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wine writing

Scaling Olympus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The donkey show

[sagrada familia]Commenters who ask good questions are so irritating.

For example, here’s “The Wine Mule” in response to my plea for a little more mystery in our wine:

If the didactic is off limits, and we know that tasting notes are useful only to that portion of the population who experience aroma and flavor the same way we do, what’s left?

First up: I don’t believe that tasting notes are only useful to those with identical sensory and associative tools. I do think that assigning external authority (or worse, objectivity) to tasting notes is the first step on a very slippery slope to nowhere. But as part of a growing body of collaborative communication on the subject of wine, an adjective-ridden fruit salad of collective knowledge and emergent consensus (or, just as frequently, its opposite), I think they have a value that transcends the merely personal.

Second: the didactic is not off-limits, but it cannot define the limits. There’s a lot more to wine than the rote acquisition of knowledge. Even the most rigorous non-university wine education examinations in the world – those required for the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier – don’t limit themselves to multiple-choice tests, but require both tasting and the proven ability to communicate wine knowledge in something more than bullet point form. (In fact, it turns out that a major reason that many fail the former is that, despite breathtaking knowledge and supreme tasting skills, they cannot do this.) When I ask for more mystery and less Wine Talk for People Too Dumb for Wine for Dummies, I don’t mean that we should abandon the helpful factlet or the mnemonic primer, merely that we’re reducing wine to its least interesting elements. Nothing that’s compelling about wine is told in a fatigued “match the grape to its appellation” rehash, much less the annual “sparkling wines (not from Champagne) for New Year’s Eve” article and its increasingly tiresome brethren.

So when our sterile donkey commenter worries:

It’s true that not long ago I compared a bottle of freisa to Caterina Sforza, and while I may have felt inspired, I also felt a bit ridiculous, because anyone would think I was being both precious and pretentious, and not providing much practical information about the wine.

…I’m moved to ask two questions.

First, who’s the audience? If it’s the sort that will voluntarily read a wine blog with paragraphs and multi-syllabic words, the kind that will understand that Sherry doesn’t mean the stuff from New York, then I suspect that it’s adult and inquisitive enough to satiate its wonder either through independent research, the magic of emailing the author, or via consultation with The Great Oracle of All Knowledge. If the Mule is still worried, and seeks to provide guidance while preserving narrative flow…well, that’s why Gore God Ted Nelson invented the hyperlink.

And second, what’s the alternative? Because it has to be said: to the hypothetical blank-slated reader about which the Mule is worried, I doubt “freisa” is much more evocative than “Caterina Sforza,” and thus the best way to avoid all possible confusion is to mention neither. Shall we never rise above chardonnay and Paula Abdul comparisons in the future, then? I think not, and I doubt the Mule wishes so either.

Finally, his comment finishes with a gentle remonstrance:

And anyway, I’m not sold on the idea that a lot of people really do know that Beaujolais is gamay.

I’m quite sure most potential buyers of Beaujolais don’t know it’s gamay. A good portion of them probably don’t even know it’s from France, much less that it comes in other colors, or that there’s a difference between Nouveau and Chiroubles, or who the “Gang of Four” is, or why they should care about the divergent influences of Jules Chauvet and Georges Dubœuf. But many an article on Beaujolais will slog through some percentage of those answers, thinking it has done something useful for the advancement of wine knowledge. That article will be mistaken. Albeit intriguingly anthropomorphized.

Mystify me

[ghostly vines]Didn’t I just get done saying that no one wants to read (or write) yet another holiday wine column? OK, this is me swallowing my words – mea gulpa – and starting off with a seasonal theme. Don’t worry, it won’t last long.

This is a time of year in which many celebrate the various mysteries and miracles particular to their beliefs. The rituals will differ, but except where it is disallowed almost all of them will involve an alcoholic beverage, even if only as part of a communal gathering of like-minded celebrants. Sometimes, those beverages will be mere quenchers. But in many cases, there will be something else at stake…some sort of symbolism or cultural/historic reference.

