Many mainstream wine writers would have you believe that credibility and the ability to analyze a wine is a tenured position at Wine Critic University, available only after having earned a PhD in the Vinous Arts, an honor bestowed after a long career of analyzing and contemplating wine in all of its historical majesty.

Don’t believe them.

Matt Kramer, a writer that I deeply respect, has a column in the October 15th issue of Wine Spectator where he reiterates as much.

His fundamental premise is that wine appreciation is so deeply rooted in knowledge as to be rendered impotent in the hands of the less learned and therefore should be left to the experts, or at least people who have demonstrated sufficient credibility.

In his column he notes:

Many tasters—most, even – are adept at dissecting a What's a Monographwine.  It’s good, it’s bad, it’s humdrum.  This is the “flat earth” approach.  You go only as far as the wine takes you and declare that you have reached the limit of the knowable world.  There is no dot-connecting involved.

In our day, where every man and woman can be—and often is—his or her own publisher (courtesy of blogs and the like), it’s interesting how much “flat earth” wine judgment is offered.  But how are we to assess the validity and worth of the assessment?  Is it enough that the person went to a big tasting?  Or once samples a vertical of the wine?

The challenge today for those who wish to acquire credibility is to demonstrate a foundation of knowledge knowledge.  You say this is a good Auxey-Duresses?  Fine.  Show us your stuff.  Have you published a nice little monograph on the subject, having visited the zone, talked to producers, tasted multiple examples from multiple vintages?

Getting the monograph published, which was once almost impossible, is today the easiest thing in the world.  Yet how often do we see it, especially from the very folks who so often bully others in wine chat rooms with their gunslinger wine tasting notes?

It’s an Ivory Tower way of thinking despite his eloquence in saying so.    And, really, what is a monograph?   As I have learned, a monograph is an academic term for a detailed review of a substantial subject at a level more advanced than a textbook.

Ahem, I mentioned Kramer’s Ivory Tower approach, right?

Can it really be that, in order to demonstrate sufficient depth of expertise on a subject, the answer to Kramer’s rhetorical question is for an online wine reviewer to write a book?  Actually, scratch the book part, a monograph, more advanced than a textbook?

I beg your pardon?

The reality is that the suggestion of a monograph is merely a smoke screen – and a protectionist smoke screen at that.  Mainstream wine writers, not just Kramer, are hiding behind the canard of credibility (and monographs) as a means to question the credibility of others, while rather conveniently serving their own interests.

While I can’t blame them –I might do the same if my tenuous hold on wine writing as a career included competition from amateurs writing for the love of it instead of a paycheck, but I can’t help but want to find middle-ground amongst these ill-considered far right viewpoints.  Save for Cuba and Venezuela, absolutists very rarely win.

Thankfully, it turns out the middle-ground isn’t too far away.

Last week, Palate Press contributor Arthur Przebinda wrote a nicely considered piece that discusses exactly this topic.

In his post titled, “It’s Not about You – Lessons for Wine Critics,” Przebinda deconstructs why the view that a critics palate (and knowledge) as a guide for wine evaluation is flawed.  He suggests, instead, that critics should rely on objectivity instead of subjectivity (their palate and their knowledge).

The point that Arthur glances at is the use of wine assessment tools as a means for technical wine evaluation instead of an individual palate and a scoring system.  These technical scoring systems are readily available, yet very few people use them consistently (virtually no wine critics use them) as a matter of practice.

But, they should.  And others outside of wine criticism at-large continue to evolve the concept of what technical sensory evaluation means and how it can be useful.

As excerpted from Wine Business Monthly, November 2005, issue:

Taking the history, analysis and use of existing wine rating systems into account, a new scorecard was created by the Napa Valley College class. Because a rating system has to accommodate a multiplicity of functions, the NVC Scorecard is designed to allow the user to wear two hats: The wine can be objectively and thoroughly analyzed as is done under laboratory conditions, but the rating sheet also allows for findings that can advise the wine buyer and fulfill the historical role of the wine merchant. For example, the wine style, character and recommended aging windows can be noted as well as how the buyer might locate the wine and what it costs.

The fact is, when wine assessment tools like the Napa Valley College 25-point scorecard are used it takes the evaluation of wine out of the realm subjectivity and into the realm of objectivity – a place where we can all get along.

