Category Archives: Wine critics

Jamie Goode is a tool

by Dezertscorpion on Wikimedia Commons released under PD-Self
So is Robert Parker.

And Jancis Robinson.

And Antonio Galloni, Allen Meadows, Michel Bettane, James Suckling, James Laube, Alice Feiring, Karen MacNeil, Tom Wark.

Tools.

Frankly, so am I but rather than one of the nice Sears Craftsman or Ryobi tools from Lowes, I’m more of the extra Phillips-head screw driver you picked up at the dollar store on impulse–a tool cached away in the bottom of a kitchen drawer but a tool none the less.

All wine writers are tools which is why I read Jamie Goode’s defense of wine criticism and expertise on Vine Pair, Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others, with great amusement. The source of Goode’s ire is the view that the musings of wine critics like him are merely personal opinions and, since everyone has an opinion, there is not enough due credit given to the value and experience of expert opinions like his.

This is not a new complaint with many critics such as Jancis Robinson commenting on how the proliferation of smartphones and websites like Wikipedia and CellarTracker creates an arena where the esteemed opinion of a Master of Wine like hers has to fight for attention. Even outside of wine, many commentators have noted a general apathy towards “expert opinions” with anti-intellectualism being a full-fledged cultural movement in the West.

In this day and age since everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert. It’s no wonder that this modern arena of ideas is terrifying for folks who have devoted years of time, patience and labor into building a well of experience and expertise in their trade.

But what should be the response of the beleaguered experts who find themselves shouting into the void of crowd-sourced expertise?

Show, don’t tell.

I suppose the opinion from the god of wine, Bacchus, would be better than most. But only on wine. Not sure how much I would trust his opinion on fashion.

Jamie Goode is quite right in that there is immense value in the writings and opinions of wine experts like him. But it is not because he’s a pontiff, whose opinion and superior palate is blessed to be better than that of us regular joes.

It’s because he’s a tool. A tool that been honed and tested over time to produce reliable and dependable results. The value in wine critics like Jamie Goode is not in their opinion, itself, but in the background story and context that they can bring. When the average wine drinker is limited to the extent of their wallet and options at the local liquor store, a critic that can take them into the vineyard and winery offers a lens to the world of wine that can’t be gleamed from Wikipedia or in the pages of a new wine book.

This was a conclusion that Jancis Robinson, herself, came to during her existential pondering on the state of wine writing today.

But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something? — Jancis Robinson, The Financial Times September 4th, 2015

Jamie Goode is wrong in that his opinion, or final pronouncements on wine, is better. No one really cares if he picks up apricots and quince aromas or finds a wine to be exceptionally well balanced. Opinions are just the holiday wrapping around the package. Some packages can be more skillfully wrapped than others but really anyone with some tape and paper can wrap a package or deliver an opinion about wine.

Give a monkey a typewriter…. and he will be able to wrap Christmas gifts better than me.


The value in Jamie Goode’s expertise comes in what’s inside the package. There his readers can unpack his years of observations and experience, following winemakers and wine regions as they emerge and evolve, gaining from him a perspective and tools that will ultimately help them get more pleasure out of finding and drinking new wines.

The value in anyone’s opinion peters out when the subjectivity of taste comes in. What might be a fabulous wine to one person could be just “meh” or even downright awful to another. Wine drinkers do not need wine experts to tell them what is good. Instead, show us why you think its good.

Show us the story behind the wine. Show us the care in the vineyard or winery that shaped the wine’s journey from grape to glass. Show us where this fits in the big picture of the world of wine and maybe, just maybe, our opinion of the wine’s greatness will eventually fall in line with the “better” expert opinion.

Show, don’t tell.

Because wine writers are tools, not pontiffs.

A Magnitude of Triviality

I greatly respect Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator. I love his writing style, particularly his Making Sense series of books, where he makes frequent use of anecdote and relatable metaphors to explain wine concepts. It’s a plain spoken style that I often try to emulate in my own writings and teachings on wine. But Matt Kramer is also a wine critic and as such is prone to the same navel-gazing and self justification for their existence that all critics indulge themselves in from time to time. The most recent example comes from his explanation of the difference between professional wine critics like him and mere wine loving folks. For Kramer, it was about differences in magnitude.

Think of it this way. You’ve seen a certain movie a dozen times, then two dozen times. You know it intimately. You begin to notice things you missed the first time or two. Then, after the tenth time, small elements begin to loom ever larger. By the twentieth time, that effect gets magnified yet more.

This is the critic’s perspective. After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it’s not that you’re bored (although that’s surely possible). Rather, it’s that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

The shorthand summary of this quote and the article is that wine critics are important because they taste so much and therefore can pick out the minute differences in wine that most people often do not. While this is undoubtedly true and Kramer’s logic is quite sound, it does beg the question that if the “magnitude of difference” between a 95 point wine and a 94 point wine is derived from these minute differences that only become apparent when awash in a sea of peers–then what’s the value of that to regular consumers? If they’re not going to be able to pick up on these subtle differences, then why would they care if those notes are in a 95 point wine but not a 94 points wine?

The point where a “magnitude of difference” become a “magnitude of triviality”

It’s okay to look at wine scores as a reference point. When you are a consumer, looking at a literal wall of wine in front of you, it can be comforting seeing a sign that says “95 points! Wine Spectator” or “94 points! Beverage Dynamics”. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that because someone thinks this highly rated wine is good it must be a “good wine.” But you have to remember that while it may be a “good bottle”, that doesn’t mean that it is a “good wine” for you.

It’s important to understand that Kramer’s “Magnitude of Difference” between a critic and someone like you cuts both ways. All the knowledge that he’s acquired, all the bottles that he’s tasted has shaped his palate to where it is. Yes, he will certainly taste and pick up on things in the wine that you won’t but that also means that you will taste things and focus on aspects of the wine in ways that he won’t. Your “magnitude of triviality” is different and that matters a lot when you consider that you are the one that is ultimately consuming (after likely paying for) the wine.

This is why you should always fall back on yourself, your palate and what gives you pleasure as the final arbitrator of what is “good”. I don’t care if someone is telling you this is one of the greatest bottles of all time, from an amazing vintage and a prestigious estate with critics falling over themselves to award it 100 points. If that bottle doesn’t give you pleasure then, for you, its not really a “good wine”.

It’s just a wine that other people liked.