Naked Truth

The truth about wine critics

old painting of monk testing wine with 100 points caption
Monk Testing Wine by Antonio Casanova y Estorach (c.1886) w/ additions by yours truly

There are a handful of very important people who influence how much wine costs, what wines are available in your local shops, and even what wines winemakers make.

I’m going to talk about each of these things in time. But I figured I’d start with some wise words from the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker.

“I always said your best palate is your own, not mine.”
–Robert Parker

Critics have their own palate

In theory, critics are great. A critic actually has the time to taste way more wines than you do and let you know which ones are best.

But their palates are not identical (to each other or to your own).

Just because Robert Parker likes a wine, doesn’t mean you will enjoy it. And that’s why he said it himself: “I always said your best palate is your own, not mine.” And that’s why critics often disagree

What’s more, I frequently find that people who spend a lot of time in the wine world (like critics) often become obsessed with relatively weird wines. We like them because they’re novel and open our eyes to something we’ve never tasted.

But while I’ve seen critics rave about oxidative orange wine or some esoteric biodynamic estate that makes wine that smells like almond shells and horse poop, most consumers are left scratching their heads wondering if we could recommend something a little more pleasant-sounding.

Even the most devoted wine experts can’t possibly taste EVERY wine personally

It’s wild but even when you devote your life to tasting and reviewing wines, you can’t possibly taste and review all the wine in the world.

I used to make wine in the Languedoc-Roussillon and that one region of France has thousands of independent producers, each making several different wines every year. Basic arithmetic time: 3,000*3=9,000 wines/year! Just to taste the wines from the region, you’d have to taste at least 24 wines a day without any exceptions.

The critic who covered that region for the Wine Advocate visited once every 2 years (which is above average for American critics visiting relatively non-commercial regions).

He’d spend about a week or two tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines. But he still couldn’t taste every wine. That’s just the simple truth. Add to this that the same man was responsible for tasting and reviewing all of “Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe, America’s Eastern & Midwestern wineries, Alsace, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Champagne, New Zealand and South Africa” (pulled from TWA website). *blink* That’s a lot of wine!

They get preferential treatment

I won’t dwell on this, but when you give one person power to influence thousands of people, the result is always the same. No matter how honest the critic, wine marketers will try to sway them.

A lot of people don’t realize it, but you can make a special barrel and do a separate bottling or tasting just for critics.

And this a more than a theoretical possibility–all those expensive Bordeaux first growths are well-known to be priced based on the en primeur tastings which are done with a barrel selection of extremely young wines that are very far from the finished product.

Most consumers wouldn’t be able to recognize the barrel wine and the finished wine were the same. Some wineries even admit that they make a separate barrel of the wine differently for critics.

But what’s the alternative to a handful of critics? Tons of them!

Well, if you can’t trust any one person, maybe we should use technology to get loads of people rating the world’s wine. We could crowd-source this bad boy like Yelp or Rotten Tomatoes (for TV & movies)!

Lots of sites let you review wines, and they’re starting to build momentum. Cellar Tracker‘s got loads of data. Vivino and Delectable are buzzing right now and both offer photo recognition of labels so you can take a picture of a bottle of wine and then see all the reviews other app-users have made.

And little-known fact, we actually launched a wine-rating app called Wine Demon where you could rate any wines you like (not just the ones our customers fund and order through us), but for a variety of reasons, we ended up focusing on our on-site ratings.

Another poorly-advertised fact: we have loads of reviews and ratings. Millions. Some of our winemakers have more perfect 5-star ratings than any other winemakers on the Internet. And we proudly display the user ratings on every wine on our site.

So are wine critics dead?

Actually, they’ve never been better. There’s just hundreds of thousands of them!

Jancis Robinson recently wrote about the emergence of more and more review aggregators. And her conclusion is absolutely correct. Professional wine writers can stay relevant by working very hard and accurately. By delivering more than just critical reviews, but true journalism.

In the meantime, the easy part (saying you like a wine or dislike a wine), can be done by anybody with a smart phone… incidentally:

Have you ever tasted one of our Angel-funded wines? If you have, you can register a free account over at and let us know what you thought of the wine! Just type the wine name into the search bar and click on the heart icon to tell us how you liked it. Or if you’ve ordered wine from us, you can go to your NakedMe and rate all of your wines from there.

Related material:

Carl Giavanti Consulting posts about who writes about wineries these days – “With so few ‘A-List’ print outlets sporting a wine columnist these days; [sic] to whom does a winery publicist turn to promote their clients?…Whatever the number of pro writers may be, getting quality endorsements and media coverage has become more challenging.”




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Kent Reynolds
8 years ago

Excellent info, Ryan! Interestingly, I’m putting the finishing touches on a very similar post for my blog, I expect to publish it sometime this week. Great minds, and all that! Cheers!

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