Coming back to Kramer’s fundamental premise – that credibility is earned as knowledge is demonstrated, I respond:  in the realm of the subjective, which all wine is, the best and most reasoned answer to resolve the major wine writer’s concern about online wine reviewers is to move wine evaluation, all wine evaluation, into as objective territory as possible using available methods for technical evaluation.  In doing so, we might just find common ground, lifting wine sensibly up to more people interested in the grape and getting along in the process.

18 Responses

  1. Steve

    OK, the first article I read on this website is a bunch of nonsense about shelf talkers being some sort of overbearing fraud, a bunch of nonsense, and now in the second article I read Matt Kramer being castigated by taking one comment and essentially distorting it to make a pointless point. What is the point?

    Matt Kramer simply said that, for one to be a serious critic, one must be able to do more than describe the wine. I am sure there is a word to describe his use of the word “monograph” as a literary device, although I don’t know what it is. But the point is that, he used this word, not to say one has to write a monograph to be a serious wine critic, but one needs to be able to offer more than just sensory information. I certainly want this from someone if I am going to look to them for guidance and information. Scores are just numbers.

    Wine is about the senses. But it is also about the earth, the place, the culture, the people and the history. Give me Matt Kramer any day. I am fortunate enough to live in Portland, Oregon, where Matt is a native and his reviews in the local newspaper provide this context, not merely some “objective” rating scale, based upon his knowledge and appreciation of all of the nuances that make wine an experience that transcends the sum of its “objective” sensory parts. Go ahead and rate that rose on your objective scale, I will remember sitting drinking it at a cafe in Provence.

  2. Tom Mansell

    Love your argument about objective tasting, couldn’t agree more. Usually I really dig what Kramer has to say, but at first when I read this column I was a little mad, too. I think there is some truth to his argument, though, that while an individual wine can be evaluated on its own merit by pretty much anybody, putting that wine into *context* with other wines is the sticky wicket. It follows that the more wines you’ve had, the more you can compare and individual wine therewith and evaluate it in context.

    Nobody has had every wine in the world, so everyone has varying levels of context. I think it’s silly to draw a line for where one is justified for contextualizing, but I agree that many wine people jump to conclusions rather hastily. How many people have said “This is a great example of ____” not because they have had hundreds of _____s, but because they have read that _____s typically have certain characteristics?

    What he does ignore is the ability of readers to read what anyone has to say and critically evaluate the source for themselves. Do people who read blogs think that every blogger is an expert? Of course not. You evaluate the writer’s opinion based on what you know about him or her and his or her palate and experience.

  3. Jeff

    At the end of the day, this is all a bunch of bullshit. It doesn’t matter at all whether or not you’ve had 73 vintages of ___________ all back to back and know the proprietor of the estate personally. Wine is good if you think it’s good. Maybe my opinion is different than yours, but that’s what it really boils down to. Laube or any critic can say a lot of stuff about a wine, and create a nice little “monograph,” but we can both come to the same conclusion, even if they have a different context than the average drinker. Just because someone is an expert doesn’t make their opinion superior.

  4. GianniWine

    Expressing a wine value is only as good as the persons perception of the critics description..paint a better picture if you will..just make sure I understand what it is I’m looking at..

  5. Tish

    Great coments here — a fruitful reminder that the best online articles start converations. Steve, I think you’re overthinking one of Jeff’s points, namely that it’s not Matt Kramer’s expertise that is in question, it’s his attitude about expertise/authority, in particular as it relates to bloggers. Nobody but nobody here — least of all Jeff — is questioning Matt Karmer’s contribution to the canon of wine writing. It’s MK’ implying that monographs are knowledge that is not cutting it.

    To that effect, I would add that bloggers who are real-world-expierinced may be even more qualified to give out guidance than Matt Kramer, as their experience with wine(s) may be more in line with the readers who turn to the Web for information.

  6. Mark

    @ Tish – Great insightful comment about bloggers having a real world experience that readers who turn to the web for information can relate to. Couldn’t agree more!

