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Should wine reviews be objective? The difference between wine critics and wine drinkers.

This post compares a debate between some wine pros with a debate between some Naked Angels. The difference is really interesting. Scroll to the bottom if you’re impatient.

“There are some styles of wine I really dislike, and I’m not going to do the silly thing of giving them high point scores.” –Jamie Goode

Wine journalist and critic, Jamie Goode, wrote an interesting piece on the objectivity of wine critics (well, it was interesting to me and a bunch of other wine nerds).

He wrote in an essay style, honestly asking “Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?”

At the risk of oversimplifying Jamie’s original post, his point was that even if a wine critic wants to write “for all the readers of a magazine…a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this.” It’s a good read.

An even better read is the comment section and all the other posts in response. Thankfully, Jamie has rounded up and grouped the feedback.

Many wine pros focus on the consequences their reviews have on their customers and on their own ethics.

A lot of the conversation revolved around the words critic and reader. Not many people mentioned winemakers.

The word critic appears over a dozen times in the feedback roundup. The word reader appears 5 times. The words winemaker, producer, etc. don’t come up.

And that’s understandable. Nobody loves us winemakers (just kidding!) It’s understandable because there’s a special relationship between critics and their readers and the critic feels a debt to the readers (they pay the bills) whereas they don’t feel the same debt to their subjects, the winemakers.

All fair. But an interesting thing to notice. And here’s the kicker…

Wine drinkers (at NakedWines.com) focus on the consequences their reviews have on the winemaker.

What’s fascinating is that the same exact question came up in the Naked Newbies group about a month ago. And there were pretty different conclusions. (Also a bit less tempest in a teapot!).

Why give a wine a low heart rating if it’s not your style of wine..? To me that is not fair to the winemaker and just lowers the over all rating of the wine just because you don’t like that style of wine. If you like dry wines and sample a sweet wine..please don’t just say ‘yuck.. too sweet’. Just describe what you’re tasting… To me that’s like going to a restaurant, ordering something you don’t like, then asking for you money back. Just my thoughts.” –Michael S., Angel since April 2013

screenshot from naked newbies group on nakedwines.com
Naked Newbies discussion on the same topic

In his own disarming way, Michael is agreeing whole-heartedly with Jamie. You  can’t be objective when reviewing a style you don’t like. But in his own disarming way, Michael is making a much different point: why rate it at all?

I’ve looked over Jamie’s post and the comment sections a few times and I don’t think anybody captured this very succinct point: If you don’t feel qualified to rate a wine in a certain style, don’t.

Another Angel comments “They [other customers] don’t understand it is not helpful to the winemakers”

Yet another adds “We should all keep an open mind to what we are tasting and remember our winemakers…yes they are ours and we like it that way…depend on our ratings and reviews to keep them here!”

One more on the pile, “Part of the rating process is to let wine makers and other angels know what you think.about a wine”

Kent R., who was a new Angel at the time, said “Reviews tell the winemaker both what we like and what we don’t like.

Loads of good comments in that thread. I highlighted the ones that specifically mention the winemaker because I’m proud of the relationship between Angels and winemakers.

This was a spontaneous conversation in one of our forum groups. I only got involved after most of the discussion took place. Many participants were newbies. And yet, all of them felt a very direct personal connection with their winemakers.

The reviews we write are for the winemakers. That’s fantastic.

Wine writers have to juggle a lot of things: financial incentive, personal preference, duty to readers…

Wine Angels mostly think about their relationship with the winemaker.

[edit: Another great post on the subject of subjectivity by Asimov of the New York Times. Another defense of subjective opinion that carefully evaluates its effect on the critic’s ethics and the reader. I should mention that Asimov differentiates Yellow Tail from “small-production” wines, nodding to the idea that Jamie brought up about how you might judge wines differently based on who made them or what market they were made for]

8 replies on “Should wine reviews be objective? The difference between wine critics and wine drinkers.”

Good writing Ryan; very good topic. As an angel, the practice of reviewing and rating styles for which I am unqualified causes me to look beyond myself. I do this because the relationship with both the winemakers and the angel community is important to me. As I research varieties that are unfamiliar to me, I find myself developing a real appreciation for wines that I would never have purchased off the supermarket shelf. But the winemakers and angels hold my hand through my learning process and I grow. If I have the ability to grow my appreciation and understanding of wines, then do I not also have the ability to grow my understanding and appreciation in other areas of life?

Thoughtful post, Ryan. And I’m flattered that you quoted me! The “average Joe” reviews are one of my favorite part of being an Angel, along with the ability to interact directly with the rock star winemakers. I take my reviews seriously (although I like to throw in some humor), because I know our winemakers are affected by them. If I taste a style I’m not partial to, I still try to rate the wine based on it’s objective quality rather than my subjective preferences. I’ll read other Angel reviews to get an idea of what I should be looking for. And whenever possible, I share with friends and family who DO like a given style, and get their input to include in my review. I feel that my “job” as an Angel is to help others; whether it is guiding other Angels to wines they will like, or helping winemakers to perform their craft. We love our winemakers!

Ryan — this is a great post and should be pinned somewhere for all new angels to read. It clearly differentiates the professional from the Angels and really emphasizes the personal relationship Naked Wine creates between the Winemakers and the Angel Corp.

Naked Wines is a completely different venue and an awesome one at that! Yes we angels are in contact with our winemakers and our staff a fabulous group if I may add!! They care about us…because we taste, review, rate and repeat…we care about them because they listen and they keep consistently producing wine that we want and enjoy! I couldn’t fathom reviewing any wine as “yuck”…maybe it’s not my style but then why am I reviewing something that I’ve already closed my mind off to? I’ve experienced so many different varietals from NW…and many of them I never thought i’ld try…I don’t know I guess you just have to open your mind up a bit as a drinker and not a critic to really be able to enjoy! I’ve only disliked 1 wine of probably 200…and I just didn’t review or rate it! My better half loves that wine and I understand why…it’s just not my preference!

Ryan — I’ve been thinking a lot about this post, and I don’t think that Jamie’s wine style comment is too far off the mark for most of the serious Angels who rate and review wines. All of us have our wine style preferences and when rating the wine that don’t fall within our style preferences we may not give it four or five hearts (in my case usually three), but in the review we all work hard to discuss the wines particulars and point out its positive characteristics and even why we may not like the style so that people who read the reviews will see, both that we may not buy it again because the style is not our thing and that in the review we added enough about the wine so that they can get a sense of what they might expect. In the end any reviewer (casual drinker of pro) who expects their ratings and reviews to be read must be honest and helpful. Being just critical is not an option unless the wine comes across as sub standard or just not good by any reasonable standard.

True, Robert. Jamie’s conclusion and the Angels’ aren’t mutually exclusive. What’s interesting to me is that the reasoning that got each party to their conclusions. Jaime got there by thinking about responsibility to the reader. And the Angels got there by thinking about responsibility to the winemaker. Intriguingly different route to get to very similar conclusions.

I find the subjective comment the most useful. I make some concideration to the rating but if a person says I drink sweet wines and don’t like this and another says full bodied and lots of flavor, well that sounds right up my alley. So far, I have had one split decision and the rest have been awesome. Please keep up with honest opinions and at least a little description good or bad.

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