The influence of the wine critics

This essay is the latest in an occasional series that takes a critical look at some aspect of the wine industry. There are some excellent and thoughtful responses from visitors at bottom of page.

Wine Critics. What are they good for?

In a scientific lecture a speaker hands out squares of paper which have been soaked in a bitter chemical. During the presentation the audience are instructed to place these on their tongues. About quarter of the audience can taste nothing, half detect an unpleasant bitterness, the remaining quarter find the taste disgustingly bitter. This demonstrates a phenomenon first discovered in the 1930’s: that individuals have genetic differences that determine their ability to taste bitter compounds. It seems we are divided into categories of ‘supertasters’ (with enhanced sensitivity), ‘non-tasters’ (with reduced sensitivity) and ‘normal tasters’.

Whilst I’ve never really thought too much about the scientific reasons behind it, I have always accepted that this is the case: that different individuals have unique palates and react differently to flavours in wine – particularly tannins and acids. I have always believed that given any 20 tasters, each sipping exactly the same wine, you will get 20 different opinions of it. Each of these will be equally valid. On my wine appreciation courses the first lesson I teach – and one I reinforce continually – is that no-one is right and no-one is wrong when it comes to voicing an opinion on a wine. This is simply because no-one else is tasting the wine the way you are tasting the wine.

A world of taste

We each operate in our own “taste world”. That world is formed by a combination of factors: there are the physical differences in taste sensitivity as proved in the experiment recounted above, but a whole range of factors to do with upbringing and culture play a part too. How vividly I remember my first experience of an olive at about the age of 14. The bitter, sickly flavour almost made me choke, yet I have since grown to enjoy the flavour. There’s no doubt that appreciation of certain flavours is “learned”, and the uniquely tannic, acidic elements of red wines are one example of tastes that are usually acquired rather than natural.

So given these unique taste worlds that we each inhabit, what is the point of taking the advice of a wine critic? If all taste worlds are different, how can anyone be “right” in stating that one wine is definitively better than another? How can we have any confidence that a wine recommended by a critic will suit our own, personal tastes? Another argument concerns the way critics taste wine: often 50 wines in quick-fire succession and in clinical conditions. We, on the other hand, will linger over a bottle, enjoying its subtleties with food and conversation.

So just how relevant can the tasting notes and ratings of any wine critic be? I would be the first person to caution against blind faith in wine critics, but I would also contend that there are very good reasons why critics, tasting panels and wine competitions are valid, necessary and provide an invaluable service to the wine lover.

Why we need wine critics

We are brought up from babies being exposed to a variety of foods. Over the course of many thousands of meals we come to realise that we have certain likes and dislikes. We build a personal set of rules for what we consume based on these experiences. Like the olives, many of these tastes are acquired, but we have the time and opportunity to experiment and see which of these “problem” foods might grow on us.

Because we have formed such a clear set of opinions based on this experience, we react quite differently to food critics than to wine critics: just because the culinary equivalent of Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson tells us a liver recipe is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever eaten, we still might not touch it with a barge-pole if we know we detest liver. We have the confidence to stick by our own opinion, and the critic’s glowing report is influential only within the context of our own experience.

For many people wine just isn’t like that. They don’t have the experience of thousands and thousands of bottles upon which to build a personal taste rule-book. Experience of a few hundred bottles is nothing – especially when many are consumed without analytical thought, but just to wash down a meal or lubricate a social occasion. Also, without some study and background knowledge, many wines – for example those that don’t carry a varietal label – probably add nothing to the consumer’s knowledge-base.

For most, wine is a luxury product too, so splashing out hard cash is an act of faith. Not many people have the time, money – or interest – to rigorously learn about wine through research and extensive tasting. Most are looking for “expert” guidance, perhaps by reading a newspaper column, or studying the results of a wine competition like the International Wine Challenge for example. And what do they get from these? From the former they get the opinion of one single palate which might well be in a different “taste world” from their own. From the latter, they get the aggregated experiences of a panel of tasters, which some might say is at best a compromise.

But for all their faults aren’t both of these still invaluable tools for the wine lover? We’ve got to assume that Jancis Robinson writing her newspaper column can give an opinion that – although from her own “taste world” – is based on massive experience, is educated, is thoughtful, is fair, and is capable of selecting outstanding wines from a bunch of dull wines. Even a far more humble wine writer like me tastes through 40 or 50 “everyday” wines each week. I am perfectly confident that I can separate these into “poor”, “average” and “good” categories. More importantly, my experience is that the vast majority of people – whatever their taste world – will agree by and large.

As for panels of tasters, well in some ways that result should be even more reliable surely? As long as the panel is made up of experienced tasters, then any faulty wines should be confidently rejected for a start (corked, oxidised, volatile). Beyond that, sorting wines into broad “poor”, “ok”, “better” and “best” categories should be quite possible. Having taken part in such tastings it is surprising that the disagreements between tasters are fewer than might be expected given the different taste worlds in which they must operate. Generally the ranking of wines sorts itself out quite efficiently, and arguments over specific wines are usually resolved by re-tasting and discussion. For the consumer it still may not be a perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for 100% agreement, but I think it is a pretty good yardstick for most people.

