Michael Fridjhon: Are wine critics speaking past consumers?
By Michael Fridjhon, 24 January 2024
Sometime late last year Jancis Robinson shared the results of a survey conducted in the UK among wine buyers who shopped at independent outlets. The research asked several penetrating questions – ranging from where people seek advice about wine buying to what style of wine they actually like. The responses – at least in respect of where consumers look for guidance – were at least a little surprising: 56% of them are influenced by recommendations from family and friends, 46% of them by what’s recommended by wine-shop staff, and only 22% of them take any notice of recommendations in magazines and newspapers.
Jancis confessed herself a little disconcerted by the relative lack of interest in the opinions of critics and wine writers. I might have guessed a higher percentage of UK-based consumers would have turned to columnists and websites. It is one of the wine-consuming countries where wine drinkers are well served by an independent wine press, and by regular columns in many of the national and regional papers.
Insofar as South Africa is concerned, I’d be very surprised if 10% of high-end wine is sold on the strength of the opinion of a critic or wine writer. Wine columnists have been a threatened species for decades. The only hard copy source of information is the Platter’s guide, and its print numbers are down to about a third of what they were 25 years ago. If you don’t own a copy (or subscribe to the online version) you can’t access its ratings. WineMag’s scores, and mine on Wine Wizard, are behind paywalls. Show results are readily accessible, but it seems likely that they exert their greatest influence at retail – where the stickers help to provide a level of endorsement to wine drinkers wandering through retail space seeking guidance or inspiration.
However, to go back to the UK survey, the really interesting revelation was the difference between the styles of wines sought by consumers, and those celebrated by the critics. Regular wine drinkers – it appears – want full-bodied and smooth wines, at least to judge from the 3 000 responses received by the drinks market data specialist running this particular survey. The focus of those who write about or market wine appears to be entirely at odds with this. As Ms Robinson puts it “words such as elegant, fresh, refined, pure, subtle, finesse and ‘fantastic acidity’ pepper current wine descriptions, even in the tasting booklets of those retailers who cater to the mass market” – criteria which are on the other side of the taste spectrum.
So here you have it: the punters want big rich wines, the critics punt refinement and elegance. You could take this even further: consumers want opulence, free of bitter tannins, ripe and ready to drink. This is not vastly different from what ensured Australia’s success in the UK 25 years ago, and which is still what sells California’s high-end wines. The wine writers in the UK – and so to an extent the critics in South Africa – are celebrating something wholly different from the vinous aesthetic sought by their audience. It’s hardly surprising that when people come to choose which wine to buy, recommendations from friends and family are more useful to them than suggestions from wine writers.
This dichotomy is not limited to wine: in most fields of aesthetics there is a glaring disconnect between what critics are keen on and what is successful in popular culture. The term often used is “high-brow” when it comes to art, and “geeky” when it comes to wine. It’s only a problem when there’s a confusion between commentary and its target market, and when the language of the critic doesn’t make clear what is being appreciated. If someone is looking for a rich, plush, succulent red, descriptions like “refined, pure, subtle, finesse and fantastic acidity” are hardly likely to induce purchase.
The more serious consideration is surely when critics believe that the styles they would like to drink are intrinsically better and more sophisticated than those preferred by their readers. Besides the disrespect inherent in this position, it imposes a value judgement on an aesthetic choice. If I want to drink a rich and multilayered shiraz like Grange (a wine whose inherent quality is not in dispute) and you prefer a Northern Rhône style of syrah – say a Guigal La Mouline – we are looking for entirely different taste experiences from the same variety. I’m simply failing in my job as a critic if I take too narrow a view of the aesthetic options available to review, or if I direct my comments to wines which my readers are unlikely to want to buy.
Consumers gravitate towards the critics with whose views they are generally in agreement. In other words, you choose your source of information on the basis of comfort and reliability. Winemag.co.za is more focused on geeky wines, which serves those readers who are more interested in (by way of an example from a recent posting) Minimalist Stars in the Dark Syrah than in the latest Stellenzicht release. Relevance is a function of compatibility. In wine writing, as in matters of the heart, it’s important to choose carefully.
- Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.
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