What makes a good wine writer?

Wednesday, 2 December, 2009
Gad Kaplan
Gad Kaplan looks at three principles that make for good wine journalism, expresses certain reservations regarding Robert Parker, and asks whether many oversees wine writer's are out of touch with South African wines?
Neil Pendock's recent article on elitism in South African wine writing got me thinking. Does elitism in wine journalism constitute a fault? And what makes for good wine writing? On the subject of elitism, British wine icons Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent have built their reputations on tasting many of the world's greatest wines. But no-one can accuse them of elitism. They are simply doing their job. Hugh Johnson's bestselling Pocket Wine Book must by necessity review the most valued wines but it does include many budget ranges when applicable.

In an effort to answer the question I have drawn up three principles that I feel are necessary for good wine journalism. They are humility, sensitivity and objectivity. Regarding humility Robert Parker in his book The world's greatest wine estates writes "After 27 years spent tasting over 300,000 wines, I have never tasted a superb wine that was made from under ripe fruit." While Parker is to be applauded for his incredible work ethic and the quality of wines tasted during his career, we wine writers sometimes forget that we are like art critics at an exhibition. Our views on each wine tasted are simply impressions.

I have often marveled at the humility of so many wine makers I have had the pleasure of interviewing. Perhaps it comes from their constant struggle with nature? The winemakers are really the people that know their wines best but perhaps they sometimes need the objective voice that wine writers bring?

Regarding the second principle, sensitivity. Robert Parker once stated in a television interview "that when he tastes a wine he is not interested in the past history of the producer, but simply what is in the bottle." I am quoting from memory but I think that I have got the essence of his words right. From a scientific perspective Parker is correct. We have to judge what is in the bottle. But we also have to be sensitive to the past history of the producer and where they are heading. Like people, wineries have their ups and downs. And so, in judging wines we need to keep the total curve of their performance in mind.

Can wines be described in numbers? In Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine it describes Parker as an "influential American wine critic whose most obvious contribution to the literature of wine has been the concept of applying numbers to wine." His system of scoring wines from 50 to a 100 does work. But I sometimes feel the star rating system is gentler. John Platter and Decanter use a 5 star rating which works well. But are wines being lost in a sea of ratings?

Regarding the subject of objectivity, it is vital that a wine writer does not allow their personal taste preferences to cloud their judgment. Every wine writer possesses personal preferences. Michael Broadbent is famous for his scientific method of objective tasting. Parker is known for his love of opulent, ripe wines. This has led many Bordeaux producers to cater to the Parker palate. A tendency I find a little sad. One would wish all producers to be as authentic as possible.

Finally, regarding the issue of whether oversees wine writers are out of touch with South African wines, I feel that many still are. They seem, too often, to base their judgments on formal tastings alone. One can understand that top oversees wine writers have many countries to assess. Perhaps our years of sanction in forced isolation still continue to hurt us? However, South African wines continue to be under rated by the oversees wine writing fraternity. Perhaps they are not tasting the right wines?

For example, even Hugh Johnson (one of my wine heroes and together with Michael Broadbent one of the most important wine writers today) in his World Atlas of Wine in the section on South Africa devotes detailed maps to only two areas, Paarl and Stellenbosch. I started reading it recently to brush up on my knowledge of the Italian wine regions and I was surprised how little space it devotes to South Africa. Jancis Robinson (who does travel to South Africa) in a recent column for the Financial Times (Nov 7) wrote an excellent piece on South African wine entitled "From some place in South Africa." But I feel that that some of her "Cape favorites" were a bit off the mark.

They say that time heals all wounds. One can only hope that over time South African wines will be better understood and appreciated by the top oversees wine writing fraternity.