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Time to rethink wine criticism

Back in the day, wine critics would tell us how to savour wine. Today, we're thinking for ourselves
Jun 21, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

ROBERT M PARKER JR, who dominated wine criticism in the United States for roughly 30 years after his enthusiastic embrace of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, formally announced his retirement last month after quietly withdrawing from writing a few years ago.

The post-Parker era actually began a decade ago, as more critical voices and points of view began to be heard and heeded.

It's time to re-examine the nature of American wine criticism today, a methodology that Parker helped both to popularise and institutionalise. And it's time to consider a better model that might be more useful to consumers, a system that would empower them to make their own choices rather than tether them endlessly to critics' bottle-by-bottle reviews.

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Parker started writing a bimonthly newsletter, which would eventually be called The Wine Advocate, in 1978. His influence grew in the mid-1980s, particularly with his unconditional, flamboyant praise for the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which contained none of the hedging with which many wine writers protect their flanks.

At roughly the same time, two leading publications for consumers, Wine Spectator in the United States and Decanter in Britain, were founded. They were later joined by Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Burghound.com and Vinous.com, among others.

Whether in print or online, and regardless of their individual differences, all continue to follow a similar formula: They review hundreds of bottles, each with a tasting note and a score.

Sometimes, the reviews are supplemented with a brief thematic overview of a particular vintage, or they are bounded within a price range. Some publications, like Decanter and Wine Spectator, publish profiles, regional overviews and lifestyle articles as well. But always, the dominant element is the many individual bottles that critics evaluate and rate.

At first glance, perhaps, this system makes perfect sense. What could be a better service for consumers than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the bottles they would be most likely to encounter?

I'd like to suggest, though, that maybe the best role for wine critics is not the tedious recitation of bottle reviews, and that maybe consumers are less helped by them than we might think.

With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb. The best consumers can do is to learn whether their own tastes correlate with one reviewer's more than another's.

I believe that the most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.

For one thing, bottle reviews are not that trustworthy. More than any other beverage, wine is subject to the context in which it is drunk. Perceptions of a particular wine change depending on your mood, what you are eating, the weather, how long a bottle has been opened, how long it's been in a glass, the temperature of the wine, whether you are listening to music and countless other considerations.

For that reason, reviewers often try to eliminate context by paring away these outside elements. All that is left, and all that is judged, the thinking goes, is what's in the glass.

Is that a good thing? I'm not convinced. Usually, wines are scored in mass tastings where very little time can be devoted to each bottle. The critics taste, spit so as to diminish the effects of alcohol, evaluate, maybe taste and spit once more, and move on to the next glass.

These sorts of tastings are generally blind, meaning that while reviewers may know what sorts of wines they are tasting - Argentine malbecs, say, or Sonoma cabernet sauvignons - they do not know the producers of the wines.

Proponents of blind tastings assert that they free reviewers from any sorts of preconceptions they might have about particular producers. I have my doubts: Reviewers ought to be professional enough to overcome their preconceptions, because it deprives them of useful information that could contribute to their understanding of what's in the glass.

Yet in some circumstances, blind tasting can be a useful educational exercise. I don't think it's always necessary, but our wine panels will continue to do it.

In any case, my bigger issue is with the quick tasting and spitting, which is the only way to get through vast numbers of bottles. Some wines can be evaluated this way, especially commodity wines that have been produced and stabilised to maximise consistency and eliminate uncertainty.

But unlike soft drinks, good wines are not stable. They change continually, and trying to define them at one particular moment is like photographing the sky and assuming it will always look like that picture.

It's one reason I advocate drinking rather than tasting, getting to know a wine over time, with a meal, rather than relying on the quick transitory sample.

Perhaps, a better way of making useful recommendations to consumers is to evaluate producers rather than particular bottles. Producers can be assessed for their styles of wine, their methods of production and farming, how they think about wine and so on. Many writers do this already, generally in books (rather than in periodicals) as this sort of evaluation does not have to be repeated with each new vintage.

They can likewise assess importers, the styles of wines they prefer, their ability to find skilled producers for their portfolios, their determination to ensure that wines are properly shipped and stored.

This sort of information is more useful, easier to store and recall, and longer-lasting than the fish-wrap of bottle reviews.

Back when Parker began writing about wine, his view was that many famous wine producers were coasting on reputations, and that most wine writers of that era were giving them a pass because they enjoyed cosy relationships. Sometimes, the reviewers themselves were members of the wine trade.

The wine world was smaller and clubbier then, with far fewer wines available in the United States. Wine is a much more competitive business today, with more good wines from more places in more diverse styles. The quality standards are higher than they have ever been.

The best way for consumers to negotiate this confusing but pleasure-packed landscape is with some good general knowledge and the courage to explore.

Wine writers have so much to offer beyond the bottle reviews: introducing unfamiliar regions, grapes and producers while revisiting old ones; offering critical appraisals of styles; and assessing what's new and what's ripe for rediscovery.

Perhaps Parker's greatest contribution to wine writing was his infectious enthusiasm. Whether people ultimately agreed or disagreed with his taste, they were inspired to want to find in wine what he so exuberantly found himself. NYTIMES