Thursday, September 27, 2012

Critic Criticism

Aren’t you tired of it yet? I sure the fuck am. Tired of reading blogs or online articles the comment section stuffed to near bursting with bashing, blaming, outrage, implications of impropriety and hearing the envy rich whines of people who are likely licking their chops just waiting to be anointed and plunk their pimply ass upon the still warm throne of the recently ousted “King”. So annoying. Annoying and that, “The consumer has the right to know” costume these asshats are wearing, well you might as well have wrapped yourself in plastic wrap because all your business is showing. 

Look, I’ve gone after Robert Parker before. I have said and will say over and over again, I think his palate is damaged. Wines he gives astronomical scores to often make me gag, literally. To this day I can still remember tasting a wine he gave something like 98 points to and that glopular wine still has the glowing distinction of being one of, no, the worst wine I’ve ever tasted that wasn’t flawed. Fucking thing tasted exactly like one of those cherry cordial things, like exactly. Chocolate, sickly sweet cherry juice, coconut and marzipan…yeah, just felt the, “I think I’m gonna barf” hairs stand up on my neck thinking about it. Vile, truly vile and that was a nearly 100 point wine?! Well I don’t huff Jello pudding cups and I’m not about to shovel dessert into my gullet under the guise of wine drinking refinement. Figured out long ago that Parker’s palate and mine was kinda like that Mars and Venus thing. Two different planets, and seeing as I’m not sleeping with him, well I’m not about to try and find some kind of compromise for the sake of getting along. Would just as likely take wine advice from Mr. Parker as I would the checker at my local Vons that has Tourette Syndrome. Sure he is abusive to the keys of his register, blurts out gibberish, has been known to snort and takes 45 minutes to take a personal check but at least Bob, (his name too by the way….hmmm) has a smidgen of an idea how I eat and never seeing any fucking cherry cordials and a daily purchasing of lemons and leafy green stuff, he probably has a better chance of spastically grabbing something off the shelf and having it match my palate than Parker does. Ah, but there’s the thing….

For years I, somewhat mistakenly, blamed Robert Parker for the placeless wines being cranked out by some of my favorite regions, in France specifically. Ranted and stomped my feet, my throat red and finger extended as I pointed to the indisputably most influential wine critic on the planet and blamed him for wrecking my beloved wines, rendering them “International” and soulless. Now before anyone starts thinking I’ve changed my opinion on that, let me just tell you, I still find many Rhone wines utterly undrinkable for their plump extraction, sweet fruit and excessive oak treatments but um, is that Robert Parker’s fault? Last I checked he was just a dude with a palate and mouth-wide-open readership that was lapping up any and everything he deemed drink worthy. He isn’t making the wines, just lavishing praise upon the wines that speak to him. If a region loses their shit and trashes tradition in favor of pleasing his palate instead of adhering to like a hundred years of tried and true winemaking, well I think we should be giving that finger to someone other than silly Robert Parker. 

I shunned Alsace when they started pushing ripeness, sweetness and began oaking their wines to shit, have done the same with Rhone. Alsace has seen a reckoning in the past few years, funny thing about those lemmings, they aren’t so loyal. Just because they bought cases, on the recommendation of a certain critic, in one vintage, doesn’t mean they will do so again…in fact, without those numbers, they won’t. Kinda hard to sustain yourself when playing to the whims of one palate right? Yeah, so Alsace has once again gone back to making the wines that had them placed on every bistro menu, the light, balanced and not mind-blowing but multiple bottles ordering because they taste so damn good with food. The simple food friendly wines that put them on the wine drinking map in the first place, I can only hope that the great producers in the Rhone will one day do the same. As someone that has had numerous conversations with winemakers in the region, I have a hunch they will. Big, rich and powerful is being done the world over, can those wineries compete on a world stage or might they want to consider embracing what makes them special and different? Keeping my fingers crossed for sure.

