Thursday, 14 November 2013

How to hide wine purchases from your wife/husband/partner. And just what is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 1)




'I think my wine purchases are like capital spending. This is ‘good’ expenditure, like HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow, and we are investing for our future, strengthening (or shoring up) our families’ balance sheets and inheritances'.

It is autumn in post-modern Austerity Britain, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (to borrow from Keats), and time for me to succumb reluctantly to some spouse-imposed financial control on my wine purchases. My reluctance and apathy are clear by my choice of easy, low-hanging fruit – low-cost subscriptions to wine magazines and web sites – rather than making the really difficult choice to cut deep into my wine stock and planned ‘capital’ expenditure.

My wife believes her challenge to my alleged profligacy is reasonable and I agree to ‘think about’ it. After all, why do I pay to read all these wine critics? Haven’t I got better things to do like reading John Grisham or (when critics write banal, colourless, obliging dreariness) sitting on a spike eating cold porridge?

In an attempt to deflect my wife’s awkward questions (her new reading glasses are so intimidating) about any of my wine-related purchases, I use my tried and trusted line, so effective during our youthful, halcyon days of largesse and late and long nights. “But darling, I don’t ‘do’ drugs or cars or hookers. I ‘do’ wine. And you and wine are my only indulgences”. It falls on deaf ears and is greeted with a contemptuous roll of the eyes. My clichés are wearing thin, although I still elicit a re-assuring laugh from my friends and teenage sons.

Like all CEOs (self-appointed in this case), I meet this cost control challenge by filibustering and I will hang on by my fingernails until the danger passes or I am ‘fired’ by my bride of 16 years and walk away with a (highly improbable) fat cheque. I will do anything to continue investing and avoid cutting.

All my vinous friends are co-conspirators in this game of delay and obfuscation, subject to same rightsizing pressures from their wives. We have devised (rather pathetically, I admit) several ‘systems’ to throw our wives off the scent so we can all continue to buy wine and undertake the planned ‘capital’ expenditure. After all, this is ‘good’ expenditure, like HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow, and we are investing for our future, strengthening (or shoring up) our families’ balance sheets and inheritances.

My three key protagonists in this contrivance are:
  • The Wine Merchant and Legal Counsel, Will Bentley of Bentley’s of Ludlow Wine Merchants. Cambridge Law graduate and ex fund manager who had the knack of buying low and selling high.
  • The Banker and Head of Security, Julian Rimmer, Cambridge English graduate, child of Thatcher, slave to post-modern Austerity Britain (his phrase), born scuffler and City trader who buys low and sells lower, but who is nevertheless a very quick-witted, fluent and humourous raconteur. I worry about revealing his identity for fear of our wives torturing him, sequestrating his/our assets or freezing his/our bank accounts.
  • The Master of Wine and Elder Statesman, Alun Griffiths MW. Aberystwyth French graduate (if that's not an oxymoron), a man of great experience in the world of wine. He keeps us on the straight and narrow, and his smooth talking, calmness and professionalism can always be relied upon to get us out of a difficult spot.

I am The Businessman. Loughborough Economics and French graduate, top sportsman (in my dreams), linguist, master strategist, diplomat, consultant, spreadsheet jockey and bon viveur. It is the perfect team which could pull off any mini-heist.

Our ‘systems’ facilitate ‘off-balance sheet’ wine purchases using nicknames, email aliases, bogus accounts and secret credit cards unknown to our better halves. And when Señor Bentley delivers wine, he uses such an elaborate trail of drops, locations, stop-offs and car routes that even the FBI couldn’t bust it. He is so convincing that he must secretly fantasize about sporting a large handlebar moustache, calling himself Guillermo ‘Vinoso’ Bentos and running a Mexican money laundering business.

Will has a Blairite way of fending off difficult questions about who bought what wine, much to our wives’ amusement or, more probably, irritation. It is like a scene from Fawlty Towers, only more farcical.

