Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

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Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Cam Wheeler » Thu Jul 20, 2006 8:00 pm

I would like to pose to you the question as to what is reasonable when reviewing wine.

I recently attended a trade show and tried what I believed to be one of the faultiest wines I have ever experienced, mercaptan/dms/barnyard dominant. I mentioned this to the winemaker who was pouring the wine, but he found it to be sound and wasn't interested in trying another bottle (this may become clear as to why in a moment).

The event was held over two days and some friends who are in the industry tried the wine without being told about it from me, from a fresh bottle the next day and found it just as unfit to be consumed with one stating “Summer Nat burnout ring, mercaptan, DMS, DMDS it had the works”.

Taking all this into account, I wrote up my quick notes in February and put them on my wine website and I stated that I had hoped that this wine was an off-bottle as the propritors seemed nice, but that I could only review what was in the glass on the day. I gave the wine 50 points as it was, in my opinion the most faulty wine I've tasted and I couldn't find any redeeming qualities or imagine it being any worse.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and I receive a threat of legal action from the winery in my email, saying that if I do not remove the reviews further legal action will be taken. Not exactly the way to get me onside to your cause as a first contact! This is the action that I think someone would take if they knew the wine was bad, they didn't want to talk about it or offer to send me a new sample to turn my opinion - they wanted my opinion removed and they didn't mind thinking that they might be able to bully me into it.

Needless to say I didn't remove the review and I responded to say that writing a review or having an opinion be it good or bad isn't illegal. There is a bit more to the story, but I'll finish here for the point of my post.

Should wine reviewers (that includes people who post on message boards, personal sites etc) hold back reviews of bad wines? For me a problem with the old style media (newspapers, magazines etc) is that due to a lack of space they cannot publish bad reviews and will concentrate on positive opinions. This is something that wineries have probably gotten used to and they are not going to like the new style media with unlimited space and quite a bit of reach through regular readers as well as people looking for information on the wine via search engines.

I know that making wine is not easy, and that it requires passion and dedication especially from small producers in these tough times - so I do not especially want to cause hurt to any one, but on the other hand I do want to make sure that the readers of my site, people who read my posts on message boards and those consumers that are looking for information on wines have as much information available to them as possible.

I would appreciate any feedback. If you want to read the brief notes (keep in mind they are brief impressions from a trade show, so they are brief!) they are here -> http://www.camwheeler.com/wine/?p=144 and my full response to the situation is here -> http://www.camwheeler.com/wine/?p=207
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Ian Sutton » Thu Jul 20, 2006 8:21 pm

Cam
Might it be fair to also add that they've since dropped the threat of legal action (as per thread on Oz board). Still a valid topic for all of us to consider, but I guess it's fair to give the full picture...
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby MtBakerDave » Thu Jul 20, 2006 8:23 pm

Seems like your website doesn't work with IE7.

What's Urchin Tracker, by the way?

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Cam Wheeler » Thu Jul 20, 2006 9:00 pm

Ian Sutton wrote:Cam
Might it be fair to also add that they've since dropped the threat of legal action (as per thread on Oz board). Still a valid topic for all of us to consider, but I guess it's fair to give the full picture...
regards
Ian


Ian, well they didn't actually say that they wouldn't pursue that path. The second email just failed to mention anything about the threat.

Still, you are right - it looks like they won't be going down that path.

I haven't mentioned their name here because I really wanted to get some feedback on the topic of reviews and where to draw the line rather than this specific situation.
Last edited by Cam Wheeler on Thu Jul 20, 2006 9:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Cam Wheeler » Thu Jul 20, 2006 9:02 pm

MTBakerDave wrote:Seems like your website doesn't work with IE7.

What's Urchin Tracker, by the way?

Dave


Dave,

I'll download IE7 and see if I can find out what is going on there.

Urchin Tracker is the old name for Google Analytics (website statistic tracking/graphing etc) before they bought it out.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Thu Jul 20, 2006 10:46 pm

I guess the upshot of this is that honest criticism can sometimes provoke an emotional response from someone who feels they're the object of that criticism.

From here, anyway, it sounds as though you gave an accurate description of the wine you drank. If you're not going to do that, why bother putting notes up on the web? I assume you do so to communicate something that's of interest to readers, so your first obligation is to be honest to them. If you're given a wine that's clearly not sound, I think you need to say something about it. You didn't go out of your way to bash the winemaker or to be unkind. You gave their other wines reasonable reviews. With a small winery that needs the best publicity it can get, I can see trying to mitigate the negative review as much as possible. But when you get down to it, as a critic you owe your readers the truth. IMHO, you did the right thing and you should continue to do so.

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Robin Garr » Thu Jul 20, 2006 11:40 pm

Cam, under US case law as I understand it - and of course Australian law may vary - a producer who is the subject of fair criticism has no cause for action, <i>even if such criticism is expressed in strong or even exaggerated terms</i>.

If critics are not permitted to express fair criticism, for better or for worse, than what's the point to it at all?

In this instance, I consider the winery's behavior outrageous, an example of corporate deep-pockets bullying at its worse. If I were in your shoes, I doubt that I'd have been so genteel ... I'd have made every effort to blacken its name in the farthest reaches of the Internet, then go visit the owner at his home and plaster a copy of my comments on his nose. But that's just me ...
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:07 am

C`mon man, tell us what you really feel!!
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Sam Platt » Fri Jul 21, 2006 9:26 am

Cam, In a similar vein I wrote a strong criticism of a book on creationism some years ago. The author took extreme offense and hired a lawyer who sent an official sounding letter stating that I had "defamed" his client. In the end it turned out that I could criticize in the harshest possible language, and defamation only came into if I had published untruthes about the author. Which I hadn't. Nothing more came of the matter.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Thomas » Fri Jul 21, 2006 9:33 am

Cam, are you technically trained to pick out mercaptan, or any other technical flaw?

If so, then your criticism should include that information. If you are not technically trained to pick out technical flaws, then in my opinion, your criticism should remain on the subjective level--describing the taste and sensations that you found offensive to your sensibilities and that is that.

As to the winery suing for a criticism--that's ridiculous.

Having said that, if I produced wine and an untrained individual told me something specific and technical was wrong with it, and I knew otherwise, I would challenge the critic to prove it.

In other words, a critic should also take responsiblity to be careful as it can affect livelihoods, if not the bottom line.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Robin Garr » Fri Jul 21, 2006 9:36 am

Sam Platt wrote:In the end it turned out that I could criticize in the harshest possible language, and defamation only came into if I had published untruthes about the author. Which I hadn't. Nothing more came of the matter.


That's fully consistent with case law as I understand it. There was a landmark case in the 1990s involving The New York Times in a suit brought by a Chinese chef who made noodles by hand. A Times critic had penned a hilariously savage review, but the court threw out the chef's suit, concluding, basically, "of course critics exaggerate, to make a point." As I understand it, the decision underscored very broad latitude for critical language. I'm not a lawyer, but as a guy who makes his living from published criticism of wine and food, you can bet I was paying very close attention.

(Remember, though, Cam is in Australia, and it's possible that local law differs.)
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Cam Wheeler » Fri Jul 21, 2006 10:23 am

Thomas wrote:Cam, are you technically trained to pick out mercaptan, or any other technical flaw?


Hi Thomas,

I am not, but my brief note made no mention of mercaptan - it simply read "I’m sorry to say this, but this was the most faulty wine I have ever tasted. Dominant onion skins, rubber, and some barnyard characters on the nose with the palate living up to the promise of the nose."

The “Summer Nat burnout ring, mercaptan, DMS, DMDS it had the works” quote in my original post was from someone working in the industry for many years - I don't know if they are professionally trained but they have experience on both the retail and the winemaking side of the fence.

Robin,

I'm not certain what the letter of the law over here is, I generally stick to putting forward my opinion and not trying to exaggerate. I should probably seek out some advice from a legal professional in case this occurs again.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Jul 21, 2006 11:05 am

Cam, I'm not an expert in Australian law, but had some experience with commecial defamation in two cases involving my company a few years ago.

There is no equivalent of the US First Amendment in Australia, and US principles will not apply.

As one law firm seeking to drum up business in Australia recently put it: 'The laws of defamation are complex and in Australia vary from state to state. But, broadly speaking, when words or pictures about a person are published to a third party, that diminish or are likely to diminish the person's reputation, then that person is said to be defamed." http://www.slatergordon.com.au/ourservi ... ionlaw.htm

I know there are some excellent Australian lawyers who are also winelovers -- there must be informed learning on the legal issues available in the area of wine criticism.

From a US perspective, you would be on very sound grounds absent a storng showing of malice on your part. Sitting behind the First Amendment, I'd say go for it. As a consumer I would like to have the information.

