‘If you want constructive criticism, hire a consultant. If you want exposure, take out an ad. If you want nice things (written) about what you do, then do it well.’ AA Gill
I dig AA Gill. To some people he is just a self important wanker who strings together random stand up comedy (or poetry) and calls it writing. But to me he is a genius.
One thing he – and many other food critics – do is to call a restaurant exactly as he sees it (in an Australian context, John Lethlean does this particularly well in The Australian). They point out the flaws, the highlights, the slip ups, the admissions, the omissions, the good bits, the bad bits and sometimes, the truly abominable bits, without hesitation. When they give out great reviews, people flock, the restaurants become overnight successes and the critic gets lauded. Conversely, when they give out a poor review for a restaurant that is underperforming, said critics are encouraged and applauded by people who have had similarly poor experiences and everyone else nods sagely. The critic wins again.
The same thing happens with books, movies, tv shows, comedy routines, everything. Even sex toys. Ultimately it’s all healthy criticism, or at least criticism as it should work. Balanced.
Yet none of this healthy criticism happens in the wine industry. As Woody points out in his comment (that motivated me to write this post – not trying to single him out) the ‘poor restaurants’ of the wine world – the underperforming wines – simply die a death of silence. If a wine critic happens upon a poor wine, or if a wine judge happens upon a poor entrant, they just mark it low and move on, never to be heard from again.
What this then leads to is a vast ocean of wines out there that are merely sufficient – that have never been formally criticised, that are likely poor value, or poor quality, or both. Yet no one ever knows this, for they get no medals, no critical reviews, just silence. It’s caveat emptor at it’s finest.
Admittedly it is wrong to point the finger at most wine critics, particularly print based, as lukewarm wine reviews are not only harder to write, more time consuming but ultimately less enjoyable for everyone involved (‘life is too short to talk about bad wine’). What’s more, editors don’t want them either. Editors instead want shopping lists, ‘wines of the week’, ‘top 5 wines’ style articles that are easy to read and easy to promote. It is also wrong to go after editors though, for they also know that ‘Top 100 wines of 2010’ style lists sell newspapers/magazines.
The right answer is actually that the restrictions of space, time and obligation are what is the reason for this dearth of mainstream, ‘healthy’ wine criticism.
For I’d argue that the ‘death match’ style comparative tastings that I really like (particularly blind tastings) actually happen every night at most top wine reviewers tasting benches. They pick up a range of similar wines, just like I do, and pitch them against each other, with the top wines making it through to the recommendation stage, with the middling wines noted but ultimately pushed aside, whilst the writer concentrates on writing about the gooduns’ for their columns and articles.
The challenge in that instance is that the writers literally only have the space (column, article, review spot, whatever) and the time (wine writing pays notoriously badly – ‘It’s a lifestyle choice’ – so reviewers work very hard) to write up the wines that people will ultimately like.
Similarly, at wine shows, the whole idea is to sort out the good wines and award them, with everything else going unrewarded, ultimately because the judges believe that they aren’t that good and hence people won’t like them.
I, on the other hand, have no such obligations. I have no column restrictions, have obviously too much time on my hands (and am obsessive/don’t sleep enough) and have no one bankrolling this blog. I can thus write anything I like (within reason) as I am simply expressing my opinions as a wine drinker.
As a result, I write up whatever I taste. Or at least whatever makes it into my notebook (of which lots doesn’t – who seriously wants to read about a tasting of 20-30 $5 cleanskin tank samples?). The flow on effect is that plenty of the reviews on this site are lukewarm, critical and brutally honest, as I write up all of the wines that most wine writers simply don’t have the time, space, desire etc to write up.
What comes of all this is what I would argue is just balanced criticism. Balanced in that it reveals the good and the bad, without leaving the (arguably more interesting) ‘challenging’ reviews out. What’s more, I am hardly a pioneer in this respect either, as Jeremy Oliver has been handing out lukewarm reviews since I was in high school. Parker has similarly been ripping into ‘underripe’ (make of that what you will) Burgundies for decades.
More recently, Campbell and Gary at the Winefront have never been afraid of publishing less than glowing reviews, particularly on disappointing icons, and even Bob Campbell now freely publishes all his tasting notes, including plenty of sub 80 point wines (and I thought I was a hard marker). In both cases the ‘new’ channel that is the internet has resulted in more space to allow these middling wines to be reviewed.
In the end I just hope that you think that this blog is balanced too (and if not, do let me know, as criticism works both ways).