Throughout the history of our species, we’ve had no problem assigning liquids this sort of secondary meaning and import – not just ferments or brews that sate our thirst and alter our mood, but something more – within the boundaries of practices spiritual, ritualistic, and social. And in fact, it’s probable that wine has fulfilled this transubstantiative role more than any other beverage.

So it passes strange that the first thing just about every journalistic wine writer must promise, as they make their entry into the field, is to “demystify” wine. This promise is usually extended to the readership, as well. Hell, I’ve done it myself, back when I was first starting out.

The appeal of the idea of obvious. Wine’s a reasonably complicated subject around which there has been built an unreasonable amount of cultural fear, and in most cases those with expertise and a forum are inherently charged with the duty to make themselves understandable to other than their peers.

But let’s once again compare fields of inquiry. A newspaper column on the merits of, say, a pitcher acquired by a baseball team does not stop to define the position, iterate the various pitches that can be thrown and their most accomplished practitioners, and delve into an explanation of how the physical structure of the baseball interacts with the pitcher’s musculature to produce certain physical effects. Why not? Because no one interested in baseball wants to read those explanations time and time again, no one interested enough in baseball to write about it wants to write those explanations over and over, and the practice itself would bring any interesting narrative to a screeching halt. Yet a wine column on Crozes-Hermitage will almost always have to locate the appellation, define its cépage, identify its best producers, and talk about its uses with food.

The same is true for coverage of equities, in which a columnist need not explain and define the workings of the stock market and the history of the Dow versus the S&P 500 to cover the day’s news, and in most other fields as well. Yet a column on how to select a wine by identifying its importer will inevitably find itself mired in an explanation of just what it is that importers do (which should be obvious, I would think) and their role in the three-tier system, which will start referring back to Prohibition…and suddenly, we’ve got the history of the alcoholic beverage industry in the United States, when all we wanted was an explanation of what Neal Rosenthal vs. Eric Solomon means for the consumer.

No, for some reason wine writing, unlike other types of specialist coverage, must somehow appeal to the lowest common denominator or risk the heavy hand of an editor’s (electronic) pen. Referring to Morgon in a column? Better explain that it’s a Beaujolais, that’s it’s made from gamay, that all Beaujolais isn’t Nouveau (and the yearly ritual of Nouveau must then be explained for what must be the ten-thousandth time), and so forth. Is a micro-buying guide for spätlese-level riesling on tap? It’s not sufficient to talk about balance as if everyone knows what that is, it’s necessary to attempt a ground-up explanation the interaction between acidity and sugar in wine, why that is of particular interest along various German riverbanks, how this philosophy differs from that operative in the Wachau or the Bas-Rhin, and so forth. In other words, wine writing in its journalistic, general-interest form, must be presented as if utter novices comprise the entirety of the audience, novices who must be gently coaxed from square one with the first paragraph of each new column, and led no further than square two by the conclusion.

But aren’t (you might object) novices the actual audience? Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. The question remains: why does this matter so much when the subject’s wine, and not hockey? Mergers? Senatorial shenanigans? Contract negotiations? All may occasionally hold back on the most arcane terminology, but none will suffer the editorial supposition that the reader is new to this planet, that the audience is comprised of dull children, that it might not be interested enough in the subject to read more than just the one column, as if it would be impossible to infer information that’s not spelled out in painstaking and word count-chewing detail.

I have little idea why this state of affairs should be, though I have theories. But those theories aren’t actually the point of this little rant. Instead, I propose an alternative philosophy to all this wine-for-dummies pandering.

Knowing that Morgon is Beaujolais, and that Beaujolais is gamay, is – I suppose – useful. It may, to the dedicated seeker of vinous knowledge, even be interesting, though in all cases I’d argue it’s reference material, and not the sort of thing one expects to find in the immediacy of a journalistic or columnar setting. But it is certainly nowhere near as interesting as the story of Marcel Lapierre and what he represents for all three of those above-referenced nouns. And it is unquestionably less interesting that the sensory revelation possible in a glass of Lapierre’s Morgon.

