See both sides of the debate about wine critics' consistency from our 'burning question' as featured in the Decanter September 2013 issue...

It was a case of corkscrews at dawn as the Observer questioned the reliability of wine critics, kicking off a debate that went back and forth on social media.

An article in the UK’s Observer in June 2013, which used scientific evidence to argue that ‘professional, trained palates are terrible at judging wine’, generated a flurry of response on social media.

The article quoted scientists – some of whom were also wine experts – denouncing wine criticism as too subjective to be meaningful, and wine itself as too chemically complex to be easily understood by one set of tastebuds.

Then there is Robert Hodgson of Fieldbrook Winery in northern California, who reported eminent critics giving radically different scores to the same wines in test blind tastings. A wine rated a good 90 points would be given 86 by the same judge minutes later, and then an excellent 94, he said. ‘Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next.’

A typical wine contains 27 organic acids, 23 varieties of alcohol, more than 80 esters and aldehydes, 16 sugars, dozens of vitamins and mineral compounds: the task of understanding such a cocktail is ‘beyond human ability’, Hodgson told the Observer.

Critics hit back. Of course it’s subjective and we make mistakes, Tim Atkin MW said, but ‘professionals are invariably better at tasting because it’s their full-time job’. Both he and Decanter’s Fiona Beckett said their role was to sift through the dross to find the pearls, but in the end consumers had to make up their own minds.

Yes

Debate raged about what constitutes ‘subjectivity’ in criticism, but the general tenor of the argument was that, yes, wine critics do sometimes make mistakes, but overall they do a useful job. Veteran wine consultant and former Sainsbury’s director Allan Cheesman said ‘blind tasting is a bit of science, a bit of art and a lot of luck chucked in’. But, he added, the job of an expert, whether it be in painting or wine, is to point out nuances, ‘to bring the subject alive’ – not to be infallible.

It’s important to draw a distinction between critics and journalists, says Peter Myers, commercial director of London restaurant chain Food & Fuel. ‘The likes of Robert Parker are not relevant to us or our customers, but the average Sunday newspaper journalist is very important to point us towards what grapes people are drinking, what’s in vogue, and where to find value.’ Mark Andrew of London wine merchant Roberson reckons wine criticism is as valid as that of film, art or any other discipline. ‘It’s all an interaction between you and that medium. You can no more see a film through a critic’s eyes than you can taste a wine through a wine expert’s taste buds. The critic can only take you so far, then you’re on your own.’

No

If the Observer article was meant to be provocative, it succeeded. Many in the wine world complained that people liked nothing better than to goad wine writers in their ivory towers, and it seems as if bashing critics has become a national pastime. Importantly, many drew a distinction between wine-loving amateurs and professionals.

‘It’s not the wine lovers who are idiots, it’s those that use flowery language and rampant hand gestures to try to impress us wine plebs,’ was a typical comment.

Decanter had little problem finding winemakers to rail against critics. ‘The very top level of international critics can be trusted, but there are many competition panellists not sufficiently experienced or knowledgable to be consistent,’ says Martin Krajewski, owner of Château de Sours in Entre-deux-Mers. He is disheartened by the ‘remarkable inconsistency’ of results for his wines in different competitions, and won’t enter wines any more.

Richard E Quandt, professor of economics at Princeton University and originator of the Winetaster scores analysis programme, is scornful of ‘the bull**** factor’ in wine criticism. In a Journal of Wine Economics essay he poked fun at wellknown descriptors: ‘I have not smelled crushed rocks since I was on the chain gang and don’t want to remember that time.’

Written by Decanter