Think Wine Criticism Is B.S.? Then You Need To Reject All Forms Of Criticism

Vinted on October 21, 2014 binned in best of, commentary

Every once in a while, when I tell people what I do for a living, I get a sort of snickering question along the lines of “does it bother you that part of what you do is total bullsh*t?”

These folks are usually referring to the studies, quoted by lazy media outlets ad nauseum, that purportedly debunked wine tasting as bull honkey when “expert” wine folk were given white wines with red food coloring and tricked into thinking that they were tasting red wines.

But what those snickering folks fail to realize is that wine criticism and professional wine tasting are no different than every other form of experiential criticism – movie reviewing, restaurant critiquing, you name it – in that they are the attempts of fallible humans to garner expertise and disperse helpful opinions to the best of their abilities while trying to overcome the ingrained perception wiring that helped us evolutionarily, but hinder us when it comes to consistent, robot-like precision.

To wit: my friend Alder Yarrow recently blogged about a study featured in the New Yorker, in which participants were tricked into thinking that fake tongues were their own, taste perceptions and all. Yes, seriously. Read it, the results and implications are fascinating.

I doubt we’ll see much lazy media attention on this study, however, because it would logically require those same lazy media to start asking people like Alder and me what wines pair best with crow sandwich…

One of the conclusions to be entertained from the fake-tongue experiment is that tasting itself is total bullsh*t. Now, that doesn’t make much logical sense, and so most of us would agree that isn’t the case, that are personal preferences and perceptions in taste are real, and that they differ because, well, that’s just the way that we’re wired. Millions of years of evolution will create strange epistemological bedfellows in the relentless pursuit of molding us to our environs. The trouble is, evolution doesn’t easily forget, so what worked for us then can work against us in some ways now. Ok, so far so good, right?

Another logical step we can take from the experimental tongue results – and one that’s much more logical – is that as humans we are wired to be able to fool ourselves when it comes to perception. This is not new news, we have something like thirty years of data on this, from brain studies to testimonials from meditation experts, all of which shows that we do not actually perceive the world as it is, or as it is really happening. In fact, the data suggest that our brains default to a few milliseconds delay in perceiving any stimulus that requires brain computation to understand (we don’t normally notice this, since we’re all more or less on the same delay).

To me, all of this greatly underscores the point made by another friend of mine, Blake Gray, last year, when he waxed philosophic on the practice of wine tasting and criticism. Here’s the pertinent quote:

“If you want to say wine tasting is bullsh*t, it’s only true if all criticism is bullsh*t. Just because a movie critic or music critic likes something doesn’t mean you will. Movie critics hate plenty of popular films, just like restaurant critics won’t praise Big Macs and wine critics don’t drink Charles Shaw.”

Couple all of the above with this: we now have data that show that expert wine tasters, when tasting wines in a controlled environment monitored by research scientists, will cluster as a group and repeat their evaluations when re-tasting blind, both well within statistically significant margins.

What does the total story tell us?

It tells us that wine experts are not purveyors of B.S., but are simply no different from any other experts: we’re just trying to overcome our faulty, ingrained human perception wiring as best we can, and we probably do it better than those who haven’t devoted any real time to it. You can reject that conclusion, of course, but understand that in doing so you are also rejecting the fundamental tenets that support criticism of any experiential field, of just about any kind.  Sorry, but if you’re looking for real B.S., you’ll need to head over to the finance industry…






  • Solomon Mengeu

    I think you have some valid points here Joe Roberts, in that like all subjective or artistic subjects wine tasting is not pure science. But neither is it pure guess work or as you put it B.S., I think people snicker sometimes because of stuff like Two Buck Chuck beating out very expensive wine at blind tastings or when a 80 $ Pinot Noir beats DRC or a similarly priced super Grand Cru Burgundy.

