Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wine writers are lazy

Wine writers are lazy. Not in the sense that they don't work hard at what they do (well, my posting has been rather pathetic of late), but they don't necessarily do what they should be doing. Wine writers' main goal should be evaluating and describing wines so that consumers get the best wine for their money. Many do this and do it well, but as a group the major wine pundits have been stuck in a rut. James Suckling claimed that he was going to find the next big thing before any one else and where has he been tasting? Bordeaux, Napa and Tuscany... Those are the current and past big things for sure, but not the next big thing. Most wine drinkers know that the wines from those regions which Suckling is reviewing are of high quality. Suckling is tasting the same wines year after year trying to distinguish which $100+ wines are worthy of his 100-point decrees. Rating swings from 92 points to 95 points drive business for many of these wines. Nevertheless, most of these wines sell well and are priced accordingly (or unfortunately overpriced). While many glossies and celebrity critics only publish wine reviews of wines rated 85 points or higher, Suckling has taken the threshold up to 90 points. Suckling knows that he can find more than a handful of these types of wines in his favorite regions. Yet, he is afraid to venture into uncharted territory for the fear of only finding one or two great wines in a non-traditional wine region. Life is too short to drink poorly made wine, but life is also too short to drink the same wines year after year. Good wine is worth the risk and effort to find it.

Other wine reviewers are so lazy that not even know that certain wine regions produce wine. Stephen Elliot of the Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine recently visited Palisade, CO without knowing it was in the Grand Valley AVA and home to 25 wineries. Now, of course Palisade is most definitely not a mecca of wine production, but I think that a wine "expert" would at least check to see if his vacation spot has any wineries. I don't claim to know of every wine region in the world, let alone the U.S., but when I drove to Wisconsin this past summer, I made sure to research any wineries along our route. Lo and behold, we stopped at a winery in Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. I will forgive Mr. Elliot's mistake as he and his co-writers are so focused on California wine that it takes accidental encounters for wineries in other regions to come across their radar. But to his surprise, Stephen actually enjoyed the wines made by Canyon Wind Cellars in this little part of the wine world. Who'd have thunk that?!?

However, I was pleasantly surprised a few days ago when James Molesworth tweeted, "Looks like a flight of wines from the Finger Lakes, Virginia and Colorado lined up in the tasting room today..." Granted, James is the tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator and is stuck reviewing wines from non-mainstream regions such as Chile, Loire Valley, South Africa and New York's Finger Lakes. At least he has Kim Marcus' and Harvey Steiman's beats beat! Now, this tasting isn't going to change much, but at least Wine Spectator has Colorado wine on its radar! While there haven't been any "next big thing" proclamations about these regions, Molesworth was happy to report that, "Good, competent winemaking [is] now the norm more than not, thankfully."

Steve Heimoff, west coast editor for Wine Enthusiast, said he doesn't review Colorado wine because no one pays him to do so. I can understand that it is his job to review the top wines from California, but I bet he tastes wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and other regions to keep his palate calibrated and not Calicentric. He should also be seeking out wines from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico to see what California's neighbors are producing. You can bet that reviewers of American automobiles are keeping tabs on what German and Japanese manufacturers are making.

Even Robert Parker, Jr.'s heir apparent, Antonio Galloni, declared on Wineberserkers.com that he publishes content based on "what our readers have become accustomed to." Most wine consumers are not familiar with Turkish, Greek, Slovenian or Coloradan wine but how else will the broader public obtain information on what these other wine regions are producing? Sure, Galloni is charged to taste Californian wine, but is he tasting wine from Cucamonga Valley, Potter Valley, or San Antonio Valley?  We have almost gone back in time to the early 1970s when the French wine elite dismissed California wine as inferior to French wine. While the wine world has expanded incredibly in the past 40 years, we are at a new crossroads of wine evaluation and education. As David White said in his keynote address to the Nederbrurg Rare Wine Auction in South Africa recently, "As consumers grow more comfortable dismissing gatekeepers like Parker, the influence of local voices ... is becoming more important." If the gatekeepers wish to remain keepers of the wine gates, they had better start doing their jobs and expand their palates (and pens) beyond the traditional wine regions.


  1. It's an apt comparison between the critical malaise of today and the elitism of the 1970s French set. Then again, look how that turned out. Even without another "Paris Tasting"-type watershed moment, good wine has a way of rising to the top. Enterprising merchants will be eager to sell affordable, well-made wines to their consumers, regardless of their place of origin. Critical accolades are nice, but good wine doesn't need the attention of critics to become relevant.

  2. Jesse, thanks for commenting and yes good wine should be relevant based on quality alone, but alas that is not often the case. Many Colorado wineries are very small but produce very good wine and still have a hard time getting the wine into liquor stores and restaurants. Unfortunately, Steve Heimoff was pretty spot on in his Quality vs. Credulity post on September 19th. It may not take another Paris tasting type watershed moment but good wine
    critics should seek out off the beaten path wines in order to keep themselves relevant but also to spotlight wine for the consumers who don't have the time to explore every wine. Afterall, shouldn't critics work for the consumer as opposed to the wineries?