Robert Millman on Reviewing and Rating Wines

by Robert Millman

As someone who has been writing about, describing, and rating wines for many years, I have often thought about the practical and ethical dimensions of this process. It seems to me that there are three interests at stake in writing professionally about wine: The subscribers, the wineries and the business which publishes these reviews. Are they in harmony or are there possible conflicts of interest which can arise from the complexity of all the facets involved?

First and foremost, the obligation of reviewers is to serve subscribers by publishing accurate and useful descriptions of the wines in question including information about terroirs, vineyard management and winemaking that influence the taste and quality of the wines. Then comes the problem of assigning a score to the wines. We often hear about grade or score inflation which likely began when Robert Parker began giving scores above 95 on a regular basis in the 1990s. To be sure Parker still rated most wine he liked in the low 90s. In America, Steven Tanzer, Ian D’Agata and David Schildknecht were reluctant to push the scoring envelope to the degree that Parker had. During the hey days of the International Wine Cellar, a score of 93 indicated a superb wine meriting serious consideration. Everyone who read Parker and Tanzer knew this. Friends of mine used to joke that you need to add 3-4 points to a Tanzer score to get to the Parker score. How much did this matter? Well from a business perspective, higher ratings translate into more subscriptions.

This brings us to a conflict in principle between the primary interest of the business which is to serve its subscribers honestly and skillfully, and the interests of the business as such which is to maximize subscriptions and profits. Can these two interests be fully reconciled? This is the dilemma facing anyone who wants to earn a living from writing about wines. Ideally, the two interests can harmonize. But it never was, and is not now, an easy task. Far too many wine writers have succumbed to the 95-and-above scoring system along with descriptive prose to match. This is particularly egregious in reviews for classified Bordeaux, expensive California Cabernets and to a lesser extent Barolos and Rhone Red wines. The problem is that it raises expectations which too often lead to disappointment when subscribers taste highly praised wines. Two wine writers—Jasper Morris and Allen Meadows have solved this potential problem by keeping their scoring under control and writing terse, helpful notes about the wines they review. Both reserve high scores and more florid prose for a small percentage of truly exceptional wines. They are aided in this process by the fact that they are reviewing Burgundies where there is a complex hierarchical official classification of wine into 5 levels: Bourgogne, Village wines, Lieu- Dits, Premier Crus and Grand Crus. This complex hierarchy, based on reality, imposes a certain restraint which is not true for wine regions where it is entirely about individual wines and the wine maker.

This leads to another complexity which can lead to a conflict of interest—though it does not have to. Most wine writers visit wine regions, estates and individual vignerons. Perhaps the most exciting part of writing about wines is speaking with those women and men who make the wines we taste and review. Wine does not make itself. Terroir does not produce wine by itself. Good vignerons are stewards who help actualize natural potential. It is fascinating to taste 6 Barolos from the same Cru made by six different growers. The resulting wines are always a synthesis of terroir, micro-climate and thousands of subtle interactions between human beings and the vineyards in which they labor. Is it the job of the writer to promote the growers, the estates they visit? One possible solution is to write only about those producers whose work over time seems first rate to the writer. But that is surely not everyone making Barolo or Burgundy. Isn’t part of the responsibility of the ethical wine writer to reveal the truth about those making less than outstanding wines? Alas there are consequences for such honesty. It takes quite a bit of courage to take on these consequences. Every wine maker wants to see high scores and prose of praise from a wine writer. How honest and objective can the writer be in dealing with the complicated human issues which arise in visiting estates?

Balancing all these factors is a difficult and at times nearly an impossible undertaking: Being fair and just to the growers, scoring responsibly and keeping a firm eye on the business as business is an imposing task. Taking the easy way out—very high scores, purple descriptive prose and always saying praiseworthy things about almost every estate—is not in my opinion the best way to earn a serious reputation among wine tasters.

Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman