Reviewing reviews

Top 10 Tasting of NZ Pinot Noir

The life of a someone who writes about wine is a conflicted one. On the one hand you want to write honestly and enthusiastically about something you love; but on the other, there’s a conflict of being part of ‘the industry’.

Reviewing is, inevitably, one part of a wine hack’s work. And in order for me to write about what I think about a certain wine – I need to have that wine to open and taste, and consider. Ideally, I need the producer of that wine to send it to me, for free. ‘Wahoo’ you’d think, free wine!! Well, yes it is, but be careful what you wish for. The first box of wine that ever arrives at your door for you to taste is a great feeling — euphoric even… but when a box arrives daily, weekly… the shine definitely wears off. This is now a job — a pile of work to be done. I’m often behind schedule in my tastings.

I also don’t charge to review that wine. It is common to pay to have your wine reviewed by someone who knows what they’re doing. The price is in the region of $40NZ. This is to cover the time (expense) of doing the review, and I think that’s fair enough. But I choose not to charge the producer to taste the wine, as that gives me a sense of independence to then write what I honestly feel.

But, do I? I’ve had plenty of wines arrive to look at that are not going to get scores of over 90/100, or even 80/100. So what happens to those reviews? I’ll contact the producer and let them know that the wine isn’t getting a glowing write up, and (usually) we’ll agree to not publish that. And that is common practice. So, really, if you know of a wine that is new to the market, and there’s no reviews of it online — chances are it is rubbish.

Now, is that fair? Is that honest? To say nothing? My Mum taught me that if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing. But in this context, is that being truthful? Conflict – you see? I like to think that I support the New Zealand wine producers, and that I’m generally positive about New Zealand wine. I’ve never set out to ‘burn’ anyone in a review, but I also like to think that I’m independent and ‘professional’ about the words I publish.

When I set out to do writing — of any kind – I looked to an established journalist for advice and guidance. They said a few things that have stuck with me. One was ‘find something positive to say’. I did a lot of restaurant reviews when I lived in Bristol – in the UK – “Wahoo, free food” you’d think (again, it soon becomes a job). And although the food might not always (or even often) be five star; I might find the setting, ambience, service to be excellent, for example. Another piece of advice was “write it like you’re talking to your mates down the pub” — and I’ve usually tried to adopt that approach. That can be more difficult with wine – where the lingo is often clumsy, complicated or traditional. Talking about ‘on the nose’ and ‘palate weight’ aren’t phrases you drop into everyday conversation really.

Now, I’ve written about cars, travel, opera, food, raves, sport and a myriad of things in between. I sort of specialise in two things — ‘the arts’ and interviewing. Overall, I’d describe it as ‘telling stories’. To me, ‘the arts’ are the most important part of this puzzle we call life. The pinnacle of life to me is a poem, a performance, a song, a painting. These are the best that human life can achieve. Not climbing a mountain or scoring a goal. Those are admirable, but for me it’s bringing out what’s inside, into the outside. Thoughts and ‘soul’ onto the page, the stage, the canvas.

I’d put food — and wine — into that category. And if to be part of that involves critiquing the product, then I’m cool with having a go at that.

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