In an effort to avoid the internet and any kind of exchange or writing, (been in a pissy and raging mood…probably reading too many wine blogs) I tuned into Top Chef Masters this evening, the finale. Huge Top Chef fan but I confess that the Masters edition isn’t nearly as compelling to me, but tonight I was looking for mindless entertainment so I nuzzled my chunky ass into the corner of my couch, glass of Tempier Bandol Rose in my hand, television slack jaw perfectly set and my day weary frame ready to be numbed. Watched as the final two contestants busted their asses making a meal that would please the surprise panel of judges. It was fierce, dramatic and for a time did what I wanted, spun my head with nonsense but as the plates were being finalized, last minute zesting and flourishes being administered, I saw what is every chef’s and likely winemaker’s worst nightmare happen, a table full of critics. Ack!

Not fellow chefs or frequent diners, critics. These cats were cooking the meal of their life for people that get paid to judge and criticize, critique their food even though most of them have never even worked in a restaurant. Ugh! I was even starting to sweat. A table of 10 or 12 people geared and trained to break what is in front of them apart, find fault with the tiniest of details and in their defense, are paid to do so. The chefs saw who they were cooking for and nearly crapped themselves….cannot say as I blame them. My interest was piqued and my mind was far from that whole numbing business I was hoping for. I was on the edge of my seat as I watched these two, tremendously different chefs prepare dish after dish in a competition that asked them to show who they were, gave them the freedom to use whatever they wished to share their story. One guy a very traditional chef, known for refined food, the other a wild child that pushes people to eat outside the box as it were, a champion of offal and extreme dinning. Found myself torn as I would rather eat the more traditional food, offal makes me queasy and not in that good way, but feeling the passion and unapologetic, “This is what I do” snarl of the far more inked and emotional other guy. 

Plates presented and within seconds I knew what was going to happen, half the room was made weak in the knees by the perfectly prepared traditional food, the other wowed and swooning for the racy, raw and more rustic offerings. Watched as one critic said, “It was embarrassingly bad” only to have another say, “That was the most thrilling thing I’ve eaten in 30 years” my face all scrunched as I thought, “Well…who’s right?” the answer the same as it has been in all my years in the wine business, dealing with critics and customers, the answer is, you are. If it gets you off, then it is the best, period. Doesn’t matter if it’s the story that grabs you, the flavors, a pairing or just a general style and if you can find a critic that seems to be lit up by the same things that you are, by all means, follow them.

I’m no critic. I am charged with tasting wines, far more than I want most days, and while I always buy with an eye for our customers there are things that scream out to me, shake me, thrill me and I’d be a fat, slack jawed liar if I didn’t concede that I’m able to sell those wines just a little faster. The words in my shelf talker expressing my excitement and those customers that have come to trust or find themselves agreeing with my palate, well they gobble them up. So what kind of hypocrite would I be if I were to sling poo at others doing the same thing? Same is true of the stuff I do here. I don’t take samples because I refuse to feel beholden or obligated to anyone and my standards, they are high. I was lucky enough to skip that whole college wine drinking phase, never perused the local CVS or Trader Joe’s for wine. I was fed at the teat of traditional French winemaking and while I will forever be swooned and swayed by wines the world over, it is those place wines that will always speak to me. They will be the ones that dig their teeth into my flesh, get me fired up and cause my verbiage to bubble over with varicosity. The kind that hopefully and thankfully brings people in seeking them out and knowing exactly what I mean…and they want it too. No different than the cherry cordial Parker fans, just a different palate.  Kinda thinking there is room enough for all of us…

Siskel or Ebert, Heimoff or Galloni, Parker or Dugan, (look at me putting myself with his majesty. My blog dammit) Olken or Kemner, Washam or Fiering, just follow your heart and palate, stop with the political rhetoric and criticizing of the critics. Find out who moves you, inspires your thirst and drink richly from them. 

Now pardon me as I slip even further into this bottle of Tempier Rose…


Opus T. Penguin said...

After reading that post, now I really need a drink.

Samantha Dugan said...

Makes sense, I had a few, (cough-like five) while "writing" it. Too bad you're a cartoon otherwise I would encourage you to get you one.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I read wine critics now for the sheer entertainment and comedy of it all. It's simple human nature to rank, rate and list things. We do that to anything that matters to us. I see it as a way of reflecting the critic, not the wine.

So many folks out there rating wines, paid critics and poor bloggers, and yet fewer than eight have any real impact. You sell more wine in a week than all but those imaginary eight sell combined in ten years. I'm sure you know that.

