What let you to the decision to be a wine critic and how did you feel when your first critic was published? (when was it?)
Having studied agricultural science to be a viticulturist and then winemaking to be a winemaker I figured I was entirely unsuited to either. So while I was completing my winemaking at Roseworthy College in 1984 I wrote a book, a wine primer called Thirst for Knowledge. It was the first thing I had ever written with the intent that someone other than a teacher or examiner would read, so I was rather surprised that people liked it.
The book created a lot of publicity, so on the back of it I found what could loosely be described as a career. I was incredibly excited, mainly because all of a sudden I was invited out to lunch and dinner about ten times a week. That was boom time 1980s Australia – when I seem to remember a lot more mornings than I do afternoons!
Perhaps more importantly, I quickly realised by the response from some winemakers that that it no small thing to criticise a wine – favourably or unfavourably – and that you had better know your stuff before you did.
What are your thoughts about the multiple wine bloggers who write wine criticism?
It’s just a change of medium. Years ago all you needed to do to become a wine critic was to convince an editor you knew more about wine than they did. Today all you need to do is blog. So everyone now has a view on wine, and everyone is giving scores out of 100.
I think however that people are beginning to become accustomed to the new social technology and are again wondering who indeed is giving the review, the comment or the opinion? I am finding that the ‘amateur’ bloggers (for want of a better term) tend to maintain a small collection of followers while those who get the bigger followings tend to know their stuff to a pretty high level. I also believe that again today there’s more value attached to a rating or opinion from someone who is considered to be an ‘expert’. That’s where I think social media is heading, which I guess is an evolutionary thing.
Who is the wine critic you value to be the most professional besides you?
I’m not so certain about the ‘besides you’ part of the question – but I do try my hardest! I have a lot of time for the work of Clive Coates and Allen Meadows. Sadly, too many wine critics in my country, Australia, appear more concerned to please wine makers than wine buyers. It seems that the words ‘Product of Australia’ on a wine label add between 5-10 points to its score out of 100. I’m strongly of the view that all wines should be marked on the same scale, regardless of price and regardless of origin.
Do you recall any wine criticism in which you made a mistake that was not taken well?
In my case it’s more the times when I have stuck my neck out to criticise an icon, especially certain vintages of Penfolds Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace. In the case of the first, I made myself thoroughly unpopular by slamming the 2000 Grange, a wine I still maintain should not have been released. I was at a Rewards of Patience Tasting in South Australia’s Parliament House when after a series of eminent scribes and winemakers I was asked for my opinion on the wine. Needless to say, I was on my own.
I spoke fairly strongly about how poor I thought the wine was and that Penfolds would be better off by not releasing it – thereby offering buyers the confidence that Grange would only be released when quality justified it. Needless to say I lost the argument, and Penfolds released a smaller run than usual, ensuring that its scarcity would make it one of the more expensive releases in time to come. Interestingly, the wine is not today considered to be a highlight – by some margin – and by most commentators.
Similarly, I felt I had little choice but to discuss the influence of brettanomyces spoilage yeast that impacted on several vintages of Hill of Grace, and I marked down those wines accordingly. At the time this was considered to be bordering lunacy by most trade, media and public, but it was my opinion so I ran with it. It turns out that most now agree with me.
The truth is that I get no pleasure at all from this process, since I fully understand the ramifications of this kind of comment. However, a critic’s job is to criticise, and a critic’s audience are wine buyers, not wine makers. Far too many wine writers fail to grasp these simple truths.
Interestingly, I have not been invited back to vertical tastings by either of these wineries since making my comments – even though what I wrote at the time about both wines is now widely accepted as fact.
What are you most proud of as a writer of wine criticism? Can you pinpoint a case in which you know you made a big difference by writing a wine criticism?
I think that Australian wine evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world from the 1960s until the late 1990s. Most Australian reds were bold, blocky, often jammy, badly oaked and poorly finished. Most of our rieslings were simple, dry and lacking structure. Most chardonnays were fat, blousy and entirely lacking in style and elegance.
I believe it’s important that for Australian wine to be accepted by international markets, it must be presented in a form that those international markets can recognise, identify with and enjoy, especially around a meal. The caricature high-alcohol styles of yesteryear that were at first popularised and then virtually painted into a corner of Robert Parker’s own creation have done untold damage to the perception of Australia as a country whose wine can stand up and be counted amongst the best.
For years I have beaten the drum that Australian wine can indeed meet international standards of elegance, balance, structure and complexity without giving up a single iota of their Australian identity. To give them immense credit – since they’re the ones taking the financial risks – many of our makers have responded to this challenge. I can now present a wide diversity of brilliant Australian wine to my international wine collecting friends who now delight in the fact that they can access wines from Australia that they really want to collect and serve at their own tables.
Of course I’m far from being the sole reason for this very significant change, but it is certainly gratifying to have been part of the process.