Can A Wine Critic’s Opinion Really Be Trusted? (Dissecting the Pontifications of Bettane & Desseauve’s Guide to the Wines of France)

Vinted on June 13, 2011 binned in book reviews, commentary

Too much of a good thing, can, in fact, be had, especially when you’re talking about wine books; the sight alone of which used to bring me great pleasure but now fills me with a OMG-I’ve-got-term-paper-due-soon type of dread because I’ve not so much as glance at most of them let alone reviewed them.

First off, wine books tend to be weighty – as in, literally weighty, heavy, and requiring a lot of storage space. In the case of my current stock of wine book samples, they are taking up an increasingly alarming percentage of my office floor space, as they sit in grim admonition of my incapability to keep up even a modest a review schedule… MOCKING ME WITH THEIR SILENCE!!!

Anyway… I’ve been making a (half-hearted but) concerted effort to chip away at the wine book sample library that has now grown out of my floor space, and so picked up the nearest to my desk chair, which happened to be Bettane and Desseauve’s Guide to the Wines of France By Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve (about $25 at Amazon.com).

Michel Bettane, France’s most recognizable wine critic, is (I’d argue, anyway) prone to pontification (something I noted when hearing him speak last year in Cahors). He lives up to that  reputation in this new guide – which in-and-of-itself is a capable, handy abd well-researched reference on a wide swath of French wine.  It’s in the guide’s Frequently Asked Questions section that the pontification is on display, when the authors directly address the question, “Can a wine critic’s opinion really be trusted?”

In this case, Bettane and Desseauve’s Guide to the Wines of France is not just weighty in heft, but also in tone; and the answer it offers to that potentially deep query is alternatively defensive, poignant, and downright… odd

Bettane and Desseauve (though I suspect mostly Bettane) begin by going on the defensive, acknowledging that the role of the critic has come under attack in recent years (all emphasis is mine):

“…They see us as members of an old-boy network, incapable of delivering fair and impartial advice. Some even question our professional competence and the very criteria that form the basis of our opinions… We are not handsomely paid for what we do, not in France at least…”

Hard to argue with them; I don’t know any wine critics who are raking in the cash in any currency, and there’s been no shortage of barbs thrown the way of critics in an age when the voice of the amateur can be heard louder (and carries much, much farther) than in any other time in history.  Typically, when a professional is faced with explaining the value one brings at a professional level, said pro starts talking about said professionalism, in terms of distancing his/her role from that of an amateur on the basis of experience – which is precisely what Bettane and Desseauve go on to do:

As for our views about wine, we are surely better placed to give advice than consumers themselves in wine chat rooms. To begin with, we have the advantage that comes from seeing thousands of different wines develop over a huge number of vintages. In particular, we have a much clearer idea of how wines are made, varying in style from one winemaker to another, according to local traditions and available technology.”

Also tough to argue with that logic. Ever read Outliers? Bottom line: nothing makes you an expert at something like experience, and the pro in almost every case will have an edge on the amateur in that regard if only by virtue of volume of exposure.  Now, you might take umbrage at their inclusion of wine chat rooms (and by extension just about any on-line forum, blogs, etc.), but while it can be argued that there are some experienced non-pros in those forums, it can be also argued with equal merit that the majority of people in those forums don’t have the time (or funds) to taste the volume of wines that the pros do.

So far, so good; but things take a decidedly odd turn after that:

Most of all, we are more even-handed when it comes to assessing wines: in the course of our work, it would be unthinkable to judge the work of so many producers and not become friends with a few of them. This is precisely why we are less likely to show favoritism than all those wine enthusiasts who pride themselves on their particular choice of supplier.”

Uhm… excuse me… WTF?!???

Let me get this straight: consumers/amateurs pride themselves on buying the wine from a few brands/outlets, and this makes them less objective in their analysis of wine? And befriending wine producers makes pros more impartial?  None of that makes any sense whatsoever.

Speaking for myself, and I suppose I sit somewhere between the amateur and professional here, my friendships with wine producers causes me a sh*tload of agita, because it makes me worry that I’ll be prone less impartiality when evaluating their wines, not more.

As for consumers priding themselves on limiting their wine purchases to a few select suppliers or brands, Bettane and Desseauve must not have seen any of the data from the last few years on the fickle Millennial generation’s wine purchasing habits – they don’t really build limited brand loyalty, they try just about anything and everything. And I’m pretty sure that stance wouldn’t qualify them as biased zealots incapable of objectively discerning the merits of wines from multiple producers.

The big question from passionate wine consumers back to the authors, I think, ought to be Why even go there? We’re talking about two guys here who don’t really need to defend their position as critics in the first place, and if they feel so compelled to answer a charge against their utility, why not leave it at “we taste a sh*tload of wine and have garnered the experience.” Why take pot-shots at the wine geek consumers of the world? Those are your core customers, guys!

I’d be remiss in all of this cavil-mongering, however, if I ignored the more poignant part of the authors’ answer:

“The fact that we are impartial, however – and the evidence does seem compelling – certainly doesn’t mean that we are infallible. Let me say it loud and clear then: even wine critics can get it wrong! This is why we taste wines throughout their lives, from the cask right through to old age; why we scour the vineyards and wineries; and why we ply producers with questions.”

Wine critics do, indeed, get it wrong.  Sometimes, they even get it wrong a few sentences before telling us that they can get it wrong.  Why the fact that wine critics are fallible should be surprising news is beyond me, but they deserve props for mentioning it.  Bettane and Desseauve also deserve credit for reminding us (in multiple places in Guide to the Wines of France) that the subject matter of wine is not a destination, it’s a journey; and wine expertise is not a finish line that remains stagnant, it’s an ever-moving target.   That fact might sometimes generate Sisyphus-ian levels of frustration for wine geeks, but it’s also responsible for much of what makes wine artful and soulful – if not for an eternally-moving mark, we’d have a much less exciting wine world about which to pontificate.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Sam


    Great article as always. But as far as "wine critics who are raking in the cash in any currency", I've always got the impression that Robert Parker does extremely well. I saw him at Wine Future, and I'd be surprised if his honorarium for the event was less than $50,000. (That's just an educated guess). Add in other speaking fees, money from his books, and Wine Advocate, and it probably adds up pretty fast.

  • ONX Wine


    You are your own best critic. I agree with them that the subject matter of the wine is not a destination but a journey.

  • Steve Heimoff


    A French wine critic…pontificating? Mais non! Sacre bleu!

  • @fatcork


    Everybody who tastes wine is a critic. Wine experts, professionals, whatever you want to call them, are just people with palates. What makes an expert or a critic? I'm not sure, maybe it's just having a voice that people want to listen to? I tend to cringe when people call me a Champagne expert, because next to the Jedi Brad Baker, I am a mere Padawan in training. So, I will never call myself an expert because I will never know all there is to know. A Champagne professional, yes, but not an expert. I tend to view people who call themselves experts the same way I view people who drive Hummers.

    • Sam


      Saying everyone who tastes wine is a wine critic, is like saying everyone who watches television is a tv critic.

      Try asking the average person what his favorite tv shows are and why they are their favorites. You'll just confirm exactly what you probably already know: lots of people watch tv to kill time without giving it much thought at all. That certainly doesn't make them a tv critic. At best it makes them the best judge of what tv shows are best for them.

      And if they haven't actually watched a lot of the programs that are currently on, they might not even be the best judge of what their own favorites are.

      At best anyone can become a critic! But not everyone is.

  • Jennifer


    Great article, but my favorite part is your use of the "agita", a personal favorite.

  • 1WineDude


    Hi all, thanks for the comments! SOrry for the late response but have been in the Big Apple and crazy busy!

    Some thoughts on the "everyone is a critic / no one is a critic" thing: I think both approaches are somewhat oversimplifications of the state of play of critique in an on-line, socially-hyper-connected world.

    Surely not everyone who critiques something is a critic, or at least isn't paid for it (and I do accept that Parker and some others are making a good living from the profession, but like rock stars these folks are in the 0.0003% exceptions in that profession! :). But those who critique are sometimes more influential to their friends and expanded social network than the paid critics. So the situation is complex, regardless of whether or not those critiquing could ever have enough broad appeal to be paid as critics, they're still carrying influence. Cheers!

  • Ed Masciana


    Nobody is an "expert" on this subject. The way I explain it, there are a million different wines produced in the world every year. If you don't get around to all million of them, you're already behind by the following year. So, the older you get, the behinder you are.

    I've been doing this for over 40 years, Imagine how behind I am.

  • Peter A


    Ed, while it is debatable whether there are true wine experts who have mastered every dimension of the subject, there are certainly individuals who know more than others, and these folks have emerged as critics.

    In my experience, the more wines you taste, the more you want to know about what and how to taste, and so you gravitate toward critics whose writings and personality resonate with you.

    The reason we are still asking the question, "Can a wine critic's opinion really matter?" is because many critics, some of them highly influential, act as though they have nothing left to learn and give themselves unjustified or unearned pontifical status (see Mr. Heimoff's comment above :). What's more off-putting than critics who do that?

    We need critics. While everyone has the right to an opinion on wine, having an opinion does not necessarily make you a critic. Genuine critics know enough about their subject to determine whether opinions have a basis in reality or in fact. As someone who cares seriously about the wine industry, I look forward to reading what select critics have to say. They make me better at what I do.

    The critics with the largest followings treat their readers as partners in the journey toward learning more about wine. They come across as guides, not as self-proclaimed experts before whom we must bow.

    Once more critics adopt this stance, perhaps we can stop asking the question titling Joe's excellent post.

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