    One thing that fuels this I believe is that it simply becomes a numbers game, to where a bottle of wine is judged by an arbitrary score. I believe something like this would be more useful: drinkable, interesting, good, amazing, awesome & a lifetime memory wine. Also I think its important to get out the message that wine pairs well with food, is fun & doesn't have to be complicated.

    I did enjoy your recent write-ups about amazing '72 Tokaji 6 Puttonyos Aszu & Born in the U.S.A. Though as a non-American I am not an expert on the awesome & happening new wine scene.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Solomon. I suppose in many ways the wine biz is sleeping in the bedthat it has made.

    • Michael Brill

      Hi Solomon… I still don't understand why people hate on numbers. Why do you consider them any more "arbitrary" than your 6 point system, the 5 star system (which actually has 9 points including half stars), letter grades (13 points if you include +/-). Basically no wine gets below 85 points, so you effectively have a 16 point system.

      Like English, it's not perfect… but the world doesn't need Esperanto and I'm not sure if needs a different scoring scheme.

  • Michael Brill

    This post is bullshit.

    • 1WineDude

      Michael, agreed… So are its readers… ;-)

  • nomadfromcincy

    I think the rise of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic demonstrate that individual critics are less important to readers than consensus/data. I hope that is the next development in wine criticism. The wisdom of many experts is better than a single critic, especially if you can align them with your perspective.

    • 1WineDude

      Nomad – I’ve also written about that implication as well. Cellar Tracker shows the power of that approach, I think.

      • nomadfromcincy

        Perhaps Cellartracker will do that but I am still waiting for an app/website that brings together these various critics and then helps you align yourself while also looking at the metadata.

        • 1WineDude

          Nomad – Google sort of does that, in its search results ;-)

  • wee ree san

    " we’re just trying to overcome our faulty, ingrained human perception wiring as best we can, and we probably do it better than those who haven’t devoted any real time to it"….amen and agree….trying your best at anything always infuriates some…is a help to others…I choose to believe that being your best trumps anger at trying to be your best…great post Joe…one of your best….

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, wee ree; I appreciate those kind words!

  • Tom Wark

    I have no time for folks that in any way disparage wine critics or professional critics of any artistic pursuit. They tend to philistines who either have no understanding of the art they think requires no contemplation or consumers of the most basic examples of that art.

    Should I really care about a person's opinion on professional wine critics who doesn't care enough about wine to be able to find Napa Valley or Bordeaux on a map?

    Every genre of art and craft has its geeks—those people who find fascination and challenge and pleasure in the complexity that can be observed when looked at closely. Those that are not geeks have no authority on the subject of what is valuable or interesting or good or bad or better within that art or craft.

    Let them bitch and moan and point….as long as they keep buying their wine in drug stores.

    • 1WineDude

      Tom – so what you’re saying is that the topic shouldn’t be divisive, and anyone who thinks differently is an a-hole! (joking). But seriously, I understand your point, and wise people from William Shatner to Henry Rollins have advised us that those who don’t do anything constructive are almost always the first ones to put others down.

      • Tom Wark

        I wouldn't call them a-holes…just so extraordinarily uninformed as to make their opinion valueless.

        • 1WineDude

          Tom – I suppose with experiential things like wine, we run that risk ofthose folks confusing preference for empirical quality, which are not thesame things.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    Joe, what's better, the criticism of an ill-informed critic, or the criticism agreed upon by an ill-informed crowd?

    • 1WineDude

      Thomas – assuming you mean the criticism *supplied by* an ill-informedcritic? That comparison is sort of like asking if it's better to die fromhorrible disease A versus horrible disease B. It suggests that we lackforums for informed versions of critics and consumers, which I don't thinkis the case.

    • nomadfromcincy

      The crowd. At least it could be statistically significant.

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Opinions and recommendations are rampant and even valid, because they are merely opinions and recommendations. Criticism should be handed down by those who have spent the time and effort to learn more than just how to swallow.

