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.