wine-pages.com
Tom Cannavan's wine-pages.com   

Some valid points raised in response to this essay and good arguments made. A broad selection of these are printed below. Where I had something to add to the debate I have also included my reply.

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to respond.

   Essay Responses   

Måns Wallin, London, England
I have just read your article and found it very interesting. I'd just like to make a few comments on a subject I feel is not properly examined by the professional tasters themselves. I certainly value the thoughts and opinions provided by wine critics in the media, and I do agree entirely with you in that they have an important role to play, judging the quality and value for money of wine. They do a lot of hard work providing readers or viewers with a quick evaluation of wines, directing consumers towards, generally speaking, better products. However, in my humble opinion there are two inherent problems in the method applied by critics when assessing wine, and these problems are hardly ever mentioned when the results are published.
Firstly, a wine is very rarely tasted by itself. This means that to be a top scorer, a wine usually have to stand out in a crowd, displaying more of certain characteristics that we expect from a particular AOC or equivalent. Looking at the honours awarded by the recent International WINE Challenge, for instance, will reveal the pattern by which tasters give higher scores to wines which display more flavour (relatively speaking), better 'expression of fruit', etc. I believe, given the attention paid to such events by winemakers, that there is a risk that wines will be 'improved' over the years to such an extent that they no longer resemble the individual style they were once known by. As an example, Claret is supposed to be medium-bodied with refined characteristics, evolving over time, not a specimen of dramatic fruit to drink the year after release.
Secondly, wine critics usually sniff and spit, allowing the wine a few minutes to impress them. I understand that good health requires this practice, and that critics also drink, as opposed to taste, certain wines. But I nevertheless believe that people who buy wine to drink it will experience a very different sensation, when they have their third glass, from the wine critic who has a few centilitres to assess and subsequently dispose of. In my experience, traditionally made Old World wines who are perhaps not designed to impress critics will show much better over a period of hours, during which a 'bold, fruit-driven, vanilla oak' wine might have become cloying and far too rich to enjoy.
In conclusion, then, it is imperative that wine critics become less confident in their expressed judgements by realising the inherent deficits in the method by which they assess wine. Otherwise there is a risk that all wines will become turbo-charged with flavour, erasing the differences between styles, eliminating that beautiful diversity in the world of wine. Consumer demand is not a constant, it is influenced by variables such as expert authority, marketing, and, ultimately, producer supply. The wine critic exerts influence, by choice or not, on each of these.
My response to Måns:
I couldn't agree more with the general thrust of what you say: that the "homogenisation" of wines into show-winning styles is a dangerous and slippery slope. I also agree that tasting an ounce of wine and spitting it out is not the same as enjoying half a bottle over a leisurely meal (I tried to allude to this point in the essay) - though I do think the UK critics and show judges - by and large - are alive to the danger of "blockbuster", instantly-impressive wines and do make every attempt to look for subtle complexity and finesse - wines that will complement food and sipping over conversation and not just "Wow!" the taster. Personally, within a "Bordeaux" category for example, I am never looking for full-bodied, in-your-face oak, fruit-bomb exmplars! I'm not sure this is the same in a big Australian or Californian wine competition however...

Nick Alabaster, Essex, England
Great topic to kick around!
You must accept there's factual information pertaining to a wine that is either right or wrong. Some people might mis-judge a wine through lack of experience, so I think it has to be accepted that certain critiquing is more accurately related that anothers.
To pick up on a few specific points in your essay:
"(we) will linger over a bottle, enjoying its subtleties with food and conversation"
- it's debatable whether this is truly the sense of the wine - all that food, drinking alcohol and company upsets the assessment of wine - what's to say a blind tasting without food and with comparative wines doesn't give the most objective opinion of the wine to be had? Of course, how best to enjoy wine is another story.
"if (we are told) a liver recipe is the most fantastic thing they've ever eaten, we still might not touch it with a barge-pole if we know we detest liver"
- that's not the way the Parker sheep work though - they often doubt their own palate before Parker and re-assess their preferences in tandem!
"Whom would I rather trust if about to splash out my own hard-earned cash?"
- Uhmm, maybe base logic should mean Joe Public choices are best...given that you say no-ones wrong !
On the International Wine Challenge: how can the final judging panel be considered a good arbiter of taste if one of the Wines of the Year can barely be considered wine at all? Grape juice masquerading as wine - the Porteguese Ramada 1998 - is an insult to genuine winemakers everywhere !
My response to Nick:
Good point on the blindly allegient Parkerites! I see where you are coming from on the "no one is right; no one is wrong" aspect and probably didn't state my position clearly enough: I am of course refering to subjective opinions of how "likeable" a wine is. I didn't mean to imply that someone describing a totally corked wine as "lovely" would be technically correct. Certain things (like distinct faults) are obviously clear-cut. So I'd stil rather listen to a respected critic than inexperienced Joe Bloggs....
I haven't tasted the IWC wine in question. I know that a couple of their "trophy" wines I've tasted in the past haven't impressed me. I also know the judging stages of the IWC are scrupulously fair, but I've no idea how the tallying of judges' votes and eventual awarding of trophies actually happens....