Blind faith in any wine critic is not a good thing. It does not encourage the wine drinker to learn and discover for themselves. In an ideal world people would taste and think about wine sufficiently deeply to form their own opinions. But since that isn’t a natural process of our upbringing (like eating as we grow) it requires us to actively learn about wine: about varieties, countries, grapes, oak-aging, vintages, producers, etc, etc, etc. In order to choose confidently as we stand in front of the supermarket shelf we need knowledge. Since few of us have it, I for one feel quite happy that the various forms of independent wine advice available do a good job and are worth listening to – even if being beamed down from a different “taste world” to our own.

Nurture verses nature

A final thought: say I ask two people to taste 100 wines and assess, rate and recommend the best half dozen for laying down over the next 20 years. Taster 1 is tee-totaller Joe Public who knows nothing about wine, but happens to occupy an exactly similar “taste world” to my own; taster 2 is a very highly experienced wine expert, who has a lifetime of experience in tasting and assessing wines, but who happens to be in a different “taste world” from my own. Whom would I rather trust if about to splash out my own hard-earned cash?

I know this is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point that training, concentration, diligence and – above all – experience are for me as important, if not more important, than physiological taste sensitivity or the conditions under which wines are tasted.

The good critic, given all the factors argued above, still has a role and still has value.

Visitor responses

Måns Wallin, London, England
I have just read your article and found it very interesting. I’d just like to make a few comments on a subject I feel is not properly examined by the professional tasters themselves. I certainly value the thoughts and opinions provided by wine critics in the media, and I do agree entirely with you in that they have an important role to play, judging the quality and value for money of wine. They do a lot of hard work providing readers or viewers with a quick evaluation of wines, directing consumers towards, generally speaking, better products. However, in my humble opinion there are two inherent problems in the method applied by critics when assessing wine, and these problems are hardly ever mentioned when the results are published.
Firstly, a wine is very rarely tasted by itself. This means that to be a top scorer, a wine usually have to stand out in a crowd, displaying more of certain characteristics that we expect from a particular AOC or equivalent. Looking at the honours awarded by the recent International WINE Challenge, for instance, will reveal the pattern by which tasters give higher scores to wines which display more flavour (relatively speaking), better ‘expression of fruit’, etc. I believe, given the attention paid to such events by winemakers, that there is a risk that wines will be ‘improved’ over the years to such an extent that they no longer resemble the individual style they were once known by. As an example, Claret is supposed to be medium-bodied with refined characteristics, evolving over time, not a specimen of dramatic fruit to drink the year after release.
Secondly, wine critics usually sniff and spit, allowing the wine a few minutes to impress them. I understand that good health requires this practice, and that critics also drink, as opposed to taste, certain wines. But I nevertheless believe that people who buy wine to drink it will experience a very different sensation, when they have their third glass, from the wine critic who has a few centilitres to assess and subsequently dispose of. In my experience, traditionally made Old World wines who are perhaps not designed to impress critics will show much better over a period of hours, during which a ‘bold, fruit-driven, vanilla oak’ wine might have become cloying and far too rich to enjoy.
In conclusion, then, it is imperative that wine critics become less confident in their expressed judgements by realising the inherent deficits in the method by which they assess wine. Otherwise there is a risk that all wines will become turbo-charged with flavour, erasing the differences between styles, eliminating that beautiful diversity in the world of wine. Consumer demand is not a constant, it is influenced by variables such as expert authority, marketing, and, ultimately, producer supply. The wine critic exerts influence, by choice or not, on each of these.

My response to Måns:
I couldn’t agree more with the general thrust of what you say: that the “homogenisation” of wines into show-winning styles is a dangerous and slippery slope. I also agree that tasting an ounce of wine and spitting it out is not the same as enjoying half a bottle over a leisurely meal (I tried to allude to this point in the essay) – though I do think the UK critics and show judges – by and large – are alive to the danger of “blockbuster”, instantly-impressive wines and do make every attempt to look for subtle complexity and finesse – wines that will complement food and sipping over conversation and not just “Wow!” the taster. Personally, within a “Bordeaux” category for example, I am never looking for full-bodied, in-your-face oak, fruit-bomb exmplars! I’m not sure this is the same in a big Australian or Californian wine competition however…

Nick Alabaster, Essex, England
Great topic to kick around!
You must accept there’s factual information pertaining to a wine that is either right or wrong. Some people might mis-judge a wine through lack of experience, so I think it has to be accepted that certain critiquing is more accurately related that anothers.
To pick up on a few specific points in your essay:
“(we) will linger over a bottle, enjoying its subtleties with food and conversation”
– it’s debatable whether this is truly the sense of the wine – all that food, drinking alcohol and company upsets the assessment of wine – what’s to say a blind tasting without food and with comparative wines doesn’t give the most objective opinion of the wine to be had? Of course, how best to enjoy wine is another story.
“if (we are told) a liver recipe is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever eaten, we still might not touch it with a barge-pole if we know we detest liver”
– that’s not the way the Parker sheep work though – they often doubt their own palate before Parker and re-assess their preferences in tandem!
“Whom would I rather trust if about to splash out my own hard-earned cash?”
– Uhmm, maybe base logic should mean Joe Public choices are best…given that you say no-ones wrong !
On the International Wine Challenge: how can the final judging panel be considered a good arbiter of taste if one of the Wines of the Year can barely be considered wine at all? Grape juice masquerading as wine – the Porteguese Ramada 1998 – is an insult to genuine winemakers everywhere !