  7. Ashlynkat

    I think Tom really nailed an important point. [i]”What he does ignore is the ability of readers to read what anyone has to say and critically evaluate the source for themselves. Do people who read blogs think that every blogger is an expert? Of course not. You evaluate the writer’s opinion based on what you know about him or her and his or her palate and experience”[/i]

    The cream will always rise to the crop and readers will gravitate to the wine writer who speaks most vividly and…well credibly to them. Just as with wine drinking itself, readership can a very personal and subjective taste. Ideas and opinions are the original free market enterprise and there is room for everyone to chime in.

  8. Mac McCarthy

    So many problems with evaluating and recommending wines to the general public:

    -Individual variations in how people taste thing; I suspect this could be a bigger problem than we realize.

    -Individual variations in which flavor components people like and how much. This is the biggest problem. I like big jammy reds; my taste buds are shot so I can tolerate high alcohol levels; I like offdry wines. Others hate jammy/dense/concentrated reds, some dislike sweet, some are overwhelmed by alcohol. Writing about a wine in a way that talks to each of these *as if their tastes matter* is tough — when I’m giving a thumbs ‘way up to a Rosenblum Monte Rosso Zin, I’m not helping those who can’t stand a wine that big. But do you end up writing “for those who prefer *this* style, you’ll like this wine” babble?

    -Evolving palate of readers: Beginning wine drinkers appreciate different flavor profiles as they drink more wine and get used to different kinds of wines. Do we try something like, “This isn’t a wine for beginners, but for sophisticated palates” in our writeups? And as people age, their palates change, regardless of how much wine they’ve been drinking.

    -Sophistication of palates varies a lot, of course: Some people drink a lot of wine, but they don’t reach out and try different kinds, they just drink Cab all the time, and from the same narrow list of producers, so they aren’t learning anything. Some drink a variety of wines, but don’t learn anything about what they are drinking, what tastes and sensations they are experiencing, don’t try to think about what they are drinking and what it means. That portion of your audience won’t read your review the same as the hobbyists who study it for fun (or a living) – they’ll read your elaborate reviews as farcical jargon-fests. Go to the other extreme and wine hobbyists learn nothing from you.

    Wine shops know more about the audience than anybody, because they watch the wines fly out the door. Some of them might have ideas about what various groups of drinkers have in common, and what they want to know and learn.

    -Finally, of course, your job as a wine writer varies considerably depending on the audience you write for: sophisticated wine drinkers or wanna-be’s; daily newspapers read by casual drinkers; web-reading wine hobbyists who want to learn stuff but don’t know the jargon –and don’t want to, especially the “notes of white tobacco” nonsensical tasting notes jargon.

    Ain’t easy.
    -mac mccarthy

  9. David Honig

    I saw that “white tobacco” review and thought “oh come on, that doesn’t mean anything to anybody.” “White tobacco”? Really?

  10. Steve

    Tish – I thought about your comment that I was “overthinking” my post, re-read the article, my post, and your comments, especially in light of your comment that the article is focusing on blogs and wine tasting notes and reviews. I beg to differ. Let me explain.

    I expect that most of the people posting here subscribe to many wine blogs, as I do. Maybe I am different. But I tend not to judge the quality of the blog and review on the sensory description of the wine, as the article suggests we should do. Given the variety of factors that might lead me to a different conclusion about the wine than the blogger, I don’t pay much attention to the blog that offers this and nothing more. I may have no idea regarding the blogger’s palate, experience or preferences. This little bit of information doesn’t offer me anything to tell me about the pedigree of the vineyard or winemaker that might shed light on the wine and put the blogger’s notes in perspective. And it certainly doesn’t give me anything to place that wine in context so that, when I go to a shop or see it online, I can recall the information and recall why the name is familiar.

    I think a good example of the contrast I am trying to draw is provided by looking up wines on If a wine has been reviewed multiple times, unless the wine is a true knockout, you will often see scores all over the places, probably more so for a more obscure wine, perhaps with unusual varietals or something else that makes the wine less accessible to the casual wine drinker. I find the notes not particularly helpful because they are all over the place and there is nothing to distinguish one review from another and no information to place any review in a context.

