result.

In any case, it could have ended there, too. But it didn’t. The discussion, inevitably, roiled across the U.S. wine scene, where similar legal threats wouldn’t have carried much weight given the very strict legal standards for proving libel. Something not everyone was happy about:

here’s a vote for libel laws in the USA as strict as they are in the UK

Who said that? Before I answer, it’s the same person who said the following (NB: the following quotes have had to be edited for grammar, spelling, and readability, though the words are unchanged):

bloggers…or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation, distortion, and egregious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet


[bloggers’] passion can be a great asset, but it can be dangerous as well…the Taliban has passion is just one example…

That’s right. Bloggers are analogous to the Taliban

(No, he didn’t call bloggers the Taliban. But unfortunate-yet-revealing analogies extend well beyond those covered by Godwin’s Law, and here is one more example of same.)

Who is this paragon of free discourse, this defender of the right to speak against entrenched interests? The same person who endlessly crusaded against the established writers he supplanted. And the same person that wrote the following:

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started…

Yes, joining Brewer-Clifton and Bartholomew Broadbent in a heartfelt desire for all you rabble to just stop your bloody contradictions so they can be accorded the respect they deserve: your Wine Advocate himself, Robert M. Parker, Jr.

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 I in wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Another time.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our ellipses are sealed

In a typically ellipsis-ridden but less unreadable than usual post on his forum, Robert Parker took on a swath of his readers with a highly rhetorical non-question:

Can anyone offer a meaningful definition to the following:
1.Modern wine-making
2.traditional wine-making
3.high alcohol

…which he followed with a lengthy missive questioning, and dismissing, their use as characterizations of wine. But with the possible exception of “transparency” (I’m not a subscriber, and thus can’t search his tasting note database), I’m quite certainly Parker himself has used all these very terms to describe wines, and will do so again in the future. In fact, several respondents make that very point:

The Wine Advocate uses phrases like “traditional” and “old-style” in reviews all the time, including Parker’s. How come these terms are only meaningless when other people use them?

As recently as your classification of Châteuneuf-du-Papes (a very useful classification), you used the terms traditional and modern. What did you mean by them?

In light of this, I have a rhetorical question of my own: does anyone think Parker will actually respond to those questions?

To be sure, the quoted responses are only slightly less rhetorical than Parker’s initial volley, or the mildly snarky response I just typed. But they’re important. Not because I think Parker has an interesting answer for them – I don’t; I think he was just sniping at people with whom he disagrees, an all-too-familiar mode of communication from a critic who, given his position, should really be above such things – but because they raise a useful point about the language we use to describe wine.

As I’ve argued fairly recently, wine has its own vocabulary. The greater the population of that vocabulary, the more expressive the language. Putting aside debates about what each term may or may not mean (and I certainly have thoughts on that), does anyone really experience utter mystification at a wine labeled high-alcohol? Or two wines contrasted as more modern and more traditional? Are those terms absolutely, 100% meaningless to any and all readers? Yes, the borders are indistinct and personal, but isn’t that inevitable with as subjective a practice as wine commentary?

I note with pleasure that, in the thread under consideration, two of the Wine Advocate’s more thoughtful critics contribute searching responses on several of the terms, which is probably something the initial questioner didn’t expect. There’s value in their musings, but even more in the existence of such a discussion; isn’t a conversation, even one that ends in disagreement, better than the sort of derisive mocking in which Parker is engaging? And after all, the world’s most powerful critic does, in his heart of hearts, know better. For in the same post, he writes:

there is no need to dig a deep trench and denigrate everything that doesn’t fall within some tightly defined parameter bereft of any merit or careful examination

Indeed, Mr. Parker. Indeed.

Update: color me surprised. Then again, these aren’t the definitions Parker asked for from others, just an acknowledgment that he does indeed use some of the mentioned terms. In a way this makes his initial post worse, because as this followup makes explicit:

I asked for definitions from the USUAL SUSPECTS that constantly use them as frequently as our government is bailing out financial institutions…just wanting to see how they defined them…of course no revelations or significant substance has yet appeared

…Parker openly admits he has no interest in dialogue, but merely wants to mock everyone else’s.

The hobgoblin of little minds

“Another wine that I underrated (probably because of my generally conservative nature regarding new estates, and I had only tasted one previous vintage from this one) […]”Robert M. Parker, Jr., The Hedonist’s Gazette

“Neither price nor the reputation of the producer/grower affect the rating in any manner.”Robert M. Parker, Jr., an explanation of his methods

The world’s most powerful critic caught in a contradiction. Is it a backhanded admission of error? Or is it blatant hypocrisy?

How about none of the above?

Parker hasn’t (yet) responded to this contradiction, revealed on his own online forum, and the resulting thread has spun off in a predictable way: an exceedingly arbitrary debate about the pros and cons of blind tasting. While that’s certainly an interesting topic, it’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. Instead, I’m here to defend Parker. At least, after a fashion.