My response to Nick:
Good point on the blindly allegient Parkerites! I see where you are coming from on the “no one is right; no one is wrong” aspect and probably didn’t state my position clearly enough: I am of course refering to subjective opinions of how “likeable” a wine is. I didn’t mean to imply that someone describing a totally corked wine as “lovely” would be technically correct. Certain things (like distinct faults) are obviously clear-cut. So I’d stil rather listen to a respected critic than inexperienced Joe Bloggs….
I haven’t tasted the IWC wine in question. I know that a couple of their “trophy” wines I’ve tasted in the past haven’t impressed me. I also know the judging stages of the IWC are scrupulously fair, but I’ve no idea how the tallying of judges’ votes and eventual awarding of trophies actually happens….

Allan Ghazarian, North Carolina, USA
I enjoyed reading your essay and agree that one can discern valuable information from a critic’s assessment of a wine. This is particularly so when one’s palate is similar to that of a certain critic. I would argue, however, that the critics’ influence on winemakers is much more significant. I would dare say that every winemaker knows who Parker is and reads Wine Spectator. A 90+ pt score from either publication makes a wine an instant sellout and it will command a higher price. Conversely a low to mid 80’s score will often doom a wine to lay longer on the shelf or have to be discounted. In my opinion this has led to a distinct shift in the style of certain wines. This is not always a good thing. Parker is known for admiring powerful extracted wines. His influence is so significant that I have heard rumours that winemakers often produce special “Parker barrels” in the hope of eliciting higher scores. Most of these high powered wines have high alcohol levels, often making them unpleasant to drink with a meal. In Bordeaux there has been a slow shift to making more intense, extracted wines that bear little resemblence to clarets of old and make one wonder how they will age. Are we in danger of losing the marvelous variety that different terroirs bring?

My response to Allan:
Really, I couldn’t agree more with these points which are very well made. Certainly on recent trips I’ve made through France’s top regions every wine-maker and wine-merchant I spoke to knew exactly who Parker was and had a very clear idea of the style of wine they should be making if they wanted to score those 90+ points. Parker’s influence is certainly not so great outside the US as it is at home, yet there is no doubt that his influence pervades the wine industry worldwide. So we are dealing with the influence of a specific critic with an awesomely powerful position, quite unlike any other individual critic certainly.
Any loss of diversity through his influence is, I agree, very sad indeed (the point also made by Måns Wallin above). But I suppose there is a flip side in that certain mean, old-fashioned, fruitless wines have seen the light and in these cases the process of “Parkerisation” might produce something that is better all round!

Carmine Caravaggio, Montreal, Canada
I really enjoyed your article on the role of a critic. I have a few comments to make of my own.
Pass the sugar please
First and foremost, your point about acquiring likes and dislikes of tastes at an early age is terrific. It is my contention that when we get older we return to the tastes acquired in childhood. A child raised on soft drinks and junkfood will gravitate towards a greater variety of junkfood later on in life. This teaches the palate sugar and preservatives among other things. Never have acquiring the taste of a fresh tomato or the smell of fresh parsley. I think the future of critics and sommeliers is destined for trouble.
Typicity, Typicity
In your essay you argued “Who’s to say one wine is better than another”. My point is that wines originate from a location and therefore must be evaluated according to typicity. That is to say how well it represents where the grapes were grown, and how it was made. Someone who evalutes a Muscadet should be looking for typical characteristics such as fruit and pronounced acidity and not that it is inferior to the Montrachet that was just tasted. It is possible that a Muscadet that costs less than 15 dollars US can be rated 90+ and the Montrachet which considerably costs more be rated lower. This element of typicity was not mentioned in your essay.
Honey do you smell lightly-tosted pine nuts and croissants?
I would also like to add that critic’s evalution of wine should be kept to minimum. Too often professional tasters go on and on with too many adjectives that the normal paying customer cannot comprehend. Simplicity is key. The clearer the description, the easier it will be to communicate the wine to the customer.
The medium is the meeting place
In conclusion, I would like to say that non-professionals like myself should turn to the internet and forums like these to discuss wines. With this medium we can research, and formulate our own conclusions, purchase wine on-line and give immediate feedback. Much of what we read in publications contains cigar ads and are based on trophy and collectible wines that are more geared to the investor rather than the everyday taster.

My response to Carmine:
I agree in particular with your last point: a critic’s review of a wine must also be placed in the context of what you want from the wine, and what the critic – or the publication for whom they write – wants from a wine.