How Critical Should A Wine Critic Be?
In my post last week about pinot noir and alcohol levels, I mentioned John Gilman’s biting review of the 2010 Château Pavie. While most critics awarded the wine high marks, Gilman called it “the biggest train wreck of the vintage” and gave it a score of 47-52+? points. Predictably, his harsh words and hilariously low rating, published in his newsletter View From the Cellar, touched off a rancorous debate. Some people lauded the 2010 Pavie and accused Gilman of poor judgment. Others suggested that the broadside against Pavie was just an attention-getting stunt. But Gilman also found plenty of defenders, who praised him for his candor. I would just like to know how he decided on a score of 47-52+?. How did he come up with those particular numbers? And what’s with the plus sign and the question mark at the end—does it mean that the wine might eventually be upgraded to 53 points?
This latest kerfuffle over Pavie (and has there ever been a more polarizing wine?) raises an interesting question: How far should critics go in trashing wines they don’t like? Taste is subjective, and we know that it is at least partly rooted in physiological factors. So many of these debates over individual wines amount to people talking past each other, and it’s clear that they are doing so because they are not really tasting the same things, even though they are drinking the exact same wines. Pavie is the perfect illustration of this. It is made in a flamboyant style, and while some people enjoy all that ripeness, extraction, and oak, others find it vile. People perceive these attributes differently, and thus react differently to the wine. So what’s a critic to do?
One option is the artful dodge, and we see a lot of that these days. Rather than slam a wine, a critic will give it a respectable score and write a tasting note that essentially says, “A well-made wine in a style that I don’t enjoy but that others might.” If the objective is to steer clear of controversy and avoid possibly alienating readers (or winemakers), this approach obviously makes sense. But it also emits a distinct whiff of pusillanimity: Critics are supposed to tell us what they think, damn the consequences. Someone once quipped that critics are like eunuchs at an orgy; you might say that a critic who softens or masks his own opinions so as to not cause offense has castrated himself.
Gilman clearly didn’t soften or mask his feelings about the 2010 Pavie. However, the score he gave the wine suggests that it is so egregiously bad that it shouldn’t even be put on the market and that anyone who finds pleasure in it ought to immediately seek a palate transplant, and I think this is what caused so much indignation. It seems to me that Gilman’s rating conveyed an unmistakable message: there can be no honest difference of opinion over the 2010 Pavie; it is swill, and if you like it, your judgment is as flawed as the wine. Is that a fair reading of his score? Did he go too far, or was he doing what a critic should do?
For what it’s worth, I have a different approach—a third way, if you will. I think it is silly to give a good rating to a wine that I abhor simply because it is “well-made” and someone else might like it. Although I haven’t tried the 2010, I’m not a fan of what Gérard Perse and Michel Rolland have done with Pavie; in fact, I can’t stand any of those New Wave Saint-Emilions and have made my views very clear. On the other hand, I don’t see much use in handing out failing or near-failing grades. Sure, slapping a D or an F on a wine might have some shock or entertainment value, but I am not interested in evaluating degrees of badness, and I think a gentleman’s C more than gets the point across.
If there is a whole category of wines that I detest, such as those modernist Saint-Emilions, I see no reason to even bother with individual reviews and scores. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy writing caustic tasting notes as much as the next guy (although maybe not as much as Gilman!), but how many different ways can you say “ugh”? I think a paragraph explaining what I dislike about those wines is more than adequate. Taste is personal, and while I don’t sugarcoat my reviews, I also don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to convince people who enjoy Pavie that they are abusing their palates. I’d rather spill words pointing them to wines that I think are better. In my experience, people welcome recommendations; they don’t particularly appreciate being told that their taste in wine stinks.
I’m curious to hear what you think. If a critic doesn’t like a wine, how scathing should he or she be? Should critics seek to strike a balance between candor and tact, recognizing that wine appreciation is subjective, or should they just unload? Scalpel or machete—you tell me.