Friday, October 18, 2013

Why wine reviewers should be more like book reviewers

Yesterday, Tom Wark wrote about the differences between wine and book reviewers. The article was insightful, but I took exception to his basic premise that "it doesn’t take much time to produce a wine review." It doesn't take much time to produce a review of anything. I can look at a car for 30 seconds and estimate how fast it is, what kind of fuel efficiency you should expect and tell you if I like its lines. But how much time a critic takes to conduct a review is related to the thoroughness of the assessment. Thirty seconds with a car does nothing to explore the comfort or practicality of the automobile. A thorough assessment is not a guarantee of a quality assessment, but it does make an thoughtful review more likely.

It is an industry standard that wine reviewers spend 5-10 minutes (at most) swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting wine in a sterile (not in the medical sense) setting. Yes, most good critics will also visit the regions and meet with the producers they critique to develop a context for the wines they assess. Yet, the official reviews come from relatively short periods of time spent with the actual wine and in the presence of dozens of other wines also being assessed. The resulting wine reviews are meant to assist consumers with their purchase decisions. I am not ardently against tasting notes and despite my disdain for the 100-pt system I understand its purpose and relative usefulness.

The thing that irks me about the standard system for wine reviews and pointed out by Tom Wark, is that there is no need for a wine critic to spend more than 10 minutes with a wine. Most consumers I know do not spend only 10 minutes with wine swirling, sniffing, sipping, spitting and repeating. They consume the wine. Often with food and rarely in the presence of other wines. There may be no need to spend more than 60 seconds with a wine, but there is a benefit to the consumer when a critic gives a wine the attention its users give it. As I commented on Tom's blog, [t]asting a wine with food can be important. Tasting wine at different points in its lifetime can be important. Spending 2 minutes with 20 wines is like reading the prologue of 20 books and stating definitively what happens in the last chapter of each and proclaiming which book is the most well-written!

Yes, an experienced book reviewer can probably give a good estimate of what's a book about by looking at the author's name, the publisher and reading the prologue or first chapter. That is exactly what wine critics do. Some do it quite well, but none are perfect. I understand this process because I often do the same thing. For those of you (if any) who have read my blog from its inception will know that wine reviews have become increasingly missing from my posts. Sure, I still write about specific wines, and sometimes I tasted them in the way I am critiquing here. But most of the few reviews I post are of wines I drink at home, over the course of a few hours, with and without food. That's how most wine consumers drink.

I really like Tom's suggestion of the long-form wine review. I know that is not going to happen with the major wine publications because they depend on volume. More reviews equals more points. More points equates to more readers. More readers means more revenue. But perhaps alternative critics might be able to utilize Tom's suggestion. In fact, more writers/bloggers are adding in the story of the vintner or the land in lieu of lists of aromas and flavors that you may or may not be able to detect in a wine.  Two of my favorite writers doing this are Alder Yarrow, of Vinography, and RH Drexel, of Loam Baby. They both tell the story of wine differently, but each does so with enthusiasm and interesting writing. They add value to their writing when they spend more than 60 seconds with a wine or winemaker (despite Alder also having a tendency for many short reviews from mass tastings...).

Wine reviewers should spend more time with wines they are reviewing just like book reviewers spend hours, if not days, with the books they review. They should aim to be more than just reviewers, but actual writers. Just as with a book, not all the subtleties of a wine are noticeable at first. Consumers could benefit from the greater insight and context of a wine gained from more thorough assessments. Wine reviews don't need to be longer, but they should be!


  1. I am so happy you bring this to the surface and recognize the need for more thorough reviews Kyle. Our style is to drink like a consumer, one bottle at a time to get a more thoughtful assessment of the wine. As you mention, I don’t think big publications will adopt due to the volume of samples they receive, but for publications such as ours, its seems to be a perfect fit.

    Here is our POV:

    …and a few examples of what I think we do best—more extended reviews that give a more in-depth review which include visiting regions, talking with the winemakers and even getting dirty (harvest!) to get a better story…




    We still do short reviews, but we prefer to do the more extended versions…

  2. As a producer, it is a constant source of frustration to see a product that has taken years to create (from bunch inception to harvest a year later to winemaking through oak maturation another year later) assessed and critiqued inside 2 minutes by a wine writer or judge at a show. Years of work can be honoured or crushed in 2 minutes and one paragraph!

    I have seen the same wine given a gold under one label and miss out on even a bronze under different label in the same show (on multiple occasions)! After speaking to wine judges (who are often wine writers), they are powering through hundreds of samples in an afternoon, and acknowledge that after 20 odd wines, they cannot differentiate the intricacies of each wine. They are screaming for a wine to jump out at them with something different, even if it is a kiss of wine fault!

    No wonder the wine show circuit is struggling for entries, and wine writers are now having to send out invitations to be in their books...it just isn't worth the effort anymore.