The Wine Exchange

The critic’s role?

2013-05-16T22:00:00Z 2013-05-30T19:17:15Z The critic’s role? Napa Valley Register
May 16, 2013 10:00 pm

Influential critics have long played an important role in our discovery of many of life’s pleasures but are noticeably absent from others. Ardent fans of the movies, theater, literature and other areas of interest often look to familiar and trusted critics for guidance in unearthing new products and adventures as they emerge.

We tend to identify with a critic’s personal preferences and subjective direction on a range of important topics and use these “critiques” as suggestions, rather than point-driven rules, in steering the way to what might be appealing to us.

So why has the wine critic’s role taken on such a different and more rigid path in the appreciation, marketing and consequent production of wine by “awarding” completely objective scores behind a subjective facade?

A critic should be a reliable source of information for those interested, by conveying seasoned personal opinions through a review. But when a point score (without published derivation or computation) is attached, the review assumes the appearance of objectivity but remains couched in the more familiar subjective style.

Certainly there are expert reviewers and writers voicing their experienced personal opinions on what’s new in the market, but have you ever seen a dress with a 96-point rating or a perfume bearing an 85-point score? I doubt it. Yet the opinion makers in these industries do get their fair share of media time and space with detailed descriptions and observations that followers can accept or reject within their own frame of reference.

I guess this all leads to the basic question: “Is the critic’s role one of opinion or judgment?” And it’s often this question, phrased in different ways, that becomes the subject of many discussions I’ve had with others in and out of the wine industry.

Some try to justify the 100-point scoring system as being direct and clearly understood in today’s “numbers-oriented” marketplace and an easy guide to what we should be drinking. While others see it as an arbitrary and objective view of a moment in time but a far more powerful tool in the market than the critic’s more subjective tasting comments normally following the score.

When selecting a fragrance don’t we sample it to see if we like the scent on our skin? When buying a sport coat don’t we want to see how it looks on us? Would an 85-point score on the tag of a sweater you like prevent you from trying it on? I doubt it.

There are no points (or even critics in some cases) playing a role in these and many other buying decisions. But with the critic’s score the selection process for wine is often different

Why are so many consumers steadfastly committed to the point score anointed by a few “revered” critics when it comes to wine even though some of these same critics do not personally taste all the wines reviewed in their publication (e.g. Robert Parker for Wine Advocate)?

I must admit I cannot answer that question. Any thoughts?

My May 3 column — “Your favorite wine?” — inspired several readers to relay their personal thoughts of memorable wines and experiences enjoyed over time.

John — Our love of wine started about 27 years ago with an introduction by the sommelier at Jeremiah Towers’ Stars in S.F. Many years later accompanying an impromptu lunch we relished a Chateauneuf du Pape and anything “barnyard” became the memory and vinous exploration for my wife.

Funny you should mention this as the “barnyard” character of most Chateauneufs is a put off for some and sought after by others. It’s noteworthy when a character such as this becomes the memory.

Wayne — I’m often asked the same question about my favorite wine, and like you say, it’s impossible to answer. Instead of a favorite specific wine, I often answer by describing my preferred wine styles that suit my palate.

Style is a very important aspect in wine enjoyment and when used as you do, it’s also a meaningful way to differentiate the wines that leave a mark on your memory.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or e-mail me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Bob Henry
    Report Abuse
    Bob Henry - June 05, 2013 10:57 pm
    Substitute "food and wine reviews" for movie reviews – you get the “picture” . . .

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (March 9, 2010, Page D8):

    “Critics’ Ranks Thin Out”


    By Patrick Goldstein
    “The Big Picture” Column

    . . . Virtually every survey has shown that younger audiences have zero interest in critics. They take their cues for what movies to see from their peers, making decisions based on the buzz they've heard on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social networking.

    And see my next “comment” to extend the conversation . . .

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