Sunday, November 30, 2008

Why I write negative reviews

There is just a bit of a brouhaha in the wining blogosphere about negative reviews. Some people write them, some don't. Should you? Yes. You should.

Why do people write wine review blogs? That is an interesting question, and it needs to broken down a bit.

First, why do people wine blog? There are as many reasons as there are bloggers, but they all come down to pretty much the same thing. They love wine, and today you blog what you love. It makes you feel a little closer, it gets you more involved, it makes you part of a community with the same interest, and it allows you to share your love with others. Of course, some people blog as part of a business, wineries, retailers, marketers, etc., but even they are doing something they love and joining a community of others that feel the same way.

Second, why do wine bloggers write wine review blogs? That's a slightly different story. There are lots of wine blogs out there that are not wine review blogs. Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog does not review wine at all. It blogs the wine business, and particularly the conflict between wine lovers and wine distributors (along with lots of other interesting things). The Wine Connoisseur blogs the news about wine. Dr. Vino does some reviews, but blogs the wine industry in depth as well. Then there are the straight review blogs. Good Wine Under $20 focuses on wines at a reasonable price. Wannabe Wino reviews what she drinks, often from winery trips. There are so many out there I can't do justice to them all. What they all have in common, though, is that they love wine, and they share that love with you, the reader.

That is what we do for ourselves. What do we do for the reader? We provide, I hope, a service. When I look at statistics from my own site I find that more than half my views come from wine searches. People type "Villa Maria" or "Rockaway" into the little Google box, looking for reviews. What do they find? If they come to my blog, they find positive AND negative reviews. If they go to other blogs they might only find positive ones. Are we doing those consumers a service if we do not warn them away from garbage? In my opinion, no. So why do some people only write positive reviews? Good question. Let's ask them.

From the tremendous and well-respected Vinography, Is there any point to negative wine reviews?

1. There was so much mediocre wine out there in the world that lukewarm or negative reviews could easily take up the majority of my writing time.

2. Writing negative reviews is about as fun as completing the writing comprehension section of the SAT.

3. People mostly want to know which wines are great much more than they want to know which wines to avoid.

and

a. Many times, I don't necessarily know that the bottle I happen to be reviewing isn't simply just a bit off -- whether from a fault that I am not detecting or identifying or simply due to bottle variation of some sort or another.

b. A bad review is quite damaging, because it is often read as a condemnation of the winery itself (despite any care or attention put to the contrary by the author) even though the particular wine in question could be part of a portfolio of truly stellar wines.

c. Likewise, bad reviews are often read (and written by irresponsible critics) as being absolute and categorical judgements about a winery, when in fact they are mere evaluations of a specific wine in a specific vintage. That particular wine could have been great the year before, or it could get great the next year. But bad reviews hang around in the minds of consumers like skeletons in the closet, much longer than they should.

d. Bad reviews also hang around in the minds of winemakers and winery owners a lot longer than they should. Like it or not, anyone who seriously attempts to write consistently about wine in a critical fashion has a symbiotic (or as Jancis Robinson would put it, a parasitic) relationship with the wine industry. Bad reviews burn bridges in ways that make it difficult for the writer to ply their craft.


Are these good reasons? In my own opinion, not at all. I am not alone, either. The very first person to comment in response asked:

What if you substituted "a good review" in the points above (a,b,c, and d)-does your logic also follow through (in the opposite direction) on these wineries?


Yup.

Now let's break that down a bit more, okay?

1. There was so much mediocre wine out there in the world that lukewarm or negative reviews could easily take up the majority of my writing time.


Really? Do you really drink that much bad wine? Why? I expect most bloggers are fairly discriminating about what they purchase. Do I get bad wine? Absolutely. But is it the norm? Nope. I generally don't buy something awful, and since I promise to write good AND bad reviews, people don't often send less than their best efforts.

2. Writing negative reviews is about as fun as completing the writing comprehension section of the SAT.


I respectfully disagree. In fact, I don't think I ever had more fun writing a review than when I channeled Dr. Suess and wrote a haiku for Deerfield Merlot Cuvee.

