Wine Critics: Friends or deceptive, evil greedy manipulators riding a currency of insecurity?
Since wine is such a complicated concept for most, and consumers have a difficult time deciding what they like (as strange as that may sound), wine publications have gotten fat and rich off the insecurities of many. Now, many elitists will tell you that all wine critics are bad for the industry. While many consumers only feel fulfilled once they find as many top 100 Wine Spectator wines as possible. I’m here to consider both sides, and tell you who you can believe and trust, and what you should do with most wine publications.
The first and last caveat for anyone that reads wine reviews is to understand your own palate, and understand that what you like will always be in a state of flux. This applies for you and for the critics. There are a multitude of foods that it took me a while to acquire a taste for. I never used to like pickles, blue cheese, mussels, beer (mmm… beer), coffee, good olives, diet soda, but I love them now. I also remember thinking that I could exist solely on Hershey’s bars, fun dip and grape soda. Now that make’s me cringe. See, my palate has changed, and so has yours. I also remember my first encounter with “rated” wines and thinking it should speak to me, but it didn’t. Did this mean my palate doesn’t get it? I felt like those “magic eye” posters you saw in the malls 10 or 15 years ago, never got those either. In hindsight, I now realize that I just wasn’t into wine when I first tried to equate ratings to my personal enjoyment. A novice drinking a $100 bottle of wine won’t instantly see the light. These wines don’t exist to impress people that don’t regularly drink wine. This amplifies a problem with assigning a numeric score to something that is so arbitrary that it depends on yours and the critic’s palate, style preference, etc. I may feel a wine is worth 90 points, but that doesn’t mean anyone I know that will agree. There is no absolute litmus test of quality. It is advisable to try to expand your palate as often as possible. You will acquire a taste for better and better wines, and will ultimately draw more satisfaction from wines. That said, if you like it, it is good. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
So what is the point of all of these wine magazines and the ratings? The 2 most popular publications Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are largely lifestyle publications. They do include Wine Ratings each issue, and they each have dedicated teams devoted to rating wine. The other big publication is The Wine Advocate (also known as Robert M. Parker). Parker is probably the most powerful man in the wine industry. Parker’s publication is subscription only, expensive, and features no ads or pictures. Because of this, it is considered the most credible of the 3. In my (perhaps naïve & optimistic) heart, I believe all of these publications to be honest and open about their ratings. Some Conspiracy Theorists believe that Wine Spectator gives preferred ratings to wineries that buy ad space. This is a common sentiment, but one that I have no reason to believe nor evidence to support. All of these publications rate on a 100 point scale. Anything over 90 points is deemed an exceptional wine. In most cases, the same people review all wines from a given region for strong points of reference. I believe that every single person that reviews wine for a living for these 3 publications has a better palate and more experience than I do. That still doesn’t mean that I always agree with what they say. The ratings surely exist to sell magazines, but they also exist for a purer purpose, to guide consumers through an unrealistic amount of choices. No matter how sophisticated your palate becomes, there will never be a critic or publication you agree with 100%. If you are into wine, read these magazines, enjoy them and listen to what they say because they are the experts, but don’t be afraid to disagree. It’s important to stay true to what you like while developing your palate.