Why should you read this column?
by Thor Iverson
All my life, I've complained about critics.
failed musicians with tin ears and more-alternative-than-thou attitudes.
cynical nonromantics who snub any movie without subtitles.
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?"
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
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.
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Parker likes big wines: big
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
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 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
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.
(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
let it age), I'd also point out that Muga is making a much more exciting, and
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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