reflectionIconic news anchor Walter Cronkite passed away this summer. Amongst the many praises and remembrances of his character and career, one thing stuck out — he never made himself the story. Cronkite was a trusted conveyor of information, always heralded for his objectivity.

This is a valuable reminder for wine critics and evaluators, particularly as the lines of classical journalism blend with digital media.

Recently, online wine media debated the topic of wine scoring and ratings, which is something of a cycling debate that never resolves itself. Arguments made by those participating in the dialogue are aimed at protecting, promoting or defending the critic’s system and process. More to the point: it’s about preserving the brand equity of the critic and promoting his or her advancement.

Time and time again, wine critics expound upon how their tasting notes are a reflection of THEIR experience with a wine and the rating is THEIR opinion and that the reader needs to follow THEM and taste along with them to calibrate their own palate.

What a narcissistic exercise.

Rating and recommendation systems employed by the vast majority of wine assessors today are purely a reflection of their own preferences and enjoyment. Whether they use points or other indicators of quality or desirability in their final verdict, it is insulting to the reader because, unfortunately, wine assessors of all degrees of prominence demure at the notion that they dictate taste. This is disingenuous. A critic is in a position to render verdicts which consumers take as endorsements.

Writing about drinking is the journaling of personal experiences. Approaching wine assessment as an evaluation of a consumer product is the essence of professional wine journalism. Wine evaluation (the practice of critical wine journalism) is not about the critics, it’s about the wine and the readers and consumers who will buy it and drink it. Wine writing and wine assessment are supposed to serve consumers and guide their exploration and purchasing decisions rather than tell them what wines are worth their money and which wines are “good”. Simply, a methodology and rating system needs to come about which takes personal preferences out of wine evaluation.

This is all the more true if we embrace the wholesale notion of the “subjectivity of wine.” Assuming the most extreme degree of variation in sensory abilities, there is considerable common ground in sensory experience from human to human. Yes, there are some physiological variations in acuity and perception. Only a small portion of those, however, make for differing sensory experiences between individuals. Yes, there are some people who are statistical outliers in their sensitivity to a particular aroma or flavor. Neither of these things, however, gives wine evaluators license to throw their hands up in resignation and declare that it’s useless to try to find some consistent and reliable way of communicating about wine. To take themselves out of the equation, wine assessors need to be informed and practiced while adhering to some criteria and process.

Wine evaluators should learn about and train themselves to recognize and identify aromas, flavors and textures in wine accurately. These are predetermined by the grapes’ DNA and change expression to varying degrees with farming and vinification methods and other manipulations. Winemakers know how these sensory characteristics can be achieved through various growing and production methods. Wine evaluators should know this as well.

With this enhanced understanding in evaluation comes the understanding of what those aromas, flavors and textures (and their proportions) actually mean for the wine. If you can’t tell a chardonnay from a viognier (assuming the two offerings before you are actually distinguishable) how can you judge if either wine is a good representation of the grape and growing region or if it is flawed, age-worthy or food-friendly? How can you make a reliable recommendation instead of telling your readers how “yummy” YOU thought the wine was?

When it comes to points, stars, or thumbs as indicators of your quality verdict, it’s a waste of time to worry what one system’s four stars means in terms of other scales. Instead, a predetermined set of some criteria for awarding points or other indices should be adhered to during the evaluation of each wine. Stating what four stars or 90 points means is not what I have in mind, either. The criteria should dictate how the taster arrives at those final ratings. The U.C. Davis scale was devised to evaluate student and experimental wines, but is a very good example of this process. It assesses different sensory attributes of each wine and tallies the points up for a final score.

All this is to take the focus away from the evaluator’s personal enjoyment or preference. It focuses on the wine and strives to make the reviewer a conduit of information. It rests judgment in something more concrete than personal preference. It makes the reviewer more reliable and credible. The writing then truly becomes not about the reviewer but about the person reading the review, like Cronkite reporting the news – as a vehicle for fact and truth, not an arbiter of opinion.

– Arthur Z. Przebinda focuses on California wine stories, particularly those from the Central Coast, for PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine. Arthur founded redwinebuzz.com in 2006 to focus on California’s Central Coast wines and to offer general wine education.

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  • http://www.thomaspellechia.com Thomas Pellechia

    Arthur,

    The last time I made a similar point, and the myriad times before that, I was accused of taking the soul out of wine. Imagine that: learning about what it is you are criticizing removes the soul of what it is that you are criticizing.

    Fact is, studying what it is you are criticizing is work. It’s much easier to just talk about what you think you smell and taste and how well you like it and then score it so other can benefit from your astute palate.

    The real issue is what will critics do after score escalation takes them beyond 100? I mean, if it ain’t a 95, why bother?

  • Ned Hoey

    I suppose to a certain extent what you advocate is possible but the it seems for those able to elbow their way to prominence, self promotion and ego are apparently an essential component of wine criticism. The difficulty of defining and practicing “objectivity” is so elusive that I don’t expect to see any noticeable change in the mediascape any time soon.
    Rating and scoring wine, as understandable as the impulse is, has through it’s dominance and ubiquity distorted the enjoyment of wine and along with it, the wine trade.
    If only, rather than seeing wine in a hierarchical way, wines were written about as far as where they come from, how it was made, what the producers goal was, and what the wine would best be suited for.

