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10.27.2008

Is There Any Point to Negative Wine Reviews?

A little less than five years ago when I started this blog, I naively thought that I might try to do something different from all those big wine critics. They were only telling part of the story, I said to myself, but I was going to tell the whole thing. I wasn't going to pull the punches that I felt everyone else was avoiding. I decided I was going to write negative wine reviews -- just what the world needed. Or so I thought.

I think my pioneering attitude lasted about six weeks, after which I was left with a (now) blindingly obvious set of revelations:

1. There was so much mediocre wine out there in the world that lukewarm or negative reviews could easily take up the majority of my writing time.

2. Writing negative reviews is about as fun as completing the writing comprehension section of the SAT.

3. People mostly want to know which wines are great much more than they want to know which wines to avoid.

Since those early days, I've developed a more nuanced point of view on the subject, but I hadn't thought about it recently (nor had to defend that point of view) until I was politely "cornered" at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference and asked to publicly state, and defend, my position.

The question of whether negative wine reviews benefit anyone does not clearly resolve into black and white, which means it's something that was certainly worth talking about, and on reflection, writing about.

As readers will probably recognize, I almost never write negative reviews here on Vinography. The few times I have were situations where I felt like there was an honestly useful, even more specifically educational, value in writing such a review. They are few and far between.

I don't write negative reviews of wines because I don't think that they are particularly meaningful or relevant for another set of reasons in addition to those listed above:

a. Many times, I don't necessarily know that the bottle I happen to be reviewing isn't simply just a bit off -- whether from a fault that I am not detecting or identifying or simply due to bottle variation of some sort or another.

b. A bad review is quite damaging, because it is often read as a condemnation of the winery itself (despite any care or attention put to the contrary by the author) even though the particular wine in question could be part of a portfolio of truly stellar wines.

c. Likewise, bad reviews are often read (and written by irresponsible critics) as being absolute and categorical judgements about a winery, when in fact they are mere evaluations of a specific wine in a specific vintage. That particular wine could have been great the year before, or it could get great the next year. But bad reviews hang around in the minds of consumers like skeletons in the closet, much longer than they should.

d. Bad reviews also hang around in the minds of winemakers and winery owners a lot longer than they should. Like it or not, anyone who seriously attempts to write consistently about wine in a critical fashion has a symbiotic (or as Jancis Robinson would put it, a parasitic) relationship with the wine industry. Bad reviews burn bridges in ways that make it difficult for the writer to ply their craft.

As readers know, when I review an individual wine, I spend a lot of time (and words) in the process. To do so, only to pan a wine, would be a waste of my time and the readers for all the reasons stated above.

There are a couple of slight exceptions to this rule, however, when it comes to my coverage of large categories of wine at major public or trade tastings or my reviews of the entire portfolio of wines by a single producer. In those situations I often (but not always) include the scores of the wines that fall the lowest on my scale. In the case of large public tastings, I am not writing tasting notes or any other kinds of notes about the wines, only offering their scores relative to a much larger group of wines. In the case of a producer, I am including that wine in a group that includes wines I think are excellent as well (otherwise I wouldn't write the review), so I believe there is enough context to mitigate my negative assessment of the wine.

These exceptions lead me to the conclusion, however, that if I was going to attempt in any way to offer a comprehensive set of criticisms about any particular category of wine, that I might indeed write negative reviews. For instance, if I ever happened to be able to attend the En Primeur tasting of top Bordeaux Chateaux in the Spring, my goal would be to provide readers with my reviews and scores for every single wine, and that comprehensive coverage would by necessity have to include those wines which I did not care for.

I rarely find myself in a position with the time or the opportunity to be so comprehensive in my coverage of any type or showing of wine, however.

Nonetheless, the fact that such a situation might exist, certainly forces me, in answering the question that titles this post, to not only concede that there certainly could be a point to negative wine reviews in certain situations, but also to admit that my position on the subject isn't quite as strong as I might believe.

For instance, if I ever got into the habit of publishing every tasting note I ever made (hard to imagine given the effort of doing so at the moment) I might consider including the bad ones as well.

But I suppose I'm lucky that I don't have to suffer through that at the moment. Instead, I choose to take the time that I do in order to write carefully and passionately about individual wines that I love. Life is too short to drink bad wine, and it's also too short to write 500 words about a wine only to recommend that no one should buy it.

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