Monday, October 17, 2011

Why nobody writes bad things about wine

On Saturday I deleted a lengthy interview with tasting notes that I wrote up months before, in which I said most of the wines were, for me, undrinkable. After seeing that the cult status for this winery is rising, I tweeted about it and a few other writers wanted me to reveal the winery.

I won't. My reasons have partly to do with the winemaker, but mostly to do with my relationship with the wine industry, which is why you rarely see anything negative written by a professional about any wine.

This is a dark side of today's wine media. I sell stories about wine; that makes me a professional wine writer, whether or not I make enough money to pay the rent. If I had a full-time job that I believed would never be taken away, I could theoretically write more honestly about bad wines. But when I did have the closest thing to such a gig, as a newspaper wine critic, our company policy was to only write about wines we liked.

How many critics anywhere today write negative reviews? James Laube of Wine Spectator drops the occasional sub-80 rating; there's a man confident in his position. Jancis Robinson, who runs her own company, famously called an expensive Bordeaux "a ridiculous wine," though she seemed to do so mostly to disagree with Robert Parker.

Parker is better positioned than anyone else (including Laube) to run negative reviews: he runs his own company, buys his own wines, and has the respect and fear of the industry. Plus he's a lawyer; he knows about freedom of speech. But he long ago banished negative reviews from the Wine Advocate.

Why don't we do it? I'm not a fearful person; neither is Parker. Neither are critics I won't draw into this by naming, but the praise-only group includes almost everybody you read everywhere. One reason we all became wine writers in the first place is we're strongly opinionated. I've sat on plenty of panels where we competed to trash-talk the bad wines we were tasting. But nobody says a word to the public.

There are three main reasons: two generous and one craven.

1) Philosophy. My tastes are not everyone's; many (but not most) critics acknowledge that. For years I've been bringing sample bottles I don't expect to like to parties, taking a quick sip to verify that I don't like them, and then watching as "civilians" drink them without a second thought, sometimes with gusto.

2) Courtesy and respect. When you rip a wine, it's not like ripping a movie or Broadway show or automobile or other corporate product of many peoples' labor. Even at a big winery, you're still ripping a winemaker and possibly a vineyard manager. If I had the power to put some producer of overripe, low-acid crap out of business, I still wouldn't do it, because making wine that's not to my liking is not exactly corporate malfeasance. Wineries are just trying to make a living, and if you spend any time around the industry, you know how precarious the business is.

3) Self-interest. If I were to write a scathing review of the type you see all the time about bad movies or TV shows, wineries would be afraid to invite me to events or send me samples. Winemakers wouldn't take my calls; it would be hard to do stories.

Think it's not true? A very large Napa Valley winery badmouthed me for months after I wrote a post praising their wine; they didn't care for everything I wrote. I wouldn't take back what I wrote and I don't need the hospitality of the completely humorless.

But there's a reason that even a large newspaper like the one I worked for has a no-negative-review policy. It makes your job harder.

You could call me bought-off by free wines and dinners and press trips, things Robert Parker famously won't accept, although his other critics at the Wine Advocate do. But he has essentially the same policy as I do.

So no, I won't be revealing the incipient cult winery whose wines I found undrinkable. I liked the winemaker; I liked his story. Parker loves his wines -- it's one of the reasons I almost did a story on him in the first place -- so I don't have to worry about damaging his business, as I am less than a gnat compared to the Mammoth of Monkton. In fact, I might even help stir up interest, the way the Parker/Jancis feud probably sold bottles of Chateau Pavie to the curious.

Unlike an auto critic or a stock analyst, where safety or a large investment are at stake, I feel no obligation to my readers to warn them against these specific wines, considering that I learned of the burgeoning popularity of this winery from comments by satisfied customers. You might become one of them. In that case, my disdain would serve only to make you question your own delight, and what kind of jerk takes fun out of the mouths of others?