3. People mostly want to know which wines are great much more than they want to know which wines to avoid.


Upon what do you base this conclusion? I look at my statistics and find that people search bad wine as often as they search good wine.

a. Many times, I don't necessarily know that the bottle I happen to be reviewing isn't simply just a bit off -- whether from a fault that I am not detecting or identifying or simply due to bottle variation of some sort or another.


While this is true, it is equally true that the next sucker could end up with a bottle just as bad. Also, there is a huge difference between "this might be a bit flawed" or "it ain't great" and "oh man is this awful overworked over-alcoholed manufactured oak powdered crap."

b. A bad review is quite damaging, because it is often read as a condemnation of the winery itself (despite any care or attention put to the contrary by the author) even though the particular wine in question could be part of a portfolio of truly stellar wines.


Is a good review praising a winery itself, even if they have bad stuff in their portfolio? Also, isn't this best handled by the review? You don't just write "good" or "bad." You write a review, right?

c. Likewise, bad reviews are often read (and written by irresponsible critics) as being absolute and categorical judgements about a winery, when in fact they are mere evaluations of a specific wine in a specific vintage. That particular wine could have been great the year before, or it could get great the next year. But bad reviews hang around in the minds of consumers like skeletons in the closet, much longer than they should.


See (b), supra.

d. Bad reviews also hang around in the minds of winemakers and winery owners a lot longer than they should. Like it or not, anyone who seriously attempts to write consistently about wine in a critical fashion has a symbiotic (or as Jancis Robinson would put it, a parasitic) relationship with the wine industry. Bad reviews burn bridges in ways that make it difficult for the writer to ply their craft.


This is, by far, the worst reason not to write bad reviews. If you fear the wineries' reaction, then you are being bullied into the very parisitic relationship described by Robinson. If you accept that, even applaud it, then you have a credibility problem. Worse, if enough people do the same, then your credibility problem bleeds into the entire wine-writing blogosphere.

Other very well-known and well-respected wine bloggers also write only positive reviews, like Another Wine Blog:

Anyway, when a wine is reviewed on this site it is because we enjoyed it and we want to share that information with our readers. It is that simple. It does not make one bit of difference if a friend gave it to us as a gift, or if it came from one of our wine clubs, if it came from the grocery store, or if a wine industry person sent it to be reviewed, the review will be positive and it will be honest. Does anyone really want to hear about the Franzia that was served at some reception? Or the crap bottle the local wine megastore lackey conned me into buying because he is an idiot and ordered too much of it? I may write about the megastore or the lackey, but who cares about the bad wine? Besides, someone might like that wine. My palate is not omniscient, despite a drunken boast or two I may have made to the contrary.


Hey, wait a minute. I already know about the Franzia, but I sure want to know about the crap bottle before my own local wine megastore lackey cons me into buying the same thing. As for your palate, well, doesn't the same conversation go the same way for wine you like? Also, it is not just a matter your palate, unless all you write is "good" or "bad." If, on the other hand, you explain WHY you didn't like it- over-extracted, too hot, too sweet, out of character for the grape, etc., then people can judge for themselves whether to follow your recommendation.

Stop thinking about "wine review" for a minute and think about "review." A movie, two tickets, sodas and snacks, costs a fair chunk of change these days. Do you read movie reviews before you go? I do. Not just that, but I consider a poor review a favor. It is not just the reviewer's conclusion that matters, but the content as well. If a movie reviewer writes "this was not a good movie because it was poorly edited, jumped from unconnected scene to unconnected scene, and substituted gore and violence for a coherent story," I am going to take a pass. On the other hand, if it says "this was not a good movie because it had far too much gratuitous starlet nudity, but otherwise held together well," well, I'm going. Twice. See how that works? As wine writers, we WRITE, not merely opine.

Movies give us another more concrete lesson, too. Do you remember David Manning? He was a fictitious film critic created by Sony to create poster quotes. Sony ended up paying out $1.5M in settlement for that fraud. I am not equating positive-review-only bloggers with "David Manning." I do suggest, however, that positive-review-only blogs will hurt our credibility. People will start to wonder "is this another David Manning?"

Look again at your statistics. If a potential consumer Googles "Chateau Perfection" they will find it. But what if they Google "Chateau Plonque"? You know it's crap. You know it's Sahara meets Gigli, yet you leave them to discover that on their own.

