28 November 2007

Where critics fear to tread

[map]As I predicted the moment I finished tasting the wines, posting notes on a Washington Wine Commission tasting led to an angry blowback. Mostly from one impassioned winemaker, but also from a few anonymous snipers. As I know this sort of thing gets passed around amongst otherwise busy wine industry folk (“can you believe this guy?”), I’m sure I haven’t yet heard the end of it, either.

There’s nothing surprising about this…in fact, it’s the norm for critics of all stripes. If there’s one blessing about the wine field, it’s that the criticisms tend to be coherent and well-written, rather than the incomprehensible gibberish that, say, music critics receive on an hourly basis; I know, I’ve been one. Other than a few letters to the editor, the general public doesn’t usually get to see this sort of thing. But that’s all different now that everyone and their sister has a blog. Unless comments are turned off (and frankly, that’s not a terrible idea for an opinion-monger), everyone gets to see the criticisms, the counter-criticisms, and (usually) the arguments that follow. Though others may disagree, I tend to believe that transparency is a generally positive thing. So if I post notes, and there’s a consensus out there that I’ve missed the boat, I think it’s worthwhile to have that response where readers can see it.

In case you’re wondering – and you’re probably not – there are actual consequences to criticism, and not just those claimed by those whose products are being criticized. Critics get uninvited to tastings when they post negative notes. They lose access to resources – winemakers, PR agencies, trade commissions – which can be very helpful in “getting it right,” or at least getting a broader picture; this lowers the overall quality of wine criticism, but it’s probably an inevitable result of the necessarily antagonistic producer/critic relationship. I doubt, for example, that the WWC will be eager to invite me to their next Boston event, and I doubt a lot of cellar doors will be open to me on my next trip to Washington. It can even make everyday life difficult, as criticizing a local restaurant or retailer makes it very, very difficult to patronize that establishment (which, in the latter case, makes it hard to buy wine). And it can get even worse. Though it seems hard to fathom, I’ve actually received physical threats over things I’ve written. So has my family. It’s an ugly world out there, sometimes, with some ugly people in it. Thankfully, this WWC-related tiff (and I should note that, at least to my knowledge, I’ve heard nothing from the fine and generous people at that commission) was nothing like that. It was just regular old criticism, which almost seems like a relief when compared to other possible responses.

So how did I know that there would be an angry mini-mob after I posted those Washington notes? Well, as long-time writers know, there are three critical “third rails” in the wine world. One is Champagne, because those massive marketing and advertising budgets have to count for something. “What is the source of your personal hatred for Veuve-Clicquot?” cried one devastated agent after a negative review…not even in print, but on an online wine forum. (Answer: I don’t have a personal hatred for V-C. I just don’t think the wines are what they should be, and the yellow-label Brut is incomprehensibly popular given its low quality.) The second is any critic more successful than yourself. Because you will be accused of jealousy, and of insufficient experience, and both the human shields and (too often) the critics themselves will snippily crush you like an insignificant bug on their way to another few months of mutual back-slapping. It’s simply not worth it, and in any case no one cares about critics critiquing critics except…critics. Talk about inside baseball…

And the third? The third is domestic wine. Outside of Champagne, you can write anything – no matter how harsh – about a foreign wine, and only on a rare occasion will you hear a complaint harsher than “well, I liked it, and I think you’re wrong.” But criticize a domestic wine, and you will hear from everyone. The criticism will sometimes be personal, but even if it’s not, it will be defensive and more than a little angry.

So why is that? Well, part of it is an ongoing reaction to years of “European wines are better because they’re better” sniffing from critics around the world. And that’s understandable. No one should seriously question that domestic producers are capable of making truly world-class wine, or that many of them already do. Too many don’t, but that’s no different than anywhere else. However, very few critics actually make that claim anymore, even subconsciously. A lot of the defensive response from the domestic wine industry is actually rooted in attitudes that are, for the most part, of the past. Which is not to say that there aren’t still Europhile palates out there…after all, I’m one, and the East Coast is rife with them…just that critics, even if they’re Europhilic, have a duty to be fair to wines they don’t necessarily like. And I think, for the most part, they fulfill that duty. Oenophilic anti-Americanism should be a non-factor, but in some cases we’re still waiting for the producers to catch up.

