“A warning to the crews out there who think they’re hot, if you’re not original rockers you will get shot
down by the kids neglectin’ your art, the stuff you did, eventually it get so bad puts you to bed
’cause when the lightning flashes sweet electricity, all the world then stands revealed with the clarity
of raw voltage, briefly we see and the hope is you’ll be able to tell just what dope is…”
– Come Original by 311
Earlier this month, I attended the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, CA, as a speaker on a panel titled “How The Pros Taste.” I was actually in town primarily to help a friend of mine, Wandering Wino, kick off a post-WBC tasting event (called “Authentic Press”) that focused on small SB-area producers (happy to report that was well-attended, and nary a drop of under-performing juice was to be found among the stellar lineup that he selected to pour at the event), so the timing all worked out splendidly.
I enjoyed WBC14 (well, ok, apart from the big dinner, which always seems to fall flat at WBC for some reason, excepting Alan Kropf’s entertaining WBA presentation), and thought this was one of the best incarnations yet, particularly for those new to wine blogging. The WBC keynote address by Corbett Barr seemed divisive based on the twitter chatter, but I also enjoyed that talk; and for anyone who doubts Barr’s assertion that character trumps everything else when it comes to building up your brand online, consider as some evidence that what I make for writing about wine puts me in the top 5-10% of all U.S. wine writers (and it’s a sad commentary that amount is only bonus-level money compared to my previous corporate gig).
I won’t comment on the Wine Blog Awards. No offense meant to the winners (there are some fine blogs in that group), and I’m always touched to be nominated and to be named a finalist, but I’m still pretty “fringe” and gonzo when it comes to wine writing (which, after all these years blogging, is also a kind of sad commentary, when you think about it), so the things I value and want to see recognized (in almost any genre, not just wine writing) are usually not what get rewarded. Just imagine how I feel about the Grammy’s!
A few hiccups involving LA road rage delays impacting fellow panelist Patrick Comiskey aside, I also had fun participating on my panel (for those of you who were thinking that I was stroking moderator Steve Heimoff’s crotch under the table on stage, I was actually petting Steve’s adorable pet dog Gus, who was sitting quietly in Steve’s lap the entire time; that’s my story, anyway), waxing philosophic about how I go about critically tasting vino (and getting totally fooled by the final “mystery wine” of the lineup). I’m good for at least one or two re-tweetable money quotes per panel, and the one that got the most attention during the panel seemed to be my comment on negative wine reviews (“some wines need to be kicked in the crotch”), so I thought I’d talk a bit more about that stance here.
My view on negative wine reviews is that they, like serving rare vintages of the world’s finest wines, ought to be reserved for special occasions. I say this because only a few wines are epically bad enough –and were created with sufficient malicious intent – that they deserve your finest writing work…
Bad reviews are often much more entertaining and original than favorable takes on something. There are only so many ways to praise, but lambasting opens up whole new levels of potential creativity. While lots of bad wine still gets made, it’s becoming harder to find, and even harder to locate one that the winemaker knows is flawed and is selling anyway. Those are the wines you need to pan, because they are, in fact, ripping off customers (the best way to confirm this is via a candid conversation with the winemaker directly). I’m all for experimentation, but when it fails you should not be trying to make a buck off of it from suckers.
The only thing I beg of the wine writing community is that you get original with your negative reviews. Insanely original, please. Most wine writing (blogs included – sorry, people, it’s true) commits the same sin as much of the wine it covers: it’s boring (for a deft take on that situation, see this excellent piece on originality in wine scribing (titled “Wine Media Relations”) by my friend Alan Goldfarb). A negative review cannot under any circumstances be boring, that is just as much an affront to the tastes of the wine buying public as a terrible wine. A hypothetical example will help here.
“This wine was terrible, and I hated it!”
If that’s the essence of your negative wine review, then you have failed the wine public miserably. Facebook status updates about cats tipping over lamps are more interesting that that; it tells you nothing useful or of consequence, and it’s boring.
“Roses are red, violets are blue, this Cahors smells like donkey ass, don’t buy it! The End.”
Better. Much better, methinks. At least it’s funny, in a deliberately goofy way, and actually gives you a clue as to why it sucks. I may use this one someday…
But I’d further suggest not wasting time on a negative review at all, unless the wine is an epic failure. If you’re gonna do it, go all in and use your powers on something that has the material to inspire your true creative ire. You need to be Iago to that vino’s Othello. Make your negative take on that juice your magnum opus, if you can. I mean, when you get really original and use a few hundred words to compare a bad wine to Godzilla ravaging an unsuspecting city, people might enjoy it enough that they remember your name (and pay to write stuff for them). Just sayin’.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s highlight the wines that Patrick, Steve and I chose for the WBC14 panel, which I am happy to say did not inspire ire but were in their own ways positively inspiring (in a “I’m inspired to suck an entire bottle of this tasty stuff down my gullet” kind of way):
My pick: 2012 Domaine Leccia Patrimonio Blanc (Corsica, $32)
As I mentioned in the panel, there are aspects of this French Vermentino that I find comforting (citric fruits, a ton of wet-stone-minerality) but also something nutty, toasty, and… darker. It’s refreshing, but also textural and demanding. I am not entirely sure that all of the main characters are going to live through the movie by the time we get to the end, and I find that tension (manifest as a give and take between the bright acidity and richer, demanding mouthfeel) compelling as hell. If you were there tasting this with us at WBC14, you’re welcome!