So let's just forget I ever tweeted anything. There are wines I don't like, but I'll keep the conversation focused on wines I do like. Bollinger Champagne? Awesome. Herman J. Wiemer Gewurztraminer? Outstanding. Ravenswood single-vineyard Zinfandel? Fabulous. And there's more where these came from.
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1WineDude said...

Hey bro,

I do, sometimes, write about wines negatively. But I've started to steer away from this, apart from the occasional short diatribe when I encounter a wine that is clearly *flawed* (not simply a wine not to my taste) and the winemaker doesn't seem to care and is selling it anyway.

But it's not for ANY of the reasons you mentioned.

It's because negative stories / articles are proven through studies to be shared less through social media, and to me this suggests strongly that they have a lower value to the people reading them. I'm trying to give more value to 1WD readers whenever I can (within reasonable limits of my time and sanity) and so have started to move towards simply not mentioning / reviewing the bad stuff in *most* cases (sometimes I just can't help myself, though ;-).

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: Very interesting, I hadn't seen those stats. But it does make intuitive sense. You want to tell your friends about good wines, not bad wines.

Anonymous said...

Gary fron WineLibraryTV gives negative reviews all the time.

It's why I trust him.

Anonymous said...

Was it Turley? I'm going to assume Turley.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: But does Gary V. write these negative reviews? I don't know, I don't follow him closely, but I'll bet he doesn't; video reviews aren't searchable.

Anonymous said...

WB, you don't feel you should be warning the wine buying public about poor wines? I understand your reasons for not wanting to upset the winery or winemaker, but what about those of us who occasionally splurge on a special bottle but don't want to splurge on garbage? While one can truly trust only their own palate, we do rely on critics to tell us who makes the good stuff. Shouldn't they also tell us who makes the undrinkable stuff?

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

While I can understand why some would like wine writers to flag the undrinkable, as you have pointed out, that very same wine might be consumed heartily by another palate.

Given how much of the media is driven by bad news: violence, corruption, famine, scandal and the like, frankly, I am glad that I can look to the wine world to regularly tell good news stories.

Yes Gary V has given bad reviews, no they are not written, and so the long tail on them is limited. Even so, he often made the caveat, that it was not to his liking, but it might be for someone else.

Rafa Ibarra said...

Hi Blake. I just read your article. I want to share with you my point of view about write about bad wines. I my case, wineblogging is a hobby. My income doesn't depend on wine industry. I expend my money buying wine, so in a little part, wine industry depends on me. I have received a few samples of wine, that's true. But my editorial policy is: if I paid for it, I can publish my opinion; if I didn't pay for it, I will only send my opinion to the person that gave me the bottle. If it's a good review, I ask that persons if he/she authorized me to write about their wine in my blog.

Based on that policy, if I found a wine that have flaws, I mean, that it shoudn't be in the market, I say it if I paid for it. Of course, I mean flaws like a lot of sulfur, salt, hygiene problems, and so on. Even if the wine is so flat, without "personality", I say it.

That honesty is well accepted by some people, because they say they can expend their money in better wines (avoiding the bad ones). But some others, even winery fans, are very agressive and troll me. It's because I have touched some mexican "Sacred Cows", whose wines I don't suggest even for a kalimotxo

But, if everybody wants only to say how wonderful a wine is, when it is not, just because they want to be invited to the next wine tasting, that's not ethical. How are they going to improve their products if everybody says they are great when it's not true?

I don't know in the USA, but here in México we have a lot of winebloggers ass kissers that only want a free glass of wine and a picture with the winemaker of the moment, like a rockstar. We called them enorockstars and enogroupies. It's sad, but it's so true.

Best regards from México.

--Rafa Ibarra
El mundo de Rafa Ibarra

W. Blake Gray said...

Rafa: You make some very good points, and the best is that flawed wines -- bacteriologically infected, for example -- are different from wines one simply doesn't like.

I have on more than one occasion requested a second sample bottle of a flawed wine, and one reason is to reassure myself that it's just a single flawed bottle.