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Ian Sutton » Fri Jul 21, 2006 11:43 am

Cam Wheeler wrote:I should probably seek out some advice from a legal professional in case this occurs again.

Cam
My initial thought is that you should drop a letter or email to James Halliday. With his legal background, if he doesn't know (I feel sure he would), he'd have friends and ex colleagues who would.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Sam Platt » Fri Jul 21, 2006 11:56 am

Bob Ross wrote:But, broadly speaking, when words or pictures about a person are published to a third party, that diminish or are likely to diminish the person's reputation, then that person is said to be defamed."


Bob, That is very interesting. It seems the qualifier is the phrase "about a person". If someone writes "Sam Platt is a gin guzzling cat torturer" as fact, and I can prove it to be untrue, then I have been defamed. However, if they write "The SAE paper presented by Sam Platt was poorly written..." they are criticizing my work, not defaming me. Would that not essentially be the same situation in Australia?
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Mark Lipton » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:03 pm

Thomas wrote:Cam, are you technically trained to pick out mercaptan, or any other technical flaw?


I'm a bit skeptical that it requires any technical training at all to recognize a mercaptan. Most people have smelled rotten eggs (H2S), skunk "perfume" (n-butyl mercaptan) and the odorant placed in natural gas in the US (t-butyl mercaptan) and recognized that they share a similar stinkiness that one might term "mercaptan" for lack of a better term. Likewise, most people have enough experience smelling vinegar to know VA when they smell it.

Having said that, if I produced wine and an untrained individual told me something specific and technical was wrong with it, and I knew otherwise, I would challenge the critic to prove it.


I can understand that insofar as some people feel compelled to comment on winemaking procedures such as barrel aging (and choice of oak), racking, pigeage, etc. However, smells are smells and many non-winemakers can recognize certain characteristic smells when confronted with them.

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In other words, a critic should also take responsiblity to be careful as it can affect livelihoods, if not the bottom line.[/quote]
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Jenise » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:17 pm

Robin said, "then go visit the owner at his home and plaster a copy of my comments on his nose."

Whew, such language from a pacificist!
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Thomas » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:29 pm

Mark,

If you read again what I posted you will see that I said, if a critic hasn't the technical training to offer proof, then it is best to confine the criticism to subjective sensory impressions and not to specific technical flaws--smells of rubber, onion, et al, is all that is needed. No need to say it suffered from mercaptan, which is a specific technical chemistry. So we are in agreement there.

On your premise that "most people can," perhaps, but how does the reader know if the critic is one of those "most people?" Some critics that I have read over the years really don't know what they are talking about some of the time, and I am sure almost any one of us can make that statement about one or anither wine critic.

It's fun and sometimes informative to criticize, but critics must also take responsibility for their words.
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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Howie Hart » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:32 pm

Cam Wheeler wrote:Should wine reviewers (that includes people who post on message boards, personal sites etc) hold back reviews of bad wines?

Here's an interesting review from a few years ago by Stuart Yaniger that has been commented on before:

Nathan pulls out an odd-looking bottle, a present from Joe Dressner, the infamous ''93 Overnoy Arbois Pupillon. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, but at the same time, no need to stick your face in its butt. Lightish color, showing plently of signs of oxidation, despite the huge sulfur content, both free and bound, not to mention an interesting mix of mercaptans. Imagine, if you will, shoving an M-80 up the hind parts of a skunk, shoving the skunk up the hind parts of a sweaty shepherdess with a yeast infection and on her period. Now the explosion ensues- catch her week-old thong (a gift from Brad Kane) as it flies by. Give it a good hard sniff and contemplate the layers of aroma. Voila! You have the Overnoy. It was all I could do to actually taste it. And I''m (gag!) pleased to report that (gag!) the flavor was consistent with the aroma. Well, at least if you mix in some battery acid. A wine too dirty for me to enjoy- contemplate that and be very, very afraid.

This Overnoy says a lot about Joe Dressner. Some clever guy would taste this and buy a bottle as a gag gift. Joe, ever the man truly committed to humor, actually bought this in quantity, imported it, and sells it for money. THAT is the kind of dedication and willingness to go the extra yard for a laugh that sets him apart from his fellow Man. Many thanks, Joe!

Six or seven glasses of water almost got the taste out of my mouth (though the memory of that horror will linger on for decades- need to call my lawyer about this).

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:36 pm

Incisive reading, Sam, but a couple of cautions: I'm not an Australian attorney and this firm was trying to attract individuals.

