Am Empty Theatre

Wine reviews and shows. We put a LOT of faith in them. We pay fortunes in entry fees, and send bottles around the country, the world.  And I will keep doing it in the hope of some glistening medals, laudatory words and high points.

But I do kinda wonder…. For whom are the reviews written? The trade? The gatekeepers? The drinkers? And if the latter, which end of the drinking public? The beginners,  who possibly need the guidance more than any? The jaded know-it-alls chasing the next “cult” wine to be the first to parade before their friends? The genuinely interested,  with a degree of knowledge?

And how many of these can truly understand how these reviews differ from one another? How does the hundred point scale relate to the twenty point scale,  or the occasional appearance of the fifty point scale? Because it is not a mere matter of basic mathematics.

Medals. What warrants a gold, a silver,  a bronze?  What does “Commended” even mean?! And how does one wine ‘beat’ another when they are not even in the same competition? (Although the latter is probably only the fault of one particular online retailer….)

How does a good in one show relate to a silver in another?  Why do some shows appear to have more weight and import than others? Why is Parker so venerated?

What does it all mean?

Well, for the wine producer, it can mean a huge boost in sales. Or a huge boost in sales for a competitor. Or just a winning glow, and some satisfaction. Or something somewhere in between.

But it does look a little like a community theatre group, where the players are also the audience, and the audience the players. The players know that the audience gets the intricacies, and in-jokes drive the narrative, because they are also performers of the same script on another night. They might bring along some family and friends to fill out the theatre, but where are the people these scripts were written to entertain? Where are the audience, and are they in on the jokes?

Understanding the mentality of the audience is key when staging a play. What will entertain and what exceeds expectations, and what warrants applause are the drivers of a good director. How to elicit approval, and cause joy. And yet the reviews range from the ineffably technical to the barely educated but joyous. Outside of the trade reviews – a different beast, and clearly written with that audience in mind – the majority of wine writings are syndicated across states and publications, and the reader could be anyone. So, does the writer simplify the style, or aim high? Do they understand their readership? Do they need to understand their readership?

And yet. My father: avid wine drinker, interested, spends a bit if not a lot. Knows he doesn’t know enough, and so reads reviews. He asked me the other day for whom the reviews are actually written? He reads the same reviewers week in week out but sees no insight, and little consistency across the scores or recommendations written. And he is confused and frustrated. He wonders how a wine at is worth 92 points to a writer, and how that differs to a wine rated 88 points. Surely the 92 point wine is better, but is it $10 better? $20 better? Is the 88 point wine good at all, or do only 90+ point wines matter? And if so, why?

I pointed him in the direction of a couple of blogs and publications which I thought might assist. He has taken a particular liking to OzWineReview (@ozwinereview) for Andrew’s clarity. The simple: Would I Buy It now at the base of each review makes sense to him. The writing style takes into account the enjoyment of the wine in the glass, rather than a pure score in isolation. The details are front and centre: label, region, cost, and these areas addressed for the most part within the review.

And herein lies much of the issue: many reviews are blind, and conducted very much in the context of technical analysis. Which explains the popularity of wine bloggers. Much like food bloggers they are consumers and very much about the pure enjoyment as opposed to critical dissection of the wine. The technical reviews are great for wine industry, and the more educated trade, but rarely actually speak to the consumer. Who buys the wine, investing in the potential experience. Reviews, points, medals: surely the purpose of these is to direct the consumer to a bottle they will appreciate? And if the reviews are not able to communicate this effectively, what purpose do they then serve?

I appreciate the technique and the effort put into the critical analysis. I respect utterly the knowledge required. But if there is no consistency in scoring, or the consumer is befuddled, who then is the intended audience?

Assessing such a diverse product is always difficult. My tastes are different to yours, so how to convey what I love about a wine whilst understanding it may have limited additional appeal to you. I actually think the natural wine evolution (devolution?!) has forced many of us to find different expressions for the wines we are tasting. And many of these terms are less technical, and more every day – for want of a better term. And on occasion, are more emotional and evocative.

Evocative. That’s what I’m chasing here, along withsome context. Something a wee bit more evocative and relatable. Is this an answer? Is there even an issue?

I wonder. If we asked ten reviewers and judges to describe the same wine for the wine trade and again for a mate wanting to understand the joy that can be that glass of wine, would the language be the same?

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