Wine writing limited to the first of these three modes of inquiry will never be more than a pale shadow of what’s possible. It should aspire to the latter, even if this isn’t quite achievable without providing samples of the wine in question. But the potential stories in a glass of wine are myriad, they’re very much beyond a rote recitation of facts and figures, and they’re best told from a position not of mere expertise, but of expertise fired by passion. They’re something elevated, something symbolic, something more.

The mere act of experiencing a wine that, more than any before it, somehow reaches or speaks to the taster can be as powerful and as unquantifiable as any mystery. We celebrate, honor, or at least respect those mysteries elsewhere in our lives. Why must wine suffer the dishonor and disrespect of demystification?

Holiday leftovers

[bungee jumper]In the comments section of the Eric Asimov article to which I linked a few days ago, there were some interesting responses. Most, it seems, agreed with the central premise that wine writing constantly revisiting the same ground is as tedious to read as it is to write. (NB: it’s much more tedious to write. Says the writer.)

Some, of course, disagreed. Journalists need to know their audience, and the audience is not knowledgeable…or so the argument runs. Since is this is the standard position taken by editors of wine columns, the argument is well known to writers, and to a certain extent the source of much of wine writers’ angst as they endlessly revise well-worn subject matter, decorating it with different adjectives and newer vintages, but still adorning the same steaming pile of tedium. (Says the writer, with more than a bit of whine in his voice.)

And then there was a middle ground, in which some tropes were indeed found to be tiresome, but others were worthwhile and even necessary. Here, for example, is Asimov himself defending one of them:

I’m with you — except on holiday columns. Have to distinguish between no-longer-relevant boilerplate and service pieces that readers continue to find useful. You would think, for example, that in the age of Google a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey would no longer be necessary. Yet people still want this, preferably a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Same with the annual wine column. The trick is to find new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion, and perhaps new and different wines to recommend, though the wisdom remains the same.

My first instinct is to ask whether – “in the age of Google” – people still look to the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper or magazine for their turkey recipe and wine recommendation in anywhere near the numbers they used to. I rather suspect that those seeking a current newspaper or magazine (print or electronic) source are declining, while the number looking at Epicurious or just Googling is rather ascendant. So while Asimov’s argument may be true now (and may, for all I know, not), I see nothing to support the notion that it will be true much longer.

The second is to wonder what the “new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion” would be, having become cynical enough to think that we’re pretty much sold out of frames at this point. What we’re left with is recommending different wines, which Asimov has done, to the point where just about every wine that can be recommended to go with bird and bloating, has been recommended to go with stuffing and the stuffed. Is that really reframing the discussion, or is that simply narrowing the consumer’s choice to “everything”…in which case: how is this helping, exactly?

And the third is to ask something that I’ve always wondered: where’s Paul Krugman’s annual pre-holiday mutual fund gift article, which leads nicely into his annual tax advice column and his very popular “American companies to watch for July 4th” feature? Where’s George Vecsey’s fantasy football roster, his table tennis power rankings, his list of the ten most gut-busting YouTube videos of terrified cats on soccer pitches? I mean, certainly these articles are all very popular and perhaps even necessary for them to write, since they get written by someone over and over again, right? And shouldn’t they be writing gentle into that good column, for the novice who might know what a dollar or a base are, but might be intimidated or confused by talk of derivatives or slugging percentages, not to mention the completely impenetrable Austrian school or Moneyball?

Oddly, it seems that neither their audiences nor their editors think so.

For example, read this. Everyone follow that? Anyone lost at any point? Any terms that might have benefited from definition, references sitting there without explanation, assertions made without the entire history of economic theory appended as a supportive footnote? Yeah, I thought so.

Now read this. If you’re a devoted baseball fan, that probably all makes sense. If not – even if you’re seen a baseball game or ten – well, it probably makes only marginally more sense than this, an article on cricket.

So where is the push…from editors, the audience, or even the writers themselves…for repetition of themes, for simplified language, for an abandonment of jargon and expertise in favor of a theoretical common man’s understanding in any of these opinion pieces?

