Critiquing the critics

Recently, Karen Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars in Paonia sent me an email with a link to a column about the retirement of wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.

Parker, undoubtedly the dominant voice in wine criticism in the United States for several decades, made his initial reputation when he bucked a tide of other wine critics to champion the 1982 Bordeaux vintage.

At the time he was a virtual unknown, having founded his wine magazine The Wine Advocate only four years earlier. Yet his critical and unbiased writing, and his then-unique use of a 100-point system to award well-made wines, soon became such a force in wine criticism that some detractors invented the story about "Parkerization," wherein some wine producers sought to make "international style" wines that appealed to his palate and in turn would receive high scores.

What really made Parker stand out, however, was his desire to provide wine consumers (and would-be consumers) a publication free of monetary ties to the wine industry.

Instead of working for the wineries, as many writers then did, he wanted to work for the wine consumer.

Parker led, others followed, and the field of wine criticism has been shape-shifting for more than a decade as new voices and new media have taken a more active role.

The change has been gradual. There still are many of what wine blogger Tom Wark called "Old School Wine Critics," writers with extensive knowledge and experience and whose opinions still move millions of bottles of wine each year.

It means there still are countless readers who rely on and trust the opinions and rating systems of the Old School writers.

Wark, in his wine blog "Fermentation," wrote that the role of the wine reviewer "is defined by the critic's responsibility to the consumer.

"And for many readers, that responsibility includes enlightening as well as informing the consumer/reader," he wrote.

Parker said his addition of written commentary to his wine reviews was a better source of information than a score.

"There can never be a substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself," he once wrote.

Exactly, Wark points out.

"Except for drinking it, the best way to experience wine is to read about it," he said. "A retreat from the experienced and educated critic in favor of the mob is no advancement."

But how enlightening or informing is reading a list of numerical scores?

Which brings us to social media and crowd-sourced reviews. Countless sites exist where people are only too happy to share with you their opinions of, well, everything.

It is common for a business to ask their customers to post a public, and positive, review on Yelp, TripAdvisor or any number of similar sites in an attempt to influence potential customers.

The opposite, of course, is true as well.

It's up to the reader to decide whether that public review is valid and whether the reviewer has valid experience to make such a review or to claim such-and-such is a 100-point wine.

Writing about wine is not like advocating for a 50-inch HDTV or a four-star hotel in Hawaii.

You can complain about how a restaurant serves its wine, but you can't say much about the wine itself unless you have the experience and knowledge to back up your statement.

Eric Asimov of The New York Times, whom I consider the best wine critic in the world, in 2014 described his role this way: "My job is not to act as an impartial arbiter of bottles, but as a guide, leading readers on a quest to explore what is most beautiful, fascinating, distinctive, curious, delicious and moving in wine," he wrote.

In her email, with a link to Asimov's recent column, "It's Time to Rethink Wine Criticism," Karen Helleckson posted an addendum to Asimov's declaration that good wine writers should strive to "give consumers the tools to educate themselves."

Helleckson noted how during the frequent food-and-wine pairings offered by Stone Cottage, winemaker Brent Helleckson will talk about each wine and how it is relevant to the food being served.

It was a reflection of Asimov's statement that the more consumers know about wine, the more they understand how it functions in relation to food and to life and the more capable consumers are of making their own decisions about wine.

Karen echoed this sentiment.

"Our food-and-wine pairings are good examples of how we can help consumers think for themselves," she wrote.

This is probably all we can ask of any education but specially so with something as ephemeral and personal as wine.

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