It's true in art: LeRoy Nieman retrospectives don't run at the Met, nor do collections of dogs playing poker. It's true in music: if it weren't for critics, would anyone listen to atonal classical compositions, free jazz or Elvis Costello?
And of course it's true in wine. This was brought home for me last weekend at Critics Challenge, a fine wine competition in San Diego, where the sweetness of many red wines was noticeably high.
I sat for part of the competition across from a serious wine expert who I enjoyed discussing the wines with. I, like many critics in the non-Parker class, do not like perceivable sweetness in red wines that are supposedly dry. But for my co-judge, these wines looked like a series of body blows; the judge's head would whip to the side, there'd be an exclamation, sometimes a grunt, often a "No, no, no!" I felt a little badly that I wasn't suffering as much.
The wines submitted to Critics Challenge are not a random cross-section. About 55% are from the US, and they come from all over the country: I gave medals to a Chambourcin from Missouri and a Seyval from New York that I know of. Imports ran the gamut from the Champagne that won the overall sweepstakes to a Turkish pink that so confounded my neighbors that they asked our table for a "moral and ethical consultation." (My input: Medal it!)
What brought all these wines to San Diego was the hope that a judge would like them and give them a medal and some tasting notes that could be used to help sell them, and that by definition affected what was there.
That doesn't mean we didn't get some big sellers. We were all shocked when Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel, a $9 supermarket wine, was the only Zinfandel to get a Platinum medal, meaning at least one judge thought it should be considered for the best red wine of the entire competition. And producers of some wines like the Mumm NV Rosé Champagne that won the whole shebang might be looking less for a sales boost than simple validation (Mumm: You got it. You too, Joel P.).
But ironically for a contest judged exclusively by wine critics, we didn't get many wines from the critical darlings: the members of the "In Search of Balance" Pinot Noir group, for example. Most culty Napa Cabernet producers stayed home. If a producer already had a plus-90 rating from Parker or Spectator, they probably decided they didn't need to spend the entry fee.
All of that said, the sweetness of supposedly non-sweet wines was the most striking feature this year. I tweeted about the similarity of my flight of $10 to $20 Syrahs to Kool-Ade; I don't know how many Syrahs in the world in that price range taste like Kool-Ade, but I do know I had about 12 of 16 that did. We all know Cabernet Sauvignons are getting sweet, so that was no shocker, but the sweetness of many Pinot Noirs, even expensive ones, came as a surprise.
But the more my colleague protested, the more I wondered about the cause. The one thing all these wines have in common is their producers want to sell them to Americans. It's possible that they're drift-netting for critical praise because the wines are not selling. But still, it seemed apparent that the prevailing thinking among this group of red-wine producers is, if you want to sell it, make it sweet.
Is this what the public wants?
And if so, what is our role -- my role -- as a critic? Am I to protest vehemently, insulting the sweet wines and praising only the dry ones? Or am I to go with the flow and retrain myself to prefer the rich taste of blueberry juice to the savory flavors and complexity I have come to love?
That too was a type of training, as like many Americans I grew up thinking Coca-Cola was a fine beverage with dinner. I don't know when I made the switch to the rather ascetic set of beverages I now consider acceptable with meals: wine, sake, water, unsweetened hot or iced tea, and occasionally spirits-based drinks (but not frozen strawberry margaritas). Sure, I might have a lassi with Indian food, or fresh coconut water with Burmese, but I'm not going to have Dr. Pepper with dinner, and that takes me out of the U.S mainstream. So why should people who have Diet Pepsi five days a week with dinner and wine once bother with anything I write?
Maybe they shouldn't; maybe we have nothing in common. But I believe critics exist primarily to point out to people worthy works of art or craft that do not currently have mainstream approval. The opposite role -- pointing out that The Hangover II isn't so funny, Lady Gaga isn't so talented or Taco Bell isn't so tasty -- has less value, because in the Internet era anything widely experienced will have a variety of opinions that a savvy consumer can sift through. But if I can find a really interesting Australian Verdelho at a good price, that is a service to certain members of the public.
Yet what worries me after the Critics Challenge is just how many members of the public we wine critics of the non-Parker class are currently serving. Wineries wouldn't make so many sweet red wines if they didn't think they could sell them. Perhaps they're overreaching, and the wines won't sell, and in the near future we'll see the sugar dialed back.
|One day wine critics may look this glum|
There's a tremendous commercial incentive to drink the Kool-Ade. Very few wine critics like "dry" red wines with noticeable residual sugar, but those guys are among the most famous and successful, and like much of the general public, they could care less what my colleagues at Critics Challenge think. Fortunately we and our ally editors control most non-Spectator publications; unfortunately, that may be why said publications aren't as influential.
Later this week I'll write about some specific wines I discovered at Critics Challenge, including that Australian Verdelho. But for today, I'm just sitting here with a metaphorical glass of Kool-Ade, considering how sweet -- or dry -- the future might be.