Why Some Influential Wine Critics Could Be Doing More Harm Than Good

2013-10-14
(Photo courtesy of a very sad friend.)

What is the role of the wine critic?

I can think of many non-mutually exclusive reasons why people become wine critics: to educate, to share opinions, to establish one’s reputation as an “expert”, to promote wines, to influence market trends, as a complement to their wine business, and/or to “archive” or remember wines.

The last is more about making tasting notes either to share with others or purely for personal reasons; it will be dealt with separately later.

The other roles are interrelated and my main focus is on wine reviews by professional wine critics.

To begin, I would like to quote a review of Mount Mary Quintet by Robert Parker Jr.:

“The proprietor of Mount Mary has never wanted me to taste his wines, which are revered by segments of the Australian press, but with some stealth work, I was able to secure a few vintages. In addition to the 2001 Quintet, I was able to taste the 1998, 1997, 1995, and 1994. For my taste, only the 2001 merited a score higher than 80 points. The attempt appears to be to emulate a Bordeaux petit chateau, but none were as fine, being lean, high in acid, austere, and meagerly endowed. They will not improve with age. The 2001 has slightly more to it than the older vintages. It is difficult to understand what merit these wines possess.”
(Wine Advocate, No 161, October, 2005)

Naturally, this brief review caused a stir amongst many Australian wine professionals. Andrew Caillard MW even made reference to it in his assessment of Langton’s “Exceptional” category of Australian wines:

“In the beginning Mount Mary Quintet Cabernets was something of a cult wine but over the years has built up a reputation for being something quite special and complex. It does not always find favour with critics – especially of the American kind – weaned on the deeply concentrated, monumentally rich and alcoholic Barossa Shirazes and apparently determined to have us all drink the undrinkable.

Just before Dr Middleton died, the American Robert Parker Jr. derided the overall quality of Quintet raising more than a few hackles among Australian wine critics. Indeed it highlights the difficulties of scoring wines and the polarized perspectives of commentators around the world. Australian collectors have largely and correctly ignored American reviews. It’s probably just as well, because the wine is limited and difficult to find anyway.”

Robert Parker Jr.’s review would probably *not* had generated such a stir within the wine community, especially in Australia, had it been by a lesser “authority”. However, this is by the famously influential Wine Advocate.

On one hand, it seems quite obvious to me (reading between the lines) that here is a person, revered by the wine industry as a world expert, who was perhaps more than a little miffed that Mount Mary wasn’t interested in his opinions (and wouldn’t send samples to him), regardless of how all-powerful his influence might be. Let his pen do the rest. How anyone could come to such a conclusion about an entire wine portfolio based on a minuscule sampling of wines (with no reference to provenance) is beyond me. (It is worth recounting the incident when he gave Domain Faiveley a “bad” review and it was later revealed that the wine he sampled was “cooked” due to improper storage in the warehouse of the American importer.)

In contrast, Jancis Robinson MW is one of the rare few who have sampled every single vintage of Grange; so I would be very interested in her views of, say, the 2008 Grange. Did it merit the significantly higher release price because Wine Advocate gave it a perfect score of 100? Why pay well over $700 a bottle upon release when I can get it on the secondary market two years later for under $600? (Refer to wine auctioneer Mark Wickman’s review: http://www.wickman.net.au/wineauction/Grange_Prices.aspx)

Such significant price jumps occurred consistently whenever a wine received exceptional ratings. There’re too many examples to cite. A bottle of Shirvington Shiraz retails on average at $76 (all vintages), with the exception of the 2001 (98 points) & 2002 (99 points) which have an average retail of around $115 (2001) and $120 (2002) respectively. The price jump of the 2008 Grange is a classic example. Bear all this in mind when reading this:

“I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment.”
(Robert Parker Jr., in an interview with the Naples Daily News, published 25 January 2007.)

So basically, “the emotion of the moment” can make or break a wine’s future.

Such is the power of an influential critic; and, yes, much has already been discussed and written about this. Still, it is worth reiterating this as majority of the general public *do* rely on critics when deciding which wine to buy, and worse yet, “invest” in.

(A note on photo above: it is merely to illustrate how those bottles would feel had they received negative reviews. Ouch! No, they were not harmed deliberately, although their owner was most upset. He did lick the remnants and remarked that the “blend” of the two was rather good…)