Wine blogging: a balance of negative and positive reviews

There’s been a lot of lively conversation in the thread that followed yesterday’s post asking whether or not bloggers should write about wines they don’t like.

From an Italian winemaker to a wine buyer in a high-end Southern California store, from a Polish and an Italian wine blogger, to a wine blogger in Tennessee, there isn’t a whole lot of consensus but there are some interesting view points gathered in one place.

I agree with my blogging colleagues that we need to embrace critical thinking and while I won’t start posting negative reviews, I will continue to write about trends and styles of winemaking that counter what I believe good wine to be.

It’s worth noting that some of the greatest wine critics avoid negative reviews. Just look at Eric the Red’s tasting and review of a handful of bottlings of Barbera yesterday in The New York Times. He only includes the wines that he and the other panelists liked.

Or take for example, Antonio Galloni: he only publishes reviews for wines that achieve at minimum a threshold on the Parker point scale (I believe it is 80 but am not sure).

Antonio and Eric are both super nice guys, btw.

I also wanted to share a comment that I received via email from my friend Leslie Brenner who is the incognita restaurant reviewer for the Dallas Morning News.

She took (friendly) issue with my proposition that blogging is proudly subjective while journalism is ostensibly objective (by which I intended that blogging is written from the first person while journalism is third person).

“There is, in fact,” wrote Leslie, “a whole category of journalism called opinion journalism, and criticism — which is by definition subjective.” And she’s right: institutional food and wine writing tends to be told using the first person. It’s one of the reasons that food and wine lend themselves so readily to blogging. After all, the magic of a great wine blog or a great newspaper (institutional) wine review happens when we feel like we’re tasting what the reviewer is tasting.

Man, I can almost taste that 2008 Barbera d’Alba San Lorenzo now! At $45 a bottle, I just can’t afford it…

Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone.

22 thoughts on “Wine blogging: a balance of negative and positive reviews

  1. NYT only names the wines they liked, but that doesn’t mean there is no criticism of what they didn’t like about the other wines.

  2. Eric does indeed criticize (negatively) things he doesn’t like, though as a percentage of content probably more often in the blog than in the print column. But there’s an important caveat: he has space limitations. Bloggers don’t. The same caveat applies to anyone working in print. Or on TV. Or on the radio. He does have to make choices on how to utilize his limited real estate that network-only communicators don’t.

    I don’t know if Eric would write more negatively if he had unlimited space. I think some pure critics would, others (Parker, for example) wouldn’t, but the reason wouldn’t always — or even often — be that they had a philosophical stance against negativity. I suppose the relevant quote is behind the locked eBob gate, so I can’t link to it, but the a significant reason Parker stopped printing low scores wasn’t space, it was that he didn’t want to deal with the blowback anymore. And you know, that’s fine (despite the clamor from his subscribers to see the low-scoring wines) if that’s what he wants to do. But it says little about what someone else should do.

    There are good reasons to go ahead and say negative things. There are good reasons to avoid doing so. As long as you realize that you’re paying a certain price for either path, it’s OK. But I admit I get a little twitchy at the notion that one person’s choice should be another.

    • @Thor as always, you make excellent, informed, and astute observations and reflections here… so glad to get your voice in this debate… I always have wondered how Eric feels when he has to taste 30 bottlings of Shiraz and doesn’t have enough spoons to accommodate each glass… he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to ignore wines that he doesn’t like. His editors and advertisers wouldn’t stand for it… We bloggers — editors in chief of ourselves — have neither advertisers nor editors to answer to… and agreed that the 3rd path — i.e., the false one — is scary…

      • Do you not think that Eric can ignore wines he doesn’t like? I think he’s less able than a pure blogger, but he still can. He doesn’t have that many column inches to fill over the course of a year. I once went five years, in a newspaper, without having to focus a column on a wine category I really didn’t like, and Eric lives in a city and an era with a lot more choice than I had.

