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!