  • The Wine Mule

    Odd to say so, but I think it is about the critic. When you’ve read enough Parker, Tanzer, Robinson, etc., you eventually get a good read on where they’re coming from. For example: I more or less trust Parker when it comes to the Rhone; I don’t trust him when it comes to the Barossa Valley. And I can’t give a really good reason why that is; he’s far more experienced a taster than I’ll ever be; I’m just a guy flogging bottles for a living. But my palate is my palate, just as yours is yours and Parker’s is Parker’s. And the more I read Jamie Goode, the more I think the whole business of attempting to describe a wine with words to others is ultimately futile. We all taste differently, and we all have different sensory histories with wine.

    The whole phenomenon of professional tasting notes and scores is probably suspect, anyway. To quote Goode: “When we don’t taste blind, our preferences are liable to be shaped by pre-existing information we have about the wine. Try as hard as we might to be objective, this isn’t possible. What we know about wine will shape how we perceive the wine, and will even influence how much we enjoy a particular bottle.”

    With this in mind, the “pre-existing information,” e.g., notes and scores, starts to loom pretty large, and certainly explains–to me, anyway–why some winemakers will do whatever it takes to get a big score from a big-name critic.

  • Peter Slate

    So I can blog about wine and describe it, tell how much I love it but when I give it a numerical score I get chastised?

    And “I more or less trust Parker when it comes to the Rhone; I don’t trust him when it comes to the Barossa Valley” isn’t it more appropriate to “agree” or “disagree”? If you don’t trust someone then you are saying they are lying.

  • The Wine Mule

    Pete:

    No, I don’t think Parker is lying. I think he tastes Aussie wines differently than I do, in part because he brings a different background and a different set of assumptions to those wines than I do. (And just to be clear: I am NOT equating myself with Parker, for reasons I’ve stated above.) And no, you are not to be chastised for attaching scores. It’s a smart thing to do. People pay attention to scores. If I believed in scores, I’d put them up myself. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for me, it’s a pretty small minority out there that wonders what on earth is the difference between and 89 and a 90.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-11305-Kansas-City-Wine-Examiner Dennis Schaefer

    Aw Arthur, you just want to take all the fun out of it.

  • Mark W.

    I am the only American wine producer in Germany. I live in Bernkastel, on the Middle Mosel River. I have been producing Ultra Premium Riesling wine for over five years. I live it, I breath it and I am very passionate about making the best Riesling on the planet. I have won many medals and awards for my Rieslings.

    In February of 2007 I submitted ten of my selections to a very prestigious wine competition in the USA. I won seven medals (three gold, two silver and two bronze) out of the ten selections that were submitted.. I was told by one of the judges that it was some of the best Riesling that they have ever tasted. All of the big names were at the competition and I fared better than they did.

    One week later I submitted the same selections (2005, 2004, 2003 vintages) to Bruce Sanderson the German Wine Critic at The Wine Spectator. They arrived in NYC on February 14, 2007. I called and spoke with Bruce at the end of February he said; “the wines were sitting in his office and he told me the wines would be reviewed and rated.”

    I contacted Bruce again in late June, 2007. He stated; “that he was working on the White Burgundy and that he would taste the wines and the ratings would be out in one of the fall issues.”

    Another call was made to Bruce on September 25, 2007. On September 26, 2007 Bruce returned my call and stated; “the older vintages would not be reviewed and he was unable to publish a review of any of the wines, because the publishing schedule had changed and the wines had not been tasted.”

    When I called the next day and told him that a messenger would be coming to pick up the wines to send it to another publication which expressed interest in reviewing and rating them. Bruce hesitated and then stated; “the wines were not available because it had been tasted informally and it was decided that THEIR readers would not be interested.” I asked him for the tasting notes, but no tasting notes were available.

    On October 5, 2007 I sent an email to Marv Shanken and copied some of the other wine critics that were writing for various newspapers to let them know what happened.

    When I spoke with some of the other critics they told me; “that if you don’t advertise with them they will not rate your wines.”

    It has been almost two years since this happened. I have and will never submit my wines to another critic. The only critics that matter to me are the consumers.

    My wines are placed in many of the top hotels, restaurants and fine wine stores in the USA.

    Attached, is the email that I sent to Marv…

    Re: (Company Name) Friday, October 5, 2007 11:19 AM
    From: “Mark”
    To: mshanken at mshanken dot com

    Dear Mr. Shanken:

    I am writing to inform you about a rather unpleasant experience I recently had, regarding submission and review of my wines. I am the only American wine producer in Germany, and the largest supplier of bulk Riesling from Germany to America. My (Company Name) is small with limited resources for marketing, but my wines are of the highest quality. I think my story is classic American entrepreneurship. I was very excited to have the opportunity to have my wines tasted by your prestigious magazine. I submitted a substantial amount of wine, my full range, worth over $1000 (2005, 2004 and 2003 vintages) to Bruce Sanderson in February of 2007. I spoke with Bruce at the end of February and was told the wine would be reviewed and rated. I contacted Bruce again in late June, 2007. He stated; “that he was working on the White Burgundy and that he would taste the wines and the ratings would be out in one of the fall issues”. A subsequent call was made to Bruce on September 25, 2007. On September 26, 2007 Bruce returned my call and stated; “the older vintages would not be reviewed and he was unable to publish a review of any of the wines, because the publishing schedule had changed and the wines had not been tasted”. When I called the next day and told him that a messenger would be coming to pick up the wine, to send it to another publication which expressed interest, Bruce hesitated and then stated; “the wine was not available because it had been tasted informally and it was decided that YOUR readers would not be interested.” I asked him for the tasting notes, but no tasting notes were available. What was the informal tasting, the secretary and others took my wine home? Not only am I out the value of my product, but also the months that went by under the assumption that the wines would be reviewed. This is very disingenuous and disrespectful of small producers, and is shocking from a magazine of such reputation!

    Regards,

    Mark

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