I am not profligate, other than on wining and dining, but I just can’t do rightsizing. I hate that management euphemism more than the soul-destroying condition itself. I am genetically engineered to buy and drink good wine, not to cut costs and drink Chateau de Coq-Rot.

But it is when I am asked to wire more post-tax income to renew a subscription for a wine critic’s website in order to fund their next personal/exotic/business*  trip/holiday/party*  to Bordeaux/Burgundy/Tuscany/London/ Hong Kong/New York* (*delete as appropriate), that I react to my wife’s challenge, not by cutting but by asking myself a set of questions which I need to work methodically though before making a decision.

As you can see, I am The World Heavyweight Champion of Filibuster, Procrastination and Delay. Here are my questions:

a.     What insight and extra value do these subscriber sites bring me, the consumer, that wine merchants, brokers and the plethora of free Internet information don’t?

b.     What is the point of a professional wine critic? In fact, what is the point of any wine critic, whether you pay for them or not, whether they are professional or just another blogger?

c.     Are wine critics so important in upholding the interests of us, the gullible consumer, in the face of those rapacious merchants and other charlatans ‘on the take’ who will flog us any old ‘belly wash’ if they get half a chance? Are they still that important that we feel we need to pay for their expertise?

There are so many questions swirling around my frazzled brain, under sustained bombardment from Mrs Beresford. Let’s focus on the professional critics for the purposes of answering the main question at the top of this posting: what is the point of a professional wine critic?

By professional wine critics, I mean those who operate independently, spend a lot of their time and make a living by writing tasting notes and scoring wines. They may charge the reader for this privilege in the form of a subscription (examples would be Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, Stephen Tanzer, John Livingstone-Learmonth, Allen Meadows and publications like Decanter and Wine Spectator) or provide it free (like Jamie Goode) or have a halfway house model where some content is free and some is charged for (e.g. Tim Atkin).

Therefore, I exclude wine writers such as Alice Feiring and Eric Asimov. They too are professional, independent and critical but I don’t think they see themselves as wine critics, and certainly the last two abhor the whole notion of extravagant tasting notes and scores.

I also exclude the merchants, who comment and score wines too but whose business it is to sell the wines.

Compared to the merchants and FOC (free of charge) amateur critics and bloggers, are professional wine critics’ palates better? Are they cleverer people? Is it because they are truly ‘independent’, countering the force of the mercenary merchants who can’t be trusted? No, I don’t think any of these reasons apply. But I think there are four reasons why I read them.

To find out what they are, read my next posting: What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 2)

What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 2)


Dear critics, please oh please give me interesting insight…..

I think there are four reasons why I read professional wine critics, but you let me know what you think:

1.     Interesting insight
I admit that I have a very low boredom threshold so interesting insight is vital. I am not interested in a critic if all he or she does is write another set of boring tasting notes and scores, conducted in an office thousands of miles from the grower. I don’t care about boring ones. They are just another person’s tedious opinion about a wine, typically drunk in isolation.

No, in my book it is not interesting insight, unless:
  • It is unexpected, e.g. “Chateau Lafite was crap in 2010; I give it 70 points. It was more like Chateau de Coq-Rot”; or
  • It is contrarian, e.g. “2009 Bordeaux was not the great vintage every other Tristram, Dickweed and Horatio said it was”; or
  • It is controversial, e.g. “Neal Martin’s book on Pomerol is the most boring book in the History of Boredom and if he writes another article called ‘After the book, blah, blah, blah’ I will have to stick needles in my genitals to distract me from the pain”; or
  • It is written with some love and passion, e.g. Parker and Molesworth, for example, are good at this. They reveal their passion for wine when they write about it which makes me want to drink it; or
  • It is about some new discoveries, e.g. small, little-known wineries which produce wonderful wine. I find wine merchants are generally better at this than critics; or
  • It is about a technical subject which requires some in depth research but which a critic can summarise quickly, e.g. Jamie Goode (the best teacher in the world of wine by a country mile) on something like wine faults; or
  • It is accompanied with additional content and knowledge, e.g. stories about the producer or village and based on some primary research at the vineyard. If you’ve been there you can tell the story far better; or
  • The notes and scores are recounted in an interesting way, e.g. the wines you drank with friends over Sunday lunch, or tasting wines off the cuff, like Jamie Goode did recently, whilst making supper. Unshaven, using a simple recorder and standing in his kitchen, Jamie sniffed, tasted and described Gosset’s Polish Hill and Springvale Rieslings. It was fantastic – real life, no pretentiousness, just a bloke in jogging bottoms having a drink, but it was still a video of good quality, with Jamie talking sense and educating the viewer. These less formal tasting are interesting and real. We, the consumers, can relate to them.
Critics have ample opportunity to write interesting notes. There are eight ways you can achieve this, according to my list.

What I want is real insight and discovery. Critics, please don’t bore me with knowledge alone, like a dull teacher on a wet Friday afternoon. Tell me something I don’t know or can’t get anywhere else. Inform, educate and inspire me, and do it in a way which makes it interesting and accessible, and at times funny. I want you to transport me into your world of wine and to experience, for a moment, what you, the critic, experience most days.


2.     Breadth of coverage
Critics should be good at this. Reading, studying, tasting and writing about wine, producers and their lives on a professional basis is what they do. Their breadth of knowledge should be vast. They don’t have to bother themselves with a proper job like sourcing wine, negotiating with producers and selling it to consumers, like the merchants do.

Therefore, the extent of their coverage and opinions of certain topics (e.g. vineyard science, wine faults, closures, the science or otherwise behind tastings) or of regions (e.g. the Rhone valley and Burgundy, the latter in particular being complex and difficult to understand or new wine discoveries) or their capacity to keep up with week-to-week news should be greater than merchants’. Some critics do this outstandingly well.

If critics achieve 1 and 2, then they can be a very effective force in educating the public and therefore driving interest and demand for wines, especially the lesser known wines or regions.


3.     Entertainment
I wouldn’t say that many critics are specialists in these fields but some are quite good at it, especially those who use new media effectively such as James Suckling. Watching James puff on a monte cristo cigar or drinking a fine Brunello, delirious with pleasure, is quite entertaining. His use of video makes his content and insight more digestible.


4.     Benchmarks
The world loves benchmarks, comparators, performance metrics and league tables, and we expect to see them in all walks of life - business, restaurants, schools, sport, music charts, Strictly Come Dancing (oh, bon dieu). In the global race to the top, they are used as a way of measuring performance. These days, we are measured against anything which others think is relevant (note the use of the passive and unattributable 3rd person), subjugating ourselves to others who, apparently, know better.

In the world of wine, they help the consumer identify the so-called best (a totally subjective descriptor) wines and place them in a pecking order which helps them make choices. Some tasting notes may be meaningless, some scores highly subjective and combined they may be pernicious, creating uniform wines and brands which crowd out the smaller producers and outliers, but I accept there is a practical value to them whether some like it or not.

I don’t especially like them or find them useful, and I would never buy a wine solely on the basis of what a critic says or scores. But, in my experience, the consumer likes and wants an opinion which can be measured. This direction of travel is also encouraged for the big investment grade wines as investment managers need benchmarks to justify investment and pricing decisions. Scores are here to stay.

However, caveat emptor. All is not what it seems with the critics. Think about these points before you subscribe:

1.     Opinions are very subjective and can tell you little about good and bad, truth and falsehood, light and dark.
On tasting notes and scores, readers of wine critics should take them with a pinch of salt because they are so influenced by the taster’s style preferences, context and experiences. Who says they are right and others are wrong? You need to read a few of them to get a more ‘averaged-out’ view, and then form your own opinion. Some magazines such as Decanter often use three tasters when reviewing wine and then average out the scores to achieve a consensus. This lends credibility to their results. I am highly suspicious of one critic’s scores as an indication of what the wine might taste like to me.

I recognize that good tasters can isolate some of their subjective style preferences to facilitate objective wine assessments and that they can generally agree on broad categorizations of wine by quality. However, I think personal preferences trump objective assessment in scores. I write about this in a later posting “What the wine critics don’t tell you”.


2.     Challenge conventional wisdom
Don’t timidly accept what the ‘Great Worshipful Committee of Wine Critics’ tells you. For the best-known critics, scoring tends to conform to a standard set of style preferences and definition of quality which leads to a uniformity of opinions and scores and correctness. If a wine’s aroma or taste is outside the boundary of what is deemed conventional, as it may be for some natural wines and other vins de terroirs, then some critics would regard it as imperfect, inconsistent, even faulty, rather than being the product of what the vineyard has given.

The best of these wines should be enjoyed in their unadulterated, unblemished form. Let the writer’s description reflect the essence of the wine, but don’t crucify it with a low score just because it doesn’t conform. (BTW, I know some natural wines and vin de terroirs, like any other wine, can be crap and taste like Chateau de Coq-Rot so I am not making a sweeping statement about their 100% success rate).


3.     Some wine merchants provide wonderful insight too, sometimes better than critic
When it comes to certain topics and communicating about them, especially those requiring evangelical effort, some merchants are better than critics. For example, Les Caves de Pyrenes probably have more experience and expertise on natural wines (i.e. those with minimal intervention - what some critics might call unconventional or even faulty but supporters would call real) than any critic.

Led by the highly articulate and passionate Doug Wregg, their views may be controversial and sometimes deliberately provocative in their support for natural wines (and criticism of manipulated wines), but they do know their stuff and write with great wit and insight. As a merchant and with interests in restaurants too, they also have a lot of supporters and customers. They must be doing something right.

Their posts and opinions always provoke reactions from other in the wine business and these are a good read.

Natural wines are a relatively new phenomenon for me and Les Caves have taught me a lot of what I know. If you want to drink natural wines and other great vins de terroir, eat real food and love personable bars à vins, then visit any of the following London restaurants: Terroirs, Duck Soup, 40 Maltby Street, Sager and Wilde, 10 Cases, French Man Green Horn, 10 Greek Street, 28-50, Brawn and Soif.




What is the point of a professional wine critic? (Part 3)


The role of the critic has got to be to help the wine industry to grow, not simply to fault find and criticise. Otherwise what's the point? The critic should also look to discover new wines and write about them. This is key to the health of the wine market.

The end game
On a broader point about the critics’ purpose for the wine industry (as oppose to a reader), I think the end game of the wine critic (and all the other professional and amateur wine writers too for that matter) has to be to encourage a sustainably stronger wine industry, rather than just finding faults and pursuing controversies and negative stories. The vast majority of the critics and writers I read and have read seem to buy into this principle too.

People will argue what ‘sustainably stronger’ means but in my view it means encouraging the use of more natural methods (fewer chemicals, more organic farming), helping to educate consumers about new regions (e.g. Georgia, Greece, Brazil) or different styles of wines (e,g, natural wines), encouraging the drinking of better quality wines (subjective, I know) and drinking more responsibly (also subjective).

For me, discovery is a key role of critics and producers. How boring it would be for us, the consumer, if all producers gave us was what they thought the market wanted today, as defined by current tastes and trends, and that was all the critics wrote about. On the other hand, many producers (especially those producing in large quantities) would prefer a world where the consumer had predictable tastes and where their demand could be locked into production schedules a long way into the future. Their capacity planning would be so simple.