Now add one more factor, free wine. Is there an added responsibility to write negative reviews if you are getting free samples? Or is that just cutting off your hand to spite your face, a guaranteed path to making the UPS guy a stranger, to a life of having to buy all your own wine? The answer, to me, is both. Yes, you risk missing out on freebies if the winemakers have a more "friendly" set of bloggers they can count on to laud the good stuff and bury the bad. At that point, though, you are a free PR arm of the winery. You might not be "David Manning," but are you getting too close? Are you at least Larry King, notorious as the softest interview in politics, instead of being Meet the Press?

What is the bottom line to all this? The blogosphere is still new, and the wine blogosphere newer still. We are still feeling out our place in the world. In my own very personal opinion, writing only positive reviews might score you a few more free bottles, but your free bottles might cost my credibility. It might also do a disservice to the next consumer with the bad luck to run into that wine megastore lackey.

One commenter in a related thread observed that my reasoning means I have to review every sample I receive. He's right. I do. See my wine review policy at the top of the right hand colum. I don't do it on anybody's schedule, but I do it. Do you?

18 comments:

Alex said...

I think the most important thing is to be honest with your readers - and that includes writing about the less than stellar wines.

If you're worth your wine-writing salt, the chances are you can reasonably objectively say "this wasn't a great bottle, but I'm prepared to give it (or wines from this winery) another go". At the end of the day - every bottle is different.

Often, it's in criticism that the reader will find the common ground - even if that common ground is to disagree. That in itself is useful - and a great way of building a dialogue with readers.

Of course a bad review has an impact - but there's a massive difference between one bad review and 20 or 30!

You might have guessed - I think the negative reviews have their place!

Jon Bjork said...

I definitely agree that negative reviews are important. For example, I've been a big fan of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, but haven't been blown away lately and have seen that WS is also equally unimpressed. It was nice to see that I wasn't just going crazy.

For my own blog in Lodi at http://www.lodinews.com/blogs/wineguy, I try to stay away from reviews as much as possible because there are too many local wineries that supply my income in the form of consulting fees.

I do occasionally, however, single out excellent bottles when I find them, especially if they are on sale in a local store, whether or not they are a client.

I also try to avoid advertising our own wine for fear of taking advantage of my platform in the newspaper.

I'm definitely not perfect, and would rather make mistakes on the positive, "glass half full" side, than on the negative side.

winedivergirl said...

I appreciate the reasoning and clarity for how you review wines. As people have been posting in multiple comments on many sites over the past months, I agree transparency goes a long way to support credibility. I do not think bloggers are the same as old media journalists, but would like to know who they are coming from and what they are about. And, in the improved (or at least increased) online WOM-networked culture, I look to my friends and people I know and trust, regardless of their particular expertise, to make recommendations (and that includes bloggers) on wine, restaurants, technology, dive sites, whatever! And they're just suggestions: we're not making diagnoses or writing prescriptions.

As evidenced by my favorite line in this post:

"On the other hand, if it says 'this was not a good movie because it had far too much gratuitous starlet nudity, but otherwise held together well,' well, I'm going. Twice. "

thanks for keeping a sense of humor...most appreciated.

Joe Power aka @houstonwino said...

The debate is not over whether negative reviews have their place, it is over whether we have an obligation to write negative reviews. If one writes a site entirely dedicated to reviewing wine, I would concede that you are correct on the majority of your points. In the case of a blog, such as mine, that approaches wine (and food) from an entirely different angle, then I would submit that you are seriously barking up the wrong tree by trying to apply the standards you have set for your own site.

As for Alder's article, I do agree with you about his last point. It is a bad one. However, on almost every other one of his points, his logic trumps yours because you are viewing his comments through the filter of your standards as applied to your vision of what a wine blog should be, ie your site.

You and I have similar writing styles in many ways, but we do approach our sites differently. As such we will make different editorial decisions. I would submit that we are only right or wrong in the context of our own sites, unless we try to apply those decisions to the other's site. Then we are most certainly wrong.

Charles said...

Bravo!

I am mystified about the other implication left unsaid-that winemakers have such thin skins they simply couldn't handle a bad review. Well, get over it. All of us are judged in our job performance, and you happened to pick a profession where your work product is in the public eye.

