Greg Sherwood MW: The Responsibility of a Wine Critic

By , 14 November 2019

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24

Anthony Mueller of Robert Parker Wine Advocate.

Here in the UK the clocks have now gone back an hour and the wintery nights are rapidly drawing in. Yup, it really does get dark before 4pm a la Arctic circle. But of course not only is October, November and December one of the most frenetic, make-or-break periods in the retail wine trade, it is also a time when many new premium releases arrive in the UK market. From Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2016 to Warwick Trilogy 2016, MR de Compostella 2017 to Eben Sadie’s 2018 Old Vine Series wines. Plenty of vinous treats to focus the minds and wallets of both the wine trade and consumers leading into Christmas. This year however, we have also seen the release in close succession of two important critical “report style” reviews of a broad swathe of some of South Africa’s finest wines. The Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate released the first reviews by their new critic Anthony Mueller who will be covering South African wines along with other North American categories, followed closely by the South Africa Report by the influential UK based critic Neal Martin writing for Vinous.com.

When Neal Martin was handed the reins at The Wine Advocate he also became the de-facto anointed son and successor to Robert Parker himself, the most powerful and influential wine critic on the planet. Having the responsibility for reporting on both Burgundy and Bordeaux placed Neal in an incredibly powerful position as a wine reviewer. But not only did Neal have to review these iconic regions, he was given the responsibility for South African wines – the only logical and practical solution for The Wine Advocate given the ease of travel to South Africa from London and the negligible time zone differences. I can still remember Neal Martin’s highly anticipated maiden report on South African wines. Humble and insightful with a clear tone that this was an area he was still getting to grips with but also one that he was honoured to review given the incredibly exciting range of new producers and new wines coming out of the most exciting “New World” wine region in the world. Despite this enthusiasm, there were still murmurs after the release of his report that many of the wines were scored too low “because he simply did not understand the wines or the regions they came from sufficiently.” However more realistically, it would in my opinion have been more likely a combination of Neal trying to be both cautious and conservative as well as because he was writing from an enviable critical vantage point as someone who really does taste the greatest wines in the world on a daily basis. Wines many of us in the fine wine trade could only dream of tasting once in our lifetime let alone regularly.

However cautious and conservative Neal Martin may have been in those early days, he was not scared to award high praise where it was genuinely deserved. Wines from Bruwer Raats, Eben Sadie and Mullineux among others had their high-quality wines rewarded with real critical praise. Where scores where perhaps slightly more modest but the wines impressive nonetheless, Neal seemed to take a page out of the great Bob Parker’s book and attempted to describe the wines with great aplomb and descriptive enthusiasm. This style of writing from Robert Parker undoubtedly led to the phrase being coined, “read my notes, not my scores.” Neal Martin is now a seasoned South African wine commentator and has earned the respect of producers and the greater South African wine industry. So it was with great relief that Neal agreed to continue reviewing South African wines when he made his high-profile move from The Wine Advocate to Vinous.com run by Antonio Galloni (another ex-Wine Advocate critic) when the magazine was sold to the Michelin Group.

Neal’s boots at The Wine Advocate where never going to be easy to fill in regards to reviewing Bordeaux and Burgundy let alone South Africa. With Bordeaux and Burgundy accounting for the lion’s share of critical meat for the revenue of the magazine along with Italy and California, these categories were hastily reallocated. South Africa as might be expected, was left out in the cold until the appointment earlier this year of Anthony Mueller. Never an easy task reviewing a fast-changing and evolving wine country like South Africa from afar, Anthony made his first trip to South Africa in a reviewing capacity in May 2019 and from all accounts from those who met him, was an amenable and agreeable fellow with an evident talent for tasting. Unfortunately, the publication of his first report and reviews on South Africa at the end of October revealed more of a rabbit in headlights than the persona of a self-assured, confident critic able to call out the real talent.

My initial negative comments made on Twitter after reading his report were born out of sheer disappointment, shock and disbelief rather than implied as any kind of personal attack on the character or skills of Anthony Mueller himself who I have admittedly never met in person. Nevertheless, when one is vested with such great responsibility and power for shaping views and opinions on so many winemaker’s livelihoods, the onus is on the critic to step up to the plate and prove their worth and skills, providing an accurate, educated and insightful appraisal of the wines they tasted. Sadly Anthony Mueller’s report and especially his critical scores reflect a reviewer blatantly out of their depth and out of their comfort zone in a wine country they have simply failed at the first hurdle to acquire any kind of nuanced and qualitatively accurate understanding of. Certainly a great opportunity for any top South African producers’ fortunes in the US market sadly lost and their hard work possibly even set back by several years. Not the Christmas present any of us selling South Africa’s finest and most exciting wines would have wanted. While I have no idea when Anthony Mueller will return to South Africa for a second bite of the cherry, let’s hope that he will, with time, learn to embrace the finest wines of the rainbow nation and begin to appreciate them as much as his predecessors have learnt to.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007

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Comments

24 comment(s)

  • Cyril18 November 2019

    All of the Cape Winemakers Guild wines, which are supposed to be the best barrels from the best winemakers, have only been rated up to 94 and 95 by Lauren at the Wine Enthusiast in September…

  • Hotstix16 November 2019

    how can people claim that scores are inflated? I mean, the wines are brilliant, and in the context of the upward trajectory in quality over the last 10 years, they make perfect sense. How many people disagreed with Kanonkop’s 100 pointer?

