Friday, September 18, 2009

It Ain't Easy Reviewing and Writing About Wines...

Small controversy going around about wine reviews: Some experienced, sophisticated wine writers who are published in top wine journals are complaining about the flood of Web wine writers and bloggers (like yours truly). Many of us don't know much about wine; many don't know much, period. Some established wine critics are busy making fools of themselves by asserting that some kind of training or bona fides are required before you can take a wine writer seriously. The Web and especially the Blogsphere is reacting as you would guess they would: angrily.

But writing about wine the way I do in this blog does raise questions. I often ask myself, when writing up an event like ZAP or the Livermore Wine Fest, or a trade tasting, what exactly am I telling my readers that is of value? "I went to a trade tasting and you didn't!" is hardly helpful. Even "I took notes while walking around Ft Mason drinking wine" isn't much better. Impressing you is not a value-add. Not for you, anyway.

At a basic level, it has to be "Here's what I tasted and here's what I thought about it." But is that helpful to you? How about if you don't know me, and you don't know what kinds of wines I like? Unless you can dope out my preferences from what I write, so you can compare it to what you like, no, it won't be helpful.

Rather than make you wade through the full list of wines tried and scored, it might be best to give the reader the "top line view" -- here are the wines that impressed me most, and why; here are a few oddballs or losers worth mentioning for reading fun; here's some atmosphere from the event. I tried that with the recent Livermore tasting notes elsewhere on this blog.

Squaring the Wine-Review Circle

There are so many problems with evaluating and recommending wines to the general public:

--Individual variations in how people taste things; I suspect this could be a bigger problem than we realize.

--Individual variations in which flavor components people like and how much. This is the biggest problem. I like big jammy reds; my taste buds are shot so I can tolerate high alcohol levels; I like off-dry wines. Others hate jammy/dense/concentrated reds, some dislike sweet, some are overwhelmed by alcohol. Writing about a wine in a way that talks to each of these as if their tastes matter is tough — when I’m giving a thumbs ‘way up to a Rosenblum Monte Rosso Zin, I’m not helping those who can’t stand a wine that big. But do you end up writing “for those who prefer this style, you’ll like this wine” babble?

--Evolving palates of readers: Beginning wine drinkers appreciate different flavor profiles as they drink more wine and get used to different kinds of wines. Do we try something like, “This isn’t a wine for beginners, but for sophisticated palates” in our writeups? And as people age, their palates change, regardless of how much wine they’ve been drinking.

--Sophistication of palates varies a lot, of course: Some people drink a lot of wine, but they don’t reach out and try different kinds, they just drink Cab all the time, and from the same narrow list of producers, so they aren’t learning anything. Some drink a variety of wines, but don’t learn anything about what they are drinking, what tastes and sensations they are experiencing, don’t try to think about what they are drinking and what it means. That portion of your audience won’t read your review the same as the hobbyists who study it for fun (or a living) – they’ll read your elaborate reviews as farcical jargon-fests. Go to the other extreme and wine hobbyists learn nothing from you.

(Wine shops know more about the audience than anybody, because they watch the wines fly out the door. Some of them might have ideas about what various groups of drinkers have in common, and what they want to know and learn.)

--Finally, of course, your job as a wine writer varies considerably depending on the audience you write for: sophisticated wine drinkers or wanna-be’s; daily newspapers read by casual drinkers; web-reading wine hobbyists who want to learn stuff but don’t know the jargon – and don’t want to, especially the “I detected notes of white tobacco” nonsensical tasting notes jargon.

Ain’t easy.

-mac mccarthy

1 comment:

gailz said...

Right on Mac. This has always been my issue with reading different reviewers. I know that there are those that love Parker -- but my palate is decided different from his. Often I find wines he criticizes are the ones I love best. I have always HATED barnyard and he seems to praise it... it ain't easy indeed!