The Power Brokers of the past have faded considerably and now the most important wine critic might be sitting right next to you
There was a time when one went to the local wine shop, asked a few questions (perhaps answered a few as well), a few selections were made, and then the enjoyment and discovery began. Of course, it is likely that not every wine a person purchased was to their liking or exactly what they were expecting—after all, until recently, no sampling was allowed in the stores—but that (to Geek anyway) was part of the fun. Some folks, however, don’t find this fun: the fact that wines from the same vineyard can taste different from one vintage to the next, or that the very same wine will taste different if one drinks it in February, and again in October, drives some people crazy (note: these folks might want to try vodka). And the most negative of this group also feared that this ‘fluidity’ was an opportunity for an unscrupulous retailer to take advantage and sell them substandard wines. But what could one do? Until the cork was pulled, you had to rely on someone’s opinion. Enter: The Wine Critic.
Wine Critics—or wine writers, wine experts, et cetera—have been around for millennia. Many people cite George Saintsbury and his 1920 classic ‘Notes on a Cellar Book’ as the first true wine critic. However the ancient Greeks & Romans had their versions as well: Pliny the Elder, the famed Roman philosopher and explorer, wrote extensively on the regions known to the western world then. He even waxed poetic about the infamous vintage of 121 BCE… in 70 CE—almost 200 years later! Since Mr. Pliny wasn’t around in 121 BC, we assume he used some poetic license and second-hand information—just like today’s wine writers! ‘Twas the late 70’s, during a period of active ‘consumerism’ (think Ralph Nader and Consumer Reports) that The Wine Spectator, Decanter Magazine and Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate were born. Finally there were reliable, ’unbiased’ sources of information about what was in all those bottles with the funny names. That Decanter and the Wine Spectator were selling ads to the very wineries whose wines were being reviewed didn’t seem to bother most consumers at the time. The Wine Advocate didn’t sell ads, hence they were unbiased and quickly became the most respected journal of the day. Of course, Robert Parker was as biased as anyone—not due to ad sales, but due to his own personal preferences—big, extracted, high-alcohol wines with lots of oak frequently, but driven by quality for sure, and he is an eloquent writer. At the height of his power, Geek heard one retailer proclaim “if it’s under 90 points, I can’t sell it, if it’s over 90 points, I can’t buy it!”
Of course, wine critics do serve a purpose. Indeed, someone who tastes several hundred wines a month, and personally travels to the top wine regions to meet with owners/winemakers and taste at the properties surely is in a good position to predict the quality/age-worthiness of these wines. So if an ‘average consumer’ who drinks wine infrequently is about to drop $100 on a special bottle of wine, getting an ‘expert opinion’ is quite logical. However…have you ever had a friend enthusiastically recommend a movie (or a book, a restaurant, whatever) that you found to be just so-so? Of course you have—these things are completely subjective…and so is wine to a very large degree. Third party acclaim (the term the wineries use to refer to reviews) can indeed help a consumer avoid bad or faulty wines, however the truth is there are not very many bad/faulty wines out there any more: major advances in viticulture and winemaking have all but eliminated faulty wines. Sure, there are still plenty of ‘uninspired’ wines on the shelves out there, but downright bad? Not so much.
Today, wine critics are everywhere. Bloggers abound—there are hundreds of wine blogs to peruse—some absolutely great, and many not so much (and unfortunately, many have incorrect information in their missives). And thanks to social media, peer reviews are readily available, extremely important: think about it: whose opinion might resonate with you more: a fellow 22 year old student at MSU or an unknown old guy writing for Vogue magazine? And with Apps such as Delectable and Vivino, there is a trove of resources from everywhere on the planet at one’s fingertips. Indeed, Geek has found several wines which GLWAS now represents, based on recommendations from unknown but savvy Delectable users. Traditional wine writers/critics still exist and still have a role to play, but (happily) gone are the days that one guy in Maryland can make or break a winery. We think that’s a good thing…now you can trust your friends, your peers, us…and even yourself!