Patrick’s pick: 2013 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap Riesling (Columbia Valley, $22)
What a stellar pick. This is artisanal all the way in its presentation, with fantastic energy on the palate and, in Patrick’s view (one that I share) a sense of purity in its stone and citrus fruits. There’s jasmine and honey, too, and it all ends with the satisfying sense that you probably paid $20 less for this than you would have if it had a different appellation on the label.
Steve’s pick: 2011 Cambria Estate Clone 4 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley, $52)
Put your big boy pants on for this. That Steve would have picked a Jackson Family wine (now his employer), and a big but excellent CA Pinot (one of his critical specialties during his Wine Enthusiast beat), should have come as a surprise to exactly no one. Rich and opulent, there’s so much going on here that you will probably need to reach for the notebook to capture it all. What stood out for me was the tartness of the red berry fruit, which was a great uppercut to compliment this wine’s big body blow, as well as the intense and complex spiciness on the nose. If you like your Pinot on the heftier side, this one will probably have you regretting $0.00 worth of the purchase price.
31 thoughts on “Come Original (On Negative Reviews, #WBC14, Boring Wine Writing, & Non-Boring Wines)”
This article was terrible, I hated it!
Roses are red, violets are blue, this blog sucks donkey bong, don't read it, the end.
Uh oh, I wrote a lot of negative reviews in my day. And they were all boring.
Steve, no they weren’t. ;-)
I don't write negative wine reviews, but I will contact a winery or PR person directly if I think a wine is flawed in some way.
Beth, you’re a step above probably 95 percent of wine writers then!
Joe, I would love to hear your picks for the WBAs had you been the lone judge… What would your nominations and winners look like… and why?
Kyle, happy to discuss that over a beer (having been a finalist, it’s probably bad form to discuss that publicly).
In more than 20 years of closely reading wine reviews I can say that by far the most entertaining reviews have been the negative ones. In many cases they are hilarious. I think this is due largely to experienced reviewers having to think with a different mindset in order to pen the negative review and this leads to welcome creativity.
Tom – exactly.
Would you rather have a negative review that spells out why the wine is bad, i.e. bad brett, sulfides, va/ea, oxidized, hot, unbalanced, too sweet, or would you rather see some cutesy one liner that maybe induces an eye roll? Tough call. I think some readers do want to know what the reviewer found in the wine while others wouldn't even know what to make of that information.
There's a lot of crappy wine out there, at least, if my samples cabinet and tasting notes are to be believed. Luckily most of it is pretty cheap and easily avoidable. That wine is still made and released, the producers still want to collect money for it, and unfortunately, wine drinkers still buy the stuff.
Also, please stop referring to yourself as gonzo or whatever, you're mainstream in a good way. About as edgy as a baby iguana.
Beau – I’d rather have both; I’d want to know why, and have it be entertaining. And baby iguanas can still claw your eyes out!
Late response, sorry!
Re baby iguanas, you're right of course. Those cute little claws ;)
I guess that's the trick, right? To have an educational but brief note that steers the customer away from that (sic) wine.
"grandma poured vinegar all over my cherry/plum fruit salad then left it outside for a few hours!" or something.
Beau – Yes! Love that one, by the way. But look, I am weird, I dig stuff that never seems to get a foothold in the mainstream, so I am probably dooming people to be more fringe if they follow my advice…
don't go with the negative reviews …
Marta – Well, I obviously disagree. :-)
It might sound nuts, but in the context of evaluating a consumer product, bad is both a technical word and a subjective word. Used as a subjective, it is a useless word.
But yeah, negative reviews, which there aren't enough of, can be wonderful entertainment. Of course, keep writing them and your freebies will dry up–oh, is that why there aren't enough of them? ;)
Thomas, I doubt very much that the dearth of negative reviews has anything to do with a fear of sample volumes drying up. That doesn't even make much logical sense. So people would get fewer mediocre or boring wines? That'd suit me just fine!
Ah, for the old days, when critics had high pH, like caustics…
Thomas – ah! Well played!
