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.
48 thoughts on “Here’s A Lie: Wine Critics Offer Everyone The Best Wine Picks”
Good stuff. True stuff. Again. K.
Great insight Joe. I have to agree with you. Once you know your own palate then you can make good use of wine ratings. Cheers! AV
Thanks, Alan. Know thyself! :)
Great article, Joe! Once you know what you like, only then should you even look at ratings. (I actually followed this path into wine as well.)
Thanks, cono_sur – it's like the Tao… “the only path to serenity” :). Cheers!
Joe, Any consumer who buys a wine based only on the score and doesn't take into account the written review that comes along with it deserves what they get.
Tom – agreed!
Good thoughts and (as usual) insightful commentary – wish you didn't feel the need to sensationalize it all with the "Lies" banner, which tends to strike a chord in us Western-aculturated folks…but it does attract readers. There is probably more to explore on this subject – helping lesser-experienced vinos to interpret reviews/comments/descritions and then personally apply that to their palates and preferences. I've gotten there only by trial and error over years…and have come to rely on a few key sources (primarily CellarTracker) as I continue my growth and exploration…
Thanks, Z. Yeah, the headline matches what we went with for PB, so thematically it fit into a broader scheme on the “lies” topic of which this is probably the least “lying” territory of the 5 that we went with in that article. Cheers!
Keep up the good work, my friend. It's sad, as you say, that most of your other friends (i.e. critics who make a living doing wine ratings) would disagree with you. But no matter how you slice it, all the numerical systems utilizing numbers (especially 100 point scores) are "lies" because they infer an objectivity in wine evaluation, and a static nature of any given wine, that does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist. There is just no defense (and no, "because people like them" is not a valid reason).
I've said it over and over again in the past: there are many other effective, creative ways to impart interesting information that are more meaningful to consumers (like using differentiating words, or categorizing wines preferentially rather than numerically). Rating systems are pure laziness. We need our critics to work harder, without those meaningless crutches — to think more about what truly benefits the reader. Thanks again, Joe, for sticking your neck out on this!
Randy – appreciate the kind words, my friend! I think the key point here is that critics *are* able to zero-in on a finely-tuned numerical rating, it's just that the rating holds no value for others *unless* they know the preferences of that critic and find those preferences align somewhat with their own. Objective subjectivity (or is that subjective objectivity :), if you will. Cheers!
Wine Lies #1&5b… Nothing under 90 points is worth buying. This isn't a lie perpetuated by the critics (well, not exactly but that is Joe's territory). But for practical purposes, it is a lie. As you say, Joe, know your palate and pay and play the 90+ wines. Otherwise, an 85 is just like the temperature in Hawaii…perfect. Well-made and cheaper. And I disagree with Tom. People (including me) pull a California off the shelf at Kroger or Safeway. Though for my buck, I'd go with Portugal if I could find one.
Thanks, Kathy – in a sort-of similar vein, do you know how many B and B- wines I drink from my own ratings? A sh*t-ton! They're tasty and usually great value. Cheers!
Kathy, that is the issue, as you well know: a well heeled Portuguese Vinho Verde can be the most perfect wine in the world (especially when it's 90 degrees in Hawaii, or Buffalo), but the only thing that arbitrary rating systems manage to do is impose a mental block making it nearly impossible for unsuspecting consumers to overcome during moments of truth: when deciding between a 92 point/$30 Chardonnay or an 85 point/$15 Vinho Verde standing in front of a retail shelf.
In short, rating systems (no matter whose) that presuppose universal standards are just plain wrong — factually, aesthetically, and even morally.
Joe, I realize my conclusions go a little further than where you're willing to go; but as you know from our conversations, I can accept that because at least you're aware of the pitfalls of rating systems. Meanwhile, keep up the good work!
Randy – by all means, man, go for it. Your views are your own and you're way more than capable of defending them. I stop short of the moral argument myself, but I LOVE following along with the conversations just as much as anybody else here. Cheers!