    Therefore, I agree with you that wine criticism is not bullshit, but only if, like in criticisms of the arts, the critics have a foundation. The same goes for the crowd. Mostly, those in the wine business who admire the crowd do so out of their knowledge that this social media event creates sales. That's true, but what does making recommendations (or pulling numbers or symbols out of one's backside) have to do with considered, knowledgeable wine criticism?

    • 1WineDude

      Thomas – thanks for clarifying that. I agree that criticism is not the sameas recommendation.

      • MyrddinGwin

        What, to you both, is the distinction between recommendation and criticism? If there is any overlap, where does it fall? How often do we personally like wines we critically pan, and how often do we critically praise wines that we personally hate?

        • 1WineDude

          MG – while I can’t say I pan wines that I also like to drink, I can for sure tell you that I have praised wines that I personally didn’t care for much. If they’re good, they’re good, from a quality perspective, regardless of what I personally dislike about them.

          • Thomas Pellechia

            Exactly, Joe.

            The difference between recommendation and criticism is that the former recognizes individual taste and desire; the latter recognizes (or should) the level of winemaking achievement.

            Unfortunately, those critics who have made a good living assigning ratings to express their personal preferences have obfuscated the distinction.

            • 1WineDude

              Thomas – interestingly, I’ve had this discussion with producers three times already during my current trip to California. The general consensus so far is that stylistic preferences have been too invasive in the critical arena in the US.

          • MyrddinGwin

            You know, tonight in class, I did sort of pan a wine I actually enjoy drinking. As soon as I took a taste of a sherry we were poured blind in class, I recognised it. Its smell and flavour are indistinct, the sweetness and acidity are out of balance, and the flavour of the wine is pretty much gone seconds after putting it in your mouth–even if you're holding it there. The only positive critical thing I could say about it was that it was certainly sherry. Despite that, I did enjoy this sherry, as I have for years, because 1) it's made to be simple and (mostly) inoffensive, 2) it's in a price range I could afford, and 3) I've enjoyed it for years, and I see no sense in stopping now, even if it was technically the worst wine of the night.

            • 1WineDude

              MG, now that you mention it, I can think of many innocuous wines – not lot quality wines – that I enjoyed drinking in context, but was pretty critical of them professionally. But when it’s bad, it is just bad! :-)

  • VeniceCalif

    I don't think wine criticism is BS. But I do think it's more subjective than the straight-up rating numbers like 86 or 92 will lead you to believe. Those numbers make wine crit sound like you're judging the figure skating at the olypmics, when it's really more like movie reviewing. Moreover, I think Pro Tasters and Average Joes are looking for different things from wine, so the latter may naturally distrust the former. So no, wine crit is not BS. It's just more subjective than most people suspect and more subjective than most critics would like us AJ's to believe.

    • Thomas Pellechia


      All aesthetic criticism is subjective. Only a fool argues otherwise.

      Yet, there are many things about winemaking, art, music, movie making, and theater that are technical. If you don't know the technicals you have no foundation. You can recommend based on your personal appreciation, but you cannot critique that which you do not know.

    • 1WineDude

      Venice – if only we could get the lazier media outlets to agree with you!

  • Tish

    Dude, lots of what you (and Blake) say makes sense, except that the overarching argument loses impact because you are conflating ALL critical reviews — essentially putting everything into one basket. The continued reliance of SOME critics on the over-used, ill-defined, shamefully-inflated, marketing-driven and therefore essentially useless 100-point scale is such that you just can't generalize about "wine criticism."

    The 100pt scale has hijacked much (but not all) of wine criticism, falsely dressing it in objectivity that is inherently impossible — and therefore is just a 100-point insult the the very beverage being "reviewed" and all the people who care about it.

    Other than that, and the fact that NOBODY reads wine reviews, wine criticism is in great shape!

    • 1WineDude

      Tish – I think it’s confused by the media and the wine buying public, actually.

