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Yet another reason to ignore the critics

Early this morning as I engaged in my daily routine of deleting junk emails, I read a tweet forwarded by a friend: @MarcusWohlsen: Correct me if I’m wrong, but real news here is this guy was making $300k/year to review wine? (A couple respected wine journalists also got in on the Twitter action.) In case you hadn't heard, the banter involves The Wine Advocate, arguably the world's most important critical authority on fermented grape juice, suing its former star critic Antonio Galloni. Before I get to the why-we-shouldn't-give-a-sewer-rat's-hind-quarters-about-this-whole-thing argument, please allow me a moment to argue that yes, $300,000 is a perfectly appropriate compensation for a wine critic.

Let's say that Galloni assesses, on average, 5,000 wines per year across Italy and California, his main beats. Even though he spits, he still ingests 5ml per bottle. And between lunches and dinners with friends, family, winemakers, importers and distributors, let’s say he drinks 500 bottles per year, an average of 1.3 bottles per day. (I've worked at both a wine magazine and two business magazines, and this estimate is conservative considering that media professionals are capable of three things: working, drinking and multitasking.) A little sticky-note math tells me that Galloni drinks, on his own, about 44 cases of wine each year (cue George Thorogood music). A quick Google search tells me that the rough cost of a liver transplant is $267,000, and should we throw in another few hundred thousand greenbacks in associated costs for treating gout, high blood pressure, anemia, cancer, a generally weakened immune system and other afflictions associated with excessive alcohol consumption, a $300,000 annual salary seems perfectly fair. Incidentally, we’re not too far off the average salary for an NFL lineman ($500,000), who has an average life expectancy of 52 given that he, too, earns his living taking direct hits to his vital organs.

But let’s get back to the reason why we shouldn't care when competing wine critics engage in public spats such as the Advocate’s with Galloni. The truth of the matter is, at a certain point we shouldn't pay attention to wine critics at all. (I’m not talking about wine journalists, of which there are many skilled at storytelling, and thus make the bulk of their living reporting helpful information, not sipping and assessing in a vacuum.) I’d even go so far as to argue than wine critics need relegating to the same arena as the talking heads on Sunday morning television engaging in banter on the deficit, gay marriage, assault weapons, voter ID laws, etc. I’m not saying anything particularly original when I point out that today’s 24-hour, crack-addicted-lab-monkey media cycle has helped make it abundantly clear that politicians’ words aren’t crafted to advocate an honest belief or dedicated point of view, but to state whatever’s necessary in order to maintain power and, by extension, wealth. A wine critic is no different in that he or she is keenly aware that aforementioned lab monkey could be trained very easily to do the same job in a short amount of time, and for far less than $300,000 per year. So it’s important to say and do whatever’s necessary to have people believing otherwise.

Too harsh an assessment of the profession? Not necessarily, given that a wine critic delivers exactly what its loyal audience wants to hear – just like the viewers of, say, Fox News or MSNBC. This is why a critic cannot possibly taste in a completely unbiased, blind manner, and therefore assigns high scores to the types of wines that you’d already expect to earn high scores. (Wine Spectator’s system comes closest to fairness, yet still falls short since tastings are always conducted in context, meaning the First Growths are tasted together, the Grand Crus tasted together, the prestige Napa Cabs tasted together, etc. In other words, price is unknown, but the price spectrum and prestige of a particular lineup is obvious, and the scores are therefore consistently high, plus or minus some outliers.) If a person can be trained to keep up the scoring status quo, just as a politician can be trained to spew rhetoric that rallies the base enough to win an election, it’s fair to say that a monkey could do either job with a similar measure of consistency.

Unfortunately, critics aren’t to blame for this. Consumers are for buying in. (Not to get all dorky here, but one of my favorite quotes from Game of Thrones is, “Power is an illusion. It resides where men believe it resides.”) Let’s consider the way that wine marketing typically works. If a buyer in a store likes a wine and adds it to the shelf, only to find that Galloni gave it 88 points and Wine Spectator bestowed an 87, the hunt begins for someone else to bless it with a rating of 90 or above. The options are plentiful: Pinot Report, Rhone Report, Wine Enthusiast, Burghound, Wine & Spirits, Connoisseurs’ Guide, James Suckling, Decanter, James Halliday, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, The Wine News, Tasting Panel, and more than a few others I can’t be bothered to think of at the moment. Sometimes the retailer himself will put a 90-point rating on the wine. In other words, if the 90-point score isn’t available from one critic, it’s most assuredly available from another. If it’s so easy to find someone, anyone willing to give a high score, it’s safe to conclude that all the scores have essentially no value. (It’s worth reading Lettie Teague’s recent WSJ article on wine ratings, for more on this.)

So who are the people who desperately need a 90-point rating from anyone claiming some measure of authority before a purchase can be made?

Idiots, for one – the same sort of people who treat information delivered by Fox News or MSNBC as gospel. But I’d hazard a guess that these types of people are in the minority. The rest are simply inexperienced wine drinkers who will eventually find their own way and learn to leave the critics behind. In fact, at Lot18 when we meet our customers face to face, they nearly always say to us, “Don’t tell me what the critics like...tell me what you like, and why. Your opinions and thoughts are more important than a score.” (It’s a regular discussion in our offices as to whether we should use scores on our site at all, as many wines with high scores don’t perform as expected, and some wines with no scores whatsoever are favorites among customers, vintage to vintage.)

In other words, find a friend, a wine-shop clerk, a tasting group, a bartender or a wine club that helps you form your opinions and understand your own tastes. Once you merely start in that direction, you’ll understand that what critics are truly saying in their scores, in their notes and to each other is just noise intended to help serve a selfish purpose – one that has nothing to do with guiding you toward good-tasting wines, no matter how much money the critic is compensated to do so.