Two weeks ago in my Playboy.com Wined Down column, I interviewed two friends for whom I have mad respect – wine writers and educators Mark Oldman and Leslie Sbrocco – to put together a list of what we considered the top five “wine lies.” The idea was to bust up five of the most prevalent myths permeating the wine world, and offer some advice on how to avoid being ensnared by said lies.
You can read our list of those top 5 wine lies here. Leslie and Mark each contributed two wine lies to the list, but after you read their great contributions, please make sure that you click through to Page Two of that article and read the fifth wine lie, which is the one that I contributed to the piece. Namely, “Lie #5: Wine Critics Offer the Best Wine Picks.”
This isn’t an ego play (personally I think Mark’s and Leslie’s input was better than mine!) – I just generally want to discuss that one in more detail than is afforded to me in the interests of keeping the Playboy.com column to a reasonable length. I won’t re-frame the entire argument here, but want to build a bit on what I wrote in that column; because the further down the rabbit hole that I travel when it comes to wine reviews, the more clearly I realize that blindly following the ratings is a lie, a lie that’s been perpetuated in media and at retail for as long as I’ve been an avid wine consumer. Wine critics do not, in fact, offer you the best wine picks with their reviews… at least, not at first…
I include my own ratings in this lie, by the way, for reasons that will become more obvious in a minute (or twelve). And “lie” is probably not the best term – “half-truth” might actually suit the scenario a bit better.
Allow me to explain why wine critics’ picks being seen as the best of the best is, at least at first for most wine consumers, a big fat lie…
It’s a lie because newbie wine consumers using ratings is like giving a young kid an M-80, in palate terms. Those who are new to wine, or have a relatively low confidence level when it comes to picking out wines, likely do not yet know what they like best when it comes to wine, and ratings are at least somewhat subjective. A mismatch between a consumer’s preferences and those of the critic can (and does) turn off would-be wine lovers (and can actually reduce their confidence!). The trouble here is that ratings are offered to consumers as functionally equivalent measurements of wine quality on an objective scale, but the ratings aren’t functionally equivalent across reviewers and aren’t meant to indicate subjective “likeability.” If I had a nickel for every person who told me that they’d purchased a 90+ point critically-reviewed wine, sight-unseen, and then wondered if there was something wrong with them because they didn’t like it, I’d be a hell of a lot closer to a cozy retirement. It’s not that the consumer is stupid – they’ve just been marketing-duped into thinking that they don’t need to feel comfortable with their own personal preferences, because the ratings will guide them tot he best stuff. And then they’ve been marketing-conditioned to feel stupid when those preferences are unfulfilled and are disappointed. The worst part is that – Poof! – the wine biz might just have lost a potential lifelong customer when that happens.
It’s a lie because retail shelves and adverts continue to use ratings as shorthand for newbie wine consumers, when in fact that’s the opposite of what critics’ ratings are meant to convey. Ratings are not shorthand for likeability for everyone – they are a measurement of wine’s quality with respect to the worst and greatest wines in the world, usually narrowed down to wines produced in similar regions, and from similar or the same varieties, and in similar styles. If they’re a shorthand for anything, it’s probably the critic’s preferences. No rating can tell you whether or not you will personally like that wine any more than a rating of a pair of shoes could tell you whether or not you’d look good in them (seriously, ladies – would you buy a pair of pumps sight-unseen if they looked terrible on you and someone gave them a 95???).
It’s a lie until consumers get to know – and then trust – their own wine preferences. Then the lie transmogrifies into the truth; it becomes a source that you can trust for a potentially very, very long time. If you check out my ratings, and I seem to give high marks to wines that you enjoy, then guess what – now you can actually use my ratings to clue you into wines that you might never had thought to seek out, but which might bring you immense pleasure (or, conversely, can be used to help you avoid an unpleasant experience). But my ratings – and the ratings of any critic, anywhere, on any subject – can only ever be truly helpful in that context. They can only ever be truly helpful after you already know what you like. It wouldn’t take you long to find people in online wine forums who will tell you, for example, that they buy wines that The Wine Advocate rates poorly, because their tastes tend to the opposite of what TWA’s reviews seem to enjoy most. So even the critics with whom you disagree can become trusted resources, in a way, after you know yourself when it comes to wine.
Did I get this one wrong? I don’t think so (obviously) – though most of my friends who make their livings as wine critics might disagree with me. But I spent way too much time as an avid wine consumer in the trenches, trying to figure out what was “wrong” with me when I didn’t enjoy an $80 95-point wine, to let this one slide.
The hard truth is that wine, despite our geeky love affair with it, like most things in life is now a time-worn victim of commercialization. So don’t fall for it, people; because also like most other great things in life, a little homework and self-knowledge will take you a long, long way in the wine world.