Dave Jones’ Cafe Beat

Food & Drink Opinions - July 14th, 1989
More on wine writers & writings from Number 3 St. James Street

Last week I ran the first half of an article which ap­peared io the Spring 1989 issue of Number Three Si. James’s Street, the quarterly publication of Berry Bros. A Rudd, London wine merchants.

In it wine writers were likened to book reviewers, fashion experts and entertainment critics. The new breed of wine writer has become more businesslike than the old and emphasizes more what is cur­rently on offer, how much it costs and where it can he ob­tained, the article said. In so doing, he disappoints the wine supplier who might have ex­pected a more favorable opin­ion. It continues:

“There has lately been a good deal of grumbling in trade circles about journalists making hasty judgements and not doing justice to wines that need time and attention to appreciate their true quality. Against that, however, Britain’s wine writers have been accused in a controversial recent book (Wine Snobbery by Andrew Barr) of not being sufficiently critical and of being too much in the pocket of the wine trade!

There is no doubt that some members of the trade see the emergence of modern wine journalism as a mixed blessing. Our own feeling is that there is nothing too much to worry about as long as the pronouncements of wine writ­ers are put into proper per­spective. Like any other sup­plier we ourselves try to ensure that journalists write in an informed way about our wines by arranging periodic tastings — and we are obvious­ly disappointed if a bottle we believe is of distinct merit and of good value does not gel the praise we think it deserves. But we are not altogether surprised, because we know from our own tasting experience that it is not always possible to judge a wine fairly from one sampling.

“Wine is not only continually developing, but can also taste very different depending on the conditions in which it is drunk and the mood of the drinker. This is something the merchant has to take into ac­count when making his final selection—and again when advising customers.

“The trouble about sampling wine with a deadline in mind is that a one-off impression can become, as it were, frozen in time and is passed on to the public as a definitive de­scription. Here, of course, we enter a realm that is not so much the fault of the journalist as of his readers — the tendency nowadays to look for authoritative guidance and to expect every purchase to carry a sort of consumer-protection guarantee.

“It is a tenet of the trade’s present promotional philosophy that wine must be simplified if it is to win a wider market, and this has led to the introduction of various vintage charts to make the choice easier for the consumer. This is a commendable aim, but — while intended to “demystify” wine — it does perhaps have the effect of reinforcing the idea that one needs to have one’s hand held when buying wine for fear of making a mis­take.

“Wine drinking is — or should be — one of those areas of life in which it is still possible to explore and discover for oneself, irrespective of fashion and fad. How boring it would be if everyone drank from some “best of the month” list, or (something the Japanese have apparently already invent­ed) relied on a computer to select a wine that was sup­posed to suit one’s taste and pocket.

“It could be argued, of course, that consulting a wine merchant is also being influenced, but there is the crucial difference here that you can talk hack to your merchant and ask for something else if you don’t like his recommendation.

“The growth of popular wine journalism has been good for the trade and helpful to the public, but it is important that the pronouncements of writers about this or that wine should be seen as personal opinions, not authoritative verdicts.

“With today’s improved wine-making techniques, what someone likes is no longer so much a question of good or had wine as of individual taste. Taste is very subjective; the experience of the person who buys and drinks a certain wine can be quite different from that of a professional wine writer.

“One has only to think of how often one has disagreed with what some critic has said about a new novel or a play. If wine writers are seen in this light — as making a con­tribution to a debate in which other views, and not least the response of the reader’s ow palate, are equally valid then we can all profit by what they have to say without los­ing the element of personal discovery that provides so much of the excitement and enjoyment of wine drinking.”