But the market, and some consumers, need producers who innovate and push the boundaries, and we need critics to write about them. Innovation in any industry is vital and sometimes the customer doesn't know what he/she wants or needs until he/she is presented with the innovative new product. Do we think the consumer would have thought up an iPad or smartphone or even car in isolation and been able to articulate it to a producer which would then have produced it? I don't think so. Marketing isn't always about giving the consumer what he or she wants or needs today. It is also about creating the need with something they haven't thought about yet.

Innovation is hard and it is why most businesses tend to imitate rather than innovate. But we need the vinous equivalents of great innovators like Apple, Microsoft, Google et al because they push the boundaries and create new growth opportunities. Furthermore, I am sure a significant number of wine consumers just want to experiment and taste new wines. Not everyone wants polished sauvignon blanc or chardonnay - they look for wines which pique their interest and arouse them, and this sometimes means working outside the norms of production and challenging conventional wisdom.

I am not arguing for one extreme or another. The market needs to cater for many tastes, from the conventional to the unusual.

And accepting unusual wines into the broad range of wines available shouldn't be an excuse for bad wine making (although some would argue that even that definition is subjective!). There are good and bad wines across the spectrum, from the conventional to natural wines. Wine critics and writers should feel free to criticize growers, methods, wines, regions and so on where they believe it is justified, but I do ask them to have an open mind and not focus on faults when others may see these as interesting flaws which make the wine intriguing.

Whatever you view, the overriding raison d’être of a wine critic has to be to concentrate on developing the overall sum of knowledge by educating drinkers and on generating the sustainable economic growth of the wine industry. If they do this, then there really is a point to critics and they really are a force for good for everyone - producers, merchants and consumers. Otherwise, what is the point in having them?

The importance of a critic’s independence
Don’t be hoodwinked into thinking that a critic’s independence is the key, unimpeachable ingredient and that the merchants and other ‘sell-side’ charlatans can’t be trusted to write about their wine honestly and then sell it (why would they, their livelihoods only depend on it!).

Independence is just a box to be ticked, part of a process that tells us nothing about a critic’s own style and taste preferences. The critic can declare their independence if they want to although I am not particularly bothered. If they write rubbish and try to trick people, they will soon get picked on, sorted, unpicked and macerated in the people’s crusher of Internet bloggers and commentators. Aux armes, les citoyens!

While online abuse and fraud in wine will never be completely eliminated, the Internet is more effective than anything else in policing fraudulent and bogus practices. Independence is never a reason for me to read a critic’s work, especially if he/she bores the pants off me. I write more on this in another posting so let’s not get sidetracked here.


Parker and the law of unintended consequences
It is perhaps one for a different, lengthier posting but the irony of Parker is that while he set out to stop the largesse of the industry by being the independent ‘voice of the consumer’, he has inadvertently had another, opposite effect.

He has become such a powerful brand and force that his scores drive up demand from consumers and therefore prices. Here are just two examples, which I looked at recently and happen to own, which contrast the prices pre and post Parker scores: Isabel Ferrando’s St Prefert Giraud 2007 (which is now circa four times more expensive) and Chapoutier’s Hermitage Le Pavillon 2009 (which has doubled in price).

There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence that plenty of producers and merchants make and deal in wines which they know will get them higher scores, further raising prices and making them more money at the expense of the consumer. This in turn makes them unaffordable to the majority of the very consumers Parker set out to protect in the first place. The way the Bordelais wait for Parker to announce his scores before setting their prices is particularly cynical.

How does this help the consumer? I don't think Parker should publish any notes or scores until the Bordelais have set their prices and started to sell their wine. Parker should let them work out pricing for themselves and not let himself be used as promotional material just so they can increase their prices based on what he says. This can't be in the consumers’ interest, can it?

Clearly Parker never intended to be used by some producers in this way and I know he guards his independence and integrity fiercely, but it is what the economists would call ‘the law of unintended consequences’. Nothing in life is simple is it?


What the wine critics don’t tell you (part 1)



"I have a severely depleted nose and palate, ruined by the excesses of fast food, recreational drugs, lager, fags and oral sex while at school and university, followed by 10+ years in the City as a Banker where I regularly frequented establishments characterized by moral laxity (known as ECMLs in City parlance)". (Humphrey Harvester, fictitious wine critic).

Taste is very subjective. Critics’ style preferences have the biggest influence on scores
It always amuses me when critics disclose with great alacrity and seriousness their ‘completely independent reviews and opinions’ (from merchants or anyone else on the ‘sell side’), as though this form of ‘independence’ is the bedrock of their wisdom and the quality of their tasting notes and scores. What about disclosing their style preferences as well? 

You can never be truly independent of your personal style preferences, can you? Surely these are the most important factors a critic should disclose because they will colour every single tasting note and score but the critic never discloses them. Just look at professional tasters’ assessments – they very often differ on their opinions and scores.

Subjective versus objective
I recognize that good tasters can isolate some of their subjective style preferences to facilitate objective wine assessments and that they can generally agree on broad categorizations of wine by quality. Most experienced wine drinkers could spot the large difference in quality between, say, a simple NZ sauvignon blanc v’s Dagueneau’s Silex from Pouilly-Fumé, or a Côtes du Rhône v’s Vincent Avril’s Clos des Papes from Chateauneuf-Du-Pape. But most wines are in the middle range of quality, not at the outer edges like my examples, and agreeing on assessments in this middle range becomes much harder.

In this middle ground, my own experiences (as a 46 year old I have drunk my fair share of fine wines and ‘belly wash’ over the past 25 years of working, living and travelling in the UK, France, Asia, Africa and the Americas) and voracious reading of wine critics and commentators have convinced me that a taster’s subjective style preferences easily trump his or her objective assessments of quality when it comes to scores. Assessments of quality (even some faults) and styles are so subjective and influenced by personal experiences, perceptions, idiosyncrasies and style preferences that these make a very big difference to scores.

For example, what some tasters would call a fault (e.g. brett, the odour which smells like a barnyard in some red wines), others would call a positive. On style preferences, some may see oak, extraction, sweet tannins and fruit as negative attributes while others may see these as positives. Also, people can have differences in sensitivity to odours and flavours (e.g. 30% of the population can’t detect rotundone which creates the peppery aroma in Syrah). If you can’t smell some of the more subtle aromas, you may mark the wine lower. In this middle ground, a taster’s opinion on quality is so subjective and influenced by how he or she perceives a so-called fault or certain characteristics.

Just look at the following examples of descriptors and see how 2 different tasters, each with a different style preference, could use polar opposite adjectives to describe the same wine. One taster’s ‘rich and concentrated’ wine could mean an ‘over-extracted, unbalanced jammy fruit bomb’ for another. Who is right or wrong? Well, that is just a matter of opinion.

Style preference: big, fruity, oaked, alcoholic wines
Style preference: Elegant, mineral, subtle wines


Positive descriptors
Negative descriptors
Concentrated, rich, saturated
Over-extracted, jammy fruit bomb, unbalanced
Toasty, espresso
Over-oaked, bitter
Hedonistic
Unnatural, manipulated
Under ripe
Old style, subtle
Voluptuous
Over ripe, lacking structure
Powerful, viscous
Alcoholic
Intriguing, flawed
Faulty


Negative descriptors
Positive descriptors
Insipid
Elegant, subtle fruit
Light weight
Mineral, silky tannins
Bretty
Earthy, gamey
Oxidative or astringent or light weight or quirky
Natural
Acidic
Fresh

I am not saying that tasting is completely subjective, and I accept that there is some expertise involved in identifying various aromas and flavours which the professional wine critic has developed during the course of his or her career.

However, no matter how hard they try, there is a level beyond ‘being objective’ where professionals will score certain wines down when others rate the same wines up because of personal experiences, perceptions, idiosyncrasies and style preferences. The taste of wine isn’t simply a question of what is in the glass.

Humphrey Harvester, the fictitious wine critic
Let me indulge myself for a minute. I like the idea of a fictitious critic (let’s call him Humphrey Harvester) unpacking his heart and writing an honest introduction of himself on his site. Serious, legal disclaimer: this is a completely made-up character (although you see a number of look-alikes in and around Chelsea, Daylesford Organic farm shop in the Cotswolds, Courchevel 1850 and Rock, North Cornwall) and any similarity to anyone is completely coincidental, blah, blah, blah.

Here is the introduction on his web site humphreyharvester.com (the web site doesn’t exist – I checked):

“I am completely unattached and have no interest in any vineyard, producer, distributor, retailer or any other wine business. I therefore offer up completely independent reviews and opinions.

However I have a severely depleted nose and palate, ruined by the excesses of fast food, recreational drugs, lager, fags and oral sex while at school and university, followed by 10+ years in the City as a Banker where I regularly frequented establishments characterized by moral laxity (known as ECMLs in City parlance).

As a result, I have the olfactory receptors of an amoeba. My nose and palate are not tuned to the acidity, delicacy and nuances of style, fruit, flavor and aroma of old style, authentically made wines. I like vindaloo-style wines – you know, the sorts of wines which taste the same whatever the producer and country in the world, whatever the time of day or night: big, hot, rich, thick, succulent, saturated in sweet ripe fruit, dominated by blackberry paste, braised plum, crushed fig, vanilla and toast.  The sort of wines which bring me out in a warm, comforting flush (like sitting in front of a crackling fire at our house in the Alps) so high is the alcohol level.

As a result, these are the types of wines I always score highly, probably by 5-10 points more than austere, old world wines with that nebulous characteristic of terroir or sense of place. And I can’t possibly score one of those insipid, natural wines (which taste of Chateau de Coq-Rot) higher than 80 points.

I also have the liver and constitution of a bison, as well as a very understanding wife and 7 dysfunctional children (from three different marriages) who don’t mind me spending months away from home whilst tasting and eating at the world’s great vineyards and restaurants”.

I felt I should disclose these personal style preferences because they have a large bearing on how I describe and score wines.

Like Humphrey, why do critics never mention these types of critical attributes and arrangements? I think this would give the reader a far better insight into the critic and the usefulness of their scores, rather than a bland “I am independent”.

Disclosure of preferences would help
I know I am being facetious but there is a serious point here though; as far as tasting notes are concerned, critics could reveal their preferences: “I like big wines with gobs of fruit, vanilla and espresso notes” or “I have a predilection for austere wines which a light in alcohol and fruit but express minerality and complexity” or “I like all styles but it really depends on what I am eating and who I am with because I score context as much as what as is in the glass”.  It is very difficult to claim that ‘this palate is good’ and ‘that palate is bad’ because taste is so subjective but you could describe what types of wines you like which would give an indication of what type of palate you have.

For the consumer, this would be very useful to know in a critic’s preamble because they could then select critics to follow, in the same way they should select a wine merchant – i.e. one who mirrors their own preferences.

For some critics, they wouldn’t want to disclose this of course because it would box them in and force them to admit that tasting is so affected by personal preferences. Critics want you to believe that taste is a product of what is in the glass, that they can review any wine impartially and scientifically, detect a litany of different fruits, tobaccos, compotes and teas, and then distil it down to a definitive tasting note, score and ageing profile. But tasting is predominantly an art not a science and its beauty is in the mouth of the beholder.

Disclosure of personal preferences would create another layer of complexity for some websites branded eponymously (e.g. erobertparker.com or jancisrobinson.com) where they employ multiple reviewers, presumably all with different preferences and therefore opinions and scores. To get the most out of a critic, don’t just choose the website; you need to choose the right critic who matches your own preferences.

Jamie Goode has written an excellent article on the art and science of tasting wines called “Wine tasting: subjective or objective” which I would recommend people read. http://www.wineanorak.com/subjectivity.htm