        As a reader, I appreciate engagements with negativity. I’m not suggesting that everyone should reload the artillery with each missive, and in fact that sort of thing gets tiresome pretty quickly unless it’s very, very clever. But seeing what a writer doesn’t like, and why, gives me insights that pure positivity doesn’t. And it helps construct the essential narrative consensus that opinions really do differ, that it’s not about objectivity and intrinsic point scores, that even on the fundamentals people with both experience and training can really see entirely different and contradictory things in the same wine. If everyone is only positive, all the time, while those with different opinions keep silent, it’s harder to build this consensus.

  3. Just to clarify, Dr. P, I’ve never answered to an advertiser in my life. At the NYT, a virtually impermeable barrier exists between the business side and the journalists. The only exceptions are situations — in print — in which, for example, the newspaper would not position a plane crash story next to an airlines ad. Answer to advertisers at the NYT? It will never happen. As for saying negative things, reporters, critics and bloggers cannot ignore them. Yes, in my wine panel columns we list our 10 favorite wines. But I always address problems that we found in the wines, even if I don’t go through them bottle by bottle. And I generally do mention particular bottles if they are well known and highly regarded. There’s a time and a place for negative reviews. Back in my $25 and Under days, I did very few negative restaurant reviews. My rationale was, why bring to readers’ attention a place they’ve never heard of only to tell them that they were better off not knowing about it? When dealing with well known restaurants and highly regarded wines, you must address negative issues.

  4. @Eric thanks for weighing in. We talked a lot about your blog at the blogging seminar and pointed to The Pour as a great example of balance and even coverage in wine blogging. And please accept my apologies: by no means did I intend to imply that you answer to advertisers. I don’t think that to be the case whatsoever, especially at the Times. I am aware of the negative criticism that appears in your column (which I read religiously) but have always admired how you and writers of your caliber deal with negative impressions so gracefully and graciously. Again, I was citing the column her as a model that I believe should be followed by new-to-the-medium wine bloggers. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    @Thor I’ve never been one to shy from negativity on the blog. I know you’ve seen plenty of negative thoughts here. Please keep in mind that this entire discussion began with a question from a wine blogger at the TexSom conference: should we write negative reviews? When it comes to both you and Eric, you have years and years of experience as professional writers and you are veteran journalists who follow a strict code of ethics and checks and balances etc. Most neophyte wine bloggers don’t have such experience under their belts…

    • I do think that it’s preferable that one “earn” the ability to be negative. I mean, people will do it anyway, obviously. But experience both with wine and with communicating about wine help it sound like something other than just snark for the sake thereof.

      I don’t mistake the genesis of this discussion. But I push harder on this issue than I otherwise might because I know there’s a lot of pressure from the production and trade side against the idea of negativity, especially in the face of newer bloggers, and of course no surprise there; no one (including writers, critics, and bloggers) likes seeing their work dismissed. I don’t think everyone can or even should go negative, and I do prefer that the balance tilt towards the informative (which would get characterized as positive in most cases) rather than the critical. But there’s a valuable place for criticism, even harsh criticism when it’s warranted. There’s also value in cynicism. Not all the time, from everyone. But sometimes, from some people.

      For me, the debate is less over negative vs. not than over the word “should.” I don’t think there’s a “should” on this issue, other than: people “should” write about what they find value and reward in writing about. The methodology will follow from the content.

      • Point well taken about “pressure from the production and trade side against the idea of negativity.” Ultimately, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the blogger who asked me should we write negative reviews? The irony of it all is that it was a traditional print media journalist who said vehemently that we should never write about wines we don’t like.

        And point well made: if a wine blogger wishes to write negative reviews, she/he should fulfill her/his self-appointed mission. Thanks for spending so much time on this Thor (and Eric) and thanks for the insights… Now, back to wine blogging!

  5. Interesting discussion thread. It would be interesting to have a wine blog that simply objectively reported how wines were made and facts about them (alcohol content, brix, etc) and then tried to objectively describe them without judgement (overtones of honeydew and grass etc). Having said that, my guess is that the site would be pretty dull. As a consumer, it’s nice to find reviewers that have similar interests/tastes so they can narrow down the field. Frankly I don’t have the time/resources to try all the wines that an expert does and it’s nice when I do sit down to a bottle that I know I have a better chance of drinking something I like. On whether to go negative, I think it’s important to make a distinction between being bad vs just being a style one enjoys. I just got back from a family vacation and one of my cousins loves BIG CALI CABS. They are nice wines, some are well made and I appreciate them for what they are but I’d give them a negative review because my palate just doesn’t dig them as much anymore.

    • It would be interesting to have a wine blog that simply objectively reported how wines were made and facts about them (alcohol content, brix, etc) and then tried to objectively describe them without judgement (overtones of honeydew and grass etc).

      But the second part isn’t objective anymore, it’s subjective. If the analysis was done in a lab and found aromatic chemicals matched to known aromatic chemicals, maybe. But that still wouldn’t say anything about how person X or Y would perceive or appreciate the wine. There’s just no way to get around the subjectivity of offering an opinion, and anything other than pure chemical analysis or fact-sheet transcription is going to be purely subjective. Even if a given taster has a savant-like ability to identify and characterize wine components, that still only applies to her genetics and experience, not anyone else’s.

  6. my dear Jeremy, 20 days ago I tasted 50 Franciacorta Rosé, in absolute blind tasting. All the great names, from Cà del Bosco to Bellavista to the other most important wineries participate to the tasting with their Rosé wines.
    With a relative surprise I discovered after the tasting that the worse wine, very deceptive, was not the Franciacorta of a little unknown winery, but the Franciacorta , tasted twice, to be sure, of the property, Montenisa, of the famous Marchesi Antinori here in Franciacorta region.
    The question is: why don’t tell to my readers what’s happen and why don’t pose the question why a so famous winery, when decide to produce a Franciacorta Docg realise a so dull and weak wine? I think that this is my duty don’t mask this aspect of my (blind) tasting. Why don’t relate this? Only because Marchesi Antinori is a famous, rich and powerful wine producer? I think that is in consideration of this aspect is impossible to accept that a winery so important can be satisfied to produce a wine like this. My task of wine writer and wine blogger is to emphasize this contradictions of wine business.
    p.s. many apologies in advance for my English….

    • that said, Franco, your evaluation is “your” evaluation and even though you have more experience than most, and are considered by many to be an expert wine evaluator, in the end it still reflects your tastes, your knowledge and your preferences. And to a large degree that is fairly subjective, in the way folks in the Western world view things

  7. wow, I am just thrilled that these posts have led to so much lively and healthy discussion.

    The initial message was intended for neophyte wine bloggers: avoid negativity (as you launch your blog and learn about the enoblogosphere). And I’ve amended that message (as a blogging colleague in Sweden pointed out here): avoid negativity but not critical thinking.

    Thor, Eric the Red, and Franco all make valid points: we cannot omit negative impressions; if we do, all credibility is lost. And Eric, always a Solomon among us, points out how negativity has a place in wine reviews, where he makes a point not to omit negative impressions of well known wines because they can help to guide consumers in their choices. And I’m with Franco 100%: we need to counter the world of Maronis, Parkers, and Sucklings who write from an “absolute” perspective (I’m thinking of the treatment of the absolute in Bertolucci’s The Conformist). But ultimately, I also believe that Thor and Alfonso are right: subjectivism trumps all… We, as wine bloggers, must not make the same mistake that Freud made: he lost sight of the fact that analysis — Freudian and otherwise — is by its very nature subjective. If we forget that, all is lost…

    I’m greatly appreciative to everyone for taking the time to weigh in here. And I cannot conceal the fact that this discussion, which started innocently enough, has led me to do some serious soul searching about why I’m here…

    Thanks, everyone… I’m so thrilled that Do Bianchi is a forum for such intelligent and vital discussion…

  8. After all these interesting readings, one question pops up in my exausted (by the hot Summer) mind
    “Wether or not wine bloggers should write about wines that they liked too much”?
    Taking for granted that wine bloggers have the experience, professionality and honesty required to express a judgement about any wine, I believe that proclaming certain wines “over the moon”, “must drink”, or worse “screaming terroir” is a respnsbaility as much as expressing a negative critic.

    So said, I am 99% in agreement with Franco Ziliani (I never give a 100% score to anything) :)

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