Another part of it is because too many critics aren’t actually critical. Especially with writers local to wine regions, the appeal of boosterism is difficult to ignore (though there are many skilled exceptions). Some publications even insist on it; I’m writing for one now, for example, that doesn’t want too much negativity in its pages (which might explain why so much of it ends up here). Local cheerleading is helpful because it doesn’t pit you against the people you’re going to see on a daily basis (and that you’ll need to see to do your job well), and it can lead to book-writing opportunities, which is one of the very few semi-lucrative outlets for wine writing. Plus, as noted earlier, being critical is a reliable way to be cut off from the gravy train of samples, meals, trips and other largesse. Given that a large number of critics make this choice for entirely understandable reasons, it’s not surprising that the ones that are actually critical stand out like a very sore thumb.

But there’s something else at work, too, and I’ve never been quite sure how to identify it. Some domestic winemakers and winery owners just can’t seem to abide any criticism. Is it the classic American sense of entitlement? An oddly anti-capitalist over-personalization of the market, where the product becomes conflated with the person, and thus criticism of the former is incorrectly taken as criticism of the latter? Is it somehow related to the high prices of domestic wines (which, given equivalent history and quality, often sell for much more than their European counterparts…discounting currency effects, of course, though even then American wines are expensive), wherein so much money is riding on each bottle that negativity is more keenly felt? I don’t know, and I’m not going to play armchair psychologist and guess. All I know for sure is that it’s a known phenomenon, and I (and, one presumes, other critics) deal with it every time I’m negative about a domestic wine.

There’s more to this issue, too: the nature of criticism, the purpose of negativity, the use and abuse of language. But this is already far too long for a blog post, and so I’ll have to leave those issues for another time. Meanwhile, I’ve got angry correspondents to deal with.


Félicien Breton said...

Thank you Thor for continuing your own path on this blog.
Other wine bloggers regularly encounter problems with domestic producers. I do once a year.
Vincent Fritzsche stumbled upon a similar issue some days ago.

Vincent Fritzsche said...


How sad to see what the responses you're getting. I don't even want to bother saying this in the other post on WA wines. I'll be accused of being an amateur and unqualified to comment, but in my experience making wine at home and tasting others in wineries where I've worked or visited, "neutral" barrels are something of a myth. I have my '06 wine in an '01 barrel and after a year it's amazing the wood influence. It's too much for me. I'm wondering how old a barrel has to be when it's truly neutral. My '07 has been in an '02 barrel for a month and already it's marked. Now the wood influence is subtle, but it's more than the slight oxidation and concentration barrel aging gives any wine. It's not coconut or caramel. But it's there, and I think people who don't see it are too used to tasting from newer barrels and tasting and drinking wines that aren't simply wood marked, but downright oaky. There have been legendary internet battles between people who insist a wine is oaky and others who insist the wine only saw neutral barrels. What's the truth. Neutral barrels affect wine more than people give them credit for. It's that simple.

Ken Sternberg said...

Keep up your good work, Thor. If someone disinvites you or stops sending samples, they probably were lousy wines in the first place. One purpose I think anyone who writes about wine (or anything in a critical manner) should keep in mind is the consumer. Except for a few people, money is tight and expensive wines are not always worth the money. People want to know this.

thor iverson said...

Félicien, thanks for your response. I know I'm hardly alone in this, but it's a source of frustration. Nonetheless, there's nothing to be done about it...if I'm going to be critical (and I am), this sort of thing is inevitable.

Vincent, I agree about so-called "neutral" barrels. People are sensitive to different things, of course, and one taster's fruit bomb is another's VA-ridden monstrosity, so that's another factor. But it's there to the sensitive, just like anything else, and denying its existence is a little like those people who claim they've tasted thousands of wines and never had a corked bottle. Of course they have, they just couldn't tell.

I think people who don't see it are too used to tasting from newer barrels and tasting and drinking wines that aren't simply wood marked, but downright oaky

Agreed, and of course who tastes more fresh (really fresh) wood than a winemaker? It's no different than, say, salt or garlic in the kitchen...overuse (or over-exposure) leads to increasing amounts to get the previous effect, while the previous amounts don't even register.

There have been legendary internet battles between people who insist a wine is oaky and others who insist the wine only saw neutral barrels.