In dealing almost exclusively with Indiana Wines, I view it even more vital to give a negative review when needed. We are past the infancy point for this industry-it is time to produce higher quality vintages. While we should be respectful of the effort put into the bottle, we should not do everyone a disservice and praise what is unworthy. I trust that a reader who seeks out information about a wine will be savvy enough to realize that one vintage is not necessarily indicitive of all the winery's vintages.

Bill from Wine For Newbies said...

I agree negative reviews serve a purpose, whether the review is of a wine, play, album, movie, or whatever.

Creators of any sort need feedback. Offering false praise does nothing to help the creator improve.

Negative reviews needn't be harsh, just honest and direct.

dhonig said...

Joe Power makes an excellent point and a fine distinction:

"If one writes a site entirely dedicated to reviewing wine, ..."

Yup, I agree. Note, in what I wrote I noted that some people blog wine and write something other than pure wine reviews. The I discuss primarily wine review sites. Everything I wrote after that flowed therefrom, and applied to wine review sites. I don't expect Tom Wark or Dr. Vino to review wine the same way as Sonadora or Dr. Debs, so when they take a time out from their regular content to say "hey, try this, it was great!," well that's a different story from a pure review site, and a fair point by Joe.

Thank Joe, and I readily accept that distinction.

Lenn Thompson said...

As much as I respect Alder, this is something that he and I have had several chats about over the years.

He's wrong :)

Negative reviews have their place and whether or not to write them comes down to a personal choice for your individual blog...his reasons don't work for me and they don't work for a lot of people.

I actually don't even like to think of reviews as positive or negative. It's vitally important that anyone writing about wine write HONEST reviews.

dhonig said...

Thanks Lenn. As usual, somebody far smarter than me manages to summarize all my blather with a sentence or two:

"I actually don't even like to think of reviews as positive or negative. It's vitally important that anyone writing about wine write HONEST reviews."

Jeff (Good Grape) said...

Excellent post.

I, too, believe that there is a place for not *negative* but a balanced review that may not be positive.

I've waffled on this -- I recently received a sample from a winery that was bad and I've been contemplating how to handle. The easy way out is to do nothing, the correct thing is to elaborate on why I didn't care for it.

Great post.

Jeff
www.goodgrape.com

Rob Bralow said...

I think it depends on your medium and your time contraints. If you are only tasting 5-6 wines, then sure, you have plenty of time to write up your reviews on all of them and you should do so. But it also depends on where you are writing them. The print media (yes, they still exist and are still trusted by the vast majority of consumers/marketers) have costs involved with how much space you dedicate to reviews. If you were to print all of the negative reviews as well as the positive ones they would have been out of business long ago (instead of slowly dwindling). Being on the winery side of things I have hosted tastings for reviewers of 800 - 900 wines in one sitting (well, it took a week to get through them). To creat proper notes and print that many reviews would take even the most diligent blogger nearly a month of constant writing. And that only represents a tiny portion of the vast ocean of wines.

So, at the end of things I think it is a personal preference and a good thing to write both types of reviews. I read and pay attention to both positive and negative reviews, however remembering the thousads of wines which are not tasty as well as the ones that are delicious is an impressive feat for anyone walking into a retail store.

k2 said...

I can relate to why many bloggers out there post negative reviews. My one problem with it is this - I am a retail wine buyer for 2 wine stores here in NKY. I don't write negative reviews because I like to think I avoid putting crap wine on my shelves. I write reviews on wines that don't get a lot of attention, or I feel that the reviewers in the mainstream mags missed the point altogether. The overall purpose of our blog is to draw attention to our stores and what we are doing with wine in this market. People may call us one-sided, but when you work in retail, it doesn't pay to advertise crappy wines.

Daddy Winebucks said...

Great post, David. No one will ever accuse you of not being comprehensive enough with this one.

You've made excellent points throughout as have the commenters. One thought I'll add though is that not everyone has the same editorial spin and that's what keeps things varied for the *reader.*

Case in point. My wife is an entertainment editor working for a major company. They've constantly been forced to make decisions based on what to say/write to appease their Hollywood bread & butter (read: stars and their handlers). As a journalist she's not always happy about it but it's just the way that world works.

People magazine for example seems to be the go to publication if you want a nice and fluffy story and they tend not to make anyone mad. There was even a story recently that part of their ability to get the Brad Pitt/Angie Jolie baby photos was also writing about her charity work, etc.

"All the President's Men" it ain't but again, perhaps there's a reason People magazine is one of the biggest in the world in terms of revenue and profit.

Some people just want the good stuff.

Oh, and please let me know when you go see "Gratuitous Starlet Nudity." I heard it's got Oscar written all over it. I'm there...

dhonig said...

k2, Your point is well taken. Please note, in my introduction to this piece I noted that some people blog for other reasons, including support of a retail store. I did not include that sort of blog in my discussion of wine review sites for exactly the reasons you note.

Thad W. said...

David, excellent post and glad to see the dialogue on this important topic being extended.

The subject of negative wine reviews has been circulating for some time up here in the Pacific Northwest, after I published a commentary entitled, Breaking the Unspoken Code last December.

There is clearly an unspoken code amongst some wine writers who choose to write only positive reviews due to the consequences they might face as a result of writing something negative. One of the reasons I started blogging was to offer readers a more balanced view of wine, which includes writing negative experiences associated not only with drinking certain wines, but also visiting winery tasting rooms and attending wine events.

As a result of all of the attention being paid to this topic, I do hope that more wine bloggers will choose to offer more balanced coverage of their wine experiences going forward. At the very least, my hope is that those folks writing only positive reviews would consider including tasting notes on wines that didn't meet the bar. This takes little effort, but will go a long way toward informing consumers of what to avoid.

Along the way, the wine blogosphere is sure to gain increased credibility amongst consumers. The alternative is to become a collective voice that merely articulates and accentuates the positive, which is a path well trodden by traditional wine magazines and newspaper columnists.

Taster B said...

If Alder had titled his post "Why I don't Write Negative Wine Reviews" and framed his post from that perspective, there wouldn't be any argument here. I read his post when he first published it, and it didn't strike me as a lecture on why wine bloggers shouldn't write negative reviews, but simply an explanation of why he chooses not to.
I think the bottom line is honesty. I have posted a handful of mixed reviews but, frankly, if a wine doesn't inspire words in me, it doesn't end up on my blog. Thus, I do not get google search hits on that wine and I do no disservice in that regard.
I do see your point about warning readers away from plonk. It is the least we can do in return for their readership. On the other hand, I think there are other ways of doing that such as infusing an overall philosophy of connoisseurship into the fabric of the wine blog.
Many in the wine blogging community are trying to foster a sense of adventure within the world of wine consumers and falling back into the same old good/bad wine reviews rut doesn't really do much to change the paradigm where a single review in the wine advocate can suddenly move 150 cases of very good but previously untouched wine in 3 days...

Richard A. said...

The previous commenters have covered much of this topic very well. I just wanted to add one point about the idea of reviewing every free sample you receive.

If a winery sends you a sample, you guarantee that you will review it. So any winery knows where they are assured of getting a review of their wine, on your blog. You obligate yourself to any winery that sends you a free sample. I think that potentially makes you far more a PR arm of the wineries than a blogger who only posts positive reviews. As they say, even bad publicity is better than n publicity.

My personal policy (which I knows other bloggers have as well) is that if I am sent samples, there is no guarantee that I will review the wines. For me, that is an ethical decision that I won't obligate myself to the winery just because I get a free sample.

If your policy on samples and negative reviews works for you, that is fine. But every blogger is different and they can't all be colored with the same brush.

(BTW, I do post negative reviews on my blog)

dhonig said...

Richard, thanks for your comments. Here's where I disagree with you:

"I think that potentially makes you far more a PR arm of the wineries than a blogger who only posts positive reviews. As they say, even bad publicity is better than no publicity."

Well, not really. Yes, "they" say it, but is it really true? Do you really think Mel Gibson is doing better since his run in with the California Highway Patrol? Do you think the American Beef Council has Oprah Winfrey on their Christmas Card list?

As for the free samples question, the problem I see existing does not come in when a blogger does not review the wines, but when a blogger intentionally decides they will only post positive reviews of free samples. This creates a risk-free environment for wineries. You are more of a PR company when you guarantee either a positive review or silence than when you tell the winery the risk is on them.

All that said, one of the fascinating things about the blogosphere is just how new it is, and how it will continue to evolve as every person writes in their own way.