Monday, October 17, 2011
Why nobody writes bad things about wine
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.