  • Duncan15 November 2019

    Another Mueller Report that pleases no one.

    Mr Mueller seems like a nice guy with a high-level of knowledge and interest in wine.

    Wine Advocate obliviously doesn’t think they have a strong enough commercial interest in sending someone with regional experience and expertise to cover SA and figured sending someone who clearly didn’t have the time and resources to prepare adequately for an entirely new region was better, in terms of their own interests, than no one at all. They may be right.

    Of course, that doesn’t serve the SA wine industry’s interests, but I wouldn’t expect a US commercial enterprise to shed too many tears over that.

  • keith15 November 2019

    Great article Greg. Agree 100% Cheers Keith

  • Barberesco15 November 2019

    Let me get this straight, you’re berating Mr. Mueller because his scores are not inflated like all the other major wine regions reviewed in the major publications. Have you considered that he rated the wines on a total world scale with 100 being reserved for the finest wine made in the world? Perhaps, he tasted all of the best of S.A. and decided that they aren’t at the level of the worlds finest Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello, Rhone, Riesling, etc. I’m no expert in S.A. although I have tasted many of the most acclaimed wines you mentioned and I’d have to agree that while there are several outstanding wines made they are IMO clearly not among the world’s greatest wines.

    It seemed that in his interview he was excited by the potential and looked forward to seeing the region develop. What’s wrong with realizing that you are very good to excellent but not quite at the very top, yet. It used to be that 95 was an outstanding wine. Now, in the race to be on shelf talkers to lure subscribers an old 95 is today’s 98. The score inflation in publications has made points almost meaningless anymore. Jay Miller got savaged for over-rating Spain in his first article for RP, even though he was rating the outstanding ’04 vintage. I don’t see anything wrong with rating them as you see them and challenging them to do better. Maybe you should be less parochial and try some wines from the Northern hemisphere.

    • Kwispedoor15 November 2019

      Let me get this straight, are you saying that Neal Martin generally gives inflated scores or is not familiar with Northern Hemisphere wines?

      • Barberesco15 November 2019

        Could you explain to me where exactly I mentioned Neal Martin in my comment? Yes, scores are inflated everywhere. As the publications struggle to sell their product (digital subscriptions), the numbers get higher and higher so they can be the ones on the shelf talkers and in the ads. Neal Martin isn’t as big a culprit as several others who have made their names on lofty scores but even Vinous, Decanter and WA have seen scores consistently creep upwards such that 94+ has now become an insult instead of the accolade it once was.

        • Kwispedoor16 November 2019

          “Let me get this straight, you’re berating Mr. Mueller because his scores are not inflated like all the other major wine regions reviewed in the major publications.” You’ve included Neal Martin in the quote above, unless you’d claim that he hasn’t reviewed major wine regions or hasn’t written for major publications. But I would also have thought that the connection is palpably clear, seeing as Martin has covered the same area for the same publication as Mueller, directly before Mueller. Martin is one of the very top most respected reviewers on the planet and you are clearly suggesting that his scores are inflated by defending the relative unknown Mueller’s much lower scores for the same country’s wines. Look, it would have been a different thing if The Wine Advocate is recalibrating all their scores across the board, but apparently that is not the case.

          • Kwispedoor16 November 2019

            Also, there is such a big chasm between Martin’s scores and general judgement/vibe regarding SA wines (you can include many other wine journalists with him) and those of Mueller, that you can’t possibly pick both their sides. If you support the one’s reviews, you’d have to reject the other’s. If you support Mueller on this, then you claim that Martin doesn’t know what he is doing.

    • Rioja15 November 2019

      ha ha ha – that is realy funny. being instructed not to be parochial and also being informed ” northern hemisphere wine is the best”
      dude get real man – if this guy was told he was drinking northern hemisphere wine he would have , like you, have rated it high.

    • Greg Sherwood MW15 November 2019

      “…maybe I should be less parochial and try more wines from the Northern Hemisphere.” I am actually a London based fine wine buyer for a top wine merchant, buying across all classical categories for the past 25 years. Not sure I would call my palate “parochial.” But I will take it on the chin. 😉

    • LawnSomm15 November 2019

      Man this is a sad piece. People whining because scores are not high enough! What a joke. Don’t we have enough Sucklings, Browns, and Jebs who give anything under the sun a 98 or higher? I congratulate Anthony for not being tempted to throw top scores around to gain acceptance and to rate what he truly thought. I am a huge fan and advocate of SA wines since my first trip there in 1999. I have watched them improve massively. I added many SA wines to my wine list in the early 2000s. But I have never had a SA wine that I felt could compete with the top wines in the world. I still collect and drink and serve many SA wines and I agree with Anthony’s reviews. I understand that when you are from or represent a region that these reviews might be disappointing and can trigger some to lash out and blame the critic. That is sad. Keep up the good work Anthony.

