C³ — Content, Credibility & Critics

Many mainstream wine writers would have you believe that credibility and the ability to analyze a wine is a tenured position at Wine Critic University, available only after having earned a PhD in the Vinous Arts, an honor bestowed after a long career of analyzing and contemplating wine in all of its historical majesty.

Don’t believe them.

Matt Kramer, a writer that I deeply respect, has a column in the October 15th issue of Wine Spectator where he reiterates as much.

His fundamental premise is that wine appreciation is so deeply rooted in knowledge as to be rendered impotent in the hands of the less learned and therefore should be left to the experts, or at least people who have demonstrated sufficient credibility.

In his column he notes:

Many tasters—most, even – are adept at dissecting a What's a Monographwine.  It’s good, it’s bad, it’s humdrum.  This is the “flat earth” approach.  You go only as far as the wine takes you and declare that you have reached the limit of the knowable world.  There is no dot-connecting involved.

In our day, where every man and woman can be—and often is—his or her own publisher (courtesy of blogs and the like), it’s interesting how much “flat earth” wine judgment is offered.  But how are we to assess the validity and worth of the assessment?  Is it enough that the person went to a big tasting?  Or once samples a vertical of the wine?

The challenge today for those who wish to acquire credibility is to demonstrate a foundation of knowledge knowledge.  You say this is a good Auxey-Duresses?  Fine.  Show us your stuff.  Have you published a nice little monograph on the subject, having visited the zone, talked to producers, tasted multiple examples from multiple vintages?

Getting the monograph published, which was once almost impossible, is today the easiest thing in the world.  Yet how often do we see it, especially from the very folks who so often bully others in wine chat rooms with their gunslinger wine tasting notes?

It’s an Ivory Tower way of thinking despite his eloquence in saying so.    And, really, what is a monograph?   As I have learned, a monograph is an academic term for a detailed review of a substantial subject at a level more advanced than a textbook.

Ahem, I mentioned Kramer’s Ivory Tower approach, right?

Can it really be that, in order to demonstrate sufficient depth of expertise on a subject, the answer to Kramer’s rhetorical question is for an online wine reviewer to write a book?  Actually, scratch the book part, a monograph, more advanced than a textbook?

I beg your pardon?

The reality is that the suggestion of a monograph is merely a smoke screen – and a protectionist smoke screen at that.  Mainstream wine writers, not just Kramer, are hiding behind the canard of credibility (and monographs) as a means to question the credibility of others, while rather conveniently serving their own interests.

While I can’t blame them –I might do the same if my tenuous hold on wine writing as a career included competition from amateurs writing for the love of it instead of a paycheck, but I can’t help but want to find middle-ground amongst these ill-considered far right viewpoints.  Save for Cuba and Venezuela, absolutists very rarely win.

Thankfully, it turns out the middle-ground isn’t too far away.

Last week, Palate Press contributor Arthur Przebinda wrote a nicely considered piece that discusses exactly this topic.

In his post titled, “It’s Not about You – Lessons for Wine Critics,” Przebinda deconstructs why the view that a critics palate (and knowledge) as a guide for wine evaluation is flawed.  He suggests, instead, that critics should rely on objectivity instead of subjectivity (their palate and their knowledge).

The point that Arthur glances at is the use of wine assessment tools as a means for technical wine evaluation instead of an individual palate and a scoring system.  These technical scoring systems are readily available, yet very few people use them consistently (virtually no wine critics use them) as a matter of practice.

But, they should.  And others outside of wine criticism at-large continue to evolve the concept of what technical sensory evaluation means and how it can be useful.

As excerpted from Wine Business Monthly, November 2005, issue:

Taking the history, analysis and use of existing wine rating systems into account, a new scorecard was created by the Napa Valley College class. Because a rating system has to accommodate a multiplicity of functions, the NVC Scorecard is designed to allow the user to wear two hats: The wine can be objectively and thoroughly analyzed as is done under laboratory conditions, but the rating sheet also allows for findings that can advise the wine buyer and fulfill the historical role of the wine merchant. For example, the wine style, character and recommended aging windows can be noted as well as how the buyer might locate the wine and what it costs.

The fact is, when wine assessment tools like the Napa Valley College 25-point scorecard are used it takes the evaluation of wine out of the realm subjectivity and into the realm of objectivity – a place where we can all get along.

Coming back to Kramer’s fundamental premise – that credibility is earned as knowledge is demonstrated, I respond:  in the realm of the subjective, which all wine is, the best and most reasoned answer to resolve the major wine writer’s concern about online wine reviewers is to move wine evaluation, all wine evaluation, into as objective territory as possible using available methods for technical evaluation.  In doing so, we might just find common ground, lifting wine sensibly up to more people interested in the grape and getting along in the process.