There is another side to this. Ratings are meant to signify quality….not preference or likeability. The best in any catagory, and especially in art, is not ever going to be most accessible, most popular, and easiest to enjoy. This has something to do with effort, entropy, and original sin, but more on that later….
Austin – Agreed. But even that, in my experience, is a moving target and influenced to at least some degree by subjective preferences (and, of course, the experiences of the critic). Cheers!
Agree with your response, Joe.
Wine is a very personal experience, even for critics.
Cono_sur – indeed!
Absolutely right and I have found that as a retail buyer, I have intentionally worked to remove my own preferences from the equation. This isn't easy, but I have made considerable steps in that direction. If I can and do, do this, I would hope that professional wine raters are going through the same journey and discipline. I doubt it is always the case, but it is of course the ideal one shoots for.
Ummm…I probably should not be clicking on a Playboy.com link at work :)
Michael – It’s what I like to call JBSFW (just barely safe for work :).
Don't feel too bad.
Once, at work, I searched Google Images for "Menage a Trois." I didn't find a picture of the wine label.
Joe, though having never crossed paths in any way with a particular critic, and not knowing a critics "preferences" in wine, couldn't a consumer benefit from something like this: "91 Points: This seductively textured Sonoma Coast Pinot beams with aromas of cherry, sweet herbs and hints of roasted meat. A well structured palate with moderate tannins deliver flavors of dried cherry, fig, a little bit of licorice and a lingering taste of vanilla." Wouldn't a consumer be able to take something useful away from this, despite not ever having read the critic before?
Tom – yes, from 2 standpoints: 1) the flavors and descriptors and 2) where THAT critic sees the wine on an overall quality scale. So, in my view, both ultimately require knowing what YOU like first. I.e., the descriptors and the person giving them serve the point rating and not the other way around. Personally, I find writing like that terrible boring (even when I fall into it!) UNLESS it’s already part of a larger play that helps also convey the real essence of that wine and its context (people, place, stories, circumstances, etc.). Not saying that way is wrong, just saying it has no appeal to me.
I always assume that an individual is responsible for their own views on things like the taste of dried cherry or licorice. And I think any reviewer has to assume the same. So, whether a person likes dried cherries is relatively important, but goes without saying. I guess my point is that it's quite easy for even a neophyte wine drinker to gain substantial info from a review and rating.
That said, I'll grant that these kind of reviews are not he most compelling from a literary perspective. But for a review publications looking to offer a comprehensive assessment of wines from a region and vintage and from the perspective of a consumer that wants a broad based perspective on wines form a region, then this kind of shortish, descriptive review is probably both necessary and useful.
However, if these kinds of reviews are the type I'm confronted with, I find much more pleasure in reading this sort of thing, which rarely appears anymore:
"62 Points: This review is confused as to how this wine ever made it out of the winery and into general circulation. Stewed Tomatoes and barnyard aromas form the basis of the most enticing elements of this attempt at winemaking. Tasted twice with similar notes."
You just don't see this kind of tasting note any more. Too bad.
Tom – Yeah, there is real art and craft in how one says that something stinks! As for the reviews that you describe, I do not argue that many people find them useful. But I would argue they are not useful on face-value without already knowing your own preferences, but we see the wine biz treat them that way time and time again.
It's not "universal standards" that are presumed by a critic using a rating system. It's personal standards.
Take a look at the rage going on by book reviewers (NYT, New Yorker, Atlantic etc). They get at least as many books as critics get wine (largely at the same price point). As Tom says, there are no universal standards any more, as I say, than there are for books. So you go with those you like or don't based on taste and critic appeal.
But when at the supermarket at 6p and scanning wine shelves the way you scan potato chips, price and numbers – before shelf talkers – make the buy.
From the critic or producer points-of-view, it all depends on whether you want to feed the converted or convert the masses (just ask any missionary or politician).
Kathy – interesting parallel there.
On another note, I'm aware of a number of critics who don't merely give good reviews to the wines they like, but give good reviews to wines they may not like at all but understand are outstanding examples of the style of wine they are reviewing.
Tom – that's exactly the manner of critic I strive to be, fwiw.
I sometimes struggle giving good reviews of wines that I didn't enjoy.