    • MyrddinGwin

      You know, though it isn't necessarily used by any critics I can think of off-hand, I do find the sort of rating scale I'm using for school useful. To simplify it, a wine is decent if you can think of two reasons why it is decent, and two reasons why you're not rating it better. A wine sucks if you can think of four distinct reasons why it sucks, and a wine rocks if you can think of four distinct reasons why it rocks. Reasons a wine could suck or rock or fall somewhere in between include typicity of a region, grape variety, or style, the balance of the wine's components, the complexity or concentration, etc. Perhaps you might find this style of rating more towards your preference, rather than number scales?

      • 1WineDude

        MG – you’ve got the makings of a wine review blog right there…

        • Thomas Pellechia

          As soon as MG defines "decent", "sucks", and "rocks" as each relates to wine, not to just to MG. And if MG can get geeks to calibrate their palates to MGs–GOLDEN!

          • MyrddinGwin

            The reason I was suggesting this "Sucks–Decent–Rocks" scale was because it seemed that a lot of people are unhappy with a 100-point scale, since it seems very precise for judging something that is mostly not. Using a "Sucks–Decent–Rocks" scale seems much more imprecise in concept than numbers do. In this rating system, the vast majority of wines sold commercially fall somewhere in the "decent" range. First, though, I'll describe the two extremes.

            A wine that rocks is one that shows distinct character from the grape varieties, the growing conditions, and the wine-making style, has a great component integration and balance between residual sugar, acidity, tannin (if applicable), and alcohol, has an intensity of flavour and length that match the components, and has different layers of aromas and flavours from primary (mostly fruit-derived), secondary (mostly winemaking-derived), and tertiary (mostly age-derived) groups. While you might not like the grape variety or the style of wine, you would have to concede that the wine is well made. Very few wines reach this level, though some in the upper end of the decent range do approach it.

            On the opposite end of the scale are wines that suck. A wine that sucks would be actually offensive to drink. The components would be out-of-whack and alien from each other (eg, acidity so high above everything else it causes chemical burns, alcohol so high above everything else you'd dilute it if you added pure vodka to it, residual sugar so high above everything else you'd probably find it smoother drinking high-fructose corn syrup directly, etc.), and the wine would clearly be faulted, likely in multiple ways. If you could take away one negative aspect from a wine that sucks, there would still be another, and if you stripped away all of the negative aspects, you'd have a glass of acidified, maybe sweet, alcoholic water. A wine that sucks would be beyond saving.

            A decent wine falls in between the extremes, and can range from "really quite tasty" to "innocuous" to "imaginably good to someone". What prevents a fundamentally decent wine from becoming a wine that sucks is that there is some inherently good character in it, such as a nice balance between the components, or perhaps even a somewhat nice aroma hidden behind a fault. What prevents a decent wine from being a wine that rocks is perhaps a slight lack of integration between the components at this point, or perhaps a slightly more vague character or a short finish. Basically, to judge if a wine is decent, can you name a couple of reasons why the wine doesn't completely suck and why the wine doesn't completely rock, either?

            Now, with this sort of scale, one of the major issues is that since most wines are decent, short wine reviews would get a bit boring. As well, there's quite a bit of nuance that might be missed. The lower end (passable, but barely) is still connected to the upper-end (nearly great), since both wines are "decent". If a scale like these became as used as the number scale, as well, people who really feel strongly about certain characteristics might also figure that if a wine doesn't fit their own particular taste (eg, hates high residual sugar, like in Icewine), it sucks, or if it fits their personal taste (eg, oaky to the point of Château 2×4), then it rocks.

            Does this help clarify my thoughts at all?

            • Thomas Pellechia

              It clarifies your thoughts, and it spells out a lot more than most of the popular critics spell out in their verbal assessments. Yet, with no apparent agreed upon standard within the wider wine industry form which to draw conclusions about the taste and soundness of a wine, whatever method a critic uses and however that method is reflected (numbers, stars, single word descriptors) remains personal and problematic.

              For instance, scores of arguments can be found about Brettanomyces–is it a fault, or is there a level at which is okay? Not to mention its various types of infection, without an accurate test, who decides whether there is too much Brettanomyces, too little, or none at all?

