In praise of wine wankers

Wednesday, 18. November 2015 - 15:00

Wine writer at work

In many areas of criticism, there are reviewers famous for their slashing reviews. There’s the Guardian’s Jay Rayner, who makes a habit of mocking pretentious restaurants, or Terry Eagleton, whose literary smackdowns can go viral on Twitter.

In wine, however, it’s the critics who get skewered.

Everywhere they turn, there’s somebody complaining about their writing. If it’s not people questioning the whole business of wine criticism, it’s other people begging them not to use flowery language, in case they alienate consumers.

The latest salvo comes from marketing experts Dr Maxwell Winchester and Dr Damien Wilson. Their recent article argues that consumers are probably alienated by the language (‘wine wanking’) used by wine writers. Further, the way the wine industry keeps talking about the premium end of the market is just a waste of a potential communication opportunity, because most wine drinkers just want easydrinking, simple-to-understand wines.

Then there’s Chris Losh’s recent piece, arguing that classic tasting notes – mentioning acidity, tannins and so on – use too much consumer-unfriendly language. Losh suggests that, as tasting notes are “essentially selling tools”, they should instead emphasise emotion.

I disagree.

Not that I’m against emotion or imagination, or in favour of fruit-salad tasting notes. (Speaking of which: To see truly flamboyant tasting notes, check out some of those written by actual consumers on Vivino.)

What I disagree with is the idea that wine writing is a sales tool, or a kind of magic trick to lure simple-headed and easily frightened consumers into wine.

This isn’t what criticism, in its best sense, is about. What makes the great critics – Clive James, Michiko Kakutani, Michael Billington – revered isn’t just their ability to spot something good, but the way they illuminate their respective worlds of television, literature and theatre, and take the conversation to new places.

In the arts, debate and disagreement are seen as good things. In wine?  I’ve lost count of the articles calling wine criticism into question, because one critic gives 88 points to a wine, while another gives it 92 points. Apparently if critics don’t hand out the same number, wine criticism is a bust.

What drives some of this criticism of wine writers, I think, are two things.

First, wine people are terrified of being called wine snobs. That’s why, every five years or so, new writers and retailers make a splash by vowing to ‘take the pretension’ out of wine; drinking will be henceforth be described as ‘slurping’ and wine as ‘juice’, so everyone can see there's nothing scary about wine. Which, ironically, draws attention to the snob issue and thereby reinforces the idea that to be discriminating about wine is to be pretentious.

The second thing that keeps the wine trade up at night is the worry that the Big Secret will get out – that wine is difficult.

As much as the wine trade wants to present wine as simple and approachable, the reality is that it’s complex. No amount of high-octane, emotional prose will disguise the fact that – once you get beyond the brand and varietal level – understanding wine takes work.

Then again, everything worthwhile – cooking, literature, football – takes effort.

That’s only a problem if you believe that readers are scaredy-cats who are easily frightened off by unfamiliar words. In reality, anyone willing to read a wine column or blog probably wants insight beyond “Very slurpable! Get it into you!”

What if they just want big brand wine? No problem! Big brands employ copywriters to write simple, attractive copy on shelf talkers and back labels. They’re masters of the consumer message, just as supermarkets have done a fantastic job of making wine easier for people who simply want something nice to drink. The role of the wine writer is to add depth and context.

Wine critics aren’t perfect. Jancis Robinson MW enumerated problems such as score inflation, when she tackled the topic recently. There’s always room for improvement. But asking professional critics to write like salespeople is asking them to abandon the expertise that makes them worth listening to in the first place.

As the publishing industry shrinks, critics of all stripes are under siege. Wine columns are downsizing. Book reviews are disappearing. The great film and theatre experts are not being replaced.

This is an immense cultural loss that the amateur reviewers of Goodreads and Vivino can’t make up for; even well-informed enthusiasm will never replace the in-depth expertise that comes from years of professional immersion in a subject.

In the end, if a wine writer has held on to a column or readership because of their ability and knowledge, shouldn’t they use those things? Particularly if readers are turning to them specifically because they trust them?

And if that’s wine wanking?

Let’s have it.

Felicity Carter