The cases I was involved with were both so called "trade libel" cases where one company claimed their product was better than another based on comparative scientific tests.

(Corporations are "persons" in the US; coming to this conclusion has a fascinating legal history, including one of Daniel Webster's great quotes in the Dartmouth College case in 1818: ""Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out. But if you do, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land. It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it.")

It would be great fun to read what an Australian lawyer thinks about what is permissible under Australian law. I hope Cam or Ian carry forward the idea of contacting Halliday.

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Jul 21, 2006 12:45 pm

"In this instance, I consider the winery's behavior outrageous, an example of corporate deep-pockets bullying at its worse. If I were in your shoes, I doubt that I'd have been so genteel ... I'd have made every effort to blacken its name in the farthest reaches of the Internet, then go visit the owner at his home and plaster a copy of my comments on his nose. But that's just me ..."

Robin, not one to ever dissuade you from any action you might take in pursuit of the First Amendment, you might consider what happened in the Diamond Jim and Dow Jones dustup: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutnick_v_Dow_Jones

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Bob Ross » Fri Jul 21, 2006 1:31 pm

Cam, there is actually quite a bit of law in Australia on this subject, and as several of us have mentioned, as recipients [and defenders] of the benefits of the First Amendment, some of it seems quite extraordinary.

A superficial search on the Internet turns up some interesting info:

1. Some idea of the perils of criticism is provided by the experience of arts and food critic Leo Schofield. He was sued by an Australian restaurant in 1984 after a tough restaurant review in the Sydney Morning Herald featured the comment that he had been served a lobster that resembled "albino walrus". The publisher paid out $100,000. http://www.caslon.com.au/defamationprofile7.htm

I haven't checked further than this site, but if accurate, that is an amazing result -- "albino walrus" is pretty tame criticism I would say.

2. "Australia has a crazy system of eight different defamation laws which has thrown up the following colourful cases over the years." http://www.crikey.com.au/articles/2002/ ... olist.html


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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Mark Lipton » Fri Jul 21, 2006 1:39 pm

Thomas wrote:Mark,

If you read again what I posted you will see that I said, if a critic hasn't the technical training to offer proof, then it is best to confine the criticism to subjective sensory impressions and not to specific technical flaws--smells of rubber, onion, et al, is all that is needed. No need to say it suffered from mercaptan, which is a specific technical chemistry. So we are in agreement there.


I guess that I'm grappling with what would constitute technical training and proof in this context. Winemakers get educated (presumably) about these things in enology classes or by apprenticeship in the cellar. As I said, I expect that the overwhelming majority of people can be exposed to hydrogen sulfide or t-butyl mercaptan and recognize them reliably. All that they lack, then, is the term "mercaptan" to put on those smells, which perhaps is your point: that various critics use the term inappropriately.

On the subject of proof, though: what, short of a GC/MS trace, is going to constitute proof? I've worked as a chemist for 25 years, but does that mean that if I smell dimethyl sulfide in a wine that I lack proof? Conversely, does my training as a chemist mean that I have proof? I'm confused.

On your premise that "most people can," perhaps, but how does the reader know if the critic is one of those "most people?" Some critics that I have read over the years really don't know what they are talking about some of the time, and I am sure almost any one of us can make that statement about one or anither wine critic.


I suppose that we assure ourselves of a critic's acumen in detecting flaws the same way that we assure ourselves of their tasting prowess. A case in point would be PA Rovani's claim last year that Hexamer's Rieslings were painfully sulfured (SO2). A number of people whose tastes I know and trust tasted those same wines and didn't find them overly sulfurous. My conclusion: Mr. Rovani is either overly sensitive to SO2 (as Laube is with TCA) or he's confusing the sensation of SO2 with something else. In any case, I know to view his future claims of over-sulfured wines with caution. Is that fundamentally any different from viewing Mr. Parker's claims of moderate use of new oak in Bordeaux with some amount of skepticism?

It's fun and sometimes informative to criticize, but critics must also take responsibility for their words.


Absolutely, but criticism is ultimately subjective and we must accord them a good deal of latitude in speaking their mind about the subject of their criticism, even if we vehemently disagree with their views.

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Re: Criticising Wine - What is reasonable?

Postby Robin Garr » Fri Jul 21, 2006 1:44 pm

Jenise wrote:Whew, such language from a pacificist!


Well, I was kidding around, mostly, with that last bit. But I didn't say I'd punch him, just paste a copy of my remarks in a place where he could see it. :)
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