Every critic eventually contradicts himself. Computers, if programmed correctly, are perfectly consistent. People are not, and probably can’t be. Critics will practice regular inconsistency when it comes to individual wines, and while there are always a worshipful few who can’t seem to grasp the subjective and ever-changing nature of criticism, most rational people understand that this is simply the way wine interacts with the taster. Wine is a (more or less) natural product that can be different from bottle to bottle, taste to taste, and time to time.

However, when it comes to statements about the very nature of criticism – as described in the above-linked statement of Parker’s methodology, for example – people seem much less forgiving of inconsistency, and resort to imposing ever more rigid strictures on the critic’s methodology (e.g. “all wines must be tasted double-blind”). Or they’re forced into impossible and indefensible rhetorical acrobatics in an effort to explain away the inconsistency (it’s those worshipful few again, causing problems). The fact is, there’s no way to reconcile the two statements quoted above. Parker is mistaken (or, if one feels they can read his mind and his motivations, lying) in one of the two. In the absence of further clarification from him, it’s up to the concerned reader to decide which is his true position.

Of course, there is a way that they can both be correct, and that’s if they’re applied consecutively, rather than simultaneously. Parker might well be considering reputation when he evaluates some wines, and ignoring it when he evaluates others.* Certainly, it would be a natural human inclination, and despite Parker’s allegedly superhuman tasting abilities, he’s still just a human being, with all the normal flaws inherent in the species. Just like the rest of us.

For those who demand absolutes from their critics, this is an irreconcilable inconsistency. And they’re welcome to move on to whichever critics they find to be reliably inerrant, since Parker must now be excluded from that set. But I would like to suggest that the problem is not whether Parker is being inconsistent or not, and only partially that some people don’t actually understand the practice of criticism, but rather that he, himself, has fallen into an absolutist trap of his own construction.

Who makes a bigger deal about their methods and ethics than any other major wine critic? Parker, of course. From this position, he issues far-too-frequent attacks on other critics, and at times amateurs; a habit that is, by far, his most distasteful characteristic. (To be fair, he is frequently the victim of similar attacks, though that doesn’t excuse them on either side.) By doing so, he obviously opens himself up to attacks based on inconsistencies like the one above. But he wouldn’t have to defend such obvious inconsistencies if he didn’t take such an absolutist line. By saying “I do this, and only this,” and then being seen to be doing the opposite, he makes a mockery of the rigid methodological code he so loudly trumpets.

The solution, of course, is to take on a more liberal view of the possible ethical and methodological approaches to criticism. This is not to say that one should abandon all ethical codes – to be sure, there are critics who think that Parker isn’t strict enough – but simply to suggest that basing one’s reputation on ethics and methods rather than the results is fundamentally misguided. People may listen to Parker’s (or any other critic’s) ethical pronouncements, but his power and reputation are due to consumers’ trust in his results (that is, his wine evaluations). Using those ethics and methods to heap abuse on other critics is unseemly on the face of it, but more so when it turns out that the source of the abuse doesn’t even follow his own advice.

Parker shouldn’t be criticized for contradicting himself. And he wouldn’t be, did he not so gleefully wrap himself in the shield of absolutism when it comes to his methods. Since the “don’t contradict yourself” solution is generally unavailable to humans (including Parker), that leaves only the other option. An option he – and all critics – would do well to consider.

* Parker’s statement about price and reputation is, of course, meant as a direct attack on critics who could do 75% of their work without actually tasting the wines; critics for whom label and reputation mean nearly everything. Those critics exist (though as a smaller percentage of total critics than they did when Parker started…and he can probably take a large portion of the credit for that), and they’re a plague on the calling. Certainly, the number of unheralded wines that have nonetheless been heralded by Parker over the years suggests that he has not, as a rule, been unduly restrained by his own doubts when it comes to a young, untested brand.

Robert Parker, time-traveller

Though he’s managed — for a change — to avoid referencing his much-beloved ’47 Cheval Blanc, Robert Parker has a remarkable palate memory for a man in his seventies.

In reference to the never-ending controversy over whether the full-throttle Aussie wines (on which he used to bestow zillions of points and dramatic, albeit untested, aging curves) will age, Parker writes:

The best of the big Aussies will age quite well..remember all the negative comments when Penfold’s Grange was launched 50 years ago

No, I don’t. And neither do you, Mr. Parker. Because you were 7 years old, or maybe 8, when the wine was released.

There’s no history to these wines on which to base an opinion on aging, and there’s no real foundation of wines in this style from which to deduce an opinion on aging, either. So a critic — any critic — has to make a guess. Now, I’m all for a critic defending his or her reasons for a guess. And certainly, given the breadth and depth of his tastings, Parker should be able to defend his position. But all too often he doesn’t, instead preferring to simply argue from authority (a logical fallacy, though not the most egregious one), savage anyone with a contrary opinion, or…as in this case…accord all of recorded wine history to his lifetime.

Will the wines in questions age? Well, of course, it depends on which wines you’re talking about…but in general, I have no idea. I’m quite sure many of them last for a long, long time (with those fearsome levels of dry extract, how could they not?), but whether or not they will develop interesting tertiary characteristics at some point in the distant future…well, we’re all going to have to wait on that.