It’s open season on wine writers at the moment. If you believe people like Oliver Thring and Tim Hanni, we are misguided elitists talking to one another rather than consumers, prejudiced snobs whose evening tipple is more likely to be Château Lafite sipped from a hand blown Riedel glass, than a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.
The reality is rather different. As a professional wine writer, educator and Master of Wine, I taste something like 1,000 bottles a month and they vary enormously in quality. At every level, be it classed growth claret or a supermarket three for £10 deal, my job is the same: to sift the good from the bad, the great value from the over-priced.
Four-fifths of what I sample isn’t worth recommending. I’m not so much a gatekeeper as a vinous night club bouncer. We used to pride ourselves on the quality of the wine sold in this country. Today, thanks to the major supermarkets’ desire to grapple for space in the bargain basement, there’s far more rubbish around.
Experienced wine critics are arguably more important in a recession than ever. Increasing numbers of people are eating at home rather than in restaurants and spending more on a single bottle of wine for dinner. The higher the price, the more they need advice and reassurance.
I’d be the first to agree with Tim Hanni that everyone’s palate is different. But I also think that wine tasting is something you need to practise. Some people are innately brilliant at assessing wine, but most of us have to work at it to acquire reliable, trustworthy palates. You wouldn’t expect someone who’s been playing the piano for a year to tackle a Chopin Prelude, so why should wine be different? Professionals are invariably better at tasting because it’s their full-time job.
Do I believe that you should follow your own judgement? Of course I do. One of my favourite cartoons shows a punter tasting a sample in a wine shop. “This is disgusting,” he tells the manager. “The Wine Speculator gave it 96 points out of 100,” replies the manager. “OK, I’ll take 10 cases,” says the punter. People who buy wines they don’t like because someone else tells them to are fools.
This doesn’t undermine the role of the critic, however. Just as I read Philip French on film and Michael Billington on theatre, so I would advise you to find a wine critic, or set of critics, whose judgment you trust. If an Observer reader writes to me to complain about the quality of a wine I have chosen, I take the complaint very seriously. I only ever recommend wines that I would buy and drink myself. Obviously, I hope you share my taste, but if you don’t I won’t take offence.
I’m not a wine snob either. I would never argue, as Hanni suggests we wine writers do, that “certain wines are simply the best, and that anyone who disagrees is stupid, unsophisticated or both”. Drink what you want, when you want, I say, as long as it’s not White Zinfandel. Personally, I like nothing more than to come across a cheaper alternative to a classic wine style.
Wine can be a very complicated subject, covering geology, climatology, plant biology, bio-chemistry, aesthetics, history, economics and sociology among other things, but in the end it comes down to a simple question: do I like what’s in my glass? If a wine critic helps you to say yes more often than no, he or she is doing a good job.
Originally published in The Guardian’s Word of Mouth. Read here for readers’ comments.