In the California wine industry, flawed wines (other than corked wines) have become very rare, so I didn't even think of it. And flawed wines (other than corked) from other countries imported into the US are also very rare.

But a batch of flawed wines, once confirmed, should be pointed out to consumers. Thank you for doing so.

George Wroblewski said...

I understand where you are coming from.Better to say nothing. I've tasted some dogs in southern France with the winemaker smiling at me!!!

Anonymous said...

I think Blake's point is this: if you make a big investment in wine w/o tasting it you are a fool. If you buy a bottle (or stroll into the tasting room) and try it and don't like it, you won't make a "big investment" (or if you do, you've no one to blame but yourself). The $5, $15, $50, whatever, you invested in finding out is a pittance. So, unlike car reviewers, he feels no moral obligation to warn you about bad product(whether flawed or in poor taste). I bet if you take Blake to dinner he will tell you all about some of the crappiest wines he's ever tasted . . . so long as you don't publish it:-).

Anonymous said...

W. Blake:

Gary's videos are videos, and therefore they are not written down of course.

BUT you can search them for a particular wine (or varietal) and he tags them OK so you might find what you want.

And then, if you watch the video, there's a fair chance that he will say negative things about the wine. Sometime's it is just a matter of taste ("this wine is too oaky for me, not my style but you may like it") and other times it's about value ("this is a nice wine, but at $20 I don't think it's worth it") and sometime's it's just a diss ("this tastes like strawberry candy mixed with bubble gum. Not very balanced, I don't like it).

I would not be surprised if 30% of his reviews have something negative in them. But he's always gracious, fair, and asks people to make up their own minds.

Anyway, you can check it out on his site.

His honesty gives him huge credibility, at least with me, and maybe this is why he's become such a star?

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Regarding Gary V., it's important to recognize that he inherited a retail wine business from his parents. Thus he's not in the same relationship with the wine industry as any other writer; he's a wine buyer. That could give him perceived independence, but then he's also trying to sell wine, and if you think that makes him more independent than me, keep buying.

Anonymous said...

Yet another reason to gravitate towards cellartracker and the like.

There is no honest reason not to give honest opinions in a review setting. Yes, this is not a life or death decision consumers are trying to make, or even a "very" costly one, but why should we be denied trusted opinion or valuable information?

I had a 65 dollar Zinfandel the other day, thought it was a dud for the money, and described why as a public review online. Many, many others are doing the exact same every day.

How can you compete with more open platforms if your opinions are admittedly biased towards positive review?

Your "generous" reasons for deleting the reviews simply do not hold water. Of course your tastes are uniquely your own - the whole point is that you communicate your tastes to the public. Wineries are not some special form of business that deserves to be spared thoughtful critique. What of restaurants whose position is surely more precarious within the marketplace?

This really only leaves "craven".

Anonymous said...

"if you make a big investment in wine w/o tasting it you are a fool. If you buy a bottle (or stroll into the tasting room) and try it and don't like it, you won't make a 'big investment'"

For some of us $40 is a big investment. And you don't always have the opportunity to try a wine before you buy it. I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend $40 on a bottle of undrinkable wine.

In my opinion critics owe it to their readers to mention the poor wines. The readers are the reason critics have a job. We're essentially being lied to when a critic feels a wine is undrinkable but witholds it from those who rely on critics for guidance.

Anonymous said...

Understand what you mean, and I do the same. It's a small world in the wine biz, and everybody knows everybody.

Anonymous said...

Je ne vous dit pas la vérité mais ne vous inquiétez pas j' ai trois bonnes raisons... Tout simplement honteux. Ce qui m' a détourné des critiques comme vous et m' a amené à cotoyer les forums.
Comment pouvez vous vous regarder dans une glace et justifier celà???

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: If you want me to do a job for you, you could 1) Pay me (this blog is free), or 2) At least not be anonymous in your comment. Sorry, but otherwise you don't have a lot of standing to tell me I owe you something.

Anonymous said...