Cono-sur – conversely, I've got to check myself whenever I review a Mosel Riesling :).
Good one! hehe ;)
The Big Lie, in my humble view, is that the reviewer or magazine doesn't tell the reader that there are 1000s or hundreds of similar wines from the region that were not tasted but probably are pretty darn near as good as the small SAMPLE herein.
The ego of saying This Is The One, The Best, when your sample size is puny, misleads the consumer, and leads the consumer into laziness, or at least it dampens the quest for WHY are these wines so good? If you encourage people to try not just the brand that ranked highest, but to explore the varietal, or the region, or the type of wine, from multiple sources, then the consumer has a better tool, can experiment and formulate their own opinions from a larger set of eligible wines. I dislike especially Wine Spectator with their editorial style "This is the wine you should drink". I know, they tell you how many they have tasted since the same review last year, but they don't put it into context. Twelve thousand chateaus in Bordeaux, no? They taste, what, 800 wines? They only write about the brands who give them samples and play in their sandbox.
Sin City – I agree that providing tools is the better approach. But in terms of samples – that's a double-edged sword. Not sure how many critics could afford to sample too far outside the field that provides them samples…
It sounds like you are suggesting that the Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Joe, etc, either taste and review everything or nothing at all. Unless you are saying there needs to be a disclaimer in every publication saying, "There are other wines available other than what we review". I'm fine with that, but really if the person reading the Wine Spectator or 1WineDude doesn't realize that there are more wines than what are reviewed, then they have more problems than recognizing what they are reading.
Shouldn't a great critic offer their opinion on a wine they review? Isn't their job to review it? How else do you review a wine or a movie or a song or a piece of art or a restaurant? I want reviewers to tell me what they think are great or very good or ok or bad. That's their job.
Good thought, Sin City. I like this concept that there are many others though who knows what the consumer might pick up – depends on where they live.
It is difficult/impossible to taste all the wines. Be aware that of the 12k en plus wine labels of Bordeaux, not all are imported to the US (check TTB for imports or French douanes for exports).
Another issue is that there are so many private label wines – domestic and imported (I just had to stop this lovely discussion and check a private label Champagne, US only, I think, at $495). Private label is a growing market which makes the quality/price/review concept scary. Many are never sent to a critic by the producer, not on the producer's website, only reviewed if sent by an importer or distributor and sometimes not sent if requested. And, still, it may appear on a shelf or in a restaurant/nightclub.
Joe, Tom, Randy, others please add or correct.
Whoops! Meant to say that's how I got a bead on several great wines (like Matthiasson). Sometimes bloggers get the good stuff first these days (though still rare).
Tom, agreed. That is the metier of a good critic. "…a number of critics who don't merely give good reviews to the wines they like, but give good reviews to wines they may not like…"
The Big Lie, may also be in assuming that one can be an expert in wine. You said, I believe, that wine is a niche of the food niche. But it is also a niche too large to master. In the same way that a concert pianist is often a poor rapper, even though both are making music. someone might be an expert in French Burgundy but a very poor judge of Santa Barbara Syrah.
As I become more sophisticated in this space, I look to find 'mentors' in wine, both in person and through my reading, that can help direct my wine journey. And I hope that I can become something like that to my audience and customers.
Austin – it can never be “mastered.” My niche comment was meant to describe the audience of passionate wine geeks, and what one should expect from online traffic for those niche markets, not to describe the entire wondrous world of wine itself.
"Lies" has morphed into a wide-ranging discussion… so I reread Joe's blog. "..like most other great things in life, a little homework and self-knowledge will take you a long, long way in the wine world."
Kathy – ah, but that's the beauty of it! ;-)
The gross extension of using the rating in retailers is the "Rate-and-Switch" where a retailer will have a big flyer with a great rating for a wine, but what is being sold is either a different vintage or sometimes a different level of the producer's wine. Saw one a few weeks ago where the retailer was showing a 91 pt rating, but the rating was for the reserve two years prior to the non-reserve they were selling on the shelf.
Erik – really? That’s terrible.
Comments are closed.