              I've gone through this argument numerous times before, and each time I am accused by someone of making tasting too technical. Yet, if a wine critic says there is too much Brettanomyces in a particular wine, I'd love to know how that critic knows for sure. Of course, most critics no longer even bother to make such claims–if they find fault like that, they simply don't review the wine.

              If consumers want critics to tell them how much they like a wine, fine. But that's not a critique of the wine. If applying standards is too technical and onerous on wine critics then, to me, wine criticism is too subjective to have much meaning beyond personal taste.

              Unfortunately, I agree with Tisch: with a few exceptions, the majority of wine criticism appears to be marketing in disguise.

              • MyrddinGwin

                Though this is not very technical, I am aware that there is a threshold in myself where a potential fault does become a fault. It's when I can smell or taste nothing except for the fault. What I find more useful than figuring out whether the level of a particular potential fault is too high, though, is figuring out whether that potential fault is there at all (and I'm not just hallucinating a smell). People have different thresholds of detection, recognition, and tolerance of different compounds, and some people also like certain compounds that others despise. Unless I know the reviewer and I have very similar palates, I prefer to know that there's a potential trouble area in a wine rather than knowing if it's too high or tolerable.

                Perhaps people in general may approach wine reviews differently than I do, but this is how I often use them: in the absence of the ability for me to try wines from particular regions, grape varieties, or styles, I use reviews to learn what they're like. If an example does become available to me, I can read reviews I trust on whether I'm tasting a good representation or not of a particular region, style, or grape variety. Sometimes, fantastic wines can be very atypical, and sometimes, a wine can be fantastic and very indicative of its origins, as well. What I require of a wine reviewer, then, is someone who is familiar with a given style or location or grape variety, and then can fairly assess what it's like, warts and all, compared to other examples.

                As for an agreed-upon-standard, wine is a very diverse topic. What makes an Amontillado good would be quite different from what makes a Napa Valley Cab Sauv good. I think having standards within wines of a certain context makes sense, but universally applying a standard out-of-context and saying Vintage Champagne is better than Vintage Port just seems a bit silly to me. It'd be like saying "Hamlet" is better than "Politics and the English Language". While yes, the latter two are things I did have to read in English class in high school, and I do have a preference as to which one I liked more, I think they're both good works in the English language.

                While I do think there are certain wine critics who are complete frauds (pay-for-play, plagiarism, etc), I don't think they damage the concept of wine criticism as a whole. Criticism could be and is performed honestly quite frequently. I feel that part of the difficulty is that wine critics are often seen as some sort of elitist snobs (eg, see that ridiculous wine-glass case from a couple of weeks ago), and people who want to appear knowledgeable buy things with fantastic ratings to try to impress other people. Other people avoid buying things like that because, "Dammit, this $7 bottle of wine I bought tastes just as good as any $1000 bottle of wine anyone could buy, dammit, and ain't nobody gonna make me think otherwise!" I suspect clever sales and marketing departments sell to both ends…

              • 1WineDude

                MG – to your point, I dig In N Out burgers, but I don't pretend that they're the height of culinary expression for beef.

              • MyrddinGwin

                Dude, while I agree that fast food probably isn't the height of culinary expression for beef, it is a bit fitting that I've never had an In N Out burger since I don't think there are any in Canada. Likewise, a really nice Alsatian Pinot Gris can be quite good, but it's not really made to be comparable to a 1976 Stag's Leap Cab Sauv. Comparing something to similar products, such as In N Out burgers to other fast food places, is a bit more sensible, I think.

              • Thomas Pellechia


                When you talk about varietal identification are you talking about 100% or 75%, and if 75% which varieties do you consider might be allowed in the remaining 25%?

                This is not a flippant question. As an ex-winemaker, I know that the 25% can make quite a difference in so-called varietal wines. This, and others, are the types of standards that I believe need to be addressed by the industry–and the critics should follow.

