Wine Critics: Love ’em or leave ’em?

I’ve been called blowhard”, “idiot” and “opinionated,” and that’s on a good day. Wine critics learn to grow thick skin. Some wineries love us, some would love to see us suffer immeasurably. But we serve a purpose: to help drinkers pilot the deep sea of wine.

First and foremost, wine critics are educators, trying to demystify a beverage mired far too long in Snobbyland. We inform the buyer about wine, creating a comfort level so you can go out and experiment — a bit like the “give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” thing.

Then there are wine reviews. I intentionally don’t publish negative wine reviews. I may poke fun at wineries now and then, but I’m not sure it benefits anyone to demolish the reputation of a wine (and, by extension, the winery) that someone might enjoy. I’m only one voice with one palate tasting tons of wine. Kathy Benziger of Benziger Winery describes our role as, “Critics educate the consumer and as people get to know the critics’ tastes, they depend on them for direction.” Like with movie or music reviewers, if you grow to trust a wine critic’s words, you’re golden. Especially since most of us only have a limited amount of disposable income to blow.

For the serious wine buyer — those collecting and selling — critics come in handy. Some critics have budgets that allow travel to the wineries to taste from barrels, assessing the juice before it’s even bottled. This helps when consumers buy “futures” of wine — where you buy before even tasting it.

But we can also do damage.

Supercilious critics, those “all-knowing” types who insert their blathering just because, can cause problems. A couple years ago, Wine Spectator, a monthly magazine aimed at the enthusiast, printed a story about the blanket low quality of the 1998 California cabernet sauvignons, calling it the “Black Sheep Vintage.” Even though they singled out cabernets, the livelihoods of many quality wineries all over the state — and not just Cab producers — took a serious financial hit since the pronouncement grew like a game of “Telephone.” Recently, after retasting these same ’98 wines, critics flip-flopped and said they’re actually pretty good, but the damage was already done.

Then there are high-profile critics who, intentionally or not, wield possibly excessive influence. One highly respected wine critic, Robert Parker, has single-handedly changed the scope of wine since 1978. His vaulted opinion, featured bimonthly in the pages of Wine Advocate, can make or break a winery. The blessings and slaps he gives when rating wines can cause sales to fluctuate by thousands of dollars, since big wine buyers out there — those plunking down serious cash for exalted wine — worship Parker. His influence is such that many wineries craving high ratings, even those in France, make wine to suit his taste. Now, this kinda annoys me, not just because I don’t always agree with his taste but because creating wine to suit one palate might stifle creativity. Seems the wine business is still business and I guess they gotta do what they gotta do.

What I’m saying is take all of us blowhards with a grain of salt. We’re really here to entertain, educate and try to make you more comfortable with a complicated, enigmatic topic. Find what you like by trying recommendations, go to as many wine tastings as you can, and venture out of your comfort zone. At least the research will be fun.

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