When, if ever, does conflict of interest come into play? STEVE! is great, and has certainly earned the right to choose as he sees fit, but come on, selecting one of his own products? I think it crosses the line between objectivity and pimping, and is pretty disappointing.
Paul, I don't see it that way at all. KJ sponsored the session, Steve has liked that wine critically before he took the role with KJ, and the wine was for demonstration purposes to discuss trading methodologies. And it was a really nice wine. I don't see any pimping there, beyond a harmless level that should be expected given the sponsorship, etc.
Full disclosure: sorry I spelled my own name wrong!
There are several reasons why I'm cautious about naming specific wines as being bad. Sometimes, it could be me being in a foul mood for one reason or another, or perhaps it's me being overly sensitive about particular things I dislike, or perhaps I'm simply just not in the mood for that kind of wine. Usually, before labelling something as bad, I want to make sure it's not faulted and not simply my own sensitivities and opinions. Also, wasn't there that French wine writer who got sued for libel for calling Beaujolais Nouveau "Vin de Merde"?
When I do designate something as bad, it's usually for my own tastes, since there must be someone out there who likes it. Otherwise, no-one would buy it more than twice at absolute most, stores wouldn't stock it because it doesn't meet minimum quality thresholds, and the winemaker would be fired or go out of business, because that's the way a free market economy's supposed to work, right? (In theory. As much as I hate to associate with it when it's in that kind of mood, the real world doesn't work that way, I realise). If I feel that it's notably bad, I simply don't recommend it to people, or steer them towards things that are similar in perceived (attempted) style from the same region and with a similar price-point, but actually good flavours. Only my closest friends and relatives might know what I think of certain particular brands that I loathe.
Despite my caution naming and shaming, though, I am willing to rant on about how much I personally might detest a particular drink I've tried. One way I've described a well-known brand of inexpensive sparkling wine I hate is by saying that if someone poured me a glass of this wine and a glass of dog vomit, I'd drink the wine, but only because I'm a masochist. A bad apera I tried the other night had "hints of mouldy white plums and a complete loss of faith in humanity". Even the rest of my body rejects awful drinks–I tried to do a shot of a vodka that I don't like a few years ago, and the vodka directly bounced off my uvula, and perfectly right back into the shot-glass. Overall, though, I'd say I do try to focus on the positive a lot more. It's happier.
MG – agreed. If you’re going to go negative, you need to do your homework first, for sure.
Co-incidentally, today, I managed to try a particular wine for the second time. The first time, it was rather bretty and starting down the road to turn to vinegar, so I took it back to the shop this afternoon. They had the same bottle in stock, so I exchanged it. When I got it home, I opened it, and it was like a vinegar made from the juice of manure, rotten cherries, and volcanoes. I took it back again, and got something else, instead.
There is a mild suspicion/fear I have that after the brettanomyces-based fermentation and the vinegaring had started, the winemaker jumped up and yelled, "Perfekt! Das wein is Ideal, und so ich beimisch der Sulfurdioxid until der Kustomer ersticks! Muahahaha!" before adding enough sulphur dioxide to choke any living thing within a thirty mile radius, and then promptly and efficiently left on holiday to travel around in very large groups and ordering coffee and cake on terraces in the shadow during lunch rushes in busy restaurants. Perhaps someone else would've liked that wine, but it was definitely not to my own personal taste.
MG – now *that's* the sort of negative review in talking about! Well played.
I don't do negative reviews on samples, but I do sometimes find something else interesting in the winery's story. Because sometimes you just get a bad bottle, and I too, will contact the PR rep or winery and let them know. And can I echo, you're not gonzo — you're a blogger in the truest form: You're a story teller and you're entertaining while still conveying your knowledge and experience. That takes enormous talent — and that sort of talent is not often rewarded through the WBAs unless you come with a pedigree of X number of years in the industry or another X number of years writing for a newspaper, magazine or industry publication. I rarely have time to read other blogs, but yours is one I subscribe to and read as often as I can. Keep doing what you do, because you're a standout success that got there a much harder way than most — by writing in your free time during a day gig, and then taking that show on the road to a full-time gig. Cheers!
Thanks for that!
I like this conversation, thanks Joe and good seeing you at the WBC this year!
From my perspective, I don't believe wine reviews need to be necessarily one or the other, negative or positive. Like wines I prefer to drink, I like to see a bit of yin and yang in a wine review. For example, in my former life, when I worked in the corporate retail world and one of my employees needed a performance review written or if it was a reprimand, I always pointed out their successes and places where I needed or desired to see improvement. It's the same with a wine review, very few wines are made perfectly, some succeed in some areas and fail in other aspects. But rarely do I just throw a wine under the bus, unless it really deserves it and those kind of reviews seldom see the light of day.
Likewise, Bill! Good point, I often do the same, which invariably is interpreted as a negative review ;-)
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