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Advice to wine writers: Abandon all hype

July 9, 2018
Editor's note: This article was written by Oliver Styles for Wine-Searcher, where it was first published June 21, 2018. The first section appeared in the Cape Gazette Friday, June 29.

And when is objectivity lost? I'd argue that it happens mainly when the reviewer is on solid ground; when the wine is either a) rare, b) an established great or c) very expensive. Lisa Perotti-Brown MW was looking forward to Lafleur 2015's provocative promises; Neal Martin was confident of fluttering hearts in Vieux Château Certan of the same vintage; an Alsace Grand Cru was bewitching at the Decanter World Wine Awards; James Molesworth found 2017 Canon both caressing and racy; James Suckling thought the 2017 Mouton sexy and exciting, which, at $475 per bottle (release price) is a similar outlay for a one hour in-call in the company of Anastasia, an "adventurous stunner" in central London. Sexy and exciting? You decide.

Some, heartwarmingly rare, notes show an interesting mix of what I can only term adulatory self-deprecation, a sort of very British humblebrag. "...distinct sweetness, full-bodied, nutty flavor – what a pathetic, inadequate description," said Michael Broadbent of a 1986 Ramonet Montrachet. Yes, it's easy to get cheap laughs from tasting notes. But in a world where wine personalities take to Twitter to mock the way heads of state hold wine glasses (they're probably coached not to hold them "correctly"), I've allowed myself this indulgence.

And don't think the self-proclaimed New Guard are any better. Those with an impressive social media profile seem to push this tendency to the extreme. Want hyperbole? You can't beat this: "The world has effectively stopped moving at that moment. It wasn't abrupt, yet palpable, unmistakable, strangely comforting and disturbing all at once. Time and space became casual if not superfluous commodities. Any tasting note I could have produced would have fallen far short of what I was actually tasting. I didn't want to merely taste that wine, I wanted to be it..." The wine: a 1998 Krug Clos d'Ambonnay. Earth-stopping at $2,400 a bottle. You get what you pay for, as the author of that note pointed out in the same piece.

And while this is going on, I struggled to find a bona fide tasting note from either of the Wine Wankers in any post on the homepage of their blog, which covers over 12 months of output. This is somewhat unsurprising given the content of one entry which said "...I freaking hate wine reviews sometimes." Which is fine, but there existed little by way of a better option in the posts I looked at. In all, I found three posts which involved any kind of wine judgement: one was a rundown of recommendations for wineries in Texas, one was a provocative but noncommittal mention of vegan Champagne (although no tasting note to speak of) and the other an appraisal of wines made by a sommelier (with, again, no review or note). To be fair, they post something more akin to a formal tasting note on their Instagram. But even here, opinion is a small percentage of the post.

Count up the words. In a recent post, I counted eight words of judgment from 124 on one wine. Which is in there with your run-of-the-mill critic.

So what do I want? Well, firstly, I want wine writers to start according more space to their views on everyday wines, not just expensive greats. Maybe we can invert the paradigm? You might really love the Ramonet Montrachet, but if only 20 cases are coming into the U.S., what public good is it if your tasting note is any longer than one line with a score in the upper 90s at the end? Give more space (even if you're ambivalent) to more commercial outputs. And, while I personally like technical winemaking details, maybe drop the sentences on new oak percentage or elevage and tell us whether or not these aspects worked, what they brought to the party.

And why do I say this? Because I think that engaged wine drinkers take their vocabulary and frame the way they appreciate their wine from what they read. Ignoring impressive wines most of them can't afford, what they read are lists of aromas and a number. Neither of which will help them much unless they're playing a form of fruit-salad bingo or have a buying choice to make. I think wine critics need to start being more critical, more judgmental and explaining it. Sure, space can be at a premium, and, yes, the way the wines are tasted (often in groups) influences the time spent on them.

But I'd rather hear how or why the critic got to the score they did. Did the tannins fit? Why was lack of typicity a problem?

Did you have concerns about the length? Were the fruit aromas gorgeous or plain? Why did it lose marks for color? Maybe then we might start enabling our audience and elevating the three- (or four-) point system. Otherwise, quite honestly, we'll all end up waving our hands over a glass, shouting "strawberries!" and proclaiming, "I'm 88 points on that."