Blake, first, I'm referring to all wine critics not just yourself. I know it's industry wide. Second, I never suggested you offer your reviews to me for free. WRO charges if you want to see reviews, so does WS. If I paid to see wine reviews I would want to know what the critic believes is great, good, AND terrible.

I think wine critics are a lot like restaurant critics. But why is a restaurant critic likely to tell us when a restaurant is bad, while a wine critic won't tell us a wine is undrinkable? Do you feel Michael Bauer should refuse to publish a negative restaurant review?

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Funny you should mention Wine Review Online. You may know I also write for WRO and I have published reviews on that site that are far more negative then I would do on my own site for a few reasons having to do with WRO's pay wall. Subscribers ARE paying for my guidance and that changes our relationship. Plus, the reviews aren't searchable.

Re negative restaurant reviews: That's a whole different topic, the difference between food and wine writing, and something I plan to address soon, having just concluded a summer-long stint as a food editor. Too big a subject for the tail end of comments on a post.

Alder Yarrow said...

#4 reason to not write bad wine reviews: because even though they reference a single wine in a single vintage, they have a lifetime much longer than that particular wine, and people tend to read them as absolute judgments no matter how many caveats you put in. Wines can get MUCH better (or worse) from year to year, but a negative review can cause damage to a winery for long after the vintage in question.

Now I have a section on my site called "wine not to buy" where a few wines have been reviewed, but they are special cases where there was a distinct point to be made.

When I do large reviews of big sets of wines, I include the bad scores with the good, but I see that (perhaps naively) as different than singling out a winery with a bad review.

Anonymous said...

W. Blake:

There are two anonymouses here. I am the one who said "His honesty gives him huge credibility, at least with me, and maybe this is why he's become such a star?"

I must say that you seem very defensive about this topic. Sure, Gary is selling wine and he has his family wine store. And he goes on the record all the time saying bad things about wine, some of them very expensive.

So, sure he wants to sell wine, but he has seemed to find a way to do this where he can also diss wines on the record.

W. Blake Gray said...

2nd anonymous: Have you ever taken the time to see if there's a connection between the wines Gary disses, the wines he praises and the prices he buys and sells them for?

I don't want to spell it out for you; most of my readers can read between the lines of what I'm saying.

Btw, you have no standing to call me defensive when you are too cowardly to give me your name. If you want to continue this conversation, stop being anonymous.

John Z said...

W. Blake: I do not have access to Gary's wholesale prices, and it is a little defensive (there's that word again!) of you to suggest that I do.

So no, I have no idea what Gary buys his wine for, or what his margins are for different wines. I'm pretty sure you don't either, but who knows, maybe this kind of information is common in the wine industry.

If you are alleging that Gary says good things about wine he gets higher margins for and bad things about wine he has lower margins on, that is certainly possible. He's just a guy trying to make a living, not a saint.

But if you have proof of that I'd love to see it, and I'm sure all of your other readers would do.

You titled this post "Why nobody writes bad things about wine" and we have at least one example of someone who does write bad things about wine. This seems to be sending you into a tizzy.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: "He's just a guy trying to make a living, not a saint." My point.

To your last point: back to that word "write." A non-searchable video review isn't writing. But if I'm in a tizzy about anything, it's being compared to a guy who "reviews" wine for his retail operation.

Sorry, but this discussion is tiresome. You like Gary V. and either think his opinion is unmotivated by profit, or don't care. Great! Keep buying wine from him.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Hmmm, so apart from having to ingest sulfites and other additives when we drink wine, we now also have to take a pinch of salt when we read about them :)

W. Blake Gray said...

Not at all. Every 95-point wine is the most delicious product ever created and well worth whatever money is charged.

Diablo said...

Hi Gray! how I can find you on google+ ?

W. Blake Gray said...

Diablo: I don't understand Google+ -- not technically (although I don't understand that either), but what its purpose is. So I'm not doing anything with it. I'm on Twitter, though, @wblakegray