Wine Reviews are Bullshit!

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penn and tellerPenn and Teller have a series on Showtime called Bullshit where they expose things that they consider to be, well…bullshit. They choose a topic each week, such as Martial Arts, Life Coaches, the U.S. Criminal Justice System, or Abstinence, and spend 30 minutes ripping it to shreds before unequivocally declaring it “bullshit!” Today, with apologies to messieurs Penn and Teller, I am going to stand up and shout, “Wine reviews are bullshit!”

If you are wondering if this is going to be some justification of why our reviews at AWB are just spiffy and everyone else is full of shit, you can stop wondering; ours are bullshit too.  It is just the nature of the beast. Most critics can’t do what the people being criticized can, yet feel compelled to give their opinions anyway. If that doesn’t qualify as bullshit, I don’t know what does.

There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own. Lets examine how some of these work, shall we? Whose bullshit should we pick through first? Fair is fair, so here is what Amy and I do.

So, if we’re all so full of bullshit, why do we bother? And even more importantly, why should you pay any attention to a word any of us write? Excellent questions!
We review wine that we buy, as well as samples that we receive. Amy keeps track of the source, and also keeps any tasting notes that might have been provided by the winery or PR agency in a binder (or, as currently is the case, in ever shifting piles on the dining room table as she struggles to find a good way to classify the current chaos). I make it a practice to never read these until after I’ve evaluated the wine. Thus ends the part of the process that I can affirm is always fair.

We open a bottle of wine, pour it into a glass. After noting the color, it gets swirled, sniffed and tasted. At this point we are merely determining whether or not this wine should be reviewed. What criteria do we base this crucial decision on? Do we, at that moment in time, think that it is tasty enough that we would recommend it to a friend without hesitation at the price it sells for? As simple as that. We think that is what we are qualified to do. So, if the wine meets that one standard we grab a pen and paper. Then we continue with the evaluation by repeatedly swirling, sniffing and tasting. We don’t typically spit, and we usually give the entire bottle our full attention. Wine is for drinking, and we assume our friends will do just that if they take our recommendations.

So, how is that bullshit? Because it is almost entirely subjective and can be influenced by so many other factors. Am I in a lousy mood because one of my sports teams lost? What did we have for lunch? Did one of our doctors give us some medicine that causes things to taste odd? Is it hot outside or really cold? Sometimes we have food with the wine, sometimes not. Factor in that it might be a bad bottle, or just in a dead period, and it hardly seems to be a fair process. Not to mention that all reviewers have personal tastes. I prefer reds to whites, and generally loathe Beaujolais whereas Amy finds it tolerable.  In addition to all of that, not only do our tastes evolve as we gain experience, they also shift and drift around for no discernible reason. Currently Amy and I are both very much in love with Syrah in all its forms, but she is trending towards more subtle European-style wines where I prefer the bigger, bolder California, and especially Washington styles, but next month that could flip.

Having had the opportunity to talk and taste with many wine writers, ranging from baby bloggers to career journalists, I know that everyone has their own evaluation process. There are people who use techniques similar to ours, one friend believes that you have to evaluate wine over a 2 day period, and then there are the “pros.” Remember the evaluation step at the beginning of our process? The one where we start to decide whether or not to review a wine? For many wine reviewers that is as far as it goes. They don’t even swallow the wine. They can’t because they may be tasting a mind-boggling number of wines at a single sitting.

Many of these folks know that they are committing bullshit, but there is no other way to do what is being asked of them. I’ve tasted this way before, and it is very difficult. My hat is off to those few people who can do it well. No matter how educated my palate may or may not be, it eventually becomes overwhelmed. Nuance is lost early on in a big tasting like this, baselines quickly become reset. The result is that wines with extra fruit and lots of alcohol will stand out from the pack. When a taster is desperately seeking something to differentiate between wines that have all begun to taste very similar, it is easy to see why so many high alcohol fruits bombs are so highly regarded. Kind of explains wine scores, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I love fruits bombs, and am unashamed of that fact, but any process that causes subtlety and nuance to be abandoned for efficiency is highly suspect. The fact that there really is no other way for some of these pros to do their job doesn’t really mitigate their bullshit, but it does explain it.

So, if we’re all so full of bullshit, why do we bother? And even more importantly, why should you pay any attention to a word any of us write? Excellent questions! (Do we have smart readers, or what?) To start with, almost all of us are trying as hard as we possibly can to get it right. Yes, there are hacks and shills among us, bloggers, traditional writers, and those in between included, but most of us have nothing but the best of intentions. Those intentions pay off for you, the reader, because no matter the process all of us tend to find the good stuff.

Those huge mass tastings? Many of us use them to note wine that we want to taste again later.  Even when they are the sole source of evaluation, those highly rated fruit bombs that stand out really are damn good wine. These guys aren’t recommending bad wines, they are just missing or undervaluing a lot of good ones.

In the long run, whether it is our bullshit, Wine Enthusiast’s bullshit, or a melange of lots of bullshit sources, it is a question of finding sources that fit your tastes. Most people do not have the time, resources, or the bulletproof liver necessary to taste all of the wine out there, so they have us to do it for them. We are all doing the best we can. With so many of us around these days there is bound to be someone whose taste in bullshit is the same as your own, and that’s the trick to making this all work. I don’t want to be a tastemaker, in fact I would be appalled to find people drinking something based entirely on something I had written and not because they liked it, but I do love wine and sharing my experiences. When a reader saves money or finds something new because of something I’ve written, my time and effort (not to mention liver) are validated. All of this bullshit then has worth.