Not to mention *cough Greg Piatgorski cough* names.

Ken, thanks, and you're absolutely right. When the winemaker in the Washington tiff told me I should feel free to not review his wines in the future (which he did over email), he was very, very confused about who I was writing for.

It's a shame that more and more of the major journals aren't publishing their negative reviews anymore. I understand their reasons, but it's creating an unhealthy atmosphere wherein winemakers are getting too used to dominant positivity.

Thad said...

Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

That's what comes to mind after reading your thoughtful writing on Washington wine and your balanced responses to comments received from one winemaker. The courage and conviction you have demonstrated in sharing your opinion, knowing full well the consequences, is inspiring and admirable.

And regardless of what some might suggest, I believe you care deeply about wine in general and my state's future in this industry. Otherwise, you would not have dedicated such a significant amount of time and effort clearly stating your position and then defending the same afterward.

For winemakers anywhere, I hope they have the maturity to consider your honest feedback and apply your suggestions where needed to improve their product. For wine writers, I hope others will follow your lead, which has clearly established a new benchmark in constructive wine criticism.

As a result, all wine consumers will benefit, for it is the free flow of ideas and opinions that provides a catalyst for positive change.

I am better off for having discovered your blog as a result of this matter and look forward to reading more in the days and weeks ahead.

Keep up the great work, Thor!

thor iverson said...

your balanced responses to comments received from one winemaker

I don't know how "balanced" I was. I calmed down eventually, and I think the points I made later in the comment thread would have been better without the other stuff. But I'm not going to edit now. Best to leave the ugliness there for all to see.

Or, in other words, I should have stuck to the Logos, avoided the Pathos, and left the Ethos to the Master Sommelier. ;-)

And regardless of what some might suggest, I believe you care deeply about wine in general and my state's future in this industry.

Thank you for saying so, and yes I do. If these were the wines of, say, Kansas, I wouldn't have bothered, or I only would have noted anything that I thought was drinkable or highly amusing. What's the point of trashing Kansas wines to a national audience? But Washington's important, and on the rise...and, let's not forget, had just received a pretty giant valentine from Jay Miller. So it's not like anything I said came amongst a season of Washington-trashing. Rather the opposite. Furthermore, and though it's probably little comfort to the producers I mentioned, I don't react all that differently to ultra-modern Bordeaux than I did to the wines in this tasting.

Some of the care that you mention came earlier. When I met with the WWC's people, I told them pretty clearly that I had a Europhile palate, and that this was a Europhile market (though to be sure, I'm more contrarian than most). I gave them what advice I could, and I'm pretty sure Shayn Bjornholm (another M.S.! the state is littered with them!), at least, could read between the lines and guess what I was going to think of the wines at the luncheon a few days later. He didn't have to invite me. I'm sure he won't make that mistake again... ;-)

I always feel bad when someone shows wines like that, especially over lunch or dinner, and then I write something like I did. Bad, but not bad enough to lie about it and claim I thought everything was just spiffy. The audience is still the reader, not the producer. Others will (and did) have different opinions, and that's all great. Also, by printing the bad, I think it puts the good in context. Without the context, I think positivity is far less useful, because the reader doesn't know the answer to "in relation to what?"

Oregon is an entirely different matter, but that's because the majority of my tasting in recent years has been elective; I'm drinking/tasting what I want to based on my preferences, not subjecting myself to a flood of wines I'm almost certain to dislike. I still intend to do that in Washington to provide some counter-balance, though I may have to sneak in under an alias to do it. ;-)

[...] it is the free flow of ideas and opinions that provides a catalyst for positive change.

Fully agreed. I don't mean to put myself in a position where I think I'm making constructive suggestions to winemakers, because that's presumptuous, but I do think it's important for them to hear the good and the bad. It's been my experience that the most honest (and best) winemakers know the truth anyway, and they tend to be the ones who are least bothered by criticism.

I enjoy your blog as well, about which I was previously unaware. Whenever I'm in Washington, maybe you can help me with an assumed name, fake passport, etc. ;-)

Brewnoser said...

As far as I can tell, from reading as much on this Washington fiasco as I could find, the WWC got what they asked for. A frank opininon on how their wines would be received by the Boston wine market.

A winemaker in love with his wines (and probably consuming them in quantity) is not really a tempest, even in this teapot.