Tag Archives: wine criticism

Is wine the last bastion of the snob?

wine snob

“Trust me. I’m not dead.”

Periodically, one of my colleagues will lament that the U.S. isn’t more of a wine drinking country, and wonder what can be done to change that. I mention this not because I have the answer — I’m usually shouted down when I offer one — but because it ties into two recent items. First, the annual list of “Blue Chip” wine brands chosen by the company that publishes the Wine Spectator and that ranks wine by sales growth and profit margin. Second, an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, bemoaning what he calls the death of the film snob and how the movies are poorer for it.

Scott argues that the Internet and post-modern democracy have transformed film criticism, and that “the world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody’s taste can be better than anyone else’s.” Who needs critics when we can decide what to watch based on the wisdom of the crowd, and even feel more confident about our choice?

Which, of course, is not how we do things in wine. Scott writes that: ” ‘Snob’ is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership,” so I must assume he has never read wine criticism or discussed wine with the too many people who are too proudly snotty about what they drink. What else is brose but an attempt to turn $10 pink wine that anyone can drink — that anyone should drink — into something that only the most entitled among us can appreciate?

I’m not sure, after writing about cheap wine all these years, that the laments about the U.S. and wine aren’t about wine as much as they’re about the wine that the wine snobs think we should drink. After all, we’ve made tremendous strides as a wine drinking country, with per capita consumption higher than it has been since the 1970s and wine sales up even through the recession. But is that progress enough? Or do we have to progress as a wine drinking nation in the direction the snobs think best?

What if American wine drinking rates were the same as France’s, where the typical adult drinks a bottle a week, four times what we drink here? Because, to get to that point, more of us would have buy the wines on the Blue Chip list, like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, and Cavit. Would that make the wine snob happy? I doubt it. They’d argue that it wouldn’t be enough that most of us were drinking wine with dinner, but that we weren’t drinking the right wine.

The irony, of course, is that all those everyday wine drinkers in France, as well as Spain and Italy, are drinking the local equivalent of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, and Cavit — or something even cheaper or more poorly made or both. The next time you’re in a European grocery store, check out the amazing numbers of wine brands that cost just a couple of euros. Hard to believe if you’re raised on wine in the U.S., where no one is supposed to drink that stuff.

The other irony? That there is a difference between snobbishness and criticism, and I’m surprised Scott didn’t make that point more strongly. A snob rejects anything he or she confiders inferior, even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. The best critics, and Scott is certainly one, detail the whys and wherefores, allowing us to make up our own minds. Good or bad isn’t even the point, which is why wine scores are so useless and why something as stupid as “Animal House” can be so much fun to watch. Rather, did that wine or that film or that restaurant do what it set out to do, and did it do so honestly and with respect for both the form and the consumer?

Otherwise, we might as well buy what the Wine Spectator tells us to buy, make fun of people who don’t drink “good” wine, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else.

“Preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers”

The joke in the wine blogging business is that the easiest and best way to goose your numbers is to write about wine blogging. And it works, actually, which says something about wine blogging that many of us probably don’t want to know.

That’s mainly why I stopped writing about wine writing. The people I want to come to the blog don’t care. They want to know about cheap wine, and anything else is a reason not to come back. If you’re any good, you write for your audience – not to please yourself.

That’s why I was so intrigued by Richard Thomas’ piece in the July issue of North Bay Biz, and not just because he said very nice things about me. That Thomas, an icon of Sonoma Country agriculture and wine, wrote the following means something:

I’m not sure how many of you read the multitude of wine blogs, Twitter feeds and so forth regarding wine. Some make a few good points, but in general, it sounds like they’re preaching to the choir and looking for agreeing nods from readers.

In other words, sloppy and boring criticism. That’s because too many of us reinforce the conventional wisdom, and we don’t ask the most important question a critic should ask: Why? Why is the business this way? Why does this wine taste this way? Why does this wine cost this much, and this wine this much? Why does this matter to our readers?

This style of criticism exists almost nowhere else, not in film and literature,  certainly, and not even in cars or electronics. Can you imagine a wine-style review in The New York Times Book Review: “87. Offers a hint of savory adjectives balanced by unctuous characters and a zesty finish.”

The Italian Wine Guy (who wrote knowingly about this in May) wonders if we are becoming as irrelevant as Pilates. The Hosemaster of Wine, never one to mince words, went even further last fall: “What amazes me is how wonderful and entertaining and fascinating wine itself is, whereas wine writing is, with few exceptions, dreary, pedantic, insipid and repetitive.”

The best critics are conduits, placing their subject in perspective and facilitating discussion, understanding that they are not the final arbiter but one voice among many. In this, they should be an intelligent, well-versed, and thoughtful voice that their readers can trust. The point is not whether someone reading the blog disagrees with me; the point is whether I have helped them understand enough about so that they are able to disagree with me.

Winebits 189: Wine and bikes, millennials and wine, wine criticism

Safe and secure: Because there is no way I can describe this in words:

Wine with friends: Yes, millennials are unique because some of them like to drink wine with friends. This is the one of the findings in a study from California researchers looking at how millennial wine consumption is different from the rest of us. And, as the author, noted, it really isn’t (though she desperately tries to find some difference). The age group born after 1982 or so drinks the most wine at special occasions and eating at a formal restaurant. The study will no doubt make my pal Tom Johnson at Louisville Juice fire off yet another of his eye-rolling millennial missives. And I’d have to agree with him.

What do critics want? To like the wine they drink, of course. This is quite well expressed by the Israeli writer Daniel Rogov, who is known as that country’s Wine Curmudgeon (something we have had a giggle about). “A great many may not realize it,” he writes, “but writing a negative review pains the critic. The simple truth is that that bad or mediocre wines have a deep emotional impact for the critic, who lives for the day when he can be entirely positive.” This, I think, is the difference between honest criticism and what passes for criticism these days, and especially on the Internet. The goal is to write truly (to paraphrase Hemingway). Too, many, though, prefer snarky, since they think it makes them look clever.

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