Jamie Goode: How to understand the relationship between wine critics and consumers

By , 1 July 2024



I’ve read quite a few articles complaining that wine professionals are out of step with ‘consumers’, and that in our assessment of wine, we need to be more consumer friendly. This all sounds well and good – and very few feel they are able to question this, because to do so would put you in the position of not caring for the consumer. But it’s a very problematic position to take. I’m going to take that position, though, and to do this you will have to let me form my argument in stages. Do me the favour of reading to the end, before you cast my position aside.

First, there is no such person as the ‘consumer’. We need to segment the population of wine drinkers a bit, rather than allow this broad category to suit whichever straw-person argument we are going to build. There are different sorts of consumers, but here let’s take the broad-brush division of low involvement and high involvement consumers, remembering that people can behave differently in different situations. Low involvement is someone who consumes wines without having an interest in wine – they will never do something as abstract as read about wine, so we can rest easy that when we write we are not writing for them, unless (as I do weekly) you are writing a column of recommendations in a national newspaper. A high-involvement consumer is someone with an active interest in wine, who cares a bit about what they drink, and might go to a wine magazine or internet website or Instagram feed to get some information about wine.

Second, we must recognize the relationship between quality and style. Wine style and quality are two separate things, and this is where we get into the most trouble in discussing wine. Quality is best thought of as fitness for purpose. So the same wine can have varying levels of quality in different situations. Bring out a mature Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon of real pedigree and in a white-table fine-dining context this can be top quality. But sitting outside on a December day in Hermanus looking at the ocean eating seafood, this is lesser in quality than a cheap, crisp, ice-cold rosé. This sounds obvious, but we forget it. Quality is affected by context, but as wine professionals we have to assess quality in a neutral setting, and according to style. This is where we enter the tricky territory of personal preference. Good critics strike this complex balance well.

How do I approach preference as a critic? On one level, I am assessing quality within style: for example, I am stating that this is a really good example of a rich, modern, plush Cabernet Sauvignon, even though I’m not a fan of big, ripe wines. How much do I let my personal preference seep in? I think at the first level, it comes in with regard to the degree of ripeness that I think is legitimate. I’ll applaud the best examples of this genre, but at some point I’ll say, this has gone too far and mark the wine down for being too ripe. Others might naturally lean towards a riper, richer style of wine, and they might be less forgiving of the leaner, more chiselled, earlier-picked wines than I am. Or they might be less forgiving of the more natural wines with the occasional slight deviations, and prefer the more techno, super-clean approach. This is where the critics’ branding comes in. You assess each wine fairly, but it is impossible to strip out any stylistic emphasis or preference.

Here the concept of the ‘commercial’ palate is relevant. Some critics do sway more to riper, richer, sweeter red wines, which we sometimes describe in a slightly pejorative way as being ‘commercial’. This enrages the consumer champions, but it’s a reality. The reason we don’t tend to celebrate these wines is that they can be made anywhere and they all taste pretty similar, and lack the qualities that we celebrate in more interesting wines, which include a taste that is local, specific to a certain place, which can’t be replicated elsewhere. This is what makes wine so fascinating and interesting, and a valuable cultural entity. To celebrate its loss would be perverse and short-sighted: if we reduce wine to a nice tasting liquid in a glass, and commodify it this way, leads us into a dangerous place where wine is just the same as any other manufactured beverage.

The job of a professional in assessing wine is to tell the truth about what they think about the wine. Their job is not to second guess the taste of the consumer, and bias their assessment this way. It is entirely patronising for a professional to say this is the wine I like, but I think this is the wine you’ll like, without any other information. Of course, if someone says to you this is the style of wine I enjoy, can you tell me which wines are good in this style, then you adapt your recommendation to their palate. That’s different.

But what people come to a professional for is an honest opinion, built on solid tasting experience and good taste. They are looking for the model critic as described by David Hume: someone free of bias, with good sensitivity, and good aesthetic sense. Low involvement consumers are well served by the wines they are being sold. High involvement consumers – the people who are listening to the critics – are well served by critical opinion. That there might be a discrepancy is not a problem: this will always exist in any field, whether it is food, or fashion, or art, or movies. Popular taste often departs from critical opinion, but this doesn’t mean that the critics are out of touch or irrelevant. They are all part of a larger ecosystem and are doing their job. A food critic concentrating on fast food and large chains is entirely useless. So is a wine critic endorsing and second guessing the tastes of people with no real interest in wine who just want something cheap that doesn’t taste bad.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.


1 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Greg Sherwood | 1 July 2024

    Surely a very important role for wine critics is to add nuance, informed opinion and extra complexity to a specific wine category. To be expected to pander to low engagement consumers is suicide. They are not interested and don’t care anyway… so those mainstream wine commentators who perpetually bang on telling wine critics to dumb down their messaging “in order to connect with the real consumers” are doing everyone a disservice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.