There isn’t one, of course. So why is wine different?

It isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

But, more on this later…in which it will be necessary to face up to and defeat the enemy of wine writing, the cancer at its heart, the bane of all it can and should be: the destructive and yet inexplicably popular compulsion to “demystify.”

Blue note

[retreating sheep]Anthony Dias Blue apparently didn’t get the memo. The one that says: do not, under any circumstances, pick a fight with your competitors and successors if they have a bigger podium. Some excerpts:

The latest assault on the establishment media by blogger barbarians […] And who are these bloggers anyway and, more important, what is their motivation? […] But the image that presents itself is of bitter, carping gadflies who, as they stare into their computer screens and contemplate their dreary day jobs, let their resentment and sense of personal failure take shape as vicious attacks on the established critical media.

…and so forth, along similarly tiresome and unoriginal lines.

Criticizing the blogosphere, Twitter, etc. is nothing new from the establishment side of wine writing; at least Dias Blue, unlike Robert Parker, didn’t compare bloggers to the Taliban just because they pointed out a few inconvenient truths. And it’s usually a bad idea even when the criticism is justified, because the online world can be rather unforgiving as it piles on. Dias Blue’s complaints were particularly silly, and so he probably deserves everything he’s been getting. Worse, he’s contributing to the very problem he’s attempting to identify (albeit poorly) by helping turn the next generation of consumers of wine information against the self-entitled establishment he’s defending.

But lets not be too hard on the guy. Granted, he has some odd enthusiasms that do deserve opprobrium, but truth be told he’s only saying what an awful lot of wine writers – and in fact journalists across disciplines – are thinking: how, in this emerging world, am I going to make a living?

As I’ve noted before, the way forward isn’t paved with loot for the wine enthusiast who wants to do something other than sell or move boxes around. Not that it ever was, except for a very few top writers, but the future is grim indeed. The bottom (that supported burgeoning writers looking for the first step towards a career) has already fallen out, and it’s taking the intermediate tiers with it. Where will tomorrow’s stars come from? It’s not that we don’t know who the good new writers are – actually, we’re better at identifying them than ever before, thanks to the internet – it’s just that there’s not a whole lot for them to do that’s more than anecdotally compensated. And there’s less opportunity each year. Developing a writer from a level where they’re good enough for a self-published blog to a level where they’re good enough for paid, edited media requires not just practice, but also professional feedback. Successful bloggers probably don’t want to hear this, but it’s the case. And it’s not that many of them wouldn’t pass that test – in fact, the quality of many the new writers is far more impressive than their critics realize – but that they’re not likely to be given the opportunity as venues for those opportunities fall away.

Lacking those avenues for development, the sources for compensation that used to come with advancement remain as problematic as they are in the rest of the failing mediasphere: advertising, as-yet-ephemeral for-pay content, or outright sponsorship. The latter is anathema unless it’s a non-wine entity, and thus we’re back to advertising. How many wine bloggers or deliverers of content in other media don’t have “real jobs” that pay the bills? Ten? Five? Fewer? I hope for change sooner rather than later, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but it seems a long way off.

The best path forward seems to be collation, which is a function of the mass media that is only newly-arrived to the online wine world. But who makes the money in the collation business? Not, as a rule, the creators of the content…which also replicates the mainstream media model, and still doesn’t help the next generation of writers very much.

So amidst the admittedly justifiable savaging of Anthony Dias Blue’s poorly-considered column, lets spare a kind thought. Not for him in particular, but for the onrushing crisis of compensation that he represents. Blogging, tweeting, vlogging, making a little loose change from running ads…this is all well and good for the skilled hobbyist. But professionalism is not to be dismissed, and that’s a stage that will remain largely unreachable unless someone, somewhere, opens a wallet.

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 meme remains la même

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

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

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

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

Confused yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

The philosophy of wine criticism

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

Why criticize?

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

Why not criticize?

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

Why critics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not critics?

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

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

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

Wine writing vs. wine criticism

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

Wine writing

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

Wine criticism

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

Critics vs. writers

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


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

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