Sunday, December 23, 2007

Marketers, Critics or Ombudsmen?

During a morning read of the latest tastings and recommendations from the several wine critics I follow I had an epiphany!
I've been under the impression wine critics are the equivalent of other 'critics', just in a different venue, wine instead of theatre, arts, politics, etc. Movie critics have often praised, panned, slashed and burned movies describing faults, the story line and the acting and cinematographic merits. They take no prisoners in their review of moviedoms releases. Crud is crud, gold is gold in their view and they're not hesitant to print it. Similarly, art critics can be highly caustic or complimentary of an artist's passion. Political analysts or parliament watchers report with the only caution they don't cross the line called libel in their presentation of political shenanigans.
The movie, theatre, art and political critics all have one thing in common. They're working for you the reader. They don't represent MGM, Sony, Mirvish Productions, the ROM or AGO, Liberals, PCs, etc. but offer their trained observations so you have considerably more on which to base your own opinion. Whether you agree or not you now have more things to think about.
My epiphany was to suddenly realize wine critics are very much different - at least in some cases or on occasion, perhaps on all occasions. Until it becomes apparent in their words they should be looked at as an extension of the wine industry's Marketing organization. Maybe they are paid by someone else but they are essentially selling product under the assumption of impartiality. Notice how often I've said 'some' or 'on some occasions' and 'some more often than not' because how would anyone know for sure? There is no written 'code of conduct' that I know of - except...
In the US Robert Parker Jr. claims he spends three months of the year tasting in vineyards and nine months tasting sometimes seven days a week and putting his observations in writing. His website lists the conditions for his tasting of wines which, I believe would ensure consistency and independence as a critic. Hopefully I can summarize the salient points of the conditions he claims his Company works under:
  • When possible tastings are of the same type of wines and the producer's names are not known (blind and peer)
  • Neither price nor producer's reputation is a factor
  • He does not take part in wine judgings or trade tastings
  • Tastings are from an entire bottle in appropriate tasting glasses and at the proper wine temperature
  • He determines the amount of time needed for the number of wines to be tasted
  • Wines may be tasted several times with the rating reflecting the overall results
  • He prefers to underestimate than overestimate a wine
  • His rating system, 50 - 100 point scale, is intended to enhance and complement his tasting notes
If these conditions were not adhered to the results could easily be influenced by the winery owner, the distributor, the retailer, ie. those marketing the wine. Robert Parker's conditions puts a buffer between these influences and his clients. And if you subscribe to his tasting results, through his website or a subscription to The Wine Advocate, you should benefit from this impartiality.
I don't claim to certify that these conditions are being followed on all or any occasion but, to me, they have a ring of legitimacy. What I would say is his assessment and reporting on hundreds of wines in many countries has resulted in a very successful business and a worldwide reputation. To a large degree this authenticates the process.
There must be some in Canada having basically a similar ethic. Do you know who they are?
Having followed magazine articles, newpaper columns, wine medal results, etc. I cannot recall when a Canadian wine critic has documented anywhere similar conditions for tastings imposed by himself or the panel on which he/she has sat. As I say, I've had an epiphany. I no longer have the same confidence in published tastings that I've had in the past. Perhaps some day there will be a Wine Critics Guild with a documented 'Conditions for Tasting' and I could be more confident in what is published. (Imagine! A tasters column having WCG after the critic's name to signify his oath of independence.) Until then I have to start with the assumption that local wine critics are Marketers.
I have some 'what ifs' :
  • What if Ontario critics insisted on certain groundrules for their tastings (as above)? Better still... what if NO reviewer showed up at LCBO tastings without these conditions being met?
  • What if, each or collectively, reviewers listed the wines they wanted to taste.... would the LCBO make them available or not?
  • What if critics reviewed more of the plonk sitting unsuspectingly on LCBO shelves? If there were a column, say monthly, of 10 wines with ratings in the 70s readers would know how to avoid bad to mediocre wines whether local or imported. I believe gradually these labels would disappear. The local wine industry would see fewer labels competing with their lower priced brands and the Industry as a whole would be healthier.
  • What if there were a regular list of US (NY State?) versus Ontario wine prices. Recently there was a huge outcry over books, greeting cards and cars, however pricing of liquor products has been inflated so long we accept being gouged. Wine is a drink for family and friends, not just the rich and famous.
With an increasing focus on profit the LCBO isn't doing a good enough job of policing its shelves. Customers need an ombudsman to ensure it's honouring its monopoly status. Wouldn't it be great if Ontario reviewers became our ombudsmen?
My opinion, Ww

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