The wine critics dilemma – to publish or not?
Being a wine blogger/critic/writer/whatever sounds like a sweet life. All you do is drink (typically) free booze, often accompanied by fine (free) food and with the only obligation being to bash out a couple of lines talking about whether you liked said booze or not. Straightforward right?
What that idyllic description fails to convey is the inherent challenge of the free sample. The challenging power dynamic that underpins anything free and tends to beleaguer even the finest critic. It’s a dynamic that actually seems very simple until you come to one question:
What do you do if you come across a real dud?
If you are a typical mainstream reviewer (mainstream in the nicest possible way) you simply don’t write about it. End of story. Or if you do, you only write about it if – as the wise Rory from Story Wines put it – ‘the winery should know better’ or you’ve got a point to prove/axe to grind/story idea/etc.
The justification for many reviewers – and it is largely driven by publishers and editors – is that there are too many wines out there and not enough time to review them all. So the instruction is thus to just talk about the good ones. Or something like that.
That attitude, however, leaves behind a lingering, unspoken question – what about those average wines? They are still out there, aren’t they? And how will people know that they are – when compared to their peers – average (and poor value) if no one is saying so?
That is when the ‘good bits’ only argument starts to look a bit fragile. Until, of course, you are that reviewer, and suddenly it all begins to make sense.
For when you are that reviewer, or any reviewer really, you begin to understand what goes into every bottle. The blood and sweat and more sweat and more blood, all squeezed out of people who spend every day out there in the vineyard, work shit hard, pay their bills on time and are genuinely good people, trying to make the absolute best booze they can.
That’s when you stop and think – do I really need to write this nasty review? Or do I just quietly jot down an average review in my ‘non publishing notebook’ and open something else? It is much easier to do the latter for everyone involved, so why dwell on negatives? Mum always said that if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all, right?
But that’s a cop-out, no? A blow to objective integrity? The question then is at what point do you decide to cut someone some slack? Or don’t you? It’s complicated!
Which brings me to the point of this story.
I’ve got in front of me 3 South Australian reds, from a producer I’ve never heard of before (or at least I hadn’t until the samples turned up) and I’m really struggling to find positive things to say about them. All 3 are north of 14.5% alcohol, are not particularly cheap and all 3 look overripe, strained and, to my tastes at least, unattractive.
Now if these three wines came from a known producer – someone who should know better – then I would have no trouble writing them up and calling them shit (or not quite shit, but average) and do it with a clear conscience.
But these wines aren’t from a known producer. They are from a tiny family operation that sound (from the notes on the website) just like the aforementioned hard working wine people. What’s more, the production is so tiny that if everyone who visited this website on a daily basis bought a case, the whole annual production would be gone in one hit.
Which is where it begins to get messy. My question then to you, reading this right now, is do you really want to read some rather average reviews of wines that you’ll probably never see? Is that what we really want?
For me, I’m in a holding pattern, currently sitting on them as I’m still undecided what to do. On one hand, the critic in me just wants to publish them, largely as it feels more honest to do so. It’s a feeling that will get stronger in time too, that desire for absolute blunt honesty, burning like a wad of pineapples in your pocket after payday.
On the other hand though, the human in me realises that I’m just another arsehole with an opinion, that publishing these notes would do more harm than good, supporting my aforementioned prejudice against boozy reds perhaps but really just sticking the knife into some hardworking wine family.
So where to go from here?