But it's great fun for me to bash wine critics, though I don't want to put my pimply ass on Parker's old throne. Not sure he remembers to lift the seat. You are right that he is not responsible for the Parkerization of wine. Greed is responsible for that. If Alice ruled the world, imagine what crap would be out there now.

And there's nothing better than waking up to you writing full speed ahead. Terrific.

I Love You!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

I dig it when you do it, and because you do it for the right reasons, to laugh and makes others do so as well. It's the people that get so wound up and irate, act as if they know what they're talking about and seem to hack away at critics for sport. Just tired of that bullshit. I was reading a thread over on Dr Vino and the comments there just kind of triggered this mini rant. Well that and seeing as I haven't wanted to write anything lately I thought I would get sauced up and let it fly....kind of like a penguin as it turns out.

Thomas said...

But, but, Sam, haven't you just whined about the whiners?

Samantha Dugan said...

Dammit Thomas, why you gotta go make sense and junk?!

Thomas said...

Sense and junk? Me?

I'm just an ordinary guy who hates aesthetic criticism, and who whines about it at every chance...

Samantha Dugan said...

And I'm just a girl that adores you for it.

Marcia Macomber said...

Back to the Algonquin room, loves! (Love the rant on rants!) Must agree with Thomas: Some of the comments that get going elsewhere make me want to...well, in the old days it would have been 'turn the page.' Now it is 'change the URL.'

Keep doin' it your way! We like it that way.

Charlie Olken said...

There is an interesting question underlying your comments, Sam.

If someone disagrees with you and likes ripe and rich wines, does that make them a lover of cherry cordials?

I think you are on the right track with your final comments about "Who's right? You are."

I recently spent a week in Santa Barbara County meeting with as many winemakers as would make time for me. The war of taste is not confined to critics or retailers. Talk about two different planets. These folks can barely talk to each other and openly disdain the efforts of others. They have no room in the lives for difference. It is my way or the highway.

Wine does not work that way for most writers. That is why I can praise the work of and collect Corison and Ridge Cabs while still loving Chappellet, Staglin and Shafer.

It's OK if one does not share my broader view, but it is not OK to put it down because it does not comport to that of the writer in the local rag.

And, for the record, I don't like cherry cordials or marzipan.

As always, hugs--

Thomas said...


In my view, the fact that winemakers can't agree supports the notion that criticism is off base. If a winemaker sets out to create a certain style of wine, and succeeds at it, then a critic has nothing but his/her own palate to talk about and (now I disagree with Sam and those who say we should calibrate our palates): who cares about someone else's palate? I prefer to do my own research.

To me, if the winemaker has created what he/she set out to create that represents having passed the second test of quality (the first test having to do with flaws). Whether I or anyone likes or dislikes what that winemaker has done is not a matter for criticism, because that is the slippery slope to being an arbiter; it is simply a matter for moving on. If I wasted money on that bottle, I just think about all the bad movies that I wasted money on, or the bad dates...

Samantha Dugan said...


Can't do it any other way!

Sir Charles,

I have to say, I find it down-right distasteful when winemakers go after and shit talk on one another. Show me what you're doing and let me decide how I feel about what your neighbor or the winery down the road is. I have been turned off, big time, by Schramsberg because one of their reps insists on bad mouthing Champagne producers....relentlessly, in an effort to show how great their wines are. Dude, just pour me your stuff and stop with the, "This is why we're better than them" bullshit.

Don't know the answer to the cheery cordial question but anyone that gave that Molly Dooker Blue Eyed Boy 98 points, had to love cordials.....blech.


This is where retail is different, it is my job to care about, remember and buy wines for someone else's palate. It's what sets our store apart from the corporate monsters, personal attention.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Has it ever been any different in the wine business? Perhaps there was a time when winemakers were less eager to criticize others, but it seems to me that most of them have always thought that they made wine the way it's supposed to be, and their neighbors had strange and misguided ideas.

Thomas said...


I am not talking about the retailer; I'm talking about the consumer.

A good retailer, and there doesn't seem to be many of those around, does exactly what you do.


It's in the nature of creative ego to assume that what you do is what is supposed to be done. Ever talk to a chef?

The problem arises when you call everyone else's work shit. That's less about your ego (which isn't necessarily a bad thing to have) and more about your fear that someone else might be better than you (which is a bad thing to be thinking).