When I need other people’s bullshit, here is my short list of go-to winos. Some of these people write a lot reviews, some just give great recommendations whether in person, on Twitter, whatever.

Dr Xeno: Ward Kadel, the sometimes mohawked mad scientist of the wine blogging world, not only has impeccable tastes, which often match up to my less impeccable ones, he is one of the last true gentlemen on the planet.

1WineDude: Joe Roberts gets a lot of accolades these days, and deservedly so. He has the right mix of open curiosity about what he doesn’t know paired with great confidence in what he does know. Along with the good Dr, if I have to tread water at one of those mass tastings, Joe is a guy I trust.

Wine Peeps: I mentioned that I love Washington Syrah earlier. The Peeps are the place to head for Washington wine reviews and info. They are also some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.

Luscious Lushes: Need a recommendation, particularly on something from Sonoma? Hit up Thea on her site or on Twitter at @winebratsf and you won’t lack for excellent and typically hilarious responses. Well, unless she thinks you’ll buy up all of the good stuff before she can, then she clams up. I hate when she does that!

Elin McCoy: We were lucky enough to have Elin for a travel companion on a trip to Greece a while back. You know how people with great knowledge are sometimes said to have written the book on something or other? Elin literally wrote the book on the most famous and influential wine critic of our time, Robert Parker.

Rob Bralow’s Wine Post: Rob was one of the first PR people in the business to notice our site and direct samples our way. Not currently working in PR, he has brought his talents to the Web as a blogger, and our numbers are better for it.

Vintuba: I am almost hesitant to send readers to Vintuba out of fear that Chris (@ChrisO) will keep them so occupied that they’ll  never make it back here. His magazine-style grid-layout site is PACKED with great information.

Wannabe Wino Wine Blog: Wannabe my ass! @Sonodora is a full-fledged wino.  And if you accept the premise of this post, you’ll need some tall boots at her site, she is easily the most prolific online reviewer I know of.

Dallas Wine Chick: @Melanie0 is kind of the new kid on the block of this list, but she knows the good stuff. In the same way that DrXeno is gentleman, Melanie is his female counterpart. Witty, gracious and knowledgeable. Go see.

And if you just need a change of pace from all this wine bullshit, go visit Ashley V Routson aka @TheBeerWench at her amazing site, Drink With The Wench.

That’s it for today, kiddies…but stay tuned, we have more bullshit on the way!

  • John

    Joe,
    Thanks for your kind words about Wine Peeps. I always enjoy your candid opinion on things wine and food.
    John

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com Houstonwino

      Thanks John. How’s the view today?

  • http://twitter.com/1337wine Mark V. Fusco, CSW

    Very true. We all have a different perspective on wine. What I like someone else may hate. Following reviewers and knowing their preferences will help guide you into knowing whether you’ll agree or disagree with them.

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com Houstonwino

      Exactly! This being Texas, I talk to a lot of people who still love their white zin. Over time I’ve come to realize that they aren’t wrong, they just have a different perspective. It’s hot here and they just want something cold and sweet. They don’t drink wine for the same reasons that I do. When they admit it to me I can tell they expect me to laugh at them or tell them they’re wrong, but my answer is always the same…nothing wrong with that, it definitely costs you less to drink.

      I’d like to think that we provide a wide enough variety of topics that even the less-than-serious wino can find something interesting here, even if our taste in wine is different, but your suggestion on how to follow reviewers is exactly why we are so open about our admittedly fluid preferences. (bad pun semi-intended)

  • 1WineDude

    Great summary of one of the thornier issues of wine reviewing, and I appreciate the props!

    I’ve taken the stance that part of the wine reviewing process is **more-or-less* approaching objectivity: does the wine have obvious faults? does it taste like the varieties included? etc.

    From there, I am convinced that things get increasingly more subjective, and that’s why it’s really important to find someone with similar tastes who you trust and follow their reviews. Fortunately, people have the pick of the litter for that right now with so many great voices (like yours!) out there.

    Cheers!

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com Houstonwino

      Thanks Joe. Your method is about as fair-minded as it gets, but one part of it brings up something I’ve struggled with a few times. I’ve had wine that tasted fine, no problems at all and I liked it, but it did not have the correct flavor profile for the grapes used. Sangiovese really poses that problem for me. I’ve never had one made with grapes grown outside of Italy that taste like I expect, or work with tomatoes the way it should.

      I really don’t have the answer to that. I usually just puss out and don’t say anything about them.

      • http://twitter.com/mjgraves mjgraves

        I completely agree. I’ve had some nice California Barbera’s, but none that paired with traditional Italian cuisine they way an Italian Barbera does.

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com Houstonwino

    I think all but the most egotistical reviewer would have to agree that is what we are here for. Cheers!

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  • Luke

    I remember Penn & Teller did a couple shows serving KFC and other cheap food to people in gourmet restaurant settings with a fancy presentation, and the subjects almost universally savored and highly rated the food – others who were told it was fast food up front tended to dislike it – pretty interesting how subjective taste can be. I imagine wine labels, names, bottle styles, etc. have a strong influence. 

    This is sort of a shameless plug, but people here would probably get a kick out of it – a random wine review generator: 

    http://phrasegenerator.com/wine

    Sort of explores the maximum extreme of subjectivity / arbitrary taste :)

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