The Boston Phoenix
April 29 - May 6, 1999

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Critical sass

Why should you read this column?

by Thor Iverson

All my life, I've complained about critics. Music critics: failed musicians with tin ears and more-alternative-than-thou attitudes. Film critics: cynical nonromantics who snub any movie without subtitles. Food critics: winephobic, anti-indulgence misers who appear to find little joy in eating.

And yet, here I am: a wine critic. So all that complaining has led me to a bit of navel-gazing. What good are wine critics, anyway? Do we serve a purpose? Can we be trusted?

The answers to the latter two questions are "yes" and "sometimes." As for the first question, it depends on what you're looking for.

Take Robert Parker, America's most famous wine critic and one of the most powerful critics of any kind, anywhere. In his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, he rates wines on a 50-to-100-point scale; his ratings can make or break sales for wine producers. They're also important to retailers, who use the numbers for advertising and pricing, and to consumers, many of whom unquestioningly follow his recommendations. Parker and those who take a similar approach (such as Steve Tanzer of The International Wine Cellar and Clive Coates of The Vine) are most useful to readers seeking an answer to the question "What should I buy?"

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There is, however, a catch: your palate has to be in tune with the critic's palate. A wine that Parker rates in the upper 90s can be expensive and difficult to find, and discovering that you don't like a wine you bought on his recommendation is a disheartening experience. So it's important, when considering the critics' judgments, that you understand their biases -- even if that means knowing that you should avoid the wines they like.

Parker likes big wines: big fruit, big oak, big tannin, and big alcohol. He's very good with Bordeaux, California cabernets, and Aussie shiraz, but not so good with more-subdued wines (such as Burgundy). As for me, I do enjoy big, fruity wines, but I prefer elegance and subtlety. I have a strong aversion to heavy oak, but I love minerality and earthiness. I absolutely worship riesling and the wines of Alsace, while I cast a somewhat cynical eye toward California chardonnay. Thus, when I say that the 1994 Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Vineyard ($27) is the best California chardonnay I've had in years, devotees of Cal chard should be wary. I absolutely loved the complex roasted-nut character laced with cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon that wove in and out of the elegant shadings of pineapple and banana. But fans of fruit and toast (and Robert Parker) would probably prefer the 1997 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Alexander Valley Belle Terre Vineyard ($26), with its outrageous tropical-fruit-salad palate smothered in creamy vanilla-flavored oak.

Another kind of wine critic isn't really a critic at all, but is actually a wine writer. The writer's purpose is not to rate wines -- though recommendations are often included -- but to educate, enlighten, and excite. In other words, to help the reader develop his or her own palate. Jancis Robinson (Oxford Companion to Wine and the Financial Times) and Gerald Asher (Gourmet magazine) are two well-known writers who take this approach, and it's the one I try to emulate in this column. So rather than just tell you to buy the 1994 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva ($15) for its rich berry and leather heft (balanced by enough gritty tannin and bright acidity to let it age), I'd also point out that Muga is making a much more exciting, and less oaky, version of Rioja than was typical in the past.

There's something else you need to know about wine writers, however, and it goes to the issue of trust. The people who have attended our "Uncorked" wine tastings know how much fun it is to drink free wine provided by distributors and wine stores, but we wine writers do that sort of thing almost every day. We also get invited to lunches, dinners, and junkets paid for by wholesalers, importers, PR agents, and producers. Most of these are open only to the press and members of the wine trade. Those of us who don't live in noxious anti-free-trade states such as Massachusetts often get wine samples in the mail, too. In other words, much of the wine we taste is provided free of charge by the trade. In some fields of journalism, this would get you fired.

From one perspective, this sort of thing is no big deal -- ask any music critic how many free CDs arrive each day. But from the perspective of objectivity, it's problematic. People in the wine trade become close acquaintances, even friends, and do very nice things for writers. The natural inclination is to do nice things in return. Wine writers who are themselves in the trade (such as Master of Wine Sandy Block, who writes for the Improper Bostonian) have integrity dilemmas of their own; since they promote their own wines in their day jobs (and thus don't taste much from other firms), their writing is inevitably dominated by recommendations from their own portfolios.

Given the ethical uncertainties, why do writers accept this largesse? Because we're not all independently wealthy. I've tasted as many as 400 wines in a single week, something I simply could not otherwise afford to do. Nevertheless, a writer who fails to set careful boundaries risks losing his or her soul to the freebies. I've ruined relationships with PR agents because I refused to promise column inches about a particular event. (Usually the sort of article I decline to write appears in another newspaper or magazine.) Unfortunately, too many writers are content to rewrite press releases in an effort to keep the gravy train running.

So why should you read this -- or any other -- wine column? Because the writing inspires you to seek out new wine experiences. Because the writer can balance a passion for wine with objectivity in the face of temptation. But mainly, because you like, love, or want to love wine. That's why I write about it, after all.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to hide from our film critic.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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