      • AB16 November 2019

        Never? You can’t have tasted many of the top SA wines then. Granted, most of our wines are nothing special, but the top tier, however small it may be, is easily world class.

    • Neil18 November 2019

      There’s no doubt that Europe produces a large percentage of the world’s finest wines. You are also perfectly entitled to have your opinions on what you refer to as score inflation. Others of course will disagree. We have however been informed by internationally acclaimed critics and publications that SA is producing a number of world class wines and that international buyers are recognising this by spending their currency to secure these wines. For me it would require a conspiracy theory (don’t you hate them?) to dispute all of their views. So herein lies the beef: Mr Mueller scores four wines 94 and none at world class 95-100. I don’t think it’s unfair for a lot of people to be disappointed by this.

  • Hennie Taljaard14 November 2019

    ha ha ha, this guy is clearly an amateur! talk about a blunder!

  • Neil14 November 2019

    Oh well I guess we need to throw away the opinions of Platter, Veritas, Old Mutual, Eedes, Neal Martin, Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, James Suckling, Decanter et al. Sigh.

    • rioja14 November 2019

      reading this upsets me , probably fair to say gets my blood close to boiling. but consider this: if this individual scored our wines very high we all would have nodded , been happy and thought highly of his palate.
      the truth is , and it is true , winetasting and scoring is a farce. similiar to fortunetelling,homeopathy, numerology, astrology and the like. the situation of the Shaman telling us how things are and how they will be. people dabbling in this are , wether they know it or not, selfserving. as a winedrinker if you dont know this you should. and we should call out “ the emperor has no clothes”

      • Kevin R15 November 2019

        @rioja I disagree – a lot of the readers on this site are critical when they feel a wine has been scored too high; in the same breath, I think Mr. Mueller was way off.

        • Rioja15 November 2019

          Kevin R I agree , I also feel that his scores are too low. however we have to realise that is our opinion informed mainly by our biases, as it is his informed by his own biases. to believe that wine appreciation and scoring is objective and repeatable is a fallacy and has been proven so many times. if he was presented these wines in northern hemisphere bottles he would probably have scored them very high. the discerning palate that can distinguish left bank from right is a romantic myth. so what I am saying if we do go along with this we have to take the good with the bad – how can you be upset with the fortune teller that predicts there is no large inheritance in your future?
          still I love reading the opinion and experience of others, especially on this site, and it has enhanced my wine experience greatly.

  • Greg Sherwood MW14 November 2019

    Kwispedoor… yes, you are right. I didn’t think of it like that but the management certainly threw Anthony Mueller in at the deep end and sadly, in my opinion, has sunk like a stone. This is far more serious than just a disagreement about his scores being a little different or a little lower. He has single handedly dismissed the entire South African fine wine category and rated it one notch above junk bond status. Re-reading his report and importantly looking at his scores of our top producers, I am even more dumbfounded and yet again rendered speechless. 4 or 5 wines at 94/100 as the very best South Africa can produce is an insult to the legion of producers striving to live up to the high expectations that come with being branded the most exciting New World producer on the globe! Perhaps someone told Anthony 95 points is the new 100 points? It is just so disappointing on so many levels. The Wine Advocate is one of the two most important wine review journals in the international market and they have a responsibility to provide reviewers with the correct level of expertise. Just paging through the scores for Mullineux, Eben Sadie, Alheit, David Sadie, Kanonkop, Raats, Porseleinberg, Boekenhoutskloof and so the list goes on… one is accosted by a riot of 88s, 89s and 90 points. The scores are so far off the legitimate, internationally accepted level of other respected mainstream critics that they are almost embarrassing for The Wine Advocate. But yes, perhaps the blame lies at the door of the management, not the worker?

  • Greg Sherwood MW14 November 2019

    Emile Joubert asked me to justify my comments. For peace of mind I’ve just re-read the report and all the scores and I’m even more dumbfounded by Anthony Mueller’s pronouncements and scores than before. He has singlehandedly Downgraded the SA fine wine category to a notch above junk bond status! His highest scores for the whole country… 5 wines at 94/100. You got to be kidding me. Makes me more and more upset the more I think about the damage this one report could potentially do in the US market. Negligence from the management is probably the correct assessment.

  • Kwispedoor14 November 2019

    Greg, it seems to me like The Wine Advocate was incredibly irresponsible/negligent from a corporate management point of view. Wine lovers all over the world know that South Africa’s wines (especially the top level ones) are on an upwards curve. How can they not intervene when the more inexperienced taster’s scores deviate so wildly from those of his much more experienced predecessor who also happens to have one of the best palates on the planet?

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