02 Jun Truth in Wine: The Truth About Wine Writers
It’s unusual to encounter a public debate among wine writers. But The New York Times’ Eric Asimov recently revealed a passionate difference of opinion among a number of the nation’s better known wine writers regarding how wine quality and the winemaking process are related. You can read Eric’s very interesting article at “Let’s Be Clear: Bad Wines Are Bad Wines, Period” for the details.
However, I don’t want to discuss what makes a wine good or bad here. Instead, I’d like to shed a little light on what we can learn from wine writers; how they work; and how they influence all of us.
My perspective is somewhat unusual. As far as I know, I’m one of a rare breed of commercial winemakers who have also been professional wine writers. I’ve written about wine for The New York Times, Food & Wine and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. But it was during my 8-year stint at Wine Spectator in the 1990s that I really learned the business/art of wine writing. I’ve also written (mostly with my wife, Jodie) nine books on food and wine, including Dean & Deluca, The Food and Wine Cookbook; Rosé, A Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Wine; The Domaine Chandon Cookbook; and most recently, The Covenant Kitchen, Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table.
Everything I write is an attempt to shed light on some aspect of our dynamic dining culture. I’ve tried to inspire readers to further explore the subject on their own, and I imagine most wine writers have a similar idea in mind. They just have varying tastes and methods. That’s what makes them interesting.
There is no one “correct” way of tasting or experiencing wine. That said, writers who have been tasting their way through thousands of wines from around the world for years have a broader vision than most of us. It’s good to read what they have to say.
Everyone has an opinion about the 100-point scale. How can one wine be given 95 points and another 97 points? Or 87 points? To begin with, let’s recognize that the 100-point scale is the only one that matters. UC Davis has a 20-point scale that’s not only inaccurate but—even more important—is totally irrelevant. Who cares about it? No one. And alternatives such as stars or “thumbs up” don’t carry much weight either. As far as the actual scores go, it’s pretty personal. Tasters develop their own baseline over time, and they don’t always agree with each other. When you find a critic whose scores mesh with your palate, that’s a good critic for you to follow.
Those publications that use the 100-point scale, such as Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, have found that this method of quantifying quality speaks strongly to an American public raised on 100-point school grades. In terms of conveying a message, it works. Don’t expect the 100-point scale to go away anytime soon.
To be honest, I don’t like blind tastings. I would rather taste with a biased but educated opinion that takes into account everything I know about the producer and provenance of a given wine. A lot of writers, including Robert Parker, would probably agree with me. However, not all writers would agree. In the interest of objectivity, Wine Spectator tastes blind, without knowing the identity of the wine being tasted. Blind tastings are definitely more “honest,” as they are only about taste. Ultimately, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong here. We are just talking about different approaches to tasting and analyzing wine.
What about the story behind the bottle?
As a writer, this is for me the most interesting aspect of wine. Who made it? How did they do it? And why? The people with the best stories often make the best wines too! During my tenure at Wine Spectator, I was privileged to chronicle the stories of many California wine pioneers like Andy Beckstoffer, the Davies family (Schramsberg), the Mondavi family and even the Gallos. Once I interviewed filmmaker/vintner Francis Coppola at his historic Rubicon Estate in Napa Valley. He filmed the interview, which made it particularly nerve-racking. I even interviewed another filmmaker, Mel Brooks, because he had a small wine collection and professed a love for Bordeaux—particularly Malartic Lagraviere, which also comes in a kosher version.
Each one of my subjects opened the door to wine history; and I shared the experience with my readers. If you really want to understand wine, you’ll need to focus less on the scores and more on the stories.
Is there truth in wine writing?
Legitimate publications keep a healthy separation between advertising and editorial. In all the years I covered wine as a journalist, no one ever asked or even suggested that I change something for the purpose of engendering good will (aka advertising). Additionally, every wine writer I’ve ever met is really into wine. They want to share their enthusiasm. Those who have a forum like Wine Spectator or The New York Times are fortunate to connect with many readers. But today’s bloggers also can have a broad reach. The serious ones don’t abuse their privilege.
As a winemaker, I never receive unreasonable requests from the media in exchange for samples, advertising, etc. It’s just not done. So, while you might not always get a clear or accurate story from a wine writer, you’re probably getting the best they can honestly do.
Should I keep reading?
Unless you have the ability to travel the world and taste a multitude of wines, I suggest you take advantage of the writers who will expand your (wine) world and give you direction. (Long before I became a winemaker or wine writer, I was addicted to reading both Frank Prial’s New York Times wine column as well as my Wine Spectator subscription. These were the writers who inspired me to take the leap toward wine. They changed my life—as well as my drinking habits.)
But don’t believe everything you read. The “truth” for each of us can still be subjective. Nonetheless, you can follow the path to enjoying great wine through the writers’ experience. Take advantage of their mobility, tasting experience and facility with a pen. Then follow your nose and your palate to those bottles that suit you best!
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist.