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Critics must be allowed to be critical

Pavie 2010 isn’t a wine I had time to taste during the 2010 primeurs campaign, so I can’t offer my own opinion of it, but plenty of other critics have done so. And it is a wine that, once again (a reference to the spat over the 2003, when Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson developed diametrically opposite opinions of the wine, a good few years ago now) is at the core of a Bordeaux controversy. Again we have critics with differing opinions of the wine. Although it is the reaction from Parker ‘followers’ that, in my mind, is the real issue this time.

For the 2010 fight we have in the blue corner Parker (Wine Advocate), with “Since Perse acquired this estate in 1998, most Pavies have possessed off the charts richness and the 2010 is no different” and dishing out a score of 96-98+. Whereas, in the red corner there is John Gilman (View from the Cellar), who described ths wine as “absurdly overripe, unpleasant to taste, and patently out of balance” (he has a lot more along the same lines to say about this “high-octane cocktail”), and he settles on a score of 47-52+.

In all honesty this should be no big deal. John doesn’t like the wine and I think we would all agree that he expresses this in an unmistakeable manner. Concentrating on the tasting note, the critic is critical; this hardly seems inappropriate for someone whose CV surely has “wine critic” written at the very top. OK, the score is certainly open to question; what exactly does 47-52+ mean? (Aside – surely it means he really thinks the wine is 50/100, i.e. zero, nil, zilch, nul points? – in other words it has no resemblance to wine whatsoever?) Some have questioned whether this score could be replicated tasting blind. Why can’t he say it’s a good wine but “not his style” and give a score of 82-ish, others have asked (with a question about whether critics should be objective or subjective – there are good arguments for both). All these questions are valid, but ultimately it all comes down to the right of the critic to be critical. John has an opinion of the wine, and he has expressed it through words, and through numbers. I will concede that some aspects of his review don’t sit well with me, but John certainly has a right (a duty, perhaps?) to say them. If you don’t like it, leave it. If you adore Pavie, then take note that Gilman clearly isn’t the critic for you. Move on.

Some don’t see it that way though. On the Berserkers board, there is a post about the issue entitled “John Gilman eviscerates 2010 Pavie”, but on the Parker board, hidden behind the paywall introduced in April 2010, closing the forum off to subscribers only, there is an evisceration of Gilman from Pavie and Parker fans.

The most remarkable comments come from the keyboard of Jeffrey Davies, an American-born merchant based in Bordeaux with not unknown to Parker – according to William Echikson in Noble Rot (W.W.Norton, 2004, p.57) “Every winter, on one of his two annual visits to Bordeaux, Parker spends four or five hours tasting in Davies’s office in the city”. Davies wades into Gilman; his comments are “off-the-wall” and “vitriolic” and he accuses Gilman (referencing his obviously negative review of Cos d’Estournel 2009 which I haven’t read) of now focusing his “jaded tastebuds” on Pavie. And he concludes that Gilman “seeks to exist by espousing a diametrically opposite view to that expressed by Robert Parker” with his “calamitous diatribe”.

I doubt very much that’s true. Gilman is being critical of a wine, he isn’t starting an anti-Parker movement. Why do some feel that anyone who dislikes a wine loved by Parker is having a go at Parker? The world, believe it or not, doesn’t revolve around RP. Gilman loves acidic and challenging wines such as aged López de Heredia, and doesn’t like modern, alcoholic Bordeaux. Should he not express that? And is it really so shocking that wines like Pavie and Cos d’Estournel (and Troplong-Mondot, Pavie-Macquin and others) should prompt such a negative review from some quarters? After all, these are all extreme, high-alcohol versions of Bordeaux.

Davies goes on, now turning to Gilman’s other more negative reviews. Commenting on Troplong-Mondot, the evisceration continues. Gilman rates Troplong 68, drawing attention to its “absurd alcohol level”, while Davies disagrees concluding that Gilman’s goal is to “draw attention to himself”. Personally, having tasted Troplong, I can see where Gilman is coming from on this one. The sample of 2010 Troplong I tasted had a hot midpalate, and although my score out of 20 would probably never convert into 68 on the 100-point scale my opinion was certainly less effusive than Parker’s note and high-90s score. Meanwhile, Davies goes on to deliver the coup de grâce, concluding Gilman is a “non-entity in the field of wine criticism”. Ouch! Obviously Davies is unaware that Gilman’s 2010 reviews are set to appear in the next edition of the World of Fine Wine, the world’s most cerebral wine journal (where, as the journal operates on a 20-point system, Gilman’s score for Pavie has been converted to 0-3 out of 20 – although I think -2 to +1 would have fit better).

Personally, with my tastes perhaps somewhat broader than Gilman’s, I doubt I would rate Pavie as low as he has done. I only say this by looking at our reviews of Troplong-Mondot, by ‘extrapolating’ my tasting note for that wine; note that despite my concern over the alcohol, I still saw many positives in the wine. And I also think critics should have a modicum of reservation about sticking the knife into barrel samples, which although representative of the final wine are certainly not exactly the same as it. Gilman’s ranged score around 50 gives a nod to this uncertainty, but his opinion is so scathing this range takes on an almost comical quality. Nevertheless, despite my reservations about the review and despite thinking I might have something different to say, I still strongly support Gilman’s freedom to express his personal opinion of the wine, and he should not be subjected to the ‘evisceration’ he has been the subject of for doing so. Critics must be allowed to be critical, even if their writing comes across as occasionally ascerbic and not to the liking of some individuals.

Speaking of which I also think that Parker’s pal Jeffrey Davies, the man behind wine importer Signature Selections, should declare – before he gets into any flogging of critics dishing out a negative review of Pavie – that for many years his company has been responsible for the import of Pavie into the USA. His friends at the Wine Advocate should be able to give him some tips on transparency and ethics; they have given it a lot of thought in the past year or so I think.

14 Responses to “Critics must be allowed to be critical”

  1. It’s quite sad to see how wine journalism is becoming more and more a battle field. It’s perfectly fine to have different opinions, but the way Parker fans react in such cases, it’s at least laughable. This reminds me of some kind of CIA or NSA methods: when you need to bash a “dangerous” opinion, find anything to destroy the person’s credibility. So, attack the person instead of his/her opinion…

  2. Interesting post. I think perhaps a bit like you are saying, in my view, both opinions are valid and it would be a bit of a pity if they had to be the same. After all, so what if tastes differ? It doesn’t seem a surprising outcome to me, even among very experienced tasters. Everyone has their favourites. But then I do think tasting is mainly a subjective/personal preference thing. Perhaps both camps should be happy knowing that the other isn’t going to be pushing up prices of their favourite wines. Oh, and relax too!


  3. Thanks for these comments. Ciprian, I agree with your comments; some people follow wine critics with an almost tribal passion. It is remarkable how an opinion of a wine, even if insensitively expressed, leads some to attack the critic. Sean, you’re right that we all have different tastes, and critics need to express their own particular taste.

  4. I think that starting next year at EP all of the wines should be tasted blind and let the chips fall where they may!!

    Furthermore, given what I have seen of most wine critics propping up and writing great things about clearly less than stellar vintages over the last few years makes this “calling out” if you will over a few wines a joke.

  5. Thanks Gary. Are you able to be specific on this issue of “propping up lesser vintages”? Are you thinking of Bordeaux 2008 in particular, or of a broader spread of regions/vintages?

  6. IMO I would have to say 2006 and 2007 as well. The latter was definitely a poor vintage and while 2006 better I still feel that it was much over rated by most.

    I’m just referring to Bdx here. However, I think it further extends to other regions as well. For instance I did not like most 2007 rhone wines which were highly touted. I thought many wines were over extracted and jammy and tested like confected fruit.

  7. Chris, I thought this article made for a great laugh. This spat is reminiscent of two surgeons arguing about the right approach! But wait… these guys are two hobbyists who somehow make a living arguing about fermented grape juice. Give me a break.

    I’m glad that you have a real career; I think it keeps your notes anchored in reality. A reality to which which neither Parker nor Gilman has a connection I’m afraid. When I correlate the scores that I give my wines to those of a lot of the popular wine writers, they match up to yours the best. Perhaps this is the explanation for that.


  8. Personally, I like John’s writing. A lot. Writing reviews that applaud wines the critic didn’t like but found them to be “well made” is a politeness I frankly don’t care for. John makes it easy for me to know which wines are worth checking out and possibly buying / storing and which wines not to waste time or money on. Given these bottles cost north of $100 and take +10 years to start to drink nicely I don’t want to get advice from a critic that is applauding every wine they cross just because it was well made in a certain style. Trusting a critic, in my experience, means that you have to know what the critic’s taste tends towards. Parker is very reliable and I very much like his writing as well. I generally do not buy the wines he is nuts about because we tend to have different tastes and I know this because his writing is transparent. Same goes for John. Interestingly, Parker and John agree on a lot of wines. Montrose is a great example with both critics usually giving it a thumbs up. Interestingly, Montrose is a big wine, plenty of dark juicy fruit but with a delightful streak of acid running through. A classic, massive Bordeaux wine.

    Chris, I have mentioned to you in the past and I reverberate my sentiments now, your writing and articles are a tremendous source of value and insight for me as a wine enthusiast. Your blog in support of John’s writing only drew additional respect from me in your favor. Thanks for this and I hope your writing joins that of John’s and Robert’s in big name publications in the future. Where your taste might not be as narrow as John’s I find your detail and description coupled with your consistent favorites makes your notes good guidance when shopping for my cellar. Thanks.

  9. Chris – I totally agree that critics should be allowed to criticize no matter what camp they fall into. As someone who used to work in wine wholesale and now works part-time in wine retail, I can say with certainty that some consumers favor large-scaled high alcohol wines and some favor the more balanced approach. Everyone gets to drink what they like and decide which critic’s palate is most like theirs. I think sometimes that journalists in all fields can end up with relationships that are far too close to the subjects they cover. This may especially true of Mr. Parker who has been at it a very long time.

  10. Marc, Paul

    Thanks for those contributions, and particular thanks for those comments on my writing and Winedoctor – they’re very gracious and much appreciated.

  11. I think Paul makes a great point. The true dollar value of drinking a wine is of course the initial value plus the interest that would have accrued had you invested the same capital over the time between buying the bottle and pulling the cork. A $100 bottle of wine for which you’ve got to wait 15 years to drink in maturity *actually* costs you (let’s presume a 10% return in this economy and simple compounding interest) 100*(1.1)^15 = 417.72. Egads!

    Let’s also face the fact that storing your own wine (provided the facilities) is a good deal safer than buying a bottle that has been traded as a commodity and shipped from A to B to C etc.

    So I agree, Paul. I want someone who knows my taste well (thank you Chris) before I pull the trigger on what will turn out to actually be a $5,000 case of wine.

    Of course, the bottle of ’82 Pichon I drank last year had the original price tag of $21.79 on it (from 1984). Presuming the interest above, which is probably conservatively for that period, it actually cost $259.70. That was definitely worth it! I’m perplexed as to how new vintages can cost the same as one cellared to maturity.


  12. Thanks Jonas; I think it’s true that there are many valid styles, and we should all drink what we want. Just to reiterate though, the problem here is not Parker, but his followers, (or ‘supporters’, or maybe even ‘tribe’!) one or two have lashed out in response to Gilman’s review.

  13. Thanks Marc. Those are frighterning figures! Maybe I should invest more of my money instead of buying wine with it…..

  14. Marc,

    I applaud your attempt at laying out the true cost of wine. Question is, where are you getting 10% ROI over a long-term? Quite impressive, that!

    Chris – thanks for leading the thread. Civilized writing like yours is a wonderful resource to those who are trying to drink honestly and well in an online community, and stay away from the guttersniping of the pros. Cheers!