Allan Ghazarian, North Carolina, USA
I enjoyed reading your essay and agree that one can discern valuable information from a critic's assessment of a wine. This is particularly so when one's palate is similar to that of a certain critic. I would argue, however, that the critics' influence on winemakers is much more significant. I would dare say that every winemaker knows who Parker is and reads Wine Spectator. A 90+ pt score from either publication makes a wine an instant sellout and it will command a higher price. Conversely a low to mid 80's score will often doom a wine to lay longer on the shelf or have to be discounted. In my opinion this has led to a distinct shift in the style of certain wines. This is not always a good thing. Parker is known for admiring powerful extracted wines. His influence is so significant that I have heard rumours that winemakers often produce special "Parker barrels" in the hope of eliciting higher scores. Most of these high powered wines have high alcohol levels, often making them unpleasant to drink with a meal. In Bordeaux there has been a slow shift to making more intense, extracted wines that bear little resemblence to clarets of old and make one wonder how they will age. Are we in danger of losing the marvelous variety that different terroirs bring?
My response to Allan:
Really, I couldn't agree more with these points which are very well made. Certainly on recent trips I've made through France's top regions every wine-maker and wine-merchant I spoke to knew exactly who Parker was and had a very clear idea of the style of wine they should be making if they wanted to score those 90+ points. Parker's influence is certainly not so great outside the US as it is at home, yet there is no doubt that his influence pervades the wine industry worldwide. So we are dealing with the influence of a specific critic with an awesomely powerful position, quite unlike any other individual critic certainly.
Any loss of diversity through his influence is, I agree, very sad indeed (the point also made by Måns Wallin above). But I suppose there is a flip side in that certain mean, old-fashioned, fruitless wines have seen the light and in these cases the process of "Parkerisation" might produce something that is better all round!

Carmine Caravaggio, Montreal, Canada
I really enjoyed your article on the role of a critic. I have a few comments to make of my own.
Pass the sugar please
First and foremost, your point about acquiring likes and dislikes of tastes at an early age is terrific. It is my contention that when we get older we return to the tastes acquired in childhood. A child raised on soft drinks and junkfood will gravitate towards a greater variety of junkfood later on in life. This teaches the palate sugar and preservatives among other things. Never have acquiring the taste of a fresh tomato or the smell of fresh parsley. I think the future of critics and sommeliers is destined for trouble.
Typicity, Typicity
In your essay you argued "Who's to say one wine is better than another". My point is that wines originate from a location and therefore must be evaluated according to typicity. That is to say how well it represents where the grapes were grown, and how it was made. Someone who evalutes a Muscadet should be looking for typical characteristics such as fruit and pronounced acidity and not that it is inferior to the Montrachet that was just tasted. It is possible that a Muscadet that costs less than 15 dollars US can be rated 90+ and the Montrachet which considerably costs more be rated lower. This element of typicity was not mentioned in your essay.
Honey do you smell lightly-tosted pine nuts and croissants?
I would also like to add that critic's evalution of wine should be kept to minimum. Too often professional tasters go on and on with too many adjectives that the normal paying customer cannot comprehend. Simplicity is key. The clearer the description, the easier it will be to communicate the wine to the customer.
The medium is the meeting place
In conclusion, I would like to say that non-professionals like myself should turn to the internet and forums like these to discuss wines. With this medium we can research, and formulate our own conclusions, purchase wine on-line and give immediate feedback. Much of what we read in publications contains cigar ads and are based on trophy and collectible wines that are more geared to the investor rather than the everyday taster.
My response to Carmine:
I agree in particular with your last point: a critic's review of a wine must also be placed in the context of what you want from the wine, and what the critic - or the publication for whom they write - wants from a wine.