Warts and all

Have you ever wondered why you so rarely seem to see negative reviews of wines?  Or indeed other things?  I am very much aware that the first few reviews on my blog have tended to be positive, so I shall start by answering for myself.

Initially at least, I decided only to write about what I know well, and by and large that is what I have done – certainly my restaurant reviews and longer tasting notes have been for restaurants and wines I am very familiar with.  I didn’t want to be proclaiming judgements based on one meal, or a quick slurp and a spit.  But unfortunately a by-product of that policy is that I have only written in detail about things that I like.  I try to show dedication to my blog, but I draw the line at repeating bad experiences just so I can say with conviction that it was truly bad.

The other reason I might feel tempted to put a positive spin on a wine on a wine that was not great, or more likely say nothing at all, is if I know and like the person that supplied it to me.  I hope using the word “supplied” does not sound too much like having a drug habit fed; I use it to cover both being offered wine by a friend, and being sold wine.  Naturally I do not want to sound ungrateful for freely offered wine, and criticising it in public might be taken as ingratitude, but to a lesser extent I find myself reluctant to criticise wine sold by a merchant I know well.  Though having said that, the careful reader of this blog will find some examples of the latter.

As for other critics… well, I know of at least one who thinks that there are so many bad and mediocre wines it is not worth writing about them, and even listing them it seems.  The consumer of tasting notes is thought only to be interested in hearing about good wines.  I am not at all sure about that.  If someone else has tried a wine and found it to be bad, I would rather not buy it myself to make the discovery independently.  And if no one mentions a wine, how am I meant to know whether it is of poor quality, or simply not assessed?

This is also frustrating for the consumer when reading the results of large wine competitions.  We get to know the wines with trophies, medals and commendations, but how are we to know whether DRC again neglected to submit the requisite number of bottles of La Tâche, or it was judged to be unworthy even of a commendation? And this is where I start to get cynical.  Such a large proportion of wines get medals that to be unclassified is not at all good.  And no producer would want to go to the expensive of entering a competition with the possibility of being slighted like that.  So if the competition published the failures, they would not get get anywhere near the number of contestants and probably the competition would not be viable.

To an extent I think the same applies when writers get sent samples or invited on a jolly – er, sorry, fact finding mission – to a wine producing region.  If there were too many bad reviews the offers of samples and trips would slowly dry up – in general, if not for individual writers.  I am not accusing anyone of professional misconduct here, but I think we have to accept that however hard writers and critics strive to be independent it is hard to be totally objective when your livelihood depends on freebies.  Besides which, as I have noted above, it is really difficult to be critical about a product that is associated with someone you have got to know, like the producer you met on that trip.  I think it is also fair to admit that we as consumers of wine writing get what we pay for.  It is all to easy these to expect to get opinions for free on the net, but those who give their opinions for free need the means to get hold of things to write about.

I am sure that part of the knack of getting the truth from a tasting note or more general review  lies in looking for what has not been said, but that sadly is still a bit like looking for wines that do not have medals.  Did the critic not mention the intensity of flavour because it was insipid, or because he did not think it worthwhile commenting on?  Or perhaps it was not intense, but had an understated elegance?  We will never know.

Another trick in tasting note deconstruction is to look at the score.  I did not realise it until it was explained to me, but apparently a score of below 90 means that a wine is not recommended, while anything you should consider buying will be in the range 90 to 100.  But sadly that now means that some critics are reluctant to give 89 points – so even the points cannot always be used as a coded hint that a wine is under-par.

But you can still get some glimpses of warts.  The blind panel tastings in Decanter for example.  There, often you will find first growths and similar summarily dismissed in favour of more modest wines. What I miss there though is an explanation of the thought processes of the taster.  Of course, better wines need more time to come around, but shouldn’t professionals be able to recognise a young but promising wine from a good stable?

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

3 thoughts on “Warts and all”

  1. Just noticed that David Honig promise to review on his blog ALL wines submitted to him – irrespective of how much he likes them. That seems like a fine ethical standpoint to me. Though maybe impractical for the better known wine critics.

  2. A big issue is the lack of transparency.

    Every wine writer that seeks to be regarded as independent should have a full and frank register of interests – fees and travel and hotel expenses for attending tastings, Wimbledon tickets, .. And declare possible relevant conflicts at the foot of articles.

    On the question of samples the odd case or two of supermarket wine to a true amateur may be regarded by the recipient (and the giver) as a bribe.

    But certainly any wine writer living in London and in reach of several tastings a day would not regard free wine as a big deal or perhaps even a benefit.

    If a large importer sends cases secure in the knowledge that only hits will be reviewed that is pretty cheap PR. Same with competitions as well. Have a range of labels for each wine and send them all in with identical content.

    Here is my blogpost from almost a year ago at the height of the Pancho Campo / Jay Miller blogging.

    Wine Writers should Publish a Register of Interests http://goo.gl/Xfk39

    Do all those who got Tut-Tutted publish full registers?

  3. Warren, though I applaud your sentiment, I am at a bit of a loss to understand “declaring interest”. If you judge at competetion level (blind) then your requirement from the organisers is to be “fair, impartial and knowledgeable”. I would take that a few steps further and say that your “knowledge must be up to a standard as to be completely objective about the samples shown, and to be able to assess each product within its class”. If you are on a panel where you are unfamiliar with the product, then listen to the expert who should be on the panel to indicate the markers for the product. How on earth are we to gain such knowledge unless we are invited to participate in regions and tastings that, to be frank, I certainly could not afford to attend unless invited, with some costs covered. What I gain from visiting regions and attending tastings enables me to continue to broaden my knowledge and therefore I am better able to disseminate that knowledge. Although in some cases ground costs are covered, generally trips and tastings cost a lot more expense wise than is possibly realised. Yes be open about interests; but pleaase. There are very few (and getting fewer) writers that will fit into this rarified category. We all are working hard for the money. I do not think that Pancho Campo and Jay Millar’s antics could apply to less than half of one percent of of the people writing about wine.

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