The Role of a Wine Critic

An excerpt from the 1999 edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide.

WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | December 2000

"The Role of a Wine Critic"

Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide

by Robert M. Parker Jr.

"A man must serve his time to every trade save censure -- critics all are ready made." Thus wrote Lord Byron.

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook, and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started when, in late summer 1978, I sent out a complimentary issue of what was then called the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate.

There were two principal forces that shaped my view of a wine critic's responsibilities. I was then, and remain today, significantly influenced by the independent philosophy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Moreover, I was marked by the indelible impression left by my law school professors, who pounded into their students' heads in the post-Watergate era a broad definition of conflict of interest. These two forces have governed the purpose and soul of my newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and my books.

In short, the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable. They should be based on extensive experience and on a trained sensibility for whatever is being reviewed. In practical terms, this means the critic should be blessed with the following attributes:

It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country. And what about wine samples? I purchase over 75% of the wines I taste, and while I have never requested samples, I do not feel it is unethical to accept unsolicited samples that are shipped to my office. Many wine writers claim that these favors do not influence their opinions. Yet how many people in any profession are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them? Irrefutably, the target audience is the wine consumer, not the wine trade. While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate often, not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to effectively pursue this independence, it is imperative to keep one's distance from the trade. While this can be misinterpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.

Courage manifests itself in what I call the "democratic tasting." Judgments ought to be made solely on the basis of the product in the bottle, and not on the pedigree, the price, the rarity, or one's like or dislike of the producer. The wine critic who is totally candid may be considered dangerous by the trade, but an uncensored, independent point of view is of paramount importance to the consumer. A judgment of wine quality must be based on what is in the bottle. This is wine criticism at its purest, most meaningful. In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petit château Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite-Rothschild or Latour. Overachievers should be spotted, praised, and their names highlighted and shared with the consuming public. Underachievers should be singled out for criticism and called to account for their mediocrities. Few friends from the wine commerce are likely to be earned for such outspoken and irreverent commentary, but wine buyers are entitled to such information. When a critic bases his or her judgment on what others think, or on the wine's pedigree, price, or perceived potential, then wine criticism is nothing more than a sham.

It is essential to taste extensively across the field of play to identify the benchmark reference points and to learn winemaking standards throughout the world. This is the most time-consuming and expensive aspect of wine criticism, as well as the most fulfilling for the critic; yet it is rarely followed. Lamentably, what so often transpires is that a tasting of ten or twelve wines from a specific region or vintage will be held. The writer will then issue a definitive judgment on the vintage based on a microscopic proportion of the wines. This is as irresponsible as it is appalling. It is essential for a wine critic to taste as comprehensibly as is physically possible. This means tasting every significant wine produced in a region or vintage before reaching qualitative conclusions. Wine criticism, if it is ever to be regarded as a serious profession, must be a full-time endeavor, not the habitat of part-timers dabbling in a field that is so complex and requires such time commitment. Wine and vintages, like everything in life, cannot be reduced to black and white answers.

It is also essential to establish memory reference points for the world's greatest wines. There is such a diversity of wine and such a multitude of styles that this may seem impossible. But tasting as many wines as one possibly can in each vintage, and from all of the classic wine regions, helps one memorize benchmark characteristics that form the basis for making comparative judgments between vintages, wine producers, and wine regions.

While I have never found anyone's wine-tasting notes compelling reading, notes issued by consensus of a committee are the most insipid, and often the most misleading. Judgments by committees tend to sum up a group's personal preferences. But how do they take into consideration the possibility that each individual may have reached his or her decision using totally different criteria? Did one judge adore the wine because of its typicity while another decried it for such, or was the wine's individuality given greater merit? It is impossible to know. That is never in doubt when an individual authors a tasting critique.

Committees rarely recognize wines of great individuality. A look at the results of tasting competitions sadly reveals that well-made mediocrities garner the top prizes. The misleading consequence is that blandness is elevated to the status of being a virtue. Wines with great individuality and character will never win a committee tasting because at least one taster will find something objectionable about the wine.

I have always sensed that individual tasters, because they are unable to hide behind the collective voice of a committee, hold themselves to a greater degree of accountability. The opinion of a reasonably informed and comprehensive individual taster, despite the taster's prejudices and predilections, is always a far greater guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than the consensus of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure.

Too much wine writing focuses on glamour French wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and on California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are important, and they make up the backbone of most serious wine enthusiasts' cellars. But value and diversity in wine types must always be stressed. The unhealthy legacy of the English wine-writing establishment that a wine has to taste bad young to be great old should be thrown out. Wines that taste great young, such as Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, Merlot, and Zinfandel, are no less serious or compelling because they must be drunk within a few years rather than be cellared for a decade or more before consumption. Wine is, in the final analysis, a beverage of pleasure, and intelligent wine criticism should be a blend of both hedonistic and analytical schools of thought -- to the exclusion of neither.

It is an inescapable fact that too many of the world's renowned growers/producers have intentionally permitted production levels to soar to such extraordinary heights that many wines' personalities, concentration, and character are in jeopardy. While there remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject significant proportions of their harvest to ensure that only the finest-quality wine is sold under their name, they are dwindling in number. For much of the last decade production yields throughout the world have broken records, almost with each new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. The argument that more carefully and competently managed vineyards result in larger crops is nonsense.

In addition to high yields, advances in technology have provided the savoir faire to produce more correct wines, but the abuse of practices such as acidification and excessive fining and filtration have compromised the final product. These problems are rarely and inadequately addressed by the wine-writing community. Wine prices have never been higher, but is the consumer always getting a better wine? The wine writer has the responsibility to give broad qualitative issues high priority.

No one argues with the incontestable fact that tasting is a subjective endeavor. The measure of an effective wine critic should be his or her timely and useful rendering of an intelligent laundry list of good examples of different styles of winemaking in various price categories. Articulating in an understandable fashion why the critic finds the wines enthralling or objectionable is manifestly important both to the reader and to the producer. The critic must always seek to educate, to provide meaningful guidelines, never failing to emphasize that there can never be any substitute for the consumer's palate, nor any better education than the reader's own tasting of the wine. The critic has the advantage of having access to the world's wine production and must try to minimize bias. Yet the critic should always share with the reader his or her reasoning for bad reviews. For example, I will never be able to overcome my dislike for vegetal-tasting New World Cabernets, overtly herbaceous red Loire Valley wines, or excessively acidified New World whites.

My ultimate goal in writing about wines is to seek out the world's greatest wines and greatest wine values. But in the process of ferreting out those wines, I feel the critic should never shy away from criticizing those producers whose wines are found lacking. Given the fact that the consumer is the true taster of record, the "taste no evil" approach to wine writing serves no one but the wine trade. Constructive and competent criticism has proven that it can benefit producers as well as consumers, since it forces underachievers to improve the quality of their fare, and by lauding overachievers, it encourages them to maintain high standards to the benefit of all who enjoy and appreciate good wine.

(1999) copyright © 1995, 1999 by Robert M. Parker, Jr. Used by permission.