                As for your reference to what makes Amontillado or a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon good I'll point out that "good" and "bad" are more technical than you might imagine. A winery can produce a perfectly good product technically that may not taste good to everyone and a winery can produce a perfectly bad product technically that may taste good to someone. Is the critic's job to disregard the technical part completely?

                The overall conundrum with aesthetic criticism is exactly what you allude to: a critic is only as good for you as his or her tastes align with yours, or the other way round. There's nothing inherently wrong with that kind of activity, but such critiquing doesn't necessarily have anything to do with winemaking achievement. Plus, that type of wine criticism opens the door to frauds and marketers.

                Among the most disturbing things to me about present-day wine criticism is that the collective critics seem to have decided that if they think a wine isn't sound, they should not bother to tell consumers about it. Only talk about what they think constitutes the best. I view that as a disservice to consumers.

              • MyrddinGwin

                When I was brought up identifying the varieties, I didn't mean any particular percentage used. Many iconic wines are blends. What I meant was, "Does this wine show characteristics of the grape variety/varieties used?" For example, Viognier is often intensely aromatic, lower in acidity, and full-bodied. If someone handed me a glass almost aromaless, high acid, light bodied wine, told me it was a Viognier (or Viognier-based blend) and asked me what I thought of it, I would mention it's not showing typical Viognier character, even if I was trying to be diplomatic.

                Close to where I live, there is a winery that keeps failing the appellation's tasting panel. They make a Riesling that has undergone malo-lactic conversion. To me, I think the wine has a bit of a buttery lemon/lime and petrol character. While I think the wine is tasty (I'd drink it), I also think it is not a typical example of a local Riesling. If a guest was unfamiliar with local Rieslings and wanted to know what they were generally like, I wouldn't direct that person to this winery as a typical example. If, on the other hand, the guest wanted to try a different sort of Riesling, I'd be happy to direct him or her there.

                What I'd expect from a decent Amontillado would be an amber-coloured wine with about 17% alcohol by volume with savoury notes from the flor and also some oxidative character. What I'd expect from a decent (young) Napa Cab would be a deep red wine with medium-high to high acidity, medium-high to high tannin, and relatively high alcohol (between 14-15%) and notes of blackcurrant and other black fruits along with oak influences. One of the things that is characteristic to a decent Amontillado–oxidation–would be detrimental to a Napa Cab.

                There are a lot of technical bits about making a wine. Choosing the intended style of wine and the grapes to be used for the wine are among the least technical–there are a lot of decisions to make, including how to extract flavour, colour and/or tannin from the skins, whether to proceed with fermentation with indigenous or cultivated yeasts, oaking, blending, degree and type of fining and filtration to use, whether to let the wine go through malo-lactic conversion or not, whether to have extended lees contact or not, more blending, etc. There needs to be analysis of the wine before fermentation to make sure there are enough nutrients for the yeast to survive fermentation (and monitoring of the temperature, as well), and analysis afterwards to ensure that the wine is microbially stable, as well as protein and tartrate stable. There also needs to be analysis for free and total sulphur dioxide, for residual sugars and alcohol content, for pH and titratable acidity, and even for salts, iron and copper in the wine. Some winemakers do say that they just let the grapes express themselves, but with the number of things that can potentially go wrong with a wine, the winemaker still should pay attention.

                Making a good wine doesn't mean everyone will like it–there are people who don't even like grape juice, so it'd be unlikely that they'd like a wine, no matter how well or poorly made it is. Just because I can't stand cooked mushrooms doesn't mean I believe well-cooked mushrooms don't exist. There might be an ideal way to cook mushrooms, but despite that, chances are that I won't like the mushrooms served that way anyway. That doesn't mean they're not good–it just means I don't like them.

              • Thomas Pellechia

                Thanks, MG:

                Your last comment doesn't say anything that I don't already know, and in fact mostly agree to. It does not, however, address wine criticism, but it's been nice conversing with you. I suppose we've hashed this subject to death.

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