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Wine critics should explain more, gush less

July 2, 2018
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about wine writers. The next installment will appear Friday, July 6.
Source: Oliver Styles, Wine-Searcher, June 21, 2018.

The only thing I think is an error is to write about lousy wine. Wine is truly an individual experience. Try following up a mediocre Sauternes with a great Grand Cru Chablis, or place a 15-year-old cab next to a 2014, both equal rated and with same initial price. I'm guessing more than 75 percent would pick the Sauternes and the 2014 because the flavor would be familiar. Anyhow, hope you enjoy the article.

Where have all the opinions gone when it comes to wine writing? If we're honest with ourselves, there are no 100-point scales (it's really a 20-point system – 80-100); there aren't 20-point scales (a five-point system – 15-20); there aren't really even five-star scales (really a four-point system - the one-stars rarely get featured). There are three kinds of wines: wines you really like, wines you like and wines that are OK. For completeness' sake, we should mention that there is, obviously, a fourth category: wines you don't like, but we're playing by publishers' rules here and, for the most part, wine publications shy away from drawing attention to the latter.

So, at the basic level, there are three (four if you're ready to embrace the negative) categories of wine appreciation. And while I'm aware that several weeks ago, I was unkind toward the Joe Public reviews on the likes of Naked Wines, at least the general public manages to regularly tick the boxes of basic wine appreciation, from "absolutely loved it" to "not a favourite; better wines for the price," "good drinking Pinot," or "this one is not great but not bad." There: all four viewpoints, albeit all on one wine. Given one can get all these for one wine, we hardly get a situation where consumer reviews are leading the way. But at least the reader got an opinion.

If you read most wine notes these days, what you'll get is a handful of aromas and flavors, a textural note if you're lucky, maybe a wild card like a food matching or a drinking window. And a number.

Many years ago, James Suckling made a video in which he explained the 100-point system he uses. In it, he pointed out that he doesn't just wave his hand over a glass of wine and give a score. But for many of the tasting notes we might read these days, that's exactly how it seems. There's not much in the way of why, or, for want of a better word, opinions. Some sneak in: You might well read that a guava note is "nice," the nose might be "pretty," or the tannins are "enjoyable."

Mainly though, adjectives, nouns and verbs simply get piled on fruit aromas like metaphors in erotic novels. Writers find new and interesting ways to use language and enable wines: they "reveal" aromas to their taster; a Châteauneuf "pumps out lush flavors"; there are "wafts" and "gobs" of fruits you only find in organic stores; a Brunello enjoyed a "coterie of ... tannins"; aromas "race along"; and so on.

Aromas and wines evidently do all sorts of things, from pumping to revealing, but was the coterie pleasurable to hang out with? Did you want to stuff socks in the gobs of fruits? One note, which I mentioned above, ended with the phrase "...long finish offers a nice tug of graphite." At least here we knew the tug was pleasurable.

And while this ability to find and use new expressions for having a smell and a taste of something hints at a future on the Mills & Boon roster, we rarely get more understanding of whether the critic getting creative with language likes the wine or not. Basically, that's left to the number.

Some might say this is simply being objective – not letting personal preference get in the way of an evaluation of the wine. But I'm not convinced. For starters, we should all ask if it is really possible to be objective in the realm of appreciation. And secondly, what happens when a taster tastes a wine he or she really, really, really likes - when objectivity goes out the window? Because while objectivity is all well and good, wine writers are not known for being shrinking violets when it comes to opinions.

When wine writers like a wine a lot, Mills & Boon goes Christian Grey – even verging on Dorian Gray in some instances: "...whispering promises of a whole myriad of provocative finishes to discover throughout this wine's very long future..."; "What you need to know is that it ... will set hearts aflutter"; "bewitchingly good"; "lovely mouthfeel with both caressing and racy elements working in harmony"; "sexy and exciting."