Wine critics. How useful are they?

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 8th Aug 2018

Wine critics. How useful are they?

Wine critics are everywhere; the pages of your favorite wine mags, radio, TV, blogs, wine clubs, wine apps. They all have an opinion. The question is, how good are these opinions? Can you trust them? What is the best way to use them?

I will begin with some basics that I will tie together for my best recommendations. There is no required qualification for a wine critic. They do not have to be able to tell red wine from white wine! They do not have to demonstrate any serious wine knowledge or evidence of formal wine education. They do not need to demonstrate blind tasting skills, be it in the form of pronouncements on quality, or quality / price relationships or even the ability to differentiate between the major grape varieties. Granted, these are very often difficult to achieve but critics are influencers and that is a powerful position! The majority of critics do not taste blind; they know exactly what they are drinking including the price. If critics were all to taste blind together, would they agree? That is an easy “no.” There would not be unanimity by any means even if the tastings were done with labels visible. Anyone who has judged as many wine competitions as I have, can confirm this. As a further check, search for instances where critics have commented on and scored the same wines. There is usually some broad agreement but nothing rivetingly confidence building! So, at best critics agree broadly on quality; at worst it is just another opinion.

Let’s talk about critic integrity. I will assume for the purposes of this article that wine critic integrity is no worse than those in other areas, perhaps a tad better, as I like to think that dedicated wine people have a greater passion than many in other fields and so would behave less cynically. That being said, there are a few publications that have a large reach, garner many “eyeballs” and have the potential to make or break a vintage, a region, a producer. You can imagine the motivation of a seller to attempt to obtain a “favorable” review of his or her wine. A 93+ point score or ***** score can have profound and ongoing financial benefits. That’s worth a few inducements not necessarily related to the quality of the wine.

Let’s talk about skin in the game. This is more subtle but nevertheless important. All along the chain, players have skin in the game both in terms of time horizons and resources. The growers have made long term and expensive decisions and investments; choosing a site, planting specific varieties, tending the vineyards, waiting for vine maturity and, within the context of a vintage, harvesting the grapes. Wine makers have invested in facilities, equipment, barrels, consumables, storage before and after bottling, marketing; long term and ongoing inputs of personal and financial resources. The same is true of the distribution chain however it is organized, from exporter to importer to distributor/wholesaler to retailer and restaurateur. Even we, dear readers, invest in the purchases of wine. Only the critics can be in a position of having no financial skin in the game. Most do not buy their tasting samples and some even charge to have wines tasted. This is not necessarily a major factor but it is worth mentioning. Critics argue that because they have no financial skin in the game, they are honest brokers. Maybe.

So where are we? We do not have extremely high levels of critic agreement. Critics would argue that they are completely unbiased, blank slates as it were. We have seen this is not often true. There is an unconscious bias when not tasting blind. Critics are subtly, or not so subtly, influenced by their appreciation of a winery, a vintage, a region, a grape variety, and of course, price! We also know that critics are rarely completely objective; some prefer big, bold oaky reds; other prefer more nuanced styles; others fruity reds or minerally whites and so on.

So, how do we get value from the critics? Here are some of my recommendations:

  • Follow those with a reputation for integrity, knowledge and tasting skills
  • Follow those with a good track record for consistency
  • Learn the critic’s hidden code, meaning you have tasted some of the wines in conjunction with the critic’s notes. You know for example if the critic writes say, “lush, dense fruit,” that the critic may be commenting on a high alcohol, low yield wines
  • Know what style of wine you like so that you get a sense of which critic’s personal likes match your own. Compare your notes, mental or written, with the critics words so that the penny drops, for example you describe the wine as minerally and you realize that the critic refers to that as “earthy” or “grippy” or “rock slathered.” These are just examples

Finally, understand that critics are all too human but with a little bit of effort you can find one or two that you can trust and that you have deciphered. Ultimately, it’s your money and critics are an important tool in spending it wisely! 

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