    What struck me about this article, much like the early article on this site about shelf talkers, is that the article offered a bunch of puff and nothing of substance. Instead of reading an article knocking Matt Kramer’s suggestion about writing a monograph, I would have rather read a monograph, as I would have gotten something worthwhile out of it. Maybe I should have just picked up Johnson/Robinson’s Wine Atlas and actually learned something. But I hoped this site would offer something worth reading. I think this fits within the criticism I’ve seen elsewhere about blogger’s blogging about the value of blogging about wine. Self-absorbed nonsense, not serious writing.

  11. Tish

    Steve: There are obvious limits on how much information and opinion can be packed into one post. I thought Jeff’s piece did a good job of raising some focused points about wine writing in general and Matt Kramer’s attitude toward bloggers in particular. While you may have preferred a piece more tilted toward wine per se, at least you felt moved enough by this piece to comment. We appreciate that and respect your opinion.

    Bear in mind that the title of this “page” is Soap Box; it is desigend for commentary and opinion. I trust we’ll be able to provide you with plenty of more in-depth wine talk on the other pages, moving forward. No doubt there are plenty of places to read content about wine these days. We plan to be one of the more important ones, though we will never pretend to be all things to all wine lovers. We hope you keep us in your mix of sites to keep visiting.

  12. The Wine Mule

    I think two things are being confused here. Yes, every individual’s palate is the ultimate arbiter of a wine. But the business of tasting wine and describing it for a living is something else entirely. Now you go ahead and crucify Kramer for using a big word that you had to look up (which makes him an elitist snob, of course), but he’s right. Tanzer and Robinson and Parker and Michael Broadbent are who they are because they’ve been at it a long time and they know what they’re talking about. I post tasting notes on my blog. I am not an amateur: I get paid to taste. Whether I’m any good at it is for you to decide. But I am never, ever, going to equate my abilities with people who are very clearly my betters. Personal preferences are one thing; applying a lifetime of knowledge to the exceptionally difficult business of putting sensory evaluations into words is something else.

  13. Arthur

    I think the distinction needs to be made here that one can drink large quantities of wine and still not *know* jack about wine.

    *Knowing * wine is a result of study: of the technical, historical and sensory aspects of wine. That requires thinking, asking questions and digging deeper.

    Drinking or tasting are just drinking and tasting.

    A valet at a restaurant *drives* a lot of different cars but I would not turn to them for purchasing advice based on that experience alone.

  14. Tom Wark

    “The reality is that the suggestion of a monograph is merely a smoke screen – and a protectionist smoke screen at that. Mainstream wine writers, not just Kramer, are hiding behind the canard of credibility (and monographs) as a means to question the credibility of others, while rather conveniently serving their own interests.”

    This isn’t true. When Matt Kramer suggests that a monograph or other evidence of knowledge of a subject be one criteria for demonstrating credibility, he’s suggesting that wine reviewers have knowledge of their subject matter. The fact of the matter is this: Matt’s reviews are more credible than the vast majority of other drinkers for simple reason: He has a vast amount more knowledge and experience than other wine drinkers.

    As for taking an objective view of a wine, it’s just not humanly possible for the simple reason that every human being has different DNA. However, you can, despite the physiological differences between human beings (such as the degree of acidity one possesses in their saliva), determine if the Keefer Ranch Pinot you are reviewing is typical of Keefer Ranch fruit. But to do that you need knowledge of Keefer Ranch, other Keefer Ranch Pinots, the typical flavor profile of Pinot noir, etc.

    The person who possesses this kind of knowledge will deliver a more useful review.

    Finally, the accusation that Matt Kramer would write about what prerequisites one ought to possess in order to be a useful reviewer is a topic that need not serve his own interests or demean others. If you think that’s the reason then I would suggest there is chip on a shoulder. And bloggers do tend to have chips on their shoulders where their utility and competency is concerned.

  15. cellarette

    What this discussion misses is the role of formal schooling in wine. The point of the systematic tasting system of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, is to help students determine the quality of a wine. (Full disclosure, I hold a diploma from the WSET.) This presumes a definition of quality that the WSET has determined after years of experience.
    The classes include viticulture and vinification, sparkling, spirits, fortified wines and require papers on the business of wine. What’s more, in addition to tasting notes, exams require essays.
    Objective? The word never came up. What we were always looking for was balance, among tannin, acid, flavor intensity and fruit. Obscure flavor/aroma references were never the goal. Neither were reviews.